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I Want to Be a Woman!
By Osoro PJ. Nyawangah

Mornings were normally chilly and cold in both Butimbaru and Kibumaye ( two ridges which lay side by side). Rhobi felt the cold bite into her skin as she sat on her full water- barrel. She looked fixedly at her young sister, who was still in the process of filling hers. Then she looked at pale dark water of the river. It flowed on just as it had done for years, making continual gurgling sounds as it made its way round the projecting rocks. 

Rhobi, the elder daughter of Daniel Wambura was fascinated and felt attracted to the river, river Mori. Her breasts, glowing with pleasure, rose and fell with sigh: she felt something strange stirring in her bowels. It was exhilaration, a feeling of acute ecstasy, almost of pain, which always came to her as she watched the snaky movement and listened to the throb of the river.

The importance of Mori could never be overestimated. Cattle, goats, sheep and people drew their water from there. Perhaps that was why the Kurya people called it ` cure’ and the valley, the valley of life; tha`t whst it was, a valley of life.

During the initiation ceremonies, boy and girls came to wet their bodies here on the morning of circumcision. It had long been discovered that very cold water numbed the skin, making it less painful during the operation. Rhobi thought of this and felt slightly guilty. She looked apprehensively at her sister who was still drawing water. She wondered whether such thoughts ever came on Ghati (her young sister’s name). Rhobi thought not and envied her. For she had learnt and knew that circumcision was sinful. It was a pagan rite from which she and her sister had been saved. A daughter of God should never let even a thought of circumcision come in her mind. Girls of their age would be initiated this session. Had her father, Daniel, not been a man of God, he, doubtlessly, would have presented them both as candidates.

`` Rhobi, my sister ……………… ’’ Rhobi woke up from her wicked ` day – dream’. Her sister had spoken to her she looked at her and wondered. What was gnawing at the young girl’s spirit ? Rhobi was in no doubt that something was the matter with Ghati. All through the week and, in fact, all through the last three months, she had noticed something moody and restless in the young girl. This had pained Rhobi who really loved her sister dearly.

The two were inseparable indeed. They played and worked together. Rhobi was older but it was not easy to tell this. Both were fairly tall and well formed; about the same height and looks, though the younger skin was darker. They had the same sharp and restless eyes. Their hair was shiny black and thick. It looked soft and beautiful to touch. Ghati was vivacious. She looked at the pale dark water of the river. It flowed on just as it had done for years, making continued gurgling sounds as it made its way round the projecting rocks.

 `` I want to tell you something ’’, she said. `` Oh, please do ’’, Rhobi responded eagerly, `` But promise me that you’ll keep it secret to yourself.’’ This was an appeal, appeal almost of fear.

`` Well, but tell me about that something ’’ Rhobi said wanting to make her sister relax. She then raised her face to Rhobi and said: `` I have thought and thought again about it. I’ve not been able to eat or sleep properly. My thoughts terrify me. But I think now I have come to a decision ’’. She paused, the said slowly; `` Rhobi, I want to be circumcised’’.

For seconds, Rhobi sat still as if her very being had been paralyzed. The announcement was too sudden and stupefying! She could not believe her ears. She looked at the river, the yellowish streaks of morning light diffused through the forest. The insects in the forest kept up an incessant sound which mingled with the noise of falling water further down the valley.

`` Circumcised?’’ Rhobi found her voice at last. ` Yes’ But father will not allow it. He will be very cross with you. And how can you think of it ?’’ 

Rhobi could visualize Daniel’s fury if he heard of this’’. Besides, you are a Christian. You and I are Christians. We are now wise in the ways of the civilized people. Father has been teaching us what he learnt at Tarime. And you know, the Government don’t like the circumcision of girls. Father has been saying so. Besides, Jesus told us it was wrong and sinful’’.

`` I know. But I want too be circumcised ’’ `` Why?’’ Rhobi asked helplessly. She knew quite well that her father would not hear of such a thing. Every man of God knew that this was a pagan rite against which, time and time again, the missionaries had warned Daniel.

`` Yes, tell me. Why do you want this? Are you not saved from sin?’’ Rhobi was becoming passionate. `` I know, but… ’’ Ghati paused. She felt weak in the knees and thought she was wrong. After all, she too believed in what she was going to do.

`` Look, please… I want to be a woman want to be a really girl, a real woman, knowing all the ways of the hills and ridges.

