Ever since Grandpa died, Ambuya – Grandma – rations her affection in morsels, like the last pieces of beef in a stew. Some to Daddy, her first son, less to Mummy, the one who stole him from her bosom. It’s almost as if Grandpa took her joy with him to his grave in Mutenguleni Village. What’s left of it she lavishes on you, her only grandchild. Whenever she calls you to her room, her round face unravels a smile, with a dimple pressed deep in her left cheek, identical to yours.
In exchange for your presence she tells you stories about anything and everything: Daddy as a child, her upbringing in the ’40s, trips to Lusaka with Grandpa. You devour them and ask for more.
So, when you hear her shrill voice call, ‘Falesi!’ you abandon your chiyato game on the veranda, tossing the pebbles and racing inside.
‘Bring me sweet water,’ she says. Code for chibuku, the local brew, which Daddy does a poor job of hiding in the pantry behind the Kellogg’s.
You sneak into the kitchen and bring her a box of the beer.
She grins. ‘Lock the door, mashina,’ she says, calling you namesake.
You smile back and turn the key. After all, Ambuya has asked for stranger things; last week she asked you to scrape an anthill off a tree for her to eat because she was craving salt.
She pats the woven reed of the mpasa.
You nestle next to her, breathing her in: Vaseline and Lifebuoy. She shifts to face you.
‘Tell me a story.’
‘This story is about me,’ she replies, ‘but it’s also about you.’ You fold your palms under your chin.
‘Maziba ayo’ – she points a crooked finger at your budding breasts – ‘mean, playtime is over.’
You chuckle but your pits prickle and you squirm.
She takes a sip. ‘When Grandpa married me, I had to be sent back to my parents because I wasn’t ready for him.’
You furrow your thick brows.
‘So, I’ll prepare you, and you’ll NEVER be sent back, okay?’ She seizes your arm at NEVER, startling you, but you nod. This is Ambuya after all, who, when you were seven, taught you to braid your curls into three-strand twists every night so it was easy to comb for your first day of school.
‘Good, now take off your pant.’ Her voice drops to a whisper, so soft it’s almost not there, like the dawn sprouting between your legs.
Your eyes bulge. ‘M-m-my pant?’ you stammer, your heartbeat rising.
She sips again and nods. ‘We must start early.’
This is Ambuya, the one who taught me how to sew my skirts when I ripped them from rough play, you pacify yourself. The thought quiets your heart, silences your question, and you do as she says.
The flimsy cotton slides off, prickling your legs with goosebumps.
‘Let’s see.’ She bends closer.
She gulps the last of the beer and forces your legs open.
‘I’ll bring more sweet water,’ you blurt.
‘Shh,’ she repeats as she reaches between your legs to pull at two pieces of flesh you didn’t know were there.
You bite your bottom lip, taste metal, and force your lids closed.
She pulls again.
You swallow. ‘I need to urinate!’
‘Not yet,’ she says, reaching into the hollow between her sagging breasts to remove a tiny yellow bottle. She runs her fingers inside and rubs the sticky contents on the flaps of skin she just stretched. She’s so gentle, it’s as though she’s rubbing Vicks VapoRub on your chest when you have a cold, so you whimper, ‘Thank you.’
‘Osalila,’ she says, wiping your cheeks, ‘ndiye ukazi.’ This is womanhood.
She hands you the container.
‘Kudonsa,’ she says, making a tugging motion, ‘is a rite of passage. Do it every night until they grow nice and long.’
You wince. ‘Kudonsa?’
‘Every day! So that you will make a good wife for your husband one day.’
Her gummy smile returns. ‘Every good house has curtains. A good wife is like a house. Without those, you will be like a house without curtains. You understand?’
You don’t. But you let the word, ‘ukazi,’ crawl off your tongue and you nod vigorously.
She’s never lied.
‘Good. I’ll check next week.’
You stumble to the door, struggle to get it open, and step into the light of the sitting room, where you are shocked to note that, unlike you, nothing has changed. Daddy’s suede chair sits where you left it, between the Sony stereo and Mummy’s potted flowers. Daddy, nose in a newspaper, is perched in his seat.
Did he hear?
‘Everything okay?’ he asks.
You stare at his large peanut-butter-coloured hands, at the screaming red newspaper headlines, at the open door where your dog, Tiger, is fighting flies from his ear; you dart your eyes anywhere but at his face, which will surely catch your lie.
‘Yes, Daddy,’ you mumble.
In the kitchen, Mummy takes one look at you, rolls her eyes, and asks, ‘What is it?’ Her arms are folded across her chest and she’s tapping her foot.
‘You’re not in trouble again, are you?’ she presses.
You mull over the word trouble, recalling your habit of biting the neighbourhood children whenever you lose a game.
Was it not Mummy who said to not speak ill of elders? Had she not told you over and over to listen to the wisdom of the old? ‘What elders see sitting down, a child cannot see standing up,’ being her favourite proverb.
So you caress the secret, though it sears through your chest and repeat ‘no,’ more to yourself than to Mummy.
‘Good,’ she clips, returning to her cooking.
At night, you lie awake in your bed and examine the contents of the container Ambuya gave you: mango leaves and charcoal, shredded and crushed into Vaseline. You lather the concoction on your still sore labia and pull until they’re sweating like your brow and you can’t take anymore.
