*Written in 2020*
I gripped the headrest in front of me with both hands. The car was zigzagging, and everyone in the matatu was screaming. The old lady with the shiny red lipstick next to me was clutching my arm. Everything was becoming blurry. I didn’t realize when exactly I had started crying, but I was. Silent whimpering. Even at my death, I would go silently.
I could feel the back of my shirt soaking with sweat. My heart was pounding. So this is it? How sad. What will I be remembered for? Being at the library 24/7? Who’s even going to remember me anyway? I am but a very ordinary girl. Average. A commoner. You wouldn’t notice me in a room. Even I wouldn’t notice myself in a room. Few words, normal face, standard brains. So this is it then. My miserable, miserable end.
“Hey. Hey.” The old lady nudged me.
“Huh?” I said, my eyes popping out.
“Are you okay?”
“Wh…what?” I said, looking around. We had arrived at the final matatu stage.
“You have tears in your eyes. Are you okay?”
I swallowed hard. My hands were shaky. The old lady was staring at me.
“Um, yes, yes. I am fine, thank you.”
“It is the last stage. We have to alight.”
“Oh! Yeah!” I said as I moved out of the way so she could leave.
I sat back and closed my eyes. It is all in your head. It is all in your head. It is all in your head. I muttered under my breath.
“Mrembo, we need to go to the carwash,” the conductor said, interrupting my murmuring. “And, it’s about to rain.”
“Oh,” I said softly as I alighted.
I held my sling bag close to my chest and started walking home. It was already dark and I could barely see the small ponds of mud rainwater categorically formed on the road until I was in one. I sighed loudly as I removed my now-wet shoes from the pond. This is going to be a long night.
“Alyah! Maryam!” A bodaboda guy by the roadside called. “Zubeda? Aisha?” He kept on guessing. A smirk formed on my tired lips.
“As if you could ever guess my name huh!” I said to myself.
Behind me, I could still hear him. They never give up, these boda guys. They’d keep guessing names with the hope that you’d pay for a ride.
His voice was getting hoarse at this point.
“I am walking!” I shouted without turning at him.
“Si ungesema! Nkt!”
What was I to say though? Wasn’t it obvious that I was walking? I shook my head. I fastened my steps as I got closer to home. As I inserted the key to the front door, a voice called out.
“How many times do you look over your shoulder when you’re walking?”
“Huh?” I said as I looked in the direction the voice was coming from.
A young lady in a green, flowery dera emerged from the dark. Her black scarf was hanging on her shoulders and in her arms was a heavily covered baby. A medium-sized, grey duffle bag was on the floor right next to her.
“I asked; how many times do you look over your shoulder when walking?” She smiled.
I just stared in utter confusion.
“But I don’t.”
“You do. You looked back over your shoulder four times from the corner over there till your door,” she pointed.
She smiled wearily, “Do you remember me?”
“You do look familiar…you’re the girl…”
“Yes yes, I am the girl with the tattoo of a man’s name on my waistline.”
“Haha…Hashim was it? The tattooed name? ”
She laughed loudly, this time her dimples revealed. “Yes. Hashim. I knew you’d remember me for that.”
“Nooo… no no…” my face turned red.
“It is okay. We never interacted in class, but the tattoo was the talk of the class for the entire final year. Everyone remembers that about me.”
“Haha,” I said with a shaky voice. Then there was a moment of silence.
“Lamya with a Y…” she said with a weak smile.
“Asya with a Y too. Hahaha. I am surprised you remember me at all,” I shrugged.
“Well yeah, it was a class of fifty students but then you’d always go on and on about the Y in the class WhatsApp group whenever someone misspelt your name. Lamya with a Y. Lamya with a Y.” She rolled her eyes, then smiled again. Her smiles came so often, I noticed.
“Haha.” Another moment of silence. Is that what I’d be remembered for then?! I shuddered. “What are you doing at this side of the town anyway?”
She looked down.
