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May 26, 2015
African Voice
The Song of our Lives
by Imo Eshiet

Mother always shook her head pensively and muttered, “The song of our lives” each time she heard acts of injustice against womenfolk. Since there was no shortage of such acts, she breathed those words more than any in her life.

Another statement she intoned just as frequently was, “A time will come when women will have the power to choose whatever they want to do.”

Womenfolk around her guffawed. Some even dramatized their disbelief. They would reach out with their palms and touch her in a mock gesture of checking her temperature. Then they snickered, “Mama, you have fever. You have left this malaria running for too long. Now you are hallucinating. We must do something about this delirium.”

Some believed she was seeing and hearing stuff. Years of controlled behavior imposed by men left many women in love with their chains. As often happens among long-suppressed folks, those who talked change were suspect. With a mirthless smirk, Mother would chortle, “You will see.”

For trying to roll back the culture of repression against women, some fellow women stayed away from her. Their husbands sternly warned them to keep away, so Mother would not corrupt them with her “stupid ideas.” Men called her names other than the ones her parents gave her. She was called “presumptive” and “an impudent grasshopper destined to learn humility in the maws of the rooster.”

My tough as nails mother would shrug and retort that, “The liver of a lion was vain wish for the dog.” Those cowardly men only hoped to be as courageous as she!

So it was one dawn when a distant cousin arrived at our home. Mother had opened her kitchen to let out her chicken. To her surprise, she found a blood-soaked, bedraggled woman sprawling on the ground. She had arrived at an unholy hour and could not knock to be taken in, the cousin said, when Mother asked what brought and kept her there throughout the night.

Looking with utter shock at her, Mother noticed she was bruised and sullied. Her clothes were wet from wading through dew on the bush path and her hair disheveled from being dragged in the mud. Quickly Mother lit the hearth and brought water to a boil in a huge earthen pot.

After the bath, Mother found her cousin’s skin was discolored from blows. Her lips and eyes were swollen and the warm bath only served to expose a matting of dark blood that stubbornly caked around injuries on her back and chest.

“Did you escape from lynching, and what did you steal they beat you so?” Mother asked, wide-eyed. As she applied a compress to the swellings and cleaned the blood that still stuck to her broken skin like an evil tattoo, the cousin writhed in pain that robbed her of voice.

In my country petty thieves are often mobbed. All it takes is for someone to shout, "Ino! Ino! Ino!" A lynch party easily shows up as soon as the cry, "Thief! Thief! Thief!" is hollered.

As savage blows are rained with hands, clubs, or anything handy, the rest of the mob morbidly searches out a used tire and hangs it on the neck of the suspect. This is called the ring treatment. Then someone shows up with gas and douses the suspect while another strikes a match. The crowd cheers as the wiggling, burning victim roasts to death.

This macabre scene is what Mother feared. "You know there are no thieves in our bloodline," the forlorn woman answered when she found her voice. "Then who did this to you?" Mother demanded.

As the grief-stricken cousin unburdened, my mother’s jaws dropped on the floor. The evening before, her in-laws had arrived and asked her to pack her belongings. Thinking it a joke, she brought them water to quench their thirst, seeing they were sweaty and dusty from walking in the sun.

What happened next was a nightmare.

They hurled the cups of water at her face. Her offense was that she had no child for them after five years. Among my folks childlessness between couples is assumed the fault of the wife. Her in-laws pointed to a young girl they had brought and announced the house was now hers.

It was unheard of, they declared, for two men to share a home. Any farmer who expects any increase must first take out the weed, they screamed, and with that they pointed her to the door. Too stunned to say a word, she stood there staring at her visitors.

Taking her gesture for insolence, the thugs they brought brutally pounced and beat her viciously. For refusing to leave, they walloped her with the tail of a smoked skate fish, leaving welts that continued bleeding despite the chilly night.

When she passed out, they dragged her into a muddy puddle outside and threw a few items for her to take with her when she came to. The nasty, oozing pool she lay in helped revive her and accounted for her musty odor.

She had left with only misery after helping her husband build a fortune. What hurt most was her husband did not lift a finger as she was battered. She had lost both parents and the uncle who took her bride price, having strictly warned her never to return since he would not be able to make any refund. Mother, the crestfallen woman lamented, was all she had to turn to.

Tearing up as she listened to the horrific story, Mother kept repeating, "The song of our lives." Women were not only assaulted and made the fall guy for infertility in marriage, but also subjected to mockery if they only had daughters. No one cared if daughters were all the men left in their womb. Mother could connect to her misery because she too was derided when her first two children were female.

Done nursing the heartbroken woman, she said, “I am here for you,” and that was it.

A week later Mother said her cousin was pregnant. Mother was over the moon with joy that the beatings had not aborted the pregnancy. The cousin doubted it, but unknown to her, Mother had the uncanny ability to tell if an animal or person was pregnant long before anyone else knew it. When she delivered a baby boy and news got to her estranged husband, some elders arrived to take her and the baby.

Mother was indignant and adamant. She sent word to her cousin’s mother-in-law that now the weed was yielding some dividend, it could not be cast out. Those who visit adversity on others, she added with venom, “also teach them wisdom.” Her cousin, like her, had no need for anyone’s chains. She did not return to her husband. Mother wanted to break the culture of violence against women and to deter those who think women are baby making machines that can be discarded when their desires are frustrated.

Mother could not stand complacency and despair. Unfazed and high-strung, she did what she could to make her community better. She always taught that action and change in attitude could make so much difference. This is the legacy she left behind.

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