She couldn’t stop running; no, she wouldn’t. The crackling twigs beneath her feet, the whistling of the wind as it swept through the leaves; the song of the birds; the crickets and frogs, complete with the mooing of the cows going home – complemented the drumming in her head. Nadira was no athlete, but her adrenaline levels were now good ‘oil for her engine’. Neither was she a coward. She was standing up for her rights – or was she running away for her rights? She stumbled over an outgrown tree root and fell flat on her face. She was tired; she was bruised, but her spirit unbroken.
Mugaiga would never be her husband. The thought of it made her brain swirl and chocked her throat. She was Nadira, and not any other village girl; despite having been brought up with humility, she knew her worth and valued her principles. She was not going to be caught up in the in the cross-cultural web that entangled her people, who were struggling to embrace modernity, yet holding onto archaic customs like the very blood that run through their veins. This could not even be called an arranged marriage, no. Seeing her as good insurance for small favours for the rest of their lives, her uncles had assured Mugaiga of their support if he asked for Nadira’s hand in marriage. Her father, Rwekihara, had been taken aback by Mugaiga’s twisted assertions, confusion accentuating the lines on his brow.
Raising her head to scan her bearings, Nadira gently steadied herself and sat up under the foot of the large tree, some of whose roots could pass for crudely curved benches. She looked up and, through the canopy of her temporary shelter, the rays of the moon filtering through the leaves, and a few stars, lit her dark world. The nocturnal forest noises had changed beat, rhythm, tune and frequency. Her thoughts too, were more collected and she was able to think through and reflect on her life, trying to make sense of this maze.
Mugaiga owned chunks of land and large herds of cattle. He had two wives and fourteen children. By all standards in his culture, he was a wealthy man. What had subtly began as a kind gesture from a good, well-intentioned, old family friend (as she regarded Mugaiga hitherto), turned out to be a well-crafted, well-thought-out scheme he had churned to make Nadira wife number three. “Wife Number III, indeed”, Nadira whispered under her breath. In spite of the anger that chocked her moments earlier, she let out a muffled laughter and was soon laughing out loud. “Sounds like a meritorious, prestigious number of a World War Ex-Service man”, she mused to herself.
Nadira had sailed through all grades of her school as a top student and the whole village was proud of her. A teardrop escaped from the corner of her right eye as her brain scanned and sifted through the rapidly running and random thoughts flashing back to her mind. It was all so vivid, this evening’s strange encounter.
“I did not spend my money on your daughter’s education, only for her to grow up and marry paupers, these young inexperienced boys with no name to their existence”. Mugaiga had arrogantly bellowed in his ugly, hoarse voice. Nadira’s father, a quiet, but resolute man, looked on as Mugaiga ranted on and on about his riches, about his influence over several villages across the land. He was known to have told the Parish Priest on one occasion: “I have no need for salvation. If I stacked my herd, one cow atop the other, I might reach heaven sooner than you all”.
Mugaiga, having stormed into Rwekihara’s compound unannounced, did not even wait to be given the usual welcome or be offered a foldable chair under the Mutooma tree. Standing with his left hand resting on his old back, and his right pounding the ground with his beaded walking stick, he presented his agenda; revealing only now, his crafty scheme that had hoodwinked Nadira’s parents as the kind heart of a dear friend. Mugaiga had made an investment and was here to collect his well-earned returns – Nadira for a wife.
Yet her dreams lay in another world. She tried to pick up the shattered and scattered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle cut out of the current situation and her dreams. Nadira felt lost. As a cloud hid the moon, she embraced the darkness that came over her, like she were being enfolded into a blanket where no one would ever find her. She was no longer afraid of the dark, of the forest, of being alone.
Nadira knew that her father had worked for many long and hard years on Mugaiga’s farm, and was always duly rewarded for his work. The assistance rendered to him for the education of two of his children, Nadira and her brother Mutungi, had seemed in no way suspect.
