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The young dark girl was looking around the living room examining, but surprisingly not in awe. It seemed like she was checking the quality of decorations, furniture and appliances in the room. Aunty Larai was sitting down backed into a corner with the twins beside her. Uncle Habib was standing while I stood beside the door.
“Here is Freda. She’s going to part of our family from now henceforth, I would like everyone to treat her with respect. No segregation, because she’s a Christain doesn’t mean she’s different from us. Welcome, Freda. You can all go now”. Uncle Habib stated giving no room for opinions. It was unlike him, he liked to joke and tease around with the twins, but today he seemed bothered, he was tense. Perhaps it had something to do with Aunty Larai, maybe they argued. Was it because of me? I wondered.
Anyway, I had been dismissed and couldn’t wait to go back to my writing. It surprised me to see that I was making headway, and more than that, it dawned on me that I was better and more eloquent with my pen. When I wrote, I felt relieved like I was pouring out my heart and burden into my books. Indeed, the pen was mightier than the sword. Hopefully, with Freda been here, the chores would lessen and I would have more time to write.
On the school front, things were going smoothly too. I and Mr Okoro were becoming fast friends, he still wasn’t smiling much and I wasn’t talking at all, but we understood ourselves and could communicate with a nod, wave or a simple gesture. After our playlet presentation, Mr Okoro had encouraged me to write more, giving me tips and putting me through. Asides from Hakeem, he was the only friend I had. Except for Grace, the mysterious girl I could never understand.
“Hi, Sameer”. She walked up to me at the break, while I was chewing on the fried yam Aunty Larai had packed for me. For a short, while now, aunty Larai had been giving me a lunch box, what had changed I didn’t know, but I was grateful for it.
I nodded at her quickly and turned back to my lunch box.
“Why don’t you talk? I’m sure you’re not dumb”. I nodded in negative.
“Then why don’t you talk?” She pressed on. Right now, I was beginning to get angry. How could I tell her that I had the words on my lips but just couldn’t form them? How could I tell her that I wanted her to leave me alone? Grace however sat beside me with her lunch box and continued to talk even without my answers. She chatted away excitedly.
“I think I understand you, and why you don’t talk. My elder sister was involved in an accident years ago. Since then she found it difficult to talk. My dad had to get her to see a therapist. And now she’s happy. Perhaps you should talk to your parents”.
When she mentioned my parents, I realised that it had been a while since I thought about them. Gradually some of the memories were fading away, I couldn’t even remember baby Fatima’s face, I could only hear her laughter. Grace continued to talk, and I just listened. I didn’t realize when the time had passed. Somehow I enjoyed her company.
Habib had been working with his laptop for a while, and not for once did he lookup. I laid on the bed and watched his fingers type furiously across the keyboard. He was still not talking to me. Hot tears suddenly welled up in my eyes. How could I explain to him the struggle I went through to tell him about what happened to me while I was sixteen? He hadn’t heard the entire story and he was this angry already. I dabbed my forehead with my hand completely tired. I wish Habib would just listen to me. He had been very patient with me, right from when we began to date. It had taken me a while to trust me given the experience I already had with boys, but that didn’t deter him. He patiently fought for my love while still giving me room to make my own choice. I remembered those memories with sadness.
“You’ve been working for a while now. Don’t you think it’s time for you to sleep?” His back was towards me, so I couldn’t see his expression. Habib didn’t answer me, he continued to work without even a sidewards glance. I knew that for me to do this right and get his attention, I needed to take the bull by the horns. The AC in the room was cool and everywhere was quiet, it was almost a peaceful night except that my heart was in turmoil. I rose, went beside and knelt. He stopped working, but still, Habib didn’t look at me, his face held an expression of disappointment.
“Habib, I’m.. sorry. I’m….so sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you, that I was raped. I… just wish…Habib please look at me”.
But not once did he turn. I felt a painful lurch in my heart, as I collapsed on the floor and cried profusely. I remembered the broken pieces of plates on the kitchen floor when Salisu had raped me. It dawned that I was still the broken little girl, lost, terrified and insecure. I couldn’t tell for how long I cried till I felt someone pulled me up. Habib put me on the bed, laid beside me and patted my shoulders. I felt my muscles relax, my chest was beginning to breathe slowly. Occasionally my body will threaten to tremble from the sob that raked my body, but Habib was quick to comfort me. We laid in that position for a while before he spoke.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you Larai, no woman, girl or lady deserves to be abused. I’m sorry you had to go through that experience”. He stopped, using his fingers to wipe my tears. “You can talk to me about it, I wish you had trusted me enough to tell me sooner, but it’s okay.”
