The Perfect Handspring by Muthoni wa Gichuru
I was in standard six, twelve years old, as thin as an acacia sapling and just as rough. I joined the queue of bloomer-clad girls and waited my turn. The test for making it to our school’s Physical Education team would be a perfect handspring: hands up in the air, lunge headfirst and stand on your hands with your feet up in the air, spring off the ground and land on your feet. I had practiced every evening after school. While walking home I would give my best friend Nyangi my school bag and fly into the air. I was not sure I would execute this but I had to try; a trip from the village to Nanyuki, my home town, would be my reward. Fifteen girls went before me and only six managed the perfect handspring—hands together on the ground, feet together while hitting the ground.
‘It’s your turn now,’ the PE teacher, Mr. Mwangi, said.
I could feel the coldness of sweat in my armpits. My palms were damp. I rubbed them on my bloomer. Anxiety dried the saliva in my mouth as I took a short run and then there I was, jump in the air, hands on the ground, summersault, and bring feet together on the ground. I knew it before I touched the ground, though; my lazy left foot had refused to obey my mind and it touched down a few seconds too late. I was out of the Tigithi Primary School PE team.
Why, then, did I continue to practice the handspring, long after the team had gone to Nanyuki town to compete and had come back, long after the hand and ball games were over and the end of the term was drawing close?
In class I would watch the big clock on the teacher’s desk as the minutes crawled on, waiting for breaktime. At night I dreamt I was in the field, lunging to the ground, hands and feet in perfect symmetry then landing smoothly. Every breaktime would find me at a spot I had selected below our classroom. I had taken to wearing a bloomer inside my school tunic; I would tuck the dress inside the bloomer and off I would be at a short run then jump. Nyangi initially practised with me but she soon got tired and would watch me as I practised. Eventually my persistence, like all persistence, paid off. I made it: the perfect handspring. My hands ploughed to the ground while my feet flew into the air in tandem, and I got down smoothly, my feet hitting the ground at the same time.
I jumped up then did a few cartwheels, legs slicing through the air. My inchoate mind could not articulate what it was that that I had achieved. Fifteen years later I would witness a grown woman do a handspring and see myself up in the air, feel again the springiness of the grass below our classroom, smell the earthy smell of trampled grass as my head hung down. It would be as if I was again my twelve year old self.
I was born in the early seventies when women’s voices were muted, legally, socially, and economically. Kenya attained its independence from the British in 1963 and it would be sixteen years until women would get National identity cards, in 1979. Meanwhile the women could not own land, could not open a bank account or get a permit to operate a business. One of my neighbours was so incensed when his wife came home holding an identity card that he took a tethering rope from the neck of a goat, climbed up a tree at the centre of his compound, and hanged himself.
I was a precocious child and began reading at an early age. Most of the characters in the books I read were male, and the heroes were invariably male. The tale of Thithia, the boy in Gikuyu folklore who traverses distances encountering many adversaries and conquering them in a quest to find his father who is a king with vast riches; the story of Wamugumo a man who was so huge he could eat a whole goat by himself and be able to till a large tract of farmland in a single day; Luanda Magere the Luo warrior, a man who could annihilate a whole army because no spear could pierce him since his strength lay in his shadow; Treasure Island the epic tale of a boy, Jim, who goes on a quest to find hidden treasure. The stories where girls featured were stories of a prince charming coming to rescue a damsel in distress; Cinderella and the magic shoe, Snow White and the seven dwarves. A child’s mind is like a well-watered and fertile ground and the seeds that are planted grow into luxuriant plants. I grew up thinking about how much less women were. Did we not sing to a moth while it circled a flame, moth, moth, you’d better throw yourself into the fire, your cows have been raided by women?
My Gikuyu culture taught me that a man came first. The word we use for a married woman is Mutumia, one who keeps quiet and does not speak her mind. A married man is called Muthuri, the one who chooses his words and actions wisely, and wherever three or four men are gathered nothing will go wrong. In a Gikuyu homestead during the birth of a child, when a midwife slapped the new-born’s bottom and the child cried, she turned the baby around. The birth attendants would break out in ululations. Five ululations for a boy but if it was a girl, four ululations. How then was a girl ever to believe in herself, when born into a community so deeply steeped in patriarchy?
