LOVE AND REBIRTH
The bell was ringing. They heard it! It was grand! Three times it rung! Each time it rung louder than the last. Gong! Gong! Goooooong!
“Another one has died!” Bibi whispered, as the wrinkles of her face shown.
It was cold and windy, blowing the coconut trees. There was heard the sound of owls and barks of dogs all over the village. It was the cold season, and so was every heart. The sorrow that this month had brought could not have never been worse. It was as if the devil had come with all his might, together with the cold nights or the gods were angry and shaking every earth seeking for man to repent. The village that once had music and drum beats in celebrations of weddings and festivals had nothing to celebrate about, it was filled with fear, suspicion and blood shed.
Thrice that week, the bell had rung, three people had departed to the other world. Death had become too common than they would have preferred, and even though common, it could never be anything they could have ever get used to.
“Who could it be?” Nyavula asked her grandmother
“No one was sick. It must be Sophia, she is out to finish us all” Her nose pointing at Sophia’s house.
The village was dark, and the night was even darker. Fear of death and fear of spirits, fears of whose door it would knock this time. Two great men and a child, now gone, the question is who was sacrificing others and why? Death without sickness would always be the hand of man, and never god. For god would not be so cruel to take a man, before his time, especially a young child.
Shortly, another bell rung, once, twice, thrice and then it stopped. Another person gone, every corner of Ribe was wails and tears. The silence was finally disrupted, and the wails would cover most of the night, and suddenly, there was another silence, dawn was near, and the village would go to sleep, hoping for the wake of a new day, and hopefully forget about the last one.
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Her lantern was flickering, her paraffin almost getting finished. As the wind blew, she feared, it would also blow her lantern, and she had no more matches to light it in the mid of the night. Though the cause of fear and believed to be powerful, she too had her fears. She too was afraid of the night, afraid of the dark, and equally longed for warmer days just as the coast was warm when she was younger. Only, even in the midst of hot days, whilst others would drip of sweat, she never felt warm. Every part of her was cold.
Her house small, she would still be okay if the wind blew her fire, but she still wanted light at least just for tonight, any light for this matter would be okay, for many years she had lived in darkness. On such cold nights, she felt she needed to feel that her house had company more than herself. For the many years she had lived, all she had gotten used to is the sound of her own voice, her touch alone, and her smell only. Nobody came, nobody came close. The closest to the world was her memories, many of which were not good now. The good ones had somehow escaped her at one time. Most vividly was the time she was made to take an oath. The entire village had stood there watching her prove she was not a witch, and as she swallowed the oath, it stuck on her throat. It was only luck that she was not torched on that day, but everyday, she was sure they would come for her one night. Just the other night, Charo, her sister’s son had led a revolution to torch Mzee Katana. It was only a matter of time. With every bell that rung, so was her closeness to the day they would come for her. They had for many old men and women, and it seemed she was the last of their suspects.
She had heard the bell, and her fear rose, not for the fear of death but for what any loss would mean for her.
Not long, her sister’s sons had come in noise, knocking at her door violently. “Stop whatever you are doing, I warn you!”. It was early in the morning, and had not even risen. He heard a gentle know at the door. She hadn’t opened.
“I know you are in there. I am not afraid of you, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to torch you, stop it”.
She had wanted to speak but she didn’t. They came again in the evening.
She remained silent, staring at the ground until they left. They had talked in shouts and heckling, and all along she had not said a word. She just said, “Go away” at last in a husky voice that no body heard. She wondered if anybody heard her. It often felt as if she spoke and nobody heard, or maybe they did not listen or maybe she lost her own voice. She had often spoken, what had seemed loud to her, but even she could not understand herself. It was like madness. Was she?
Old, frail she had grown, now, even her last tooth had fallen. The children of her own she longed for and even love she had longed for, there was not even a trace of it. Every dream she had, had stared back at her in emptiness, owing very few items in her how. Her room was her portrayal of the nothingness that had surrounded her being, she had rage, sorrow, and emptiness. And now that her years were over, she was sure, her dreams would never be.
