As she walked into the Fort Jesus that early Wednesday, an ocean breeze ballooning her abaya from the back, Suu’s heart hammered unpleasantly. Despite the years, she hadn’t shaken off that welling fear in anticipation of meeting someone new. The sky looked down on her, ripe yet undecided; to fall or not to fall, as she sliced through the air, meekly, towards the entrance. She wondered if she’d recognize her; whether the voice would match her appearance, as the telephone conversation from the previous day flit through her memory.
(Hello! Is this Sumeya I’m speaking to?), went the lady’s voice.
(Yes, this is she.)
(Oh hi, I’m Irene calling from the Wangari Maathai Foundation.)
Suu didn’t stifle her befuddlement, uttering a string of ‘Wows’ earning a chuckle from Irene. (Yes, and this is with regards to the ‘Unsung Heroes Campaign’ we’re running. Have you heard of it?)
(I …guess. I might have seen it making rounds in WhatsApp within the past month but didn’t pay much attention.)
(Oh, okay. I think we’ll need to work more on our reach next time. Anyways, I’m calling to congratulate you on being our third winner.)
(Yes, and I was wondering when we could set up an interview for a cover story on you and the remarkable work you’re doing in your community.)
As she remembered correctly, her mind was foggy throughout the call; however, Irene made some reassurances that made her agreeable, setting the interview for the following day at the Island dishes restaurant, inside the Fort Jesus. She’d never known there was a restaurant there. In fact, the idea of a restaurant inside a historical monument seemed absurd.
The really attractive twenty-something in her field of vision walking in without a doubt was Irene. Scribbling fiercely underneath the skylight, in the middle of the room. If the sun was out, she imagined it’d pour on her, gracefully in that mustard yellow dress.
When they became aware of each other’s presence, they exchanged rather a quizzical look before a familiarity set in and Irene was first to smile. She disentangled her legs and stood, pulling her dress down to somewhere above her knees. She walked over to her fiercely with her arms spread, heels stabbing the unfloored restaurant─ an effort to maintain the traditional Swahili authenticity.
She had one of those Hollywood librarian looks, her body ample, fitting perfectly in that dress. She engulfed her in it, squeezing her more than she was used to. Mechanically, Suu embraced her back, tentatively as a stranger.
“I love you so much,” Irene whispered, smiling through her voice and then quickly pulled back as if she recognized how strange that was and grabbed Suu by the shoulders.
Suu’s work centered around women. Hugs part of the job description. But the women she dealt with were unlike Irene. She met most of them broken and unhappy. When she hugged them, it was rather therapeutic, often ending up in tears that washed away whatever was ailing inside them. She didn’t remember the last time she hugged someone just because.
“I hope I’m not being too forward,” Irene said, “I just really love what you’re doing.” She dropped her hands and motioned her to sit on the chair facing hers as she went around the table.
“Just last night, as I was flying in, I was watching your talk on ‘engage’ and I must say, was moved to tears; the bluntness, the energy, just how matter-of-factly it all was. Even before the applause died down when you finished, I’d decided, Sumeya, I’m in love with you.”
There it was again. That word. Three times in the same minute. Suu could only grin and match a chorus line of thank yous.
They fingered through the menu talking about the trip and the weather before calling upon the waiter for their orders. Two cappuccino doubles to start them off. A short-lived silence settled on them.
“You’re kind of close-mouthed, aren’t you?” Irene said, tapping the table with her manicured nails.
“Well, it’s not often I’m called upon to talk about myself along with the work. Mostly it’s just the work. So, this is kind of new territory for me.”
Their eyes lingered a bit, Irene still tapping.
“So, what do you believe in Sumeya?” Irene said abruptly.
Suu sat up straight, a little bit thrown off. “Oh, we’re starting.”
“Relax,” said the chuckling Irene, “it’s not that serious. The point of this meeting is just to get to know you as a person. Your story, inclinations, what makes you who you are. We aim to bring out the best of you and leave out everything you’re not comfortable with. So just relax. For now, we’re two friends, having an honest conversation.”
Suu smiled and looked out through the window before pulling back in and placed her arms on the table.
The surface of the table was made of a dense glass, housing a minuscule version of the Fort Jesus. Irene mirrored Suu’s expressions and placed her arms inside hers. They both leaned in. Suu’s gaze firm and unwavering gripped Irene’s eyes.
“Well, what do you believe in then, friend?” Suu went.
Irene pursed her lips, looked down and then looked back up at her, “I believe in humility.” She said. “I believe humility is the passport to people’s hearts. It’s what has people presenting themselves at their most natural and best to you. That’s one belief I always carry with me.” She then sipped from her cup and licked her lips; gaze fixed on Suu’s growing smile. “So, what do you believe in Sumeya?”
