The first time I ever laid my hand on anyone, I was about twelve years, six months old.
When it happened again, it was ten years later, only this time with blood on my hands.
“Una meno kama ya ngamia!” A burst of rising laughter emerged behind us.
“Your smile is disgusting!”
Hanaa’s hand clasped mine.
“You must be adopted. You’re darker than your whole family,” another chuckled.
“Do you hear that, Hanaa? You’re adopted!” One shouted.
We both continued looking ahead, my other hand clenched.
“Even your sister Sarah knows that you’re stupid, that’s why you’re always last in class!”
I stopped in my tracks. I could feel the heat rising in my face.
Hanaa pulled me forward with her tiny, bony hands. I didn’t budge for a minute.
I turned around just in time to see the smirk on Fatma’s face, the oldest and loudest of the group. Without thinking twice, I dashed to where she was and planted a hefty slap on her face. There was a gasp from her friends as Fatma felt her now red cheek. My heart still pounding, and before I could say anything, someone smacked my head from behind. For a moment, all I could hear was the ringing of my ears. With tears in my eyes, I looked up to see Fatma’s father and mzee Abubakar, one of our neighbours.
Without a word, Fatma’s father took her daughter and walked away to their house which was just a few steps away from where we were standing. What were the odds? I thought to myself, still standing at the same place.
Mzee Abubakar started patting my back as he requested I explain what just happened. In between loud sobs, I narrated my sister’s constant predicament with this specific group of girls. He continued wiping my tears until my breath returned normal, then he bent down close to my ears and whispered, “Don’t tell your mother about this incident. You wouldn’t want her to start a fight with mama and baba Fatma, would you?”
“But…”I said as I looked at Hanaa, whose trousers were now soiled with wetness.
“They are kids. You’re older than them so you understand they’re just being childish. Forgive them for now. Your mother needn’t know.”
Before I could say any other word, he was gone, and so were all the other kids. I looked over at Hanaa who was silently crying. I walked back to her and held her hand.
“Mama will be angry when she sees me,” she pointed to her trouser.
“She is at aunty Wahida’s place today. Let us rush and change before she gets back home.”
We started running quickly, hand in hand. But before we reached our doorstep, mama’s voice rang behind us. My blood froze. I could feel Hanaa’s hand tremble in mine. I turned to face mama as Hanaa quickly positioned herself behind me.
“Why are you late? Madrasa ended half an hour ago.”
We both looked down.
“We met some friends on the way and got a bit distracted with some games,” I said, still looking at the ground.
“Mwataka kikoto sio?!”
We shook our heads quickly.
She clicked her tongue loudly, “I have a wedding to go to so I won’t let you ruin my evening. Get inside, your food is in the kitchen. Thereafter, make sure to do your homework.”
As they entered the house, mama turned around and faced Hanaa with scrutinizing eyes.
“Did you pee on yourself again?! What is that on your trousers?”
We remained silent. Mama looked at me.
“Uhh…we…we sort of got into a fight with Fatma and her friends…Hanaa got scared,” I whispered.
“Again?! What do those girls want? I will break their necks the next time I see them. What was the fight about?”
In a very low and shaky voice, I narrated to her what had occurred.
“Mama, please don’t start a fight with them. Mzee Abubakar said he will talk to her parents about her behaviour,” I lied.
“I am not stupid to go fight with those pigs. With one tackle they will break my bones. But I know what I shall do. Wataona!”
“Hanaa, why would you pee on yourself while you weren’t even the one who was beaten huh?” Mama ignored me. “How many times have I told you, that you need to stand up for yourself? You think those girls will ever respect you if you keep peeing on yourself and bringing bad grades home?!”
Our eyes remained glued to the ground.
“Go on …go change. I will deal with this. And this should be the last time you pee on yourself! If you pee once more, ntakufunga jongoo waskia?” she threatened.
Hanaa nodded meekly.
Mama then stormed out of the house and I quickly followed her to Fatma’s home which was in the same neighbourhood.
