I was everyone’s least favorite person in the village. To be a teacher was frowned on. To be a female teacher was greatly frowned on. To be an unmarried woman was exceedingly frowned on. Now, to be an unmarried female teacher, well, that was stupendously, horrifyingly frowned on. Even the madman Kowari who had an insult for everyone never said a word to me; I was way below interest. If it were up to the local folk, they would have banished me long ago. Well, as a daughter of the land, they couldn’t. They were stuck with me
Being a village teacher in 1944 in Kisumu meant that you had embraced the colonialists; it meant that you had attended their mission schools, been baptized into Christianity, and in doing so, betrayed your people in their resistance against being colonized by the white man.
Being a female teacher meant that in addition to the above, you had become like a man by seeking employment. Women were supposed to do domestic house work. Being an unmarried woman with a job meant that you had gone against the female cultural upbringing and forsaken the pattern of life in which a woman was born; namely to be a mother and a wife. I had committed all of the above sins, and that’s why my presence in the village was abhorred. My only hope of redemption, they said, was to be absorbed into a polygamous marriage. What they forgot was since I was an abomination, no man would ever look at me, much to my relief.
“Just the person I was looking for,” Mrs. Baker accosted me in the evening as I was locking the classroom door, the only bricked building in the entire village. It was the only thing from the white men that everyone loved. Its smooth walls and cool cement floor was a far cry from the rough mud-thatched huts that surrounded us. The students loved rubbing their hands over the floor and the walls, marvelling at this wonder. I suspected it was an incentive to attend. I was just happy that they loved it there.
“A wonderful opportunity has come up dear, and I thought to share with you.” She gushed, the excitement written all over her face.
Mrs. Baker was a missionary; alongside her husband, they had established five schools in our district. Her role was overseer, and she would do rounds in the different schools to ensure that order prevailed, obedience reigned, and the curriculum was followed by the local teachers. Her small frame and light feet were often the talk and amusement of the village. “She’s just like a child,” they would say, “Doesn’t her husband give her enough food?” Or, “It must be a curse from the spirits.” Besides being small, she always adorned broad brimmed straw hats for the African sun, as she always said, it was too much for her. She had light grey eyes that often wandered, noting everything. And right now, they were searching mine.
“The church missionary society wants to further train select teachers,” she went on enthusiastically. “We want to set up the first adult education centre in Nairobi and need well trained educators. The training is in the capital, all expenses paid.” She stepped back to look at me.
Don’t get excited, I told myself. Putting the classroom keys in my satchel, maybe she’s just informing me. She wouldn’t want me to go of course. I had not gone past the substandard B level in education.
“There’s no one better suited than you dear.” She said the magic words I was dying to hear. Patting my hand gently, she asked, “Would you want to go?”
“Yes,” I shouted, jumping and startling her. I didn’t need to think twice. “Of course I will go, even right now if need be.” This was the moment I had been waiting for my entire life: to get out of this village, to move to the city, five hundred miles away, where people were less reserved and wouldn’t look at me with disdain. To be trained to be a better teacher, to teach adults in Nairobi. I was beside myself. I hugged Mrs. Baker with joy, welling up with emotion. “Oh, thank you. Thank you, so much.”
“No need to make a fuss dear, you deserve it. It starts in a week’s time. I know it’s not enough notice, but well, whoever gets enough notice for anything?”
I could only smile at her. Seven days was more than enough time.
“Well, I will see you tomorrow then; we shall go over the details. Goodbye dear,” she said, looking pleased, and walked away, her light feet daintily gliding over the small stones that covered the school path.
Walking home that evening, I was in pure bliss. The sneering women I met on the trodden village paths had nothing on me, and even when the soothsayer spit and turned his back when he saw me approaching I could only smile at him. Just seven more days, and all will be a thing of the past, I mused.
The village appeared more beautiful that evening. Nature rejoiced with me. The dull nyabend-winy leaves seemed to have taken a shiny shade that evening; the wind blew gently on me, restoring my soul. The red sheaves of the sorghum we had planted last season glistened in the evening sun, spreading red rays over the mud-thatched huts that stood erect in the many homesteads. I walked leisurely towards our homestead. It wasn’t a homey place, my home, but this evening even this was different. My aunt was pacing up and down in front of her hut, talking excitedly to my grandfather, her tall huge frame appearing even bigger as she waved her arms. She saw me appear and gave a squeal of delight. I was shocked. My pace slowed, I approached them cautiously.
“Good evening, Grandfather,” I went down on my knees in greeting.
“A wonderful evening it is,” he replied, happily tapping my head to bless me.
