SHE-HUSBAND By Muthoni wa Gichuru


They have come, led by Gachibi, the man who had carried the twenty cows to our home, stuffed inside his socks and tied with rubber bands against his legs. There is Thige pushing the squeaking gate, the one who had followed with the njoohi in the breast pocket of a military coat. My father had received the cows, wetting his fingers and separating them in twenty heaps, then counting them again, making sure they were ten in each pile.
“Two hundred thousand Kenya shillings, I call them twenty cows,” my father had said and spat on his chest. Tutu tutututu, “May they have sons, may they have daughters.” The other elders also wet their chests.
Through my bedroom window I had seen the gleam in my father’s eyes even though the marriage had been vehemently opposed by the church in which my father was a church elder. He had asked for twenty cows instead of the normal fifteen and my husband had obliged him. Thige had given Father the envelope with Njoohi.
My father wet his finger again and counted ten thousand shillings. “I call them two gourds of beer,” he had said. Tuutu tutu tutu, “May their fire never go off. Gakenia! Bring your new husband a calabash of uji.”
My belly was just beginning to strain the waistband of my skirt and my feet could not skim the ground as quickly as my father could’ve wanted. His walking cane caught me just above the ankles and I stumbled and almost fell.
“Enough!” I heard a shout and looked up and met eyes softened with sympathy. For that I would have followed my husband like a faithful dog. My own mother had never stood up for me although perhaps she too was cowed by the man who would never bend his will.
A man who stamped his authority by the whack of his walking stick or kimanyooko, a back-handed slap that caught one from the ear to the chin.
My husband sits with the elders, a hunched figure not quite comfortable on the seat of patriarchal power like the ones who were born into it. Chege, the man who has caused discord in my home sits in front of the elders.
His thin buttocks only occupy the edge of the seat, an insubstantial figure, the only substance of him his height, which he has collapsed into a C. He sits with his hands clasped together in his lap and I find myself staring at those long fingers with a tapering tip. My desire is an elastic band.
When Chege is out of my sight, it shrinks and I can think clearly, knowing Chege and I are supposed to be transient. It was easy with other men even before I got married. A fumbling in the dark halfway undressed, a bumping of hip against hip, touching of a leg here and there and then a sandwich of thighs.
A few groans and moans and then release and a quick separation. Chege, however, has become an itch that needs to be constantly scratched.
The mind has the ability to lie to itself, bending to our will. I must have known from the moment Chege first touched me. When he put his hands under my skirt, past my knees and up where the flesh of my thighs meet, I felt I was being peeled.
It was as if he was working the folds with his fingers. Heat suffused my body, his fingers trailing tendrils of fire. I wanted…Oh I wanted to…his fingers were inching up, slowly up and I felt myself opening up, like the petals of a flower. Later on when Chege pulled down my underwear leaving me naked from the waist down I felt raw, my senses like the thin layer of a healing wound.
When I go to him, I spend the night instead of going back to my husband. When he finds me in the shamba gathering the crop, I leave the ear of the maize half peeled and the cob still attached to the maize stalk and go into the bushes with him. He plays me like a nyatiti and I emit a sorrowful moan that carries to the village path. His long fingers, as supple as young twigs, strap my nerve endings. When sense returns to me, I find the birds have plucked all but a few grains from the maize cob.
I am guilty. I am guilty of disobedience and going behind my husband’s back. I am guilty of neglect and abandonment. I am guilty of talking back and being wasteful. I have insulted the hand that feeds me, scorned the protection accorded me as a married woman.
My grandmother says I spell trouble with every swing of my hips, every lifting of my backside and every jiggle of my breasts. Her words have the potency of seers for not only was I pregnant with my firstborn at sixteen but at nineteen I was carrying my second. My husband took me in when my midriff was becoming taut with the pregnancy.
My husband has been good to me.
My body and that of my children have not been bared by torn clothes and our bellies have known no rumbles of hunger. For six years, we have lived together. I have learnt to laugh in the face of women who spit from the side of their mouths when they see me. I ignore the children who whisper loudly when I pass and those that stick their tongues out at me, I stick out my tongue at them too. Men who used to try pulling me into the bushes, assuming that my thighs are open for anyone, now leave me well alone. My husband and I have chosen carefully. No blood relatives, no history of strange diseases and strange customs. Together we have two children.
Our son, the one I came carrying, can round up the sheep and our daughter totters about the compound, chasing the chickens and falling on her fat bottom.
I don’t know what first attracted me to Chege. Perhaps it was the newness of him. This man, who came with red dust on his shoes, marking him as a traveller in the ash-coloured soil of Laikipia plains. He had asked me for directions to his aunt’s house, which turned out to be just two shambas from ours. I met him a few days later, a filter less cigarette between his thin fingers.