“I am going to be a lawyer and nothing will deter me from pursuing my dreams.” Nadira spoke out loud as she straightened herself. With her graduation only a few weeks away, Mugaiga had promised to throw her a big graduation party. It turned out he was to surprise her with an engagement on that day.
She had not waited to listen to her father’s response to Mugaiga’s rude and senseless utterances. On a tip off from one of her trusted friends that this shameless man had posted scouts to stop her from leaving the village the next morning, she had walked out of the homestead gracefully balancing an empty water pot towards the well, to avoid any suspicions of her intentions, even from her own parents. When she felt she was at a safe distance, she hid the water pot behind a bush and started to run towards the forest as fast as her feet could carry her.
Stories abounded of girls being literally kidnapped or abducted, into forced marriages. Surely, her parents would understand, if she didn’t go back home? Becoming a practicing lawyer was a dream the family had nurtured together. She was not going to let her father down.
What miracle would save her from the clutches of this mean man? How would she protect her parents if she run away? Her only hope lay in a getting a decent job. Mugaiga’s home was, to her, like a death trap, where her dreams would die, and she cease to ‘live’. But she knew her father well, the proud man that had taught her the value of honour and no compromise. He would defend himself. She cushioned her head on a tree root as she lay in a neat curl on the now softened leaves, and was soon overtaken by sleep.
The crow of a cock roused her from sleep at dawn, and she knew she must be near some homesteads. By now, she was exhausted from thinking and restless sleep, and her head was reeling; but her resolve strengthened her as she got on to her feet and started to find her way through the forest.
While at University, where many girls had fallen prey to greedy men, she never allowed herself to be lured by any of their subtle schemes to trap her into cheap love affairs for monetary gains. The city had every temptation to offer her that she did not fall for.
With the cloud lifted, under the moonlight Nadira walked on and on, out of the forest and was soon on a familiar path that her feet would make out even blindfolded. She hoped to get to the next village, where her paternal auntie was married, by day light. She would seek her counsel and intervention. As she trudged on, occasionally straightening her gait and reminding herself of all the lawyers she admired, her steps quickened and she felt rejuvenated.
She made her way out of the forest into the road. Awarmth tingled her bare calves and light beams shone the road ahead of her, taking her by surprise in the morning mist. Preoccupied, she had not heard the engine sound of the approaching car, which idled to the side of the road, stopping right beside her. The car window was lowered, to reveal a clean-shaven man likely to be in his mid-thirties.
“What is a beautiful young lady like you doing out here at this ungodly hour?” he asked.
“I thank you Sir, but I am fine”, she politely replied. Nadira suddenly became aware of her appearance, remembering her flat fall to the ground, and the shrubs she had walked through. Making vain attempts to smoothen her clothes and tie back her kinky hair with her scarf, she smiled sheepishly as the gentleman patiently looked on.
“Your eyes are puffed up. You have had a long, sleepless night and, perhaps shed a tear or two, and haven’t eaten.”
“I am fine”, She insisted. “I am almost at my auntie’s place in the next village, and I must run my father’s errand in good time”.
“I understand. Please hop in; I shall drop you at your auntie’s place. I am on my way to the city, where I live and work. I am an advocate.”
“Advocate” was the magic word. Nadira threw all caution to the winds, and got into the car. Maybe this stranger could be trusted. He was an advocate, after all; someone she could identify with. She would gladly share her dreams and fears with him, but he was a total stranger. They exchanged pleasantries and he started the engine, but did not move the car. Strangely, she felt secure and at ease. Perhaps it was the warmth of the car and the fresh scent of his musk cologne, which reminded her of the forest in which she had spent the night.
“Philip Tugume; you can call me Philly”.
“I am Nadira Murungi. I too am going to be a lawyer.”