“Good evening, Aunty,” I bowed to my aunt who acknowledged my greeting with rushing to me and expelling all the air in my body by giving me a tight hug. My bones cried out in fear.
After my parents’ death four years ago, I moved to my grandfather’s homestead; he was the only person who still loved me. He lived with my aunt, uncle, and their children. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to marry me off to any man, and my consistent refusal, the suitors stopped coming. After giving up on me, my Aunt Nyamalo had finally stopped talking to me two years ago when I started teaching at the mission school. I had shamed my family.
Because of that, I had devoted all my energies to being a school teacher; and the rewards had paid off today. Could it be that someone had told them I was leaving for the city? Is that why they were so happy, for they would finally be rid of me? I wondered.
“Oh Nerea, we have been waiting for you” she started, “The gods have finally favored us.”
“Not the white man’s god that you teach at that school of yours, but the true god of our ancestors,” Grandfather interrupted, lifting his walking cane up to the sky.
“Yes, yes,” Aunt agreed hastily eager to move on. “Early this afternoon, Omollo came, do you remember Omollo?” she asked. I didn’t remember Omollo, but she supplied the information.
“Omollo is Oketch’s eldest son, who has been serving in the King’s African Rifles unit in the white man’s land. He came back last week and even though I'm sure he can have any girl in the village—and he’s surely heard of your bad reputation—he still came to ask for your hand in marriage.” She finished, exhaling noisily, relieved to finally share with me her wonderful news.
“It’s the best news I’ve heard since the white man occupied our land,” Grandfather said rising from his stool and leaning heavily on his cane. “I had lost all hope for you Nerea; even when I said I didn’t want any dowry for you, no one came to ask for your hand after you started teaching. Even my old friends wouldn't take you as junior wife, for you had become the village refuse. But to have this young man, eligible and knowledgeable, come to ask for your hand, and to offer me dowry…. Oh, now I can die in peace.” His voice broke as a tear rolled down his cheek. He sank back on his stool again, shaking.
“Omollo has redeemed us,” Aunty whispered. “Now we can walk with our heads held high in the village.” She smiled tenderly at me.
“Anyway he’s coming over with his people tomorrow evening for your betrothal, and there’s a lot of preparation, I’d better get started.” And with that she hurried into the cooking hut. Seeing grandfather lost in thought, I walked slowly to Grandmother’s hut where I slept. Locking the door, I sank to my knees and wept.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Tossing and turning on my sleeping mat, I went over, for the hundredth time, the decision I had made. Would I regret it? Of course I would. Was it worth it? Maybe. Would I forgive myself? I don’t know. Did I want to change my mind? No.
The future lay so brightly ahead of me. My lifelong desire of teaching our people, imparting knowledge to them and empowering them burned in my bones, and to do that in the city where no one would judge me was my life’s calling. To be married in a sleepy rural village, putting up with a man’s foolishness year after year and popping out babies for him, that I could not live with.
My teaching in the village, as much as I loved it, was not fulfilling; for the children only came because it was the colonial governments ordinance, and their parents would be fined heavily or flogged if they didn’t come. For that reason they hated school even more. Teaching adults in the city would be different, for they would have chosen by their own will to attend school. I finally fell into an uncomfortable sleep.
The next morning, I was on the path to school just as the birds started calling to each other. The normally beautiful morning fragrance of damp earth and fallen leaves threatened to suffocate me today. At the school gate, the night watchman, as usual, didn’t bother to greet me. Opening my classroom, I sat gently on the small wooden rickety chair, twiddling my thumbs as I awaited Mrs. Baker.
“Good Morning dear, how early you are today,” she said breezing in later. I half smiled in response. “I have with me the training schedule plus additional details. Here, let’s go over them,” she hoisted herself up to sit on the desk placing the small file beside her.
“Mrs. Baker, I am not going to the city,” I started. “I am not even continuing here as a teacher. It’s over, it’s all over. My betrothal is this evening. I’ll be getting married soon. Grandfather can now die in peace. My suitor is paying dowry. Grandfather cried at that news, and Aunt hugged me for the first time in my twenty one years. She will now walk without shame in the village. I didn't know I was such a huge burden to my family.”
Mrs. Baker face turned from shock to pity, she removed her handkerchief and wiped my tears, tears I wasn’t even aware that were flowing.
“I am going to redeem myself in the villagers’ eyes, maybe they will now like me, maybe the madman Kowari will finally insult me like he does everyone else, and the women will accept me. Goodbye, Mrs. Baker.”
I pressed the classroom key in her hands, and stumbled out of the door and towards the new chapter of my life.
*This is author’s grandmother's story as narrated to her late last year.
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