The Digo widow
Mrs. Mwanaidi Juma is seated in front of her rectangular makeshift hut. A few meters from her is a warm open hearth beside an old towering coconut tree. On her right there are three monster mango trees that allow the late afternoon sun rays to permeate and dance on her face.
Her new neighbor Mrs. Lulu Rashid has visited her for the first time. Standing on a snaking root of one of the mango trees, Lulu drinks tea from an old plastic cup as she listens keenly to her host.
“You see this tree,” Mwanaidi says, towards the gigantic coconut tree while shielding her eyes from the sunrays. “It was the first one we planted together in nineteen-eighty-two.”
It was the same year she wedded her late husband Juma Idi, a bubbly, lovely man from her native Digo tribe. This particular tree marked the embryonic foundation of their love. They planted it together on a day when the sky was threatening to break with rain and what made it memorable was that it was a blessing to have rained the same day they planted it. It grew to become a towering reminder of the love between two people who seemed to have been made ofr each other.
“He was strong both in brain and brawn,” Mwanaidi said, recollecting her late husband’s memory.
“Sometimes, when he climbed on top of the coconut tree, he used to drop one deliberately but near where I was seated, and then he’d laugh and call out to me saying, ‘Mwanaidi, kofi la mapenzi haliumizi!’ (A slap of love does not hurt).”
Mwanaidi is tall, slender with long hair that fell just below her shoulders. She was the apple of her late husband’s eye, a true product of love that was built at Ndo’oni village, a traditional coastal neighborhood on the outskirts of Kwale.
“The tree,” she says, a deafening silence following her downcast face. “Waswahili husema…,” she pauses once more, “…mpende akupandaye (Love the one who loves you).” She then looked up into the tree for the second time as if something up there reminded her of her late husband. Pimple-like beads of sweat line her forehead as her eyes become teary.
She turns her face away from Lulu and wiped the tears with her leso.. The pain of lost love was hard to get used to. Ever since her husband died, Mwanaidi and her two sons have been eking out a living in the most deplorable conditions. There are two things that always crossed her mind: the sudden manner in which her late husband departed and the uncertain future of their two young boys, Ali and Omari.
The nondescript huts in the village are far and fetched from one another, a canopy of coconut trees towering above the maize plantation, mango trees offering sporadic shades across the farms. When the bluish coastal sky is littered with clouds, Ndo’oni’s horizon gives an impression of a lively neighborhood, hence perfectly covering the abject poverty that thrives here.
As Mwanaidi wipes her tears, a lone figure approaching through the main gate catches her attention. It’s her last born son, Ali, who is kicking a plastic bottle, happy and unassuming of his tattered pants and torn shoes. He was just happy as he was in his own innocent boyish world. A half-open bag swings from his back. Mwanaidi makes a mental note to stich in the zipper later.
“Mama,” he said, running towards her, the plastic bottle completely forgotten. He poses, deeply looking into her sunken, teary eyes, trying even in his tender age to decipher the pain in them.
“How was your day?” she asks, smiling.
“Not bad,” he says. “Mwalimu said she wants to see you tomorrow.”
“Oh, I see. So you’ve been a bad boy, uh?” she asks, poking his ribs. “What, you beat up someone at school?”
“No, Mama,” he says. “Mwalimu said I was doing well in my studies. I don’t beat up other boys, Omar does,” he said, referring to his older brother who was turning into a bully. Mwanaidi understood it was just a teenage boy’s reaction to the loss of a parent and hoped it wouldn’t get out of hand.
Mwanaidi knew that the headmistress wanted to see in regards to the boys’ pending school fees. Her pleas to the local Member of Parliament about acquiring a bursary had gone unheeded. It had been a rough decade without the family’s breadwinner and she had not had it easy raising two boys on her own.
Ali proceeds to their hut and his mother follows him with a cup of tea and a plate of mahmari, she puts the tea on a fledgling wooden stool and quickly comes back to Lulu, a middle-aged plump woman from Malindi who has recently wedded a Digo man from Ndo’oni.
“How many years have you been raising the boys alone” Lulu asked
Before she answers, Mwanaidi’s attention rests on Lulu’s garb, a Swahili leso that wrapped around her waist, a mixture of yellow and blue strips forming a beautiful image of a rose flower. On the edge of the leso are blue highlights with six powerful Swahili worlds written in white;‘Penzi la mama tamu, haliishi hamu ( The sweetness of a mother’s love never ends). The words serve as a reminder that her role as a mother is eternal and reminds her that even in the absence of a patriarch, a mother’s role becomes twofold.
“Are you ok,” Lulu asks, having noticed that Mwanaidi had zoned out a bit.
“Yes of course, I am ok” she replied speaking in a polite low voice. “So, let me tell you, it has been thirteen terrible years since my husband died.”
Even after more than a decade, she still finds it hard to speak about her late husband. She takes a deep breath before continuing.
“Ali my last born was three months old when it happened,” she started, recollecting fragments from that fateful day that opened a new chapter in her life, that day that she became a widow and a single mother who had to shoulder the burden of raising a young family.