His direct gaze was a challenge and his mouth, the upper lip turned as if in a sneer, held a hint of scorn. I knew he had been told about my marriage. The news about my marriage is the kind that stirs a village, staying at the tip of the tongue so that it is easily passed. Then it settles like soot on the rafters of a smoky kitchen until someone new comes along. Have you heard? People ask, and enjoy the pleasure of the re-telling.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” Gachibi asks, jolting me back to the present. I wiggle my bottom. The seat I am sitting on is too small for me and my hips push against the arms rest. “Did you? Have you?” Gikandi asks. His eyes linger on my bottom half. Gikandi owns one of the matatus that ply the road from Matanya, our village to Nanyuki town. He carries a comb in his dashboard which he keeps running through greying hair. He never allows a man or an old woman in the front seat of his vehicle.
Gikandi has made it clear he would not mind sharing a bed with me but he was circumcised the same day with my father and there is a history of incestuous relationships in his family. “Have you made your decision?” Thige finishes Gikandi’s question. I draw figures on the ground using my big toe. I cannot lift my eyes and face the reproachful eyes of my husband. My husband is the kind of person who give everything of themselves and are shocked when re-paid by betrayal and treachery.
“Well?” my father asks in that deceptively soft voice that I know so well. A voice he uses before flipping his wrist into someone’s face so fast that the blow makes the head snap. “I don’t know what to say,” I say. I hear the scrapping of a chair. Chege rises to his feet toppling the chair he is sitting on. His walk is a shuffle, as if the shoes he is wearing are too heavy for him. He stands before the elders, a tall gaunt figure, like a stick in a field of potatoes. Hooking his fingers on the waist band of his jeans, he thrusts his pelvis forward.
The wind balloons his thin cotton shirt behind making him look like a scare crow. “You don’t know what to say? What do these wazee want you to say? That you will stay married to this She-husband?” Chege asks, pointing at my husband, “Does she do you?” Chege’s voice is explosive, like a boy who farts loudly during a ceremony to draw attention to himself. I see my husband flinch, her face has turned a dark grey, the colour of rained-on ash. The elders sit straighter and my father digs his walking cane into the ground.
The day my husband had sent elders to ask for me, my grandmother took me to her hut, “Gakenia, since you have decided to live up to your name and make the men of Matanya village happy on your backside, no man is likely to take you for a wife.” Gakenia means the-one – who- makes-others- happy. I don’t seem to make many women happy but I have seen men in the village following me with their eyes and letting animals stray into shambas, or dropping axes on their feet while cutting trees.
“If it was our time, a woman like you who has given birth while still in her father’s hearth, a gichokio, would be married as the second or third wife. Now the men who wear matonyo have been forbidden by the church to marry more than one wife. Nyokabi wa Mathu has sent elders to ask your father for you.”
“Ask for me? How can she ask for me?” I asked. “Among us the Gikuyu, there is a practice where a woman who has never had children and whose husband has passed on can take a wife.” Being born and raised in Laikipia, a settlement away from Central province, the original home of my ancestors, has robbed me off the cultural anchorage of my people. Even the original greetings of the Gikuyu for each age set, wakiamaitu, wakiaawa wakiaguka, wakiacucu, confuse me.
“How will I be a woman’s wife?” I asked my grandmother. “You will obey the woman as you would a male husband. She will still be the head of the home. What she needs from you most is children.” “How will I get children?”
“The same way you got your first one and the one in your belly. The men may not marry you but they cannot resist that slow roll of your hip such that the foot finds the ground while the buttock still quivers, up then down,” Grandmother flicked her wrists as said this, as if she held a woven tray, winnowing millet. Then she cackled, her mouth like an empty pocket.
I would soon settle in my new home. My children called me Mami, the newer term for mother and they called my husband Maitu the more formal term for one’s female parent. I had the freedom to choose my mates but if my husband was not happy with the man I had chosen, she would tell me. It had worked well until Chege came along and slashed at the fabric of our lives.
“She is my wife but she does not share my bed,” my husband speaks for the first time. I can see the effort it has cost her to speak out. Her words are spaced out and she is supporting her face with the palm of her left hand. In the time I have been with her, Nyokabi rarely raises her voice. Perhaps the years of being scorned as a barren woman then as a widow has rubbed off the edge of her voice. Her voice is lilting, soft like the pattering of rain on a grass-thatched roof.
“What are you doing with her then?” Chege asks. He is facing away from me but I know his mouth is curving into a sneer, the upper lip upturned in one corner, the left eye narrowed. I rise up and stand in front of Chege, as if with my body I will shield my husband from Chege’s scorn.
“Do you think I cannot provide for you if you leave this farce of a marriage?” Chege asks, turning to me. The barrenness of the land stretches before us. All around are shrubs and cactus bushes. There are dark clouds in the sky but the rain stays help up in the cloud like unshed tears and the grass crumbles under our feet.