“Mama Fatma! Fungua mlango!” Mama shouted outside their compound. “Mama Fatma!” she banged the door.
Mama Fatma slowly opened her door with a frown.
“Bismillah, kuna nini?”
“Do you want me to start telling your neighbours the truth about Fatma?!” she hissed with a murmur.
Mama Fatma’s eyes bulged, looked left and right then quickly pulled mama and me inside the house and closed the door behind us.
“Listen very carefully! Your child is a nuisance and we both know why that is. If you don’t want me to go around and inform people that she is a mwanaharamu, then you better discipline her. I don’t want her near my daughters ever again. And that husband of yours, if he ever raises his filthy hand on my daughter ever again, I will finish him with my own two hands!”
“Sawa mama Sarah. Sawa,” she said with a shaky voice. “I will talk to my daughter, I promise. Please stiri mambo yetu kama vile Mungu anavotustiri sote,” she pleaded.
“Before you mention God to me, teach your child manners first, waskia? Don’t make me do things I don’t want to.”
Before mama Fatma could respond, Mama took my hand and led me outside and we started walking back home.
“Is it true Ma?” I asked.
“What is true?”
“That Fatma is an illegitimate child?”
“I should never hear you say those words again, do you hear me?!”
I nodded quickly, and we didn’t say a word the rest of the way.
As the years went by, the bullying still went on. Despite mama’s threats, Fatma didn’t change at all. In fact, she seemed to attain more pleasure in picking on Hanaa. And because Hanaa didn’t want mama to make a fuss about it, even when mama asked her about Fatma and her friends, she said that everything had been good; they’d left her alone. I would often try to protect her, but we never brought the complaints to mama ever again.
The bed-wetting went on too until she was ten years old is when it finally stopped. Mama was so relieved; she almost thought Hanaa would still be peeing on herself even as a bride. However, her grades never got better and both mama and her teachers gave up on her. Hanaa slowly became invisible to them. All tasks at home were given to me because according to mama, Hanaa was useless like our father’s family. At school, the teachers praised my intelligence as they compared the two sisters in the staffroom.
As expected, Hanaa didn’t have any friends at school or madrasa and spent most of her time alone. She would join me for both break and lunch because I was the only one who would talk to her.
When I got into secondary school, it was very difficult for both of us. Students started picking on Hanaa again because I was no longer there. Many evenings, she came back home and went to bed without speaking a word. She was losing weight at a high speed and mama’s frustrations gave us an even rougher time. Sometimes I would awaken late at night and hear Hanaa sobbing silently into her pillow. My heart ached for her but I was mostly helpless to do anything.
A few years later, when Hanaa finally completed primary school after repeating two classes, mama didn’t even wait for the results to be out. She immediately found a groom for her. The man, who was twenty years older than Hanaa, was set to marry his bride as soon as she turned 17-only a few months later.
“Mama, how can you do this? You always complained about dad’s family pushing him to go for a second wife just because you’re not their choice. How are you okay with Hanaa being a second wife now?!” I protested when we were alone.
“It is not the same.”
“How is it not the same?!”
“This man is only marrying again because his first wife can’t conceive. That is a genuine reason. And mashallah he can afford to comfortably look after two wives.”
“Why have you given up on her so early?” tears started falling.
Mama sighed as she sat down on the mkeka, “You think I am happy sending away my child? Aren’t I a mother too? Don’t I want the best for all of you?”
I remained silent.
“Your sister is very slow and naïve and doesn’t even have extraordinary beauty to boost her prospects. Do you think life is easy? Look at me. Look at how miserable I am despite my beauty and brains. No one has ever helped me. And your father’s family never once asked about us or stepped into this house since he died. Despite their wealth, they never cared about the orphans he left behind, just because he refused to marry the woman of their choice.”
“So that’s your reason to get rid of her?”
“I just want her to be settled in her home before I leave this world. I am not so worried about you. I know you can face anything that comes your way…but Hanaa…she is too weak. Sometimes we have to help her in making decisions that will be good for her in the long run.” Her voice shook.