“Glad to meet you, Nadira”, he said as he shook her hand and looked into her eyes. The car stereo was playing soft jazz. His hand was warm and reassuring; and for a moment Nadira’s emotional torment waned and her panic calmed down somewhat. Overcome, she threw her head on his shoulder and broke into a soft sob; but quickly collected herself. She made for the door handle, apologizing for inappropriate behavior. Phillip held her back and, tightening his arm around her waist, gazed into her eyes again. Nadira was overwhelmed. Her guilt and caution fell like a poorly-fastened loincloth during a traditional dance – no one ever has the time or chance to pick it up, for the show must continue.
However, suddenly realizing that she was giving in to her vulnerability at the hour, Nadira firmly opened the door, made a polite bow as she politely explained that she would make it on her own, and walked on ahead. Her only hope, however, was in hiking a ride if she was to leave the village. Her encounter with Phillip raised the alarm bells in her head. Where exactly was she running to? Was it going to be, like the Kinyankore proverb, the case of taking shelter from the rain under a cactus plant?
This man must be one of those habitual flirts, she said to herself with a sigh, as he drove off without a word to her. As the car lights waned off in the distance, she stopped in her tracks and decided she was going to be proactive. Yes! This was no time to run away and shame her mother, or ruin her name in the village. She would not seek her auntie’s counsel anymore, she decided.
By the time Nadira got home, the sun was up and villagers were already in their gardens tilling their land with hoes. At home, her father sat under the Mutooma tree with the Village chief. It was not rare for the chief to make such early morning visits to homesteads, especially since he had come back from a government sponsored training on the improvement of household incomes. Last seen with a water pot on her head the previous evening, and now appearing rather unkempt the next day, she knew she had a lot of explaining to do. Bending under the coffee trees, she stealthily walked round the reed fence and entered the kitchen, a round mud and wattle, grass thatched hut supported with a big eucalyptus pole in the centre. Her mother was singing as she ground some millet grains on the stone, wearing such a sad face. Fearing it was her husband again, she did not raise her head to look up as a figure blocked the light in the doorway. She had no answers about her daughter’s whereabouts.
“Maama”, Nadira whispered as she entered. “I am here now, and everything is going to be okay”. Mother could not hold back her tears of joy on seeing her daughter return unharmed; she had had a very sleepless night, frantic with worry.
Nadira freshened up and came to take the millet porridge her mother had prepared for her father and his guest. She was relieved to hear them talking about farming, but rather uneasy that her father did not question her absence from home for a whole night.
Later on in the day, she asked to talk to her parents about her decision for her future. To the shock of her parents, she said she was ready and willing to marry Mugaiga, but on one condition, that he took on two wives at a go – she and her childhood friend Kawiini. Kawiini who never went to school because her father believed that educating a girl-child was a waste of resources, and often ridiculed Nadira’s father. Nadira had, on her homeward trek earlier on, intimated to Kawiini that she would love to have her as a co-wife. She convinced her parents that she had the best intentions at heart for the whole family. Besides since she had no job yet, as Mugaiga’s wife she would be able to pay her brother’s school fees, and secure her father’s job. It was a strange turn of events, a real shock to her parents.
Not surprisingly, Mugaiga was elated at the news. The fourth wife was just a bonus for him. Nadira’s graduation as a lawyer was held at low key and overshadowed by her traditional wedding to Mugaiga in a colourful ceremony that saw her and her friend Kawiini get betrothed to the same man. The wedding speech would be the talk of the village and beyond for a long time.
Each of the new brides was introduced to the first and second wives, and the eldest wife led each to her beautifully decorated hut. As they spent the mandatory one month period before taking part in the homestead chores, the brides were getting acquainted with the schedules and rules of the home. Cooperation between all the wives, and respect for the elder wives was emphasized for the sake of harmony.
Nadira was quick to use her charm by teaching her co-wives how to read. Her husband was proud to have a lawyer for a wife, and dared any villager to take him to court. “She is even training my elder wives to become lawyers!” he often bragged. For him life was that simplistic. He boasted that he now not only had a farm of cows, but a wife farm too! Little did he realize that Nadira was, actually creating her own ‘firm’ under his roof, charming his wives. The elder wives, on realizing that Nadira was no threat to their marriage, cooperated fully and showered her with love. Mugaiga’s house had never been so efficiently and smoothly run. There had not been such laughter and gaiety in the home for such a long time. Mugaiga’s own children looked up to Nadira and admired her, because her husband spoke highly of her.
