Naming The Hunger: Temo Buliro

And so it came to be that there would be a wedding. It was a good match they said: he so dark, small, and wise; she tall, fair, beautiful, well muscled and firm.

He was the local schoolteacher sent from that place far away where people lived like rats: overcrowded and always scurrying around looking for food. Respected as a bringer of knowledge, he was now an adopted son and village elder.

She had been his student in the village school. The only daughter of the chief’s second wife of four, she was constantly pampered by her father and would have been a spoiled terror had it not been for her mother’s levelheadedness and her brothers’ mostly good natured bullying. At meal times, she received the choicest parts of the chicken, “Just for you, Mama,” her father would say affectionately as he served her; she was named after his deceased mother. Her smile would brighten his world, the gap in her front teeth yet another reminder of a woman much loved and missed.

Shortly after she returned from the two-year teacher training college, the marriage negotiations began. Visits between the two families happened during the dry season so that the formal celebration would occur after the expected fruitful harvest. Once the dowry was decided, and the payment process initiated, it was set: the marriage had been arranged. Now would come the celebrations.

In preparation, the sweetest yams, succulent beans, and other crops of the harvest were kept aside in storage; the animals to be slaughtered were fed a fattening diet. Activities planned for the two-day event included music, poetry and story recitals, sports, and of course, feasting. The school grounds were used, and temporary thatched bandas, housing for the visitors coming from afar, had been constructed. It would be a wedding to be remembered: the singing, dancing, and other activities would not end until the following day’s evening.

On her wedding day she arrived in her father’s thirty-year-old Anglia, one of the three vehicles in the village. The others were pickups: one equally old and always being worked on by the mechanic; the other almost new and belonging to one of the prosperous farmers. The car had been washed, interior cleaned, and flowers and other decorations put on it. She wore a traditional European wedding gown with a veil. As she stepped gingerly over the grass, her maid of honor who wore a traditional African gold-colored outfit, held up the train. It would be a Christian wedding celebrated in African style.

Her father wore one of the three suits he owned but hadn’t worn in years, so it was no surprise that the last two buttons would not close. Her mother wore a traditional print elaborately wound round her ample figure with matching headgear. Her arms glistened with jewelry and on her feet were rarely worn black patent leather pumps. The groom was resplendent in traditional wedding attire, its cloths specially woven.

While the singers entertained the guests, and the wrestling matches went on amidst other activities, she sat proud—proud to be the chosen one, to have brought such honor to her family. She and her groom sat in the place of honor and received a long line of guests. The chief had given the most significant gift: a substantial parcel of land on which a newly built brick house stood. “Now,” he said to his new son, “you really are one of us.”

After the initial excitement of being husband and wife died down, they settled into a tranquil, undemanding lifestyle. Both taking their traditional roles, it was a while before she realized that something had changed: he generally would not speak to her except when needing something done in the house. He never consulted her on his decisions, just directed her. The few times she tried to voice her opinion, she was quietly admonished, “Am I not the head of this home? Please do as I say.”

Gone was the nurturing teacher she knew, the teacher who skillfully stroked his students’ minds, extracting gems of hidden insight. They’d mutually decided that she’d put her teaching career on hold till the children they hoped to have joined kindergarten. So she kept quiet, hoping that when she achieved the status of motherhood, things would change between them.

In the meantime, she set about making her home a cool, peaceful, loving haven. The kitchen was her pride and joy: in addition to being spacious with a lot of counter space, it held a brand new four-plate gas cooker and fridge. Under the large window, was a double sink and draining board. This was the room in which her day began, with the early morning news on the radio, and ended with the music of the evening show Late Date. Life was good. Not perfect, but good.

The furniture was always well dusted, the carpets swept clean, and the windows open to allow an unobstructed view of the lush greenery outside and let in a cool morning or afternoon breeze. The accompanying rustle of the banana leaves from their small garden was like the quiet whisper of the spirits as they flew over the earth. Peaceful and reassuring.

Her pregnancy was not long in coming, and as expected, happened in their first year of marriage. In the monsoon season, she gave birth to a son and what joy there was.

The clansmen gathered round to witness the naming of their son. As he was held up to the gods, his father said his name four times, each time facing the four directions of the wind. It was done, and all worlds would call him by name.

Her husband preened, walking almost on the tips of his toes, as if he had done it all. A boy child: he was a lion of a man! She was silent, quietly looking on from her place of honor surrounded by close female family members. Munching on the groundnuts she was served, she wished he had been named after her husband’s father, as was the custom. Instead, he was named after the fiery idealist who had led the liberation movement: her husband had different ideas. Well, perhaps it was because she had never known colonialism. But when she had questioned this deviation from protocol, flushed with triumph at her new status, she had been hushed. “Let me be the one to decide, after all, isn’t he of my loins?” Well he lay in my belly for all these months, she thought to herself quietly, reaching out to take a big bite of a banana that had been in the fruit basket at her side.