We sat there for a long time without saying anything, tears in our eyes.
Being a secondary school student, I was still powerless to do anything to help Hanaa. I had no one to turn to. Hanaa had given up on herself too. It seemed she had bought to mama’s belief that she had no prospects in life, so she readily followed mama around as they shopped for the upcoming wedding.
“At least I’ll be a mother. I’ll be useful for once,” she said to me one night as she stared at her green and white hijabi wedding gown.
“You’ve always been useful Hanaa. You’re kind and thoughtful and a great friend and sister. It just takes another kind heart to see that.”
“You will be visiting me often, right?”
“At your palace you mean? Of course!” I laughed. “You always wanted to be a seamstress. I hope you still try it out. You have great ideas for clothes.”
“Haha, well, now it depends if Mr Husband lets me do it.”
“He better! Your talent shouldn’t go to waste. Once you become a mother in shaa Allah you’ll be the one to make pretty dresses and clothes for them.”
“And for your children too in shaa Allah,” she winked with a smile.
“I have a long way to go. I have to finish secondary first, then go to college, then find a job to help mama in shaa Allah.”
“Maybe then she’ll stop being so bitter,” She laughed quietly.
“You do know that she loves you right? She’s just had a very rough life…and baba who was her only support died so young. I am not justifying her actions of course, but never think that she doesn’t love you.”
“Well, I just hope our children never grow up doubting our love for them.”
I moved to where she was seated and hugged her for a long time before we finally retired to sleep.
A few days later, a small, intimate nikah was performed at our house. The only people present were mum, our aunt who we rarely ever saw, and two of our neighbours who were friendly with mama. From the groom’s side were his elderly mother, his sister, and his two brothers. The ceremony was short and sweet. The visitors were glowing from all the gold they were wearing and all seemed jovial. Even mama shed some tears. We all had a buffet of a variety of Arab and Swahili dishes for lunch and there was laughter and merry in our small house. Hanaa looked like a midget seated next to the tall and built Ismail, her husband. She had a sweet smile and it was almost painful to look at her innocent face.
Before Hanaa left, mama took her most loved golden necklace and put it on her neck. I could see the surprise in Hanaa’s eyes, and the tears that followed shortly after that. We all then kissed her goodbye as her in-laws escorted her to her new home. I almost believed the wedding wasn’t such a bad idea after all…until several months later…
Being a bride looked good on Hanaa. Ismail was away most of the time and she enjoyed her freedom. She was living in a luxurious home and could afford most of what she wanted. The best of all was that Ismail allowed her to take up a sewing course at a nearby college. Soon enough, she had her butterfly sewing machine at her home, making cute tiny dresses as trials. I would visit her often enough whenever I knew Ismail wasn’t around. Even mama seemed happy visiting her, and sometimes, being mesmerized by all the kitchen equipment Hanaa had, mama would even offer to cook for her while there.
However, after a while, it became clear to me that Hanaa and Ismail never really had much love or affection for one another. Hanaa rarely mentioned Ismail unless necessary, and when she did, it was like she was referring to a neighbour she knew.
One time I asked her whether she was happy and her shoulders fell.
“It’s the same story, you know.”
“What same story?”
“Same cliche story we’ve heard over and over again. He loves his first wife very much. Even when with me, he still keeps calling her. I believe his family pressured him to marry a second wife just to get kids. It is clear I am only here as a birthing machine.”
“I am so sorry Hanaa,” I held her hand.
“But I am okay, don’t worry about me. He does fulfil his duties as a husband, at least the majority of them. Plus I am more at peace can’t you see? Mama is no longer stressed about my grades, Fatma and her gang are far away from me now, I am eating well plus I get to do this!” she pointed at a cute green and white dress she was still working on.
I sighed loudly.
I looked at the dress keenly and said, “You should start selling these you know? They’re too good to remain in suitcases under your bed.”
