The Memory Snatcher

August 8, 2017

 

There was once a house built out of memories and inside this house lived a woman called The Memory Snatcher. This woman was my Aunt Beydan. She was a sorceress and as a child I feared she would stalk me in my sleep and steal all my memories until I could no longer remember who I was.

 

She looked like a witch:

red, red hair,

dark, dark skin,

skin dry as bark,

bark bad as bite,

teeth chipped,

nails unclipped.

 

She smelt of camel milk and Camel cigarettes. I couldn’t stand her stench or her stare. She could walk into a room filled with joy and slash the niceness in half. So yes, I detested this Memory Snatcher. But in a small way I saved her life when I was a child. And she returned this favor when I needed it the most as an adult.

 

I

 

Memory Snatchers are demoniacs trapped between the past and the future, between the spirit world and the earth, belonging to themselves neither in soul nor sense. Those are Satan’s keepsakes.

 

Beydan’s soul was possessed by Satan. So my parents locked her up in the basement and shackled her to her bed. That’s when the beatings began.

 

Reader, reader, do not get it twisted. I repeat, do not get it twisted. Every fruit, whether ripe or rotten, has its roots. So too does this tale.

 

Before Beydan became a Memory Snatcher she was a Mother. Before she was a Mother she was a Wife and before she was a Wife she was her Father’s daughter. Her identity was not hers to keep. Her life was a splintered spine, leaves too loose: an illegible manuscript left languishing on the shelf.

 

She belonged to the men in her family and Satan was now one of them. These men waged war for the rights to her soul using her body as battlefield. In order to punish each other, in order to prove sovereignty over the other, they thrashed Beydan physically and psychically. Satan may have caged her soul but mortal man, armed with sticks and scripture, held her body ransom.

 

But how did this woman’s life come to this?

 

When Beydan was her Father’s daughter there was a slice of time that allowed for roaming. These roaming activities included a spell in secondary school. For her two older brothers education was a birthright. For Beydan education was a gift that came wrapped in bespoke paper, and she pursued her studies with the single-mindedness of a monk seeking the Divine. She inhaled Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Nawal El Saadawi’s Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. She was a spiky teenager rebelling against the soul-suck mirror reflected back at her in her mother’s blank stare, her question mark of a spine. Determined to beat the odds, she completed high school with distinction. But there was a caveat. Beydan was allowed to roam and educate herself – up to a point. On her eighteenth birthday her Father sat her down and held out his Rolexed wrist. Studded with crystals and flecks of diamond, the watch dazzled in the light. All Beydan could hear, however, was tick-tock-tick-tick-tick-tick -  time to neatly fold all her hard work, to parcel up her progress, send it to the attic in her subconscious and let dust gather on her dreams. There was a lump in her throat and a stopwatch in her womb.

 

Her Father introduced her to Rahim.

 

Rahim wore suede shoes, silk shirts. He was schooled in Homi Bhabha’s theories and spoke in sentences of exquisite gobbledygook.

 

RAHIM (glancing at BEYDAN’S jeans and T-shirt): As Bhabha might have noted, I feel your accoutrements represent the counterpressure of the diachrony of history.

 

BEYDAN: Que?

 

RAHIM: Your mimicry of western culture figuratively embodies an ironic compromise.

 

BEYDAN: Who is this Bhabha you speak of? Is he your father?

 

Despite his penchant for doublespeak, bwoy was sweet like money: relatively debonair, delicately textured hair, a lickle flavor to spare. Beydan accepted his proposal but nonetheless went into marriage with the mindset of someone facing hard time. On her wedding night, as Rahim spread her limbs and fucked her until her eyes rolled back, she placed her hennaed fingertips between his lips. That’s when the image of her body as machinery flashed into her mind. As Rahim worked her side-angles she hung suspended between dread and delight knowing that her body, her brain – every physical, sexual and cognitive capability – was an intricate machine with the capacity to surprise and appall. When she came she shoved Rahim’s face between her thighs and wrapped her legs around his neck until he had licked every inch of her, until he gasped for air. In that moment she understood his fragility and her own strength. She made him put in the work until it was time for breakfast, which she served with relish: poached eggs with salsa, pancakes with butter, spicy tea. She was now a Wife but she tweaked that role to cater to her own appetites.

 

This is where I come into the narrative.

