Letter to my Sisters
MY DEAR SISTER,
When you read this unusual letter, the news of my death will have saturated the atmosphere in our community, Fullah Town. As I write, I can imagine how the news of my death will be received. I can imagine so many things while I am alive and writing. I won’t be able to imagine anything when I am dead, because I don’t know whether dead people are capable of imagination, though our religion teaches us that there is life after death.
I do know as I write these last words in my life that my death will cause a great commotion. As usual, I know how mother will wail. She will beat her flabby breasts. Breasts that have suckled eleven children. She will undo her long, beautiful hair and pull it apart. She will shout and ask what she has done to God that she should deserve such punishment. She will call my name countless times and she will ask why God should deprive her of her eldest daughter and the fifth of her eleven children, why only nine are alive. She will run about, crying and shouting, and many women will chase her and try to console her. Some will say that it is the wish of God, Allah, the Almighty, that I die. She will never believe that I took my own life voluntarily. No, she will never believe it because suicide is uncommon in our community. Poor mother, I know how she will feel.
As for Baba (father), one can never be sure how he will react. In our society men are not supposed to weep. It is a sign of weakness. In any case, none of us ever saw Baba cry. He is such a hard-hearted man. He will feel sad, very sad. Then I know he will grab his prayer beads. And his peers, some of the neighbours will come and sit by him and say exactly what Baba is saying.
But Baba will not weep. He believes so much in his manhood, his religion and God and the total submission of women to men and their parents. He will say I died because it is the will of Allah, the Greatest. He will tell people to hurry and bury me before it is too late. So the whole community will be busy. People will assemble in and around our house, talking about me and my accomplishments. Many will not accept my death as a finality.
I know how you my sisters will react to the news of my death. You will cry like Mama. Your eyes will be red and they will bulge. I know how Intuma will sing while weeping. She will say she has lost her eldest sister. She will ask who killed our sister. She will talk about her sister who was the first female Muslim girl to get a university education and then to have gone to the white man’s country to become the first female medical doctor in the Fullah Town community. As for Amina, she will just gnash her teeth. She will probably go into a trance. It will take her a long time to believe. She will believe days later, after my funeral, otherwise she will think I will come back to life.
After a while, she will say to herself that she must stop crying. That it is God’s will. Isha will take over from her. She will say that someone killed her sister. She will cry for a long time. In the end, she will lose her voice and her speech will be incomprehensible for some time. As for Ajaratu, she will leave the compound and run towards the stream. Then people will chase her for fear she might drown herself or do some other harm to herself. I know how all of you, my sisters, will react.
As for our brothers, they are no different from Baba and all our uncles. But I think that the little boys will cry. They will all cry because they will remember what I used to do for all of them at the end of Ramadan month and on Christmas. They will miss the presents that I used to work so hard to get for them just to make them happy. The older brothers will probably hate me for killing myself. They will never stop to think, to understand and appreciate why I did what I did. But that is their business, they are all just like Baba, full of their manhood.
The dailies will have various captions. I can imagine such headlines as, ‘Dr Dao commits suicide’, ‘Fullah Town has lost its first female doctor.’ Some will say, ‘Suicide, Dr Dao dead.’ Some papers will suspect foul play until the facts are known. But that is what should be expected. It is normal.
In the hospital where I work, my colleagues and my patients will react likewise. Many of my colleagues have always said that I am too reserved for their comfort. Some think it is because I am a Muslim. Some think that it is because I am in a profession which is traditionally male. I never told them the reason for my apparent reserve. My patients would be shocked and baffled. I can imagine how Ya-Yanoh will feel. Remember sisters, I always tell you about Ya-Yanoh, the woman with a big ulcer on her left thigh. In her village they say that her ulcer is incurable because she is said to be a witch. She also believes that and has become very miserable. She is insulted by all and sundry and her situation is made worse by the fact that she is childless. When I admitted her, she narrated her ordeal to me and I told her I would help her to get well. She could not believe it. A t the time of writing this letter, she is in the process of getting discharged. Her sore is healed, completely. I remember when I used to go on my rounds in the wards. She was my favourite patient. I treated her like our mother. She told me I had restored her dignity and respect. So when she returns to her village, walking straight and confident, people will regard her as a human being. Before that she was treated with contempt and opprobrium.
Sometimes, after listening to her stories, I felt like crying. She is a nice woman after all. One thing I remember about her is her teeth. They are very clean and almost intact. Because of this also, she said people accused her of witchcraft. According to people in her village, she said, a woman of her age ought to have few teeth. So her life was one full of torment. How she will cry when news of my death reaches her.
Amina and Ajara will recall the lady who said that I am the only female doctor she ever knew and how happy that made her. She used to say that even if she died, she would have had the satisfaction of having known a female doctor. She was joking, of course. I like her all the same. She is one of my favourites. She appreciates the fact that we work hard and make lots of sacrifices, especially those who have night duty. But then she would say that had she been a doctor she would not have liked night duty because she wants to be with her husband. Then she would laugh and the other patients would join in her laughter. She is such fun. She too will cry and feel very sad.
