I am now a woman.
Throughout my 13-year old life, I have styled my hair in plaits not cuts, gossiped with my sisters rather than toil on the farm, known more colours than my father could ever differentiate, cooked meals with my mother instead of drink with men, walked around with two dots on my chest that later grew into cups and yet, none of these could bestow womanhood upon me.
A life with only the humiliating title of ‘child’ and no claim to a gender is frustrating. Fathers caution you, boys taunt you and women pat your head with admiration like you are some specie of flower with a unique gift of legs to gallivant in seek of love and attention. Today, the past remains my history; womanhood, my destiny.
My five elder sisters have served me all day. One gave me a bath, the second dressed me and another fed me. Mama cooked. Aunties sang and danced. Papa sat and watched; smiled and cheered.
I ate from special plates and shared my meals with no one. For the first time in my life, two pieces of beef were put in my meal. They stood out in the plate like uneven mountains surrounded by plain earth. A bottle of Coca-cola was also offered, not just as garnishing on the table or to be shared with other children, but all for me.
I emptied it to the last drop, while awaiting its remnants to dry out from the bottle as I held it permanently overturned in my mouth.
‘It is finished, Zainab,’ Hadiza, my eldest sister, urged me to drop it.
If it had been any other day, slaps and conks would have accompanied her words. Not today. Conks are for toddlers; slaps for children. I am now a woman.
I went to the latrine to poo. One of my sisters accompanied me. She wiped me clean with fresh leaves. Womanhood is indeed sweet like candy! I mused. I have been stopped from all forms of labour today, even to wiping my derriere.
A suppressed smile leaked out of the corner of my lips. I wiped my face to hide it. It was tough. It is always tough to hide happiness. Papa often said happiness and wealth are like pregnancy – you can never hide them! Now I understand what he always meant because everything seemed to congratulate me. Even the sun shone its congratulatory rays on me. And the trees rustled an endless tune as if reminding me I am now a woman.
I looked around to take full note of today. The sun brightened my village and our Nigerian vegetation infected all the grasses and trees with rich greenness. Everyone and everything was happy – even our mud house smiled through the many cracks in its wall. I ate, drank, napped and the only form of labour I had was answering the call of nature. I wonder why nature cannot realize I am now a woman. Perhaps nature overheard my thoughts as my presence was immediately demanded. Is there no way around this?
I dashed out to my favorite spot in the backyard, stood with my feet wide apart and urinated to my satisfaction. It is amazing how emptying a very full bladder often gives one a painfully sweet sense of relief. Then I recalled the female doctor from UNICEF who visited our country following the recent polio outbreak and how she had traded stories with us and explained that in Europe, it was prohibited to wee on the streets. Isn’t that madness? How can they say people are free there, yet they lack freedom of where to wee? ‘It must only be in a bathroom,’ she had explained.
When I returned to the tiny room I shared with my sisters, our mud walls exhaled its warm breath my way. The heat was intense. Hence I took my dress off, threw it in the corner where its mates lay and remained nude. I am now a woman. I wondered when my breasts would be rotund like Hadiza’s. When will my hips shoot out on opposite sides like the fins of a fish? I pinched my skin around my hips and bum and pulled out several times like that would subconsciously instruct my skin and bones what direction to grow in. I cupped my hands round my breasts.
‘Grow!’ I ordered. ‘You are too small. I am now a woman. Blossom!’
‘Who are you talking to?’ Hadiza asked from the door.
‘No one,’ I straightened.
‘And why are you naked? Dress up! Have you forgotten we are going out with Papa?’
I had not forgotten. I was just tired from overfeeding.
‘Where are we going to?’ I asked.
‘You ask too many questions. Stand up and get dressed.’
‘What are we going for?’
‘You ask too many questions,’ she repeated. ‘Just dress up and meet us outside.’
After the instruction, she headed out. So, I rose for the corner that had my clothes. My wardrobe of a heap of clothes presented me with all my choices – a wrapper, which served for all occasions, an old, slack pant with several holes in it, two camisoles given to me by UNICEF reps and a tacky dress made locally from worn-out material – which I had been wearing all day. I threw on the dress and ran out barefoot like every member of my family walked when visiting anywhere in the village.
