Breaking a pot was seeking a curse, but fear of a curse was not why Koko was taking her time to balance the water pot on her head. Breaking the pot was the least of her worries. She just wanted some time alone. She ensured she was the last one to fill up her pot so that she could walk a few paces behind the rest of the group and think. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was slowly setting, hiding itself behind the huge mountains. The river pounded the rocky banks louder than usual; it was nearly overflowing from the monsoon rains that had just let up. The earth had become softer, the plants greener and the paths over which Koko walked were more overgrown.
Thirty meters from the river, in the direction of the village, rows of young mothers with babies on their back bent over at the Miunya farms, carefully pulling out weeds and supporting the delicate climbing plants with wooden stalks that they pushed deeply into the ground. The plant, a green bitter herb used for prevention of pregnancies by breast feeding mothers, could only be cared for by the women who used it and every evening saw the women in need of it, attending to the small farm together. Koko and other younger girls from the village only saw the herbs from a distance, they were not allowed anywhere near the farm and most of them were not sure exactly why women with babies liked or even needed it.
A trip to the river usually got Koko thinking about the day when she, with her baby firmly strapped on her back, would be pulling out weeds from the farm along with the other mothers, a thought that usually gave her a warm feeling. She would have a family, a baby that looked like its father, her own hut where she made the rules and a loving man waiting for his food every day when the sun set.
This evening though, her thoughts were elsewhere. She set the pot on her head and left the river behind. There were tears in her eyes and a sharp pain seemed to fill her heart. After this night, her dream would be over. The new suitor from Tande village was due the following morning and word in the village was that he was wealthy; wealthier than anyone in her village. Anuka, the village gossip, said that the suitor’s cattle were so many that it took six men to count them every evening. But then, Anuka was known to exaggerate; after all, wasn’t it because of her tall tales that she earned the title of village gossip?
Although Koko’s father, Muntu, had turned away many suitors, Koko knew it was not because he wanted the right man for her to marry but because they did not have the number of cattle he desired as dowry. Along with Koko, everyone in the village knew Muntu wanted riches more than anything else.
Muntu had been a lazy young man, working only hard enough to ensure there was food on the table. He was never able to save any maize, cassava or even beans because he never planted enough and every planting season found him borrowing seeds from his mother. He had no cattle to speak of, his goats were few and he was not much of a hunter, although once in awhile his traps caught a warthog. He attributed the catch to his good hunting skills but everyone in the village knew that the rains fell on both the rich and the poor.
If Muntu was lazy in the planting season, he was even lazier during the weeding season. His plants grew side by side with all manner of weeds and if he cared, he did not bend his back to prove it. It was no wonder that his harvest was always less with each passing season. But even though Muntu had nothing to speak of, he still liked to brag. And he had a way with words that had men listening to him even when what he said was as worthless as a rat in a hut.
Every time Muntu went to have a drink, he would brag about his beautiful wife and three daughters. He would talk of his wife’s long graceful neck, her huge behind and small waist. He would go on and on, mentioning parts that would have left his wife embarrassed if she heard his words. The men complained and said they could not stand him but, every time Muntu opened his mouth, they still gathered around him.
Unlike other men, he did not seem interested in getting an heir who would carry his name. He only wanted more daughters because they would bring him dowry and his greed was so much that he did not want another wife who might provide an heir. He lied that he was not interested in getting another wife because he was content with his one wife but it was common knowledge that he did not want to part with any of his recently acquired cattle as dowry for another wife.
When Muntu’s first daughter Lila turned fourteen, he was untouchable in his pride. Lila was beautiful, tall and obedient. Her face was oval and long, her nose was small and her eyes were like those of a young doe. Her walk was graceful and her nature humble. She was the opposite of Muntu who was short, with a nose that seemed to split his face in two and a mouth that was way too big. Muntu’s head was small and at forty eight rains; he had a bald head that evoked laughter among the goat-herding kids in the village. He had small eyes, bushy eyebrows and a protruding forehead. He was so ugly that no one could figure out how he managed to get such a beautiful wife especially since he came from a poor family.
But the gods had not entirely forgotten Muntu. What he lacked in physical appearance, the gods made up by blessing him with three beautiful daughters.
But it was obvious he was not going to be poor anymore. Lila ended up marrying one of the elders from the neighboring village, after her father had received a ridiculous dowry that amounted to a hundred cows, six bulls, some goats and countless pots of banana wine. It was an unwritten custom for a father to ask for thirty or forty cows as bride price, two or three goats and five pots of wine but Muntu, who cared more for riches than customs, got his way.
When his second daughter came of marriage age, he increased the price by four bulls. Suitors turned away shaking their heads when they heard about the expected dowry. No one expected that there will be a suitor willing to hand over such a large number of cattle, well that was until they heard of the man from Tande. Muntu might not have been good looking but he was smart. He knew that the rich always wanted something everyone else could not get. He made his daughters seem more precious than the rest.
”My jewels, my precious gemstones”, he called them when he had too much of the sweet banana wine.
Rumors in the village were that the suitor wanted to marry Koko but only because he could afford it not because he wanted a new wife. Villagers that had been to Tande knew that the man had four wives and more than enough children but that did not stop the unmarried girls from envying Koko and what they termed her luck. They knew that her days on the village farm would be numbered and for most of them, getting away from the back breaking farm labor through marriage was more than welcome.