My dear sisters, I know that you will want to know why I took my life. Well, it is a long story. Partly, I am doing it for your sakes. I did it so that you can get freedom. For this, I have to sacrifice my life to set you free, you and your daughters and your daughters’ daughters.
You may not understand now. However, as you read along, as you get to the end of this letter, I am sure you will understand and appreciate my action. You may not approve of this method of helping you to be free, to be women of dignity, pride and self-esteem. I am writing this unusual letter to justify my action to be free. I hope I am also helping women of my community. If I fail to tell you the reason for my action, some of you will never forgive me. This is why I am writing the story of my life to you, my younger sisters. I owe it to you as a moral duty, to tell you the truth, nothing but the truth.
From the time I was a little child, Baba was always concerned about upholding the family name of the Daos. The upholding of the family name transcends everything in Baba’s life. The respectability and reverence which the name Dao enjoys should never be allowed to diminish. But from the time I can remember things correctly, it had appeared that the upholding of the family name was the sole responsibility of us girls. The fact that our great grandfather was among the few Imams of the mosque of Fullah Town has served to enslave us rather than make us free people. You know how people talk about us. We should not say certain things because we are of the Dao family. The things that normal people do we cannot do. We are a very religious family. But above all we are women; so we hold the family name in trust.
As you know, we went to the Koranic school at an early age and finished in record time, before our brothers — both the elder and the younger ones. We always did better than they did. Baba, as you all know, was against our going to school to get Western education. He was more inclined to allow the boys rather than us. His argument was the usual and familiar one, to which our uncles, apart from one, also subscribe. Girls should get married and have children. Western education, he had observed, bred immorality, disrespect for elders and for tradition. That he finally allowed us to go to school was due to the influence of one of our uncles, Uncle Bubu. But that is not surprising. Uncle Bubu is the most educated and enlightened of them all. That he went to school was an accident of history. So he knows what education means. We all thanked him for what he did for us. But t hat was a long time ago.
In school we did better than all our brothers. Even the eldest never reached my standard. We all know how Nkodo Shaifu, from our own point of view, brought dishonour to this family. He had had children out of wedlock. Baba was not offended. He was happy he had grandchildren. Worst of all, Nkodo had had these children while still at school. He could not pass his examinations to go to college. That, to me, is a shame. Baba never thought it was dishonourable. It was Uncle Bardara who felt somewhat embarrassed by the incident.
Do you still recall our big secret? No one, as far as I know, can forget that incident. I am referring to the time Ajara almost died while trying to induce abortion. We had all been so terrified that if it became known that one of us had been made pregnant out of wedlock, it would have brought dishonour to the Dao family. Ajara almost lost her life. I hope all of you are beginning to understand what I am trying to point out to you.
Have we not lamented many times that we are not allowed out of the house except when accompanied by several of our younger brothers and sisters? You know that we must always come home much earlier than even our younger brothers. You also know how we are watched. Our friends are even chosen for us. That applied to me too as an elder sister. That was how I found myself the centre of ridicule, because by the time I went to college I did not know how to dance. I found it difficult to socialize. My friends used to say I had two left feet. I learned to dance much later in life when I was in England studying medicine. I was afraid of men, because I was afraid they would ask me out to parties. I must confess that I was miserable.
Have you girls noticed how our younger brothers can dance to all sorts of music? Baba would only say with delight that they are men.
You all remember the incident when Baba threatened to disown me. I am referring to the day I wore trousers. I had just come from England and thought I had grown out of that type of family control. Baba said it was a big shame, a dishonour to the family for a girl, his daughter, to put on trousers. ‘This was why I said that Western education breeds immorality. You have come here now to teach your own younger sisters bad manners. God have mercy on you. I tell you, hell fire will consume you for this!’ He had even scolded mother. It was mother who had given birth to somebody like me. Hell fire, he said, will also consume mother. According to him, hell was not comparable to anything we knew of on earth. He always threatened us with hell fire. That day, Baba was very angry with me. He even threatened to set fire to me if he ever saw me in trousers again. I always damn tha t day when I think of it. It was a terrible day. Mother wept later for me. Poor mother, she weeps for everything. I felt guilty as though I had committed a crime.
I always thought women could wear trousers in Islamic countries. Baba said I was to dress like a woman. He meant perhaps for me to tie a wrappa. To tie a wrappa, and to do work, I thought. Whenever I looked into my wardrobe and glanced at my beautiful trousers, I felt pain in my stomach. The thought that I could never put them on while I was under the regime of Baba made me feel sick.
Home has become hell for me. No boyfriend would dare call me or come to our house. When I had intimated to Baba that the government had provided me with a house, he told me I would leave his house only on my way to my matrimonial home. I wept bitterly. Mother wept too. For Baba, unmarried girls should not live by themselves. It is immoral. But it is all right for our brothers to live by themselves. That would not bring dishonour to the family. My God! So I accepted in disbelief.