 

When Beydan became pregnant I was sent off to help her around the house. It was the spring of ’98 and I was a buck-toothed thirteen-year-old with braids that made my skull resemble a giant onion. My Mother was ruthless when it came to my nappy roots, believing that coconut oil and a tenderly-wielded afro-pick were not enough to expedite appropriate follicular development. So she used muscle for the hustle, a technique that involved elbow grease on her part and much weeping on mine, resulting in braids so tight I couldn’t rest right.

 

I arrived at Beydan’s house during El Niño. The rains had flooded the streets of Nairobi, there were blackouts, and generators cranked noisily into the night. I feared Nairobi flies, tiny beetles that caused painful pustules when crushed against the skin. They had crawled onto the face of a classmate whilst he was asleep and he had come to school the next day bearing a close facial resemblance to Quasimodo. I started sleeping with towels wrapped around my face.

 

Nairobi flies and El Niño couldn’t fuck with Beydan’s flow. She was a woman galvanized by impending motherhood. As her body expanded so did her interior landscape. She imagined minarets, skyscrapers, entire cities being constructed inside her. Thighs thickened, belly became basketball-sized, buttocks deepened with dimples. Even her taste-buds shifted, and she held her tongue out for crushed ice, chalk, charcoal.

 

‘Aunt Beydan, stop eating my stationery!’ I shouted when I noticed her munching her way through my art materials.  ‘I can make you a sandwich if you’re that hungry.’

 

She stopped what she was doing and looked at me. I felt churlish for denying her my charcoal. I relinquished a stick and she relished it, black foam forming at the corners of her mouth. When she had devoured the charcoal she wiped her lips and said, ‘I never thought I would be happy about becoming a mother.’

 

‘Why?’ I asked.

 

‘I felt it was a trap. I wanted to go places, pursue a life unhampered by a husband or children. I never thought that being pregnant could give me such pleasure. I laugh at myself sometimes and I wonder if what I’m experiencing is not real happiness but a simulation of happiness.’

 

I took her hand. ‘What you’re feeling is real.’

 

‘Give me proof,’ she said with sudden urgency, and her nails bit into my palm.

 

I shook free of her grip, reached for her round belly and said, ‘Isn’t this proof?’  

 

Beydan gave birth while I was in biology class. My Mother called the school to let me know that the baby had been named Aisha after me. I skipped, hopped, skipped my way home.

 

I didn’t have any siblings. My Mother nearly died giving birth to me so my parents didn’t try for another child. My childhood consisted of reading, drawing and solo hopscotch, where my imagination had to make giant leaps. My mind was a pop-up book filled with forests, fortresses, dense-dense jungles: complex kingdoms, layer upon layer of imagined realities. In the outer world I was silent and solitary, but I had cultivated a textured, earth-deep interior life. 

 

I was ecstatic about having a younger cousin. The fact that we were namesakes was the icing on a multi-tiered cake. I begged my Father to take me to see Beydan and the baby.

 

‘Your Aunt is tired,’ he sighed. My Father was Beydan’s older Brother and he was protective of her.

 

‘Is she okay?’ I asked.

 

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ he said, but I didn’t believe him.

 

That night I heard my parents arguing.

 

‘What do you mean ‘she doesn’t even want to look at the baby’?’ shouted my Father.

 

‘I don’t know! All Beydan wants to do is sleep. Her breasts are full of milk but she doesn’t want to nurse. She just lies there dead-eyed.’

 

‘What is Rahim’s reaction?’

 

‘That fool is so caught up in his studies that he hasn’t noticed something is wrong,’ said my Mother. ‘I think we should bring her here.’

 

The next day Beydan and baby Aisha were brought to our house. When I saw Beydan I knew something horrific had happened. She had shape-shifted from an exuberant woman into someone who had warmed to the idea of death. Lips dry, bleary-eye: she got out of the car and bolted to my bedroom, visibly shaking. My Mother went and got the baby and brought her in. My parents looked concerned. I kept quiet.

 

HUUWAYE HUUWA

                                                                                  

Huuwaye, huuwa,                                                                                     

Hooyadaa majoogto,                                                                     

Kaba heedi ilatey,                                                                      

Kabax kabax aadey,                                                       

Geed seexataa mooye,                                            

Soo socotaana mooye,                                          

Sii socotaana mooye,           

Huuwaye huuwa.                                                                             

                

Sleep, sleep,

Your mother’s gone,

She’s taken her shoes,

She’s in a hurry somewhere,

Maybe she’s asleep under a tree,

Maybe she’s gone down the street,

Maybe she’ll come back down the street,

Sleep, sleep.

