The Black Doll
By Donna Kapira (Malawi)
*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 .
THE BLACK DOLL
By Donna Kapira (Malawi)
I see her in my dreams. Almost twice a week. Like a pattern. Sometimes I see her returning home. Back to us. She is as small as she had been. Then sometimes she’s hunched up in the corner our bathroom heaving heavy sobs. Sometimes we are together in school and no one wants to talk to her. Even me. Sometimes our whole family is on a journey to a mysterious destination beyond some gigantic mountain. We are climbing and is everyone is worn out. She’s always left behind at the bottom, struggling to climb. No one reaches out to help. She cries for help but her voice doesn’t come out. Her mouth is wide, tears run down her cheeks. But no voice. We continue our journey up the mountain as we mock her. We laugh down at her. All of us. In the other dreams we are together in a dark, dark room and we can’t find a way out. Then I am in the light. She is still in the dark. There is a huge chasm between us and my arm is too short to pull her out of the dark room.
Then in the horrible ones, I see her tiny figure in a casket. She is very dark. Darker than the last time I saw her. Her tiny lips are still pink but there is no life in her features. She is very, very still and she looks lonely. Deserted. In a world of her own. I call out her name as I panic. “Emelia!” No not those. It can’t be true. She has to be there somewhere.
I remember only a few things about her. Maybe it’s the reason I feel like this. Many nights I lie in bed, shutting out the present so I can experience for one more time, the life we shared with Emelia. I force my brain to grasp the finest, tiniest memories that seem to slowly burn to ashes with each passing minute. I remember her laughing at some joke I said. Her mouth wide open, all teeth out. I remember her teary eyes. Trembling lips as she fought to fight her ever-present anger. I remember her panicked and shy expression every time we had to be introduced to visitors in our house. The fear in her eyes. Every time she had to be introduced as my sister. It was never the other way round. “This is Helen’s sister”. Then the visitor’s face would light up and talk would begin about me. Or at school when she scored the highest mark in class. People would say, “Helen’s sister did well”.
What about her feet? Yes, her feet. Yes. what did her feet look like? Big and battered like Amama’s or tiny and straight as mine. Why can’t I capture a clear picture? It’s frustrating. Her voice is gone from my head. It’s been drowned by the many other voices I have heard over the years.
“Your name is Binkha and you,” he said pointing at me, “you are Mfumukazi.” Eight-year-old Emelia had been ecstatic at the news. I was happy I got a new name too but Emelia’s excitement beat mine. That evening, as our mother was preparing supper, Amelia proudly boasted about the new name. Amama burst out laughing, the tiny cooking stick in her right hand. Emelia and I were both dumbstruck at the outburst. We both looked at Amama, eyes wide as we waited for the cathartic laughter to die down. It took long for that to happen. She kept laughing until tears formed in her large, large eyes and we watched as the tear drops landed into the pot, salting the ball of nsima. We both looked at each other, wrinkling our noses. But that was not our main confusion at that moment.
She was crying because Emelia’s nickname was Binkha? Was it a bad name? The silent question roared in our little heads. I tested the name in my mouth, letting my lips caress each letter of the word. Nothing came to mind. I couldn’t locate the source of the Joke. Emelia’s facial expression mirrored my confusion. So we sat there and waited for mother to stop laughing. In the midst of the laughter, she called out to our aunty, one of my father Adada’s little sisters.
“Amlamu, come here, someone has got a new name!”, she shouted. Aunty burst into the kitchen from our large dining room. She had a cup of soaked rice in her hand. I threw a glance at Emelia and she stared back. We silently comforted each other. Amama never let us soak the rice in sugar solution but our aunties did so freely. We’d stay up at night watching them lift spoonful after spoonful of rice into their mouths and then chew it noisily. We stowed our saliva in our mouths. We had to do a little piece of work for us to win one spoon of the rice from them. One spoon! It was painful. “But its Adada who buys all the food in this house”, we’d grumble when no one was listening. One day we’d asked Amama why she never let us, but she never said anything when the aunties did the very same thing. She told us our aunties had the powers to end her marriage to our father so there was no way she was taking the chances. “Let them have what they want, I want to stay in this marriage. I am married to a very rich man”, she’d responded without battling an eyelid. I never understood what that meant. It’s now that I am aware of the lies that my aunties tell my grandmother. My grandmother could tell her son, my father, to leave his wife. He would listen to her since she is her mother and he breastfed her. Isn’t that what mothers say? But Adada loves Amama very much even though she can’t read and write.
