The sound of pain
On Friday, the dogs in the village barked all night. Wanjiru crept through the dark house and slid into bed next to me.
"What's going on Wangechi? I'm scared," she whispered.
I took her hand and squeezed it. "It's okay. It’s probably a wild animal. It will go away." I wasn’t so sure. We hugged our blankets a little closer.
The dogs on the other side of the hill picked up the bark and howled into the night. It was the kind of sound that gave us goose bumps and made us long for morning. We lay in silence listening and dreading the worst until we finally fell asleep.
At the crack of dawn, Wanjiru and I opened the door and stepped outside. A cold breeze met us; grey clouds seemed to be blocking out the rising sun. The first thing we saw was the dog, fast asleep on dirt like nothing had happened. The dog opened one eye, glanced at us, then went back to sleep.
We checked the chickens’ house and accounted for our five hens. The padlock on the granary door was intact. We opened it anyway and looked inside, at the bags of corn and beans. I scratched my head in bewilderment and walked over to the wooden fence. Wanjiru followed me and placed one foot on the fence.
“I don’t understand why the dogs were barking last night,” I said. “Everything looks okay.”
“Maybe it was just a wild animal,” Wanjiru said with a shrug. It was a cold morning but anxiety kept us warm.
The clouds shifted and the sky turned yellow. The morning breeze brought the smell of the mountains and the sound of the river – the simple pleasures of living in the country. It was almost harvest time and the corn on our garden looked majestic. Beside the corn were carrots and cabbages – a variety of farm produce ready for the market.
"Wangechi?" Wanjiru suddenly called in panic. "Look, over there! The cows are gone!"
"What?" I looked at the wooden enclosure we had built for the cows and sure enough it was empty. "No!" I moaned. I unlatched the gate and walked through the grazing ground. My head moved in a swivel and I searched in every direction and behind every tree. I knew the cows were gone but I couldn't believe it. The cows had always been there, since my birth.
"That's why the dogs were barking last night," Wanjiru said. "What are we going to do Wangechi?"
I couldn’t believe it. My body lost its strength and I sat down hard on the dew. Beside me, Wanjiru looked like she was going to cry. Through every obstacle we had encountered in our lives, the world continued to strip Wanjiru off her innocence. The cows were the only security we had and I was planning to sell them to pay for my small sister’s school. Everything was falling apart. I could neither take Wanjiru to a hospital nor pay for her university studies.
"We have to tell the Chief," I said, finally admitting defeat. "It's the only thing left to do Wanjiru. I don’t know what else to do."
It was hopeless. Our world had been turned upside down. We were officially broke and the money we would make from the market would only work to support our daily lives. The guilt of failure strangled my every chance of happiness and I lost of respect for life. Life was cruel to all people, whether good or bad.
We talked to the chief the following day and told him our story. He listened like he cared, and nodded piously. Chief Wamathai reacted the same way with the hundreds of cases he received every day. He would look into the matter, he said. He would get back to us.
We knew he had saved our land by helping Nderitu get a title deed from the government. Hundreds of squatters in central province were still waiting in line to get their titles and especially those living in former colonial villages. The chief had helped us as a favour to our father. Now he owed us nothing, but we prayed he would help us again anyway.
The days flew by and harvest time came. We hired two young boys to help us harvest the cabbages, potatoes, carrots, beans and maize. We filled many sacks and the granary, and were forced to hire a donkey and a cart. The market was three miles down the road and every day the two boys rode the donkey as it pulled a cart full of produce. The little money we made, I used to buy medicine for Wanjiru's ulcers and it gave me great joy to see her smile. I knew she was feeling better the moment she started talking about her dreams again. Going to university and getting a degree in medicine was what she wanted to do. She was smart and capable of becoming a doctor, and that was a dream I was determined to fulfill for her, so help me God.
We found our own happiness and tried not to cry about what should have been. My baby was due soon and I hadn't heard from Martin since I destroyed his car. I figured him gone from my life and it was less painful to forget him. I was not alone in this single-mother life. After independence, more and more girls were giving birth outside wedlock and more were raising babies on their own. The humiliation wasn't so bad, and it was slowly becoming a norm.
“You miss him?” Wanjiru asked me one night.
“Martin?” I replied, trying to sound indifferent. “A part of me does. And I think about him sometimes and wonder why he did what he did to me. I mean, he used me. Did he ever love me?”
“I’m sure he loved you,” Wanjiru said, trying to make me feel better.
I smiled at her. She was a reminder of my duties to myself and my family. There was a time when I had been on the right path. Back then I knew where I was headed and what I wanted. And now I wasn’t sure. “You must promise me little sister to never get pregnant before you get married. I don’t want you to end up like me. I want you to be better. But that doesn’t mean you deny yourself love. Where love is possible, its pursuit is justified.”
Wanjiru nodded. It was how she processed my many advises; by being silent. I on the other hand was a cautionary tale that would be used by parents to teach their children a lesson. You see what happened to the daughter of Ribiru. That’s what happens when you run around sleeping with men. And they would intentionally omit one minor detail – Love.
My sister Wairimu came to visit and offered to pay my maternity bill for me. She was not rich, but her husband owned a few farm animals they were willing to sell. I thanked her for allowing God to use her to help me.
“Nonsense,” she said. “You are my sister and I would do anything for you. And don’t you worry about Wanjiru’s health. We will get through this together as a family. Remember what Sister Elizabeth used to say?”
"Only in true suffering can we find our true self," I said.
“Exactly.” Wairimu pursed her lips and caressed my big belly. “There’s a clarity that comes with suffering. A good example is that of a soldier in the midst of war. Surrounded by blood and death, the soldier realises how much he loves his wife. Your journey is just beginning Wangechi.”
I felt like a baby when my big sister was around. She had a strong personality and took over the home like she had never left. She would wake up early and milk the cows before we were up. She made tea for us and soldiered us through daily chores. In the evening we sat around the fire in the kitchen and listened to her stories about marriage. She said it was a challenge. She said she loved every bit of it – having her own family. Men were like babies in the house and yet the paradox of this was that they were strong. We missed Wairimu when she left and I enjoyed the distraction.
Most nights after that, I sat with my sister Wanjiru and listened to her moan in pain.
“It hurts Wangechi,” she cried.
“I know Wanjiru. I’m sorry. Try and think happy thoughts. Think about a place you want to be right now; a place that will make you very happy.”
She did not hesitate. “The University of Nairobi. That’s my dream.”
“Tell me what you see.”
“I’m walking on veranda carrying books. I’m coming from class headed to the library.”
“Are you alone?”
“No. There are two girls with me. They are from Nairobi and are dressed up like city girls. They have long straight hair and jeans, and they look happy. We meet other students as we walk and a professor nods at us.” Wanjiru sighed. “You should see the library Wangechi. It’s beautiful and filled with books everywhere. We sit on the couches and open our books. We read and then discuss our assignment. We look happy.”
“And it will come true Wanjiru,” I said, squeezing her hand, glad that she was distracted from her pain. “I promise you. You were born to do great things. You will make our village proud.”
Stomach ulcer was treatable, but so was malaria and diarrhea, and yet they all killed. This was Africa's sad story; children dying of treatable diseases just because they couldn't access a hospital or medicine. I feared the worst for Wanjiru and prayed she would not have stomach bleeding which was hard to detect and almost impossible to clot due to stomach acids.
Wanjiru was young, with the whole world ahead of her.
Off to AFRICA
My book A Whisper in the Jungle has been picked by a publishing company and approved by the board. It has been scheduled for release soon.
The music is all around you, all you have to do is listen
Without God, what are we? What do we have? What is life...