 

The katoi was colicky but Beydan didn’t care. My Mother fed the baby and tried to coax Beydan to hold her. Eventually Beydan held baby Aisha but she stared at her like she was a manifestation of deep funk. I couldn’t conk this.

The bambino was beautiful. She had inherited her Mother’s curls, toffee-brown complexion and china-doll eyes. My thirteen-year-old self couldn’t clock the reason for Beydan’s distress. Why did she hate her own baby?

 

One day my Mother left to go buy milk from the kiosk and told me to mind the baby. I sang ‘Huuwaaye, Huuwa’ to help baby Aisha fall sleep. Instead she screamed me down to a shaky mess. The door opened and Beydan entered my parents’ room, bags under each eye, dressed in tatty tie-dye. She grabbed the baby and fled the room. I ran after her.

 

‘Aunt Beydan, stop! Give her back to me,’ I shouted.

 

But Beydan ran barefoot down the street, clutching the screaming baby in her arms. I chased after her but she was too fast. She ran past the Ethiopian Church at the end of the street and out of my sight.

 

‘Somebody help me!’ I screamed. Two Ethiopian men came up to me and asked what had happened.

 

‘She’s kidnapped the baby!’ I cried. They ran off in the direction Beydan had headed and I followed them past the Yaya Centre, past the gas station, past the chokoras. We ran all the way down to Kilimani Primary School. When we got there we saw Beydan slumped at the roadside. She was crying and a crowd had gathered around her. I pushed through the crowd and found her rocking baby Aisha back and forth.

 

‘Aunt Beydan, give me the baby,’ I said. One of the Ethiopian men pried the infant from her grip. But something was wrong. The baby was no longer screaming or moving.

 

‘Give her to me,’ I told them, heart on tongue. The man shook his head.

 

‘You’re too young to see this,’ he said. But I saw. Her neck had snapped, eyelids half open, blank as china saucers. I screamed but I couldn’t hear my own voice. The entire scene was a horror flick on pause and I, like everyone else, was suspended in time. Someone mercifully sped the scene up and I found myself jump-cut in my bedroom, awakening from a bad dream. Except my family was wailing downstairs. I lay in bed wrapped in a bubble of disbelief, afraid to go downstairs, afraid to fall sleep. I blinked and the hours, the days, the weeks bled into one.

 

In that time, Beydan was divorced by Rahim, disowned by her parents.

In that time, Beydan became the spook that stalked us in our sleep – a Memory Snatcher.

In that time, Beydan was shackled to her bed, bruised into silence.

In that time, our home morphed into the house of murdered futures – the kind of place you flee from in order to escape the past.

In that time,

in that time,

in that time.

 

Beloved reader, even the darkest narrative offers a wedge of light that cuts through the grim. Let us go there.

 

Beydan was the madwoman in the basement. The beautiful architecture of her body – the minarets, skyscrapers and cities that had once sprouted within her crumbled, leaving her spirit buried in the debris. She was now unshackled but she didn’t want to talk or leave her room. The only time she came out was at midnight when everyone had gone to sleep. She would raid the fridge and take the food back to her bedroom. We lived under the same roof but we didn’t see her for four weeks.

 

One night I dreamt that baby Aisha was crying. When I sang to her the crying ceased. Pleased, I looked into her face to see if she had fallen asleep. But her eyes were flung open, neck boneless, small mouth calling for mama. I didn’t scream like I used to. Instead I shut her eyes and buried her under the mango tree in the backyard. The calm air, the casual way in which I had buried her in my sleep, startled me. I woke up with an amplified sense of self-awareness. What Beydan did was wrong but I no longer feared her. I no longer saw her as a Memory Snatcher – the thief of the memories I would have shared with my cousin – but as a troubled, traumatized woman who needed help.

 

I tiptoed into the kitchen for milk. I found Beydan bent over the fridge humming ‘Huuwaye Huuwa’ in a hoarse voice, knotted locks down to her buttocks. She was wearing a dirac, a transparent Somali dress, with no underwear. I could see her buttocks as she bent over the fridge. I knocked on the door.

