Ever since Grandpa died, Ambuya—Grandma rations her affection in morsels, like the last bits 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 Grandma’s joy with him to his grave. 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, about 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.
“Maa?” you answer.
“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, to which she grins.
“Lock the door, mashina,” she says, calling you namesake.
You smile back and turn the key without question. After all, Ambuya has asked for stranger things; just last week she told you to scrape an anthill off a tree for her to eat because she was craving salt.
Sit, she says by patting the woven reed of the mpasa.
You nestle into 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 and continues, “When your Grandfather 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 so that 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 frizz sprouting between your legs.
Your eyes bulge. “M-m-y pant?” you stammer, your heartbeat rising furiously.
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 cotton undies slip off, and your legs prickle with goosebumps.
“Let’s see,” she says, bending 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 saliva. “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 smearing Vicks VapoRub to your chest when you have a cold, so you whimper a “Thank you” through your tears.
“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?”
“So that you will make a good wife for your husband one day.”
Her gummy smile returns as she explains, “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 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 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?”
“Nothing!” leaps out of your throat.
“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 you 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 Ambuyagave 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 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.
When, early the next year, your parents drive you to Kasisi Girls’ Secondary School to start Grade Eight, 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 that 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 walls.
“How?” you ask.
“Stretching, to help the baby out,” she replies; this time the girls murmur back, churning her words.
“No,” interjects another. “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 out with your fingers. When it eludes you, you stop, leaving it for the school holidays, when you will surely ask Ambuya yourself, about the curtains’ other uses. But she dies before then, buried together with these secrets.
Ten years have come and gone since then, and still, you wait. In this decade, your period started, at first unreliable but then settling on the 21st of every month, another fragment of the womanhood puzzle.
You’ve straightened your kink, bleached your skin raw, fading your rich ebony everywhere but your knuckles, which remain stubbornly charred, like Ambuya’s. You’ve finished high school and trained to be a nurse at Lusaka Apex Medical University. You fell in love with Sam, who was doing his residency at the Levy Mwanawasa Hospital, while you conducted your practical nurses’ training. And though he persisted, yanking at your tight uniform whenever he caught you alone, you made him wait. Because, before Ambuya died, she also told you to save the curtains for a husband.
So, when Sam proposed with cubic zirconia and gold, you knew the answer.
Mummy found you a choice Alangizi, to give you traditional marriage counselling and fill in the last pieces of the puzzle on your body. When she checked the length of your curtains, the Alangizi beamed. “A woman in full,” she assured Mummy.
Now, the reveal is here!
Dr Sam Chanda weds Falesi Tembo, announce the golden letters. Saturday, January 7th, 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 her 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’ cameras.
You did it!
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 bleeding 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 with glee and cold beer.
Then finally comes the climax in a white hotel room, with red rose petals 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 brush 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 French tips into his back, but feel nothing between your legs except a raw pain each time he thrusts.
“Osalila. Ndiye ukazi,” the ghost of Ambuya whispers.
Sam shudders and grins. “Did you enjoy it, baby?”
You nod, and 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 used in so long. But it isn’t there—just the ache between your legs.
Outside, the world continues, unchanged.
Wheels rumble over Addis Ababa, crickets chirp in the shrubs, security guards stalk the hotel grounds, chatting and laughing. You lie there in the darkness, listening to your husband snore, all the while wondering, “Is this womanhood?”
Mubanga Kalimamukwento is an emerging Zambian writer whose first novel, The Mourning Bird, won the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award 2019 and is forthcoming with Jacana Media on June 1st, 2019. Her work is published or is forthcoming in The Advocates for Human Rights, Two Sisters Writing and Publishing, the Dreamers Creative Writingmagazine and The Airgonaut. She won the Two Sisters long short fiction competition in January 2019 and received an honourable mention in the Dreamers Writing Contest: Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home, in February 2019. She’s a current Hubert H. Humphrey (Fulbright) Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs for her policy proposal on Zambia’s compliance with the Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. She’s also a proud mother of two boys.
*** Note from the editor: This story was originally published on Eunoia Review***
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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