The Great escape.
Waitara loved her father. He commanded a lot of respect and was an elder – no village meeting would be held without him. He had the largest piece of land – one could travel for days and not get to the end. As a little girl, Waitara was very proud of her father until she got a little older and understood just how little he valued her life, how set he was in his beliefs and women’s role in society. It infuriated her that she was just a commodity to him. Nonetheless she wanted more than anything to please him and make him proud in the hope that he might convert. One day he told her that he wanted her to grow up and marry a prominent man from their tribe – that was not what she wanted – she nodded to please him. Mzee Mwita, as he was widely known, was old enough to be her grandfather – her mother, Wambura, and his youngest and fifth wife was Waitara’s mother – she was sold to him to pay off debt. She was a beautiful woman who bore him a beautiful daughter. Although she didn’t bore him any sons, he was happy with the daughter, “an investment,” he said, “the child of my ripe age.” He treated her better than he treated all his other children. They were many and lived all over the huge land. His other wives and their children lived in separate houses, some of the children (daughters) had grown and flown the nest, literally. Others (sons) had married and brought wives into the land. They built their houses in the uninhabited areas of the land, and still left plenty of room for little children to run wild. Life in Mwita’s territory buzzed.
Despite her love and respect for her father, and her incessant need to please him, there was one issue she could not agree with despite much debate in her head. She never told him face to face that she disagreed, nevertheless and privately, she had heated arguments with him, and she won each time. Only time would tell if she could have the courage to speak up, and against her father. Unbeknown to her, her mother’s mind was in turmoil too, as soon as Waitara hit puberty, her mother knew it was just a matter of time and her little girl would be no more. She prayed day and night that her daughter would not befall the fate she did; she prayed that her daughter would stay in school and study all the way, be something or someone who would make a difference in the world. Once, she confided in her best friend, who confessed to having the same thoughts about her daughters. It was every mother’s worst nightmare.
Fiona was a chubby lady who ran a hair salon in the main town ten miles from Waitara’s village. She spoke openly about her views on certain traditions that no one discussed in public. She also listened to her customers who for some reasons trusted her with their views. However, that was as far as it went for them but not for Fiona, she would not rest until headlines were made. She never married or had kids, though she wanted to. Rumour had it that she had left the country, but things didn’t work out well and, so she returned. What no one knew was that Fiona was doing well in South Africa until she had an epiphany – she sold her business and belongings, and bought a one-way ticket to Kenya. She then travelled overnight for 8 hours from Nairobi to this town on a mission. She may not have had formal education, but what she lacked in formal education made up in spades in street wisdom. In no time her salon business was set up and she had a steady flow of customers. In her prime, her father had wanted to marry her off to a rich man, but no one showed much interest. Some friendlier-than-thou first wives who couldn’t bear sons in their youth, wanted to marry her as surrogate daughter in law: that was the last thing she wanted for herself, so she ran away from home, ended up in Tanzania and then South Africa.
The ceremony was scheduled to place over two days in the community common grounds. The presiding couple had been nominated by the elders several months in advance. This was a significant time culturally, and these events have taken place every 24 months for generations: however, in recent years the government had labelled one of these events illegal, stifling some celebrations, but the elders decided it had to continue because there were no justifiable reasons as to why one would be more illegal than the other. And so, the events were to continue as planned.
Mzee Mwita, of course, supported the events, and had prepared his daughter the only way he knew how. He often said “mwacha mila ni mtumwa” [whoever leaves his culture is a slave] as justification for his rigidity. He told her tales of how women who took part in the events were more likely to get good husbands than their counterparts – inwardly Waitara’s rebuttal was “the girls who don’t take part in this out-dated barbarism did so much better in school and life!” Wambura clearly had the same sentiments, it was written all over her wrinkled face as she looked at her daughter with the most sorrowful eyes and quivering lower chin. Two days before the events, she gave her daughter some money to have her hair done in town – the day she walked into Fiona’s salon changed her life’s trajectory forever.
The usual salon chitchat led Waitara to hint about the impending events. Fiona knew only too well what the ‘event’ was and what it leads to – misery. Untold misery. It was her destiny to save at least one girl from it.
“Are you excited about participating in the event?” Fiona asked ever so cautiously.
“Of course, it’s tradition” she replied without any conviction in her voice, shrugged her shoulders awkwardly and could not look Fiona in the eye when she asked the question again. Fiona sensed the anxiety and changed the subject and asked about the harvest. Waitara just glared at her.
“Are your parents happy for you?”
Waitara laughed nervously as she fished for the brick phone in her handbag. This was pointless as her phone wouldn’t qualify as a phone in today’s standards – it was functional, receive and make calls, not browse the net – there was no need to have it on her hand at all times. Besides, it wasn’t her phone; it was her mother’s but as fate would have it thank goodness she brought it with her. Fiona asked the question again, this time looking squarely into Waitara’s eyes.
“My father is and that’s what important? Right?”
“NO! When I was 14 years old, it happened to me too. That was over more than 30 years ago. Everyone did it then and there was no help available unlike today. I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice. I was forced to do it. I didn’t know why I didn’t want it, it just felt wrong and a gross violation. Now I know all too well why it should never happen. Please let me help you”
Fiona went on to narrate her story, and the reasons she never got married or had kids. She took Waitara’s number and gave hers just in case. As Waitara walked home she thought about the things Fiona talked about. Why she had no relationship with her family. How she attributes all her failures to the event. She wondered why it would be a cultural event that happened over hundreds of years if it was as bad as Fiona said it was. But as she walked home Fiona’s words played endlessly in her mind, “what they don’t tell you is how the mallet is used….” – the most terrible thing she ever heard in all her life. Her mind was made up.
When she got home that evening she told her mother everything and that her mind was made up – she would escape even if it meant death. Her mother dropped to her knees and put her hands together as if in prayer. “My child, I’ve prayed for a breakthrough like this – I’ll do whatever it takes. Let’s call Fiona”
“What about father? If he finds out, we are as good as dead!” she stammered because her tongue felt heavy and felt like it was swelling with every word.
“Don’t worry my child, I’ll take care of everything.”
That night in the privacy of her room, Wambura called Fiona.
On d-night, Waitara’s father announced he was going into town to start the celebrations. That meant drinking cheap brew until the wee hours and staggering home singing traditional circumcision songs. Wambura saw an opportunity – Waitara had to leave before her father returned. The phone call was short and to the point. Fiona would come and park a dark blue Datsun a mile from Wambura’s home. She would ring and all Wambura had to say was OK. If they were not by the car in 20 minutes, she’d leave.
She hired two security guards to help push the car from the main road into a dirt road near Waitara’s home to avoid noise, lights and dust. Fiona then called Wambura “it’s time mama, bring her.” It was 1.15am and everyone in the other houses was fast asleep. Waitara and her mother had stayed awake in the darkness of their small house, waiting for the call and praying Fiona didn’t die in some horrible accident or got scared. When the call came, Waitara knew this would be the last time she saw her mother. Ultimately morning will come, and father will find out what they’ve done, and only hell knows what would happen to her. Waitara begged her mother to go with them. “No, my child, just make sure you have a good life. I’ll think of you everyday and pray for you.” She kissed her on both cheeks and ushered her into the car. She walked back to her house and waited.
Fiona and Waitara were never seen again. Wambura lives in the hope that one day her daughter will come back.