 

She jumped up, dropping her gourd of camel milk. White goo splattered all over the linoleum. I rushed to help her but she stood there, frozen.

 

‘Auntie, I can see your boobs,’ I joked. She didn’t move. So I bent down and wiped the floor with a wet towel. I calibrated my movements so as not to scare her further.

 

‘Auntie, it’s only me,’ I said. ‘Sit down and I’ll make you an omelette.’

 

‘What kind of omelette?’ she asked.

 

‘Which kind rocks your world?’

 

‘Spanish.’

 

‘Hold tight. I got this.’

 

Working quiet-quiet so as not to wake my parents I made the omelette and served it to her. We sat at the table in silence. Scars snaked down her wrists, bottom lip bruised, cheekbones contused. My parents said that Beydan had been taught a lesson but I doubt they knew what the lesson was. What was the lesson? I was a child but I could see that my aunt was unwell and needed help.

 

After she had eaten I said, ‘I’ll come and see you after school tomorrow.’

 

‘Don’t make promises you’re too afraid to keep.’

 

‘I’m not afraid.’

 

‘Well, everybody else is.’

 

‘I’ll admit I was terrified of you at first,’ I said.

 

‘Pray tell, what changed your mind? Four weeks. Four weeks where I was being tortured in my own home. And you feel guilty now? Spare me the bullshit.’

 

‘Auntie, I’m only trying to help – ’

 

‘Do you know what would help?’ She stood up. ‘Me leaving this fucking country. That would be a real big help. Can you do that? Can you get me out of here?’

 

‘Well, no – ’

 

‘I thought not. Nabad galyo.’ She tossed her tissue into the trashcan and headed for the door.

 

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘I can’t help you leave Kenya but I can help you in other ways. I’m going to come and see you tomorrow and we’ll go from there.’

 

‘A domani, kid,’ was all she said before slinking off.

 

After school the next day I skipped, hopped, skipped my way home. My Mother was in the kitchen cooking dîner, and my Dad was in the living room scoping CNN. I sneaked off to the basement, blood pumping boom box-stylo. The basement used to be a storage unit and it smelt old, old, old like curdled milk with a film of mould. I knocked on the door. There was no response. I knocked again. Silenzio.

 

‘Aunt Beydan, it’s me, Aisha!’ I hissed. Haki nime shtuka.  I turned the handle and pushed the door open.

 

The first thing I noticed were the metal bars on the windows. Bar-split rays of sunlight filtered through the room. Flecks of dust shimmered. Greasy cutlery lay in every corner. Rusty handcuffs dangled from the metal frame of the bed. Beydan was huddled under her blanket, trembling. I gently shook her. She flinched.

 

‘Auntie, it’s only me,’ I said.

 

She looked petrified. ‘What do you want?’

 

‘Look,’ I said in my best bossy-pants voice. ‘We’re going to fix this room of yours and I’m not doing it alone. You take one side of the room and I take the other. We’ll be finished in no-time.’

 

‘I can’t do this, kid,’ she said in an exhausted voice.

 

‘We’re not only going to do this but I will personally wash your clothes, you will take a shower and I’ll bring you your dinner and a book to read.’

 

‘Why are you doing this?’ she asked.

 

‘Because you’re my family and I love you. Now let’s get this bad boy on the road.’

 

I wrapped a hijab round the handcuffs. I took the cutlery upstairs into the kitchen and scoured them. My Mother stared at me and said, ‘Tread carefully, young woman. Beydan is nacalad.’

 

‘No, she’s not,’ I said. ‘She just needs help but you don’t want to give it to her.’

 

‘If she hurts you, you cannot run to me.’

 

‘I won’t!’

 

Beydan chewed lock on her chores. After I harangued her, she grabbed the broom and started sweeping the floor. Initially, her movements were slow, sloppy, but she gradually gathered speed. I poured bleach into a bucket of boiling water and mopped the floor. We worked in silence but there was solace there. We opened the windows, took down the curtains, cleaned the floorboards. I gave her my favorite bedsheet – a beautiful floral print – and she made her bed with military precision.  I stole some incense from my Mother and lit it. The room smelt like a perfumery: honeysuckle and patchouli. I gave Beydan a copy of Sula and soap.

 

‘Have a shower, read this kitabu and I’ll be with you quick-time.’