“I will! Let me perfect the art first,” she winked as she continued sewing.
Within the first year of marriage, Hanaa was selling elegant and stylish clothes to her neighbours. During the Eid and wedding seasons, she would get super busy with client orders. Ismail started getting frustrated with the frequent clients coming into their home. Moreover, Hanaa hadn’t conceived yet. The man was getting impatient.
Every month, Ismail diligently asked about her menses and would sometimes refuse to eat when Hanaa confirmed that she got her periods. Soon enough, he was breaking plates and cups at every minor mistake that Hanaa did and would disappear for more days than he did previously.
At the time, I had already started attending nursing classes. Every weekend I would visit Hanaa and find her trying out new recipes to win over her husband. But Ismail had become even more distant than before and his art of breaking cutlery was getting more intense by the day.
“I am unsettled about this man. What if he harms you?!” I exclaimed one evening as we shopped for new plates.
I rolled my eyes.
“You deserve better. And you need to stand for yourself now. Don’t just allow things to happen to you!”
“Mama shouldn’t know about this, please. She is already stressed that I am not yet pregnant.”
“I won’t. But maybe it is also for the best. You should enjoy your youth before you become a mother.”
“Enjoy what youth? I am already 18. I want to be a mother. That will be enjoyable for me.”
“That is because mama made you believe that is the only good thing you’re capable of. You’re more than that. For one, you’re a very talented seamstress!”
“Hasn’t Ismail been tested? Doesn’t he know that everything has turned out clear for you?”
“He knows but I wouldn’t dare ask him. He could break a plate on my head. Plus the doctor will question him about me. How will he explain marrying a 17-year-old girl at this year and age, who could as well be his daughter?”
“That is a good question. I would love to hear the answer to that.”
“Must be painful for him to marry a girl he didn’t even want and couldn’t give him children either,” Hanaa looked down.
“Hey! Don’t allow that pity of a man to make you his punching bag! You are a dutiful wife and again, the doctor said nothing is wrong with you. If he really wants kids he should put his ego aside and get tested!”
“We’ll see about that in shaa Allah. Let’s get going. I have an engagement dress to make.”
“Oh look at you! Soon enough you’ll be selling wedding gowns as well!” We both laughed heartily.
The first time Hanaa suggested that Ismail should get tested, she was given a black eye and her sewing machine was taken away. The whole week she avoided my calls and kept excusing herself that she is busy with some orders. I had to pop up at her home unexpectedly on a Friday afternoon for me to find out what was going on.
She avoided eye contact the whole time I spoke to her and her voice was barely audible. Ismail hadn’t apologized and hadn’t been back since he had left.
“Please don’t tell mama.”
“That is your worry right now? We must tell mama. You should come home with me right away.”
“Come back and do what? Overwhelm mama once more with my presence? Our relationship has gotten better since I got married. I don’t want to go back to what we once were.”
“But…mama wouldn’t mind your return. It is still your home after all. You’re not safe here.”
“This is my home now Sarah. Ismail won’t do it again, don’t worry. All I have to do is avoid asking him about getting tested, khalas.”
Although I insisted, Hanaa refused to return home with me and made me promise to not tell mama.
However, despite Hanaa’s attempt to cover up for her husband by using make-up, mama finally noticed that something was up during our next visit. This time there was a fresh mark on her arm. Apparently, during one of his plate-breaking sprees, a piece of the glass mistakenly hit Hanaa’s arm.
“That is the fate of us women, my daughter. From birth we are made to carry the burdens of everyone; our parents, our children, our husbands, and our community. Subiri…just work harder at getting pregnant, he will be okay once he has a baby in his arms,” she said slowly as she looked outside the window.
“But Ma!!!” I exclaimed.
“We can’t get involved in matters between a husband and his wife. This is beyond me now,” she sighed.
“She doesn’t have to carry this burden. And she shouldn’t! Hanaa is still very young and beautiful. She can get her divorce and open her boutique. She can still get married when she is ready in the future.”
