THE WHITE ABAYA by SARAH UDOH GROSSFURTHNER
Moments later a fragment of stained, white fabric rose from the rubble. Limp and forlorn, it fluttered for a second in mid-air before rising up, again.
Up and up, the lone piece of abaya climbed, alongside the red-splashed pole, where it was snagged, eventually, by the mangled remains of the electric wire.
And there it came to rest, along with other unidentifiable debris.
Her stomach was cramping again. And it was hot…so hot!
A good day to splash around in water. I’ll go to the river later with Kabir, Falmata thought, but then she remembered; that wasn’t going to be possible. Today was the special day.
She hoped she would remember all that her uncle, Alhaji Gambo, had instructed. He will get so angry if I don’t, and then he’ll take it out on Ma’a. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, squashed between Malam Zarami, her uncle’s right hand man… and the Silent One. The perspiration trickled down her back. The vehicle bucked and swayed, plunging into every pothole and crevice along the, seemingly endless, road.
The two goats in the truck were feeling the heat, too; it was obvious to see, as they bleated pitifully every now and then. It had been Malam Zarami’s idea to bring them, and the calabash of freshly prepared fura da nono – the dry season’s popular millet and hibiscus flower drink. It was the Khari weekly market day in Maiduguri town. He’d suggested that they were less likely to be disturbed by soldiers manning the many checkpoints along the way, if their journey could be attributed to the market.
‘Remember, Yaa’na,’ Ma’a, had whispered tenderly last night, as she cuddled Falmata, ‘Allah is with you. You’re doing this for him; so he’ll take care of you. Just concentrate on that thought.’
‘Ma’a?’ Falmata had whispered back as she burrowed into the warm, musky smell of her mother’s bosom.
‘Is it really what Allah wants…for me to go on this journey?’
Her mother was silent for what seemed a very long time. Then she’d exhaled deeply. Just when Falmata thought she wasn’t going to get an answer, her mother had exhaled deeply again.
‘Everything that happens is the will of Allah.’ And then, as if she too needed convincing, the woman had added ‘Eh,’ before snuggling the child some more.
Her mother didn’t usually share Falmata’s sleeping pallet. Girls were encouraged from a young age to sleep alone – or share sleeping pallets with other girls in the family of similar age. Since most were married before they turned fifteen, it was their mothers’s way of instilling in the young girls a sense of independence, for the time when it became necessary for them to move to their husband’s home. Falmata was happy Ma’a had come to her pallet the night before. It had been a special privilege and the little girl had felt really grateful.
‘In the name of Allah the beneficial, the merciful,’ Falmata whispered the Suratul Fatiha, the very first words every Moslem says when praying, her fingers closing around and clicking each stone of the new prayer beads her mother had given her as a going away gift. As her finger caressed each bead, she strove to concentrate on Allah as Ma’a had advised. But she couldn’t.
Why did it have to be so hot today, Falmata thought as she stole a fleeting glance at one of the two men by her side.
The Silent One.
It wasn’t the second man’s name, Falmata knew, she’d just decided in her mind to call him that. Other than the ‘ruwa’ he’d mumbled during their journey when she started coughing, followed by the handing over of a plastic bottle filled with warm, tepid water, he’d said nothing the entire journey. He hadn’t even smiled back when she thanked him for the water.
The goats mewed mournfully, again. Spying the bottle of water, one of them rose unsteadily from the floor of the truck and lumbered towards Falmata and her two companions.
The truck buckled as it hit a bad pothole. The young goat toppled across one of Malam Zarami’s outstretched feet. The man shooed the animal away roughly. Then, as the driver regained control of the vehicle, the animal rose back up and tottered towards Falmata, and the plastic bottle in her hand. It stretched out a hot, dry tongue and began to lick at the girl’s hand.
Falmata tipped a little water into the palm of one hand and extended it to the thirsty animal. The animal, joined now by the second goat, uttered a long ‘miaaaah’ of gratitude and began to lick faster.
Falmata wiggled, moving her palm forward to make it more accessible to the gritty but comforting tongue of the animals at her feet.
‘Be still!’ Malam Zarami snapped, favouring her with a long, disgruntled stare.