“Ah! I’m so sorry, please come inside. Do you want to come inside? We could have a seat and talk more, you know, about the importance of the Y in my name,” I laughed.
She nodded and I hurriedly opened the door to my one-bedroom apartment. I was glad that I had cleaned up the house before going to the job in the morning. I invited her to sit on the mkeka as I excused myself to go remove my buibui and wash my muddy feet.
Until then, I hadn’t known how to ask about the baby. Well, it’s been five years since we completed college, we were already adults, of course, she’d have a baby. Most of my classmates were already married and had become parents by now. Not that I was in contact with anyone but I figured that should be it. I planned to casually bring up the baby topic later on.
Asya sat cross-legged; fidgeting with her long, black, curly hair with blonde highlights.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Startled by my voice, she tittered.
“Yes yes. I…I just need your help Lamya.”
“Can I get you something to eat or drink first? Then we can talk!” I touched her shoulder.
“No. No really. I am fine.” She kept shaking her leg and shifting her body on the floor.
I sat down next to her.
“I desperately need a place to sleep… I am homeless at the moment. I could survive if it was just me…but this baby…my baby…” her voice broke.
My stomach churned.
Now here’s the thing. Asya was known, not because she brought trouble, but because she was trouble itself. A week in college wouldn’t end without Asya having another dramatic episode of some sort. She was either fighting someone or inciting fellow students to strike, confronting a lecturer, you name it…all sorts of trouble. Her name would be at the top of the list. Bringing her in for a meal –as I had intended- was one thing, letting her sleep over was another. I kept quiet.
“Just for tonight, I promise…for the sake of my baby, please. I will find a place by tomorrow evening in shaa Allah. I know we don’t know each other that much and maybe you wouldn’t be comfortable with such an arrangement but…”
My face became pale. Well, for one, I wouldn’t want to live with someone who’d read me like that.
I swallowed hard and then muttered, “Alright, don’t worry about it. Both of you can sleep here tonight.”
Asya looked down as tears fell on her green dera forming a wet patch. It was strange, to see Asya like this. The strong-willed, fierce, charismatic Asya that I knew from college was barely there and instead, there was this soft, almost unbelievably so, withdrawn woman. This wasn’t Asya. It was her skeleton.
“You need to rest. Let me get you some food then you can sleep alright? I insist. Please eat something?”
I hadn’t planned on making dinner that night because I was too exhausted. It had been the ‘Book Sale’ month at the library and we’d been the busiest. Luckily, there were some leftover mahamri and mbaazi in the fridge that I had bought earlier that morning. I quickly heated the meal and handed it to her.
I sat silently next to her as she ate, her baby closely next to her.
“So what’s your baby’s name?” I smiled.
“Muneera-with a double ee,” she laughed.
“Oh come on! Are you going to tease my Y forever?”
“Can I hold her please?”
“Sure. She is 8 months old.”
I stood up and slowly kept my arm beneath the baby and held her below her neck with the other hand. Goosebumps formed on my arms. I held my breath. I can’t help but imagine dropping her, leading tragically to her death.
Muneera’s eyes rapidly moved around in almost an uncontrollable manner. Her skin was paler and she had freckles all over her face. Her hair was white and had a tiny nose like Asya’s. The nose must have been the only semblance between mother and daughter, I noticed. She is different. My heart sank a bit. The world is cruel to anyone different.
I started humming a lullaby as I patted her lightly on her back.
Mtoto lala totooo
Mla ubwabwa wa motooo
Silie baba silieee
Ukaniliza na mieee
Machozi yako yawekeee
Watu wakuzuilieee ee
Owaaa owaaaa mtoto ooowaaa”
“Hashim died,” Asya interrupted my singing.
I stopped and stood in my tracks.
“Inna Lillah waina ileyhi rajiun. I am so sorry to hear that Asya.”
“Yeah…he died a little over four months ago,” her voice broke.
I sat down next to her and cautiously kept Muneera, who was now dozing off on my lap.
“How did it happen?”
