By Tashinga Wazara, Zimbabwe:
It was a hot day. The sweltering heat beat down on the earth with great, persistent intensity. She sat underneath a Baobab tree on the side of the road. She sat underneath that tree every single day and in the village, because of her, that Baobab tree became known as 'The Old Woman's Tree'. Nobody knew her name, or where she came from. Like the tree, all they knew was that she was there. Many stories had been told about her, most of them made up, either depicting her as a great hero or an evil villain. In spite of whatever story people had heard though, one thing was for sure; whenever you heard a story about her and then finally saw her, she never fit the story. In fact, she never fit any story.
I think it was because you couldn't tell from her countenance if she was happy or sad. At best, you knew she was alive. Looking at her, you could tell that she was once very beautiful but that age had taken its toll on her. The years had christened her once gorgeous face with wrinkles so defined one might think they were chiseled on her. Yet beneath her wrinkles lay a story that would mesmerize even the most obscure of people. I know this because after having lived in this village for years and having walked past her by the tree countless times, I did something crazy, something truly daring. In true kamikaze fashion I stopped by the tree and greeted her. She turned to me and nodded her head. I decided to sit down and when I sat down next to her I could tell she felt slightly uncomfortable, intruded upon; but I sat anyway and began talking to her.
I came back again the next day and did the same thing. And then the next day…and the next. In the beginning our chats were short but eventually we would talk for hours. The conversations we had were usually stories about her life and each time I would leave gob smacked and in awe. It is these conversations that I wish to share with you; conversations about an old woman and what lay beneath her wrinkles.
Beneath her wrinkles lay a time when she was 15 living with her aunt and her husband. Her father, who was an alcoholic, had left her and her mother when she was a baby. When she was 5 years old, her mother had fallen in love with a man who had told her that if she wanted him to marry her then she would have to get rid of her child because he wasn't going to look after someone else's child. She had then decided to give her daughter to her older sister to look after. When she left her daughter with her sister she had said to her, 'I know that you and your husband have failed to have any children. I have decided to give you my daughter so you can have a chance at being a mother. I will come and visit every fortnight.' She had then walked away and she never came back again.
Her aunt started looking after her and became her mother. She was a lovely woman and she would do everything for her. Her aunt's husband on the other hand was cold and aloof. He never spoke to her and would act as if she didn't exist. As she grew older she became very beautiful and everyone who met her would always commend her beauty. Her aunt's husband began to notice her beauty too and he would stare at her in ways that made her feel uncomfortable.
On her 15th birthday while her aunt was asleep, he walked into her room and told her he had a present for her. 'Happy birthday' he whispered as he forced himself on her. She tried to scream but he covered her face with a pillow and he raped her. As he left he said, 'If you ever tell anyone about this I promise you I will kill you. Anyway, I hope you liked your birthday present.'
A few months later she got really ill. She felt nauseous all the time and could not hold any food down. It got so bad that her aunt took her to the local clinic in the village. After a few tests, the doctor came back and told her aunt, 'Your daughter's not sick. What she is experiencing is her body's response to pregnancy. Your daughter is pregnant.' They were both shocked and sat in the clinic for another thirty minutes in silence. 'Your uncle will not like this at all little girl' her aunt said. 'Do you know who the father is?' she asked. She shook her head. There was no way she was going to tell her aunt that her husband had raped her and gotten her pregnant. 'Please don't tell him' she said and her aunt said, 'Don't worry about that. He's never going to find out. Tomorrow you are going to have an abortion'
That night she couldn't sleep. The thought of killing her baby terrified her yet at the same time she knew that she wouldn't be able to bear keeping the baby because it would always be a reminder of what had happened on her 15th birthday. What if the baby looked like him? Her aunt would put two and two together and she couldn't afford that. She was the only person in her life that really loved her.
The next day her aunt took her to a woman in the village who they used to call the 'baby killer'. She had probably carried out most of the abortions ever done in the village. When she got there, Baby Killer gave her a cup with a dark brown liquid for her to drink. It tasted really bitter and nasty and it was hard to take down. The Baby Killer then told her to sit down and let the potion work. After about an hour she felt a sharp pain in her stomach and began to roll round on the floor in pain. It was the worst pain she had ever felt, she said. Suddenly she felt a liquid flowing down her leg and she looked down and saw that it was blood.
As the blood flowed she felt a need to use the toilet and she went to the bathroom. She sat on the toilet and started pushing. It was painful and as she pushed she realized that whatever was coming out was coming out from her vagina. Suddenly something fell into the toilet and she turned round to look and she saw something that was dark and strange looking in the water. The Baby Killer walked in and said, 'That's your baby in there. It's done.' She then flushed it away.
She felt a strange but real sense of loss at that moment and that feeling followed her for the next few months. She would lie in her bed at night and cry herself to sleep. She felt terrible about what she had done. The fact that it had been necessary for her to do what she did meant nothing. It hurt her deeply and she felt like a murderer.
I asked her how that experience affected her life from then on and she said, 'Ever since then, I've never liked birthdays.'
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