“At least there must be a time when man stops believing, and it becomes okay to expect nothing.” She had stopped dreaming, singing, she had no music. “I am fine” as her head shook. She had often said to her walls, but she had stopped believing.
The nights were longer, her days shorter, for she looked forward to darker moments than light often. Light would always be a reminder of all she never had. The sound of children playing or women laughing reminded her what she could have been or could have had. She stayed inside, left only at night to get her food from her farm outside, so that no one would see her. She perhaps had not seen the sun in years, as every window had been covered to the last space, no light at all could ever get in. She was darkness and darkness was her, she thought. What had been said of her, had become a strong part of her, that she used the very fear to scare those frightened her. She never understood why she couldn’t be released of this curse that befell her.
“We do not want witches among us. One of us has to leave. And we are not going anywhere. You either leave, or we make you leave” they had threatened.
She ever looked down, not one tear, not one word. What would she say that they did not already know? She was what they said of her, and truly she did not know how she could release herself of her own curse.
Her story was shared amongst women and children, often as a warning, especially to girls. They told of how she had been engaged by one very handsome man, rich and famous. Her ceremony had been grand and even her bride price, the best during that time but he never showed up. Quickly the family arranged that she gets the richest and man in the village who had claimed her early, and had earlier refused him, but now was willing to avenge by marrying him. He was old, struggling to walk, had many wives already.
She had left, but not long, she was back after a month, even before the second wedding. The plea to take her back to her husband by her father did not cause her to go back. Not even jeers and jokes about her told, took her back. She had come back with no explanation and part of what her father had made out of dowry had to be sent back. Every time he questioned, she blew fire. There was hell in the house, and her little education would be blamed for it. He had been angry and ashamed. It shook his very ground as an elder.
“How will I sit before my peers, with you walking around here having run away from your husband? You have made me a con!” He rattled.
She had never said why she left or even maybe why she was chased, but her pain had never departed her, every time she thought about it, she walked wounded daily, and though wounds healed, hers had never. She ached for her first love who never came. She ached for her short-lived marriage that never materialized. Her heartbreak had led her back home, to never depart. But who would take her, who would have a woman who ran away from her husband back to her father’s? Even as she had walked speaking to herself, “I can do this! I can do this!” She didn’t really feel the courage she had before strutting all over Kambe. She felt stripped of everything, she felt naked, but mostly she had felt the heat on her face every time she walked and everyone stared. It was this time, she stopped walking out more, unless she had to, but often she didn’t have to, so she stayed in.
Her one picture that still hung in her living room wall, she had been such a beauty, and she still had traces of it. She had had the biggest gap then. She even had been declared the beauty of her time, wearing a Hando, and her breast standing firm, she had stood there straight in confidence smiling broadly waiting for her king to captivate her. Only her King never came, and she never went anywhere far away to any Kingdom, she stayed in the village.
Her refusal to stay with her old husband had ached her father. Seeing her walk back with her luggage on that day, his father had pleaded with her. A week passed, months passed, and now years had passed.
“What will people say, my daughter, go back,” her mother begged, but she was intransigent, refusing to go back even when her father had grown lean because of it. It had brought conflict between him and her mother, and he stayed more with his other wives. When he died, everybody said she had killed her own father with her bitterness and her disobedience. She had lived with her mother, and when her mother died, she had lost her everything. Perhaps wishing for her time to come as well, only it never came sooner though often she had near death moments herself, especially because of the agony that never left her.
Now, she never smiled, she used a stick to walk, she struggled to see, and she had even lost her taste in her mouth. So much had changed, and so many years of sadness, that had turned in to bitterness and anger, and waking up to fear each day. She had a wall around her, that no one would reach that wall.
“The dreams, the dreams that never happened, oh the dreams” she whispered to herself.
Certainly they would never be. She knew that one day, the words of her sons would not be just words, but it would be action, and usually it was gruesome.