‘Where are we going to Papa?’ I asked as he led me in silence, my left wrist stowed away in his right hand.
‘You are now a woman,’ Mama chipped in from beside him, ‘yet you still ask questions like a child. Women don’t question. We just follow in silence.’
I smiled at her. I got the message. My other sisters smiled in my direction before turning back to face the road. The journey was a tad bit long and the road hot, from the blazing sun above.
‘We have arrived,’ Papa suddenly announced, turning to me.
I looked up expecting to see a group of dancers or perhaps, celebrity magicians of the village as I was celebrating womanhood today. Yet, there was no such thing. All I saw was a mud hut, way smaller than ours, more rickety in looks and standing alone in an arid land like a lost puppy dying of malnutrition.
‘Where is this?’
Mama turned to me with that belabouring look in her eyes. I smiled and coyly hid my face in my palms. Her voice rang again in my head:
‘Women don’t question. We just follow in silence.’
So, I followed in silence till we entered within.
‘Welcome,’ a man received us.
He shook Papa. Two women flanked him. They were elderly in demeanour, plump in weight and warm in mien. They looked more like his wives, rather than his daughters. They gestured us to the floor as if it had chairs that were somewhat too tiny for our eyes to make out. We sat on the mud floor with smiles of appreciation for their somewhat hearty reception.
‘Zainab,’ the man called to me.
I had never seen him before. I wanted to ask him how he knew my name, but women don’t ask questions.
‘You are now a woman,’ he said to me with a smile.
The smile was infectious. Everyone in the room smiled but I think mine was the broadest and it probably lingered the longest. Through the man’s smile, I noticed his physiognomy appeared marred by several missing teeth in his mouth and those left were brown like they had sawdust stains. His hair was a squalid shade of grey and his skin rumpled over his bones.
‘Let’s go inside.’
Inside where? I wondered, gazing at the man.
‘Follow him,’ Papa urged.
Why? Follow him where? The questions poured from my mind in a torrent but I refused them exit from my mouth. I am now a woman. Women don’t question. We just follow in silence.
With hesitation in my bones, I rose and looked at the rest of my family. They smiled at me like people bound by an oath of silence. Perhaps, they assumed their smiles would be encouraging. It’s disturbing, I sighed.
The man opened the door into the inner chamber and once both of us got in, he shut and wedged it with a bamboo stick.
‘Take off your dress,’ he instructed.
‘Why?’ I gasped. ‘What is it?’
The questions erupted from my mouth. I had forgotten I was a woman.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ he patted my head. ‘You are now a woman.’
As if coaxed by some unseen force within this room, or perhaps, it was the humility that descends on one when in the presence of an elderly man, I obeyed him. I undid my button and let my dress fall from my shoulders to a puddle around my feet.
‘Lie there,’ he pointed.
I turned in the direction of his finger. It was then I had a proper view of the room. It was dingy and stuffy. In its centre lay a raffia mat that looked like it could perfectly serve as a bed for a man as tall as Papa. A neatly-folded shabby wrapper lay in one corner of the mat. Beside the mat were some earthen saucers that had knives and razors. Some of the knives and razors had rusty stains while others appeared haggard from excessive duties.
Where is this place? What happens here?
‘Go ahead,’ he urged. ‘Lie there.’
I stepped out of the puddle of my dress and lay on the mat. He walked to my side, inspected my nude body for a second before holding a brief look with me. There was an eerie silence between us. What is he looking at? I wondered. Suddenly, without any warning, he squatted.
‘I need to ask you a question,’ he began. ‘Don’t be afraid to tell me the truth. It’s just between you and I.’
His breath was harsh, seeming like a horrible mixture of palm wine and snuff intertwined with poor hygiene. I didn’t flinch. I couldn’t begin to imagine what Papa and Mama would do to me if I had. So, I only nodded and put up my best smile or at least, what I assumed was my best smile.
‘Have you ever sinned?’ He asked me.
