By Nadweny Faith Naome, Uganda:
I have had all but a century’s existence on Earth, lived a life buoyed by pride and characterised by surrender to fate’s whims. My envious surrogate of a mother who only saw me as a sentimental object tried failingly to break my spirit but I am stronger than that and true to her word, my mother watches over me as she promised.
It was on 14th October 1972, that I found the true nature of Celine, my adoptive mother and how deep her hatred for me ran. That evening, for no particular reason I can spell, I was abnormally happy on my way from the garden. All of a sudden, a large man, with skin as black as coal, teeth stained from chewing tobacco leaves, a balding head and large round eyes stepped out from the secluded bushes by the dusty roadside on the way home. Shirt askew and pantaloons that didn’t fit quite well, he made a faint attempt to smile; a menacing smile it was. My nostrils twitched in protest when the pungent smell of liquor coming off him hit me in the face. The warning in my head echoed the terror in my heart but setting that aside, I managed a calm greeting.
He leered at me, his hungry eyes searched every part of my body.
He licked his lips and said, “Yu shod obeiyowaeldersunquestoningly.”
He smacked his lips together as if in preparation to devour a bountiful meal. He made a grab for me and I ducked out of his reach then tripped all over my feet.
He laughed that half crazed laugh and mumbled, ” De moyu try ta run, de raafa I wil mek it for yu. I av ta get mai mani. Promith ta mek it swift and it’ll be oba before yu knew it.”
As he drew nearer, fear held me in its thrall. I wanted to shout, I wanted to call out for help but I was numb with shock.
“Yowa Celine told I ta got my maniz worth,” he said. I thought of my step mother. Did she really hate me that much?
I silently muttered, “Mama watch over your little girl” as I made frantic attempts to fight him off. I tried to scream and he chocked down my breath with his palm. From within, the urge to fight rose as fierce as a lion’s roar and my teeth sank down hard into his heavy hand. When his screech of agony pierced the night, I pried free of his grip and connected my knee to his groin. He doubled over in pain and I took off as fast as my legs could carry me.
I made it home in one piece. That memory had forever seared itself on my mind and left me a trembling mass of nerves. I cried my heart out knowing that however much I wanted the whole world to know the devil I had for a step mother, it was my word against that of the so-called respected elder. Besides, I also feared condemning myself to a life of discrimination and segregation that was at the time characteristic of young girls who accused their elders of scheming against them. The truth has a funny way of tainting people’s innocence and preying upon their pride to disgrace them.
“You had better surface from wherever you are hiding you ungrateful louse!” step mother’s shout took me out of my reverie. I had been seated by the Nyambalabutonya tree, probably because I identified with its stature surviving all conditions, as I must survive my life born into servitude.
I am Muryagyi Jacinta infamously known as Muryagyi of the sombre smile for it is said that there was something about me that struck a chord in almost everybody’s heart. I high tailed it out of my hideout lest she thought up more ways of punishing me for being tardy. My welcome was as usual, slaps from softened hands to my already abused body and battered spirit.
She jeered at me and my mother silently rebelled, “Yes! She is jealous of you – of the grace in your walk, the perseverance from within and the beauty inherent.”
Celine and her above-reproach-daughters could never be content with their appearances for as long as I was nearby. Suzanna and Sarah were the laziest girls, whose work was to act lofty and talk about time wasting topics. She always beamed when talking about her son, the major accomplishment in her life. A slap landed on my cheek to accompany her order that I fetch firewood and do all the other chores while her daughters only waited for meal time in order to satisfy their healthy appetites.
I was born to Kankane Patrick, a man to whom nothing else mattered but his position as Village Chief. His one life’s goal was making as many embittered enemies as the sands of the beach and in this, he was as successful as the sunrise each morning. He taught his son to be silently commanding around the eyes so as to follow in his footsteps.
I was the outcast, the one child in all that bore little resemblance to him but for the eyes I possessed. I was the spitting image of my Munyankole mother. I was an addition to his swiftly rising number of children from different mothers yet the least wanted. Is there any justice in not being wanted by your own flesh and blood?
It now seems that Celine had his blessing to turn me into a slave because he never seemed to mind at all. For each tear I shed for the awakening kicks at 4:00 am and the times I was chased from the dining table, with an excuse as falsely feeble as not having washed my hands, or the animosity directed at me for suggesting that I start school, he seemed blinded by the worm that is love yet it appeared to be witchcraft in my eyes. To my father, I was a misbegotten memory thus he was dead to my heart and his name ceased to cross my lips.
His societal position made him popular and Celine only rejoiced in her new found graces for she had been but a farmer’s daughter before he took any interest in her. She enjoyed playing hostess and found great pleasure in parading me around in decently styled clothes for the benefit of the guests symbolizing that I was a big part of the family – an accepted member of her loving family. In the presence of all those guests, the show extended to a hug as she did with her own daughters and threatened violence if I didn’t smile that captivating smile to reassure everyone that she was a kind and caring mother.
In the dark evenings, in my usual resting place near the fireplace, with mosquitoes for companions, I wished for death to carry me to my late mother’s embrace but all I heard was the echo of her tearful voice telling me to hold fast to my dreams and to never forget that there is sunshine after rain.
Before the restless sleep that always claimed my exhausted body took control, I only wished for whatever was done to me in the darkness and behind closed doors to one day come out into the light after all, “A leopard doesn’t change its spots,” and neither did Celine.
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