Did I ever tell you the story of the oil, Majuto?
I don’t think so. I was too young to know about sex. Too young to know about right and wrong. Now, though, I am able to reflect. I can even write about it in a letter to you, my brother. Mama never meant to hurt me. Just like she never meant to hurt you when she called you Majuto, regret. It was all a way of life for her, and she knew no different.

[private]I was seven years old. I was outside Mama’s hut with the clothes that I had carried up from the stream. Piles of clothes, which I had wrapped in such a tight bundle it was hard like one of the footballs you used to make.

I took them from my head and began to unfold them, ready to lie in the hot African sun to dry.
Mama called from inside.
“Leave the clothes, I’ll do them. Go to the shop to buy some oil.”
I went inside her hut and she was bent over a cooking pot, scrubbing it clean. The folds of her kanga were draped like curtains over her round bottom. She craned her neck to look at me, and extended a soapy hand. I took the empty bottle and the grubby money.
“That’s enough for the oil. Now hurry,” she said.
Mama’s frown made me restless. An unsettling feeling in my stomach, as though nothing would ever be right. I didn’t know why she wasn’t happy. I assumed I must be lazy, too slow. I ran to the store, clenching the note in my fist. The stones hurt my feet, but I ignored them. To wear my sandals that were too big and with a broken strap would have delayed me. The sun was hot on my head and there was no breeze. I felt the sweat on my back, running down my breastless chest.

At the store, I waited in line, then I handed in my plastic bottle to be filled. It came back to me, grease slopping around the rim and down the sides, and I twisted the cap and held it with both hands as I walked away. I felt grown-up, making stately, exaggerated steps over the uneven ground. I kept my face solemn, not responding to the shouts of the other children around me.

I was almost back at the hut when I stumbled. It was a loose stone on the path, which caught my big toe. I went over in an arc, my nose over my knees. Before I knew it, the can was on the ground, the cap was off, and there was the glug glug of oil on the red earth forming a dark trickling stream like urine. I picked up the can, but it was already empty. The oil was gone. The tears stung in my eyes and I lifted my hand to my forehead. It could just have well have been liquid gold running away from me. I feared Mama’s reaction; I feared her scolding look, and my guilt; the hardship we’d all have to go through now. But I wasn’t prepared for the worst.
“Without mafuta, I can’t cook,” Mama said.
I hung my head and mumbled an apology.
Mama’s face looked tired as well as angry. It was a quiet rage, with few words that were cold in my heart.
“You must do what you need to do to get the money,” she said.

Now, Majuto, I don’t remember what I felt, as I went to the bar in the late afternoon after my chores, and talked to Mama Barbara, who wore the purple kanga and smelled of peanuts, who found the man with the fat belly and the wonky smile and rancid breath. I don’t remember if my feelings were muted by the sense of duty, or if I was terrified; if my limbs and lips shook and the hairs stood upward and stiff on my arms, as I watched the sun go down behind the hill and the dark night hit me, sharp.

What I do remember is the cold of the stone wall on my back, as the man with the belly pushed himself into me, heaving and puffing, his sweaty chunky hands clutching my frail child’s shoulders. And I remember that I had to ask him, afterwards, in a tiny voice, for the money, after he rammed my shoulders down and peeled his flesh away, tutting, saying that he’d expected better with a virgin.
I never had to do it again, because I won a rare grant to go to school, but some of my friends weren’t so lucky. They had to do what I did, not once, but many times. They had to be shoved against grimy walls or on bug-ridden mattresses; touched by clumsy, rough fingers, so that they could sit in lessons and learn how to think and reason, and turn knowledge into women’s wisdom. We all knew about our suffering, but our education let us talk about it. This is what the last generation never had. This is what Mama never had. But you, Majuto, you would have had this opportunity. You could have been a man who was kind; who respected women and didn’t beat his wife or exploit young girls for sex. The world needs people like you for it to change.

But you’re gone, Majuto; my brother is gone. A nine year-old boy vanished and never came back. When you disappeared, Mama cried for three days. Her hair was unbrushed and her face swollen, and she stayed inside her hut. The men were out for a day and a night, searching along the stream where the children had seen you last. They came back, heavy hands stiff by their sides and fists clenched. For two days, everyone talked in hush hush whispers around the huts, so as not to upset Mama more. I was the only one who went into her hut to take her beans and rice, which she chewed over for many hours; or sweet tea, which she gulped like a thirsty camel in the desert.

After Mama’s mourning was done, the switch in her behaviour was sudden, like the change in the weather from the dry to the rain. She put on her best clothes and sat outside on a bench, greeting all who came by and letting the wind freshen her skin.

We never forgot you, but there were chores to do, animals to tend and babies to feed. We have to move on, Majuto, we all have to move on.[/private]

Laura Nelson is a science writer and journalist by profession, and has published articles in New Scientist magazine and the Guardian, among others. She also has a short fiction story published in Nature magazine.


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