`` But father, remember him ’’. Reminded Rhobi. “Why! Are we fools?’’ She shook Rhobi. `` Father and Mother are circumcised. Are they not Christians? The exercise did not prevent them from being Christians. I have embraced the white man’s culture. However, I know it is beautifully, so beautiful to be initiated into womanhood. You need to learn the way of the tribe. Now, the white man’s God does not quite satisfy me. I want and need something more. My life and your life are here – in the hills, that both of us know “she stresses. 

Rhobi could not say any thing. She did not follow the young girls logic. She was content to follow whatever has father said was right. And she feared his anger, Ghari turned, appealing with her eyes. “Please, sister, don’t tell father”.

Rhobi earnestly wished she could help her but felt her own powerlessness very acutely. “How will you be initiated?” Father and Mother will not know. But I don’t know where to go” Our aunt lives at Butimbaru” Rhobi tried to help. 

“Oh, Yes, I had thought of that. I will go to Butimbaru and stay with her when the season comes”. What else could Rhobi do? She tried again to remonstrate with her sister, without any result. 

Mori river flowed on. The insects went on with their incessant sound mingling with the fall of the river. The whole scene became fearful to her and she no longer felt excited. They took their plastic water barrels and began the slow ascent of the ridge back to their home in Kibumaye.

The people of Kibumaye were already up and about their morning chores by the time the two girls, with their water-barrel weighing heavily on their heads, reached home. Some women, apparently late raisers, were just now going to the river to fetch water, while in the scattered compounds cattle and goats, with small boys trotting after them, trailed in all direction There was a general uniformity between all huts that lay scattered over this ridge. They consisted of round that thatched and mud-walled houses standing in groups of three to five.

Mr. Daniel, Rhobi`s father, was a middle-aged man who always talked in sharp ringing tones that of knowledge and power. He, along with a few others, had been the first to be converted to the new faith of Christianity. He renounced his tribe’s magic, power and ritual. He realized the ignorance of his people and felt the depth of the darkness in which they live. He had escaped hell, and felt a new creature. That is always what he said at home and in the church. 

Daniel was sitting outside his house when the two girls came and put their water- barrels down. He looked at them as they work, the way they kept together, and felt a father’s pride. His household had a strong Christian foundation and he wanted his daughters cement strong in faith and ways of God, 

That year was unusual. Seasons were rich. Maize and Beans were gathered and put aside against the uncertainties of the future. People were happy and there was much rejoicing. Sunday was always a busy day for Daniel. He conducted a long service in the church. And this particular Sunday he felt exhausted from a long service he conducted. He felt so worn out, especially after his sermon that he did not wait for the usual prayers and singing outside the small Kibumaye church. He found his wife waiting and went home. 

Rhobi, who never waited for the singing outside, was a few yards ahead. Ghati was not there. They went home; she was not there either! This was not unusual, because she always remained behind chatting with villagers. 

In the evening, Ghati did not appear. Her Sister’s heart beat fast. She became restless and walked about in the compound watching for Ghati. When she went back inside, her heart sank when she saw the calm face of her mother. Daniel was resting in bed, and she worried at heart and dreaded the moment when he would ask for Ghati. He did not allow his children out late, mostly now when initiation songs were going on. 

`` I wonder where Ghati is? ’’ Sabina asked, (their mother) slightly puzzled. She was a peace-loving woman and never liked unnecessary tension in the house.

Rhobi kept quiet, she did not know what to say. Before she could make up a suitable answer her father called out for Ghati from his room. Sabina and Rhobi looked at each other as if they had just discovered Ghati was missing. Rhobi then jumped up as if going to look for Ghati, but she only wanted to be away from her father’s fury. 

Ghati had not told her sister that she would go she just slipped away from the church. When Rhobi came back, she found her father standing near Sabina, glaring hard at her. I tell you again you know where your daughter is. Go! Go out and look for her!’’ That is what it meant to be a mother in the African Community. It meant bearing on one’s shoulders all the sins and misdeeds of the children. She went about, looking in all the huts where she was likely to be but in vain!

She came back found her husband in a stern mood. `` Perhaps she has gone to my aunt’’. Rhobi feeling pity for her mother suggested. Better she had kept quite, Daniel almost jumped at her.

`` What! Your aunt? To do what? Tell me at once. Rhobi cowered under his outburst. But she showed hesitation and kept off the moment of revelation by saying. `` I think she has gone to my aunt at Butimbaru ’’. 

To do what? He asked. There was no help for it. She looked at the door, ready to run out as she gathered courage to say the one ominous word `` Circumcision.’’ `` what!’’ ``To be circumcised,’’ and was caught before she could run out. 