 

She smiled for the first time in months. She looked beautiful.

 

I spent time with Beydan every day after school for the next three months. I borrowed books from the library and lent them to her. Initially she struggled with motivation. All she wanted to do was catch z’s but I coaxed her into playing card-games and Cluedo. We went for walks around the compound and watched weird mashups of Mexican telenovelas and Bollywood movies like The Rich Also Cry and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.

 

Gradually her mood shifted and she started embroidering her hands with henna. She started waking up early, going for morning jogs to Jamia Mosque. She dyed her roots a deep red, wore kohl and Karl Lagerfeld. Her alimony had kicked in so sista-soul had cake to spare. She started saving up. She bought crisp copies of wa Thiong’o, Woolf, Wilde.  She contributed to the household bills and chores. She took me out for sundaes every Sunday.

 

‘Have you heard the Strawberry Hill joke?’ I asked Beydan one Sunday over spoonfuls of sundae.

 

‘Enlighten me,’ she smiled.

 

‘Two boys were late to class one day. The first boy checks into class and the teacher asks him, ‘Why are you late?’ His response? ‘I was on top of Strawberry Hill.’ Then the second boy enters the classroom and the teacher, vexed, asks him, ‘And why are you late?’ ‘Chuh!’ the boy grins. ‘I was on top of Strawberry Hill.’ A little while later, a pretty-like-money chica checks into class and says she’s new to the school. The teacher asks her what her name is. The girl responds, ‘My name is Strawberry Hill.’’

 

Beydan chuckled at this.

 

‘It’s good to see you laugh,’ I said.

 

‘I have to.’

 

There was a beat.

 

‘I think about my baby a lot,’ said Beydan. ‘Sometimes I dream that I’m drowning in a river filled with dead babies. I need to see a shrink. That’s why I want to leave Nairobi. Head for London. Study, get my health in order.’ She discreetly lifted the back of her shirt revealing gash wounds that crisscrossed her spine. ‘They whipped me,’ she stated without sentiment, as if being whipped like a slave was a natural, everyday experience.

 

‘Why did you do it?’ I asked.

 

‘It was an accident. I was running like a madwoman that day. I thought I was holding a doll and not an infant. I don’t even know why I was running or where I was going. One minute she was screaming in my arms and the next she was silent. I ran too fast, too hard – ’

 

‘It’s okay.’

 

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s not. But I have to live with it. That’s why I need to leave Nairobi. London will be good for me.’

 

‘I’ll miss you,’ I said.

 

‘I’ll miss you too, kid. Who else is going to share coconut-caramel-triple-fudge sundaes and obscene jokes with me?’

 

I smiled and embraced her. Five months later and clicketty-click: she was gone.

 

II

 

From: beydan.ali@gmail.com

To: sweet_aisha@outlook.com

Subject: Greetings

Monday 28 June 2010 14.46

 

Aisha,

 

My sincere apologies for the long silence. There were many moments during the last ten years when I dreamt of you, moments when I visualized you progressing into adulthood with the joyful free-spiritedness you displayed as a child. I have often wondered whether you were happy and whether life has been as kind to you as you once were to me. Aisha, you cannot fathom how much your generosity as a child meant to me. Please do not misconstrue my long silence as ingratitude. There were a lot of things I just had to work through. But I am here now.

 

When I first arrived in London I was overwhelmed by the sprawling nature of the city, the strangeness of walking through a well-heeled suburb in South London before turning a corner into an impoverished, council estate-riddled neighborhood. Council estates are the British equivalent of slums.

 

I live in a council estate in a neighborhood called Peckham. Peckham used to be a hard-as-nails hood when I first arrived. My flat was burgled twice. I remember trudging off to the police station to file a report. The officer asked me what had been stolen. I said, my mobile phone and television. The officer asked for receipts for both items. I told him that I didn’t have receipts. The mobile phone was bought from the market and the telly was from a charity shop. The officer told me he couldn’t help me. I couldn’t rest for two months after that because I was petrified that robbers would come in while I was sleeping.

 

But the neighborhood has changed. There are now white city traders, bohemian art kids and yummy mummies all over the place. Diversity is important but the influx of moneyed, middle-class folks is driving the rent prices through the roof, and the impecunious, largely African community that has inhabited Peckham for decades are slowly moving out. It’s still a predominantly African neighborhood but pretty soon the area will become completely gentrified.

