“Suffer suffer suffer suffer
Suffer for world
Na your fault be that
Me I say na your fault be that
Suffer suffer for world…”
The faint melody of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s famous song “Suffering and Smiling” goes on in the background of the dim lit room I share with two of my five siblings, my mama sleeps by the door to stop rodents from getting in. I wake up suddenly not from the mild disturbance but from the pains on the underside of my foot where rats gnawed on a few days ago. I rub against the sore area and wince as the foot of Nnenna, my older sister hits the wound as she stretches in her sleep. I watch the rats scamper to and fro, squashing one daring rat underneath my good foot as it tries to nibble on Nnenna’s foot. The quietness in the room soon supersedes the troubles of my mind and I gladly go where it takes me.
“Chy! Chy!”, I’m nudged awake by Nnenna.
“We need to get to the farm before papa wakes up. “
The journey to the farm is long and tiresome: no one says anything as the cocks crow and the grasshoppers chirp happily away. They do not suffer like us. Ikenna, my little brother sticks to my side like flies to the shit in our backyard.
Mama walks faster than we do, swinging her heavy cutlass — much larger than her tiny frame — left and right to clear a walking path for us. I’m lost in the thoughts of the forthcoming passage rites locally called “Mmemme Ịsa Arụ”. Although I’ve never participated in one: the gruesome rumours I heard scare me shitless.
My mama screamed pointing at the broken palm nut kernels lying before me. I stare at her, expecting the usual knock on the head and chastising but she looked away. Mama has been unable to look into my eyes since she knew about my first blood.
A few months ago, when I marked fourteen strokes on the clay wall, mama removed me from sleeping with my little siblings and placed me with my snobbish older sisters, Nnenna and Oluchi. She told them to take care of me; this was new because she never did so. When mama left, Nnenna drew me to lay between herself and Oluchi and I became the subject of their ridicule.
“Smallie, have you seen your first blood?”, Oluchi asked while struggling not to laugh.
“First blood? Sister what do you mean?”
They fell backwards laughing uncontrollably at my confusion.
“You know you are the prettiest of us all, Mama said that men have started to ask for your hand, say no: we must get married before you so that our family will not suffer. ”
I nodded quickly in affirmation. Nnenna rolled to one side of the thatch mat and brought out a roll of fresh palm fronds which she pushed into my palms.
“Every night before you sleep, put it there”
“Where sister?” I asked, raising my voice a little louder so they could hear me between their bouts of laughter.
“…between your legs, when it comes out red, that is your first blood. ”
I nodded and wondered how a palm frond will change its colour because of me. Am I as pretty as they say? Many thoughts clogged my befuddled mind but the lady in black who dances on the moon took me into the peaceful oblivion of sleep.
Three weeks after I moved in with my sisters, I wake up to a sharp pain piercing my lower belly and rub on it to ease the pain while trying to get up for chores, the stickiness between my thighs cannot be unnoticed. My eyes dart like a squirrel to the junction of my thighs to be greeted with wet redness. I feel dizzy.
Panicking, I reach between my legs and pull out the palm fronds from which dark red liquid drips. There is so much blood.
“Oluchi! Nnenna!”, I try to get up but the pain holds me captive. Mama rushes in instead and claps her hands together. Immediately, her knees collide with the floor and she looks up to the heavens with tears in her eyes, praying. I’m astounded as to why the intense bleeding does not scare her.
Mama ends her exhibition and clasps my face. I know that I will not die. She looks into my eyes and I can see her soul; there’s pain and another feeling akin to pride in them. I do not turn away from her morning breath as she kisses my forehead. “Welcome Chioma my beauty,” she gives me her good smile.
It seemed like ages since I sat on the stool after cleaning up with the scented wash soap mama gave me. I now realize why most girls in my age grade look like they wear napkins on some days: it is the blood napkin that protrudes their buttocks. I laugh out at the new idea but it’s cut short by the sharp pain in my belly. Mama said that I am not to touch any of the cooking utensils or eat from the house plates. I guess that the blood makes me unclean.
“Obi stop now, they will see us,” I lovingly chastise my childhood best friend with whom I fancy myself in love with as he kisses my cheeks.
“Chy, you worry too much hmm, nothing will happen.” He kisses my left cheek again and smiles.
“Take this.” He brings out some pieces of roasted bush meat and some strings of ola ukwu and hands it over to me. I jump on him, singing praises to show my appreciation.
“Alright, I will see you later. Start walking home, I’m behind you. Don’t fear the dark, I’m behind you my Chy.”