“Car accident. I couldn’t even recognize his face when we went to confirm the body found,” she sobbed, almost suddenly, which bolted me to a stand, the baby still in my arms.
What exactly does one do in a situation like this? How do you console a grieving widow?
Her cry was getting louder and with every wail, I felt chills throughout my body.
“Asya…Asya…what can I do for you?”
But she just went on with it. On and on. My head was now throbbing.
I squatted, unbalanced. One hand still trying to hold Muneera’s back and the other was hugging Asya clumsily.
Fueling my panic was Muneera’s sudden loud weep.
“Alright, alright there baby. Mama is okay, don’t worry about her. You go to sleep,” I whispered. I started walking back and forth in the corridor, singing all lullabies I could think of. Mother and daughter went on crying and crying and crying. At last, Muneera went back to sleep and Asya had stopped crying but was still sniffling loudly. The black scarf around Asya’s neck was now wet.
I took Muneera to my room, laid her on my bed, and left the door slightly ajar. I went and held Asya for what seemed an eternity. We both never said anything and she soon started dozing off in my arms.
“Asya, you should go to the bedroom and sleep with Muneera,” I whispered.
She shook her head to deny my offer.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay sleeping here?”
She nodded, her eyes still closed.
I slowly laid her head down on the mkeka where she was seated and brought a blanket and some cushions to make her comfortable. I picked the plate next to her; the meal was barely touched. I sighed as I stared at her frail body. For the first time, I realized how bony and gaunt Asya had become. Her pretty thick and healthy cheeks were bygone. Her complexion was pale and her eyes looked hollow, so hollow I thought I could sink in them.
I stood there for a while as I nursed my throbbing headache with my sweaty hands. I decided to make a cup of coffee and sit close to Asya to ensure she sleeps well. I locked my doors, checked whether I had locked them properly, and then checked again, just to be sure. I then settled down on the floor, gazing blankly into space, thoughts racing my mind. Finally, I stood up and prayed Isha, and checked on Asya again before proceeding to sleep next to Muneera in the bedroom.
Muneera’s cry woke me up, but she was no longer by my side. Groggily, I walked to the sitting room. Asya was now breastfeeding her baby.
“Assalam aleykum,” she gave me a half-smile. Her eyes were red and swollen. Her hair dishevelled as if she’d been pulling her hair all night.
“Waaleykum salaam.” I was staring at her.
“Thank you Lamya, for hosting us,” she said, pulling Muneera closer to her chest.
“You’re welcome. What time is it anyway?” I said as I went to check my phone that I’d left by the charger.
5:22 A.M. Time for fajr prayer.
“Did you get some sleep?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she nodded.
I excused myself to go clean up and before returning to my room, I stopped by the sitting room again.
“I’m going to pray…do you want to join me?”
Asya laughed, almost sarcastically. “God and I, we’re not friends.”
I opened my mouth, planning to say something wise or thought-provoking, but then my mind was blank.
“Are you sure?… I mean, are you sure you don’t want to join me?” I said finally.
She nodded without looking at me.
My heart sank.
“Well…will you go back to sleep then?”
“Not really. Not friends with sleep either.” Her eyes were on Muneera.
“Okay then, I’ve kept a clean towel in the bathroom for you in case you want to refresh. Let me pray then I’ll join you,” I said.
She nodded again and whispered another thank you.
After about twenty minutes of praying plus making breakfast for the two of us, I joined Asya once again. I noticed she had changed into a casual blue summer dress and her hair was now tied back into a ponytail. She had wanted to assist in preparing the breakfast but I insisted that she should just continue resting.
“Are you going to work?” she asked, glancing at me from head to toe.
“I will be, much later on. But if you’re wondering, yes, I am a morning person,” I chuckled.
Asya rolled her eyes then laughed, “Of course you are. Anyway, isn’t your boss going to question you if you go in late?”
“Well lucky for me, I’m the boss,” I laughed, “We’re two of us, I’m a co-owner of the library. Just a small one though, no big deal.”
