“Vashti Refused to Dance” by Makena Onjerika
When a friend confessed that she too had done it, whispering over coffee in an overpriced Nairobi café, Illuminata felt she was joining a sisterhood. Afterwards, walking from Kimathi street to her bus-hub at Commercial, she perused the female bodies she encountered, trying to discover which of them was her kin. The skyscrapers seemed to lift their skirts in the wind and demand, look, look at us.
Janet thought of herself as practical and resilient, a stone wall, but also a river, meandering and cutting itself new paths over rock (although, the metaphor stretched only so far when she considered the pregnant pollution of Nairobi’s rivers). She promised herself that she would regret nothing.
Since puberty, Ruth had waged wars to wrench her body from a thousand clammy demands. It was a body of curves and dips and excess fat that she pinched in front of her mirror, on occasion, but the insults thrown against it, that other women insisted were compliments, had left it pitted and scarred. She underwent the procedure because she could, because she wanted to, because it was her right to do as she pleased with her life and body.
They were young and in their first bloom. They were older and wiser, but still perplexed by what life had made of them.
Njeri was fifteen and the world had ended, leaving her shouting into a void on a high precipice. She was wind-blown and brittle by the time she ran out of tears. Her parents paid for the procedure.
Evelyn was twenty-one, and she and Kevin felt themselves encased in a cocoon throbbing with anger and uncertainty, something that could digest and dispose of them, but they swallowed the blame they had for each other and held hands on Kevin’s single bed. Two days later, they borrowed money off friends to get it done.
At twenty-seven, Eunice was fluorescent and buoyant, untethered to this world. Her sugar daddy of sixty-nine wanted to marry her. He was, surprisingly, the best sex she had ever had, but she did not feel like being anyone’s fourth wife.
They were short. They were tall. They were fat. They were thin. But each felt she wore the same shapeless dress.
Neema sent her boyfriend of four years a photo of the stick after she peed on it. He was in the next room, laughing at Trevor Noah on the TV. “Too soon,” she heard him say as he guffawed and slapped the recliner’s arm. After five excruciating minutes, in which she excreted fear, he replied with a turd emoji and slammed the main door as he walked out of her life.
Teresia stood her ground even as he wept and begged for this blossoming between them, this hope, this chance. “I just don’t love you,” she said.
Charity loved Jesus and was in the church choir. Those who saw her wailing on Sunday morning thought she had been moved by the Holy Spirit and envied her.
Nancy rescued a banker in a nightclub in Westlands. He stood where the strobe lights could not stroke him, watching the dancing and drinking, looking marooned. “Why the long face?” she asked, in her shimmering mini-dress. “Because you had not yet arrived,” he said. He had perhaps lost her phone number, and she had deleted his the morning after.
Agnes had a new man every other month, inspiring gossip in the block of rental rooms where she lived and clandestine visits from women who knocked on her door in the dark to beg for a tinder of her witchcraft. One of her boyfriends flung money at her face for the procedure and called her ‘careless’. She carefully collected every note off the floor.
Diana’s man was another woman’s husband and she a well-known social media influencer. She was Vashti, protecting her nakedness from the eyes of an entire country, although they loved each other, and his wife was a mad bitch.
You ask what they felt. You ask if they felt at all. You ask such impossible questions.
Sanaipei could not imagine walking around the sterile and frigid auditing office with a swollen belly and an arched back. She was new on the job and on probation for the next six months after trying to get a job for three years.
And just the previous month, Claire had resigned from a job of seven years at a thankless marketing agency and petrol-bombed all her bridges. Her passion, she had discovered, was not tenderising clients. She had then blown through more than half her savings to set up a food-truck business.
Veronica was due to fly to London in two weeks to start her master’s degree in financial analysis. She dreamed of her plane crashing.
They were in dialogue with their bodies, each trying to unearth the language of her flesh.
Christine wanted to lose fifteen kilos. She intended to slay in her two-piece swimsuit during the girls’ trip that December and would wax down there, as smooth as a newborn’s head, in case she lucked on some seaside action.
Kemunto was the potentate of gin-based cocktails among friends and acquaintances and also the supplier of various smoke-able substances, most illegal.
Atonga was no runway model, but she had a well-situated pair of B-cup breasts and just the right amount of pot belly. She clung to the home that had sheltered and defined her for three decades.
Chebii was on depression medication. Her psychiatrist presented her with two options. She decided to eat sanity with a large spoon.
They leapt with eyes shut. They took intentional steps over the edge of the cliff.
Achieng’ already had a rambunctious two-year-old boy. She addressed herself as sleep walker, zombie and Mother Earth.
Murwatetu hid in the bathroom at work and wailed when she thought about the ordeal of her first pregnancy: three months of vomit, then aches, lack of appetite, chronic fatigue, sore nipples, the swelling and stretching, forgetfulness and confusion and the kicks of a future footballer all culminating in eighteen hours of pelvic bone displacement, dilation, and her genitals ripping five centimeters as her daughter’s massive head slipped out. Who was she at the end of it all? She just COULD NOT!
Calista did not want to lose another baby three days before his due date. She’d still had to birth him and herself too — out of a sheath of grief. She would never forget how swollen he’d been.
For Kemunto and her husband, the mathematics of two car loans, a mortgage, school fees for two children and their own unfulfilled, slowly fading dreams, simply did not add up.
Beatrice’s husband never knew. She’d told him on their first date that she did not want children. He’d never believed her.
Denied the education that would have decayed their morals, they lived by hearsay and trial and error.
Condoms were too painful for Eusepia. She had always made him water the earth.
