One of the windows in my room at the Kwiro mission faced the court yard of the boarding school which housed about two hundred high school girls from the Mahenge mountain district. The girls slept in large dormitories and most of their daily off-school activities were performed in this spacious yard where a group of large mango trees gave cooling shade in the heat of the mid-day sun. I loved the gay noises when the girls swarmed out into the yard after school and could watch them washing clothes in long heavy basins in one corner of the yard, hanging their laundry in the sun on drying racks outside their living quarters. Some girls sifted grain and spread corn on mats to dry; others pounded maize under the trees. Many girls merely amused themselves playing ball or stood in small groups chatting and laughing together.
The solid brick structures of the school surrounded the yard and all doors faced inwards so that the whole compound was completely closed off from the outside world. Only one narrow gate led out, and that gate was just outside my room. Every morning I was awakened by the girls filing past on their way to church for the early morning mass. I liked the sound of the many naked feet on the flat stones of the passage and the subdued giggling of the girls. They knew I was there and had a little game with me, coughing or clearing their throats the way they had heard me do it, or tapping lightly at my door as they passed by. Sometimes I opened the door on them and the nearest girls would jump aside startled, while others burst out laughing. I heard them still chuckling as they filed into the church, under the eyes of their stern teachers who were standing at the entrance counting the girls and making sure everybody was present.
Each Saturday afternoon the girls were allowed to have a dance. They would drag their huge drums into the courtyard and take turns at beating them while the other girls were singing and dancing, hands on each others shoulder. I often looked at the girls through my window, enjoying the sight and sounds and thinking that these years spent within the protective walls of the mission school might be the happiest time of their lives.
Except for priests, no man was ever allowed inside the school gate. Any male, even the father or other close relative wanting to visit one of the girls, had to turn to Mother Superior. Upon her approval a meeting would be arranged in a supervised room outside the school. On Sunday after Mass people had a chance to see the girls as they crossed the lawn from church to school. Parents and friends lined the well-trodden path where the girls walked and here boys and young men could look at the girls and sweethearts might exchange a few words or a girl receive a gift from an admirer until a watchful nun or teacher ordered her back into line. Because of this strict control over the girls and their isolation from men, people accepted this boarding school as a proper place for their adolescent daughters. According to the custom of the mwali, girls were usually withdrawn from school as soon as they reached puberty and kept in isolation until they were married. But some parents agreed to let their daughters spend their years of seclusion at this particular school because it was so well-guarded. Not only would their daughters remain virgins here, they would learn many skills and the family would be assured of a high bridal price. Besides the usual academic subjects, the girls took courses in modern childrearing, health care, cooking, gardening, sewing and other domestic arts. The high bridal price the families of these girls could demand also secured them prestigious sons-in-law, since only boys from well-to-do families or men with education and well-paid jobs could come up with the necessary sum.
Few girls actually made it to graduation; it was not up to them to decide how long they stayed. While they were living at the school, happy to receive education and to be with other girls instead of sitting alone in a dark hut, their families were busy arranging a match for them. Any day a girl could receive a message from home that she was to be married and had to be prepared for the wedding on a given Sunday. If she was lucky, she would marry her sweetheart; maybe the boy who had made up to her on the way to church, somebody she liked and from whom she therefore had accepted gifts. These marriages were big events for the other girls, who would eagerly help the bride sew her garments and dress her up for the wedding. On the memorable Sunday, before the church ceremony, they would accompany the bride across the school yard, giving the women's characteristic cry of joy. At the gate they would circle around the bride and together they would shed tears as she bade farewell to a carefree girlhood before she stepped out through the gate to begin her life as a woman. Many curious pairs of eyes would mercilessly inspect the bridegroom who awaited the bride on the other side of the gate. Embarrassed, he would clumsily offer his arm as he received her from the girls and lead her to the church. After the service there was another tearful farewell to teachers and girl friends before the couple went on their way to celebrate the wedding at home according to their people's tradition. On Sunday afternoon after such a wedding, the schoolyard was quiet. Maybe the girls were sad because their friend was gone, maybe they whispered to each other about their own dreams and hopes for the future as they sat around in the dormitories.
