*Donna Kapira is a final year student at College of Medicine, a constituent college of the University Malawi. She is studying for an honors degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences. She was born at St. Johns Hospital in the city of Mzuzu in Malawi on 16 October 1996.She has been an avid reader of any captivating story ever since she learnt how to read. She loves science but also believes there is a writing streak in her. When she is not studying, she loves to read and write or listen to good music. She also loves meeting and making new friends
He was my English teacher in Standard 7. Ticha Gondwa, that’s how we all addressed him. The other teachers went by their surnames or other nicknames, but Mr. Gondwa was Ticha. I used to wonder if the other teachers didn’t feel intimidated by the fact that, among the learners, he was the only one who was addressed as Ticha when all of them had been teachers. A dark short stout man with grey hair. People used to say he was an old man because he had grey hair, but he wasn’t that old. Maybe he was in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He was long-faced with a moustache that covered the dark contours of his upper lip. I used to wonder why, of all places, he only had sweat dripping from his moustache and beard when the rest of his face was always dry.
With eyes popping wide, beads of perspiration coating his thick moustache and beard, he would lead us into the daily routine soon before knock-off time, “Class! What is a noun clause again?” We used to chant back “a clause that modifies a noun!” I never really understood the meaning of the words then. It was in secondary school that I got the meaning of the chant. We just memorized so we could go out and eat Nsima back home. The rule was we answer a question as a class before leaving. That was his famous question, so the answer was etched like an imprint in our heads.
Mphangera, my childhood best friend, told me that men with hair on their upper lip like Ticha Gondwa were not normal people. I didn’t understand what she meant. It was on a morning of one Saturday when she’d told me that. We had been coming from the borehole down at the stream. It was in the rainy season, so tap water would stop coming out of the taps during such times. My father had once told us that the rains caused the blockage of pipes and that was why water would stop running during the rainy season. During such water crises, my two big sisters and I would go down to the borehole close to our garden just behind the maize fields near our school to draw water.
I remember one time when the whole of Luwerezi didn’t have water running out of taps and all boreholes for a whole week. Even all the rivers had dried up then. The villagers said it was Gogo Banda that caused the rivers to dry up. She had a tomato garden near the rivers and every day she would go down to the river with her walking stick to water her crops. People complained that she over-watered her crops, thereby overusing the rivers. Gogo Banda lived on her own with no living relative. She would sell the tomato to the teachers, the doctors of our village.
My father climbed Mchirawaya hills with some of the men from our village. There’d been some man who had a borehole on the other side of the hill. He made a lot of money during the crisis since people came from many villages to buy water from him. We were not allowed to use it for bathing. That water had been for drinking and cooking purposes only. And, of course, my father was allowed to take a bath because, well, he was my father.
It was around the same time that “I had grown up.” I didn’t know how to open up to my mother about it. There were terrible stories of what used to happen to girls who came of age in those days. Growing up meant no more molding dolls out of mud with my friends nor wearing pegs as earrings on Christmas day. It was considered childish. Maybe, if I had told her, she would’ve let me use some of the water to at least wash myself down there.
As it was, I would just use my mother’s worn Zitenje to wipe myself down there. I would pile the used cloths in the corner of our room. And they began to stink so much so that my sister, Eliness, sensed it. I heard her ask Luwiza, my other sister, if it was her but she denied. I also denied. Then one morning I had gone to the toilet and. Unknowingly, left a few drops of blood just near the hole in the toilet. Unfortunately for me, Eliness went in soon after I had gone out.
Then my worst fear came to pass. My mother sent me to my grandmother’s village for a week. She lived in a dilapidated house a river away from our village. She’d been old and had lost her eyesight by the time I visited her. She hadn’t even known that it was me, Taweni. She’d thought I was my sister, Luwiza. She had died in her sleep a month after I visited her. When I visited her, she didn’t say much. Just told me that I was then a woman. That every time I was to be with a man from then, I had to be careful. That if I happened to be with a man, I should rinse myself properly between my legs and in that way I couldn’t fall pregnant.
I went back home and I was told not to put salt in any food I prepared during that time of the month. That I could kill my father if I tried. So, every time it was me in the kitchen, I would call my little brother, Omega, the last born in our family, to put the salt in. He never liked that I called him amidst his games with his friends. One time he was so angry that he emptied almost the whole packet of salt into the beans. My father beat me to a pulp that evening.