Amama asked Emelia to tell aunt Jane what name she’d been given. I watched Emelia mutter the name. This time with less enthusiasm than before. And aunt, too, erupted into laughter. They didn’t tell us the meaning. They told us to go ask Given, our cousin who had given us the names. But on the same day he gave us the names, he left for the capital city. We both didn’t know how long it was going to take for him to get back. That night we went to bed, perplexed about the name and why Given had given Emelia a name that would make her a laughing stock.
The next day, we went up to our father, wanting to uncover the mystery that was in the name, Binkha. We asked him and I remember the surprise in his eyes as he looked down at us. We began with the less funny name, Mfumukazi, my name. He told us it means king’s wife. I was flattered and I felt beautiful because the king’s wives I had seen in movies had all been beautiful. Encouraged, I went ahead and asked what Binkha meant. He was amused and asked us how we could be Tumbuka and not know the meaning of Binkha. We looked at each other, as nothing came to mind. He then stopped laughing, paused his ironing and looked down at us. “Why do you want to know these, my daughters?” he asked, his expression, serious all of a sudden. We didn’t want him to laugh at Emelia too, so we didn’t say anything. We just looked back at him. He went on and told us it meant to be dirty. My heart sank. It was a bad name. That’s why mother and aunty laughed at her name. I looked at my sister and realized why. She was dark. Very dark. But she was beautiful. Her face was so smooth with perfect white teeth. Her huge eyes complimented her looks. Given meant she was dirty because she was dark. But it wasn’t dirt. It was how she was made. It’s recently that all of this had been revealed. How I wish I had told her all that. Yes. Why didn’t I say just that in that moment? Perhaps that was the assurance she needed. “You are dark, not dirty and you are beautiful that way”.
From that day. Emelia seemed to be extracted from everyone else. She believed she was dirty. “You need to wash your skin properly during your baths; you are not doing it enough. Look at your arms,” mother would scold her. At the time I thought mother could be right. Her colour was not normal. I never said anything because she had been told too much already. It made her sad and I would hear her sob in her pillow at night when she thought I was asleep. One day we went to play at the stream east of our home. Emelia began to pick stones and packed them into a bag. She’d been ecstatic. No one would call her Binkha again, she said. She was over the moon. She was going to have the last laugh. On the first day that she used the stones, it was on a Saturday and we usually didn’t take baths until later in the afternoon on Saturdays. I remember my excitement on that particular day. I’d looked forward to it the whole morning and I couldn’t wait to get into the bathroom. I was expecting a change in her colour. I was happy like she was.
During the bath, she scrubbed her skin with one of the stones. So hard. Rubbed it until blood came out on her arms and legs. She told me the dirt must have grown so much that it mingled with her blood. Together we’d giggled. I was happy that the bad dirt would be no more. I could have my happy sister back. She poured water over her body and her face contorted in pain as the water mingled with the open wounds on her abused skin. But the dark colour was as prominent as before. If anything her darkness was sparkling. She was still Binkha. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t have the strength. I even lied and told her she was now beginning to look lighter. The joy in her facial features after I said that is still dear to my heart until today. She was happy. She nursed her wounds for the next weeks that followed. Her marks of redemption.
