I would like to write down what happened in Katanga – a little grimy hole, deposited in an abandoned hinterland in the outskirt of town; overshadowed in two hideous rocks, but I’m not sure what name to place on such act – the lowliest among the list of other despicable acts.
I can feel the pain and the agony of that night clawing at everything that has life in the town, humming ominous rumblings of doom and sapping the littlest fleck of hope in the inhabitant’s somber countenance. The air in the town smells foul with pungent odors escaping the nauseous gutters. It eternally wears a pale face, peopled by sickly natives and haggard animals trotting lazily under the scorching sun inhaling the dusty air that their coarse feet unsettle.
It has never been this hopeless until the town chose to stir sleeping tales of a million tragedies than letting them sleep still.
Katanga is the sort of town where sinners judge other sinners for sinning differently. It has a dark history of squashing transgressive stories and burying them under the rug like they never existed. It got away with all its hideous acts which started but didn’t end at lynching the old woman who was accused of being a witch, prowling at night to torment villagers, and casting out a young girl who gave birth to a baby whose skin was as scalded and pale as a toad’s and white as a chalk.
For how a black girl could birth a white baby, they never can say. Maybe the child was fathered by the white man that settled in the town, they thought. But the white man was known as a eunuch who preaches to a God nailed to a cross with a garland of thorns on his head. He looked harmless and even sexless.
How could this be, they asked themselves. Try as they might, they couldn’t explain a black woman birthing an albino. It must be the curse, was the rumor around the town.
Days crawled to weeks and weeks into months. The seasons came and passed with nothing remarkable happening around but one day a beautiful face like a flower appeared threading the streets of Katanga. She had a look that catches the eyes and quivers the heart, and it wasn’t even about her beauty or the way she carried herself. It was how she exuded such sensual attractiveness and a little dark indifference. A mystery – surreal and elusive. Her face was like an empty vacuum that needed to be filled, leaving enough space for each beholder to carve different stories out of her. In her face was the stifled voice of boundless woes and at the same time an immeasurable horizon of beauty and hope. She looked enchanting and at the same time distant, leaving the villagers following her every movement cold and still desirous.
A dry wind kept the town dense with tiny dust flying hazily to rest on blinded panes while dry leaves rustled in the breeze, hovering over badly carved streets flanked on both sides by dilapidated structures of coffee-brown corrugated zincs. The streets, squiggly and undulating with narrow bends, she could barely stride through without an elbow or bag scratching one rough wall or coarse pole. She stared wide-eyed at each house, generously betraying her newness to any ardent observer. Finally, she turned abruptly, wobbling into a driveway that leads to Fati’s apartment— the most talked about spinster in Katanga. Eyes peeing from their furtively through their windows followed her up from the bus-stop until she disappeared into the apartment. The men scanned her long legs and flawless skin, imagining the bit her blouse concealed. The women fumed in their rooms envying her expensive coat and sophisticated jewelries— hating her for distracting their men.
With a premeditated demeanor of one being watched, she swerved seductively and jiggled her loosed braids, tucked them behind her alluringly before she dangled her hips and sashayed into the warmth of the parlor.
Fati rose in hospitable haste, her face covered with a wide grin as Aisha stepped inside the sitting room. They held each other tight in a warm embrace, their eyes exuding passionate bliss and desire.
“I do miss you” Fati muttered, “hope you had no trouble finding your way? Her fingers stroked her partner’s bottom while her lip fondled her face.
“Not at all” she answered with a slow wink. “The people were all eager to help out with your location”
Love has a beaming way of altering the face and sending tiny bliss rippling down the skins of two lovers looking each other in the eye.
“It must be tiring,” Fati said while taking Aisha’s hand and rubbing it soothingly in a fit of wanton gaiety. Her partner couldn’t have been more absentminded. Her eyes bulged into the ceiling while random thoughts buzzed in her head. She threw a look of sudden interest when Fati clucked her elbow into hers and whispered “Let me show you around” then immediately darted through the open door standing between the sitting room and the bedrooms.