“Hmm, which world do you live in? Who will accept a divorcee who hasn’t even gone beyond primary education? Plus do you think it is easy to open a business?! Look at how we’ve struggled all our lives. We depended on well-wishers for your school fees throughout. We don’t have any savings at all. We can barely make ends meet.”
“Sarah, it is okay. Mama has a point. I’ll see a herbalist about the pregnancy issue, perhaps the outcome will be different this time.”
“In shaa Allah, and I am praying for you every day, that you may get a child and be happy in your marriage. Right now, he is blinded by his first wife’s love…but once the child arrives, he will finally appreciate you. That will be the game changer.” Mama said.
As we left that evening, I could feel a pinch in my heart as I saw the sadness lingering in Hannah’s eyes. When our eyes met, she spread her lips a bit and waved me goodbye.
Hanaa was now sleeping through the day and night. She had lost more weight than she had ever before. Ismail hadn’t been to her home for an entire month and when I’d visit, the entire house would be dark with no curtains or windows open. I’d be welcomed by the stench of dirty utensils, rotten food and body odour. When I realized that she was bed-wetting again, I packed her clothes and went with her home without informing mama.
When mama first saw Hanaa, she gasped but never said a word after that. I opened a warm water shower and let her inside. Hanaa was simply performing robotic movements and hadn’t said a word since I found her in her bed. After that, I made her some hot soup and fed her before laying her to rest in her old bed.
“My God! What should I do about Hanaa?! Ataniuaaa ataniua huyu mtoto.” Mama lamented when I finally sat down with her.
“You don’t have to do anything. I will take care of her, don’t worry. At least I will put my nursing skills to use.”
“That is not what I meant, come on. I can take care of her as well. I just don’t understand where I went wrong with her. Why is she so different from you?!”
“Please let’s not talk about this. She might overhear you and she already has enough on her plate.”
“Fine. But what will we tell her husband when he comes searching for her?”
“Are you…are you afraid of him?!”
“No, but he is a noble man. We shouldn’t interfere in their marriage.”
“Noble because he comes from a known, rich family? What nobility is that? He and his family can all go to hell,” I said with finality as I went back to our room and closed the door.
Ismail turned up at our house one week later. In his hands were a bouquet and Hanaa’s butterfly machine.
Mama welcomed him with a nervous smile and explained to him that Hanaa had been unwell, that’s why she was brought home.
“I was worried about her. Her phone has been off. I figured she must be here. May I talk to her?”
“No, you may not and will not!” I interjected.
Ismail stood up with puzzlement.
“Hanaa is not your punching bag for your infertility. Go to a gym or go break all the remaining plates in your home if you want. But you’ll never see Hanaa ever again. You’ll never get the chance to harm her anymore!”
“What are you saying?! Hanaa is my wife!” he trembled with rage.
“And I am his sister.”
“Okay okay, let us calm down for a minute. Hanaa is unwell and we all care for her well-being. Let us talk calmly,” mama said.
“Watch your tongue young lady,” Ismail waved his finger at me.
“I want a divorce,” Hannah’s timid voice interrupted us.
We all turned around at once. She was standing in the hallway with messy hair and a flowery dera.
Ismail clenched his fist.
My heart was now drumming.
Ismail slowly approached Hanaa with an intense look on his face.
“You heard what I said. I am exhausted, I can’t do this anymore. I want my divorce right now.”
“Hanaa, you’re not thinking clearly right now. Let us go home and we can talk carefully.”
“No, I am sure this is what I want,” she said, still in a low voice.
“Did they…did they ask you to do this?!” Ismail pointed to mama and me.
“Ismail…” Mama started.
“This is purely my decision. I can’t give you a child so divorce me. Find another wife or adopt one with your riches if you want but if you were a real man, you’d seek treatment instead of dragging your wives into your misery.”
Ismail instantly grabbed Hanaa’s neck and pushed her to the wall, his grip tightening. “Did I not tell you to never mention this stupid treatment thing to me?! Are you still doubting my manhood?!”
