Sometimes the moon is low over Turkana and the night an impregnable shade of black. Other nights the same sky is littered by a million blinking stars. Those nights Ibei sits outside this little hut, one of the only two huts in the boma.
Asleep inside are her six siblings, all younger than her. She thinks of the conversation she had with her best friend a few days ago. Her friend told her that she thinks she knows the boy she had been betrothed to. He was a cocky boy with ashen knees and liked to brawl and jostle with other boys in the fields. A bit of an exhibitionist, that one. He lived across the lake, in a family with many heads of cattle. Her friend had recently been “booked” for marriage as is the case in Turkana, a process that involves your mother placing a copper bracelet on your wrist. Akinyonyo, they call it.
“What do you think of him?” Ibei had asked her friend who is also 12 years old.
She shrugged. “He’s too loud.”
“You don’t like someone loud?”
“No,” she said. “I like someone quiet.”
Ibei, seated outside the hut in the middle of the warm night had wondered if she would also soon get a copper bracelet on her finger, to marry someone she didn’t know. Maybe someone loud and obnoxious or someone who just liked to talk about themselves throughout. Those she can’t stand. Or those boys who had their eyes set too close to each other, like an eagle.
When you are “booked” by a parent of the boy (normally at 12 or 13 years), your mother sits you down and tells you that now you have to behave yourself because you are soon starting your own home. You can’t just be seen frolicking with other boys. Your brothers tend to keep an eye on you, to report back your activities. You can’t bring shame to the family. Of course, it would be nice if she chose for herself, she thinks. If her father looked the other away and let her fall in love with a boy of her choosing.
As the night wore on, a cool breeze started blowing and she sat there listening to it, and to her thoughts and to the occasional jostling of the goats in the pen. She secretly hoped that schools would open again. After an hour of personal time, she will then go back into the hut and curl on the skins that is her mattress and she will sleep soundly.
At 5:30am Ibei emerges from their hut. Outside, still dark and cold. She yawns then shuffles to the edge of the boma where she takes a leak. As she gets up, she sees her mother’s shadow leaving her hut. “Ibei, aluwae eye a elepit na angakile…” She’s asking about the gourd for milking the goats. Ibei will fetch the gourd and together, they will milk 10 goats together in complete silence as the goats sneeze from the early morning cold.
As they emerge from their morning task, she will see her father seated outside their house on an Ecicolong, the ceremonial wooden stool. Only men sit on this stool – men and boys who have undergone an initiation ceremony. His father is in his early 30s.
“Ejok, apa?” She will call out in greeting.
“Ejok, noi,” he will growl. He’s a quiet man, always soaking in his thoughts. He never raises his voice. Or his hands. His authority is silence and she has learnt to see his love through it.
It’s 6:30am now and the sun is already rising eagerly on the horizon beyond the carcasses of the shrubs and the thorn trees. There is no school, of course, because of Covid-19, which Ibei sees as a rare disease that only affects people in a faraway land, in cities that are simply at the very edge of her imagination. She retrieves her toothbrush from where she had wedged it above the entrance of the doorway of their hat. It’s a makeshift twig, this toothbrush, from a tree called Esekon. It cleans the teeth well and is not bitter. Her father, from where he is seated, also has a twig in his mouth, staring blankly ahead at the gate of their boma as if expecting something. Or someone.
This is Ibei and her favourite kid. The kid is called Eta-eparas, because she has stripes like a horse. She has never seen a horse in real life, of course, but in a story book. They looked elegant, how their big heads tapered down. She loves Eta-eparas. She reminds her of herself because she’s an introvert like the Eta-eparas. She doesn’t mind staying out alone in the field tending goats with no one to talk to. She loves the quiet of the plains, only punctuated by the clanging of the bells under one goat’s neck. She can sit there a whole day, ignoring hunger, heat or dust.
I asked her what dominates her thoughts out there in the plain. What is it that she thinks of? I ask her over the phone, of course.