‘Eh,’ Falmata answered, and hurriedly withdrew her palm. The goats continued to nudge, their heads burrowing into her lap as they searched for her wet palm under the plastic bag containing her white abaya.
She hadn’t wanted to wear her new, flowing white covering at home. Their village was located in a remote part of Borno State. The journey to Maiduguri, where the Khari market was situated, was going to be long, and dusty. She hadn’t wanted to get her abaya dirty, or stained.
She wondered what everyone was doing back home at that moment. Ma’a had taken the goats out for their morning grass, right after the family had had their breakfast of kunu – the milk and sorghum porridge they ate every morning. Ba’a had protested that it was not her job.
‘Let Kabir take them today, he’d ordered, referring to her eight-year old brother.
‘I’ll do it,’ Baranimin, her mother had responded, pulling her abaya tightly around her as she did so. Falmata had sensed that her mother did not want to witness her climb into the truck that was to take her to her special event.
Still, it was rare to see Ma’a disobey her father – especially in front of Alhaji Gambo, her father’s eldest brother. Falmata had been fearful, as she waited for her father’s response. Instead, her father had acquiesced to her mother’s decision, even though his brother’s brow was already darkening in annoyance. But he’d insisted she take Kabir with her. As Ma’a bowed her ‘thank you,’ Falmata had seen her eyes: they were red and raw. Ma’a puffy eyes had become very common since Ba’a and his brothers’ announcement of Falmata’s special day.
Falmata knew the journey was making Ma’a sad. She’d wanted so much to hug and comfort her mother, but Alhaji Gambo had been watching intently. Falmata knew he would never have approved of such open display of emotion.
‘You ought to be celebrating,’ he’d chastised her mother scornfully; ‘your own child – and a girl at that – chosen to perform such honour. Not everyone is worthy of such privilege.’
‘I am honoured, Alhaji. Allah be praised,’ Ma’a had answered before lowering her eyes and pulling the upper part of her abaya tightly around her face.
So Falmata had said goodbye to her mother from a distance, before climbing into the truck.
Everyone was afraid of Falmata’s uncle, even Alhaji Yusuf, the Imam of the local Mosque. People’s fear of him stemmed not only from his stern and unsmiling bearded countenance but also from their knowledge of his connection to powerful Islamic groups.
Besides being the oldest, Alhaji Gambo was the sole wealthy brother in the Kachalla family’s household: the only one with a cement-walled and zinc-roofed house, instead of the mud huts scattered around the compound. Gambo was also the only one of the four Kachalla brothers who had been able to afford the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. It was for that reason that the title, Alhaji, had been added to his name. Because of his financial status Alhaji Gambo had paid the bridal price for Ba’a’s second wife, Falmata’s mother, and that of his third wife. It was said that some had been surprised when Alhaji Gambo offered to pay Ba’a’s bride price for Ma’a. Alhaji had been the first among the Kachalla boys to express interest in Zhara Abubakar, but Falmata’s maternal grandfather had only agreed to give his daughter’s hand to a Kachalla boy: as long as that boy was not Gambo.
Some said Falmata’s uncle never forgave the slight, or forgot it.
Alhaji Gambo was also the most devout Moslem in the village. But, it was whispered that his devotion often bordered on the fanatic; although no one had ever dared to say that within his hearing – or the hearing of one of his ardent supporters. Malam Zarami was one of those supporters: In addition to being Alhaji’s closest cohort, he was also the man to whom Zainab, Falmata’s 13-year-old sister, was betrothed.
Falmata glanced from under her veil at Zainab’s groom-to-be and shivered at the fate awaiting her sister. She could not imagine what a future with such a stony-faced man spelled for her gentle, graceful sister.
Weddings were fun. Despite the man her sister was promised to, Falmata wished she could be around to witness Zainab’s fatiha. The nanle gathering, where the bride’s hand and feet were painted and decorated with henna, was always her favourite time during wedding ceremonies. It was the only day that girls in her community felt special, loved and pampered. For that reason, every young girl in their village longed for the day of their wedding ceremony: herself included.
