The first time I see him, I am seated on the waiting area of the hospital, my left thumb in my mouth, my empty eyes in the air, as I stare into space. I keep looking at the doctor’s office, tucked away at the corner of the waiting area, wondering why my mum was taking so long inside there.
Barefoot, I wander to the hospital fields in search of something to feed my eyes, and make me forget of the hunger in my stomach. My left thumb leaves my mouth and clutches at my torn shorts, keeping them in place around my waist. My right hand takes space on my chest, covering for the once-existed-buttons of my shirt.
When I see him, I am bending to play in a heap of slashed grass, and he is approaching with a wheelbarrow, wanting to stash away the grass. He is wearing matching trousers and a shirt, just like mine; devoid of buttons. His clothes, vertically stripped in faded black and white, resemble those of three other men, standing at a distance with slashers in their hands.
When he sees me, he suddenly stops, and his face falls in shame. From my squatting position, I look up to his eyes, shocked, my mouth now wide open. I stand, and make two quick steps towards him. But he retreats, places his left index finger against his lips, as his head turns to face a policeman looking straight at us.
I run, straight, back to the waiting area, and budge into the doctor’s office. My eyes are now wet with tears, which have flown and dotted my now-bare chest.
Both Mother and the doctor stare at me in shock, before the doctor stands up, buckles his belt, shoos my mother away, who was seated nose to mouth with him, and makes his way to close the door, again. But I do not want to sit. I do not want to talk. I want to get my mother out of this office, and let her see what I had just seen.
I do not seem to notice that my mother’s blouse is half-way open, and the hair on her head is slightly unkempt. And even if I do, I seem to not care. I start tugging at her skirt, begging her to come with me.
“Learn to restrain your child, Miriam!” The doctor chimes in, opens the door, and ushers us out.
But when we get to the hospital fields, with everyone now staring at my mother, he is nowhere to be see. Even the men in the same clothes as his have disappeared. The policeman from earlier is just getting into a land rover that pulls away, followed by a green truck.
“He was right here, I swear!” I cry to my mum, as I fall to the ground, and roll, and roll, until the pieces of grass get into my mouth and now, I cannot stop coughing.
I expect to get a beating from my mother, because that is the norm. I throw tantrums. She flogs me to a point of death. I go on a hunger strike. She drags me to her hospital visits. I throw more tantrums. Cycle repeats.
My mother picks me up, and carries me for the short distance back home. Still, my questions of ‘Where is he?” continue to be met with “I do not know”, and “But I saw him the other day at the hospital”, is met with “You are just a child. You do not understand the things you see.”
But I keep seeing his face when I play. I keep imagining that he is the one who picks me up from the ground when I begin to roll and roll and roll. I keep seeing his index finger against his lips, urging me not to speak. I think I remember seeing his face on the night he disappeared; his mouth wide open, but no voice coming out. And when morning came and I didn’t see him take his jembe to the farm, my mother said, “He has travelled out of the country.”
I keep seeing his face even when I go to play at my friend, Mwokozi’s place. So, when the face becomes too much, I ask Mwokozi’ father: Do you know where he went to?
Just like him, Mwokozi’s father places his left index finger against his lips, holds my hand, and takes me behind the house, where I die a little bit inside when the truth unfolds before my eyes.
We are sitting on a small hard bench at one of the reception areas. It is 12.30 p.m., and he, just like me, is still dressed like the last time we saw each other at the hospital fields. He is biting, hungrily, into the loaf of bread I have brought him, and drinking from the packet of milk. And even though I know my mother will flog me to near-death for stealing her cash, I am enjoying the moment. Him eating, myself, staring at his blank face.
We make small talk. How is your mother? How are you? How is school? Do you have friends in here? How long do you have before you get out? Where do you sleep at night? Is it okay if I come to see you daily?
My heart bleeds for the fact that at seven years old, I have to walk for three kilometers before I can see my father. That I have to beg the wardens before they allow me to see him. That at six years old, I am the one feeding my father. I am sneaking around so I can see my father. I am stealing so as to feed my father. I am going to sleep, with no surety that my father will make it through the night.
“Sometimes they beat us, hard, even when we have done nothing against the rules,” he says.
My heart bleeds that at six years old, my mother refuses to tell me why we keep going to the hospital, yet my father needs us more.
My heart bleeds, even more, because when our fifteen minutes are over and I stand up to leave, he grabs my hand, and with tears in his eyes says: I did not do it. I know you know better to believe me. Whatever it is they tell you I did, I did not. I had never seen that girl they say I defiled; I only saw her in court. And from hearsay, she is a doctor’s child.
My heart bleeds as I walk back home, knowing that tomorrow, my mother will drag me, again, to the hospital, and make me sit at the waiting area, as her hair gets unkempt.