“Honesty,” she finally said.
“I like honesty,” Irene said as she sat up straight. “We went over the basics yesterday, Darussalaam, the job and all. Which we’ll also get into in detail. I understand you used to be married. Let’s talk about that.”
Suu chuckled, “No foreplay, huh.”
I won’t be the last person who’s sceptical about telling their story from the middle. That obliterates important truths, sometimes painting villains out of… people. Though, yes. My perfectly boring childhood is a rather insignificant detail to what you flew in for. I find it important to however point out that I was brought in what you’d call a normal family. With my mum and dad, and Sameer, my brother, and we were happy. Call it fate how my life turned abruptly, when everything changed, turning me into the woman I am today.
It was during the days of the raging hormones, and I was infatuated by a boy. In love actually, that’s the word. Imagine that. You know, it’s one thing when boys your age take notice of you, boys do that all the time. But in my case, there was no such boy. I met a man. And when someone like that, someone who can well, take care of himself takes notice, you clench onto that with your molar teeth.
He came from a good family. With a good name. They had big businesses and, on the side, owned a couple of rickshaws operating here in Mombasa. Every evening, he’d wait for me outside Star of the sea, my old high school. I remember the first time it happened. I was in form 3 and after a long tiring day of campaigning for the school elections, I resorted to borrowing a bar of soap from Sheikha, my desk mate, to freshen up. We called her Sheikha Mpambe because she had a whole salon inside her desk. I washed my face, put a little Vaseline on my lips and as routine demanded, waited for a matatu at the stage like everybody else.
I imagine he saw me from the other side of the road and decided he couldn’t proceed until he talked to me; prompting him to make a bend at the Pandya round-about. Cause when the rickshaw pulled up in front of me, I could tell the move was calculated. He had marked me.
Speech is the most common form of witchcraft. He was charming I’ll give him that and I was foolish─ I still am. His words touched me, so sure of himself; I should have known his hands weren’t that far away. We danced back and forth and thus begun an epic courtship.
He came around so often that when he arrived my friends would tease me, “Ile tuktuk ya kwenu ishafika.” The red would rush to my cheeks noticeable from my adopted face-washing habit in the remains of the school hours. Sometimes I’d put on some red lipstick drawing in the lingering gaze of older men. And I liked it, Irene, I actually did. There was a reassurance about it. That I was beautiful. Some passer-by women would hand me rather disgusted looks. But I didn’t care.
He’d come and we’d ride off together, taking detours─ sometimes stopping for snacks along the way. Foolish I say, foolish. You get nothing for free in this world, not even affection, we pay for it all in instalments, however the giver demands it.
“So that says it all about your stand on love,” Irene said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I may, do you believe in love? Is there a place for it in your future?”
“As a matter of fact, Irene, contrary to where life has taken me, I bear no resentments. Love is… like the grass they say, and when it decides, whether stone or on iron rooftops, it just grows. So yeah, who knows what tidings the future comes with.”
The two women stared at each other: Irene with the understanding of the pain of a woman, Suu, awaiting the go-ahead to read from a script she’d read from a thousand times.
“Did he like, drug you?”
Suu stared into her cup and for a moment Irene felt her drifting away. She noticed the faint creases forming on her forehead as her hands fidgeted.
“If I’m honest, I can’t say,” Suu began, as she drifted back. “Because I remember it all. I felt it all. Every breath on my neck, every thrust, like a stab, a knife that was pushed inside me and drawn out, and he did it again and again and again.”
Irene closed her eyes, her face closing in like a dried grape.
You can’t really tell that that day you’ll be raped. It starts just like another day. You’ve lost the school election and are such a downer. Your manfriend hears of it and tries to cheer you up, making detours along the way. He fattens you with junk food even when you insist, you’re in no mood for anything. Soon, it’s just the two of you. He wraps his arm fatherly around your small shoulders, for comfort, and his other palm gently rests against your cheek. You feel something’s not right yet you do not withdraw. You do not yield either. If you were to tell this correctly, you’d say there was a numbness in you. You could feel what was coming but somehow your mind shut off. Slowly, his hand moves up your inner thigh as he gently rests your head on the grass. His arms then circling your lower stomach, and he breathes heavily just below your ear. You’re there, but somehow a spectator to it. Like that movie Get Out. You feel yourself screaming through the sieve of a thousand mirrors. He doesn’t hear you. But you could’ve sworn you fret when he rose and pulled a sachet from his back pocket. Prepared. He spreads your legs and mounts you. You squirm, clenching your lips, your hands digging into the soil, your eyes tight for the 73 seconds you counted feeling all his weight, piercing you. You see his face in flashes, in ecstasy and entitlement that he’d earned this. Twistedly, you think he has. As you lay there dying, starfish, he finishes and lies next to you, your body crumpled, eyes blurry, and tears falling sideways.