Falmata wondered what it would be like where she was going. Did people get married there? If so, she hoped Allah would pick a good, and kind husband for her. Like Ali, she told herself, thinking of the smiling face of stepbrother’s friend. Ali was 15, just five years older than her. She’d caught him stealing glances at her when he thought no one was looking, on the occasions that Falmata had been ordered to serve tea to her father and brother’s visitors in the male section of their home. Falmata herself had pretended to re-adjust her veil on those instances and let slip her head covering, revealing her face just briefly.
Falmata wiggled again in her seat, despite her fear of her sister’s betrothed. The heat, and the pain in her lower abdomen, was making her lightheaded.
For her upcoming special event, Falmata had longed to wear a flowing white abaya – not the everyday dark one she wore when she took the goats out in search of grass. It was the most important event in her life, after all. Everyone knew white denotes purity. But, Falmata knew Ba’a was spending a lot of money on Zainab’s upcoming nuptials, so she had not dared approach her him with her request, even though he and their entire household had taken to treating her with uncharacteristic kindness as the day of her special event drew near. Ma’a had promised to speak to Ba’a, but Falmata knew she was no less in awe of her father than Falmata herself was.
Ten days into the event, when the white abaya still wasn’t forthcoming, Falmata realised her mother had not succeeded in convincing her father of the need to buy her the flowing white covering she coveted.
Falmata had turned to Hajja Kolo.
Where the women were concerned, everyone knew her father’s first wife, was the power within Abdulkadir Kachalla’s home. A full-born Kanuri woman, with the stubborn streak for which the people of this dry, rocky-terrain were renowned, she guarded that power jealously. Hajja Aisha, Ba’a’s third wife (a Fulani) had tried to contest the position when she was first brought in, but her father’s first wife was not a woman one trifled with easily. The power she had managed to wrestle for herself in the Kachalla home was hard won and she was not about to hand it over to some ‘whey-faced Fulata jiri,’ no matter how pleasing her husband found the young and supple fair skin of his new wife.
In addition to ensuring that the big water gourds in Hajja Kolo’s section of the house were always full, Falmata took to caring for her stepmother’s goats as well as their own.
Four days into her self-imposed extra-chores, Hajja Kolo had handed her a plastic covered package.
‘What is it, Hajja? What should I do with it?’ Falmata had enquired. Her stepmother had tweaked her cheek gently.
‘Your white abaya, Yaa’na;’ the older woman answered – having also taken to calling the young girl by the term of endearment. ‘All the extra work… do you think I was born yesterday?’ Her stepmother chided kindheartedly.
The truck plunged into another pothole, jerking the occupants against one another.
Arching her left shoulder, Falmata attempted to dislodge a big, fat droplet of sweat she could feel snaking its way down the center of her back.
Malam Zarami aimed another scornful look, causing her to squirm in discomfort.
They arrived at their destination in the early afternoon.
‘Stand up! Get ready!’ Malam Zarami barked, as the vehicle came to a stop some distance from the market. With a practiced flick of her hand, Falmata pulled off her everyday abaya and stood quietly as her sister’s betrothed slipped the dark padded heavy jacket over her head. He pulled the flaps at the sides, making the jacket tight and snug around her thin frame. In response to a curt nod from Malam Zarami, Falmata unfurled the plastic bag she had brought with her. Taking out the white abaya, she passed it to her future uncle-to- be.
The man slipped the shiny, new abaya over her head; then he arranged the folds to camouflage the dark vest, before, tucking it securely in place. He moved aside the army-style blanket covering the opening of the back of the vehicle, before carefully lifting, and depositing Falmata onto the dusty road.
‘Remember, do nothing until you’re exactly at the spot Malam Ali will indicate to you. Then follow the instructions I gave you. Do you remember… what to do?’ he asked, pointing to a red button on the phone he had slipped into the right hand pocket of her new abaya.
The Falmata nodded, adding, ‘Eh.’
‘Go on then. Stay close to Malam Ali,’ Malam Zarami said, signaling to the Silent One. ‘Allah is great,’ he added, before nudging her away from the descending ramp on the back of the dusk-covered truck.
So that was his name…Malam Ali. He doesn’t look like an Ali, Falmata thought, throwing a sidelong glance at her mute companion and comparing him to her 15 year-old stepbrother’s friend: that one was always smiling, not like the ghostlike individual by her side.
