Always Hoping For Birdsong: by Malusi Mwongeli

A few weeks before we found Ma dangling by her neck, the same year that an airplane vanished, she had told me of the first time she had seen solid water. She was still young, not sure how old — age wasn’t something they measured back then, back then when the simple jouissance of flowers and the shapes of clouds could easily move her to laughter. Her father, Engineer Maina, had sent her to her aunt’s to ask about something she can’t remember. It was there that Bi, her cousin, had inserted a stick so far up the tiny hole at the juncture of her thighs, holding her down as her screaming picked up and augmented until she couldn’t hear it any longer. So, Engineer Maina took her to a nurse who patted the insides of her thighs, where welts had formed, with solid water so cold, it stung.

Months after Papa’s ears had been cut off by the SLDF, the same year that I first saw the sun go dark during the day, Ma came back home singing a love song as soft as cotton wool but so old, so castrated by time that Ma hummed through bits long forgotten. Papa heard her. Papa accused her of having an affair — spreading her legs like butter, that’s what he said. Papa then exploded into a thousand sizzling pieces, his anger like shrapnel, piercing and cutting everything. And Papa beat her until I learnt that skin can morph and turn into poetically beautifully colors. Ma sat so still through it, I thought it could be a picture, a picture of her grief, of her fulgurating sadness, of her tangible pain. She limped across the room after Papa had settled down, a sheen of sweat on his brow, murmuring to herself the names of colors. ‘Yellow, green, red, purple, yellow, green, red, purple.’

Two years after Papa had died of a disease that ravished him and a sliver of white welts had settled over his skin, the same year that they beheaded people who couldn’t answer them back in the same tongue, Ma had told me of the locked rooms inside all women. Rooms filled with our truth. Rooms once opened reveal the sum of our whole. Rooms that held the sadness that sneaks up on you mid-stride; sadness that wraps around you like a shawl you don’t take off even in the shower. Rooms that know the difference between grief and pain and the liminal that holds them. But, she said, whenever the dejection of your existence threatens to kill you, unlock the door that holds the promiscuous memories that pick up on any sorrow. The colors of flowers. The shape of clouds. The song of birds. Evoke them.

So, when a high school teacher raped me, the year the Presidential elections were nullified, my mouth couldn’t stop. Chirping. Flocking. Twittering. Hovering. Chirping. Flocking. Twittering. Hovering. Chirping. Flocking. Twittering. Hovering. Good words, always hoping for birdsong.


Malusi Mwongeli is a Kenyan writer and a graphic designer. She writes to calm herself because her fingers can’t stay still. She has been published in AfricanWriter, AFREADA and the Kalahari Review.

This story was published as a finalist of the 2018  AFREADA x Africa Writes Competition. Writers had to produce a 500-word response to a prompt from Warsan Shire’s poem, The House. It reads: “Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women.”  The winning story was selected by Warsan Shire and announced at Africa Writes 2018

Related country: Kenya

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