“Habib, I swear I love you and I trust you. I was just worried”. I began to cry again.
“Shush. It’s okay. Don’t cry okay? But you know Sameer doesn’t have anything to do with this right? Not all men are sexual predators”.
“I know, Habib I was just worried about my twins.”
“I know I understand”. He answered while I sighed heavily. “Are you ready to tell me all that happened?”
I nodded and let my mind travel back to seventeen years ago, moments after I’d been raped.
The pieces of broken plates grazed my arms and legs making me wince. Immediately Salisu left the kitchen, the tears rolled freely and continued to roll. I cried and cried profusely till there was no energy in me. When I attempted to get up, the insides of my thighs screamed with pain, my lips resonated with the same pain I felt. I willed myself to get up and began to fasten my clothes. After a while, I ran into the kitchen. The hate that bubbled through my body rose to the surface, making me look at her with contempt. Where was she amidst my screams?
“Oh my goodness, Larai are you okay?” She said, her hands suspended in the sky. “What did Salisu do to you?, oh my God.”
She came to help me and I shrugged her away. I didn’t want anyone touching me. Talatu began to cry profusely.
“Please Larai, I’m sorry. Oh my God! Salisu, what have you done?” She put her hands on her head and cried.
“You can’t tell your father about this Larai. Please you can’t. He’ll kill Salisu, divorce me and I can’t stand it”. Please Larai doesn’t tell him, don’t tell anyone.”
Four weeks later, I was pregnant and she took me for an abortion. It was the most terrifying experience I had.
Habib quickly inturepted at this junctre. “Larai, pregnant, abortion? Why am I hearing all this now? I knew I wasn’t your first when we got married, but you never told me you had an abortion”.
“I know Habib, I’m sorry. This is the first time I’m talking about it”. Habib looked at me for a long while. Different thoughts were running through my head. I have been dishonest, knowing all too well how Habib respected honesty. Was he going to divorce me and ask me to leave? Or could he ever forgive me?
“Larai, you were trying to protect yourself. Like always, you didn’t think about me or the kids. It’s always been about you.” Habib began, his voice rising. I could count the few times I’ve seen my husband angry.
“What are you talking about Habib? Everything had been about the kids”.
“Is it? Are you sure about that? Have you thought about how I would feel when I later get to find out you had an abortion once? Or do you think that it won’t come back? Baby, I just needed you, to be honest with me that’s all”. He shifted away. While he did that, I felt like a portion of me had been taken away.
“Habib, I’m sorry. I don’t want you to keep been mad at me”. I pleaded, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. Habib was already faced towards the window. “I’m sorry”. I began to cry again.
“Larai it’s okay. We need to talk about Sameer”. He spoke from the other side of the bed.
Sameer, Sameer. What was it about this boy that my husband liked? “What about him?”
“I think it’s best we agree on a lot of things about him, now that Freda is here, I expect Sameer to do just a little, nothing more than he can handle. Same with Freda, I don’t want her to be stressed. I also want to take Sameer to a doctor, his speech problem is much more serious than I thought.”
“Habib, there’s no need wasting your money on that boy. He’s just slow”.
“I can’t believe you’re saying that Larai, Sameer isn’t a slow child, he had one of the best results last term”.
I was uncomfortable with the idea of Sameer going to a therapist. My expression must have shown it, for he quickly added. “There’s no buts about this. He’s seeing a therapist”
“Alright”. I replied, my eyes downcast.
“Baby, if you need to talk to someone too, you’re free okay? I can make arrangements for you to see a therapist. Just stop treating Sameer badly, that’s all I ask of you.”
I nodded and wrapped his hands around my bosom. We listened to each other breathing till we both fell asleep.
The next day was a Wednesday, I woke up to see that the house was already cleaned. I felt elated within my heart, it’d been three years since I came here, and this was one of the few days I didn’t wake up and work. Things will be alright between me and Freda. I usually went to the kitchen to pick my breakfast, today I arrived there to see Freda helping Aunty Larai in the kitchen.
