Also published on Dear Damsels under my other pseudo – Cesca Miller: https://deardamsels.com/2020/10/21/wanjis-journey-cesca-millers-protagonist-unlearns-old-lessons-and-questions-tradition/
A short story about learning and unlearning traditions, lessons on marriage and a woman’s self-worth.
Buddu, Uganda 1965
‘Just take it all,’ Kissa, her mother, gestured resigned after weeks of trying to understand why Kibate, her husband, would empty their home of their possessions as he moved to his second wife’s. She’d given in. Wanjiru – Wanji for short – and her siblings looked on aghast as their father, Kibate, stripped their home bare.
Kibate believed he was wealthy enough to take a second wife, so he set her up in a new home packing all he had. Being able to afford more than one wife was a sign of wealth; it inspired respect not only in Ugandan culture but in cultures all over the world for centuries in different forms: harems, concubines and even mistresses in Europe. This was a question of honour and ego as well; he left without a second glance back at his family.
Once he’d left, Wanji asked quietly: ‘Maama, why didn’t you ask Taata to stay?’
‘Your father has to go and live with his other wife for a while. When you get married and if you’re lucky to marry a wealthy and successful man, you’ll share him with other women.’ Kissa said trying to smile, although her smile didn’t meet her eyes. ‘This is how it’s meant to be when you get married, it’s your husband’s duty, you’ll see.’
Two years later, Kibate came back and married two more women; life carried on.
West London, 1982
Jaya, a wealthy Indian divorcee, was a resourceful and independent woman, who owned her law firm.
The first time she met Wanji, the latter was heavily pregnant, pushing a pram up the slope to their pretty cul-de-sac, loaded with shopping on each handle. They lived in a close-knit community of expats and affluent cosmopolitan professionals. Wanji’s husband was a senior executive at the Ugandan Coffee Marketing Board, which had recently opened a branch in London.
Slowing the car as she recognised her neighbour, Jaya she called out through the window:
‘Care for a lift? I am heading your way and you look like you could do with help with that.’ She smiled eyeing the loaded pram.
‘Thank you,’ Wanji smiled gratefully, recognising her neighbour. She got in after she’d folded the pram and set her daughter, Carole, and the shopping on the backseats.
‘I am Jaya by the way,’ introducing herself as she manoeuvred the car back onto the road, ‘shouldn’t your helper be doing the shopping for you?’
‘Nice to meet you Jaya, I am Wanji,’ she answered, ‘Suubi is busy at home and I thought I could do this errand on my walk.’
‘Those shops are a bit far for a walk,’ Jaya said, eyes on the road. ‘Why don’t you drive there?’
‘Oh no, I am not allowed to drive Okello’s car,’ Wanji laughed nervously. ‘He drives us around when he has time.’
‘Then, what do you do when he’s not around? You could get your own car,’ Jaya mused. ‘Do you work?’
‘Okello is the educated one. Since I am not that academic, it’d be hard for me to find work.’
‘Believe me, it’s not that hard. Once you’ve had the baby and you’re ready, I’ll help you.’ Wanji remained silent.
As Jaya helped her out and they noticed Okello’s car outside the house.
‘Come in for a drink and I can also introduce you to my husband.’ Wanji offered.
‘Oh, I don’t want to impose!’
‘Please,’ insisted Wanji. ‘It’s the least I can do to thank you.’
As they stepped into the house, they heard bed springs, moaning and grunting upstairs. Wanji’s first reflex was to take Carole in the sitting room and shut the door. She turned to Jaya with averted eyes and Jaya tactfully said: ‘Listen, I’m actually a bit in a rush, shall we have a drink another time?’
Wanji smiled gratefully as Jaya left.
A few months later, when Jaya met Okello for the first time, she had already taken a dislike to him. She also saw that his smiles belied a weak and insecure man, who covered his faults with multiple affairs and demeaning his wife.
Over the years, as their friendship grew, Jaya got Wanji to be more independent. After the birth of baby James, she signed her up on a Pitman secretarial training course. Once completed, Wanji landed herself a job as a receptionist at the Tanzanian Embassy. She was so happy that she called Okello straight away.
‘Since when have you wanted to work? Anyway, you’ll just be a receptionist.’ He then added: ‘Don’t wait up tonight.’
The comment stung, but Wanji ignored it. ‘I was going to invite some friends to celebrate with us tonight. It would have been nice if you were at home too.’
‘I have a last minute engagement tonight, you know how things are for us, senior executives.’ He added self importantly. With that, he hung up and stared at the phone.
Why did she want to work at all? His friends’ wives kept it simple; they were pretty, amiable and obedient. They let their husbands grow their careers, received a regular allowance and took care of the home. Surely that was better than being a receptionist?
Meanwhile, Wanji stared at the phone incredulously. She knew what these last minute engagements were, but she preferred not to think about them. Once again, he’d made her feel miserable. She called Jaya and later they went out with some friends to celebrate.
A few months later, when she bought herself a car and a similar reaction from Okello.
‘Why do you need a car?’
‘It will make the school run, errands and Carole’s ballet classes easier to juggle. You are rarely available after work and the house still needs to function,’ said Wanji calmly.
‘Since when can a receptionist afford a car,’ he said ignoring her reasoning.