A woman was not supposed to raise her voice especially while talking to a man. I remember a story that a preacher told in church of a woman who went to a priest to ask for advice because her husband beat her every day. The priest advised her to take a gulp of water when she knew her husband was nearing home and not to swallow or spit the water until her husband had eaten and gone to sleep. So she kept the water in her mouth and that evening her husband did not beat her. She did this for several days and her husband did not lay a hand on her. When she went back to the priest, he told her, see, when you don’t answer your husband back he does not hit you.
There are those voices however, that cannot be silenced. Voices that would choke on the water and spit it out into people’s faces. My mother had that voice. A child is inherently selfish, it wants the world to revolve around its needs. There was discord in our home because my mother would not be silent. I wanted her to mute the strident voice that echoed in empty rooms while she was angry, the tear-soaked voice that reverberated with intensity when she was hurt. Why could she not just keep quiet? I asked myself. Even Maria, our neighbour who had to bury her baby’s potatoes in the shamba because her husband would demand that she cook them for him when there was nothing else to eat, kept quiet. I grew up embarrassed by my mother’s refusal to follow the conventional rules of society. During the chief’s barazas, women would spread their kanga cloths on the ground and sit on them while the men sat on chairs. Not so my mother. She would arrive early and take a seat right in front. While people whispered and sniggered about this blatant flouting of tradition, she would keep her eyes straight ahead.
Among my father’s things, in a big blue wooden box that he kept on a nightstand near his bed, was a photo. Whenever he sent me to get his shaving razor I would take out the photo, tucked in amongst the title deed to our piece of land, his national identity card, and old letters, and stare at the white and black photo. The lady in the photo wore a half upturned smile, the lower lip turned inward as if she wanted to bite it. Her wide eyes, set apart in her face, looked serene. She seemed like a lady who would never raise her voice in an argument—unlike my mother who would wake up a sleeping child with a whisper. Once, I took too long to get the razor, and he came into the house and found me looking at the photo. ‘Who is this Baba?’ I asked him. My father took the photo and held it up to the light and I could see his teeth peeping out and his mouth opening into a slow smile.
‘She was my Ndaari, before I met your mother,’ he said. ‘Things didn’t work out though.’
There’s this song, a Gikuyu folk song that goes, when my mother was getting married I saw it. I am the one who persuaded my father, ‘This one is good. Marry her so that she will be carrying your bag.’ I remember thinking then, I’d have told my father, this one is good, a gentle looking woman who would never raise her voice.
Born around 1935, my mother was still a teenager when Kenya’s independence war began. She turned into an adult when Kenya was in a state of emergency. She was drafted into the Mau Mau and would run errands for the men and women fighting in the forest, and perhaps that shaped her outlook in life when she later had children and settled down. I was raised by a woman who told me stories about giants – large creatures who could hold a grown man wriggling in their hands – and all she had to do was raise her voice a notch and stamp her feet and I would see the giant coming to break down the door. My mother had a largeness about her, laughter that shook her body in merriment and bathed her face with tears. An explosive anger that would whip up suddenly like a whirl wind which the Gikuyu call Ngoma cia aka: women devils.
In the village sexual abuse was this thing that happened and would hang around like the tendrils of soot from the rafters of the grass thatched houses. The soot getting into people’s hair, into their clothes, brushed off but leaving a smear that could not quite be removed. My older sister turned into a young woman, the buttons on her chest turning into small hard nuts, and since we were only a year apart, soon after I woke up to find that those on my chest had also turned into small unripe fruits. My mother made it known in the village that if any of the lecherous men turned on to her daughters, she would send them to sleep underground with moles.
It was when I joined high school, leaving many of my friends with yelling babies in their arms, that it occurred to me that with so many women silent, perhaps the few that could speak needed to have a loud voice. A voice that would fill the nooks and crannies where silence hung like a morning mist.
I went to college to study information studies. After college I took a journey into the unknown, travelling 360 kilometres from Nairobi to Kitale to work in a school library and live with strangers. I travelled on the night bus, arriving at three in the morning. I lay my head on the bus seat and put my feet on the bag that contained my clothes and toiletries. When I woke up, my feet were on the bus floor and my bag was gone.