And so it continued throughout the infancy of their son and the subsequent birth of his sister. Every time she opened her mouth to comment, give advice or her opinion, the answer was the same, “I did not marry you to have an encyclopedia in my house. If I wanted to marry a liberated woman, I would have married a girl from the city,” he often said. “I want a traditional woman: quiet, hardworking, undemanding.” A woman who keeps to the background, leaving her husband to lead, walking two steps behind intellectually if not physically.

She modeled herself to this blueprint, becoming an efficient housekeeper, a good cook, and hostess. Days of endless repetition began at six o’clock when she would prepare a hot breakfast of porridge, fried bread, eggs, and tea with sweet bananas on the side for her family. That got them off to school.

Then the second part of her day began. She washed the clothes and hung them outside to dry, swept the house, mopped, and dusted before preparing the midday meal. At lunch, the house was once again filled with the voices of her husband, children, and occasionally one or two of their school friends. Then off to afternoon classes they’d go, and she’d take a nap before washing dishes, bringing the clothes in, and preparing tea and dinner.

After school and tea, the children played with their friends, then came in to bathe before doing homework and having dinner with her. About this time her husband would show up and join them or settle down to read the paper and listen to news on the radio.

As she’d spent the whole day listening to it, she would have loved to talk about politics, policy or the latest improvements in health care, but was more often than not silenced with, “Can’t you see, I’m listening to the news.” He’d check the children’s homework after dinner, send them off to bed, then spare her a few distracted and tired moments before yawning off to their bedroom. The new school headmaster needed plenty of sleep to cope with his busy workday. His career was progressing and becoming more important as his participation in many national seminars would affirm.

On the outside they were the ideal family. Her women friends often voiced wishes that their husbands would participate more in their children’s lives. Often in the early twilight he’d be seen on short walks with the two—marveling at fireflies and the early sounds of the night. Theirs was a very close bond, but with her, he seemed to have built an insurmountable wall around himself.

If asked about his wife, there wasn’t much he would say. She came from a good family, had a good mind, raised their children with love, attended to his every need without a second prompting. She was a good woman. He was lucky to have her. Never had he been forced to raise his hand to keep her in check. She never disobeyed him, and her wants were few. She was a suitable companion.

The plans she had made to join the workforce once the children were old enough never materialized so she was fully financially dependent on her husband. In all matters, she was molded: whom to associate with, what to wear, where to go. As a result, she became isolated from her peers—the few who remained in the village, the majority having moved to larger towns or cities. Her husband was her main source of adult companionship.

On the surface she seemed calm and comfortable; inside she was a cauldron of insecurity, self-doubt, low esteem, and even lower self-pride. Self-worth, which she had had in spades as a young student, dissolved under the constraints of her marriage.

She clung to the illusion of their love even though as their marriage matured they rarely touched each other. They may have shared the same bed, but they dreamed separate dreams. When he sparingly, often grudgingly, showed her any affection, it carried her through months of loneliness until the next drop of rain fell in her desert.

This was her life, empty except for the demands others placed on her: she lived to serve, be used to feel useful. Her unhappiness ran deep, so deeply buried it lay undetected, coiled tight in her belly. This became the seat of her hunger.

Born a talkative extrovert, she became withdrawn, introverted, silent. To keep her mouth occupied she stuffed it with food. If it wasn’t ripe bananas, tender paw paw, and creamy avocado to choke back a justification, she busied it with zesty yams, carrots, and juicy tomatoes to suppress a clarification; worked on buttered maize to keep quiet; flavorful potatoes and curried cabbage to arrest an answer; filled it with fluffy chapatis and beef stew to repress a response; white chalky cassava to block a reminder; buttery beans and rice to bar a comeback; arrow root and mushy peas to forestall an argument; inhabited it with sweet mangoes to restrain a rejoinder; bitter cheese and fresh bread to impede a reply; distracted it with grilled goat meat or fish to intercept a defense; involved it with freshly cut sukuma wiki and ugali to obstruct an outburst; and crunchy, roasted cashew nuts to end an explanation.

Like a milling machine powerfully grinding seeds into flour, a sea of tea, milk, millet porridge, fruity yogurt, passed through her lips and poured down her throat. She ate blindly until, almost choking, she sat back exhausted.

Her weight gain had at first been noted with approval, seen as a sign of prosperity in the home, and the obvious sign that she was well loved and looked after by her husband. However, approval changed to alarm then outright speechlessness when her size dwarfed that of the village wrestling champion.

Her eyes narrowed to slits as her cheeks rose. Her chin doubled then trebled, the jawline disappearing into a solid mass of fat, the fat extending in a solid slab over her chest to her breasts which were huge, pendulous, and monstrous. They would have hung but instead lay on an abdomen which ascended sharply as if housing a hungry, voracious animal whose growls could be heard intermittently throughout the day demanding to be fed. Sometimes it seemed like two animals were occupying that cave, one yowling and pushing forward, the other rumbling deep in its throat. Whereas the skin on top stretched taut, like the skin on a pregnant belly, the skin under and surrounding encased a soft seam of fat that hardened and spread like a thick back brace round her lower waist to her rear. Where the two ends met, deep folds rolled under each other like sand dunes shifting in the dessert which began at her shoulders and ended at her hips.