So, as we were coming from the stream with Mphangera that Saturday afternoon, we passed through the greened maize fields. With the fresh smell of rain hovering in the air around us, we sang with trembling little voices as we trampled along the muddy path through the long growing maize. We were singing the Sunday school song “He watches over us day and night.” Our Sunday school teacher had told us that God watches over his own - you know, like the story of Jonah. In those times, stories of little children disappearing had been common. Then there were also increased rape cases during the rainy season. The culprits would take advantage of the growing maize to destroy any little girl they got their hands on. As we approached the Standard 8 classroom block, we’d heard voices. A soft giggle, then a deep chuckle. Then we saw them. Mr. Gondwa with the village agriculture advisor. They’d been kissing. It was my first time seeing people so intimately close that I closed my eyes and looked away. Grandma’s advice was still etched on the back of my mind like chicken pox meds. Keep away from men.
Mphangera giggled and tickled my behind. “Don’t tell me you’ve never done that before, I do it with the tailor almost every day,” she’d said with a dreamy look on her face. Heat filled my cheeks in embarrassment. I didn’t want to discuss making babies with someone who hadn’t grown up yet, so I just looked at her and said nothing. I knew the time was coming for her too when she’d be told to stay away from men as well. Only for her, she had already known what she was to be told to stay away from. And from the look on her face, I suspected it wasn’t going to go well. Years later my suspicions have been proven right
Mphangera now roams the streets of Blantyre at night, pulling up skirts, throwing underwear at men to show off her assets. I met her as I drove back home from work last month. She was like, “Well Taweni, how is life?”
I told her “It’s good!” And how was she?
“Business is thriving,” she said. “Although customers now prefer the little girls. My skin is wrinkled and no longer beautiful as it used to be. I just began using olive oil, I hear it makes skin softer.” She had giggled, battling her fake eyelashes.
Despite every other fake thing about her, I could still see my childhood best friend beneath. I couldn’t have befriended a fool. Circumstances like the death of her father, the need to support her ageing mother, drove her where she is now. She couldn’t have been made for that. I needed to set aside enough time so we could talk properly. It was the same old Mphangera in a bleached skin. I found out she has four kids from four different fathers. They are all with her mother back at Luwerezi.
Ticha Gondwa and the nurse stopped their make-out session when they saw us. We pretended not to have seen them and proceeded towards the head teacher’s office with the pails of water on our head, our breaths in our chests. I’d been happy that we’d passed the situation without a confrontation.
Approaching the school grounds, we heard the sound of footsteps behind us. And there he was, Ticha Gondwa. “I know what you little kids saw me do out there. If I hear it from any other person around here, I will know it’s from you and I will fail you in my subject. And you know what that means. There will be no Standard 8 for you. So just be good and don’t say a word. I will even give you extra marks for it.”
I’d wondered why he wanted it to remain a secret. He was the most eligible bachelor of our village in those days. A cock on the hunt for a hen. No one would have questioned him. I thought about how lucky our village girl, Tereza had been. Since Ticha Gondwa had been posted to our school 2 years before, he’d been every girl’s dream. I wasn’t necessarily a girl then. I was a dirty young 12-year-old always trudging behind my big sisters or Mphangera. I knew nothing about grooming.
My mother always complained of the Mamphina on my nose. They would flow from my nose right back down into my mouth soon after blowing so I gave up and went with the flow. Amama used to say I had been bewitched. Perhaps someone was using my Mamphina for riches. My friends used to say I had a permanent flu. There was always a trail on the line on my nose, either dry or wet. So, no, I couldn’t be classified as one of the girls of our village.
Even my sisters were the secret admirers of Mr. Gondwa’s charms. I never understand why because he wasn’t the greatest catch of the village. His grey hair made him look like an old man. Or maybe I was just biased because the only handsome thing in trousers I saw was Austin, my long-time crush.
I remember one night in our room, Eliness told Luwiza that she was too dark to get any man. She asked her if she loved Ticha. Luwiza said of course she loved him and she would be a good wife. Eliness then mockingly told her to let him go so he could have beautiful children with a beautiful woman. “Imagine a child made by you and him,” she’d challenged.