When they left, she did not even rise from her chair. She still looked down. For once in her many years, she would let out a burst in a surge of pain, falling flat on the ground screaming like a child, no tear shed, though she wished upon them. How had she become this person? Now her fears and that of her mother had come to pass, she was everything they feared for her, and she was afraid.
“We do not want witches among us!!!!” The words echoed, the words stung.
Every knock on her door was a step closer to death. As she lay on the floor, another bell rung, once, twice and thrice and now she certainly knew her last hope would now certainly be over. She was the only one left. They would certainly come for her, they would certainly be back. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday very soon.
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There were wails all over, in every direction, almost every home, drums, songs, dances of women and dirges.
“Gone too soon our child, too soon”
“Whoa! Wickedness! She must pay for this.” Charo said. Everyone nodded. It must be a hand of man for a child to die for no cause at all. In Africa, nothing bad could ever be a cause of nature; someone had to be the cause. For how could nature harm anyone?
The little boy had gone for coconut up at the top. When he was coming down, bees came for him. He had fallen, and that was it. There was no struggle, when everyone had run to pick him, he had already died. There was no blood around him. It had taken him so fast. That must be the spirits that cause him to go out of the coconut tree. He was just sited when he suddenly went to the tree to get coconuts. Death had called him. Oh poor child.
“Such a young boy, poor girl, how will she manage. She struggled to get that child, and now he was gone” the women gossiped.
The mother had her eyes swollen, and her throat soar from screaming, she had even fainted for hours. Her husband had gone drinking. Enraged, that his aunty had gone too far and too deep.
“You are too much Aunty, too much” Charo had walked in anger, and most day he spent it there, drinking. Enraged and fuming. Shouting “You are too much, too much”
“My father, my mother, now my son? Who else?”. Turning his straw and sipping more mnazi, until he now could not stand. He was falling drunk. His peers holding him, trying the little they could to encourage him as he sipped to the last drop. Frustration, he looked too old for his age. Poverty could destroy a man, yet he didn’t know he was poor. It could make him obsessed, it could make him desperate, but more it would fill him with hate. He owned nothing, had nothing, what was his little hope had gone with the wind. No penny, no child now, and no wealth, and any he got, was to chase our his sorrow. His power was in the terror he caused.
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Just before dawn, at 3:00, there was another wail and shout coming loudly from the chief home. At 6:00 in the morning, there was another bell sound. One, two, three, certainly another had gone, now, seven in one week.
“That’s it” Charo said
“They want to eat us all” another said
“If we wait until morning, another may just go” A young mad echoed
“No, let’s wait till she can speak for herself.” Sifa defended.
Only he had never fully believed she was a witch. Though he agreed, she was strange and that he even feared her too. She stayed too much by herself, the had not seen her face in years. But who could blame her, he thought, she had been ridiculed too often, she had lost her confidence, he thought. He had longed to go to hers often, but every time he was close, he turned around, few times he had courage, she never opened. Most days he too was afraid, just incase even he too is caught by bad luck. He could only pray for his aunty and hope she could change.
Sifa, had memories of his childhood. He longed for those days.
He remembered her aunty more vividly than the rest, when she had been a happy, full of cheer and so wonderful and in love. She had been such a beauty, he often said. He could see some tenderness in her heart besides the anger and hate that occasionally spewed out of her, he imagined some grace still remained. No one understood her like he did. It was like his soul was connected to hers. Though he too feared for himself. He had seen what getting too close could do to a person, for those that had been truly evil they loved no one. A part of him believed, Aunt Sophia had a fraction of her that was still beautiful. It was hard that any part of that beauty could go.
She had denied the world her beauty, felt misused for it. He had not even seen her for such a long time, for every time her brothers went to declare war on her, he never went. But he was always sure to defend her. It was because of he that she was never torched the first time. He held her tightly, crying. People did not know what to do, he was just an innocent child. He had been such a little boy, but had been such a hero. He had walked her back home to ensure no one came for her. Sophia still remembered this, she always smiled about it.