 

My beloved, what happened in Kenya destroyed something within me and I don’t know how to find my former self: the former self that must have been happy at some point. I see a therapist every week and in my sleep I time travel trying to relocate fragments of joyful memories. The only time that I can think of when I was genuinely happy were those few months we spent together playing cards and Cluedo, eating sundaes and laughing about Strawberry Hill. The connective tissue was you and I yearn to see you, to hear your cheeky jokes.

 

I am dating a Ghanaian man called Kobby. He’s tall with a gorgeous, boomerang-shaped smile and he has a tattoo of a spider’s web on his neck. Kobby is a lecturer in anthropology at South Bank University and he wants us to get married and have lots of children. But I am scared. I am scared of telling him about my past. When he first saw me naked he became enraged by the sight of my scarred body.

 

‘Who did this to you?’ he shouted. But I couldn’t tell him. I was afraid that if he knew the whole story he too would see me as a monster. My therapist tells me I have to be honest with him. I don’t know: it’s easier advice to give than to take. All I know is that this man is not afraid of touching my body when others in the past have run off in revulsion. He knows how to love me, how to nurture me. 

 

Please give me yours news. What have you been up to? How is life treating you?

 

Love,

 

Aunt Beydan 

 

From: sweet_aisha@outlook.com

To: beydan.ali@gmail.com

Subject: RE: Greetings

Tuesday 29 June 2010 10.32

 

Aunt Beydan!

 

What a joy it is to hear from you! I figured that life in London was so exciting you had forgotten all about me! I miss you a great deal and I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through a rough time at the moment. I have often wondered what happened to you and whether you were OK. Mum gives me your news every now and again but I’m always left yearning for more.

 

Nairobi has changed beyond recognition. There are these gorgeous condominiums that have been built all around our tiny house on Tigoni Road. Mum and Dad have sold that house and moved into an apartment on Jabavu Road. Dad is going through a mid-life crisis. He wants to pursue a career in Somali politics. Every middle-aged Somali man wants to work for the new Somali government. All these men are so power-hungry, nepotistic and over-zealous. They could give two shits about Somalia. They have a misplaced need for validation that they feel they can only achieve through a government position. So they go to Mogadishu for months on end and return home, have endless meetings at the Hilton that are just gas whilst the women have to bear the burden of supporting their families like they’re single parents.

 

That’s what’s happened to Mum. When she woke up to the fact that Dad was taking the piss she didn’t cuss him out like I would have done. Instead she did a teaching course and now works five days a week in a rooty-tooty preschool. Every day she comes home with sore feet but a huge smile is plastered on her face. For her, my Father’s absence has been liberating. She earns her own money, she drives her own car, she pays her bills on time and even helps me out with my tuition fees. Ever since she took this job I see her in a new light. Before, though I suppose I should be embarrassed to say this, she was a nebulous character whom I never paid much attention to. But now she’s this full-bodied, fascinating individual and I appreciate her. 

 

I’m studying English Literature at Kenyatta University. The course is rigorous and wonderful. I think what has amplified the student experience for me is Jamal. Not that finding a boyfriend is the be-all and end-all, but Aunt Beydan, you would like Jamal. He studies economics and he’s beautiful. It helps that he is Awesome with a capital A in bed! Somali brothers have got moves and this particular home-bwoy makes me feel delicious. He’s (what I like to call) the sweetness. I hope you get a chance to meet him soon.

 

Aunt Beydan, I know you’ve been through a great deal of struggle. But struggle will always happen. Kobby sounds like a stand-up guy. I think he will always see you for the remarkable human being that you are. All I’m saying is give him a chance. I think he’ll be supportive.

 

I love you. Please be good to yourself and keep writing to me.

 

Aisha xx

 

From: beydan.ali@gmail.com

To: sweet_aisha@outlook.com

Subject: RE: Greetings

Saturday 3 July 2010 11.41

 

My beloved Aisha,

 

I am proud of the woman you’ve become. You’re handling yourself with dignity and I admire you for it. In Somali daqan, honor, is the most powerful tool. It can be used to confer blessings or mete out punishment. For me, honor means the moral content of a person’s character. You’re an honorable individual and you will go far.