Everyone seemed happy, well that is with the exception of Koko. If the new suitor agreed to pay her father’s ridiculous bride price, then she could not marry Amana. That thought added more grief to her already paining heart. From the day her heart started skipping a beat at the sight of Amana, Koko knew that her love for him might never be fulfilled but she had kept on hoping. Amana had nothing and Koko knew that he could hardly be able to pay the normal bride price on his own. The future for the two looked dimmer than ever.
She knew she should forget about the dream, after all the ancestors were not stupid when they said hyenas did not lick the bone held by lions.
As she walked home, she did not see the noisy hornbills fighting up a long leaning coconut tree. She failed to hear the red and green parrots calling each other and didn’t smell the fragrance of the Pacha flowers. Ahead of her, Gogo, her younger sister, and the other girls gossiped and laughed loudly. One imitated a marriage dance while walking with a pot on her head. She swayed her hips fast from side to side without the rest of the body moving, leaving the rest in laughter. Koko heard the laughter but was too distracted to hear the words. The laughter itself was lost in her thoughts and all she felt was sadness. If only, she wondered aloud, if only the gods of love would be merciful to her.
She had known Amana all her life. He was always the bigger boy who lived near their huts. She thought he was good looking, had a good heart and was helpful. When they were young, he once helped carry her water pot home after she slipped and hurt her foot. Carrying water was something only women and girls did but he surprised her by carrying it for her. He would have been the laughing stock of the village if anyone had known that he had carried it and it was with this thought in mind that she had walked behind him. Unconsciously, she had chewed her nail wondering what she would say to him when they got near the village but when he got as close as he could without being seen, he had put the pot down and walked away without giving her a chance to say thanks. It had remained their little secret.
And that was only the beginning of her love for him.
She remembered quite well how it was with him when he came back from his initiation into manhood. Unlike other boys his age who had been regarded as adults, he did not tease girls, at least not in front of her. He did not laugh out loudly when he saw them passing by and neither did he peep at them when they went to the river to bathe.
What she remembered most about him was the first day he had talked to her as an adult. She had not known what he would say and knew that if they got caught; her father’s whipping would have scarred her forever. But she still went to meet with him. She had noticed that ever since she had started becoming a woman, Amana looked at her in a different manner. She loved him and would have told him so if the opportunity ever arose but it seemed it never would. Then one afternoon Gogo whispered in her ear that Amana wanted to see her. Her surprise was quickly replaced by joy.
He had asked her to meet with him close to the river, a few meters from the animals’ watering point. Although she had agreed to met, she had chosen a different place, well hidden from prying eyes.
He had found her seated near a rock, several meters from where her younger sister sat hidden, acting as lookout. Amana stood behind her, his shadow engulfing her body. He spoke for a while but all she remembered afterwards were the words he spoke to her heart. Her hands were shaking and the stone pebbles she held fell after she had what he had to say. She had turned around and faced him because she wanted to see his face as the words came out of his mouth but by the time she turned, the breeze had already carried them away.
Without thinking, she opened her mouth and asked him to repeat the words. And he did and for the second time in her life, she shed tears before him. After he left, she ran, trembling all the way home and nothing could have stopped the shivers that ran up and down her body. Not even the Mwabani concoctions that her mother made her take because she thought Koko had a fever stilled the shivers.
Amana had touched her hand and had traced his hand from the tips of her fingers to where he thought her heart was, without touching her breast. “I want you to love me from here …” he had said, his hand holding the tip of her index finger, “… to here,” as he trailed his hand up to where her heart was. His hands were big yet gentle and his normally rough voice came out as whispers.
Koko knew then that he was the one she wanted to be with and for the next two planting seasons, all she could think about was Amana. She watched how he walked, how he smiled and even how he frowned. It was hard hiding what she felt for him. She would look for any excuse to pass near him, just to look at him and for many nights, she dreamt about being with him, dreamt that they did a lot more than just talk.
Some nights, she dreamt that they were married, living in the same hut. During those nights, she talked in her dreams. Gogo would tease her mercilessly every next morning.
Then they met again quite by accident; in the plantains. It was late in the afternoon when Koko’s mother having realized that the food they had would not be enough and, afraid of a rebuke from her husband, sent Koko to get some bananas.
Amana found her near the plantains and, without a word, took her hand. She put down the bananas she was about to take home and followed. They lay down on the soft grass beside each other and he made her his. Her heart became his. He possessed her body and she held onto his. For a few minutes, they were one and nothing else mattered except what they had together in that moment in time.
After they were done, she rushed home with the bananas, afraid of what had happened but excited at the promise he had made. He told her she was his, no matter what happened and she believed him.
Now it seemed that all was lost.
When Amana had first heard of the new suitor, he had sent her a message asking her to run away with him. She had not responded to his message. She wanted to go anywhere with him but breaking her mother’s heart was not something she wanted to do. The whole village would blame her mother and her sisters would hate her. It was her obligation to keep the family honor, regardless of whether it was what she wanted or not. But she could not break Amana’s heart either. They were meant to be together, just like the full moon and the night. He was the night and she, the full moon. Apart, they were nothing but together, they were perfect.
Her thoughts heavy and her heart burdened, Koko stepped into her father’s compound. She placed her water pot outside the kitchen next to Gogo’s and sat with her back reclining against the wall. She needed a moment to compose herself. Darkness was slowly creeping on the light. She closed her eyes. Another day was gone. Maybe tomorrow the gods would smile on her, she thought.