Mwanne washed the dishes slowly. Her small hands methodically moved from plate to plate, soaping and scrubbing.
Shadows of her smooth black hands danced on the white tiled walls above to the kitchen sink. The electric bulb hanging from the white ceiling illuminated the room, casting faint shadows on the wall.
The kitchen was spotless. On the mahogany table to her left, a thermos stood next to a packet of cereals.
The soft hum of the fridge accompanied the sound of running tap water. The rest of the house was silent except for the occasional whine of the dogs outside. They were hungry, very hungry.
She moved her head round slowly to ease the pain in the neck muscles. She was tired. She had been working since five in the morning.
She finished rinsing the last plate and was about to put it on the dish rack, when it slipped off her hand and fell. It hit the floor loudly, breaking the silence and sending pieces flying through the air. She looked at the scattered pieces and immediately tears flowed down her cheeks. Holding her mouth with one hand, she silently prayed that the sound did not make its way into madam’s bedroom.
She listened for the opening of the door but could only hear the clock in the sitting room ticking. She picked up the pieces, one by one and threw them into the dust bin. As she picked the last one, it pierced deep into her index finger. She pulled it out and threw it in the bin.
A blood spot appeared on the finger and she quickly put it her mouth. It was not painful but she found herself weeping uncontrollably. She sat down on the floor and wiped off her tears on her yellow dress. The sight of the dress only increased her tears.
Its yellow color had faded to near transparency and several patches of different colors had become part of it.
She held her head with both her hands and looked at the floor.
The cut brought back memories. She recalled the last time she cut herself back at home. It was a very small cut. Her father’s reaction was anger and concern. He had wiped it gently and had tied her hand with a handkerchief.
Mwanne sighed. Did he have to die? The thought got her up and she returned to the sink. The plates were done but the big sufurias, with black burnt bottoms, the remnants of the pilau they had cooked a few hours ago stared at her.
She dreaded scrubbing them yet she knew they had better be scrubbed before morning, if she were to have a peaceful morning. As if she ever had one. In her heart, she knew nothing would make it better especially if the broken plate was found.
Even without the plate, Mama Tunu, her employer always found something to shout about but there was no harm in dreaming of peace.
At half past midnight, she had finished her work. The dishes were sparkling clean, the house mopped and she had finished making the dogs’ food. She took food outside the big bungalow. The compound was well lit and she could see that it was spotless clean.
The night guard, a short man in his fifties grinned at her. She ignored him.
When she first moved into the house, he was so kind. He would bring her biscuits and hide them in the flowers. She liked him and started telling him her problems.
He felt like family, like her grandfather.
Three months after she arrived in the city, she went to talk to him in his guard house when everyone was away. She had a problem. Mama Tunu was yet to pay her and every time she asked about it, the only response was an insult or a slap.
She thought he could help. He listened to her, said he would help and then, his hand moved slowly as if heading towards her shoulder. And before it got to the shoulder, he turned it round and touched one of her small breasts, pinching its nipple. She ran horrified, crying. He had laughed loudly. Since then, she loathed him but that did not stop him from grinning at her. One in a while, when he was in a good mood, he even winked.
He looked so ridiculous when he winked. If she did not despise him so much, she would have laughed. His wrinkled face looked like a creased-almost-rotting potato.
She ignored him as best as she could. The day watchman was pretty much the same. Only he had seen more days and was a lot more cunning. Although he had not touched her, she knew the reason was lack of an opportunity. He tried a different tactic; he once mentioned that if she would accept him, he would marry her. That was within the first month of her stay in the city. She was naïve but not naïve enough. She knew all he wanted was to sleep with her.
She avoided him.
The dogs licked her hands as she put the food down. They loved her and she loved them back. She ran her hand over the ears of the youngest one as they chewed the food. Had she been back in the village, she would have played with them.
A minute later, she was back into the house. Her plate of ugali and boiled spinach were yet to be consumed. She usually ate last, after the dogs.
Her back ached, her feet hurt, and her stomach complained of hunger. She had not eaten since morning. She ate a little and then spread the thin slice of mattress on the floor. After switching off the lights, she stretched on it and closed her eyes.
Five hours of sleep was all she needed to rest but she knew she did not have five. She would be lucky if she slept for two hours. She turned on her side. She could smell the sweat under her armpits. She had not taken a shower and would not take one until the wee hours of the morning.
She closed her eyes. Like all children her age, she was afraid of the shadows at night. Unlike other children, she knew that those shadows could turn into monsters that could hurt her.
She knew that she should pray and she started praying. Her eyes were heavy, her concentration laden with sleep and she struggled to finish the prayers.
She knew that sleep would conquer her before she said Amen and it did.
She woke up with a start. Something was creeping up her pants. She held her breath. Her heartbeat was so loud; she thought everyone else could hear it. She wished they did. The hand made its way towards her pants. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. She had fought the hand several times before but that had only left her with bruises, slaps and the hand still got its way.
The hand pulled off her pants with a gentleness that could turn to cruelty in an instant. It pushed her legs open. She lay still, perfectly still. The hand then stopped and the owner got his way.
The owner of the hand had a weight and breath that nearly suffocated her. He kept on whispering threats, something about killing her. She knew he meant what he said. It spoke excitedly for a second then stopped. It was done. The hand wiped itself off on her clothes and left with its owner. She stayed still, tears flowing down her cheeks. Her thighs felt wet, disgustingly and her heart broken, once again. She got up, made her way to the bathroom and washed him off her. Then she returned to her mattress and lay staring into the darkness until sleep stole her away from her pain and grief.
She slept soundly, dreaming of school and books. A teacher was asking her a question but she could not quite make out the question. The teacher’s voice grew. She could hear that he was getting annoyed.
He moved closer to her and shouted out loudly. “Get up, you lazy cow.”
It was mama Tunu. She stood staring at her. Her nostrils flared open and her huge cheeks shook as she talked.
“Get your lazy bum and make my husband breakfast,” she shouted again.
Mwanne got up in fear, her back aching. As she prepared breakfast, she swore to herself that this would be her last working day.
It was not the first time she swore that.
Every time she gathered her guts, she remembered that she has nowhere else to go.
She served him breakfast, then the kids. And as they ate, she stood in the kitchen arranging the dishes she had washed the previous night.
Soon, the kids would go to school and the parents to work. They would leave her alone and she would have some peace. The thought gave her hope.