The night mother and I fled to an uncertain future was the beginning of the end of my life. We fled in the middle of the night while our employers slept. The dogs didn’t bark because they knew us. The night watchman was asleep. The security lights triggered – that wasn’t unusual because of the dogs and the night watchman. Finally, we were free on the other side of the iron gate. Little did I know that we were jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
The next few years were hard to say the least. We lived with my mother’s older brother.
“You should have come here when your husband died!” he scolded when mum narrated, discretionally, the horrors we’d endured. My uncle’s wife – aunt Jennifer – didn’t like us, in fact she hated us. She insisted I call her auntie Jen – for some bizarre reasons I kept calling her auntie Jane. This infuriated her to nosebleeds. I decided to stick with auntie Jennifer and face her wrath: unlike other grownups auntie Jennifer didn’t whip or smack or pinch or slap – her punishments were death sentences – she withheld food, predicted horrible futures, threatened, called names and cursed. Their children, too, loathed us. No amount of domestic servitude would dissuade them. They hated my guts because I did better than they did in school and uncle was pleased and didn’t hide it. His idea of inspiring them was to overly praise me and place me on a pedestal while diminishing them to brainless scruds.
“Why can’t you study hard like Olivia here.” He would say as he stroked my gravity defying hair. My cousins growled inwardly. I smiled awkwardly. The more he loved and praised me, the deeper they dug my grave in which to bury me. I liked school and working hard and doing well ensured uncle paid for my fees and mother never had to go through hell again. In return she worked like a horse in that household and farm.
One day uncle gave me some money to have my hair straightened and auntie Jen lost it.
“You cannot do that? How is she going to maintain that hair? She will need to go to the salon at least every 2 weeks! You can not afford her the same luxuries as your own children…..” All these was said in my presence. After a while I zoned out – a new coping mechanism I’d perfected ever since auntie decided to tear me to shred every time uncle praised me for doing well in school.
“She deserves a treat for progressing to national level schools math’s competition! And besides, she’s my niece! That’s as good as my daughter!” I was pleased uncle defended me, but I knew I’d pay for it in his absence. Auntie Jen had discovered new heights of depravity. I’m not sure if mother knew, I didn’t want to tell her because I worried she’d blame herself.
I continued thriving academically. At home life was somewhat different, so when I suggested to mother and uncle that I should go to boarding school, auntie Jen was livid. She’d be losing her metaphorical punching bag. I lasted one term, because mother and uncle died in a terrible accident. I doubt it was an accident. I came home for the funeral and never left. I never returned to school because auntie said money was not enough for everyone and she couldn’t choose between me and her ‘real’ children. As she said this, a chill went down my spine and I knew it would be a matter of time before I too met my maker. I was devastated and did the next best thing – I ran away.
Life on the streets was not easy. One day as I begged along Moi Avenue in Kenya’s sprawling capital, a man offered me a lot of money if I went home with him for a night. I knew what he wanted. Mother’s voice rang loud and clear in my head, “men are only after one thing.” Still from my selective ignorant vantage point I silenced mother and got into a taxi with the stranger. I stayed for several years – I had met the male version of auntie Jen. I couldn’t run anymore and if I was, I needed a permanent solution.
They say everything becomes a ritual once you peel off the layered stories around it. Everything I knew about relationships was about being dominated and submissive to survive. My mother had done a stupendous job of raising me to persevere, tolerate, surrender, ignore the pain and reduce myself to worthlessness, to self-loath and let everyone around me feel superior. When we lived with uncle, and auntie Jen was upset because of the praises I received mother told me to appease her by doing extra chores, or staying up later than everyone while cleaning, or getting up super early at the weekend and sweeping the entire compound. ‘Mother knows best’ I thought as I fought to keep my eyes open while cleaning the kitchen counters for the hundredth time. As an adult and living with my abusive and entitled other half, those words would resurface and remind me I was nothing, I had nothing and therefore it was ok to numb the pain to keep roof over my head and bread on the table. Until I couldn’t.
I had accepted my life conditions as realities of life that I had no control over – the proverbial graph had been drawn before I was born, another of mother’s favourite saying. I was destined to be miserable whether I like it not, and no matter what. My uncle had been my last lifeline but the cruel hand of death (or undetectable arsenic) had robbed me of him. His children flourished when he died – he left them a hefty inheritance and a mother who spoiled them. I realised now I only had me to find a way, or to fight back despite my upbringing. I was no Cinderella – there would be no knight in shining armour to rescue me – there was only me. Mother had taught me to be a victim (I don’t blame her because that was all she knew and had been), to lie down and take it.
My boyfriend’s parents visited. His mother was made of salt. His father had scary-red-eye predatory vibes. Her son would give any sane woman the creeps, but the parents…… they gave death stares and intimidation. “What was wrong in the world?” I screamed but only I could hear. I was done. I was done being the victim. I was done waiting for the light at the end of tunnel – the tunnel could have been closed for all I knew. I was done hoping. I was done waiting. I was done. So, when his parents suggested meeting my auntie (because she was the only adult relative I could think of), it was the last straw. ‘I’d sooner lick Nairobi city market’s dumpsters clean before having that woman as my dowry recipient!’ I thought as I contemplated my next move.
London’s calling …….