“Oh! That is good! And of course, it is a big deal, you’re living your dream!” she said as she sipped her milk. She was quiet for a minute then, as if she’d been thinking about it a lot, she asked, “So what’s your story Lamya?”
“Haha, nothing much. The ordinary lady doing ordinary things.”
“I expected you’d be married by now,” she said quite casually. Swahilis have such a way to ask you very intimate questions and make it seem like they’re asking you about the weather.
“I was for a while…”
“You were??! I didn’t know that!” she exclaimed.
“Well, it didn’t last for long. I got married two years ago then I had a stillborn…” I said rather slowly. Asya gasped loudly. “Soon after that, my marriage died too,” I continued.
“Subhanallah! I am so sorry for your loss!”
“Yeah, I was going crazy, almost literally.” I paused momentarily. “It was the hardest phase of my life… I never thought I would ever be okay again. Stopped going to the library, stopped reading entirely, and meeting people was too exhausting for a long while…but I’m doing better now,” I smiled.
Asya stretched out her hand to hold mine without saying a word for a moment.
“I lied to you,” she said.
“About remembering you. Okay, not exactly lied but I didn’t give you accurate information. While I was panicking about being homeless, I talked to Jay from our class. Remember him? Our first and second-year class rep.”
“Yeah, so when I talked to him he told me I could reach out to you. You are one of the few who are still within the town, most people have moved, gotten married, and have families … I had forgotten but you’re the one who ensured I reached the hospital safely the day I fainted in class, and then you paid for the admission as well. I am ashamed that I forgot… but you know, it was the first year, the first semester. I do remember thanking you after I was released from the hospital but then that was that. I doubt we ever had another conversation ever again. Anyway, he reminded me of the incident, and just to ensure I knew who I was talking about, he mentioned you correcting people of your name all the time in the WhatsApp group. But after that, I pretty much could recall who you were.”
“Ohh!” I laughed, “It is okay though. I don’t think I would have remembered you either if you weren’t the popular girl back then.”
Asya laughed too.
“Why don’t we go for a walk?” I suggested.
Agreeing, Asya picked up the last piece of toast and took a big bite. Still chewing, she quickly opened her duffle bag and removed a blue and white leso, another heavier dress for Muneera, a tiny hat, and some sunscreen. Asya applied the sunscreen on Muneera, dressed her up from head to toe then lifted her carefully and put the baby on her back. Bending over, Asya tossed the leso over her back and tucked the bottom edge of the cloth under Muneera’s bottom. She then pulled the edges of the leso to the front of her torso, under her arms, and knotted the ends around her chest. Ready to leave now, Asya picked the same black scarf she came with the previous day and kept it loosely on her head.
We stepped out to the hues of orange and golden rays bursting out of the sky. We started treading on the tarmac road as the cool morning breeze kissed our faces.
“Asya…if I may ask…what happened to you? I mean, how did you end up here?”
“Whew! … Well… you do remember Hashim and I started dating in the second year yeah?”
“Well of course my parents didn’t know about it until our final year. After I did the famous waist tattoo of his name, Aziza and my other friends kept teasing me about it. Soon enough, the whole class knew about it. And of course, you know, such news spread fast. My cousin Saada came to know about it somehow and she told to my parents. Of course, my parents wanted to know who this Hashim was. He was summoned and he did come, to my parent’s dismay. They asked him all these questions like he was being interrogated. Anyway, despite Hashim clearly stating that he wanted to marry me once we finished university, my parents believed he was a bad influence on me and rejected him.” She paused.
“Funny thing is, I was wild even before I met Hashim. If anything, he was the one who brought balance into my life. He never even knew about the tattoo till after I had already done it.” She sighed.
“Oh?” I turned to face her.
