My mother used to live on a farm in Africa

“My mother used to live on a farm in Africa.” Muna heard her daughter, Katja, say. Her daughter preferred to be called Kathi, especially in front of her friends. Muna did her best to remember that. That afternoon, Kathi and her two friends, Claire and Amy, who she usually spent time with, had been watching the Out of Africa video. That’s how they spent most Sunday afternoons, taking turns going to each of their homes to watch the video. There were plenty of VHS tapes at home anyway, and other people had DVDs.

When the movie finished, in the brief silence that often accompanied the end of the story, Kati said the words that followed. It was an echo of sorts, echoing the recurring poignancy of the film, “I had a farm in Africa,” spoken like a hoarse lament in the landscape, bringing Karen Blixen (author of “Out of Africa”) into the tragedy. A lost love, a lost farm, a lost paradise, the fall of Eden. Then, Kati utters the words, “My mother used to live on a farm in Africa.”

Muna wanted to rush into the room and tell them it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like that at all. But she heard someone snicker immediately after Kati said it, and she hesitated, flinched. She thought it might have been Amy, giggling in surprise or amusement, “Did your mother really live there?” Perhaps what Kati said was just some kind of exhibitionism among her young friends.

It was a story from Muna’s childhood back home. When the children were young, they loved to hear stories. They would sometimes press Muna to tell one, as if they had picked up some clue from her words. Brother Jamal, who always remembered the details of these stories, talked about the characters in the stories as if he really knew them. Ah, Uncle Abdallah always cared so much about money, didn’t he? What a petty thing to do. Now Jamal is all grown up, talks back and stays out all night, saying he’s staying at a friend’s house, but who really knows what he’s doing. His clothes gave off a slightly disgusting smell of sweat, cigarettes and cheap food, which reminded her of where young people go. But when she went into Jamal’s room to sort out the laundry, he would yell at her and get angry. He liked clothes that way. He walked with a shuffling gait, like his legs and hips were slowly melting beneath him. In any case, he was no longer interested in the ghost stories of her childhood. When he had no choice but to show interest because she reminded him of someone familiar he used to talk about from time to time, he would keep nodding, eager for her to finish as soon as possible, hoping she wouldn’t let the story unfold as she usually did.

Kati’s memory is not as clear as her brother’s and often needs to be reminded. Yes, you know exactly who I’m talking about, my aunt Omar, the farmer, whose farm I lived on for a few weeks when I was fourteen. Surprisingly, she occasionally remembers the real thing. Now, for example, after watching a bit of the glory and passion of the British Empire, she remembers the farm and tells her friends: my mother lived on a farm in Africa. Only it wasn’t like that at all. There were no wide driveways, no horses, no crystal glass, no servants, no subjects to save. The subjects were herself, subservient to life and others, sent here and there and back again by those who loved and owned her. It was this that made Kati’s friend snicker. She knew very well that life could not be as good as what she had just seen on TV. She knew without thinking that Kati’s mother couldn’t have really lived on an African farm with open skies and deep shadows, not to mention the boulevards of acacia trees and brightly lit verandahs. More likely, the Africa in which Kati’s mother lived was the other Africa you’ve seen glimpses of on TV – crowded streets, dusty floors filled with children clinging to their mothers.

Kati’s friends didn’t know she thought that, and maybe Amy didn’t snicker. It made Muna feel rather foolish to think of rushing in and scolding them. The bitter taste left by this feeling called her astonished. Was it because she was getting older? She heard a plea in Kati’s words-please pretend to believe that my mother was like that in Africa, and that I look just like you. Maybe it wasn’t a plea at all, but Kati could only imagine Africa as she had just seen it, could only imagine that that was the life her mother had led.

They were fourteen, and it would be embarrassing for them to go in there and tell them the truth, especially when Kati told them that the farm she had lived on was not at all fictionally luxurious, insignificantly small and grounded, and not in Africa, but in a real place where everything had a name, from the smell of grass and leaves to the tiniest changes in climate.

The anger that had risen in Muna’s heart since her daughter had spoken had kept her immobile. As the anger slowly faded, it was replaced by remorse and a spreading guilt. Where did such anger come from? After all, they lived in different worlds. Her warm-hearted daughter and her daughter’s kind friends would shed tears over the fate of a wounded turtle or stranded seal, but were indifferent to the gruesome treatment of those they had learned to believe deserved it.