They worked simultaneously without exchanging any words. Picking my dish where it was usually kept, I made out to leave the kitchen quietly through the back door as I’d come in.
“Sameer”. Uncle Habib called out. He’d come through the kitchen from the living room. “Don’t go anywhere. You’ll stay at the table and join us for breakfast”.
I was stunned for a minute. The first thing I did was to look at Aunty Larai, she was the one who always insisted that I ate alone in my room. Her eyes were downcast after giving Uncle Habib a look of surprise. It was obvious that he succeeded in surprising us both.
At the breakfast table, a stranger could have easily cut through the tension with a knife. Even the twins knew something was wrong. Freda was the only one oblivious to the situation as she ate away her food excitedly. Aunty Larai hadn’t even attempted to pick her spoon, neither have I. It’s been so long we ate together that I was uncomfortable.
“Hassana, where’s your school bag?”. Aunty Larai asked the young girl who was just about throwing a piece of fried yam in her bag. We had already dressed up and I couldn’t wait to go to school. It was somewhere I felt comfortable and even began to talk a bit.
“It’s in the room”.
Aunty Larai turned to me. “Go to the room and fetch Hassan’s bag”.
I was about to stand up when Uncle Habib held my shoulder. “No, Sameer you stay. Hassana goes to the room and gets your school bag”. Without a second thought, Hassana jumped away to fetch the bag, leaving the table with simmering tension. What had happened between these two? Previously, Uncle Habib would have just sat down and let his wife dictate what needed to be done and who needed to do it.
“I would be travelling later in the day, I won’t stay long, not more than a week. I wouldn’t like to hear any silly stories when I’m gone. Is everyone clear with that?”
I was the only one who muttered a yes. That earned me a smile from Uncle Habib who gently patted me. Last week, he’d talked with Mr Okoro who informed him how well I was doing at school. Uncle Habib was more pleased when he had that I was beginning to talk.
“A comfortable environment is all he needs”. Mr Okoro had said.
Uncle Habib waved us goodbye and drove away to Abuja. The car was unusually quiet because Aunty Larai was driving. She said noises distracted her while she drove. When she got to school and alighted, she pulled me by the ears.
“Come here, you this cursed boy. Do you think you can come and destroy my family as you did with yours? You think so?” She squeezed my ears painfully, I winced but she didn’t budge. “Now listen, and listen good. Before your Uncle Habibs return from his trip, I’ll make sure you’re humble first. Stupid boy, get out of here and stay away from my kids even at school.” She gave me a rough shove.
Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked through the school gates. The twins who had gone ahead of us were wondering what had happened.
“Sameer, did mum hurt you again?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I answered quietly as I ruffled Hussain’s hair. “You just go to class”. All through the class, I was distracted by what Aunty Larai had been calling me for the past three years. A cursed child. She thought I killed my family. But how could anyone do that? I was just a little boy whose life happened to according to Mr Okoro. So why was she blaming me for what happened? Perhaps she was still confused and maybe was struggling with something. Mr Okoro said guilt made people do a lot of bad things. He’d made it clear to me that I was not to be blamed for what had happened. I remembered when I struggled with the guilt over my mother’s death.
To this day, sometimes I wonder if her death could have been avoided. I knew the type of woman my mum was, easily panicked and disoriented. She was driving to the hospital where dad was admitted when she ran into an oncoming truck. No injuries were sustained, but she had serious trauma to her head, mum hadn’t survived the night. Even as I thought about it now, the pain tore inside my heart that if felt like physical pain, but I was different. I knew how to feel hurt without blaming myself.
The rest of the week was a terrible experience for me and Freda. I could explain why she treated me so badly, she thought I was cursed. But Freda, I could not explain. She was just a house help Uncle Habib employed to help with the chores around the house. So why was she treating her this bad too? Or perhaps she had something against everyone who wasn’t her child. On Friday, I missed school because she had overworked us both on Thursday. Cold freezing water splashed across my face, a lot of it going into my ear, I sprang up quickly looking round to see Aunty Larai holding a brown pail. This was her way of waking me up anytime I overslept. Once, she did it and I caught a cough.
“Get up, you fool. Go and clean the house”.
I quickly ran to pick a tall broomstick just about my height as I joined Freda who was already sweeping the house.
“Sameer, is this how you’re coping with this woman?” Freda asked in a whisper, just after two weeks since she’d been here, we had become good friends. Her bright eyes were full of tears.