I reported the theft at the Kitale police station and the police officer at the desk kept asking me, did you say your handbag was lost? And I would tell him it was not my handbag, which I was clutching in my armpit, but my travelling bag, and break into fresh tears every time. From the police station I went back to the bus station and boarded a Nairobi-bound bus. This town with people that had ripped at me even before I had stepped on its soil was not for me. I wanted to go back to my older sister’s house, to familiarity and safety. The bus filled up quickly and the bus conductor started collecting the fare but when he reached me, I hesitated. That streak of stubbornness, passed through generations from my mother thorough her mother, through her mother’s mother, through her mother’s mother’s mother… asserted itself and I stepped off the bus.
My mother, when I was in standard seven, had heard of land that could be reclaimed from a swamp in Rumuruti, Laikipia West, sixty kilometres from our home. She had travelled to the snake- and mosquito-infested swamp and cut herself a swath of the land to farm. She only came back home when she realized that the land people were sharing out belonged to the government and she could only have lived there as a squatter.
Wearing torn canvas shoes (the leather shoes I had planned to wear had been inside the stolen bag), I asked for directions to the school and walked the two kilometres from Kitale town to a small shopping centre called Kibomet where the school was. For the first few weeks, before I got my first salary, I was hosted and fed by strangers. It was in Kitale that I learnt that a dish, Githeri, made of maize and beans and which my community will only take as a main meal, could be eaten as a morning snack. Some of the teachers in school who were my size lent me a change of clothing. In my first year in Kitale I would survive a bout of malaria that had me wandering about the school compound at night. Later, I would rewrite a story, Wagaciari, one of the folk tales my mother used to tell me when I was young, and produce it and our school would emerge first runner up in the narrative category in the Rift Valley provincial drama festivals.
Five years later I was in Kitui in Eastern Kenya having left the librarian job in Kitale to join my husband. I had a young baby and my sister-in-law had come, as we say in Gikuyu, to heat food for me. She had just finished high school and in the course of sharing stories, she told me about a girl who was raped by her classmates while they were in form two. She told me how the girl stayed home for a few weeks and went back to school to be in the same class with her molesters. My husband, Kamau, had challenged me to write a book that would one day be read by my son. I knew then what I would write about. While I was in standard three, a girl in standard two had been raped by a boy in standard seven and all I could remember was that when the girl was taken to the hospital in Nanyuki, she came back with a full packet of Big-G chewing gum which she shared with us. When I was in college in Nairobi, a neighbour’s girl, eight years old, had been raped by a boy about sixteen years old. The mother had found the boy in the act and though he was taken into custody, he was said to have escaped the following day. My voice flew over the pages as I told these stories and others in a fictional tale of rape which ended with the victim eventually getting justice. The manuscript, I Refuse to be a Statistic, was shortlisted for the Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa 2003-2004 and later published with the title, Breaking the Silence. It is now being studied as a set book in Rwanda. I found I could not still my voice after this. I would later tell the story of street girls in Nairobi, ‘Forty-two Steps Up, Forty-two Steps Down’, which would be published in an anthology, Moonscapes, in 2016.
Before I left Kitui to work in Embu and later Nairobi, I worked as a volunteer in a community library. I was visiting with a women’s self-help group and after telling them about the library and the services we were offering, they invited me to watch their game of football. The women, aged twenty and above, had raised money to build a kiln where they made and burnt clay pots for sale at the Kitui market. They divided themselves in two groups and they kicked the ball in the field with many of the football rules disregarded. Then one of the team members managed to outmanoeuvre her opponents and shot the ball past the goal keeper. Her team mates broke into a traditional Kamba dance, Kilumi, shaking their shoulders and stamping their feet. The scorer, a woman who looked to be in her late twenties, ran a few paces, lunged to the ground hands first, pivoted in the air, her brightly coloured kanga unfurling in the wind like a swarm of butterflies. She landed on her feet in a perfect handspring. I was taken back to my twelve year old self and my first perfect handspring. I realized then that all that women ask for in the world is to be let to exist, to live, and they will thrive.
Alice Muthoni Gichuru is Kenyan author who writes as Muthoni wa Gichuru. She is a Burt Award winner and has been shortlisted for Jomo Kenyatta Literature Prize and Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Muthoni’s work has appeared in Fresh PaintVolume 2: Telling Our Stories Into the 21st Century, Moonscapes, The Wrong Patient and Other Stories from Africa, and Kweli journal.
You can enter the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize here.