The fond memories of her never left him. She had taken him to the beach, the first time ever. She had come home with a new short, after her first income as a teacher. She had asked his mother for permission and took him on a bus to town. It had been his first outing to town. He had been in dismay of the ocean, especially, and had played in it all day. He believed that the ocean must be the largest phenomena; it gave him different perspective of the world, that there was something greater and endless beyond his village. He had never forgotten that moment ever, until now he had his own family, he remembered his almost only trip as a child.
It had been so unfortunate how the marriage that didn’t happen had shattered his aunty. On that day as she stood there waiting, until dawn when the drums stopped beating, and then one guest left after the next, then the night fell, and dawn came again. She had never been the same again. From the cheerful woman with laughter that had been the envy as well as the darling of everyone, to now an old witch. A part of him ached. She had been so kind. But would pain and her desire for vengeance truly have turned her in to this person? He didn’t fully doubt it, for even he perceived her mysterious, he still didn’t get close.
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The men begun to chant and sing, with fire and paraffin in their hands. Palm leaves on the others. The young men were ready to torch and set on fire. Witches had been warned, but if they had still insisted with the trade, they would face their own music. Sophia was about to face hers for the second time, only this time, she was by herself, no savior.
They ran round in noises, chanting and chanting demonstrating how they would do it when they got there.
“Achomwe, achomwe, achomwe achomwe” They sung running around the village, collecting each other. It was always better to draw attention in shouts. If many people saw, there would be no more recruits for witches, that this may be a warning to even others.
“Achomwe Achomwe” “May she be burned”
The drum beats got louder, and so did the chants whistles, blowing, dropping themselves on the floor. It was a festival, even though they chanted death.
“Achomwe Achomwe” They sung as they sharpened their knives, women and children on the sidelines in fear. It was not always that they would know which house the men would visit. Many old people had died. Somehow, they had that look in their eye that made them witches.
The chant went louder and louder, further from everyone, and closer to Sophia. Even she could hear the chants now. It was not a mistake, the torch was close. Very close.
In that moment, her mind began to relive every moment. For the first time she could feel a tear wanting to stream in a long time, but it didn’t. Her eyes hot, burning more than they ever had. Her knees really weak from trembling. Her small house could not contain even her, for if she took two steps, her house would be already travelled. And if she went out, she would be spotted, for her hut stood solely alone like at a desert in a land of so many coconut trees, hers had none. There was no escape, and she had no courage to even escape. Perhaps she would wait for it as she always had. Perhaps she would lead herself to them, but whatever she did, she was finished. This time she was sure.
“Achomwe, Achomwe, Achomwe dzi dzi dzi dzi” They kept singing, their torches growing bigger, and their sound getting louder. Their rage and hands thirsting for her blood, they walked and walked closer and closer. The cry for vengeance was always the worst one, for when one was convinced you owe them, they would be so aggressive in their pursuit. When man believed you were the cause of their misery, they became ruthless. These were not malicious men. They believed she had taken from them, the cause of their poverty and lack of progress, and if so, they would do it mercilessly. Should she have spoken? But, she had no sound.
Man always looked for someone to blame when things did not go right. It could never be a miscalculation on their part, or failure to work as hard, she thought. There was always someone who had caused them misery. For her like many old men and women, this was the case. Nyavula had told her Sidi one day. He almost believed her, but he was not sure of it. It was true that Sophia was never seen, unless in the night. It was true she refused to open her door when people knocked on it. The coincident occurrences were too many.
For Sophia, it seemed that it was only she, who wanted herself to live, and if she lived for no one else, perhaps she was ready to go. No pain would be greater than the years of seclusion.
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Suddenly there was silence. They had opted not only to flame her, but even her house. They surrounded it. Many men, some women and some children stood in awe, ready to watch evil set on fire.
She heard them, she cringed on her bed, folded, she could feel them. She could feel her skin shiver. She could smell their hate, and even more she could smell their paraffin, stronger than ever. They poured and she heard the sound of it pouring on the ground. They all had matches and torches. If one person lit, it was certain she would burn.