When I was growing up, Nyokabi’s goats and sheep would raise enough dust to obscure a homestead while they were passing. She came from the pastoralist Maasai and the only crop she planted was napier grass for her livestock. I plant a few maize and beans but the livestock provides for our needs and we have never gone without.
Chege is wearing the same pair of jeans since I first saw him. Sometimes when I meet him in the morning he smells strongly of soap and soot, and I suspect he washes his clothes at night and have to dry them by the fire.
“She has three children and another one on the way,” my father tells him. “That one is mine! A boy to name after my father,” Chege says. There is pride in his voice like a man who has found a purpose – something to strive for. “And the other three?” my father asks.
“Gakenia and I can take care of them. Don’t the Gikuyu say wealth is in one’s hands?” Chege asks. When we talk, Chege talks of two acres of land in Gachie, telling me his father divided the land between him and his three brothers before he died. He tells me a quarter acre of land goes for twenty millions now and in a couple of years the figure will double.
Chege says he is the last born and his mother is aging. He tells me it won’t be long before he can sell his share of land and buy a matatu which will ply the road from Gachie to Nairobi city centre, only twenty kilometres away.
I have been to Nairobi once, that place of lights that turn the night into a day. As soon as my second born had lost his two front teeth my husband took us on a tour of the city. The buildings dizzied in their height and my eyes blurred at the sight of so many cars passing by. I got photographed outside KICC, the building whose completion the Gikuyu seer, Mugo wa Kibiru, had predicted would herald the coming of Kenya’s independence.
The photographer had positioned me in front of the circular building and told me to raise my hand with the palm facing down. When the print came out I appeared to be touching the top of the building. We had gone to Uhuru Park and had taken a boat round the manmade lake.
While my husband had pushed the oars, I had skimmed the surface of the lake, letting my fingers trail the warm water while my children squealed with delight and splashed each other with water. My husband had taken us to a restaurant for lunch, where for the first time in my life I had eaten potatoes deep fried in oil, enjoying the greasy deliciousness liberally splashed with tangy tomato sauce. Then she bought us cotton candy which melted in our mouths into liquid sweetness.
“Come with me,” Chege says, “Tell them you have chosen to go with me. We will leave tomorrow and stay with my mother for a while until I build my own house.” He puts his hands on my shoulders, gently rubbing them and I begin to feel the ripening of desire. I imagine how it would be, his long body wrapped around me every night, running his fingers lightly over my nipples. A flush of warmth passes through me, as if I am being drenched with warm water.
“Are you going to give back the twenty cows her husband gave for her?” Thige asks. “Not now, but I will repay everything with time,” Chege says. “I will not allow the children to go,” my husband says.
For the last few months, she has been the one who cooks for the children, bathes them and goes for school meetings. When my first born Ciira hurts herself now she runs to her Maitu to be soothed and Ciku my last born totters to my husband to be picked any time she sees her. Even when I stay away for two days, unable to tear myself away from the sweet torment that is Chege, only going back home to eat because the only meal I get is what Chege shares with me from his aunt’s kitchen, my husband still welcomes me home.
“They are not your children,” Chege says, “You cannot claim children who have not come from your womb.” “It was said there would come those who have cowbells in their ears and cannot hear,” Mzee Gachibi says, “Nyokabi paid dowry for Gakenia and Gakenia’s children belong to her.” “You can leave her children. We have already started ours and we will have more,” Chege tell me. I look at him and wonder whether children are like the afterbirth which can be left and forgotten.
My husband rises stiffly to her feet. Lately her joints have been hurting her, pain that she describes as a grinding. When I am home I make camel bones soap with nettle leaves thrown which eases the pain. “Do you want to leave our children and go with this man?” My husband asks me.
Life with Nyokabi has been soft, the harsh edges rubbed off and the ripples smoothened out, a flat featureless stretch. However, I have had a yearning for something that quickens the heart, something that sets the blood pumping. Chege reaches out for my hand and the smell of him, a mixture of wood smoke and the mustiness of a he-goat, is intoxicating. I feel heady, as if I have taken a few cups of my grandmother’s kamera - a kind of fermented porridge that makes men sing of wealth in goats and cows that they don’t have.
“Go and sit down old woman!” Chege shouts at my husband. Chairs and old bones creak as the elders rise to their feet. My father’s cane makes a tap-tap sound as he walks towards us. Instinct and painful experience tells me to jump aside. Twa! The walking cane gets Chege just below the knees and he yelps in pain. “Crazy old man!” Chege shouts and starts walking away. “You know where to find me Gakenia.” He throws the words at me.
I watch him walk way. The day is getting old and his shadow is long beside him. He had told me earlier he will be leaving for Gachie at first light tomorrow. I am going to miss putting my arms around that slim waist, those thrusting hips. Already I can feel myself shrinking, enfolding into myself