By Sharon Ogugu
When it happened the first time, I thought it was only nature taking its course. It felt a lot like growing up; that cold splash of reality that hits you suddenly like the first time you bleed or when your blouse no longer lies flat on your bosom. So I shed a few bitter tears and went back to tending to my father’s house. There was nothing else that I could do, really.
Then I went to secondary school and left the past behind me, nursing new ambitions and lofty dreams. I was going to be like those women who drove cars and wore knee-length skirts to the city and drank beer with men. The very women that my mother had warned me against to the day of her passing when I was ten. I am still cross with her for failing to mention that there was more to be cautious about than short skirts, small boys and cheap snacks. I am indeed cross with her about many things, but she is gone and I shan’t be in the mood to quarrel once I leave this life. I have no fight left in me. None whatsoever. I am probably to blame for shutting my eyes to the terror that I saw in dear mother that one night I saw her leave their room with bruises on her face. It was the first time I ever saw her cry. And also the last. She walked in a strange fashion after that and sent me on every errand including fetching her a spoon that lay two metres away from the stool she seemed glued to all the time. I had been playing outside and did not appreciate being asked to run about for her simply because she felt like asserting herself.
A month after the village had planted a mound of red earth over her, my father came to speak with me in my room. He said that I was the woman of the home and that he wanted to find me a husband. I listened as he told me that it would be a difficult task to find me a suitor, since I had gone to school and books had turned me into a stubborn and defiant brat. Then he ‘taught’ me how to be a good lover. To lie still and do as I was told. The few times that I had resisted, he beat my mother’s stubbornness out of me with his rough bare hands until they were sore. Then I inherited her strange manner of walking for a few weeks. There were whispers around me all the time. I caught wind of some at the market. I cried at night, but only a little so I didn’t have to explain to my father and my teachers why my eyes were swollen in the morning. When I began to bleed, I told my father and my ‘lessons’ with him stopped. Then I joined high school.
I was a below average performer, but everyone said that I was gifted in languages. So I took up German and began to see the world with fresh eyes. I still had nightmares about my father, but there was hope and relief in studying at a boarding school. The whispering continued and I was summoned to the headmistress’s office once. She walked about the matter with such offensive timidity that I blurted out the truth in a rage. Still, she continued to annoy me with ‘proper’ questions.
“Have you spoken to anyone about this?”
“But I am told that she is…”
“Dead. Yes. I tell her anyway.”
I was sent for counselling and psychiatric evaluation. The old white man in the white coat told the headmistress that I was traumatized and that I should be removed from my home. I smiled to myself as I thought about how far I had stretched the truth during the counselling sessions just so I could have someone take me away from my father as forcefully as he had taken my childhood away from me. I would never see him again.
When we closed over the holidays, I stayed at the headmistress’s house. It had been obvious from the beginning that I would be left in her large sympathetic arms. I didn’t care. At least not until her son had started to talk about how beautiful I looked while I slept. He had returned home one night and found me asleep on the couch with The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud in my hand. When his mother left for a teachers’ workshop for a weekend, he did more than watch me sleep. I did not refuse him. As I had learnt earlier, it was as if this was supposed to be part of how a girl became a woman. It had happened to a number of other girls in my primary school too, most of whom had also lost their mothers. One girl told our little group of survivors how her mother had called her a liar and caned her so badly that her own step-father, the same one who had taken her against her will, intervened and called the woman a mad dog. I held her as we cried together in the field during games. I could not stop thinking about her while the headmistress’s son had his way with me. Graciously, he used a condom so I knew I was safe. With time, I got used to it and even let him hold me after.
On the morning after my sixteenth birthday, I was awarded with the top prize at the Foreign Languages High School Fare. Everyone who was a big name in English, Kiswahili, French, German in the country had gathered at the capital’s largest amphitheatre for the function. I had been waiting for this day all year for more reasons than one. As I received my prize, I looked over to my school’s headmistress and smiled faintly. She had initiated the wave of clapping that was engulfing me. Her chubby little hands moved with such ferocity that her whole body took quite a shaking from the exercise. As the multitude stood in my honour, I turned to look at her precious son beside her. He too was clapping cheerfully. I suddenly noticed how handsome he really was. I immediately flashed to that morning when he lay limp and naked on top of me with my legs parted for him.
“I am very proud of you.”
“I know. And thank-you.”
“Making me so happy today. You’ve given me closure.”
“Now you’re confusing me.”
“You just wait. You’ll see how.”
The clapping went on for long enough. With my eyes still fixed on the young man, I began to feel dizzy and fell.
I woke up to the prying eyes of the same old doctor who had rescued me from my father’s house. Beside him was a white female police officer and at the door was a woman who eventually turned out to be a German diplomat’s personal assistant. The good old doctor was rescuing me again. I could see the headmistress standing in the corridor with a few policemen. Her son was seated behind her. He looked genuinely worried.
“Little girl, we found a sample of…um…er…something on your body. It doesn’t belong to you. Could you tell us who hurt you? We shall lock him away and take you to a safe place.”
“You said that to me the last time.”
“That lady at the door has been made aware of your situation. She has been ordered to take charge of your case by a the German…”
“The man in the corridor. The one seated next to the headmistress. Her son.”
I whisper and let my tears fall freely. The old man looks guilty. I turn to the female officer. I notice that her pen has a German flag on it. She is a mature woman with a shiny gold band on her finger
“Hilf mir, bitte.”
She turns to look at me and looks away to hide her tears. She and the doctor move to the corner of the room and whisper about. I shut my eyes to grant them a little privacy. The other lady at the door smiles at me nervously and nods. She joins the pair and speaks in hushed tones.
“She is not safe here. All the diplomats are asking questions.”
“I shall have a conclusive report ready for you before the close of business today.”
“And this has happened before? To the same girl?”
I can feel her worrying eyes on me.
“Yes. Her father.”
Some scribbling on a notepad.
“I have two girls myself. I shall be speaking to my people about this. They shall arrange to have her leave with us.”
“Yes. That would be ideal. A fresh start in a new land with infinite possibilities. She’s a fighter this one.”
As I sit next to the white police officer in the airport, I think back on the events that have led to this day. I think about my father sharing a prison cell with the headmistress’s son. I think about the used condom I took out of the garbage on the morning of the fare. I think about the conversations I had with the old white doctor during my sessions with him. I think about the nights I had spent poring through German literature after my first German test. Then I think about my friends in primary school who had survived painful growth. I think about them and finally feel free from our familiar pains.