This story is by Lesley Richardson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As the town sleeps, I sweep the withered leaves away from the courtyard, stepping hastily from side to side attempting to emulate the strength and grace of Mama’s movements. It is at this time when I feel her closest to her, when I can almost hear Mama’s soft, melodious tone. Although I find myself struggling to remember her words, the sound of Mama’s voice has stayed with me. Sometimes I wonder if singing loud enough will bring her back to me.
A single beam of light begins to dance across the courtyard signaling the first moments of morning. Soon, the smell of samosa will hit the air and the playful shrills of the free children will begin to echo throughout the town. They will gab and laugh like hyenas in the grassland, willfully ignoring their surroundings. They will never understand the privilege of their freedom, the ability to run and jump without persecution and without fear. I used to imagine being a part of that group, like a bee with its hive or a lion with its pride. But when the goal of each day is survival, there is no room for frivolous thoughts.
I’ve spent so many days staring at the metal gate before me that I’ve started to memorize each section of rust that has formed on the chains that hold it together. The reddish, brown coating that started at the bottom has now began to form an ombre pattern across its entire body. With the ever-changing position of the sun, a different hue is reflected. A sea of unattractive browns and greens, each a colorful reminder of what keeps me locked away from the outside world.
I stand by the gate long enough to get a glimpse of the choty goties, the prideful women who saunter through the market with the regality of queens. Bold shades of khanga cloth cling tightly to their ample bodies, wrapping itself around the deep blue undertones of their dark skin. The men call out to them, and the women playfully shoo them away all the while knowing that they like their attention. But people don’t desire me. This is not the type of attention that I get.
My bones jut out beneath baggy clothes, hiding the breasts that have not grown to the size of a woman’s and my unruly hair is hidden beneath a long-brimmed hat. I don’t have the melanin-filled skin of those from my tribe or rich black hair that freely flows down my back. Instead, sunspots cover parts of my skin representing the only bit of color on my body and my translucent eyelashes do nothing to protect my hazel eyes. Men don’t bow at my feet or see me as a prize. To them, I am prey.
My heart pumped heavily through my chest. With each step the sound continued to rise until it settled in my ears. My steps began to mirror the tempo of the beats, reminding me that I needed to move. But the dirt anchored me to the ground, laughing at me and challenging me to take another step. My legs, not up to the task, quickly buckled underneath me. Before I could hit the ground, I felt Mama’s strong arms roll me into the side of her hip. Each step she took was now for the two of us.
The men had charged into our hut that night with machetes. Before I could move, Mama was hiding me in a small hole she carved into the side of the hut. The men threw her to the ground and yelled for her to give them “the invisible.” I watched as Mama lay helpless, balled up like a pangolin at the sight of a predator’s threat. Her broad back acted as her armor from the sharp blows the men inflicted upon her. She took in every kick and every punch with the mightiness of the Maasai warrior, refusing to give them my limbs. She created those limbs. They were the same limbs she rubbed with lotion and bathed at night. The same limbs she kissed and held tight. To Mama, I wasn’t to be feared or hunted. To Mama, I was beautiful.
The men left as quickly as they came, and Mama lay helpless on the ground in silence, but her pain was audible. The moon illuminated the sweat dripping down her cocoa skin, and had it not been for the blood that was slowly running down her spine, she would have looked like a work of art. As each droplet of sweat followed, it was as if her body was letting out all of the pain and emotion that she couldn’t bring herself to share.
I struggled to lift her, but she was too heavy. So, I sat beside Mama and waited for her next move. I can’t say how long we sat there, but the spot where I used to find comfort felt hard beneath us and the insect’s song that once lulled me to sleep felt loud and off-putting. Once Mama lifted herself off the ground, her eyes told me that we must move quickly.
Mama’s knees let out a deafening crack as she knelt beside the watering hole. Her overworked hands gently cupped the liquid that she lifted into my mouth. We had not uttered many words since we left the village. But when you have suffered as we’d suffered, words do not form easily.
Mama kept me tucked tightly at her side, our steps in sync as we walked through the now crowded streets. The thick air lay limp on my pale skin and Mama used her khanga to shelter me from the blinding rays of the run and disgusted looks of the villagers.
Just as the sun sank into the bed of clouds, we came upon a grey rectangular structure with a metal gate. A slight opening allowed me enough room to peer inside and I saw an empty dirt-filled courtyard with no sign of movement. Whoever lived there had clearly made an effort to keep others out, and I’m sure that they would not welcome uninvited guests. I tugged at my mama’s side and before we could move, the large gate opened. What emerged was a robust man whose belly protruded from beneath his shirt. He had thick hair, full lips and black eyes that could pierce even the thickest cowhide.
Mama approached the man and motioned for me to stay put. The two huddled in the corner speaking in hushed tones and busy hand movements. This was the most that I’d seen Mama speak since we left our village. She’d always told me that a child should not be in an adult’s conversation, so I looked away before she could catch me. Before I could completely look away, Mama walked over to me and bent down so that her face could meet mine.
“Why are you bowing your head? Shoulders back, head up,” she said. I acquiesced still managing not to allow my eyes to meet hers.
“Look at me. In the eyes,” she said as she cupped my face. But it was her eyes that kept diverting my gaze.
She whispered softly in my ear as her hands tightly grasped my cheeks. Then, as quickly as she bent down, she stood up. I watched her walk out the courtyard never once turning back.
I now stand in the spot where she left me, struggling to remember the exact words she whispered in my ear. But the memory can be such a funny thing. We strive to remember the things we don’t want to forget, and struggle to forget the things we don’t want to remember.
I don’t want that night to be my last memory of Mama, where words were not spoken, and only fear plagued our hearts. But I now know that she could no longer protect me, that this metal gate is here to keep me safe. When you’re an albino in Tanzania, this is your fate.
I sweep the remaining leaves from the courtyard and finally rest under the tree. I hear the vendors boasting loudly, the women are cackling, and the free children are dashing in and out of the market stalls.
The scene reminds me of a story Mama told me as child about the lion and gazelle. Every morning the gazelle would awaken knowing that it had to run faster than the fastest lion or be killed. Each morning the lion would awaken knowing that he must outrun the slowest gazelle or face starving. The gazelle will focus on its wit to outrun the lion, and the lion will use its strength and speed to capture the gazelle. The lion and gazelle don’t have much in common expect for the fact that their mission for the day is to survive. The moral is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle, we are all just trying to survive.