So how these conversations have been happening is that I call a gentleman called Abach who has to walk for a kilometre or so in the sun and parched land to her village where he calls me and asks me to call back. Being an introvert she finds talking laborious, even worse talking to a strange voice on the phone. So our conversations that happened over three days, are marked by a lot of long pauses during which I either hear the wind blowing, the bleating of a goat or just the stillness of the Turkana heat.
“I don’t think of anything,” she replied.
“So you just sit under a tree and not think?”
“Yes. I look at the goats.”
Often, Eta-eparas comes and lies next to her in the shade. Sometimes she rubs her neck, other times they just sit there in their comfortable silence because her kid isn’t perturbed by being silent.
She will remove her beddings and air them in the sun. Those are her beddings; hides and skin. Then she will have breakfast – milk from the goats. They call it Ngakile. That’s the daily breakfast for everybody. The father’s job is to give roles; who fetches firewood, washes utensils, or fetches water from Lake Turkana that is three kilometres away. Because she’s the eldest and there is no school now, she will do most of the chores. Her father will place his gourd down and say, “Kido’ngo niajokon alosi akitwar ngakinei,” [See you later, I’ve taken the goats to graze] and then walk out with his goats, holding a long staff in his hands like a character from the Old testament. He will be gone the whole day.
She will do the dishes. Maybe while humming a song. Maybe while deep in thought. Her siblings will be skirting around in the dust barefoot, playing, giggling, chasing each other. Then she will put the utensils on the rack to dry. Her mother built that rack. She will then go fetch firewood in the laga, a dried riverbed. Maybe she will run into one of her friends. Or neighbourhood boys.
“Do you know when school is opening?” She will ask.
“No. I hope not soon,” one of the boys will remark cheekily.
She was born in her grandmother’s hut in a village called Nachukui. That day it drizzled, her grandmother told her. A sign that she had come with immense blessings. She has always wondered what that meant. Because at 12 nothing made her feel that she stood out from all the girls in the village. Where were the blessings coming from? She had been waiting for those blessings. She’s afraid to dream too big. To want things that are bigger than her, bigger than her village, or her town.
I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and there was a long uncomfortable silence on the phone. “Hello?” I said. “Are you there, Ibei?”
“Yes,” she mumbled in a voice filled with dust.
“Do you know what you want to be when you are a big girl?” I asked again. More silence.
I could hear Abach whispering in the background. So I asked Abach to hand the mother the phone. I asked her what Ibei wants when she grows up. “Has she told you?”
She said a doctor. When I got Ibei back on the phone I asked her why she didn’t tell me that herself. More silence.
There is no lunch. There is never any food for lunch, maybe for the very small siblings. At lunchtime they are out and about, fetching water, or firewood or napping under a shade. At this time the sun is brutal; going way over 35 degrees. Now that school is out, she – with some of her other siblings – often walk to visit their grandmother, after taking a bath in Lake Turkana. Her grandmother likes telling stories. She also likes her because she puts dreams in her head; that she is ‘blessed’. That she can be a ‘person’ but only if she goes to school. Every dream that she dares to dream has come from her grandmother who always talks about ‘ngakitadea.” To mean “Books.” She, an illiterate old woman, somehow finds the power in education, she sees her dream in them even though she can’t read or write.
As the sun bows its head in the distant hills of Emoru, marking the end of the day. Her father drives the goats in the kraal and locks them there. He’s tired and hungry and he drags his dusty feet. He already took a bath in the lake. He emerges from the house with his Ecicolong and sits outside the hut. The children gather around him excitedly and he plays with them for a bit.
Her mother is making a fire, already boiling a dinner of maize and beans. Ibei helps her mother, stoking the fire, stirring. Soon it’s dark and the children have gathered around a fire that the father has made. The children chatter and giggle as they wait for supper. The first person to be served is the father, who also gets the lion’s share. The next person to be served is anyone who takes the goats out the next day. The mother serves herself last. They eat together, every day, around that fire, chatting and laughing. Except for her father who occasionally comments or chuckles at something. Mostly he just sits there on his stool, looking over them protectively.