Most of the teachers at the school were European nuns but there were also a few African nuns who kept house with the girls. They came from the same tribes and acted as housemothers, helping to overcome the homesickness to which the adolescent girls were prone during the long absence from their families. Only one lay teacher was an African woman. Her name was Susanna and she was very popular. She used to accompany sick girls when they came to the dispensary for treatment and I was astonished at first when I learned that she was a teacher. She did not look much older than some of the schoolgirls but all her colleagues praised her as being unusually diligent. She was a pleasant, quiet person and we had no difficulties communicating since her command of English was indeed very good. I was always happy when she came with the sick girls, for she was an attentive listener and appeared genuinely concerned about her students. She was bright and I knew that she would understand my orders correctly. I often saw her helping the girls in their daily tasks, and wherever she appeared the students would flock together around her. She was a local girl whose family lived in a village not far from the mission, but Susanna seldom went to visit them. Her little room was beside the girls' dormitories and she rarely ever left the mission.
Late one evening I was awakened by a commotion in the girls' dormitories and heard them running about calling for help. I dressed quickly and was ready just in time when somebody knocked at my door. “Please Mama Mganga, come quickly, Susanna is ill!” I hurried across the yard. Susanna's little room was crowded. The upset girls rushed around in confusion, some crying for fear. Susanna was on her bed, holding her head with both hands and whimpering, “Oh, oh, my head, my head is bursting, I am dying, call the priest, get holy water, my head is burning, Oh, please, cooling water--here, here, place it on my head. Quick, more water or my head will burst.” The girls hurried back and forth dipping pieces of cloth in a water bucket and placing them on Susanna's forehead until both she and the bed were soaking wet. Trembling all over, Susanna clutched the rosary in her hands and begged the priest to give her the last rites. She did not seem to understand when we spoke to her and she held on to us and stuttered for fear: “Nakafa, nakufa--I am dying, I am dying.” Yet, apart from fast heart beats and sweaty hands, I could find nothing physically wrong with her, and the nurse who by now had joined us agreed that Susanna was merely in a state of panic. The girls who felt more courageous in our presence whispered about uchavi, witchcraft. They told us that Susanna had been well as usual when they bade her good night. They woke up when Susanna yelled in the night and jumped out of bed. They heard her crying for help and expressing fear that her uncle had cast a spell on her. We were able to make Susanna swallow a sedative and watched her until she calmed down and finally fell asleep. Some of the girls asked if they could stay with her. They hauled a mattress into the room and lay down close to Susanna's bed, happy to be able to do something for their beloved teacher. The others returned to their dormitories and soon everybody was back to sleep.
When Susanna woke up next morning she was again seized by a feeling of terror. She sent a girl for me and when I arrived at her bedside she pleaded with me not to let her die. She was extremely agitated and did not dare to be left alone. Her pleading sounded so urgent that I was quite alarmed. It was so unlike Susanna. We had all known her as a calm, composed and happy person, not at all prone to hysterics. She must be in great emotional distress, I thought, and made arrangements to stay with her for a while. I sent the girls off to their classrooms and sat down beside the distressed young teacher, asking her to tell me what had happened. She gave a sigh and looked at me with a tense and worried expression. “We are alone, Susanna, nobody will disturb us, do tell me what is bothering you,” I tried to coax her. There was a quiver around her mouth and she was evasive. “It's a long story.” She closed her eyes. “Please give me some time,” she whispered.
I waited patiently. Finally she opened her eyes wide and staring out into space she told me of a dream which had caused her sudden panic the night before. She dreamt that she was walking up a hill with her parents. She had hurried to reach the top before them. But when she stood on the summit looking around, she felt uneasy. It was as if the entire scenery was changing and she sensed danger. Suddenly a lion appeared and her mother and father turned and ran down the hill leaving her in the lurch. She tried to escape but could not move. As the lion jumped at her she woke up with a scream, terrified and convinced she was about to die. She did not recognize where she was and even the trees outside in the yard appeared strange to her; she then cried out for help, sure that it was her uncle who had sent the lion to kill her. Susanna began to tremble again and repeated that it was her fate to perish through her uncle's witchcraft; now he had finally caught up with her. Susanna cried and I felt there was more to it than the dream. “Look Susanna,” I tried to persuade her, “tell me all about it, maybe I can help you.” She gave me a tearful glance. “Would you really care to hear?” she asked with a timid voice. I took her hand. “Of course I do, I want to help you.” She lay still for a while. Then she began:
“When I was a little girl, I had a sister whom I adored. She was older than I and used to carry me around on her back. She was so full of life--it was always fun to be with her. I must have been about seven years old when she had to withdraw for her puberty rites to live as a mwali in seclusion. I missed her very much and often tried to visit her. But my father built a high fence of banana leaves around the hut and did not allow me to go beyond that barrier. I sometimes sneaked up to the fence and called my sister. I would stay there for a long time, listening anxiously, but she never answered and I thought I could hear her cry inside. As time went on the secrecy surrounding my sister tightened and I sensed that something was awfully wrong with her. I could see it on the worried faces of my parents and gather it from the bustle that went on around her seclusion hut. My mother's older brother, a well-known witchdoctor, came and held weird rituals inside the compound. I could hear my sister's moaning and crying and went around with a scared feeling of helplessness.
