A man staggers to a bedroom window, or rather the square hole in the wall that pipes in fresh air and filters in some light, and  howls, “Woman, open up!”

His wife, wrinkles prematurely sculpted onto her face and the mop on her head greyed not by age but too much labour and deprivation, had her ear outside, as Malawians would say. She promptly rises from her mat and hurries to open the door.

The man staggers in, the stench of beer and rarely brushed teeth in his wake, and heads for the stool by the wall. He sits, his back leaning against the mud plastered wall and waits for the wife to prepare fresh food for his dinner.

Considering that it is way past midnight she shouldn’t be doing any cooking but her husband wants his dinner freshly prepared. Like the majority of African men, he’s a firm believer in the wisdom that beating a wife is what glues a marriage together, that it’s the ingredient required to make ‘till death do us part’ a reality. Over the years she’s been the unwilling recipient of various physical chidings and has the scars on her person to remind her. Thus, she has learnt that no matter how late (or should that be how early?) her husband staggers in, he has to have his dinner freshly prepared.

As she cooks, she has to feign interest in his drunken monologue, punctuated by hiccups, occasional smelly belches and her muttered acknowledgements. Otherwise, he will tattoo new memories onto the living canvas that’s her body. Mind you, she has to maintain this feigned interest because he jabbers on even as he eats.

The woman takes away the dishes before following her husband into the bedroom. But wait, her day isn’t done yet. She has to suffer one more chore, arguably the most important one in her life as a typical African woman. You didn’t think she would sleep without giving the husband his marital desert, did you?  Please understand that there can be no headaches in her bedroom life. Absolutely none at all.  

Thankfully for her, there’s no foreplay so it isn’t long before she has rocked, jiggled and gyrated the husband into satiated sleep, a big smile on his face. A symphony of snores soon bears testimony to the depth of his sleep even as his hand subconsciously continues to play with the beads around her waist, and a river of drool cascades its way down his left cheek.

An African woman’s feelings don’t come into the equation. She doesn’t even think about them. She’s been schooled to pleasure her husband. And to procreate. A bigger brood silences derisive whispers about barrenness from her in-laws.

Just a couple of hours or so later, long before the sun thinks of getting out of bed and glaring at her part of the world, she’s already taken her passport-size bath (involving washing the face and a gargle or two) and is up and about. Last night’s dishes have to be done; the kids have to be woken up, their beddings taken out to dry, bathed , given breakfast and packed off to school. All this before she goes to the family patch of land for a bit of farming. Her hangovered husband will follow later. Much later after he has taken his own passport-size bath and breakfasted.

As midday approaches she accompanies her husband back to the village. On the way she has to stop at the well to draw water for her husband’s full-body bath. While the husband takes his bath, she dashes back to the well to draw more water. She makes two more trips before going to fetch firewood. Afterward she has to go and gather some wild vegetables that are the main ingredient in the sauces that accompany the family’s starch heavy meals.

She prepares lunch in time for the children’s return from school. After lunch, the husband disappears with the boys and the children go out to play. This gives her the opportunity to take her bath. Of course, she has eaten. Many an African woman is of necessity a Mulyawima. She has learnt to eat on the go as she butterflies from one task to the other, day in day out.

Mid-afternoon, after a short respite, the woman goes to join her colleagues to practice song and dance. A big political honcho is coming to the community to launch the tree planting month. The women will put up a show for the guests, distinguished or otherwise. The women love these practice sessions. They provide a welcome diversion from the dreary routine of their lives. They also offer a perfect opportunity to catch up on the village gossip.

 “Nyamusangechi’s husband is marrying a second wife.”

“Nooo! Why?”

“Need you ask? She can’t bear any more children.”

“Only three children, imagine. How sad.”

“I understand it’s her choice. You know these educated women.”

“Maybe she wants to start prostituting herself.”

Regrettably, the practice session comes to an end. Some of the women have to attend a meeting for their income-generating group. The women took a loan from a micro- lender and the monthly payment is due. Speaking of which, the woman is deeply worried that her family will lose the few possessions it has.  You see even though her only education has been obtained by seeing, listening and experiencing, she’s the treasurer of her group and therefore the custodian of its cash. Unfortunately, one fine day her husband discovered the hidden coffer and had helped himself to a pay day he had never had in his life.

Many were the drunks who sang his praises that day.

She prepares the evening meal for herself and the children. Once the tired kids retire to their mats, dirt and all, she goes to join her colleagues in the village compound to pound and winnow the kernels of corn that will be milled into flour after a few days of soaking.

Two women, each with a pestle, alternately pound into one mortar with the precision of a juggler. The processed kernels are emptied onto a big mat, the mortars refilled and the pounding resumes. Afterward, the twelve women sit around a big mat and winnow the chaff from the broken kernels. Like the pounding, the winnowing is very musical.

In one evening, corn for four families is processed. This not only lightens the burden on the women but also provides a forum for gossip mostly about their men. The moonlit night resonates to the sounds of gossip woven into beautiful laments sung to the rhythm of the pounding and winnowing. The pounding and winnowing done, the woman walks back to her house. She lies down and drifts into some light sleep. She has to keep vigil until she hears the drunken voice of her husband call out through the opening in the wall.

Oh, the numbingly routine life of an African woman. It would be worse were it not for church or mosque services, weddings, funerals, dances and political events that server to break the monotony of her life.

Yet this is the life she’ll bequeath to her girl children unless politicians stop working for their own aggrandisement and instead channel their collective energies towards plucking these children from the suffocating embrace of ignorance and poverty. I hope African politicians make commitments for 2010 to do something before these girls are serenaded into a never-ending tango with this two-headed beast.

As were their mothers.


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    Children, too, can have profound thoughts
    The Three Little Hills (Phiris)