The gallons were now empty, and the men stood their ready. Many withheld their flames, waiting for the first daring one. They held off bit by bit, all looking at Charo to give them a queue. Who would do it? They all wanted Charo to throw his match. For sometime he hesitated as if to wait for a voice of reason, but on noting all eyes, he knew there would be no stepping back. This would be his defining moment among his peers as he had led them to torch their own family in the quest to cleanse.
He had been the ring leader in firing other homes, with the old men in it. He had been the cause of their anguish. The young men knew he had hesitated because, he didn’t also fully believe Sophia was a witch. She had named him at birth. She was his godmother. There was always a voice within him that spoke, maybe his late mother speaking in his head. As if to say, “Don’t”.
Where was Sifa when he needed him to save this moment?
Would he turn back at this moment? The silence was deafening, but when suddenly there was a jeer from the crowd, “Let us finish this”. He had no choice, they had come this far, just for this moment.
In a flush he threw his match, and everyone would begin throwing theirs. It was only a matter of time that the small house would be totally burned. He started to walk away, not wanting to watching it burn, and so did everyone follow him and his lead. In the darkness of the night, walking tall into the night as a hero, but in his heart was too heavy. He would reach home and break down like a child. His wife holding his strong man breaking down. This was a mistake.
“It is finished!” he said. Only to what end?
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In there, everything was racing in her head as the flames grew louder. The night she refused to go back to her old husband was even more clear. The night that he had forced himself on her, and failure to succeed how he had hit her the first day, and the next day and the next. She could remember her mum weeping with her and encouraging her to keep strong and forget her prince so she would move forward. She saw herself and the prince at the river, and that pained her more. She still sobbed for that day she found out he was running away with her cousin. It still ached her heavy. When she stood there waiting for him to come on her bridal negotiations, and that he did not show made her first tear stream. She had not thought about it as clearly in years. Every time she had, she felt rage within her, but it wasn’t rage, it was such sadness. When she had dressed up for him as they always talked and he did not show, and she had never seen him. He never said his sorry, thus he never released her. Now she was here, about to be torched without ever hearing his sorry, the only thing she had needed. Why did he do it?
“I am sorry, I forgive you, ” she mattered even as the flame came closer, “I forgive myself. It was also she needed to say to herself. “Sophy, I forgive you” She said. The many years, she had blamed herself for her father’s death, and even her mother’s and even her sister’s.
She could feel her very heart melting away, and tears overpowering her with pain as if taking away her sorrow, as if washing away all cold inside her soul, and beginning to feel the heat. The many years she has not weeped or cried, she let them all out. She felt a relief off her shoulder and her chest. She was ready to go. And as if to give up, she would let out a breath and wait for her moment, already breathless, already the fire too close. Though sad for a story that may never be told, she resigned to this. She could see stars, and suddenly she could see no more, she lay there breathless.
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Suddenly, there was an only voice from a distance carried by the wind, only too late.
“Wait, wait” Sifa breathing helpless and running, he was late, the house was already ablaze.
“No, no, “ He wailed, sobbing on his knees, watching the house ablaze, fading away, taking away his last memories.
Nyavula had told him of what had happened. He had just come from Mombasa and passed by her home, when she told him of the ordeal. He had dropped all he had, and run before they could torch her, but they already had, is there anymore left to save, as people ran from the house, he ran toward it.
A sudden courage shook him off his ground and he ran fast inside. He held the door and pushed. He knew the house so well many years later, it was where he came a lot when he was a child.

“Aunty, Aunty,” He called out. She already was half conscious choking from flames. “Aunty”
There was no sound, and fire was already reaching to him even as he was surrounded by smoke.
“Sifa” she called out meekly. Her tears burning her again. This time not too much from sadness. She felt a warmth in her heart that ached her heart. It was such strong a strong feeling of love. Perhaps the strongest she had ever felt. It made her sob even more. Letting out her anguish at last. Also, like releasing her own demons and ghosts of her past, allowing her to live again. The tears couldn’t stop
“You came”.