The exercise went on for a few days. Day after day of scrubbing using the stones. Her skin was the same. I kept lying to her and I watched as her face glowed with pleasure every time. But the truth was before us like a huge mountain. One day she stood before the large in-built mirror in our bathroom and she shrieked. I knew the truth had caught up with her. Her therapy had proved ineffective. I just stood beside her and observed the change in her emotions. “Helen, you lied to me, I am still the same”, she’d cried. I felt her agony. Guilt attacked me. She covered her face with her hands, flopped on the bathroom floor and wailed. I felt useless. I didn’t know how to help her. I just sat in the large basin of water as I fought back my own tears of fury and pity. She was the only Binkha of the family. Mother is light like I am. So is Adada and our little brothers.
It was no better at school. People would crash into her consciously and would defend themselves that all they saw was darkness. Looking back, having me as the Mfumukazi, didn’t help either. After our aunties began to get noticed by men, the men would buy me biscuits, but not her. When Emelia looked up at them with a yearning in her eyes, they would say they don’t buy things for the dark ones. The Binkhas. Of course, I would secretly share her some biscuits. But I could do nothing to soothe the emotional pain she’d been going through. I knew nothing about emotion or feeling. Maybe if I had been wise then. People viewed her as a dirty person. An ugly little girl. I used to think that maybe it was a punishment of some sort. But when had she committed her sins?
During family meal gatherings, everyone would jokingly comment about how dark she was. And where did she get such blood? The dark blood? I am sure and I know they meant no malice at the time. But we all didn’t know that slowly we’d been digging Emelia’s grave. Every time I watched as her eyes filled with tears and she fought them. People questioned if she was my mother’s child. They thought she was my cousin.
In our village, every year on Christmas, the chief organized traditional dances for the villagers to enjoy in the afternoons after the mouthwatering ’Christmas’ meals. For us, the children, it was time to show off our new Christmas clothes. The countdown would begin in January. Eight months, 2 months, 1 week, hours to go. We used our tears, good behavior as weapons to win the new clothes from our parents. We would then keep them safely in our sack bags, waiting for the 25th of December. On one such occasion, the last we spent together with her, Emelia stole Aunt Memo’s facial powder. The powder made Aunt Memo look yellowish in the face only. Emelia applied it on her face and it was like she had dipped her whole face into the bottle. Again, I didn’t say anything, though I knew she looked funny. I didn’t want to be the deliverer of bad news. At the ground where the festivities were held, everyone turned, looked at her and burst into laughter. They said she looked like a Nyau. Emelia was humiliated.
I have friends who are just like she had been. Exactly her color. They love their skin color. They even proudly call themselves BBB’s. Born Black but Beautiful. I smile. It’s a good one. Whoever made the name up was smart. Maria, my best friend (only when she has food and I don’t), is one of them. During this term’s social weekend, she competed in the school’s beauty contest. She was crowned as the Miss of our school after winning the favor of the external judges. As I watched Maria walk around the tiny stage during the catwalk, I had to bend down my head to get hold of my emotions. In my eyes I saw Emelia in the girl on that stage. A beautiful black girl, confident in her own skin. Loving her skin for what it is without alterations. As Maria smiled at the students with her beautiful, flirtatious and defiant eyes, I saw Emelia. Suddenly, as I looked on, an emotion the size of Mulanje mountain began to build deep in my gut. I grieved for what my sister could have been had she been exposed to better, positive words from those around her. She was capable of so much more. And in that moment I knew that Emelia’s disappearance was a loss to the whole world. She had been adventurous and fun-loving in my company. That sad, sad face only appeared when talk of skin color emerged.
Maybe it’s their upbringing that brought the self-assurance in people like Maria. Growing up with parents that make sure you know who you are. Something about growing up in such families that make you know what to take in and what not to. You know your place. You have parents that tell you how cute you look first thing in the morning or even if you have porridge or Nsima smeared all over your face. But in our family that was not it. I am taken back to the day Emelia applied aunt’s powder. Everyone laughed at her and it translated into weeks, months of bullying. They didn’t know. We all didn’t know the silent battles she was already trying and failing to win. And so we added another. She was bad at anything. At the very things others did and were admired for, she was a failure.