Sinned? ‘What do you mean?’
‘Tell me the truth: has a man ever put his thing inside you before?’
‘Be honest, Zainab! Has a man put his third leg inside your body before?’
I was perplexed. ‘Do men have three legs?’
He remained mute for a moment and studied me. The cocktail of the dingy room, his bad breath and inspecting eyes made me queasy. After some seconds, he sighed and spoke again:
‘You are a woman now. Let me call the others so we can begin.’
Papa, Mama and the others entered the room and smiled at me. I had a lot of questions, but I remained mute. The other ladies we had met with the man on our arrival also came in. One of them brought with her a steaming earthen pot. Mama knelt beside my head and spoke in a hearty whisper.
‘You are a good woman. I am glad you have not brought me shame.’
What do you mean? I asked her in my head.
‘Don’t worry,’ she verbally replied my thoughts. ‘One day, you’ll understand.’
By the time she stood up, the man was asking the others and Papa to return to the waiting room. They nodded and waved their farewells at me as if leaving me to the hands of fate. It was agreed Mama would remain inside with me. I also noticed the two women remained.
‘You can sit now,’ the man advised Mama.
I looked around, seeking the best spot for Mama to sit in this tiny room. However, Mama crossed one leg over me and descended onto my chest. She seemed to be crouching over me rather than sitting and though she didn’t put her whole weight on me, it was enough to keep me pinned to the floor.
‘Relax,’ she smiled at me. ‘It won’t take long. Just remember that you are now a woman.’
All of a sudden, the two ladies in the room reached for my legs. The one on my right took my right leg and the one opposite her did same to my left leg. Gently, they pulled my legs apart and then, suddenly, clasped them firmly to the floor.
‘Mama,’ I quivered. ‘What is happening?’
Before she could answer, I felt a hand dab my genitals with what I imagined must have been a napkin from that steaming pot. I shouted.
‘Stay still,’ Mama coaxed. ‘You’ll be fine.’
The heat of the towel seared through me. I jerked and kicked, but Mama’s weight on my chest and her hands now securing my hands to the floor as well as the other ladies who had secured my legs kept me still. After moments of dabbing, the man lifted his head from behind Mama to smile at me.
‘I’m almost through,’ he said from his almost toothless mouth. Then, he switched his attention to Mama’s ears:
‘Her skin is now soft and ready. It will be a quick one.’
As I was battling to make sense of what was going on, I saw him lift one of the earthen saucers with the knives and razors. Before I could ask what I feared, I felt the cold brusqueness of sharp blades on my genitals. I shouted and threw myself around in spasms but the two women and Mama were impeccable in their shared task of clamping me to the floor.
The blades sawed off my clitoris and afterwards, my outer labia and finally, my inner labia.
‘Sorry,’ Mama exhaled on my face. ‘Sorry! You’re now a woman. You have to be circumcised. It’s for your own good! It will eradicate any urge of promiscuity. And your husband will love you thoroughly! You’ll be very tight for him.’
Her words came amidst my screams. I couldn’t hear all of them. I wasn’t interested. The searing pain between my legs was louder in my ears than screams from a rowdy crowd. After moments of butchering me, the man stood, smiled and said:
Mama and the other women left me on the mat and rose up. I felt my blood form a little puddle on the raffia mat beneath me. A blanket of cold soon enveloped me and a fever wafted across my body.
‘I did a decent job,’ I heard the man tell Mama.
‘Thank you.’ Mama bowed.
‘I removed every part of her genitals,’ the man continued, ‘and fused the wound together into one hole. That will serve for everything – urine, menstruation and in the future, childbirth. And it will remain tight enough for her husband.’
I thought to look down. Movement of my head seemed impossible. An imagination of what I would find, or not find as the case was, was unbearable. Why didn’t anyone tell me? I mused, as silent tears crept down the sides of my face. Why must this be the indication of womanhood?
‘My daughter,’ Mama smiled at me from beside the man. ‘You’re now a woman.’
I am not! I turned away, chagrined. I am in pain! I am hurting! I am incomplete!