In Quest of Justice, a Memoir by Rebeka Njau
WHEN I decided to write the story of my life, I struggled to find the best way to express my deep and complex emotions. Finally, in memory of the poetry of my earlier years as a writer, I chose to open this memoir with the following lines:
My ears are plugged up
By poisonous spittle of a grimy tongue;
Times without number,
Little birds have been twittering, joyfully at my backyard,
But I cannot hear them.
Falsity, scattered like seeds
Everywhere I tread,
Has driven me to extreme bitterness and pain,
Making me feel powerless to forgive and forget.
Like a piece of rock that stands on its own,
I stand alone beside a sweet-scented bush
To ease my heavy heart.
Then in desperate helplessness
I approach the Mugumo tree, in my compound
To offer my supplications
To the Comforter, the Maker of all Things
And erase the agonies of pain.
But my attention is diverted;
I see images of Ondiri’s swamp,
Looking like a large carpet of mossy green;
Decades ago it was a sight to behold;
A sight to take one’s breath away.
Memories of that natural spectacle, flood my mind.
I recall the day I waded through it
The ground swayed from side to side
Scaring me to the uttermost.
When I recollect that act of courage
Inspired by Guka’s captivating words of wisdom
And the amulet he wore
To shield himself against evil forces,
I ask myself:
Who will shield me against the fangs of the unjust?
As I lift up my eyes, suddenly an apparition flashes across my face,
Leaving behind haunting images of a day I will never forget.
THAT DAY, August 1975, lunch-time. Very cold. I had had a restless night, for no clear reason. I picked up a book by Henrik Ibsen, one of my favourite playwrights and decided to finish reading A Doll’s House.
But before I reach the part where Nora, Helma’s wife, decides to escape from the clutches of male egotism, my telephone rings. I pick it up, but hesitate to answer. The caller says ‘hallo’ twice. I recognize the voice. It is my sister, Keziah. We exchange greetings. Then unexpectedly, she drops a bomb-shell that almost lacerates my ear-drums.
“Your husband, Elimo Njau has formalized his marriage to his African-American girlfriend.”
“What?” I exclaim in disbelief.
“Don’t say you do not know. It is a public scandal. They were joined in so-called holy matrimony in Moshi, Tanzania and they have a baby girl.”
“That can’t be true. He is still married to me,” I gasp. ‘It is against the law.”
“What law? Take courage, my sister. It is not the end of the world. The sky won’t fall on you,” she says and hangs up.
My mind reels. My lobes are on fire. A sinking painful sensation stirs inside me. I take a long deep breath to calm my palpitating heart. But like a withering leaf blown into a windstorm, my entire body is hurled to the centre of a whirl-pool, where my energy is sucked out of me, making me feel like a swamp drained of its water. I keep taking deep breaths. I shake my head with disbelief, anger. I try to convince myself that my sister's words cannot be true.
To me, polygamy is not an option. It goes against the Christian values that my mother, a devoted Christian evangelist instilled in the whole family. As growing youngsters, brought up among Christians who were ‘born again’, we were taught that a Christian marriage was meant to be monogamous. If my mother had suspected that my future husband would one day become a polygamist, she would have refused him permission to marry me.
I rested my head on my desk and appealed to my Creator to grant me courage to overcome the pain and bitterness. I appealed for strength as I did not want to let humiliation devour me and wreck my confidence, my hopes. After a while, I stood up, walked to the window. A six-storied building in the horizon held my gaze. An image flashed through my mind. It was the picture of the Mukungugu tree, a hardy tree that grew on Guka’s land near the banks of Nyongara river. Clinging to the tree was a tender yam plant which had twined its delicate limbs around its mother’s neck, like a child. That image captivated me. I fascinated over the bond of love and harmony displayed by those two creations of nature, linked together like the inseparable needle and thread. The image conjured up different strands of my life, and like in a dream, I heard the echo of my mother’s voice singing one of her favourite songs, “Blessed Assurance.” And my voice joined hers in the chorus, humming. “This is my story. This is my song.”
Before I could complete the chorus, ugly memories pervaded my mind. I recalled all the lies that my husband had drummed into my ears, regarding his relationship with his girlfriend. I felt humiliated when I remembered the sworn oath we took on that warm day of December 19, 1959 at the chapel of Alliance Girls High School, Kikuyu where I was a teacher. All the talk that we engaged in concerning sticking together was now meaningless. And as those corrosive memories continued to flood my head, I saw the images of my son, Morille and my daughter, Hannah, in their early teens, groping in the dark trying to reach me.
I returned to my desk, shaking in helpless fury. The tears came and I let them flood and cleanse my face. After a while, I composed myself, opened the last page of Ibsen’s play and read the final conversation between Nora and her husband, then left my office at the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) where I worked. That night, in the seclusion of my room, it occurred to me that the little goodwill which might have existed between Elimo and I had finally blown itself out. The faint light of understanding that might have been glowing inside our hearts had been strangled.
The next day, I got out of bed earlier than usual. I took walk outside and stopped in front of a leafy tree and listened to my favourite bird and her joyful twitter as she jumped from branch to branch. I circled the garden and stopped to lean against a huge blue gum tree. I looked up and the sun rising in the horizon caught my attention. As I gazed at its blazing beams, I recalled the words of my Guka (grandfather). “Focus your eyes on the rising sun whenever you feel distressed and the dark clouds will dissipate.” With these words, he always sprinkled his bare chest with tiny drops of his own spittle, reciting a prayer, not only for me, but for many of his kin.
The image of the ‘Mukungugu’ tree and the yam plant continued to ha"nt me. After debating with myself about my future, I made up my mind. Unlike Nora, I decided not to leave. I had no other place to call home and no resources to start a new life on my own. Moreover, I had to stay for the sake of Morille and Hannah. I could not leave them under the care of their father who had clearly shown that his uppermost allegiance was to his art and not to his family. I had to wait and see them not only growing but fully grown.
It has been some time since I first blogged about my mother's mission to write her memoir, HERE. Today, I am so proud of, and thankful to my mother for her staying true to her goal, her dreams. And I will keep you posted on progress and publication.
I read somewhere recently that to have imagination is so important, because when you have the ability to imagine, you can put yourself in someone's shoes, you can understand, you can empathize, you can create and inhabit healing spaces...
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