Aisha heard Fati’s footsteps as they puttered lightly on the floor. She heard it echo in the pathway of her memory digging up long memories that remained unforgettable in her mind. Thoughts of her with Fati stuck to her head like a leech to a dog, she could barely stay without having this bewitching feeling that soothed her jittery heart. Their love had come a long way since they were students at an all-girls boarding school. There, Aisha learned that Fati could elicit a throb in her heart with a single smile. It gladdened her anytime Fati happened to be around, but Abu, her boyfriend, if she could call him that, left her cold with his nerve-racking habit of touching her without her permission. Whereas, with Fati it was always welcome; she could have the whole of her and wear her around her skin like a shirt. She wished she could be the fragrance that lingered in the air anytime Fati passed by; all she ever wanted was to feel Fati’s naked skin on hers and let their lips cuddle into each other. And taste her on her tongue.
Theirs was a tongueless love, but it has endured many trials in that even when Aisha had to marry a man only because her family asked her for the hundredth time, her heart had always belonged to Fati. She got married and hated her first day in her husband’s house. She imagined it was Fati touching her when she felt her husband’s coarse hands rubbing her breast and trying to make way through her groin. That night she lay still as she watched him feed his lust on her skin. She saw Fati in him, kissing her and rubbing her nape until she giggled in the most beautiful way.
She remembered clearly the way he glided over her and collapsed on the bed. The next thing she heard was the jerky rumbling snore of a fat slob she has had to learn to live with and start calling husband. Her head rattled with the horror of the idea. She cried through the night while trying to find her place in a world that is numb to desires.
So when she met Fati again, she felt the smoldering embers of her life reviving with each smile and each kiss. It was like the splitting open of a gigantic dark rock. It was as if all her life the sky had been immersed in thick, dark clouds and almost quickly they’d broken up to let a huge, bedazzling ball of sunshine seep through to get to her. It was as if the happiness that her unhappy marriage and trauma had smothered away from her life had been waiting behind a door which had suddenly opened, letting it explode all at once to drench her in ripples of happiness and love.
They stared deep into each other’s eyes. The desperation in their love was palpable. All the time and distance didn’t change how they used to feel about each other. Desire always lurks around the corner waiting for the best moment to shoot out and mend broken hearts, Fati thought as she watched Aisha move closer.
As they sat facing each other, it was obvious that time had stripped Aisha of most of her suppleness. Fati could see the miseries of living with a man etched onto her face in the form of wrinkles and lines. Aisha looked away feeling uncomfortable at been analyzed under her old lover’s gaze. But Fati continued to observe the serene beauty that is Aisha.
Fati watched the flowers outside lurching to the rhythm of the wind and looked up sharply to catch Aisha trying to hide the tears almost dropping from her eyes. There must have been something really powerful to pull out those tears from Aisha’s face, a face which had been smiling in excitement only a few minutes ago. But the cloak we all put on is always a guile, there is always a frown in every smile, a mask inside of us we keep trying to run away from but it screams at us from the inside clogging the happiness in our lives.
Fati asked what the matter was but Aisha remained quiet, her hands clasped, her back hunched on the chair.
“I am positive,” she said hesitantly, “HIV.” She could sense Fati’s alarm even without looking up at her. A silence unusual and uncomfortable settled between them.
Fati contemplated the sinister meaning of the word. HIV. She caught her breath and grabbed hold of Aisha’s trembling hand. The silence stretched on. She gasped for air, cringing uncomfortably chewing the bitter cuds of this ill news.
“I should never have married him,” she said with finality. “But it has happened already, I’ll have to learn to cope with my health and the fact that I was forced into what I never wanted in the first place. It haunts me. I always wanted you, and my fervent prayer was for the world to let me marry you” she rattled the phlegm in her throat and cracked her knuckle.
‘That’s not how the world works sweetheart” Fati said dryly, eying Aisha keenly. “I’ve always wanted you too and I felt like dying when you left me for that fat old slob.” They eyed each other and giggled at the word “fat old slob”. Fati knew she could trust Aisha, as she had always trusted her.
“And to say I never felt love for someone I stayed with for years,” she said, contorting her face gloomily.
“I am on my ARVs though and I’m doing good; and happy that we’re here together.”
Fati nodded and watched as Aisha stood up from the chair. Such a pretty thing she thought. She had Aisha back, the idea lightened her mood and a wide grin spread across her face.
Aisha was forced to leave her home, family, and career when the Government made coarse laws criminalizing same-sex love— what she had always felt even before she understood the real meaning of the word. Since then, a whole network of homophobia and persecution had been widespread since the prohibition of the acts. She watched bitterly as the police beat and maimed many for falling in love differently. Maybe there was no way in the world they could afford to be different. But if that was the case, then it wasn’t hard to see that these sorts of beliefs were more in line with ideologies of racism – that despicable system whereby the dominant group is glorified as norm while the dominated – the weaker group, is dismissed as alien, less than human.