Jackie had not thought much of the splats her boyfriend gifted her on her thigh after she worked him with her hands.
Deborah had always believed the white, milky discharge that appeared on her panties on the fourteenth or fifteenth day after the beginning of her period meant she was done ovulating and safe. Google pitilessly disabused her of this misconception.
Catherine took emergency contraception within twenty-four hours of some very horrendous sex (he kissed as if he were chewing her lips). No one explained how it worked or that it could fail.
Nderebina changed her patch three days too late.
Many of them had a choice. Many of them didn’t.
Nimo did not want sex that Friday, but he reminded her that she had already said no on Wednesday and Thursday. She convinced herself she would be to blame if his dick led him elsewhere.
Wanda’s partner confessed to perforating the condom.
Khavayu went over to an ex-colleague’s apartment for dinner. A casual guy who wore loafers, don’t-touch-my-ankle trousers and kitenge pocket squares in his tidy blazers. She marvelled at the hundreds of books on his shelves and thought she had found a soulmate. A dance mate too after he showed her how to dance kizomba. Then he offered her a Coke and raped her for several hours.
Liz (not her real name) sometimes had difficult clients, but they paid ten times as much.
They did choose. They. Chose. Themselves.
Some of them knew where to go. Most of them did not and were not sure whom to trust and so spent many days tiptoeing around the internet and making anonymous calls to various NGOs. All of them eventually visited the same nondescript ‘family and reproductive health’ clinic on the third floor of a building in Nairobi’s CBD.
They each sat across from Dr Daniel, a young man of thirty-five, who smiled and asked how he could help. They did not trust that smile, but there were few places to turn. Some of them spoke directly; most of them beat about the bush. Dr Daniel nodded and produced a chart to establish how far along they were. He then explained that they had three options, one of which was to stand up and leave whenever they wanted to.
Some believed that they carried a living thing inside of them and knew that they were killing it. Some of them believed it was simply a ball of cells — potential and nothing more. And some of them felt under a vampiric invasion, their blood streams appropriated and pumped full of hormones, their mouths and tongues stolen and given new preferences. Their bodies turned into walking granaries. They wanted out, OUT, OUT!
Outside, the day was bright and painful to behold or it was dark and hollow or it was wet and leaching into the soil or it was wind-blown and crazy-looking. None of them took the third option, so Dr Daniel offered the other two.
“Yours is only five weeks old. So you can either have a manual aspiration or the pill.”
“Unfortunately, you waited too long. This one we can only aspirate.”
They wanted to know which of the two methods was more painful. Dr Daniel was gentle: discomfort and period-like cramps. But they had heard about way more pain. Like giving birth, they had been told.
They endured undressing, spreading their legs to the open air and having Dr Daniel stick several apparatuses up their vaginal canals. They gripped the sides of the bed and hoped to God he would not leave them perforated and barren.
Others received and swallowed the mifepristone he dispensed and tacked four mistropol pills into their handbags, to be taken within thirty-six to forty-eight hours or as soon as bleeding began. In the next two to fourteen days, they would bleed clots the size of lemons. Some would suffer hardly any pain. Others would writhe in their beds and almost go mad from it.
“Remember, those four go under the tongue. Let them dissolve slowly for thirty minutes,” said Dr Daniel.
They paid him what they felt was too much or shockingly little or just enough. (Many of them would not see him again until early 2017, when he appeared in handcuffs on TV, charged with murder. The newspapers headlined him as “The Merchant of Death” and gave gory details of the tiny dismembered bodies found in a bin in his clinic).
Outside, the day was bright and painful to behold or it was dark and hollow or it was wet and leaching into the soil or it was wind-blown and crazy-looking. They walked into it and were once more as ordinary as anyone they met on the streets.
They lived with their decision. No one could do that for them.
Naliaka bled for three weeks and filled over seventy maxi pads.
Lydia saw people looking at her when they thought she did not see them do so. She did not care. Her daily joy overflowed.
Wambura ended up having an infection, but a doctor friend prescribed her antibiotics.
Justine wanted to never be able to forget; she returned a thousand times to the memory of the dismembered foetus Dr Daniel had suctioned out of her.
Yvonne and Kemboi were pregnant again within three months and decided to keep it this time.
Selena could not have children when she actually wanted them later on, and no doctor could find a cause.
Khadija told her boyfriend that she wanted to abstain until marriage. He broke up with her, but she did not change her mind.
Wangari wrote anonymous posts about her abortion on internet forums and was cursed at by strangers who wanted her to burn in the fires of hell.
Cherono dreamed of a crying baby girl every night for years. She spent thousands of shillings seeing a therapist.
Akello took up the salsa classes she had postponed for years.
Mukami got a copper coil inserted as soon as the bleeding stopped. Kandie chose an implant in the arm. Awuor struggled to conceive for two years after stopping her Depro injections. And after doctors in Nairobi refused to tie Mwanaisha’s tubes, assuring her that she was still too young and would change her mind, especially once she found a man who wanted to marry her, she bought an air ticket, subjected herself to a visa interrogation, and sought help abroad.
Deborah went on week-long holiday in balmy Watamu, alone. The covetous sea twinkled at her in aquamarine and tried to hold her down in its womb, but she rose and rose.
Some of them gifted their experiences to sisters, cousins and friends in distress. Some of them buried them as deep as they could.
Makena Onjerika was the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Daughters of Africa, Waxwing, Nairobi Noir, Wasafiri and others. She lives in Nairobi and teaches fiction at the Nairobi Fiction Writing Workshop (NF2W). She is on twitter as @onjerika.
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