He glared at her, shaking her vigorously. He was almost mad and small foams of saliva could be seen at the sides of his month. Rhobi was beside herself with terror, she thought that he would beat her. All of a sudden he released her, let out a very small sigh. Rhobi detected in pain and torment. She felt pity for him.

`` For once I permit you to go to Butimbaru. Go to that woman you call aunt. Tell Ghati to come back. If she agrees we shall forget everything. If she does not, then tell her that she ceases to be my daughter ’’. He went back to his room.

On the following day Rhobi brought the sad news that Ghati had refused to return. Daniel sat still as he listed to this, already he felt ashamed for being caught unaware by the devil last right. This was hard for him! From that day she ceased to exist for him, she had brought everlasting disgrace to him. 

`` All right let her go back to Egypt’’ he murmured faintly.

Circumcision was the central rite in the Kuryaland. Who had ever heard of a girl that was not circumcised? Who would ever pay cows for such a girl? Sacrifices went hand in hand with preparations for the coming circumcision. Everywhere in both ridges candidates for the initiation were gathering. They went from house to house, singing and dancing the ritual songs, the decades old songs. 

Ghati was one of the candidates. Above the beatings of drums and jingles, shouts rose from hill to hill to keep awake those who might night to sleep. Tonight was the eve of the initiation day. The young girl was dancing, jumping and swinging her hips from side to side in the midst of a group of dancing women. The dance was being held at an open-air place in Butimbaru. Whistles, horns, broken tins and everything that was handy went wild! Everybody went into a frenzy of excitement; this was the time for them! Women, stripped to the waist, with their thin breast flapping on their chests contouring their bodies in all sorts of provocative ways. They were free; age and youth had become reconciled for this one night. 

There was mist everywhere it covered both ridge in its thin white grayness. The morning was chilling, but Mori river flowed on as if defying the mist. The water, however, was cold. To Ghati, bathing so early, the water seemed to cut her skin like a sharp knife. She shivered a little as she sat, naked, her breasts ripe on her chest, near the riverbank. The cold water had gone through the skin, numbing the muscles. 

She was not alone; all along the bank were other initiates, waiting for the surgeon (Ngariba). All her life, she had waited for this day for this very opportunity to reveal her woman hood courage. Yet now that the time had come she felt afraid, she did not, however, show it, she just stared into space, fear giving her courage. 

The Ngariba grabbled a new razorblade from her hand, flashed her with handful of finger millet flour and cut her! It produced a thin sharp pain as it cut through the flesh. The Ngariba had done her work, blood tickled freely on the ground, sinking into the soil. Henceforth a religious bond linked Ghati to the earth, as if her blood was an offering. Around her, women were shouting and praising her.

She sat still after the operation; she was now covered with a colored Kitenge. All was well, yet the pain came and shook her to the roots…………. the numbness was wearing away. The flesh alive again …………… PAIN! Ghati could not move, that was the gateway to the mystery of the hills.

Some days later in a market place, a group of four people were talking about the whole experience. `` All the girls?’’ asked the elder from Kibumaye `` There is a girl ……………She is not well ’’ `` Who is she?’’ `` Ghati ’’.

`` Oh, Daniel’s daughter? I have heard about her. Strange case for the girl..’’ `` Yes.. It is strange’’ repeated Mwita. All the other girls have left, their wounds nearly dry scars ’’. `` And she?’’ enquired the old man `` Oh, no, she stays with her aunt, her wound, we hear, is getting bigger and worse’’.

`` A father’s curse ’’. 

`` May be ’’. 

`` Stay well, remain in peace’’ the elder went away 

It was a week now since the others resumed normal life, but Ghati was still suffering. Rhobi had come to see her. Her face was much darker than before. She was bearing it well! Rhobi could not hold her tears, which sometimes gushed from her eyes. 

As days went by, Ghati became worse; she was wasting away so fast. Now only her eyes seemed to have life. Something had to be done. The herbs that her aunt gave her would not cure her. Rhobi consulted their aunt and suggested that her younger sister should be taken to the hospital.

Her mother could not go to see her as Daniel was against it. Ghati did not last many hours soon after they arrived in the hospital. She died! She had died clinging to that image, to that obsession which had led her from Kibumaye to Butimbaru.

Osoro PJ. Nyawangah, Mwanza - Tanzania is a freelance journalist, district political party secretary and african cultural advocate. 

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