“He left us one Thursday morning never to return alive..”
The morning before he left, he had kissed and held her longer than usual. He always did that every other day but it was different this time.
“I escorted him up to a few meters out of our compound…”
The words that her husband spoke more than a decade ago are still fresh in her mind; they were too sweet to be forgotten, gentle and poignant. It was as if he meant to leave words that would still echo through the years
“He held me by the hsoulders and said, ‘darling, anything can happen in this world, take care of yourself and the boys. I’ll see you tomorrow, Insha-Allah’…,”
Her husband neither returned that day nor the next. It took two days for news to reach her that he had perished in a grisly road accident along the Mombasa-Malindi highway while heading to Shanzu to visit his uncle. While he had left home smiling and dressed smartly, he was brought back in a white shroud. The accident had wiped all remnants of a smile from his face.
“We shall all leave this world, one way or another,” Lulu said, patting Mwanaidi’s shoulder. Lulu understood her colleague’s struggle very well, having lost her husband five years earlier before getting married to her recent one, an aging man whom she had no love for. Her circumstances could not accord her such freedom of choice.
“Be patient, things will work out soon,” Lulu said. “Years will pass by quick enough and your sons will finish school and start assisting you.”
“Insha-Allah,” Mwanaidi says, sighing.
“I think you should marry again,” Lulu proposed with a shrug of her shoulders.
“What?” Mwanaidi asked, eyeing Lulu as if she had uttered the most unbelievable thing.
It is sunset in Nd’oni and while the two women had moments earlier been close to wrapping their talk, the proposal to remarry had opened a whole new chapter.
“What is the use? What would be the point of remarrying?” she asked apprehensively.
“It’s worth a thought,” Lulu says getting ready to leave. “Life is hard ofr a single woman. Think about it, for you and for the boys.”
The idea of marrying is alien to Mwanaidi’s disturbed mind. It had never crossed her attention even for once. The thought raises more questions than answers. Would she ever find it within herself to love another man the way she had loved Juma? Would the said man love her as much Juma did? What about the boys? They are in their teenage-hood, a very confusing stage of their lives. Would they accept another man in their house?
This questions plagued her mind all night, pushing away sleep. Much as she did not fully buy into the idea of getting married again, life had taken a toll on her and at times she had found herself doubtful whether she’s manage another month in that condition. In spite of Ali’s patience and apparent lack of complaints, she desired to see him with a new uniform at the beginning of every year, but as things were, she had to either decide on uniform or keeping them fed.
Then on one side, she craved ofr a masculine touch. It’s been over a decade since she was with a man, and she was only human. It was perhaps due to her constant struggles that her mind never dwelt much on men.
And Ndo’oni is an impoverished village, a forgotten hamlet deep in the North Coast. The absence of government is very evident. Several decades after Kenya’s independence, residents are grueling under devastating underdevelopment. Schools are neglected, water is still a scarce commodity, and healthcare is almost non-existent excerpt for one ill-equipped dispensary.
She wondered whether she would manage to see the boys through school in such an underprivileged community and whether the presence of another man in her life would make the journey any easier.
Morning creeps in and she wakes Ali up for the morning prayer as they prepare to go visit her eldest son Omari who was schooling in a sponsored orphanage. She was worried abot him; his teachers kept complaining that he was too aggressive with other boys especially when they questioned him about his father. The lack of a complete family was something shared in the orphanage but Omari always took offense at being questioned.
As she is busy sweeping her compound before leaving, pondering on what to do with Omari, a voice interrupts her thoughts.
“Mwanaidi, shikamoo!” a man greets her jovially. He is on a rickety bicycle, a bottle of water tied to one side and a shovel on the back seat. It was Hamisi Abedi, a close friend of her late husband. He is from a neighboring village.
“Marhaba, Hamisi” she answers, dropping her broom to approach the fence.
Hamisi is a true friend, a man who always stood for them and helped them in their farm. Since the death of her husband, Hamisi has been checking on regularly, and the boys, especially Ali, had taken to liking him a lot. It’s been a while since the last time he had visited.
“It has been long,” he says. “How are the boys doing?” he asks.
“Alhamdulillah, we can’t complain,” she says. Hamisi sets his bike near the gate, pulls a black bag from the seat and hands it to Mwanaidi.
“Some chapatis for you,” he says, smiling. “My wife made them for you,”
For the past one year, she had noticed a change in the way Hamisi was treating her. He had become more concerened and always appeared to worry a lot about her well-being. At times she cught him staring at her but never made anything from the sheepish grin he made when caught. Unbeknownst to her, Hamisi had developed strong feelings for her, and he had utilized his recent absence to try and come up with adequate words to express his feelings for her.
He had it all planned out, how he’s approach her and give her compelling reasons why he was attracted to her without seeming as if he was taking advantage of her situation and dependence on him. He had decided to take her in as his second wife and take care of her sons as if they were his own. He had planned to hold her hand as he proposed…
“Mwanaidi…I love you…I want you to become my wife!” he blurted out as soon as she had set the black bag on a stool.
She stared at him, wide-eyed.