One evening, Luwiza was standing by the kitchen door helping my mother in the kitchen. Eliness had come out of the house and bumped right into her. Luwiza cried and asked her if she wasn’t seeing properly.
“Sorry, I only saw darkness here,” she laughed mockingly.
Luwiza would answer back to say she was beautiful as she was. A BBB (born black but beautiful), she would fondly call herself. Of course it was true. She had smooth skin with perfect white teeth that would shine against the dark background of her face every time she smiled. Her lips were so pink that she didn’t need to use any lipstick like the ladies on TV. She was born wearing lipstick.
The self-acclaimed Miss Malawi, dear Eliness was light in complexion. Her teeth however were crooked that you wouldn’t know where one began and ended. She’d been teased lots of times by her mates so that it became instinct that she laughed with her mouth closed. You only had to hear a sound from deep within her throat to know she was laughing. Her smiles never involved her teeth. She still does the same to this day. Old habits.
However, we found out that my sister’s words got to Luwiza despite the high self-esteem talk about BBB. She went and did Ganyu at the house of our member of parliament. She raised 200 Kwacha from that Ganyu. On Saturday of that week, she went to Kabwandire and bought Princess, the facial cream. After three weeks, she had acquired the face of a Mzungu and the body of a Mfipa. Out of jealousy, Eliness found the tube containing the cream and hid it. They fought over it.
The competition was growing stiffer by the day. Every day at sunset, girls with faces swimming in all sorts of facial powder and creams (baby powder even) in miniskirts would pass by the staff houses in hopes of being seen by him. Girls would offer to fetch him water, cook for him and even wash his clothes. He lived like a king. He had a variety of girls to choose from and choose he did, leaving trails of broken hearts. He was with a different girl every week. Girls would fight at the borehole over him. There was a queue of disputes on the table for our village headman.
Teachers at our school used to punish noise makers and late comers by sending them to do household chores in their homes. I’d had such punishments a number of times, too. For noise making, for pinching the head teacher’s daughter on her cheek for not sharing her cupcakes with me. Some reasons were ridiculous, some sensible. Sometimes, they would even invite you to eat with them. If you got lucky enough you would find nice food like chicken or beef on their menu. It was a nice way to refresh from our usual boring foods.
There was a day when Mphangera found out I’d eaten at our Chichewa teacher’s home after I’d cooked her Nsima. It was Nsima with chicken so I didn’t have the heart to resist. She reported me to my mother and my mother pinched me in between my legs with her long fingernails. Blood oozed from the spots. That was when I stopped eating in teacher’s homes.
One time, during Ticha Gondwa’s classes, he’d seen the trail of Mamphina ran down my nose. I’d forgotten to sniff them back into my nose. Were supposed to take care of our bodies. He told me to go to his house and clean his plates. The whole class burst into laughter. By the time that lesson was done, I’d been finished with the plates. I left them to dry in the sun and was about to run back to my friends back at school when I saw Ticha approach his house. I knelt with my head bowed just as my mother always instructed me to.
“Are you done? “he’d asked, tipping my head up to meet his gaze. I nodded. “Good, because I want you to cook me Nsima. Blow your nose before you start.” Then he disappeared into his house. I blew my nose using my blouse. Quickly I prepared his food and put it on his table in the house. He’d been marking our English exercise as I got into the living room with the food.
Setting the books down, he got up and came closer to me. My head was still bowed. Amama always told me never to look a man in the eye. “You’re a beautiful little girl, you just need to pay extra attention to your nose and wash your clothes,” he’d said, moving his hand over my chest till he cupped one breast. I gasped. “For a dirty girl, you have such beautiful mangoes,” he’d smiled wickedly.
On the sofa of his house, he took me. I tried to scream but he covered my mouth with his large mouth. I still remember his bad breath. Then he helped me put my clothes back on, warning me never to tell anyone about what he’d done to me. I remembered Grandma’s advice and rushed to the river to wash away his filth off me.
The pain between my legs and the one in my heart didn’t go away after the wash. That evening I sat under the moon with my siblings talking about anything that came to mind. My sisters began arguing over Ticha again. I wanted to throw up at the name.