”As usual when serious things happen in a family, the smaller children are pushed aside and nobody thinks of explaining to them what is going on. I had terrifying fantasies about what horrible things were being done to my beloved sister, and they were intensified beyond limits when finally she died and was buried without me being allowed to see her again. Much later my mother told me that my sister had suddenly taken ill while in confinement. She died before my parents were able to find effective help for her. To me the whole experience was a nightmare. I grieved for my sister and missed her. After that, being a mwali appeared to me a great mystery and a deadly ordeal and the thought that I would have to go through that myself filled me with horror. I thought out a thousand ways to conceal my maturation and fearfully waited for the first signs of the approaching puberty--it seemed like a death sentence to me.
“The tragic death of my sister was a severe shock to my parents and father decided to become a Christian. Since he had three wives, this meant great upheaval in the family as he could only keep one. During that time I was sent to live with my uncle, the same one who had treated my sister. You can imagine my fears about staying at his home. Remembering how my sister died, I anxiously tried to avoid him. I helped my aunt as best I could so that she would have nothing bad to tell him about me. With mounting anxiety I recognized that my puberty was drawing closer and during this time I visited a bush school not far from my uncle's place. There I heard for the first time of the mission boarding school where girls could stay throughout their puberty years. From then on I had only one desire: to be accepted into that school. I studied for my life, it seemed, and made sure the teacher noticed my eagerness. On the last school day I told the teacher my wish and asked him whether he could recommend me to the mission school. He liked the idea and promised to speak to my uncle. But my uncle would have nothing of it. Susanna is a girl, shedoes not need more education, was his verdict. I felt desperate; time was running out and I was convinced I would die of fear if I was put in confinement.
”I knew there was no way I could persuade my uncle and so I sneaked away one day and ran home to my parents. Fortunately my father had retained my mother as his wife and she was eager to help me. To my great relief both my parents agreed to accompany me to the mission and upon my urging we set out the next day. My parents, of course, thought I had my uncle's consent as I did not tell them I had run away. I was accepted at the school and begged the nuns to let me stay there right away. They all laughed at my eagerness, not knowing how much it mattered to me to be a student before my parents found out that my uncle had already refused to let me go. I was so relieved to be within the protective walls of the mission school I did not even think about the family trouble I had stirred up. My uncle was furious when he learned that my parents had taken me to the mission without even consulting him. Being my mother's oldest brother he had, according to Wapogoro custom, the right to decide about me. A bitter feud started between the two families and has been going on ever since. To get me out of the school my uncle began to make arrangements for my marriage, but I stubbornly refused to consider any of the candidates he suggested. As I did not fear puberty any more I lived a happy carefree life with the other girls at the school. We loved our teachers and were eager to learn whatever they had to teach us. My only concern was that school would last only a few years. How should I face my uncle once I graduated? I did not realize the hardships my parents went through because of my refusal to marry. My uncle continued to insist on me marrying as it was his customary right to receive the bridal price. But my parents stood by me. They said that custom does not force a girl to marry against her wishes.