 

I would like to meet Jamal someday. He sounds wonderful and he’s lucky to have you. Your email inspired me to examine my own circumstances. I had forgotten what freedom felt like. So I spoke to Kobby last night. I cooked him dinner and told him everything. I told him about how I once suffered from postnatal depression and how my child died as a result of my actions. I told him how I got the scars on my body, how men of God whipped me because they believed I was possessed. I told him how I lost everything and how you helped me. I didn’t cry as I told him these things. I just shook from exhaustion. It was like I had been carrying the moon on my back and it rolled off as soon as the words tumbled out. When I finished speaking, Kobby simply held me and I shook and I shook and I shook. We lay in silence that night, him rocking me, until we both fell asleep.

 

I don’t know what the future holds. But for the first time in my life I’m optimistic about it.

 

Love always,

 

Aunt Beydan

 

From: sweet_aisha@outlook.com

To: beydan.ali@gmail.com

Subject: RE: Greetings

Monday 26 July 2010 10.40

 

Aunt Beydan,

 

I’m in awe of your resilience. Sometimes life flings daggers in our direction and we don’t know which way to swerve. But your triumph reminds me of the possibilities that lie ahead if we give up our ghosts. I’m glad you’ve given up yours and I hope you find some peace now.

 

Auntie, I’m struggling. I found out two days ago that I’m three weeks pregnant. I saw my life zig and zag inside my mind as I stared at the results of the pregnancy test. Mother has mellowed over the years but she will disown me if she learns the truth and I am afraid. I’m afraid of losing my family, I’m afraid of losing my place at the university that I can’t afford to pay for without my Mother’s help. Jamal wants us to get married quickly and for me to keep the baby. I’m not ready. He has my heart but I want to finish my education, forge an independent life before I seckle, so I can bring something of my own to the table.

 

I have an appointment at the Marie Stopes clinic on Monday. I want to terminate the pregnancy. It’s what I need to do, but I worry Jamal won’t forgive me, that he’ll see me as the killer of his baby. I wish I hadn’t told him. If I ever needed your support, it’s now. I could use some wisdom, a lickle empathy.

 

Love,

 

Aisha xx

 

From: beydan.ali@gmail.com

To: sweet_aisha@outlook.com

Subject: RE: Greetings

Monday 26 July 2010 13.12

 

My beloved Aisha,

 

We’ll sort this out in a cool, calm manner. My friend is a midwife. I’ll consult with her and come back to you within a week. It’s important that you trust me. Don’t do anything until I get back to you.

 

Love always,

 

Aunt Beydan

 

III

 

I lay on my bed and rubbed my belly. I felt the groove of my naval-ring, the way the sunlight made the stone gleam. I was nauseous by noon, checking my phone for signs of life. It had been six days and silenzio from Beydan’s side of the world. I had taken the week off from class and I had counted. I had counted the ways I could lose my way of life if I had this child. I was not ready for a bambino.

 

Mother was making maraq, a delicious broth, when the doorbell rang. She answered the door and shrieked. I grabbed my baseball bat and bolted down the hallway ready to bust some balls. And there she was, Beydan. I started crying from disbelief, joy, relief. She looked at me and grinned. Her bangs were the color of blueberries: smile was bright, lips painted black. She looked bomb. She wore a burnt orange scarf, skin-tight blue dress. We embraced, and in that moment I knew that somehow I would be fine.

 

‘Auntie, look at you!’ I said through snot and tears.

 

‘You like?’ she twirled. ‘I was going for a sexy sorceress vibe. Keep these bootleg muthafuckers mesmerized.’

 

I laughed.

 

 ‘Beydan, you look nice,’ said my Mother in a curt tone.

 

‘I feel great, Jamila,’ smiled Beydan, ignoring my Mother’s shadiness.

 

‘Good to see you doing well,’ said Mother before heading back into the kitchen.

 

‘Let me bring in your bags,’ I said. ‘Mum is making maraq.’

 

‘Excellent,’ said Beydan, ‘we’ll have some maraq and then you can fill me in on all your adventures. Sounds trés bon, non?’

 

‘Ah, mais oui.’

 

‘Come,’ she said. ‘Let’s go get our munch on.’

 

At the kitchen table Beydan massaged my scalp, soothed my mind. She was telling my mother how difficult it was to enter Kenya with her passport.

 

‘I have British documents,’ she was saying. ‘But the customs official harangued me like I was an illegal immigrant with counterfeit papers.’