“Ismail stop!!” Mama shouted. Both mama and I rushed to him and tried pulling him away. But both of us were two feeble women while he was a tall, built man. Mama was now crying as she cursed him. Hanaa was choking as she pushed her palms on his face.
Without thinking twice, I grabbed the nearest heavy pan from the kitchen and struck Ismail’s head. Within that split moment, and as his grip loosened around her neck, Hanaa shoved him.
The loud thud that followed startled us.
Still glued to the wall, Hanaa breathed heavily.
My entire body was shaking.
Mama’s mouth was wide open with tears in her eyes.
“There’s blood,” Hanaa murmured shakily.
We turned to where Ismail was lying still. His head had hit the edge of our glass dining table and a pool of blood was forming beneath him.
We stood silently in our places, only our heavy breathing could be heard.
“Sarah, do something!” Mama shouted.
I looked at her in a daze.
“You’re a nursing student, aren’t you?!” She continued.
Hanaa gave me a nudge and I cleared my throat uncomfortably. I slowly placed the pan on the floor and bent to where Ismail was lying and felt for his pulse.
“Bring a clean towel or cloth Hanaa. Quick!”
“Is he alive?”
“His pulse is weak but I think he is. Move!”
Hanaa brought a small clean towel which I pressed firmly on his head where the blood seemed to be coming from. But the blood kept coming and coming, and I kept adding more and more pieces of clothes. The blood just wouldn’t stop.
I looked at my trembling, bloodied hand.
“We have to call for an ambulance Ma. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know!” My voice broke.
“Haven’t…haven’t they taught you how to save people?”
“Ma! He will bleed to death! I am still very new to this! I don’t know what else to do!”
“They will arrest us,” Hanaa said, still holding the wall for support.
“Ma please do something!” My tears now mixed with the blood smeared all over my arms and clothes.
“Okay okay… Hanaa call the ambulance. Tell them there’s been an accident, he is bleeding heavily. Tell them to rush and give them our address. Don’t say anything more. Do you hear me?”
Hanaa nodded. I could see the wet patch on her dera, still frozen in her place.
She started sobbing loudly.
“Hanaa make the call!! He can’t die!”
“I don’t think he will survive this Ma…” Before I could finish my statement, Ismail’s body stiffened and started shaking violently, his arms and legs jerking repeatedly. Mama rushed to him and held his limbs down.
“Just make the damn call!” she shouted to Hanaa.
Startled by her voice, she rushed to the next room and talked in a shaky voice.
“Here’s what we will say,” mama said when Hannah joined us again. Ismail’s seizure had stopped but he was still unconscious.
“We will tell the truth from the beginning. Then we shall explain what he came to do here today and he tried to choke you when you demanded a divorce. You were struggling to breathe, I had to save you or else he would have ended your life. I am the one who hit him with the pan and pushed him away from Hanaa.”
She turned to me, “You were helping me stop the blood thus the mess on your clothes. Don’t say anything else.”
“You don’t have to do that Ma,” Hanaa cried.
“It was a matter of life and death. It can’t be that hard to convince the judges in court. They will understand, right?” She looked at me.
Mama slowly picked up the pan and wiped the handle with the leso she had on. She then held it with her free hand before placing it next to her.
“What are you doing Ma?” Hanaa stared.
“The pan handle has to have my fingerprints, no?”
Hanaa sat down on the floor, her hands on her head. I held mama’s left hand as her tears fell freely.
“I am sorry. I am very sorry…I was supposed to be your mother and protect you and be there for you, but I always failed. Please forgive me.” She cried, looking at Hanaa, then I.
My one hand still pressing on Ismail’s head, mama knelt and embraced me. She then signalled Hanaa to join us. So we sat there in the pool of blood, our heads close together, each one of us weeping.
Ismail’s limp body lay in front of us, with barely any sign of life. As we heard the sirens get closer, our crying became more vehement. Whichever way this went, we were doomed. We all knew it- our lives would never be the same again.