“During the time of these quarrels, a child of one of my sisters fell ill with epilepsy and everybody was convinced that my uncle had used witchcraft to avenge himself. My old fears were rekindled when I heard the news and I desperately looked for a way to escape his influence. I had become a Christian during my first year at the mission school and one day one of the nuns suggested that I should myself become a teacher and go to teacher's training college. How I relished that idea! Then I would not have to go home; I might be able to find work at the school I had come to like so much. I visited my parents and explained in glowing terms how much I wished to be a teacher. Again they promised to help me. But what could I do to pacify my uncle? He was actually the one who should help me with my tuition fees, but of course he was going to be angry again and deny me any assistance. I decided not to ask him for any money but to get it together myself. I had to work to earn money besides studying and sometimes I did not even have enough to eat. But my uncle would not leave me alone. He wrote ugly letters to me at the college and demanded the money I had denied him as the benefit of my bridal price. I was so afraid of the man, I scraped together every cent I could spare and sent him a few shillings. My parents suffered more than they would let me know under the hostility of my uncle and his relatives who would also have profited from the bridal money had I not refused to marry.
”When I graduated from college about a year ago I was immediately offered a position as teacher here. I returned in triumph to live with my parents, thinking that my uncle would respect me now. But he continued to harass me and threatened witchcraft when I refused to pay him any more. Then my father decided to take back one of his former wives and both my mother and I were indignant. Was he not a Christian? He knew that the Church allowed him only one wife. But my father knew that his former wife lived a miserable life after he had abandoned her, and his conscience was divided. I was very angry with him and my presence at home only increased the tension between my parents. I therefore decided to leave and to again live at the school. My parents did not say much, but they were both very unhappy when I left.
“Since I came back to live at the school my uncle has again demanded money from me and threatened me with witchcraft if I do not obey his demands. Because I refused to give in, my father has already been struck by a terrible illness. He is still very sick and cannot walk any more. I feel terribly guilty towards my ailing father. I should never have blamed him for wanting his other wife back; he never blamed me for my actions. And now I have caused him this illness too. I know it is my uncle who bewitches my father to get back at me. It is my fault that my father has to suffer and now it is my turn.” Susanna cried and wrung her hands in despair. I tried to think of a way to help her. What if she would take me to her father, I suggested. Maybe I could cure him. Susanna looked at me with hope in her eyes. But then she shook her head. “Your medicine won't help against uchavi,” she said with a disheartened expression on her face. I would not give in and persisted until she agreed to take me to her parents so I could at least examine her father.
Now that Susanna had poured out her heart and shared her troubles with me, she felt relieved and was not as anxious any more and a few days later we went to visit her parents in their village. It was very moving to observe the happiness of the old couple when seeing their daughter again. Unfortunately it turned out that the poor man had suffered a stroke. One side of his body was paralyzed and he had great difficulty talking. There was indeed not much modern medicine could do to help, but I did not have the heart to tell Susanna. Strokes are rarely encountered among these people and I felt that this man must have gone through unusually severe mental and emotional stress. First the loss of a daughter during her mwali period; perhaps he had felt guilty over her untimely death. Then the emotional upset of having to send away two of his faithful wives when he became a Christian. And during all these years having to endure the anger of his wife's relatives because he protected his emancipated daughter Susanna and let her have her own way. Finally to endure the disapproval of both his wife and daughter because he had felt compelled to help one of his former wives. In a way it was true that Susanna was at least partly responsible for her father's predicament and I felt it was essential for her to be actively involved in the care of her father. I discussed at length with her how she could help him to recover, prescribing different kinds of strengthening medicines and showing her how to do physiotherapy. She was very eager and at once decided to move back home so that she could spend all her spare time with him.
The old man was visibly pleased to have his daughter home again. He very quickly regained his spirits and in time recovered amazingly well. Susanna also appeared happier. One day she came to see me again and seemed more self-assertive than before. She appeared to have matured during these last weeks. Smilingly and with pride she told me how she had finally succeeded in appeasing her uncle. She had gone to his place and found him sitting outside his hut. Mustering all her courage, she had walked up to him and asked him what was the amount of money he had expected a suitor to pay as her bridal price. It was a considerable sum of money. In front of his family who had assembled to hear their discussion, Susanna produced the money and placed it in front of her uncle with the words, “Here is the money. With this I pay you my own bridal price. From now on you have no rights over me and it is up to me whether I am going to marry or not.” The uncle was taken by surprise, but he accepted the money and agreed to settle the conflict between his family and her's. Every relative entitled to it was given his proper share of the bridal money.
The news that Susanna, the teacher, had purchased her freedom by paying her own bridal price spread among the people. They discussed this event for a long time and could not stop musing upon the following puzzle: the man who would want to marry Susanna--to whom was he going to pay the price for his bride?
Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission
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