Memories haunt Muna. She cannot forget. She didn’t even know why something was keeping her from it. She wondered if the people she had seen on the street who had left their homes were the same. She wondered how the distance made the memories so different.

That arrangement was made just out of reach of Muna’s ears, but Muna seemed to be an inattentive listener, not the one they were concerned about. Her father wasn’t home, had been out for months, and wasn’t coming back anytime soon. When she was a child, she was never surprised that her father was often away from home for long periods of time. She was so used to it that she didn’t actually notice it, or to be more precise, she only realized it when her father lived at home. Some things only happened when her father lived with them, and it seemed that her mother had to wait until her father returned to make any decisions or do anything major. This may have been exactly what her father wanted, or perhaps it was because they had to wait for their father, who had returned from a long absence, to bring home money for anything they did. In later years, she felt that her mother had also become sluggish during her father’s absence, which made her and her sister Hawa, with whom she lived, quite depressed.

There was a time when the burden of the family crushed her mother and she became ill. She sat for a long time with her head in her hands, complaining of headaches and being unable to do even the simplest of things. Muna and her sister, Hawa, tiptoed around her and sat beside her, trying to muffle the bickering, the house so quiet that only her slow breathing could be heard. The sisters could do nothing about their mother’s tears. As soon as their mother began to cry, the tears would not stop and seemed to flow until they were dry. Sometimes she would cry all day over a minor grievance or hurt, until eventually all three of them were too weak to move because of their incomprehensible pain.

One day Aunt Amina visited, and it was then that Muna heard about the arrangement to take herself to the country. Aunt Amina, her mother’s sister, said she was too tired to take care of two children and wanted to take Muna until her mother no longer felt so tired. “Hava can take care of mother and let her rest and recover. You come to the country and we’ll find you a job.”

Muna doesn’t remember if anyone mentioned after that that she would miss school, but it was one of the first things that came to her mind on her own. There were days when she didn’t go to school. Within an hour, Muna had packed enough bags for her short stay of a few days, which led her to follow her aunt toward the bus stop, draped in the new silk shawl her father had given her as a gift the last time she had been home. It was the first time she had ever worn that shawl, so she remembered it. The farm was just fifteen miles outside of town, she’d been there a few times as a child, and she saw her Aunt Omar four or five times a year, and he sometimes came to visit them when he was in town. She had no idea she would be there for weeks.

Aunt Omar didn’t smile much, but you knew it wasn’t because he was angry or unhappy. He just didn’t like to smile, although he did when he saw Muna coming up the path. He was sitting under the covered porch, weaving a basket out of palm leaves. When he heard their footsteps coming down the main road, he looked up with an inexpressible smile on his face.

The house was situated on a slope with a small stream flowing at the bottom. The farm was just behind the house, spreading six acres along both sides of the creek. Muna will always remember the first night she stayed at the farm and the deep quiet of the countryside. It wasn’t really quiet, there would be scratching, rustling, and the indistinguishable tumult that carried your heart off and on in the night. That quiet growls silently when she goes out to the bathroom, leaping up to grab her dead. In her sleep, she heard croaking, and when she opened her eyes, the shouting disappeared, and she heard the heavy breathing of frogs in the creek.

They gave Muna a separate room. “You will stay here for a few weeks,” said Aunt Amina, “and make yourself at home.” The house was small, with only two rooms and a storage room, not quite a shack, but a small farmhouse. At different times of the year, the room where she slept was also used as a storage room, so that traces of plant sap and dirt spills had already penetrated the whitewashed walls and could not be removed. The small window, fitted with a fence, was across the creek and faced a grove of banana trees on the hillside.

During the day, they wanted Muna to stay by Aunt Amina’s side, and to wait to find her chores. She understood that this was actually to keep an eye on her; she was only fourteen and still a girl. She helped clean the yard, cook, do the laundry, and help wash the fruit and carry it in baskets to the town market. It was tiring at first, but she settled into the boring routine and found surprising joy in it. In the afternoon, if she wasn’t too tired and Aunt Omar was in a good mood, he would show her some farm work and sometimes take her to the road, where they would walk all the way to a huge mango tree where people waited for the bus to town. There was also a small store there, and when Aunt Omar stopped to greet and exchange news with the people sitting on the benches, the owner would make coffee for them. “Go and say hello to the people inside.” That’s what he said the first time he went. After that, she always went to greet the women in the house and sat with them until the conversation between Aunt Omar and the men sitting under the tree was over.