She was used to him belittling her and ignored the jibe: ‘I saved some money and Jaya got me a good deal.’
‘Well then, I might stop giving you an allowance for the household expenses,’ he added, ‘and by the way, I still don’t like that Jaya friend of yours. If we were in Uganda, you wouldn’t be friends, with her being Asian and you, Ugandan.’
Wanji was shocked at that last comment but kept quiet.
West London, 1987
Earlier, Wanji had called Jaya with the news, so she rushed over, stuffing her files into her bag as she left the office. On the other side of the phone, Wanji let out a sigh of relief.
She thought back at last night’s call when Okello dropped the bombshell about bringing Rose, his latest girlfriend of twelve months to live with them in London. He reasoned as if speaking to a child:
‘My siblings tell me that I am like a puppy married only to you. You know that a man of my status and wealth should have more than one wife to be respected. Think of all those poor daughters I turned down because of you.’ Wanji wanted to mention his countless affairs but bit her tongue.
Flashbacks from her childhood haunted her, so she called her mother, Kissa, in the following morning. No comfort was offered there.
‘What do you want me to say?’ She then added: ‘This is what happens when your husband is wealthy.’ She then proceeded to more practical matters.
‘Remember to protect your children. Wash them with the ointments and light the candles to stop darkness from entering your home. Keep the talismans and the Virgin Mary with you and the children at all times. Protect yourselves because Rose, your rival, will come prepared. Also, remember to put the charms under yours and her bed, don’t mix them up.’
As her head swam, confusion, grief and anger took over:
‘Oh Maama,’ she cried. ‘I feel so betrayed!’
‘What betrayal are you talking about?’ asked Kissa.
‘I tolerate the affairs because I know that he is part of what he has to do, but this? Even Taata stayed away with his other wives, he never brought them home! I prayed I’d have a different kind of marriage!’
‘My child,’ Kissa calmly said. ‘If you wanted a one-woman man, you should have married either a very poor one or a white one.’
Wanji rolled her eyes, ‘Maama, white men cheat on their wives too. It’s about the man, not where he comes from.’
‘Oh well,’ Kissa simply said; Wanji could picture her shrug. She hung up feeling even more miserable and helpless, so she called Jaya.
Wanji was busy upstairs moving furniture, when Jaya let herself in the house, Afrigo Band was playing in the background. On her way up she saw Suubi, the live-in help on the sofa; she knew Wanji couldn’t impose her authority, since Okello was sleeping with her. Jaya found her friend out of breath.
‘Honey, if you’re going to grant Okello his foolish wishes, let the help do it.’ She then called out: ‘Suubi, the room upstairs needs clearing.’
Suubi got up and walked by them swaying her hips and sucking her teeth loudly.
Downstairs, Wanji brewed some tea and served mandaazis and samosas. Jaya bit a mandaazi and asked:
‘Now tell me everything from the beginning.’
Words poured out of her friend’s mouth like water from a tap along with the anger, despair and tears she’d held in since morning.
‘There, there,’ Jaya said patting her on the back. ‘So now what are you going to do?’
‘What do you mean?’ Wanji blinked back.
‘You’re not going along with this, are you?’
‘But Jaya, what else can I do?’
Jaya sighed. ‘It doesn’t need to be this way. It doesn’t need to happen if you don’t want it to.’ Wanji thought about her earlier chat with Kissa. Jaya clasped her friend’s hands and said:
‘Wanji, you’ve put up with enough of Okello’s disrespectful behaviour over the years and you know it’s only going to get worse. You know that don’t you?’ Wanji thought back to her father’s subsequent wives.
‘You can choose another path. If Okello and this marriage are truly worth it, you can fight to legally stop that woman from coming into the country. However, this time, the choice is yours. It’s a blessing Okello called you ahead of doing it, actually. If this whole thing doesn’t feel right to you, then let your inner voice be your guide.’
They sat in silence and only the distant music could be heard.
‘Wanji, remember who you are and how far you’ve come in this marriage. Things have changed. You are more independent now, so be active in making what you want to happen come to pass. Reaffirm your marriage on your terms or walk away. You can start over; I did it.’
‘But a single mother,’ Wanji said quietly, as if it were a curse; Jaya chose to ignore the comment, being a single mother herself. ‘I am a respectable married woman, what will the community think ?’
‘Well, you may be married but believe me, no one respects you with that philandering husband of yours. Sometimes you have to live for yourself and your children, rather than try to keep up crumbling appearances.’
‘Oh, Maama.’ Wanji sighed.
‘Please don’t bring our mums into this, love. They got us into this mess in the first place drumming the idea into our minds, that it’s ok for our husbands to treat us this way. Wanji smiled ruefully, they both chuckled.
‘Listen my dear, I won’t force you. I can help you help yourself and your children, but it must come from you.’ She kissed her friend’s forehead and left.
Later that evening, Wanji called Okello to try and change his mind, however, this time it came from a different place. She was no longer desperate and helpless. Her resolve was stronger and when he refused for the last time, something snapped. Maybe it had snapped years ago, but on hearing his decision this time she felt empowered and in control of her destiny, her marriage and her family.
After she hung up, she looked around the home where she had come as a younger wide-eyed naive wife as she steeled herself for action.