Under the protuberant belly, her pubis hid like a scared furry animal nestling in a confluence where three mountains met. The upper ranged across her width; the lower two identical mounds began at her hips and ended at the knees, each having the bulk of a child who has seen at least ten annual harvesting seasons. It is perhaps not correct to say that these bodies ended at her knees, for they journeyed after kissing these joints to collapse at her ankles, like massive tree trunks earthing themselves. They could go no further.

On her arms, the skin was stretched thin to wondrous proportions that threatened at any moment to give way as even old hide would if pulled beyond its strength. They were enormous hammocks of fat, hanging like water-filled balloons to her waist when arms were raised.

She was slow and ponderous. When movement was necessitated, it was signaled by the visible palpitation at her neck of her heartbeat. A quiver would turn into a groan as, with a surge of momentum, she would haul herself to her feet and shuffle forward, each step scraping against the ground. Torrents of sweat poured down her face, between her breasts, under her arms, between her buttocks, and around her thighs; the cloth was stained dark.

Her breath came in hoarse draughts, squeezed out from weary, asthmatic bellows; tired, strangling, struggling. Each imperceptible swell of her chest brought forth rasping and panting. At times, she seemed to stop breathing altogether.

But not so her mind. It popped with ideas, skipped with suggestions, hopped with comments, leapt with answers, gamboled with witticism, hotfooted with observations, pranced with wisecracks, dashed with analyses, frolicked with quips, raced with remarks, back-flipped with jokes, jumped with statements, cavorted with banter, reeled with concerns, swirled and twirled with recollections, gyrated with hunches, danced with impressions, pirouetted with requests, engaged in debate, bustled with proposals, stirred with counsel, and ran with anecdote. Words whirled round and round, all bursting to be voiced, but stopped just in time by a mouthful of food.

And so it was one day, having served her husband a late evening meal of chicken curry and chapatis, she sat quietly waiting for him to finish. It always amazed her that for all the food he ate, he never gained an ounce. At forty, he still had the same slim body he’d had in his twenties; ever fastidious about his appearance, he was still a very attractive man. He favored Kaunda suits with a jacket buttoned up all the way topped with a Chinese collar, pressed just right, the leg pleat sharp, worn with shoes polished to a mirror finish or open-toed sandals like those made popular by President Kenyatta. His hair was cropped short and his goatee trendily groomed.

As usual, conversation was minimal and limited to financial matters and the children. The only other voices in the room were those of the radio announcer reading the news. His wife’s existence continued to only touch his conscious level fleetingly; she was his housekeeper. It was from this standpoint that he cursorily informed her that he was getting married to another. Quietly stating that the upcoming event would take place before the next rains, he told her she should prepare to move out to a smaller house he would build for her. Washing and wiping his hands using the soap, basin of water, and towel provided, he turned to leave.

“No,” a voice said, so faint and hoarse he was sure it came from outside. Turning to his wife, his eyebrows raised in query, he waited as she slowly stood, her bulk towering over him. Shuddering, as if possessed by a demon energy, she stood swaying on the twin pillars that were her legs.

Inside her a storm was brewing. Uncoiling its powers, it was steadily, purposefully growing, surging through the putrid ocean in which it was birthed. When it fought to the surface, a gurgle of decay escaped her lips. She opened her mouth.

From her innards came a sound. The sound of a rampaging force, the sound of a landmass sliding into the sea, the sound of thunder cracking at the mouth of a cave, the sound of a rogue body of water crushing everything in its path.

Through her mouth, the center of her earth spewed a volcanic eruption of dark, angry, virulent, sickening, forgotten sludge. Spraying the air and surroundings, it blanketed the scene. Rancid samosas, pilau, mandazi, all burst forth. Sour milk, fish, spinach, eggplant, spurted in a torrent. Decayed pineapple, coconut, plums, exploded in a gush of emission. Decomposed passion fruit, chicken, heaved forth.

In surprise, her husband shrank back into a corner of the room, clutching his robe around him protectively.

Without time to take breath, a second wave burst forth, more violent than the first. Oranges, onions, mushrooms, eggs, pepper, chilies, parsley, pumpkin, pumpkin leaves, all fetid, were hurled where he cowered.

Her voice soared into the night. Long suppressed thoughts, feelings flew forth. Liberated. Unfettered. Unchecked. Unrestrained. Released. Dancing in the air.

From her belly all the anger, disappointment, disillusionment, and regret were gone. Everything to be said was said, and no longer would she acquiesce to its hunger.

Finally, when she was spent, she sat down. And there was silence. Silence in the air.

Silence in her mind.

Temo Buliro loves excitement, being spontaneous, active and delights in thinking about abstract ideas and a variety of subjects. Her first book is Walk to Recovery, a children’s book on physical handicaps; her second, Faceless Voices, addresses aspects of healing; while her contributions to anthologies, newspapers and magazines vary in subject matter. She loves coffee in the morning, layered movies and rainy, quiet days.

Related country: Kenya

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