Two weeks later, we wrote our first term exams and I was on position two. I had written false answers to most questions in all the 7 subjects. It must’ve been his doing. I hadn’t joined the other students during the evening exam preparations. I spent my days by the fire brooding, trying to keep everything to myself. During the 2-week holiday, I’d noticed that I didn’t bleed for that month. I’d hear my sisters talk about missing their periods occasionally, so I thought everything was okay. ‘I will just wait for next month’, I’d assured myself. Days turned into weeks and soon we were back to school for the second term. Then third term.
During the second month of the third term, I began questioning the strange happenings on my body. My already protruding stomach seemed to have grown bigger. I hadn’t experienced any bleeding for the preceding months. I had been happy to escape from the horrible menstrual cramps that I usually suffer from, soI didn’t pause to question it. Then as the strange things persisted I became afraid. What-ifs crowded my mind. I would wear a Juzi even under the scorching sun. It helped conceal my growing belly. I am always glad I used to be a plump little thing because it took longer for everyone else to notice.
Then the whispers among my classmates began. I was always sleepy in class and at times I would do “excuse me teacher” faking sickness. I became tired easily. Then one evening Amama came into our room when everyone else had been asleep. She told my sisters to leave us alone. They grumbled sleepily but obeyed and left the room. “Tell me, people are talking. Have you just grown fat or is it true?”
I broke down and told her everything else. By the end of that confrontation, everyone in our family knew of what happened. I just went back to sleep with swollen eyes and pulled my blanket up to my head. I didn’t want my sisters to look at me or ask me any questions.
The next morning, there was a meeting. My aunties and my uncles. They’d been discussing me. My mother was not invited to the meeting, so she told my brother to sit on the Khonde at the front of our house. From there he could overhear their conversations. My mother, my big sisters and I were in the kitchen roasting fresh maize as we waited for the judgement. My stomach was in knots as I waited for what they were going to say.
Then my brother burst through the door of the kitchen. “I heard Adada say that Taweni should pack her clothes.” Hot tears filled my wide eyes and an emotion I have never felt before gripped me from head to toe and I excused myself.
Going into our room, I cried as I looked around the room. Packing my bags meant leaving my home for Ticha’s.I’d seen it happen to many of my aunties. They had gotten pregnant and my father would take them to the responsible men and that’s how all of my aunties’ marriages began.
At first, I’d tried to soothe myself that Adada wouldn’t do that to me, his own daughter, but I’d been proved wrong. I would no longer be able to play Fulayi or Fish Fish or climb trees to pluck mangoes because I was going to become somebody’s wife. That whenever there was a funeral, I would wear my piece of Chitenje and a duku on my head and cry like the other women did. My cycle of friends was going to change as well. How can an expecting mother hang around with someone who was not a mother? A small mother, I’d giggled despite the heaviness of my heart at the time.
My mother came into the room and I told her to go away and leave me alone. Before she left, she turned, and I remember the moisture in her eyes when amidst sobs she said, “I wish I could stop this from happening, but no one can listen to me, it is considered disrespectful.” Then she left. There was a sadness in her voice.
Amama never tolerated nonsense but she loved us, her children, and respected her husband. She was a perfect woman for my dark-skinned arrogant Adada. Soft spoken, light skin with huge eyes. Everything that Adada was not. Eliness and I got her skin. Luwiza and Omega had that of my father. No one inherited her full lips. Mphangera had one day told me that her lips reminded her of a pig. I was hurt and reminded her of the cracks beneath her Amama’s feet. I told her that a coin would fit perfectly in the cracks. We had a fight and didn’t speak to each other for a week. It was crayons I got from my international pen pal that re-united us.
That evening, my father carried my small sack bag of clothes and together we stepped into the darkness. By then, I’d cried until there was no more water in my body.” Taweni, here, take this,” she said. Amama ran after me and handed me two new dresses, two pieces of new Zitenje. “This is still your home, feel free to come anytime,” she held my hands and I saw a stubborn tear escape from one huge eye.
I bit my lower lip so I couldn’t cry because tears wouldn’t have earned me any sympathy. My big sisters and my little brother had all come out to see me off. They watched the exchange with curiosity.
“Let’s go, I need to sleep too, I have a lot to do in the garden tomorrow,” my father grumbled.
