She could not remember the exact moment she forgot her name, or what time it was, what she was doing, what she was thinking. But she was sure she was running, or thinking of running. In her head, she had covered a thousand miles, even though she had never known the world beyond Balambala, the small, permanent village two hundred miles northwest of Garissa, Kenya, where she had lived all her sixteen years. She was sure too she was crying, wet-crying—with tears, that is—or dry-crying, without. She must have felt fear too, fear forceful enough to wipe out the memory of herself, like a storm that ravages a city into unrecognition.
But she remembered the moment she realised she had in fact forgotten her name: two minutes ago when the woman selling khat asked her the question. She was at the Rahole bus stage, having just landed in Garissa town after a three-hour journey on the back of a speeding Land Cruiser from Balambala. She stood next to the stalls, not knowing what to do, where to go, her face red with dust, like the soil of Saka.
Uhm…my name? She hesitated to drink even though she was dying of thirst. She then took one little sip, wincing as she swallowed.
My name is…uhm…my name is…
It’s alright dear I understand if you don’t want to tell me.
She thought she was having a momentary brain freeze that would go away immediately. Of course I know my name, she thought. I’ve known it all my life. Nobody forgets their name. It’ll come to me in a flash.
She walked away from the stage down the road, lest someone at the stage might recognise her. The midday azan rung out from the mosques. She walked on, even though every step she took was a step closer to getting lost. There were so many people than she had ever seen. The more she walked the more buildings she saw. Back in Balambala when you walked for two minutes in any direction you ran smack into woods. Here they had no end.
Perhaps the day she forgot her name was the day mom and dad told her about it. It was noon, and she had just come from school with her friends Najma and Ayaan. It was the last day of the school term. The girls stopped at a shop on the way home and bought candy.
They sat on a wooden bench outside.
Why are you grinning like that? Najma said.
I’m not grinning like anything, the girl said.
Is it a boy? said Ayaan. It’s a boy isn’t it? Spill the news girl. I’ll buy you an extra candy if you tell us.
It’s definitely not a boy, Najma said. She’s too shy.
Boys are too boring, the girl said.
Not to mention weird, Ayaan said.
They watched people walking to and from the market centre, crossing the open field in front of the shop.
What did you score by the way? Najma grabbed the girl’s report card. Let’s see what we have here. Wow you came number two in the whole class?
This is why she’s been grinning like a camel in a plush forest, said Ayaan.
Give it back, the girl said. It’s nothing.
It’s not nothing. It says here you are “a self-driven girl with lots of promise,” Najma said.
Masha Allah, said Ayaan. I don’t know about you but I need to be driven to do anything. I failed so miserably my report card just shrivelled up.
The girls laughed and ate their candy. They talked about the things they would do during the holiday and agreed to meet the following morning at the computer centre of the library. They then went home. When the girl reached home before she dropped her bag her parents asked her to sit down and told her.
But dad, mum I can’t do that.
You are a grown woman, stop behaving like a child!
But I’m not ready for that.
At fourteen you should be a grandmother.
Do you want blessings or a curse?
Allah says in the Qur’an fear your God and obey your parents if you want to go to heaven. You want to go to heaven don’t you?
Then you’ll do as we ask.
She had never known all her life what it means to be torn or helpless until that moment. But what had she known anyway, other than to go to school, play with her friends and help her mother with household chores? What anguish had she known other than worry why some of her friends had nicer dira dress than she did? For this she was not prepared. She could not bring herself to doing what they wanted her to do. Yet she loved her parents and she did not want to disobey them. Could she even? Wouldn’t she go to hell if she did?
She wandered through the streets, covering her face with the edge of her hijab to keep off the dust raised by rickshaws and motorbikes. Once a man with a hennaed beard came into her field of vision. She bolted down the road. She only stopped when she could no longer run. When she looked back no one was running after her.
She sat in front of a building to rest.
She considered another possible instance when she might have forgotten her name. It was exactly a month after her parents told her about it. A camel was slain. People flocked to their compound. They ate to their full. Najma and Ayaan walked by on their way home from school. They stood on the edge of the fence and watched. The women dressed her in new clothes, sprayed her with perfume, tattooed her arms and feet and wrapped her head in a black scarf. It was her wedding day, and she was terrified. At the new house on the edge of town the old man waited. The bridal party marched towards the house, the path lit by a glorious moonlight. They beat drums and blew horns and ululated. When they arrived the women circled the men and sang burambur. The men danced saar, clapping, leaping, grunting with ecstasy. They placed glittering corsages on her neck, and sang her praises. As they left, she clung to her sister and mother.
Don’t leave me.
You’ll be fine. Just do as we told you.
Just do as he asks.
Perhaps it was when she looked at herself in the mirror and failed to recognise the person looking back at her that she forgot her name. Or it could be the moment he shed her clothes off and she stood naked for the first time in the presence of a man, overcome with the urge to cover herself, though unsure whether it was because she lost her clothes or her name. Perhaps it was when he pushed himself inside her, his hennaed beard shining in the low light, her fragile form body crushed under his weight, her hands pinned down, unable to move, the insides of her thighs burning with pain, the bed sheet clenched between her teeth unable to muffle her gasps and cries, the water from her eyes filling her ears, watching the flickering lamp, the shadows on the mud wall, the lone lizard running along a wooden plank, listening to the sound of men grunting and women singing in the distance.