She was, however, going to play him at his own game. Wife battering, which was part of Mugaiga’s routine, was now threatened because Nadira had enlightened all the wives about their rights. Whenever he raised a hand against any of them, all the three would gang up on him to defend her. His wives had never challenged him in any way before.
“Nadira, you are creating strife and disharmony in my home. Yet you are but just a woman, my property”; Mugaiga bellowed out at her. These were painful words, but a good indicator that her mission might succeed. She often thought about her friends with whom they had graduated, and wonder how they were doing and what they would think of her in her strange marriage.
One evening, Mugaiga returned to a strange scenario in his backyard. All the chickens were out and being thrown back into the pen one by one, only after a through scrubbing of their feet. Nadira and Kawiini looked on as if in contemplation, as the older wives preformed this ritual, their children helping them in the chase. Their husband, too, looked on, with amusement; obviously cooking up what to brag about in his drinking binge the next day.
The next day, true to his character, Mugaiga bragged about the new development in his home, wondering perhaps if there were any shoes made for fowls that his money could buy! He returned home in a jovial mood, hoping to sit at the chicken-chasing arena and enjoy the lazy swaying of his wives he had witnessed before as they chased after the chickens; only to find Nadira screaming and running breathlessly in vain attempts to catch any chicken, since she was clumsily waving her arms in the air, causing them to scamper even more.
She wiped her brow, bent over and untied the anklet she had received on her wedding night. As the chickens began to settle and find their way one by one to their house, their feet unwashed, Nadira walked towards her husband, anklet in hand, and wearing a very sad face of desperation. She knelt before him and pleaded that it was impossible for her to chase all the chickens and wash their feet when, unlike her co-wives, she had no children to help her. Mugaiga looked at her in bewilderment, definitely short of words. He had learnt his lesson the last time he tried to strike one of his wives. But this could not go on.
First, Nadira turns his wives into rebels; now, she is giving excuses and giving up on a task her co-wives had accomplished! He walked away from her, leaving her on her knees.
She walked to her hut with short, quick steps, happy with the disappointed look on her husband’s face, but not daring to sing the cheerful song that played in her heart.
Luck was on her side. Indeed, as they had suspected, the small Transistor radio that ‘announced’ Mugaiga’s intended stay in a wife’s hut for the night, was taken to Kawiini’s hut by one of the small boys at the bidding of his father.
Before two months elapsed, a bride could lay cause why she could not stay in a marriage and be heard by the elders. The time was now. Kawiini would now be separated from her friend, but was married to a man she had admired, and was cherished by her husband. Perhaps later in life, Nadira might improve the prospects of her friend, but for now, Kawiini was happy. Seeing the light dim and flicker out in Kawiini’s hut, the three wives crept out and assembled under the mango tree that had cast a wide shadow in the vast compound.
It had been an amazing one month for the two elder women, who now hugged Nadira with tears in their eyes. “God bless you child”, they said one after the other. “You are so full of life, go and make us proud. You will always be our special ‘daughter’, not a co-wife. Enough of washing chicken feet. Tomorrow, Mugaiga will know that you were a lazy, good-for-nothing and pompous woman whose ambitions made her fail the simple test we had set for her. He will never come after you, because you challenged his authority”.
Nadira walked away with a gait of confidence, and knew she would treasure the moments she shared with her co-wives, the lessons they learnt together, especially the power of cooperation against an assumptive target. She walked into the dark, once more, into a more calculated future, treading gently on the dry leaves and twigs, as she carefully avoided the village path that would raise suspicions about a married woman journeying solo in the night.
©Alexandra Kukunda 2013 (unpublished)