She nodded. “I know my parents didn’t want to admit this but the real reason for rejecting him was because he wasn’t Swahili like us. You know how twisted our culture is sometimes when it comes to such matters…Okay, I get it that all parents want a stable, religiously steadfast man for their daughter but how fair is that if their daughter was neither stable nor steadfast? Anyway, whatever their reasoning, it was an outright no. I hated them for it, but we kept on trying to convince them for one whole year. Eventually, we gave up. We went to court and tied the knot,” Asya continued.
“I was really sad because my family cut me off after the wedding but Hashim took me to his family home where he lived alone with his grandfather and we were happy,” she smiled.
“Oh…where were his parents?” I asked.
“His mother died at childbirth…her name was Muneera and thus, our Muneera…” she smiled, “And his father died from pneumonia when we were in our third year in college. So it was just him, his grandfather, and his elder sister who was married in Malindi. Hashim was running a fish business and it was doing quite well mashallah. We were living the good life. His grandfather was so calm and easy to deal with, we rarely ever saw his sister and Hashim…Hashim was the best husband in the world,” her voice started breaking.
I held her hand and intertwined her fingers with mine. We were now approaching the pathway that would lead us to a supermarket at the end of the road. I needed to buy some groceries so Asya could have something for lunch.
“And then what happened?”
“Everything changed when Muneera came. No one prepares you for a child that’s not…normal, you know? The first time I held her, I knew something was wrong because of her white hair. When she turned three months she was officially diagnosed with albinism. I was devastated. We both were…Hashim and I. I thought it was a punishment from God…or a curse for hurting my parents. I blamed myself for it for days. I thought I couldn’t handle it, how was I, of all people, going to raise a child who will be looked at differently her entire life?”
“I am so sorry,” I muttered.
“It is alright… Hashim was more optimistic. He seemed so sure that we were the best parents Muneera could ever get. After a while, I realized I can manage too. I got accustomed to the stares from family and strangers. Hashim was very supportive so it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought, and his grandfather loved Muneera immensely. For a minute there, I thought we’d be okay; this small, cute family of ours. Well, that was until the accident happened. Our lives took another major twist. Because now it wasn’t just the grieving, it was the discrimination too.”
“His sister.” Asya looked at me.
“After Hashim’s death, she and her husband had to come live in the house since they were the only other direct family members alive. I wouldn’t have minded staying alone with Muneera and taking care of Hashim’s grandfather too…but you know how it is. I guess they couldn’t trust me. Safiya, Hashim’s sister, didn’t have a problem with me but she kept looking at Muneera like…filth. She always seemed disgusted whenever she’d see her. At first, she never really said anything about Muneera but soon enough, she started dropping comments about how albinos were a symbol of bad luck or a curse. I tried to be patient with her; ignored her comments and dirty glares but then we started having ugly fights over it. This was home for me now. I didn’t have any other place to go to, so I had to swallow it all in.”
“My God! Some people are just so cruel,” I shook my head, my voice overshadowed by a speeding car.
“Whilst I was grieving the death of my husband, his sister made sure to make my life more miserable than it already was. I had to leave, Lamya. I just had to. As soon as I finished my eddah, I left the house. Hashim’s grandfather was so sad at my departure but I explained to him that I couldn’t take it anymore. I hope he will forgive me someday for taking his granddaughter away from him.”
“I don’t even know what to say Asya. What you’ve been through is terrible!”
“Yeah, so that’s when I called Jay and told him of my predicament. He told me he lives in Eldoret nowadays. He then suggested I should try finding you. It wasn’t easy but after several phone calls among different classmates, Susan finally gave me the direction to your home.”
“I’m glad they did. So what’s your plan now?”
“I don’t have one…yet. Jay said that he’ll call me this evening to tell me what to do. I’m not sure what his plan is but he assured me I’ll get help.”
“Ohh…in case he doesn’t find you a place you can stay with me for a few more days. I wouldn’t mind having company, especially this beautiful little princess.”
“Thank you so so much, Lamya. You don’t know how much this means to me,” she hugged me.
We now strolled into the supermarket and bought some groceries before heading back home.