Or maybe it was when, soon after, all she did was chores all day and got beat at night, even after her stomach started swelling like the bruises on her face and a darkness overcame her and she had to drag herself get out of bed and she would forget what she was doing, half-present, her movements slowed, holding a spoon in mid motion while mixing a soup, forgetting wiping the table, staring into nothing, dry-crying, at night biting the bed sheet, so hard it had more holes than the veil she wore to her wedding, watching the shadows dancing, the lizard gaping, thinking of running.
She came upon a big fork on the road. On the right side was a tarmacked road and on the left a dusty footpath full of holes. She stood there thinking which road to take, even though she didn’t know where neither led to. She felt a strange sensation she had never felt before. A thrill. For the first time in her life, she could choose to do something on her own. She could for instance choose to turn right or left, and no one would tell her otherwise. She could decide to take neither and turn back. All her life she had never done anything she wanted to do. Yet she felt guilty, naughty even, though she did not know why. It was the way she felt when she stole money from her mother or when she allowed her friend to copy an answer from her sheet during an exam.
Looking at both roads her first instinct was to take the dusty footpath because the tarmac road looked like something too clean, too big, something men and boys should take, something she was not worthy of. She felt the same guilt at the thought of picking a new name for herself, and her head still spun at her plan of finding some sort of work to do in this town. At home girls always ate from the bottom of the pot and slept on the older mattresses. They sacrificed their comfort for others and were forbidden to do many things. Having to choose for herself made her feel like she was doing something wrong because she did not know there was a difference between ‘forbidden’ and ‘wrong.’
After sunset—lost and tired—she emerged into a busy highway. It was so dark but you could see the dust on her feet, white as flour. On this side where she was were lines of shops and outdoor cafes where men chewed khat. In the distance where trees drooped were the silhouettes of mechanics repairing trucks. She found a makeshift shack that looked like a daytime tea shop made of used blankets and curtains. She was glad to stop walking, and she was glad to find a mat on the ground, though tattered and prickly. The water the woman had given her earlier was still untouched.
Fear filled every crevice of her being like the night filled everything. She had never found herself out at night, alone. Even in Balambala safety was synonymous with ‘home’ and ‘company’ ‘daylight.’ Mother would never let her walk to the edge of the village any time past six in the evening to fetch milk from their camels, even though her six-year-old brother could.
Mother, commenting on the delicate nature of women and predatory nature of men, had explained, A female is cooked meat, don’t you know?
She peeped outside to read all the names she could see written around her on the buildings and the shops. She could recall all the names of the people she knew. Like her baby’s name, Udgoon. She missed it, the baby they took from her the last time she ran away, and could hardly think of anything else since she had left home. At only seven months old she worried whether they might give him the wrong food or ants might enter her cot. She almost died giving birth to it and had passed out from the pain several times, or maybe it was the bleeding that wouldn’t stop. Or perhaps both. As she lay down and used her arms as a pillow she missed how it smiled and cooed—her baby—unaware of all the darkness that engulfed her mother. She felt dejected for bringing another little girl into a world cruel to little girls, another cooked meat into one supremely gifted at devouring, another little light at one that extinguishes so well.
She could not remember her name.
Yet she had not forgotten the names of her mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, villagers. She could remember people from when she was a toddler. She could even remember the names of people she met only once. Gedi, for instance, a man who once sold charcoal to her mother when she was three. Haibo, a distant relative who spent one night at their house when she was five. Yet she could not remember her own name. She tried recalling all the female names she knew, certain she would recognise hers once she heard it. Fatuma. Naima. Khadija. Hawa. Malyun. Zainab. Ambiya. Batula. Rukiya. Ifrah. Quresha… None sounded like the name she would know to be hers. Sometimes she would get this flash across her mind and she knew she had finally remembered her name, but it would turn out to be an incomplete thought, gone faster than the mind could process it, and all that would remain would be a memory of the memory, like an aftertaste whose origin one can’t recall.
She gave up trying to remember it.
The night grew calm. The only sounds she could hear were the faint music coming from the khat shacks, her groaning stomach and her drumming heart when a lone walker shuffled by. She missed her old friends. She missed Najma’s stubbornness and Ayaan’s humour, and wondered what they were doing, whether they would suffer the same fate she did. Then it came to her: the exact moment she had forgotten her name. It was four days ago. She had run again, her baby strapped onto her back. She crossed the river into Hasaaqo on a boat.
Early next morning as she tried to board a car to Garissa, someone pulled her back down. The hennaed beard was the first thing she saw. On the way back, when they crossed the river, he grabbed her by the neck and took her back into the river. He dipped her head into the water. He held her steady, her arms flailing in the air, as the water drowned her lungs and her brain was starved of oxygen. She thought she was going to die. Perhaps she did. Because when he let her back up she could not remember her name.
mohamed aress is a writer, photographer and lawyer from Garissa, Northeastern Kenya. In his free time, he enjoys doing nothing, but when feeling particularly productive, he likes imagining the pleasures of watching camels make out. He binges on Key and Peele with the hope of bringing comic relief to his worryingly morbid fiction, though this has never worked. He currently works as a defender of the rights of refugees and asylum seekers at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya.