“Mkali sana! Mkali sana!”The children shouted as they gathered Outside a machete drawn circle Surrounding Mtata and me.
“Upara mkubwa”, the boy smirked, As he curled his index finger into a tight ball, Its yellowed nail released against my forehead The smack, painfully loud.
Tears burned in dusty rivulets Down my sun browned cheeks, As his finger flicked once more against flesh Stretched tight against bone, like a shopper Testing the ripeness of melon.
It is true my forehead was quite large, Hence the moniker “Upara mkubwa”. I was the proverbial ugly duckling, My slight frame adorned by thin arms, flat chest Perched upon legs bowed by rickets.
A mere specter of my future self, The harshness of our life in Africa extracted youthful Positivism, and in its wake, self-doubt and shame Which inspired incredulity To render the possibility that I might be desired As the object of his adolescent lust.
Fierce anger coiled inside, easily aroused, Having been relegated by religion to a second Citizen. I was quick to strike out at any Perceived affront, I had earned the moniker, Mkali Sana, the fierce one.
We were the only non-African born children At the Mlimani shule hamsingi (primary school) just off the campus of Dar es Salaam University. Father insisted on an authentic experience since we were never to return to America.
Each morning down the hill of the mountain, Killaleni Lane, we turned right at its bottom, Walked half a mile to the campus, where Brown skinned students waited, In blue and white uniforms.
Separate lines for different grades and sexes, Facing a metal flag pole bearing a diagonally divided Yellow-edged rectangle, its black band, Separating the upper green triangle from Lower blue.
Matata’s eyes caught mine as I slipped in line, I averted my gaze, fixing instead upon a baobab tree. A silent giant, of tortured girth, Covered in herniated bulges, a hollow in its trunk, Innards scooped out, and the space created large enough For several tall men.
Crowned with tufts of green, irregularly spaced, I had first encountered these trees, while traveling in West Africa. A Senegalese friend of my father, said, That in his hometown of Toumbou-Ba, There is a Baobab, inside of which is buried the remains of a famous Griot. Over time, the people of the village had conferred upon the Tree anthropomorphic status.
“He is the one that holds the true right of asylum. Only in the hollow of his trunk and under its boughs Will a person be safe from abuse and blows?” I looked longingly at the tree and prayed for deliverance, As the teachers’ voices commanded us to recite the National anthem.
In Kiswahili, I mumbled what I did not understand, Proudly enunciating those words, I did, Until the children fell silent again. From between the Headmaster’s offices and the barrack like classrooms, A young boy emerged to ring the bell.
With each swing of the heavy bronze bell His lean, sinewy body, threatened to take flight, When at last gong, we all turned, about face right, And marched toward concrete buildings covered by weather beaten corrugated steel.
Three morning periods passed, I looked forward to the fourth, When we have to go outside and farm.
I was Mzungu, a Kiswahili term referring to Europeans, In the vernacular it had come to mean, anyone not native born, a stranger And unaccustomed to the ways; such that I was not entrusted to the task of tending the garden Used by the school to feed the students and raise money Through the sales of its produce.
Instead of hoes and rakes, we received roughly hewn machetes Unfinished wooden handles, embraced beaten metal, Slapped together and held by two metal bolts. We were directed to a field, where dust devils roomed, Dancing and arcing and dying in dried earth patched And cracked through which poked tufts of Savannah grass.
Chanting a song, like southern American cotton pickers, Each girl gathers in one hand, her well worn but clean skirt and tucks excess cloth between brown legs.
Bent at waist, they swung their bended blades in one smooth sickle like motion With scythe like precision, their blades connect with tufts of straw colored Savannah grass, and easily lop off heads of brush and grass Closer than any mechanized lawn mower.
Whilst I struggled against roots and dirt; having yet to master the art of stepping on the blade to bend it into the perfect arc.
A practice designed to spare muscles and sinew from jars and tears, when inexpertly sliced blades, connects with a blow against sun baked earth, the reverberation runs up the girth of pounded metal, in twangs and saws, melodies and haws, as the violence seeks release into hot air around, until finally it finds escape through unvarnished and unsanded wood, of a handle grip eager to relinquish this energy in a volley of splinters, that impale un-calloused palms.
I refused to shed a tear or acknowledge the assault. Chose to instead to ignore the barbarous shards until I could tend to them unobserved, because I was determined to fulfill my quota unto that day and the tasks thereof. Once again into the breach, I committed to follow the beat swinging down on the up-tempo, an innate muscle memory guided the blade skyward on the down.
I focused on the rhythm, and prepared my hips, to undulate in a emulated rhythm of one not yet versed in womanly wisdom that leads to sex, love, both or only the first or just to child birth.
Thus, I gathered up my skirt, and succeeded in decapitating one sprout And then the next, and the next. Proud of my accomplishments, I failed to notice Matata’s intent, that is until startled by the thump of his dark, slender index finger Upon my head.
Temporarily blinded by the pain, I threw down my machete And charged at him. He the matador and I the bull. He easily dodged me, and I crumpled to the ground, Dusty and embarrassed, I fought back the tears, and thoughts which reverted to my mother tongue, I suppressed the urge and made the transition, with quick translation, I found my KiSwahili voice, and challenged him to a pugilistic spectacle.
“I won’t fight a girl,” he declared in a heavy English accent. “You don’t have to fight, just kick!”
The equivalent of the American ritual of crying uncle, I had witnessed opponents kicking heels of patent leather Into the shins of each other, until blood broke through the ruptures.
I had participated many times, and never lost. I had become immune to pain, a super woman; I determined to subjugate the subjugator, whereas others in my household cowered before this intruder, I inoculated myself to it and its companions - fear and violence, by bravely rushing toward it, never once retreating.
One of the onlookers took his machete and stabbed the earth A circular orbit, its apogee the crowd, chanting in unison, “wao pigana!”, “wao pigana!”, “wao pigana!”, as we searched each other’s eyes; for fear, for pain, for lust, for gain, in the end, it matter not who won or lost, it was the contact, the permitted touch, a way to feel flesh against flesh without reprisal or regret, it was the beginning of my long complicated