One day, another man who had been talking together stood up and walked with them. He was considerably younger than Aunt Omar, perhaps in his early thirties, with a smiling face and bright, curious eyes. Aunt Omar told Muna that his name was Issa and that he was the nearest neighbor. She walked behind them and could hear from the tone of their conversation that they liked each other. She later found out that Issa would visit them often, but that he had now been accompanying his wife and children to visit relatives on Pemba. Whenever Issa visited, he would sit on the porch with Aunt Omar and talk and laugh over a cup of coffee. Sometimes Aunt Amina would sit with them too, they were such good friends. She would greet his wife and children, and sometimes call him her son.

Issa would always ask Muna to come over and say hello to him. She couldn’t help noticing Issa, who would peek at her when no one was looking. She couldn’t help but notice his keen interest in her. This went on for many days, and as time passed, Issa’s visits became routine, and her body grew hot under his scrutiny and peeking. He didn’t look so hurried, and one day he gave her a covert smile. She returned a smile and averted her gaze, amused.

The situation had been so obvious that it was impossible to get it wrong. When Issa was around, Muna’s presence would make Aunt Omar look nervous and uncomfortable. Aunt Amina would always find something for her to do. Neither of them said anything to her. Issa’s smile and eyes excited and scared her at the same time, but since he didn’t say anything and her aunt and uncle were so alert, she felt safe, like she was playing a game.

One night, Issa appeared outside Muna’s window. Maybe it wasn’t the first time, maybe he had done it before. The window was hung high on the wall with two wooden shutters. When she first arrived here, afraid of the darkness of the countryside at night, she closed both shutters. Later, she got used to leaving one of them open. Sensing something was happening, she woke up and looked directly at the window with both eyes. The dim light in the night sky was enough for her to see the outline of a human head in the window. Before she could cover her mouth with her hand, she didn’t stop herself from sucking in a breath of horror. It was only a moment before she realized it was Issa. She settled down, seemingly still awake, and not long after she heard his breathing. She realized that it must have been the taut texture in the breathing that had awakened her. After a while the head disappeared, and she dared not go to close the window, lest he should reach in and catch her as she did so. For most of the night she could not sleep, and lay there with her face toward the window, dozing and waking at times.

The next morning, Muna went over to look out the window and saw a small pile of hard dirt on the ground, on which he was probably standing and looking in, although he probably still had to hang from the window bars. She stayed in the yard that afternoon when Issa visited and could hear her voice trembling as she shouted her greetings. That night she closed both blinds and lay awake in bed, waiting for him. She heard him coming and felt one of his hands put on the blinds, trying to push them open. “Don’t hide from me.” He begged in a soft voice. She lay in the darkness, listening to his breathing. After a while, as his hand released the bars on the window, she heard the soft “thud” of the floor. She couldn’t bear the fear of the event, and when we met the next morning, she told Aunt Amina. She didn’t say anything for a while, just looked sad, as if Muna had brought her the news of the death of a close relative. “Don’t tell your aunt anything.” Amina said.

Aunt told Muna to get her things ready and within an hour they were walking on their way to the bus stop under the mango tree. Aunt Omar couldn’t understand why they were in such a hurry. “Did something happen?” He asked.

“Nothing.” Aunt replied, “I just forgot that I promised to send her back today. As you know, she’s been here for weeks.”

Muna heard Kati calling her. “Where are you?” Muna shouted.

Kati walked into the kitchen, fourteen years old, smiling, and absolutely secure. She walked over to the table where Muna was sitting reminiscing about the past and snuggled up to her mother from behind, her long hair spilling down around her head.

“What are you doing?” Kati asked as she kissed the top of her mother’s head, then backed away. Without waiting for her mother to answer, she added, “We’re going to Amy’s house for a play date and will be back in three or two hours.”

“It’s not what you said, that African farm.” Muna said.

“Oh, you heard me.” Kati said, “I’m just fooling them, trying to make them jealous.”