 

My Mother sighed. ‘I’ve lived in this country for twenty plus years and I still get asked for ID when I’m walking down the street with my groceries. You’d think that things would have changed since the Nineties when we were all refugees. But now we have Somali-Kenyan members of parliament and it’s still the same nonsense.’

 

‘A lot of it has to do with messed-up economics,’ I said. ‘We can talk about corruption until we shell gold coins but corruption is not always linked to xenophobia. Kenyan police are paid so poorly that most of them struggle to feed their families. They know that Somalis will always have financial support from relatives abroad and they exploit that knowledge. There is a sense of misplaced resentment on their part. They work a strenuous job that pays the equivalent of a fanya-kazi’s salary. And yet here are these illegal immigrants who should technically be beggars but have decent homes and healthy incomes.’

 

‘Whose fault is that?’ said Beydan. ‘Should refugees be punished for being enterprising?’

 

‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘But the culture of corruption in Kenya is multi-tiered and it all comes down to a fucked-up economic model.’

 

‘So you’re saying I have to endure pure racial-profiling wankery in order to make some crooked cop feel cute about himself? I can’t swallow that mess.’

 

I chuckled.

 

‘Some of us have to live with this every day,’ said my Mother.

 

‘I’m not going to apologize for leaving Nairobi, Jamila,’ said Beydan. ‘You scarred me physically and psychologically and it has taken me years to rebuild my life.’

 

‘You murdered your baby!’ spat my Mother.

 

Beydan looked like she was about to cry. ‘I did kill my child and I have to live with that. But I have paid a hefty price and I’m not answerable to you.’

 

‘You think you can just waltz in here after all these years with your blue hair and clown getup and expect everything to be alright? I resent you, Beydan. I teach toddlers every day in my kindergarten and every day I’m reminded of the life your child could have had. Every day I relive the shit you put us through.’

 

‘Do you think I don’t?’

 

My Mother didn’t reply.

 

‘What do you want me to say to you?’ said Beydan.

 

‘I want you to repent to Allah,’ shouted my Mother. ‘I want you to show some semblance of morality and not parade in front of me like a crazed slapper after the evil you have committed.’

 

‘Jamila, you’re not my God,’ said Beydan. ‘I did something horrible when I was young because I was sick. You treated me worse than an animal as a result. I’ve made my peace with the past.’

 

And with that she got up and gracefully lifted her luggage. I reached to help her.

 

‘Aisha, don’t you dare walk out of this house with that woman!’ shouted my Mother.

 

‘I’m sorry, Mum, but Beydan is my Aunt and I love her,’ I said. ‘It really is that simple.’

 

And with that, Beydan and I walked out of the house and boarded a matatu headed for town. The minibus was embellished with graffiti images of dead musicians: Tupac Shakur, The Notorious B.I.G, Aaliyah and Left Eye of TLC. The passengers ogled Beydan like she had been beamed to earth by an interplanetary spaceship. She looked at me and held my hand.

 

 

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

 

I rested my head on her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry too.’

 

The rest of our journey was spent in comfortable silence.

 

At the hotel, we ordered sundaes for room service. Beydan polished hers off, licked the spoon. I struggled to finish mine and put down my spoon. ‘You want me to tell you that everything’s going to be fine, don’t you?’ she smiled.

 

‘Please.’

 

‘Everything is going to be fine. Do you know how I know this?’

 

‘School me.’

 

‘You’re strong, resilient and more in control of your life than you give yourself credit for. I’m not going to tell you whether to have an abortion or not. This is your body. Only you have the right to decide whether you want to keep this baby or not. What I can offer you is unfiltered love and support whatever you decide to do.’

 

I thought about the life that lay ahead of me. I thought about finishing my education, becoming a professor in literature, traveling the world. I thought about settling down, building a home of my own. I thought about raising my future children in an environment where they were wanted.

 

‘I can’t have a baby now,’ I said.

 

Beydan squeezed my hand. We were silent for a moment, soaking in the fact that when I visited the abortion clinic in the morning my life would change forever. I was unafraid of the consequences.

 

Beydan chuckled to herself.

 

‘What is it?’ I said.

 

‘A brilliant and brave young girl once told me a bawdy joke. Have you heard of it? It’s called the ‘Strawberry Hill Joke’ and I think you’ll like it.’

 

***

 

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