Obinna always had his way with words and they work like a charm on me. He was 21 strokes on the clay wall; stronger than all the men in his age grade and wealthy too. All the girls in our little village loved Obinna but he only looks at me. I smile again as I exchanged glances with the guardian who walks behind me, taking care to sashay a little slower. When he notices my effort, he tries to sniffle his laughter but it tears out of him like a babe during birth, his deep baritone laughter sends cold sweet shivers down from the tip of my hair through my spine to the back of my legs. I look behind me and watch him laugh at me.
I am not offended, his body is so well sculpted and muscular that each bout of laughter tightens his muscles, his body akin to ancient rocks and stones. I want to touch him.
He stops laughing and looks firmly into my eyes like he sees my soul through them. His eyes become dark and stony like a predator, I’ve never wanted to be a prey but I like the feeling. He walks up to me and fingers a thick lock of my hair, rubs it between his fingers and smiles. The endearing action causes the thing between my legs to ache pleasingly.
“My love, have you seen your first blood?”
I do not understand the fuss over my blood but I nod shyly at him.
“Yes, Obi”, I shakily walk towards him and plant a kiss on his cheek before dashing into my fathers compound as his laughter rings in my heart.
“Chy! Com-e-e here”, my papa calls from the backyard. Immense fear pins me to the spot.
“Who leave shit for backyard? You no know say dirty dey kill person?” He advances towards me with a switch in his hands. I dodge the first landing but not the second. The switch hits my thighs squarely, leaving a deep red welt in its wake which hurts almost immediately. I scream for my mama but I’m dealt with seven strokes before she appears from the front yard.
“You wan kill my child? No try am o!” She gathers me into her arms and hugs me, screaming in fluent pidgin at my illiterate father.
“E good as you talk say na your pikin, no be me get am, I no fine, you sef no fine but you born mami-water, from where na?!”
My mama hisses like a bellicose snake and walks off with me but not before dropping a statement bomb for him typical of the Eastern women.
“No go make money make your child perform the Isa arụ, you dey here dey drink, useless man!”
This statement made my father smile ever so sinisterly, he clasps his hand and laughs out loud.
“We go sell this one fast, she fine na, money go come.”
My mama hisses and mutters more foul words under her breath, I hear it and it comforts me. Mama would never sell me. If papa does, I will tell Obinna to buy me.
“Asa, Ify! What is Isa-aru and why is it so important to everybody?”, I ask my childhood best friends as we walk to the stream.
“Shhh! Don’t say it outside, my mama said I should not tell anybody but I saw my first blood and my passage rites is the next one” Asa, the talkative, narrates how she first bled while Ify keeps quiet, slowly walking with us.
“Ify! Have you seen yours?” I ask out loud, cutting Asa off.
“No!” her eyes fill with tears as she says so and I drop my bucket and hug her. “Maybe mine will come later, I do not know, my mama says that she saw hers later than her peers,” she manages to let out amidst tears.
“It will be fine, you will be fine,” I say in a bid to console her.
The three of us stand in a group hug for some time before we continue our journey. We do not stop talking about the rites, even though we know our thoughts are zilch and our fears are high, we never stopped believing that our mothers will be with us regardless.
It’s passage rites day! I can’t help the feeling of fear and anxiety that cleaves my tongue to the root of my mouth. My mama wraps me in a red cloth from top to bottom, stuffing me with so much food. I pester her with questions and expectations of the rites but she only stares at me for a short while, sighs and continues with the task of tying the cloth tightly. She holds my hand tight and kisses my forehead.
“Chy, to be woman dey hard for this world, but I know say you no go suffer,” she whispers as she kisses me again. “I go protect you, my pikin.”
I smile at the last sentence.
The entrance to the local herbalist’s hut is full today. This is in no small part due to the many young girls from my age grade lined up, wearing the same wrappers, looking from left to right with confused smiles on their faces. Each time my stare is caught by another girl, we nod and smile at each other. We don’t feel alone because we have each other and our mothers too.
An odd-looking woman with brown scanty hair and long nails emerges from the dark hut, chanting unfathomable words and shaking her large head. I close my eyes and hide behind my mama because the old woman frightens me.
All the girls are told to assemble. I run towards Asa who is chirping noisily to a timid girl with cropped hair.
Asa acknowledges me with a hug and a smile.
“What really happens now Asa? Are we going to be cut? Why did they cry after this ceremony? Why did some die?” I blurt out all at once to my parrot-mouthed friend. Asa laughs at me aloud before she clears her throat and says in one plain word. “Circumcision.”
I go to school sometimes when the schoolteacher comes. He tells us stories on the evils of female circumcision: how it destroys women.
“Asa! Are you sure? Why aren’t you panicking?” I ask, clearly distraught.
“Our mothers before us got circumcised, your sisters; Nnenna and Oluchi got it too. It is our way of life. No man, especially one like Obinna who loves our tradition will ever marry you. Think!” she concludes the chat with a long hiss while pointing to her head, indirectly insinuating that I am dumb.