Aisha knowing well that the world is a wide abyss of ruthless puritans withdrew from her family and society and started living in fear after having watched hundreds severely tortured and humiliated in public for the same crime that lay in her heart. Squealers prowled about helping the government pick out suspects and raided private homes just to show their aversion to the act. Gay men and women disintegrated in brutality and fear, running from their homes for cover in safe havens.
And Aisha ran too, for what sort of life would she have been living if everything that meant the world to her was victimized and hunted? She felt sick, sore and tired of living in hiding, she needed to live her life and follow her heart. All she wanted was to be as alive as God made her. Was it too much to ask for?
Aisha, newly divorced from her husband, couldn’t afford another night in the house when she found out that she was HIV positive. She left without notice with the bitter realization that marriage isn’t really for everyone. She’d have done better alone and now she had to live her life gulping heavy drugs and trying to nurse her haunting memories. She made up her mind to feel the wind while she may and be as exactly as God made her and as she felt, not bothered by society even if she was the only queer person in the world. What sort of life would she have lived if she swept her identity under the rug pretending it didn’t exist while it screamed at her from the inside? She would have been a coward. Forced to live a lie. Forced to be someone else. And she would never forgive herself for that.
The first time she noticed how cruelly the world treats women like her was when she left her husband’s house to live alone. She watched from her window how she could barely fit into a world where everyone walks in a mask, concealing their inner mind. How could she reconcile the fact that there is no wrong with her most potent orientation with the disagreeing fact that she must nevertheless hide them from the world she lives in? Could she, amidst accusing fingers and demeaning stares reconcile this hidden identity in the world? Her body screamed for a woman like her but the world forced a man on her. How was it supposed to work? Was she supposed to be forcing big soles on little shoes? But she was done living her life pretending, done trying to please people. She was going to live her life for her and not let anyone force her into some crooked laws. She was a woman who desired another woman and she could do little or nothing about. A sort of a congenital thing she found herself in.
She woke up lethargic each morning, derailed by her ghostly and closeted status, scared by the endless stretch of day and the bottomless questions of gory possibilities. In her mind, she could see the faces of her friends and colleagues killed and maimed during the gay hunt and it troubled her that the government considered it fair. She began to feel like a mere shell of herself, as if it wasn’t her living inside of her body instead she was a mere stranger looking at it from a distance so that she could feel and touch it like a soul who has just escaped its frame. She had been living a lie and she knew. She experimented with heterosexuality and the result was brutal. The mere thought of hiding her real self from the public gaze again haunted her. She just wanted to breathe and be as human as God made her, was that too much to ask for?
For the first time, she detested straight folks for being ‘straight’, hated her family for not understanding and tolerating her uniqueness, she was gay and no matter how much she tried to be straight, it just didn’t work out. It was in the midst of this tenseness that Aisha packed some pieces of clothing and valuables in a haversack and boarded the next bus to Katanga, hopeful, at least for its desolate terrains and forsaken borders— where she hoped the government will never set its ruinous feet.
She and Fati had been roommates and close friends way back in college. This was her first sensual contact and it bloomed with amorous passion. They had been secretly in love until they parted ways but not love.
The men around the town knew Fati. After so many fruitless advances, they decided that Fati must have been dedicated to some spirit god as a bride and totally barred from sexual romance with any man before marriage because of her disdain for them. Some came back joking that her lifeless crotch must have been clogged with cobwebs and empty echoes. The rumor of this sexless woman spread itself around until there was no man capable of having an erection who did not know of the prettiest girl in Katanga who avoided men like a plague.
There arose here and now a murmur of pensive surprise, disapprobation, and disgust but none dared think of the other story they were all hinting at but never saying out loud. The tabooed topic that tied the tongue and got swallowed before it could escape the lips— that unheard of things men do with men and women do with women in the comfort of their bedroom.
It was no longer news in Katanga that the beautiful lady, infamous for turning down men had a visitor who was even more beautiful than her. A refined and glamorous one looking like she had just come off of the pages of some graceful story. The men lurked around waiting for the slightest chance to catch a glimpse of the beautiful stranger. While they poked their noses for the faintest tale from the ladies’ apartment, Fati bolted the door and blew the lights out.
The room was a modest one with large paintings hanging loosely on the brightly painted walls. There were decent pieces of furniture of inestimable value. In the sitting room lay a gigantic clock of pure silver. Its pendulum trotted back and forth with a lifeless squeak of humdrum clank. Its noise was a hell of distraction which was sure to wake any sleeping soul.
