Asya was a quiet child who could squat on the sandy stoop and play for hours with Kesi, her doll. Kesi was really just a branch from a Bahia tree meant for the stove, but it looked so much like a baby that Asya’s mother had polished it up and given it to her little girl as her first toy. The doll’s arms, legs, and head had beautiful swirls of blue dye making it look like an ethereal djinn. But Asya’s greatest treasures were three small beads which she carried with her wherever she went. Two were light blue in colour and see-through. The third was larger and had an embedded orange sunset inside. It had a small crack near the hole which ran through the middle, but Asya loved it anyway. She kept the three beads strung together with a bit of string and wore them around her neck. She called them Chima, Kgosi, and Kunta, after her three favourite night stars.
Asya and her mother lived together in a small adobe hut that smelled of smoke and dust on the outskirts of Ngaliama, a village which had seen better days. At one time it had been a thriving community providing beautiful hardwood to carvers as far away as Nairobi, but today, with a large percentage of the adults sick and dying, the village was struggling. Asya’s mother used to work in the offices of the lumber company, and her father had been a foreman out in the bush and much respected by his crew. Asya did not remember her father at all; he had been killed in an accident when she was only six months old. But her mother often told her that he was the kindest man she had ever met.
Children in pressed, white blouses and navy blue skirts walked by every day to the nearby school as Asya watched with longing. “One day,” her mother said, “you will be one of those girls.” But as the weeks turned to months their little household fell onto harder and harder times.
“She has reached that age,” her grandfather said to her mother one day. “If you do not have it done you will bring shame onto our family name.”
”Amadi and I agreed that we would not carry on that tradition; it is barbaric,” her mother replied. Then her grandfather began to shout, and Asya knew that he would carry on for a long time.
Asya squatted in the cool shade beside their hut and rocked Kesi back and forth in her arms. Lately her grandfather was always here shouting at her mother. Mostly he was angry because her mother refused to marry Mr. Uluchi, who wanted her for his fourth wife. Mr. Uluchi was a nervous little man who always made it a habit to accidentally step on Asya’s foot whenever he came around to call. Her mother thought he was the most odious man she had ever met. When Asya had asked what odious meant, her mother scooped her into her arms and kissed her until she giggled. “Odious is exactly the opposite of what you are, my little sithanwa.”
“I’m short, a girl, and not very pretty, so it must mean he is tall, a man, and very handsome.”
“Who told you that you weren’t pretty?” her mother asked. “You are more beautiful than rain in the dry season. You are more beautiful than a gazelle dashing across the Serengeti.” They did not have much, and often went hungry, but at least they had each other.
Then one day a miracle happened. Her mother managed to secure a job in the new foreign white doctor’s office. Soon she made enough money to buy a stove, and pay the tuition to send Asya to school. They celebrated by taking the bus to Bondo where they bought a new uniform for Asya, and office clothes for her mother. On the way home Asya enjoyed her very first ice cream cone, and continued to lick her fingers long after the creamy, sweet confection had been devoured.
“When I grow up I will become so rich that we will eat ice cream for breakfast and supper,” she exclaimed.
“That will make us so fat that we would never be able to find or keep a husband,” her mother said.
“We don’t need husbands; we have each other.”
Asya’s mother walked her to the school on her first day. The teacher, Mrs. Jaha, welcomed Asya to the class and told her to sit next to a small girl with large glasses. “This is Keisha; she will be your partner for this semester.” The two girls looked at each other with round eyes and much scraping of feet in the dirt. Asya’s heart gave a funny flutter as she watched her mother leave the room, and her little hand grasped the beads for comfort.
After school the sun beat down on her head with fierce rays as Asya walked home. She hummed along to the sound of the cicadas singing in the heat. By the end of the school day she and Keisha had become best friends. School was everything she dreamed it would be, and more. Happiness burst from her chest as she made long swirls in the sand with a stick she had found in an overgrown ditch. She waved at the women dressed in their beautiful colours who were washing sacks of clothes beside the town pump and singing love songs. “Unnai Paartha Pinbu Naan Naanaaga Illaye. Yen Ninaivil Therinthu Naan Ithu Pola Illaye…”
Suddenly hard hands grabbed her arms and legs and dragged her across the room to the sleeping mat. Her grandfather’s face glared down upon her cold and hard. A woman she did not know pulled her skirt up around her waist and two people spread her legs wide. A knife’s silver blade glinted about her head.
Asya screamed until her voice was broken.
“Girl” by prupert. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
“Adobe” by Chechi Peinado. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.