By Mankhokwe Namusanya:
Your photos, from secondary school; do you still have them?
I used to have, might still have, one. It was taken on the day of that rite of passage thing we called graduation. In it, I am hiding under a jacket – a rock of ages, cleft in the front, so I can hide. If I was the lone person in that photo, you would think it is a picture captured just when my kidnapper was to conclude with his business. Or, perhaps, it is one of those things I did not allow my father to take with him to the grave.
But, around me, are friends. Maybe three. In equally oversized coats – or their own rock of ages. One, with a fondness for exaggeration, even has a necktie the entire length of the Shire River on a colourless shirt. It was a fashion in the days. Now, I would hate you for bringing up the photo. Not even on a Thursday.
And, of course, we all looked funny in secondary school. Both our genders. A few of us had heads the shape of a trapezium. Others had that ‘I have eaten but will never show’ look – sort of caricatures. She was neither.
She was full. Her head, not by rule because the secondary school she went to was quite unoppressive, was shaven. But in that clarity, there was an actual shape of a head of a human. Her eyes were complete. And she had a smile. Those are the things one saw before they knew of her laughter.
She laughed, like bleating of lambs in a distance. It is said – and I think it is an exaggeration – that the laughter was her trademark. You could tell, 10 days away, that she was the one laughing in the corridors. A thing that was almost her hobby – or reality.
She was not smart. Not in that ‘I can regurgitate better what you tell me teacher’ kind of smart clothes we celebrate in our schools. She was average. For every exam, the goal was that she should get the pass. Anything else, like we used to say in college, was excess – pure showboating. The kind of pride the good book speaks against.
He does not remember how they ended up talking. He was shy. And a teenager before a girl he likes: incomprehensible, clumsy and pretty useless. But she was affable to everyone. So, they got talking.
“But I realised that even if she were kind to everyone, her kindness to me was special.”
She would wait for him after classes and they would walk together home. She was a class below, and he was a smart student. She would come with questions to him. A subject unclear? It would be to him she would come. Then, he started joining him for weekend studies.
It was, in one word, love.
“But I was a clueless teenager, I did not really realise it until the friends started teasing…”
He dismissed them. Except for the best friend. He sat down with, that one, and asked all those important questions teenagers ask each other:
“Do you know we are not in a relationship?”
“Of course. But she is all yours.”
“How do you know that? She is just a friend.”
Then, the friend, obviously terrible at everything to do with school but with enough experience to facilitate a session at men’s conference on how to know the meanings of actions from women to hopeless men lost in the wonder of Premier Bet, gave his theory. The conclusion? It was obvious, she wanted him.
“Want as in?” Clueless teenagers raised in a religious home might know this line.
The friend laughed. Went off.
He did not act on his advice. The friendship intensified. She started even paying him a visit at home. It was those visits that attracted the rumours.
“I did not hear them, until they reached my parents.”
It being a sensitive subject, the parents did not address it to him directly. However, they covertly showed their disdain for her. He had read the situation.
The neighbour, the Church elder, was the one who talked to him about her.
“Do you know her well?” she asked.
It was a tricky question because knowing a woman meant two things. He asked what type of knowing. It turned into an awkward situation. The Church woman had, after all, not even imagined that he could have had been knowing women in that way outside of wedlock. She clarified.
“Oh, that? I do know her.”
“I know where she lives. Her family. Her friends. She is really a good friend.”
In whisper, the woman asked if he knew about her uncle. And her.
“The way she said it. It was gross. Either the act. Or the speaking of it – the abomination.”
But, the story ran: in primary school, she was raped – repeatedly – by her uncle. The family realised, way too late. They weighed but, in the end, common sense prevailed. The uncle was reported to the police and he was now serving a term.
To him, said the Church woman, that was not a girl one should have to go out with. Who knows? She added, what she might carry.
For a 16-year-old boy, the advice was confusing. But a few things started making sense. Only he did not have the words with which to tell about them.
He went home where his parents acted as if they had not organised that sermon he endured. In movies, love would triumph. Here, it did not. Because he was young, and confused. He started avoiding her. She picked up on the vibe. And went under the radar.
School? She changed. And, in days, she changed locations too – all her family.
There has been no contact ever. Like that MH370 flight, she just went.
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