The room was quiet but for the steadfast tic-tac of the giant clock and the passionate thumping of the lover’s hearth— a thumping laced in apprehensive sensations. A flicker of moonlight slipped out of a grey cloud, squeezing its way through the window pane reveals Fati and Aisha in rapturous nudity. The flecks of sweat from their bodies screaming lust as their lips pouted with each enchanting kiss. For once, Aisha abandoned the bitterness in her heart and buried her worries for her lust. They were absorbed in their passions they didn’t perceive the stealthy footsteps behind the window. A thin shadow skulked cautiously behind the window until it was in full glance of the sweaty bodies enrapt in a lush sweat of lust. As he gazed in unutterable horror, hoisting his nose in distaste at the same time enjoying the naked frame of the ladies, a handful of violent and crude men in tattered wears and crude sandals were waiting desperately for a positive signal from the successful eavesdropper at the window.
A croaky voice followed a violent knock at the door whose intenseness was underplayed by the clock’s prominent clang. The eventual seizure of the clock’s monotonous jingle neatly carried the news of a strange and hostile company at the door to the lovebirds. They were interrupted by a loud bang on the door which threatened to send the creaking door flying on its hinges.
“We’ve got company” Aisha muttered in a trembling voice while Fati pushed herself out of bed swirling violently in trepidation as the knocking got louder and meaner.
“Why not force that door out” A coarse and robust man demanded hoarsely. Aisha stood naked, motionless and confused, gasping fervently. The lock endured just a few minutes before it consented grudgingly giving way for a group of antagonistic men with creasy lips and dusty feet. She stood motionless in overwhelming shock and fright; barely making out the blurry scene when a coarse blow sent her staggering over the mantelpiece.
“You wooman and you sleep wid anothur wooman,” a bony man said spluttering odorous spittle on her face.
Fati jittered in great desperation in the bedroom as she groped on tiptoe to the window, a cold shudder enveloping her wholly. She tripped on her stiletto heel lying on the floor, her heart thumped until it seemed to dangle her loose breast in the T-shirt she quickly wore at the first gleam of trouble at the door.
“There goes another one”, one man said while bumping into the couch as he made for the inner room. With this sudden realization, Fati threw her whole weight through the window and swooped through in an indescribable air of some divine providence. She landed with a thud and crouch with great effort to hide behind the backyard garden. She ran into the bush limping and knocked down loose shrubs while stumbling over thick ones. She continued with dire effort, the evening mist sinking chill on her brow until she arrived at the neighboring town where she hoped to find a safe haven. She thought of Aisha and the unutterable evil that may befall her and it greatly unnerved her. It grieved her heart that she had nowhere to report the brutality she had witnessed— the maiming of her lover which would surely to go unpunished because she literally had nowhere to report to. What would she say they were attacked for? What were they doing? She must remain mute despite their only crime being love. More than anything her heart was heavy with the pain and guilt of having left her behind and scurried away to relative safety.
Aisha was left to deal with the scene unfolding in the house. The lewd and lecherous gleam on the men’s faces gave away their intentions. The swelling evident in their pants betrayed them. Aisha’s life flashed before her eyes, reliving her blurriest memories and oldest scars. Any closeness she had with men started with her husband and ended with him.
She defaulted to her younger days feeding on her childhood memories when she lived innocently and unbothered by what ill the world comes with. But for the sweat streaming its way through her groin, she would have thought herself lifeless. She felt the wetness on her skin. She had the faintest memories of what happened but for the pain ripping through her. She stretched her legs, struggling to open her eyes but she couldn’t. She felt nothing. Like she was some soulless creature walking the earth.
She began to feel herself outside of the strange voices in the room, outside of her body and even her mind. Her mind was a merry-go-round of faces long dead. She had an epiphany of herself threading on fluffy feet and soft fabrics down a heavenly street hemmed in on both sides by sweet scenting roses and dazzling diamonds. It was like she was drenched in sheer happiness while beautiful birds chanted sweet tunes to her ear.
As the harmattan sun slipped behind the grey clouds, the wind humming about with a magnanimous horror of ghoulish chatter descending coldly on the town like flecks of mist, forcing cold jitters down the spine of the mob, they bundled Aisha in a curtain and headed outside town like some undertakers getting rid of a foul body. They pursued their way with a steady gait and assuring steps of an unheeding disinterestedness at being found out.