They don’t own a lantern or candles, if you need light you take a burning twig and use it. Otherwise, everybody knows where everything is, you don’t need light. The more well off families use battery powered torches.
Her mother will tell them stories as her father walks around the boma, checking on the goats, making sure the gate is fastened well. Sometimes he stands in the darkness for a while but Ibei understands his silence, his need to step away from loud chatter. She’s her father’s girl.
Soon, the children are nodding off while seated. The youngest is eight months and sleeps with her parents. The rest all sleep together in the hut. Soon, there is silence and once everybody is deep asleep, Ibei leaves her bed and goes to sit outside and stare at the sky.
They rarely fall sick. Nobody suffers from indigestion. Nobody says they are bloated. Nobody says they are lactose intolerant. Allergies are largely uncommon. Headaches? What are those? The food is simple and it’s little. It’s uncommon to find someone sleeping in sick. Her mother treats their ailments by boiling specific roots and herbs. They taste bitter, like drinking a goat’s bile. Ibei remembers the one time she fell sick and was taken to a local dispensary 2kms away. There she saw a nurse for the first time in her life. She must have been 8 years old but she remembers her vividly. She had on a white coat and she placed something cold under her shirt, which she used to listen to her chest. She was gentle and wise. People knocked on her door before entering. She had earrings that shone like the stars at night. She had her own mobile phone and she spoke into it in English, like a white person. She wore trousers! Like a man.
And she was beautiful.
That’s what she wants to be. To listen to people’s chests. To give people medicine. To have people knock on her door before entering.
“What do you see Ibei becoming?” I asked. I was on the phone with her father. He’s called Lawrence Emuny. I think his daily word quota is about 34 words. After that, you might as well be talking to a bird. A quiet man, he uses words sparingly. His words feel like ice in the hot sun; it starts melting as soon as it’s out.
“We take them to school and when school closes they take care of the goats,” he said.
“Yes, but what do you want for her when she finishes school one day?”
“Only God knows,” he said.
“Yes, but what about you?” I pressed on in a tattered Swahili. “God wants something for her, but what do you want?”
“I want what God wants,” he said and I laughed…not at God, no, God forbid no, but at that statement. It’s almost like he didn’t want to want something for her lest it contradicts what God wants. Because such things can piss off God.
“Mimi sio malaika,” he said, to mean he wasn’t an angel.
“Kumaanisha?” “Mimi siwezi sema, hiyo ni mambo ya mungu,” he said. “That’s God’s work. He will decide what she becomes.”
This is Ibei’s school; Kalimapus Primary School. Never heard of it, have you? Nobody votes here. This was Ibei’s Grade One classroom. As you can see, it’s well aerated. You don’t need to knock to enter. The students sit on stones, or on the ground. The teacher props the blackboard against the tree. Even under these circumstances, the teacher dreams for her students. She wants just one to make it. To go out there and be an emissary to the world. But when she stands upfront under this tree, shouting vowels, she can’t afford to succumb to this desperation and the sense of hopelessness, she is the gabion for these young souls. If one day someone cuts this tree, there will be no grade one.
This is the admin block. It’s where the headteacher and the teachers sit. When it’s hot, as it is in Turkana, the roof cackles and crackles and the teachers fan themselves using exercise books. This is the engine from where the school is run and the men and women who sit in there are aware of what faces them daily. When people say, “for better for worse” you immediately think of a wedding, a marriage. But the real marriage here is represented by this structure. This is the face of for better or worse.
One of those classrooms is Ibei’s classroom. She survived the tree in Grade One. Now she’s in Grade 6. There is a good chance that nobody in those classrooms ever heard of online learning, will never see a computer and will never utter the words, “the WiFi is not working, mom.” Last year their mean score was 208. Of the five girls, only three made it to high school. Most dreams never make it out of those classrooms; they die in the dust. Ibei wakes up and looks at failure in the face – but there are worse things to be staring in the face in Turkana.
But still, there are little pleasures in Ibei’s life. Like her little goat, Eta-eparas. This – amongst other things like family – is her half full glass.