Tears seeped through Irene’s lashes and she pulled a cloth from her bag to wipe them.
“The world is unfair,” she said.
“It be like dat sometimes?” Suu shrugged.
“Can we skip to the part where you get justice for what that swine did to you?”
“What do you mean justice? We live in a country where how much power you yield is dependent on how much stuff you have. And they had stuff, so were basically untouchable.” Suu clicked, bobbing her head to the left, staring into her empty cup. “My mom found out. It’s one of those motherly instincts, I guess. She then told my dad who did not rest until he met the boy’s family and basically begged them to get us married,”
“What?” Irene jerked back on her seat, almost falling.
“Listen, Irene, these are the unwritten laws governing my society. Passed behind closed doors because we have names to protect. A woman has no say in this. Especially one like me, who’d disgraced the family name. So silently, I took it. I wed my high school sweetheart at 17 and stopped going to high school altogether. Became a cashier at one of my father in-law’s bookshops and I’d say my identity for the following 6 years was bound to that place.” She looked up and laughed as if to have recalled something funny. “You don’t keep a woman around books, around ideas and expect her not to have some of her own.” They then stared at each other, her and Irene. “My husband and I weren’t miserable but he couldn’t bring himself to look me in the eye. I doubt he could even describe what I looked like within those years. Our marriage was this chore, a formal one. We lived individual lives, me not asking about his whereabouts, he, unconcerned about mine. Sometimes he’d come home late, sometimes I wouldn’t see him for days. Those were actually the best days of my marriage. If you’d call what we had a marriage. Fear tied me to our bed. It leashed me to that house and when the day came and my mind was made, I decided that was it. ‘I cannot eat or sleep or stop my hands from shaking. As soon as the sun rises, I will leave this place.’ My in-laws fought against it, my parents threatened to cut ties, saying they won’t be pleased with me. Which is actually a big deal I tell you. But did I look back?”
“I moved to this one-bedroom apartment in Kisauni after the divorce and started a little obscure life of my own. With the little money I had, bought a freezer and sold juice and ice to get by. On weekends, I’d volunteer at the rehabilitation centre in Junda, and that is where I met Abdi. We hit it off right from the start; talked about our lives. He talked of Darussalaam, this community library he runs. He said he had a place for me there. Describing it he said, ‘It’s a library where people don’t read.’ And he’d laugh to himself like this old boy. But yeah, it’s not like I had many options, so I went to Darussalaam, saw it, loved it. The work they did with women and youth from Old Town. I knew I wanted to be a part of that, and thus I became.”
“So, one of the programs we run has to do with marriage counselling. Which doubles as giving options to women in broken or troubled marriages. Abdi says, ‘If a man raises his hand on you, what’s left for you is to walk away’ and I stand by that. This week, we’re starting this men’s program to define what a man is. We call it ‘Mwanamume Halisi’ With it, we hope to model a generation of men suit for their roles. Men who will actually be protectors for our women. And I’m just this one cog in that wheel that is Darussalaam.”
The two women smiled at each other.
“I’m guessing this is the part I tell you what to leave out.” Suu sat up straight, “Irene, I stopped running away from things, long back. I own everything that happened to me and will tell my story as is. I don’t aim to disparage anyone but I owe it to myself, to be honest. If it is the decency I’m supposed to give these people as human beings, I was entitled first to it. Just tell this story in whatever way you find convenient, no matter the casualties.”
Irene opened her notebook for the first time and stared into it, drained. “So, the last question I was to ask was: some of the core values Wangari Maathai stood for were empathy, compassion, and resilience, would you say you possess some of those qualities?”
They stared into each other’s eyes, breaking slowly into smiles, then laughed, tiredly.
When Suu left a scribbling Irene in the Island dishes restaurant, she felt calm, a satisfaction welling up in her. She stared at the walls of the fort Jesus which for years stood for the bondage of her people. She noticed the sun brushing the top of it, as it leaned against the sky. Noticed how the orange atop the walls was slowly being eaten away by a blackness. The walls, strong standing when brushed off would scrape off as pebbles of sand. She felt a beauty to it she didn’t find on the beaches of Mombasa. One that was temporary yet didn’t call any attention unto itself.