They dug a hole and hauled her in there. She was bare except for the silver butterfly-shaped ivory bracelet on her wrist – a gift from Fati on their first night together. They shoveled the sand smooth with the back of their shovels until the earth was finally replaced. They left the tomb with no mark or headstone. Nothing to show the sins of the one so inhumanely and unfairly treated – the one guilty of nothing but love.
In the coming days, no one cared enough to check on Aisha or Fati whose tavern had been locked down. Her neighbors pretended they had not even the faintest recollection of any Fati who lived next door — her house empty, taken over by dry leaves rustling in the breeze and sweet scent of budding roses.
Ever since then, Katanga had been haunted and continued to be by unseen forces until it looked like a ghost town tossed in muck and mire, known only for its sordid dirtiness and strange deaths— the murderers’ first.
It was a mystery when all the men who were at Fati’s house that night mysteriously started coughing violently and emaciating horribly until they were covered with nothing but bones and angles. Their faces wrinkled and lost their vitality. They went about like walking corpses carrying their carcass about and gasping desperately for a life which withered with each new day. They were all sick – the mob that was at Fati’s house the night the women disappeared. How each of them could be suffering from the same symptom and at the same time was a mystery.
Of the six men, only three still lived. The other three died mysteriously and strangely. The first was flattened by a truck and his brain splattered across the ground. His skull crushed. The second fell off a tree and severed his spinal cord. He was reduced to a wheelchair for months and lived the remaining days of his life in excruciating torment. The third, the man who led the mob to Fati’s house that day was caught in a ghastly accident and burnt to ashes
And to say every misfortune happened within months since the disappearance of Fati and Aisha didn’t tell the men that their past was haunting them.
The three men still alive were eaten by their own cells while they watched their bones wither and their skins shriveled. They were all a shadow of themselves with shrunken limbs and faded flesh. They had no idea what ate away at them this quickly until they went to the hospital and all found out about their HIV status. In the few years that had passed since the day they buried their conscience in the cold night at the outskirt of town amidst the babbling catcalls of “whores”, “whores” the disease had been eating away at them.
They gazed at each other knowingly, their faces drooping resignedly while having an epiphany of their misfortune.
They had to learn, maybe the hard way, that to be one to be different is a good thing, to know that some people are birthed different is better, but to respect the right to be different is even better.
Years went by and times changed, the seasons came and passed and Fati became stronger with each new day. She thought about Aisha, her lover, every day and felt the guilt clogging her mind. The more she thought about her the more miserable she felt. What could have happened to Aisha? The mere thought of it sent jitters down her spine. And what hurt more was that there was no one who would tell her.
It was with her boundless guilt and sad memories that news reached her in exile in a town far away from Katanga that Katanga had been razed down by the government and turned into a cemetery. She heard of the horror of crying children running for shelter and half-naked women flapping sagging breast in the air as they search for their missing kids while enormous trucks and excavators demolished the town until there was nothing left standing in the town which was now covered with dust and fogs.
Fati listened while the strangers sitting close to her spoke that day about the odd scene that happened at Katanga when the excavators were uprooting the earth. She watched the fear in the men’s eyes as they spoke about the muddy remains of a young woman that had obviously been deposited years back and was exhumed by one of the excavators. She heard that the lady’s body was still fresh even though the ditch looked like it had been dug long ago.
“Her body was still supple and fresh as if recently dead.” Another man said when Fati asked about the body’s description. And immediately they told her that the remains of the lady had a rickety ivory bracelet dangling on her wrist with a butterfly-shaped pendant with an “F” written on it. Fati’s eyes blazed in delight and she finally felt some peace.
“Her organs were still intact and she had blood still running in her veins,” a stout fellow said. “This is a mystery. I have never seen anything like it. Who could be this woman and what was her crime to be buried this improperly? he asked.
Fati watched the men as they spoke and she knew deep within her that it was Aisha they spoke of. The description, the butterfly-shaped pendant, the “F” on it was all familiar. She remembered the pendant clearly as the gift she gave Aisha when they first parted ways and the engraved letter on the pendant was of her name. She writhed in discomfort until the men turned to ask if she was alright.
She smiled a sheepish grin and left. She knew the look on the men’s faces as they spoke about the exhumed body; it was of remorse and regret. Aisha had become a martyr. She had been taken away but would live on in her memory as the woman who had served her own revenge even in death.