Then, one day in the year that followed that Christmas incident, Given visited our home again. We’d been in standard 4 and Emelia was 9 and I was 8 at the time. He brought us dolls from the capital city, Lilongwe. We were excited. “This is for you Mfumukazi”, he said handing me a beautiful mzungu doll with white hair. “And for you, Binkha”, he said to Emelia handing her a black, black doll that didn’t have long hair. It was bald. Emelia took the doll and threw it on the floor in anger. She ran out of the room as all of us looked on, dumbfounded. I wasn’t really surprised though.
The biggest surprise awaited me the next morning. Emelia was not in bed. She always used to sleep late. Only a drop of cold water in her ears would wake her. Yes, our aunties used to do that. So I wondered where she had gone so early in the morning. Our aunties were still fast asleep. I got out of bed to check in the kitchen if she’d been cleaning the pots as per our assigned chores. She wasn’t there. My heart thumping in my ears, I ran to the bathroom and burst through the tiny room. She wasn’t there either. I almost flew to my parents’ bedroom. I pushed their door without knocking. Luckily enough for me, they were still in their blankets. Amidst tears I told them Emelia was not in the house. Amama abruptly got up, pushed me aside and run to our room in her nightdress. She must have thought I was dreaming. She came back crying. We went to our neighbor’s house and asked if Emelia have come into their home at night. They said no. I thought, maybe some evil witches had come to take her flying in the night. That used to happen. Old women taking children out at night, flying with them to far, far countries. The children never remembered what the countries looked like in the mornings. I clung to that hope, thinking that maybe they will bring her back after dawn since it was said they used to do so. I didn’t want to think about anything else. Amama was frantic. Of course, they would bring her back home, she said. Amelia never came.
My distraught parents informed the police. The police wanted to know what had happened the night before. Had they beaten her or did they have a fight? My mother was offended. “How dare they think I abused my own child? Me, me!” she seethed on the night of that particular day. All of us had abused her but we didn’t know. All of us. I don’t know if mother realizes that now but I do. The policeman thought we had physically abused Emelia. He wasn’t far from the truth.
They began the search. They sent the news to MBC, Zodiak. We heard her name on all those radios. The police went to greater extents to find her. Something that was not done normally. I think that was because my father was the village doctor. My siblings and I enjoyed the benefits of his great, admirable job. When we went out to play at our friend’s houses in the village, women would give us mangoes, guavas, tangerines. These fruits did not come easily. Normally we had to steal from people’s gardens, which most times didn’t end well. The woman also gave us tomatoes, onions and other vegetables. I must say my mother never went to the market to buy such. People kept bringing them home, so we were never short of them. It still happens today though less intense than in those early days. Women would say, “Your husband is very kind to us when birthing our babies than those foolish nurses”. Gifts flooded our home as a ‘thank-you’ for my father’s kindness. The village women didn’t like the nurses. Maybe they were just bitter that their fellow women had gone far with school. Amama too feels apprehensive around the nurses. I think she is jealous of the closeness they share with Adada and she never understands the difficult medical language. She never attends any of the parties organized by hospital management no matter how Adada tries to assure her that it doesn’t matter. But the truth is, Amama can’t read or write and she can’t speak English, much less the medical jargon. So how can she keep up the banter with the well-learned during the glamorous parties?
Nothing significant came out of the searches. Amama prayed every night for her return. She cried that God should have taken her instead. After six months of no heads up, we conducted a funeral service to pay our respect to her absent body. My parents exchanged a lot of blows during that period. It was rough for all of us.
Seven years later, I am still waiting for her reappearance. Looking back, I know that we killed our own. Emotionally. She’d been dying a slow, painful death. So bad we learnt the hard way. That the heart is so tender and hangs on every word that falls on it. Kind words make it flourish. It grows in size and produces a happy, happy person. Harsh words make it smaller and smaller until it can endure no more. Words, words and words. I hope Amama, my aunties and Given realize that too.