Once upon a time Maimuna would have done anything Baba wanted without batting an eyelid. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago.
These days my sister stares at our father with askance when he asks her to do even the smallest things, things she would have once jumped with joy to do. Things like bathing me.
“Manu, I want the yellow soap today” I would say back when Maimuna was Manu. My mother says ‘Manu’ was my first word. My baby tongue had been unable to wrap itself around the syllables of the name ‘Maimuna’ and so I had renamed my sister Manu. The name stuck and everyone soon forgot she was ever a Maimuna. Except my mother who remembered every once in a while when she misbehaved.
Evening baths for me usually happened in front of our home in Sabon Gida; me, naked in our mother’s big steel basin, my sister on solid red earth, holding a bowl that contained sponge and soap. Everyone else used the outhouse behind the house but my nakedness was not the kind of nakedness that theirs were.
Before Manu started ‘becoming a woman’, she too had splashed in the steel basin with me. But then one day Mama had decided that it was time for Manu to use the outhouse like all the older people. I hoped to never grow old if it meant having to forsake evening baths outside, where I can watch the chickens as they come home to roost and or the departure of the sun as it accepted defeat from the moon.
“Okay,” Manu usually responded to my requests, “But you must promise not to splash around so much and wet my wrapper. I am not ready to change clothes again this night.”
Sometimes she would sing to me as she bathed me. I especially liked it when she sang as she washed my head. I had to close my eyes tightly to prevent soap from getting into it, and Manu’s voice was the only thing that reminded me that light was just a few seconds away.
Manu has not bathed me in more than a month now; 43 days to be exact. I know because I have been counting and I am the best in my mathematics class.
The last time was the evening of the day Mamana went to stay with Aunty Jemila who had just had twins. I am yet to see the twins but Mamana tells me they are so big I would have trouble carrying one much less two at once.
I disagreed with Mamana when she said that but only in my head. I am an obedient and respectful child, just as our parents have brought us up to be, just like Manu once was.
I don’t know what went wrong with Manu, what made her stop wanthing to bathe me or play with me. She won’t even allow me run around naked like I used to do.
“You stupid child! Put on your clothes before some Bansa grabs you to rape.” She spat at me one evening as I walked around naked in our compound looking for who to give me my evening bath. I had never seen that look on Manu before. My Manu had been beautiful and kind, just like Mamana. But this person seemed nothing like the Manu I knew. It was a look of repulsion, like my 7 year old naked body was everything that was wrong with the world. It scared me so much that I ran naked to my friend, Amina’s, next door.
I didn’t know what rape was but Amina told me. Amina is older than me by one year but she puts on airs and graces of a 50 year old woman. I call her “Aminatu-know” behind her back.
“It is when a man puts his something in your something by force.”
“But isn’t it always by force?” I asked her because I had seen my father’s horses do what Amina described and it seemed forceful to me then
Amina shrugged and took me by the hand to her mother who bathed me instead.
Mamana pretends not to see that there is something wrong with Manu. Maybe she is dying. When people are dying, everyone pretends not to see until they are dead and then the wailing begins. I wish they wailed while the dead people were alive so they would know how much they were loved, how much nobody wanted them to die.
I caught Manu weeping last night. I didn’t know what to do so I gave her the cloth doll Nana, our grandmother made me when I was only a little littler than this.
She took it and muttered ‘Mugode Safi’. It had been long since she called me by my pet name and hearing it made me feel all warm inside, like everything was going to be okay. For the first time since I can remember, I slept without my doll but Manu’s thank you more than made up for it.
Mamana took over from Manu and started bathing me in the evenings. I hate it when Mamana bathes me. She doesn’t sing like Manu would have done and the few moments I have to close my eyes are terrible with monsters lurking at every corner.
One night after we have all had dinner, my eyelids start to close rapidly. This is why I hear what was not meant for my ears.
“Shefiu, Maimuna has taken in,” My mother announces to my father.
There is a silence there that doesn’t belong to my usually garrulous father.
“Did you hear me Shefiu? Manu is pregnant! What are we going to do?”
Those things Amina calls goose pimples attack my body at the word ‘pregnant’ and I am suddenly very cold.
It all comes back to me then. The night my mother had gone to Aunty Jemila’s, my father had gone drinking with his friend, Mallam Lafiya. Sometime during that same night, I had heard Manu scream from her room. But it had only been once and I was sleepy.
“If any man ever pulls any of you girls to a place where there is no one else, I want you to scream and continue screaming until help comes. Don’t ever stop screaming until help comes. You hear me Maimuna? You hear me Safiya?” My mother had told us the night the village hunters brought home a dead girl instead of antelope meat.
But Manu had screamed once and only once. If she had tried one more time, maybe I would have run to her aid. Maybe I would have joined her in screaming too and my father would have woken up from his stupor to stop his friend from raping his daughter. Maybe if someone had taught me to listen out for silent screams, I would have woken up to help my sister. Maybe many things.
When I wake up the next day, Baba is gone and so is Manu. Her to Aunty Jemila’s, three villages away where her shame could be better hid. We never see Manu again. After she has the baby, she runs away to a faraway city. Once in a while, a traveler arrives with packages from my sister. They tell us she is an apprentice to nice woman with no children, who sells textiles in big shops. Mama writes to her but she never replies. The only proof we have of Maimuna’s existence are our memories, Aminu, her son, and the gifts she sends.
I see Baba often enough however, when Mama is too tired to make the trip and sends me and Aminu, with food for Baba and money for the prison warden where Baba has been since the night he murdered Mallam Lafiya.
I no longer take baths in my mother’s steel basin. Maimuna was 12 when she was upgraded to the outhouse behind the house. I am only 9; a million years older than 7.
Song of the day: Bethel Music – Steady Heart