The first time I saw a ‘real’ grown woman in her underwear was under very distressing circumstances. I say real because the only ones I had ever caught a glimpse of in that state were from the cast of the American soap opera- ‘The Bold and Beautiful.’ Although it was forbidden to watch this show in my father’s house, my siblings and I would hide behind the sofa and discreetly follow proceedings. Yeah, we were pretty naughty. We were caught and given a whooping many times. The show was rated PG 18, because there was nudity and what they called strong language which was considered inappropriate for children under the specified age. Therefore to encounter, a woman in real life in her underwear was something I never thought I would have to deal with in my childhood.
It was a school night. Mother had already told us twenty times to go to bed, but we begged for five more minutes of screen-time every five minutes. She was tired, and getting agitated. Dad was not at home. Usually, his deep baritone voice from the bedroom would be enough to get us tucked into bed within seconds. Mother was the patient one, perhaps even more lenient. Our luck ran out at 10:30pm. She walked to the 14-inch black and white Samsung TV perched on a high wooden stool and turned it off. Just in time too, because just then, a darkness slicing scream captured the air.
We all froze. There was a pause for a few seconds. Again.
I am almost sure we all thought thugs had raided the compound. Someone switched off the lights. Shhh! It was silent again.
“Mama Tony fungua!”
She was knocking frantically, begging my mum to open the door for her.
“He will kill me!”
Whatever came over mother! She switched on the lights, unbolted the door, and in came a terrified Mama Boys, our upstairs neighbour. She was quite a sight. She wasn’t wearing any clothes except a white bra and white panties. Her eyes were red. She did not seem to notice the three children who stood staring, dumbfounded. The cloth around my mother’s waist quickly came off and covered the woman. We were then shooed to the kitchen where the double-decker metal bed we shared received our confused bottoms. Even with the connecting door closed, we could hear Mama Boys asking mother, amid sobs, why he would want to embarrass her in the middle of the night, when everyone was home. Did she deserve to have her clothes torn off her like that? To be slapped and boxed like that in front of her sons?
This was my introduction to domestic violence.
Many times, one does not quite remember unfortunate events in their childhood unless there is a trigger. I think a higher power or force conspires with nature to push them to the basement of the brain. Somewhere out of reach. Once in a while, something triggers the memory, snapping off the safety lock.
I was a sophomore when it happened again.
I was spending the weekend with mother at her one-roomed house in Nairobi, where she now worked since her transfer from Nakuru town. It was definitely not the fanciest of places, but it sufficed. Cars waiting to be serviced by mechanics would be parked outside the gate. The neighbours were friendly and minded their business. The only thing that irritated me about the place was the common bathroom and toilet. Not everyone cares for cleanliness and leaving a place better than you found it. I find it hard typing this without the urge to reach out for a face mask and disinfectant.
The couple, responsible for my trigger, lived at the house on the far end, next to the communal bathroom and toilet. The man was huge, he loved wearing basketball shorts and vests. He had an untamed afro that really suited his build. I went to the same school as his girlfriend, who like me, often fled the boring weekends in school. We never really spoke except for the usual salutations. I was as single as a grain of rice back then, and I remember admiring how in love they seemed to be, until that Saturday afternoon.
That slap was loud enough to wake the ancestors!
“Toka hapa!” The guy roared. “Get out!”
Before we could run to the door to investigate the noise, the curtain flung open and she walked in a huff, mascara stained tears flowing down her face. She had a cloth at hand, but she was in her underwear. Black.
“I am not going back to him!”
My sister and I were taken aback, but mother seemed less surprised, or masked it well. She calmly motioned her to sit on the bed. That’s the thing about mothers. Instinct kicks in within seconds. What an amazing gift to society!
Despite being visibly pained by the actions of their loved ones, these two women went back to them. I will never know why. I never asked. There is a common saying in my country, “Mambo ya watu wawili usiingilie.” Loosely translated it means, “Do not involve yourself in a quarrel between two people who love each other. You might end up being the common enemy.”
I feel like today I can ask though, why did you stay?