The cramps were now a thousand tongues of needles in her stomach. Falmata glanced longingly on the bushes bordering both sides of the road; she wanted badly to wee-wee, but didn’t dare utter her request to any of her taciturn companions. So she started, again, to caress the prayer beads, which she had now transferred to the left pocket of her abaya.
‘In the name of Allah the beneficial, the merciful…’ her fingers sought comfort from the round smooth stones as she mouthed the well-remembered verse of the Suratul Fatiyah.
Just then a group of laughing young girls carrying their own calabash of fura da nono passed by, jostling her as they did so. The edge of Falmata white abaya swiped the dirty truck. Forgetting Malam’s instructions for a moment, the Falmata took hold of the affected part of the robe and began to shake the dust off vigorously.
‘No sharp movement! Malam Zarami gritted angrily. Grabbing Falmata by her left ear, he pulled her back roughly towards the truck. Then he looked around furtively at the hordes of people hurrying back and forth on the busy road. No one was paying them any attention.
‘Walahi! Are you hard of hearing? I remember saying, no sharp movements!’
Falmata nodded, her eyes watering from the pain in her throbbing ear.
Five hundred meters away, the noise from the teeming market could be heard clearly.
‘Now go!’ Malam Zarami ordered, nudging her forward once again.
‘Eh’ she answered, turning around, and began the walk towards the noise. The Silent One followed quietly beside her.
Halfway towards the center of the market, The Silent One stopped. Pointing to an electric pole with a splash of red paint down the side, he uttered his first non-monosyllabic words of the day.
‘There! That pole, go there.’
As Falmata turned in the direction he had indicated, the Silent One stopped her again. Then he did a curious thing. Laying one hand lightly on her arm, he tilted her head up with his other hand. ‘May Allah bless and truly grant you eternity in heaven,’ he whispered gently, staring into her eyes. Then he let go of her before she could respond. Finally, he too nudged her towards the marked electric pole and turned, walking hurriedly in the opposite direction.
Falmata watched the departing back until it disappeared into the market crowd. For a reason she could not fully understand, Falmata was deeply touched by the man’s gesture. Still baffled, she turned once more in the direction he had instructed and began the short journey to complete her assignment.
Falmata had barely gone a few steps when she felt a deep, piercing pain, followed by a warm flow down one side of her leg. Momentarily confused, she looked down…
It was the curse. Ma’a had warned her about it. Now she understood why she had been feeling so weak and dizzy throughout the trip. Her curse – Ma’a said it was the scourge of every woman and that it happened every month – had finally appeared when she least expected. Ma’a had also said that its appearance meant a girl had now reached womanhood…that she was now fully ready for marriage.
Falmata did not mind being a woman. Perhaps now Ali would tell his parents to approach Ba’a for her hand in marriage? She was now a woman…fully a woman.
Falmata looked down again. No, she did not mind being a woman. She just minded having her shiny, white abaya stained…which it now was.
She didn’t want to continue with the journey in this condition. No, not any longer…not like this, she shook her head dejectedly. She had wanted to be pure when she stood in front of Allah. For that reason, she’d taken particular care with her toiletry that morning. In addition to cleaning out her dirty toe and finger nails with a needle-like twig she’d picked off the ground in the women’s bath area, she had also paid special care to the dirty cracks on the back of her feet. Using the pumice stone from her Ma’a’s plastic soap dish, she’d scrubbed her feet until the dirt was completely sloughed from the soles.
And now, she was all stained and dirty – unworthy to appear before Allah.
She couldn’t do it!
Turning in the direction she and Silent One had come a few minutes earlier Falmata scanned the jam-packed crowd for his familiar face. She wanted to tell him she’d changed her mind…that she wanted to go home: she was stained, but she was a woman now. Ali…imagined having Ali for a husband? His smiling…
Falmata heard the explosion, followed by sharp pinpricks – like a million injections. In the few seconds it took for her brain function to cease, Falmata tried to direct her eyes to where her right hand used to be. She knew she had not clicked the red button, as Malam Zarami had instructed. Then how had the explo…?
And then the 10-year-old girl ceased to be.