We found Ticha outside his house. He’d been waiting for our arrival. He took the bag from my father, nodding his head in greeting him. “Like I told you earlier today, you started this, so finish it. I don’t need to raise some man’s seed like my house is an orphanage. Take care of her and if I hear that you are abusing her, you will leave this village crippled.” He swore then and marched back home.
Ticha seemed frightened of him. Well, everyone had been. Adada, a short stubborn man with red-stained eyes and a pot belly that were a result of his drinking habits, was no man’s friend in the whole of Luwerezi. He would start unnecessary fights at the Kachasu drinking place. The whole of Luwerezi will remember the one time he cut one man’s ear lobe with his teeth. My father had borrowed 2000 Kwacha to buy Kachasu from one Mr. Mzibuko. Mr. Mzibuko’s daughter, Shupe, was in the same class as me. He had promised to return it as soon as he sold that year’s tobacco. The sales from tobacco went straight into his endless debts. So, every day for that year, we endured Mr. Mzibuko, his wife and his daughters coming to ask for the money.
We’d exhausted all excuses, even the ones in the spare bags. One day at the drinking place, Mr. Mzibuko told my father he had had enough. I hear he’d pinned him to the ground, gripping him by the neck. In defense, Adada raised his mouth to his ear lobe, biting hard until he tore the flesh. Everyone wondered where the flesh that was cut had gone because they didn’t see it anywhere down on the battle ground. My father staggered back home. He spent a week in jail and the chief told him to go apologize with a chicken in his hands.
Since then at school everyone would talk about how evil my father was. “No wonder your father eats people’s meat,” they would say anytime I got into a fight with my classmates. I tried my best to avoid fights because of that. Mr. Mzibuko never asked for his money ever again.
Suddenly, left alone with the very man who’d stolen my virtue and my husband to be, I became extra afraid if that was possible. Perspiration Formed in my hands that the gifts Amama had given me almost slipped off my fingers.” Come,” Ticha held out his hand. His voice was gentle. No trace of the man who’d forced himself on me.
I’d stayed in doors for a whole week, but word still got around that Ticha had a little wife in his home. The wives of the other teachers would come to borrow things. One of them came to tell me that she’d broken her cooking stick. So, could I lend her my own? I was young but not stupid. They wanted to see me and confirm that it was true that a 13-year-old was pregnant and married.
My classmates would come and ask for water to drink. It was with the same intention. Ticha made it clear that, if not for my father’s reputation, he would have made sure I lost the baby. He was careful with me and that almost qualified him as an attentive husband. He treated me with a reverence that I knew was a direct result of my father.
My mother visited every week. The head teacher’s wife, Mrs. Tembo, always made me feel better. She would come and just sit to talk with me. She was a nurse. Two months later, she was the nurse that helped me deliver my first baby.
My baby, Coleta, was born as dark as her father, Ticha. The large nose and the forehead were all from him. Everyone had been surprised that the birth process was smooth with no caesarean involved. I think everyone in the village had been holding their breaths for the whole duration of my pregnancy.
Ticha was glad to see his daughter. He’s the one who named her Coleta. She calmed down my father’s anger and he loved her as well. I am happy he got to see her before he died of excessive drinking a few years later.
Six months after Coleta’s birth, Mrs. Tembo asked if I would have liked to go back to school. I wasn’t sure, and I told her so. She told me she would help if I was willing to re-start. I talked to Ticha. He seemed happy about it. He even offered to help with the lessons. When Coleta was a year and half, I began the lessons.
That year, I wrote my Standard 8 exams. Results were released, I was the only candidate to have been selected to a boarding school in the zone. The fact that I had been home-schooled made the news sweeter than it already was. My father had been over the moon at the news. He killed me a meal and I ate it alone.
I couldn’t go to the boarding school, so I enrolled at the night secondary school. I was glad to be back to school. In the third term of Form one, I fell pregnant again. I must have missed the pills Mrs. Tembo had given me for a day. I was angry. The teachers let me finish my Form One so I could go back to begin Form 2 after the delivery.