“How could I not?”
“Aunty” he called as he noticed she was about to cross over, her eyes closing now. He picked her from her floor where she lay weakly and couldn’t help but notice how meek she was, such as paper. Wrapping them in the blanket he had, he walked amidst the fire he lifted her, bending down at the door. Very wounded, very burned, but still breathing. That was enough.
“Keep breathing, don’t stop,” he said. Noting that she was already giving up, gasping for air that felt like her last.
“Please stay”, he said.
She opened her mouth trying to utter something. She couldn’t utter.
He rolled her on the ground to release her of the flames, and then he rolled himself as he was also flaming. He was also afraid for himself and even more for her.
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When there was silence, and the night was cold, but it felt hotter for Sophia who was feeling heat for the fast time. She could now watch her sister’s son and admire the man he had grown to. She was happy for this moment, even though not sure how long it would last. Very good looking and strong young man. Still not able to speak, but she could afford a small smile. She smiled and kept smiling, and her tears overflowed as if they were washing her clean. It was like the last coldness inside her heart was melting totally.
“Thank you” She said. “Thank you” she managed to say.
She had thought she had wanted to die, but now she had one more reason to live. When it had stared her in the face, she had hoped for a savior, and here he was once again. Now, all grown, a man with his family, strong enough to even carry her.
“Thank you” she said again, amidst her pain, she said it over and over.
“Thank you”
“Aunty” Charo called after a long silence without saying a word. His eyes also streaming in tears as well.
“Were you ever… a witch,” he stared at her now serious more than ever. Then there was silence with her sobbing uncontrollably. It ached totally, and she couldn’t explain it, it was time.
“You can tell me” he reached out to her, and she finally relented.
“I will understand, you have been through too much” Charo assured. He had hoped to at least get this just the truth, for this had driven him crazy too for some time. Perhaps if she was, he would have regretted saving her, or maybe even if she was he would still have, but even more to justify he had been right all along. Though mostly he knew, he had overpowering care towards this woman, that he could not explain.
Her was heart breaking a little, looking away, not afraid anymore, but ashamed. “Never!!!” She finally said it. It was so real, so moving at the same time and so innocent. Just like the woman he had known.
Now even he drained in emotions seeing Aunty Sophia, light, and frail. Helplessly too, his tears brimmed all of them. Knowing that she could not have lied about this. It dawned on him how cruel their world had been to her without knowing, and maybe they would never know.
“All this was pride Aunty?” “Why did you never say anything? He said, when he was finally looking like she could do with some sleep.
He carried her that night, and took her to the Kaya, where all the elderly were kept safe, away f rom young men who were too angry with their own failure to realize that these old people were never the cause of their misery, but their own choices were.
The poor lady would be safe for now. Everyone had left, and it was hers to start a new leaf, she could rest. Then she would wake up in the morning to realize that the love of her life was also right there with her at the Kaya. It would be his time to explain what happened.
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The village remained quiet and music died down, now everyone believed she had been burned. They celebrated, though deep down they were sad. They had killed their mothers and fathers, but still their hearts were empty. A part of them knew they have been wrong all along. Only now this could not be recalled. Suddenly there was hush. At least in death, even not true, she would escape this hell of people that had tried never to understand her.
“I will take you somewhere safe, where you can begin your life again” Charo had said, reading her mind. He knew the village would never be safe, so he took her to the Kaya
“Everybody deserves a second chance. Now go and give love this time” he smiled and she smiled too. She had received the redeeming love, and so she hoped she could give the same back.
ESTHER NEEMA
I have never doubted my love for stories, having started from my teenage years and winning awards for writing short stories. Today, I am a journalist with a special focus on history and culture. Equally have been a presenter on TV and an actress both locally and regionally.

I continue to work in the arts, having started very early as a writer and stage acting as well as singing.

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