“I miss them sometimes,” Asya broke the silence.
“My parents…my family…”
“I am sorry…Have you ever tried contacting them after the wedding?”
“Not exactly. I wanted to, but I didn’t have the guts to face them…talk to them…But maybe I will someday. I intend to, in shaa Allah.”
“In shaa Allah kheyr, you will be alright. You will be okay.”
When we finally got home, I prepared myself to go to the library. I showed Asya around the house to ensure she was comfortable and could access whatever she’d need. I left my spare key with her, said goodbye then promised to come back early from work and have dinner with her.
I locked the door. Checked it twice. Checked it a third time. I made a quick prayer that Asya and Muneera stay safe while I’m away then rushed off.
Seated next to my partner Suhayla at the praying mat right after dhuhr prayers, I decided this is the only opportunity I’d get to talk to her calmly. We were otherwise overwhelmed with work all day, all month. I explained to her Asya’s situation and then slowly asked, “Do you think we can find her something to do here? A job to get her by?”
“That’s so sad wallahy…I hope she gets help. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if we got her something to do but you know how tight our budget is. We’re barely making ends meet ourselves…I mean…what can we do?”
“Doesn’t have to be anything major for now. We could do with some help, especially this month. Perhaps just to help with cleaning and arranging the books, maybe make deliveries…until she gets a better job in shaa Allah.”
“Yeah well, suggest it to her if she’ll accept the little pay we have to offer at the moment.”
“I’m sure she’ll accept it. She is desperate at the moment. Thank you! Thank you!” I said hugging her by her side, feeling giddy with excitement.
I couldn’t wait for the day to end so I could give Asya the good news!
Barely two hours after the talk with Suhayla, a call came through on my phone.
Alex? My landlord? That’s strange. It is not yet the end month. I thought as I picked up the phone.
“Lamya!” he said with urgency.
“There’s a baby that’s been crying for almost an hour now in your apartment! Did you leave a baby alone? I’m surprised because I know you don’t have one.”
I stood up from my seat, my heart began to race.
“Alex, please do me a favour. I have a friend over. The mother of the child. Her name is Asya. Please go over to the apartment and check up on her. I am coming right away!”
“Suhayla! Suhayla!” I shouted, not caring one bit about the customers now staring at me.
“What is it Lamya?” she came closer to where I was standing.
“Something must have happened to Asya. My landlord has called about a baby crying for a long time. I can feel that something’s wrong! I need to go! Talk to you later!”
“Yaa Rabby!” Suhayla cried out, her palms on her head. “Okay go!…and please update me as soon as you get there!”
I hailed a bodaboda hurriedly and off we went. My heart was pounding and my hands were now filled with cold sweat.
What happened Asya? What happened?! My mind raced.
Finally reaching my destination, I jumped off the motorbike and quickly paid for the ride without waiting for my change.
At my doorstep, I realized that the door was wide open. I walked in just to find Alex holding Muneera in his arms, with two other neighbours.
“What happened??!!!” I exclaimed, “Where is Asya?”
“She wasn’t here…your friend, we didn’t find her when we came in. The door was open too.”
“What do you mean you didn’t find her?!” I said as I started looking frantically around the house; in the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. She was nowhere to be seen.
I was feeling dizzy now, my hands trembling.
“Asya! Asya! Where are you?!” I shouted.
I noticed Muneera had quietened down. Moving around the house in circles, I finally realized that Asya’s duffle bag was gone.
My eyes fell on Muneera again. The small, cute Muneera. My neighbours were looking at me with worried, puzzled faces, dumbfounded.
“Are you okay?” Alex’s voice seemed to come from a distance.
Oh my Lord! What am I going to do now?!
My head was throbbing. My body shook vehemently. My legs going numb.
“AAAASYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA.” My voice shook the entire building.
The ground below me shook too.
And then, darkness.
N.B: Our writing training is back! Register with us, share the poster, sponsor a student or do all the above! 😉 Thank you! 🙂