When I’d been 7 months along in the second pregnancy, Ticha brought Tereza home, claiming she had been his first love. I became the first wife in a polygamous home
A week after Tereza became part of our family, I began to feel itching between my legs. It was irritating. I checked and found I’d developed sores down there. When I told Ticha, he got angry, saying I’d been going behind his back to have sex with the other teachers and he beat me several times in the stomach so that I bled. He took me to the hospital with Tereza. I think he felt guilty. I gave birth to a blue-skinned premature baby girl. There’d been no sign of life in her after she came out but after some minutes she opened her mouth and howled. I laughed as tears of relief ran down my cheeks. We named her Rhoda.
After Rhoda’s birth, Mrs. Tembo made sure me that I didn’t get pregnant again. I weaned Rhoda a year later and went back to school. By then, Ticha had become uncontrollable. Maybe it was because he knew my father was no longer alive to protect me. People would tell me stories of every new girl he was sleeping with. I didn’t care. All I wanted was to go to school, pass my exams and get a job so I could live my own life.
Months turned into years and I sat for my four national examinations. I passed with 15 points. I had just wanted to pass and get a job. Any job as long as I would get money for me and my children. Mrs. Tembo advised me to go for something I like. I’d always wanted to work in a bank. So, I chose accounting.
Then Ticha got a third wife. An older woman with three children from another man. The house became loud as never before. That was the moment I left. I didn’t need to suffer to be with someone. I’d learnt from Mrs. Tembo that marriage is supposed to be enjoyed, so I walked out and went back home.
Amama was delighted to see me. By then all my big sisters were married, one to some fish vendor and another to the village shoemaker. It was only Omega and Amama. It was a quiet house not like the old loud one I’d been used to.
Ticha didn’t even try to claim his children. Months later he got transferred to another school, taking his other two wives with him. I left my children with my mother and completed my bachelor’s degree in accountancy. The story of my life gives me all the emotions in the world when I think about it.
Last week, I met Ticha at the shopping mall. I had gone to get a few groceries for Coleta’s one-month toddler. I am glad all my children completed their education without maternity or napkin talk. Lately Rhoda has been asking me a lot about when I am getting a man. It’s difficult maintaining a straight face while discussing these things with your daughter.
She is never uncomfortable. I guess being a fourth-year journalism student explains the openness. I tell her I need to figure out how to be a good 39-year-old Grandma first, so the rest will come later. She counters the argument by asking why I haven’t been able to get one even before Coleta’s baby. “She’s only been here for a month Mom.”
I didn’t know what to say to that one. I get asked out often, but every time I think about the one incident in college and so my excitement diminishes. I’d gotten into a relationship with a man from my class when I’d been in fourth year. That’s the class when people begin to talk about fiancées, weddings, house plans and all that. We were planning on getting married, so I needed to be honest with him.
I told him I was a mother of two big girls who by then had been in lower primary school. He ran for the hills. So, I am more careful these days. I need a man who will accept not only me but also my girls. I don’t want them to go through the pain of rejection.
Ticha was with another woman who looked like a diva. I have never seen this one before. Wife number 4? He had a little boy who looked like his grandchild in his arms. Ticha looked desperate and helpless. “But the price you displayed wasn’t that huge,” he complained loudly, attracting the attention of the other shoppers. I came up in line behind them and listened in on the conversation. It seemed he had a deficit of 6000 kwacha. Ticha hadn’t seen me yet so I took the opportunity to study him. He had aged 20 years. Lines of strain decorated his face. Coupled with the grey hair, he almost looked like my long-lost Grandpa.
The lady at the till told him to return the electric kettle if he couldn’t afford it. Knowing Ticha, he couldn’t do that in fear of the embarrassment. Silently, I took three 2000 kwacha notes and gave them to the Till Lady. “Make sure you put the right price tags on the right goods, it’s misleading,” I said smiling down at her.
This has happened to me before. It’s annoying. She scowled at me and almost tore the money out of my hands. She didn’t need to scowl though because her make-up was scary enough. That’s when Ticha turned to look at me. The diva had already been facing me and she was now gaping at me.
Ticha was clearly surprised. I don’t know if it was merely at seeing me or he was shocked that I’d helped him out.” Hey Taweni,” he stammered. I smiled and answered back. There was the sweat on his moustache again. “Er… honey this is….” It turned out his tongue got stuck to the roof of his mouth.
“I am Taweni,” I said politely, smiling at the diva who I figured was his present wife. I wonder what happened to wife number 2 or 3.