I watch with admiration as Achieng sweeps her two-year-old daughter off her feet and places her on her bosom. She wets her forehead with kisses and whispers to her, ‘I love you.’ Her daughter stares blankly at her. Suddenly Achieng’s little one starts calling out for her daddy. She hasn’t seen him in a while. Achieng breaks down oblivious that her daughter is watching her. Her daughter clings to her blue apron wondering why her mother is crying. She is too young to understand anything. She didn’t even ask to be here in the first place. Achieng is just a mother who is doing the best she can to protect her little girl from her father. What if she can’t really do that?
We are at her salon, a business she recently started. Customers are yet to warm up to her. It’s been about three months since she began. A lady walks in and requests to have her hair blow-dried. She has long, thick hair. Achieng puts her daughter down and gets to work. She enjoys being a hairdresser, she tells me. After she is done with the customer, she settles on the chair beside me, picks her daughter and sits her on her lap. Her daughter calls out for daddy again. Achieng doesn’t know what to tell her little girl.
She is equally mixed up as her daughter. She doesn’t know how they got here, here at this shattered place, here at nothingness. She however feels that none of what happened is her fault. As far as she is concerned, the man she once dearly loved (maybe still loves dearly) buried her little hope for love under a lot of frustration. Maybe some time apart is what they need. He must want this to work as much as she does.
That night, the clouds seemed darker than usual. Water dropped from the dark clouds causing a heavy downpour. Jose had come home drunk. He was too drunk not even the heavy downpour could wash away the awful smell of the liquor. He wasn’t the drinking type until he started making money, a lot of money and forgot about his family. What started out as casual drinking soon became a habit. A habit Achieng loathed. Achieng was now the clue that held their family together. But not after that strange night. That night he laid his hands on her.
“Is that the reason you left him?” I ask Achieng.
“Jose was once a family man, he loved his three daughters. I was the envy of most women in my neighbourhood. They envied my ‘perfect’ life. My perfect husband and a present father who cared and provided for his kids. But I quickly became the gossip even among my friends. Friends I thought should have reached out to me when they noticed something different in me. But none did. Every time I walked in for our chamaa meetings, a deafening silence would follow. You know how people suddenly shush when they see you?”
I respond with a nod.
“That’s how they would act. And I stopped going for those chamaas. I was hurt that some people in the neighbourhood blamed me for not meeting my husband’s needs. As if they knew what his needs were. Some even labelled him ‘a joke of a man.’
That night, Jose returned home at 1 AM after clubbing with his friends. It’s a miracle he didn’t break anything in the house. Achieng was in deep sleep, snoring like a pig, her chest moving up and down. She was about seven months pregnant with her now, two-year-old daughter. She had tried sleeping on her left side but the baby’s kicks were too many. She repositioned herself and slept on her back instead. She let air in and out through her mouth as she did sometimes when she had a blocked nose, like that night. She dreamt of what her third child would be like. Perhaps she would resemble her daddy like her other two girls. Or maybe, the universe would conspire in her favour.
She thought she was dreaming when she suddenly heard a bang on the door. Jose was on top of his voice screaming to have the door opened for him. Achieng woke up and dragged her feet to the door. She was getting used to what was seemingly the order of every night.
“The next time you make me wait out here for more than three minutes… I will… Get out of my sight woman!” he yelled at her once she opened the door.
Achieng knew best to stick to her lane and so, she ignored him. She instead asked if she could bring him some food.
It was still raining outside. Jose’s clothes were wet. He had sat down on the two-seater couch by the window. He suddenly got up and walked to Achieng who was still standing by the door, and like a wounded beast, slapped her. He got hold of her hand and dragged her out in the heavy downpour.
“I am tired of you!”
The freezing wind smote their faces as Jose dragged his wife outside their compound. The neighbour’s dogs barked at them upon hearing movements of the two over the hedge. Achieng was too afraid to resist. If this was the night that death had come for her, she wanted to go peacefully. She held her belly with one arm while the other arm was in the grip of her insane husband.
“Why didn’t you scream or alert your neighbours?” I ask Achieng.
“I feared for my life. I feared for my baby. I thought that maybe he would change his mind if I cooperated with him though I didn’t know if he was going to kill me or just wanted me out of the house.”
The rain had ceased when they got to the nearby bush outside their compound. She was in her pyjamas and she was getting cold. Cold and desperate. There was a perimeter wall that surrounded the bush. Jose remembered seeing an opening on the opposite side. He dragged her on to the opposite side. It was muddy and her feet couldn’t move as fast as he wanted. He kept yelling at her to move fast.
They got to the small opening and Jose asked his wife to go through it. Achieng needed to do something before her husband did something he would regret. She used her feet to feel if there were stones she could pick and hit him with then run. She couldn’t feel any stones on the ground. It was too muddy.
Jose had tried to force her through the opening on the parameter wall when suddenly, his phone rang. One of the friends he had been out drinking with him was calling.
“Apparently his friend couldn’t get a cab to take him home. He called Jose to see if he could stay the night. I don’t like any of his friends but that call, was my saving grace”, Achieng says as she clasped her daughter who was now fast asleep on her lap.
“Do you think he was going to kill you that night?” I get curious.
“Maybe. Who knows?”
Jose let go of Achieng and demanded she doesn’t say a word to anyone. They walked back to the house their clothes wet as if they had been out swimming in them. When they got to the house, Achieng saw her firstborn daughter seated in the living room, crying. She had heard the chaos and came out looking for her. Achieng took her hand and led her back to her bedroom. Her second born was still asleep.
Jose’s friend came to their house shortly and without a word, Achieng left the drunk men in the living room and went to her bedroom. She changed her wet clothes and got in bed. She couldn’t sleep. She was deep in thought of what her husband might have done to her had his friend not called him. What if he actually killed her and her unborn baby? She recalled how a few weeks ago, Jose had come home drunk and beat her up leaving her with a cut on her forehead. She doesn’t remember what he hit her with. She just recalls her eldest daughter telling her she was bleeding then ran back to her room and started sobbing.
In the weeks that followed, Jose started sleeping out and never cared much for his family. One time he got into an accident Achieng thought he would not make it. She thought her husband cheating death would serve as a lesson and he’d quit drinking. She was wrong, he got worse.
A few months later she gave birth to her third child. Two years later, Jose was still the same- drinking, partying with friends who were not married. All the money he made from his business was spent on road trips with friends. Whenever he was home, it was to just take a shower, sometimes sleep but mostly take a shower and change into clean clothes. The fights became frequent and Achieng packed her clothes, took her girls, and moved in with her mother.
“I blame my mother for all this”, Achieng says.
“What has your mother got to do with anything?”
“If only my mother accorded me the support I needed after I got pregnant with my first child. If only she let me go back to college after months of begging her. If only she didn’t lock me out of the house every time I came home from meeting up with Jose. I would go spend the night at Jose’s place because my mother locked me out. That’s how I got pregnant. If only she didn’t take me to Uganda to hide me from the world because I got pregnant. If only she gave me a chance to right my wrongs.”
“What do you want for your girls?”
“I want them to make better choices. I want them to be better than me. But most importantly, I want to be a better mother for them.”
“What if Jose comes looking for his daughters one day? He is still their father.”
“Wait, I have never thought about that. He hasn’t called or come looking for us since I left.
“Yeah, but what if he did?”