Our mothers enter the dirty hut whose apex begins to emit thick smoke which brings tears to our eyes. One by one, child by child, I watch the young girls I danced with under the moonlight go in; never to return the same again. There are screams, terrible screams and afterwards a still silence and cheering noises from the mothers within the hut.
Asa is soon called in, she runs elatedly into the smoking hut without looking back at me. I hear her scream, it is deafening but short-lived. It is enough to make me run and run I do. I run through the bush paths, I do not care for the pains under my feet from the stones and sharp thorns. I just want to be anywhere but there. I hear my name being called behind me but it only makes me run faster and when I think I have gotten away, strong bloody hands grab my waist.
I fight, scratch and thrash around wildly and when I turn to behold my captor, it is the witch herbalist with foul breath. It smells of rotten fish and she only has one tooth.
She drags me to the hut and dumps me unceremoniously in the middle of the hut. My mama gives me a stern look and signals me to be still. I look around not because I want to, but because I am searching for hope. There is a earthen pot filled halfway with blood and other unfamiliar substances, raffia palms litter the floor. The smoke blinds me. The metallic stench in the room coupled with the congestion riles up my stomach and I vomit my breakfast on myself.
I can see my mama coming towards me in the company of two heavily built women. They grab me by both sides and my mama goes behind me and starts opening my wrapper. It is then that I realize that I have nowhere to run. I look behind me at my mama who has tears in her eyes and plead with mine. She isn’t going to help me out
of this. I struggle, scream and fight some more to no avail. I can do nothing to stop this evil from befalling me. I will become one of the many women before me.
The dirty witch advances towards me holding a rusty blade and a small bowl containing hot water. She chants some words which I cannot comprehend and smiles at me. I struggle, desperately trying to fight them off. The old witch signals to the women to hold me down firmly and she drops the bowl under me. The wet heat from the bowl reaches between my thighs and I cannot struggle anymore for fear of the hot water burning between my thighs.
Grabbing me between my thighs, the witch drags out a piece of me and slices it off. The pain that comes next is absolutely indescribable. Exposing her single tooth, she dangles my flesh, which was now dripping with blood in front of me while the woman behind me, women beside me and in front of me cheer. The witch looks at her messy job and frowns. No, the torment is not over for me. I am too weak to fight.
She signals to the women to hold me down again and she spreads my thighs. She brings against my bleeding sex, that cursed rusty blade which has been used to deprive women of that which was bestowed on them. She cuts me again, she cuts and cuts off more. The warmth I feel between my legs flows. I feel so dizzy I can’t t even scream.
She brings some local spine stem and sew my wounds. She tied my thighs together like a goat on an early Saturday morning. The women cheer like I have nothing to lose , like they rid me of an evil I am yet to even meet.
The “happy” women are pricing me for their sons like I am up for auction while I lie there faint, hearing sounds but feeling none. They carry me out through the back of the hut, my mama comes out and uses a wheel barrow to take me home. The ritual is over.
I open my eyes at nighttime to sounds from a goat bleating in the distance. My little brother, Ikenna, runs from my side shouting happily, “Mama come o! Chy don wake up o!”
I ask for what day it is and I’m shocked to hear it’s a week after the incident. I open the new wrapper used to cover me and look at my thighs, they have been untied. My mama comes by my side and feels my forehead, kissing it and hugging me. “I think say you no go make am, my pikin, abeg forgive me.”
She weeps while fondling my head in her tiny bosom, I always wondered how mama suckled all of us.
“Obinna don bring the things for you to marry am, I know say you dey happy but you go wait for three months make you go, you never heal proper,” she quickly says in pidgin.
I smile but it doesn’t reach my eyes. I roll over to the other side of the mat and think about what my life will be like if the stories I hear about mutilation is true. I stand up from my mat amidst pains to have my bath. One look at the painful reminder, one touch, refreshes my memory of the recent occurrence. The physical stitches have healed but not my heart. I still bleed from my heart.
It’s easier to walk few days after getting up. I go on a stroll to Asa’s compound, wincing with every step. I clash into Ify absentmindedly, her eyes are bloodshot and darkened, she clumsily apologises, avoiding my eyes.
“Ify! why are you crying? I told you that you will be fine.” I try to hug her and she bursts into tears.
“Okay, let us go to Asa’s house. She will make us laugh and feel better.” She looks at me and laughs bitterly, a few fresh tears wetting the dried path of the former which have formed white streaks on her cheeks.
The walk to Asa’s house is confusing, a once happy place is now plagued with moodiness and dullness. I rush into it, locating her room. Asa is lying on her bed rolled up and my heart suddenly stops thumping crazily. I thought something bad had happened. Whew!