Every night, as sure as moonlight, you do it. Kudonsa-tugging, wincing, crying, sweating.
‘Until when?’ you plead with Ambuya when she checks your progress a week later, as promised.
‘You can stop when they’re this long,’ she says, showing you her crooked pinkie. You gape and wait for her to smile.
‘Shut your mouth,’ she snaps. ‘Curtains, remember?’ She points at the murky ones hanging from her window.
Kudonsa until they dangle between your legs when you shower, sweat when you cover them with underwear, and itch against your widening thighs.
Early the next year, your parents drive you to Kasisi Girls Secondary School to start Grade Eight and you learn that you’re part of a larger cult, joined together by kudonsa. Some peeking like a shy toddler, others wagging like a dog’s tongue, but everyone united by the curtains that hang between your legs as you take cold showers together each morning.
After study hour, huddled up in your bunk beds, you giggle and share the reasons for your curtains as bedtime stories, where you learn your stretched labia are called malepe.
‘What are they for?’ someone asks.
‘I heard they help in delivery,’ offers one, met by sniggers that bounce off the dormitory
‘How?’ you ask.
‘Stretching to help the baby out,’ she replies; this time the girls murmur back, churning her words.
‘No,’ interjects a shrill voice. ‘My sister said they help hold a man’s penis in place.’
‘I heard it makes you watery … that you lose feeling,’ a hesitant whisper.
‘Ai, not that! They’re for a woman’s pleasure; you just have to know where to touch.’
‘It’s true! The man plays with them until it’s nice for you.’
‘Every good house has curtains, and a good wife is like that house.’ This is you, closing the matter, met by nods and silence.
The word pleasure lingers with you, though, so that night you test out the theory and try to pry it with your fingers. Finding nothing, you stop, leaving it for the school holidays, when you will surely ask Ambuya yourself about the curtains other uses. But she dies before you get there, buried together with these secrets. Leaving you wailing and rolling on the earth next to her grave.
Ten years have come and gone since then, and still you wait. In this decade, your period starts, at first unreliable but then settling on the twenty-first of every month, another piece of the womanhood puzzle.
You straighten your kink, bleach your skin raw, fading your rich ebony everywhere but your knuckles, which remain stubbornly charred, like Ambuya’s. But at least you look like the women on the news.
You finish secondary school and train to be a nurse at Lusaka Apex Medical University. There you fall in love with Sam, who is doing his residency at the Levy Mwanawasa Hospital at the same time. And though he persists, tugging at your tight uniform whenever he catches you alone, you make him wait. Because before Ambuya died, she also told you to save the curtains for a husband.
So, when Sam proposes with cubic zirconia and gold, you know the answer.
Mummy finds you a choice Alangizi to give you traditional marriage counselling and fill in the last pieces of the puzzle on your body. When she checks the length of your curtains, the Alangizi grins. ‘A woman in full,’ she assures Mummy.
Now the reveal is here!
Dr Sam Chanda weds Falesi Tembo, announce the golden letters. Saturday, January 7, 2017, at the University of Zambia Chapel, 10:00 am, followed by a reception at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre at 7:00 pm.
Pulsating with excitement, you arrive an hour late to a church brimming with people.
Mummy has planted herself at the front of the chapel, her suit matching the pastel peach and green of the walls, with a giant feather of a hat to mark the place in the crowd. Mother of the bride.
‘Ready?’ Daddy asks.
‘Yes,’ you say, meeting his eyes this time.
Clutching Daddy’s arm, you glide in, catching a glimpse of the crowd: family and friends you haven’t seen in years; Mummy’s church crew and their spinster daughters. All of them smiling and clicking their phones to capture the moment.
You did it! And your prize is waiting at the end of the pew: the reason you stretched the skin between your legs to three inches; the reason you now wear a string of plastic beads around your waist, and don fingernail-length tattoos on your lower back, rubbed dry with herbs, that turned them from red to black. Tall and bespectacled in a three-piece navy suit.
You curl your lips upwards and go through the motions of the day.
Posing for photos outside the Holiday Inn. Lunching with your ten-man bridal party.
Dancing into the reception and pausing for the fervent ululations of the guests, drunk from the bright lights and the cold beer.
Then finally comes the climax in a white hotel room, with red rose petals in the shape of a heart on the plush king-size bed.
Sam fumbles with the latch on your bra, traces your nipples with his tongue. His fingers falter between your legs as he pushes your panties off, the familiar graze of cotton over your bare legs giving you goosebumps – a breeze of pleasure.
You watch his face for excitement, recognition, as his hands graze over your labia, but his eyes are shut as he rips into you with a groan.
You moan and dig your nails into his back but feel nothing between your legs except a throbbing pain each time he thrusts.
‘Osalila. Ndiye ukazi,’ the ghost of Ambuya whispers. He shudders and grins. ‘Did you enjoy it, baby?’
He rolls over, sated.
He’s happy, you think. He won’t send me away. But your words don’t soothe you. Your fingers twitch, a memory of something lost, as you try to reach for a salve you haven’t seen in so long. But it isn’t there – just the pain between your legs.
Outside the world continues, unchanged.
Tires rumble over Addis Ababa, crickets chirp in the bushes, security guards stalk their hotel grounds, chatting and laughing. You lie there in the darkness, listening to your husband snore, all the while wondering, ‘Is this womanhood?’
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