“Well, yes”. I muttered quietly. It was also easier to talk with her.
“The agency is not responding. I don’t know what’s wrong with them”. When she’d first came, she showed me a small device that looked like a remote control only that it was shorter and purple, with a large red button in the middle. Freda had explained that it was used to report any Ill-treatment towards house helps in the agency that employed them. The response was supposed to be in two days, maximum. However it had been a week since Freda had been incessantly pressing the large red button, but there was no response yet. To me, it looked like the little device wasn’t working anymore. Who was supposed to watch out for children like us?
For the last three years, none of Abba’s or mother’s relative had sought for me. Only one person had shown interest in me, Mrs Aneesah a beautiful lady who had lived on the opposite side of our street. I would fetch water from the tap in the house even when we had a functioning and running tap that distributed water to every facet of the house. When Mrs Aneesah had talked to Aunty Larai, she stopped the Maltreatment for a while before she resumed later, only this time it was two times worse.
Over the years, I’d toughen up and the beatings no longer made me cry. My friends at school were already used to the scars and marks on my fair skin. Later I heard from Uncle Habib that Mrs Aneesah had moved away. Problems with her husband, he had said.
“I really can’t stand all this Sameer, I’d already packed my clothes, I’ll be leaving later”. She whispered to me, her soft voice pulling me back to reality.
“What do you intend to do?” I looked back checking Aunty Larai.
“I don’t know, but I can’t take this anymore. Once she’s gone today, I’ll pack up and leave. I have a little money I’ve saved. There’s an aunt of mine who used to leave in Kaduna. I’ll have to see if I can find her.”
I thought about it for a while. Her plan was a long shot. What if her aunt had moved away? People don’t remain in the same place for a long time. Things change, they move.
“What if you don’t find her?” I asked just to be sure.
“Then I’ll think about something. I haven’t had a rosy life Sameer. I’ve lived on the street, so this is nothing compared to what I’ve faced. If nothing works, I’ll have to go back to the agency”.
I didn’t know why, but what she said made me feel really bad. I couldn’t begin to imagine what she went through as her girl on the street. I didn’t know what her story was but I knew she had seen a lot. There was unusual tiredness in her eyes like she had seen a lot. I sincerely hope things would work out for her.
“What should I tell Aunty Larai when she returns? Perhaps you should wait for Uncle Habib”.
“No Sameer. Haven’t you seen how Uncle Habib is around his wife? He’s a good man, but he can’t stop his wife from Maltreating children. He’s doing well, it’s just not enough. Sameer if you were wise, you would follow me”.
My heart began to thump loudly in my chest. Somehow, I’d never thought of myself living in this place. Where would I go? What would happen to the friends I’d made at school? My life back in Maiduguri was something I could hardly recall. Even my teachers at Elites Academy had been forgotten. Mrs Martha Smith’s face was the one person I could never forget. Her face was stuck to my memory. No, it wouldn’t be a wise decision to leave? Uncle Habib would be disappointed. What about the twins? They loved me.
“Sameer, whatever you’re thinking about is not worth it. A day will come and she might kill you. Aunty Larai is just not wicked, she using you to fight her demons. Let’s leave later when she’s gone”.
What she said made sense, wouldn’t it be wise to just leave and try to leave a life somewhere different? Would it work? No. It was too long, just too long a shot. I continued to sweep without giving her an answer, but all through the day, the thought remained with me.
“I can see you’ve made your choice”. Freda said as she stood by the door of my old storeroom. I was writing in my notebook, I had written over 200 pages now. Seeing Freda leave made me sad. She already had a big gash on her cheeks where Aunty Larai had swiped at her with a knife.
“I can’t leave Freda, but I wish you luck wherever you go. There’s something I want you to have though”. I gave her my dictionary, never for once had I abandoned it. Aside from my memories, it was the last thing I had that reminded me of Abba, but somehow I still wanted her to have it.
“Wow, Sameer, thanks”. She collected it looking it over. “you’re a good boy. You don’t deserve this house. Bye”. She said and left the house quietly.
As I watched her leave, I wondered if I made the right choice.
What do you think of this episode? Do you think what happened with Aunty Larai contributed to how she is treating Sameer? How do you think Larai will handle Freda’s escape? What do you think will be Uncle Habib’s response? What about Sameer, do you think he made the right choice?