In between sitting on the bed and trying to nudge Asa awake, her mother barges into the room and urges me out but she’s too late. Asa looks up at me, her lips are peeling and dark, her eyes; as yellow as the peel of tangerines and her breathing is shallow. One look at the rest of her anatomy shows that her wound is infected as creaky-red substances soak the white cloth beneath her thighs. She grabs my hand albeit weakly and smiles, it looks painful.
“You’re a strong woman Chy, pl-e-as-ee-e don’t let this happen to anyone again,” she cries out.
She coughs and coughs up more blood.
“Promise me Ch-yy-y.”, she croaks painfully before she finally gives up the ghost, staring into my eyes. I watch her spirit leave her body. Her mama takes me away. Asa is dead!
The walk back to my house tires me. I know I have no strength as each step becomes more painful. It could’ve been me, laying down there a pool of my own blood, gradually decomposing. A ten-minute journey turns into one of many hours and I get to my house at nightfall, reminding myself of the promise I made to Asa, one I intend to fulfill, no matter what.
I wake each new day for some months, sometimes from terrible nightmares. Asa’s last moments form a still motion picture in my mind: reminding me of my promise to her. I make a visit to the local clinic to talk to a senior health care officer but I am paid no heed. They are all negligent, although not ignorant of the mutilations going on in our community for years, but they’ve done nothing about it.
Surprisingly, they perform clinic-grade mutilations for the rich and elite people of the society. I don’t know where to go or who to run to. I walk through the ICU to find that several girls of my age dominate the room, most of them in the same condition as Asa, all having catheters attached to them. Seeing them gives me courage to fight.
I write letters; most of them with bad diction, pouring out my heart into them, pleading but days roll into weeks and months and I get no replies. I do not blame them, they did not have to watch their friend die because of the people’s fear of the “thing” between our legs.
It’s morning and hopefully a good day. I’m greeted by the fresh breeze and the wafting scent of various delicacies to be used in welcoming Obinna and his relatives to ask for my hand in marriage. I’m dressed in bridal clothing and my
hair is brushed until it reflects the sunlight. I am beautiful, well, except for the marks on my thighs, the scars and stitches on my womanhood and the pain in my heart.
Obinna soon arrives and the dowry is settled. I am his as he is mine. We depart amidst tears and hugs from my family members, my little brother clinging to my legs, weeping uncontrollably. I bribe him off my being with peppered snails and a promise to come visit him as soon as I get settled, which does the trick.
It’s nightfall, all my dreams shall come true and Obinna will finally make me his. He has been looking at me with that same hot stare for the past few hours. I do not understand this but my instincts tell me that Obinna will not harm me. He signals to me to go wash up and come into his hut.
As I scrub my skin clean, my hand brushes over where I was sewn together and I feel nothing. It sickens me.
Oiling my skin till it reflects light like a diamond, I tie my hair into a bun and enter into the hut meant for me and my husband. Obinna makes space for me to lay atop his chest. I listen to his heart beat, I try to merge them with mine and fail.
He rises and takes me with him.
“I’ll always protect you my wife,” he promises, tenderly caressing my cheek. I nod with mixed feelings. He reaches for my clothing and takes them off, discarding them and leaving me naked and ugly before him. He acknowledges my cut and smiles. He lays me down on his mat and produces a small dagger hidden under his pillow. I scream and jump up immediately but he laughs at my shock and coaxes me to open my legs and he cuts me again, this time, open to accommodate his length and width. The bulge in his shorts straining against the thin material towards me, fighting for freedom.
The deed is soon done and all I feel is the sting of pain and more pain where he cut me. I turn my back on him as he sings love songs in a bid to placate me. He understands what just happened, he knows what they took from me. He would not have fought for me if he had the chance. Many questions run through my mind, many unanswered but I am sure of one thing; what was stolen from me could never be returned.
So who will fight for me, for us, for all the women who would lose their bodies in the name of cleansing?
Who will help us get rid of this evil before it removes the “evil” we never even meet? Who will give us a choice?
Will I be cut open and sewn time and again to birth, to pleasure my husband, to even urinate properly?
What am I? Do I not have a choice? A right to my own body?
What am I? Sadly, I know the answer. In this time and place, I’ve never felt so ashamed of my sexuality.
I am a woman!
I wake up the next morning from dark dreams, applying salve on my physical wounds before joining the “women” aged 14-16 years going to the stream to get water for their various households. I narrate my story to them and tell them of my plans. They choose to stand by me and my courage to persist blooms. I walk with steady feet now, my nose in the air, my pot balanced perfectly on my head with the support of the scarred women behind me.
I ask myself who I am once more. The answer rings back proudly. Yes, I am a woman!