‘Why then did I have to spend so much of my time going to college?’ I asked myself. I would have been like our mother. Mama accepted and believed that she was born to serve Baba or any man that would have her as a wife. Mama could never question anything Baba said to her, good or bad. Mama, whose once seductive figure had now become lost in fat, because Baba had scolded her that she was giving him a bad name by staying slim. Baba likes fat women. So Mama became fat. I once told her that from a professional point of view her fat would kill her. I meant it. She laughed and ignored me. ‘If you disobey your husband, you will not go to heaven.’ She was sure and very serious about it. I laughed and Mama thought I was stupid.
You all remember when we wanted to talk to Uncle Bardara. We wanted to talk to him so that he could talk to his brother to allow us freedom of movement, speech and association. We hesitated. It was difficult to trust Uncle Bardara also. We saw him beat his wives very often for minor offences. One day he beat one of his wives until the woman vomited. Her crime had been that she had gone to watch masquerade devils. For Uncle Bardara, it was the devil that had induced his wife. So he had decided to beat the hell out of her, as our people would say. In many ways, Uncle Bardara is like Baba. Many people also like Baba because he is said to be very religious. He knows the Koran and quotes from it with ease, which has earned him the envy of his peers. He has visited the Holy City of Mecca several times and this also adds to the reverence people have for him. He looks like s omeone incapable of hurting a fly. His countenance is deceptive, very deceptive.
My world then became a prison, a closed world. Sometimes I feel guilty even just talking to men. I feel my father’s curse will affect me. I have contemplated rebellion many times. But again, I have been taught that an outright act of rebellion against any of one’s parents is sinful. I am afraid.
Do you remember when our elder brother searched my wardrobe after money and inadvertently came across a letter from a boyfriend of mine? You remember how he read my letter and reported the matter to Baba? You know that his emphasis was on these sentences: ‘I got attracted to you because of your brown eyes, beautifully framed features and exquisitely contoured body which makes men stare at you when you walk. You are also as brilliant as you are beautiful.’ He was vexed. He had already assumed the role of Baba. Can all of you imagine? Our lives would be regimented from morning to evening. I know as well as you do that Nkodo will be a worse tyrant than Baba.
What then is our future? Amina, that question is for you. Of all my sisters, it is you who will say that, despite my feelings, I should not have taken the action I have taken. Maybe you are right. Well, wait until you get to be my age. Wait until you qualify. I hope, however, that by the time you finish reading this letter, your view will support mine. I really hope so. I do not want to feel that the action I am taking will have been in vain. I hope you feel that life is worth living and not something you should endure.
You can only be of use to yourself and to mankind if you are free. I mean if you are free to move, to associate, to talk, to feel inner harmony and a sense of worth. That is exactly what we have not been able to achieve.
Exactly five days ago, a meeting was held. Baba had summoned many elders and family members. Unknown to me, they agreed that I should marry the son of Alhaji Hamsu. The decision was final. You all know Alhaji Hamsu’s son, the head teacher at the Islamic school. He is even older than our elder brother. He has two wives. I am supposed to be wife number three, because we are all Muslims. Baba said he comes from a noble family. Their great grandfather was also among the few who became Imam of Fullah Town Mosque. These are all the considerations. Mama unfortunately is in favour, because she has no choice.
Yes, I am to marry to Alhaji Hamsu’s son, the fat man. As fat as a bundle. Fat and clumsy. He has created around him an aura of innocent vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Baba likes him as a husband for me. But despite this deception, like our Uncle Bardara, he beats his wives and children with efficient brutality.
I know that Amina and Aisha would laugh at this. You will think it is a big joke. We are so incompatible that I find it difficult to believe that Baba did this without consulting me. So I asked myself whether I was born never to make a choice, never to enjoy freedom, never to be happy.
Now I am to move to another house of exile, to serve a worse master, to be enslaved again. To say no would be to bring dishonour to the family. To accept is to compromise my freedom. So what is my choice? If I had told mother that I would not accept such a proposal, she would have ordered me to repeat ‘ASTERFULAI’, seven times, because I am not supposed to refuse whatever my father proposes or wishes, even as an adult. I do not know what is good for me. Women do not know what is good for them. Imagine any of you, my sisters, being a wife of Alhaji Hamsu’s eldest son. Our mother married Baba because, in their time, their own concept of marriage was different from ours. Things have changed, you know. We should not be standing still while others are moving. Everybody has a right to be happy, to be free, to love someone of his or her choice, irrespective of family name o r religion. It is because of these considerations that I have decided not to enter into such a relationship, organized by Baba and others. I have decided not to move from one prison house into another for the rest of my life. If this act of defiance robs me of the Kingdom of Heaven, I am prepared to explain myself to Allah the Greatest. I am sure there is justice and freedom in Heaven.
The time I have set for myself is near, the time for my departure. I know that death is painful. Many have died before me in this world because they believed in a cause. Many more will die for ideas and principles they believe in. As you know, sisters, for me the world has been a rugged terrain for most of my life. I hope that as a result of my action you will in time enjoy the softer terrain of this world. Do not despair, but do not be complacent either.
The moment is coming nearer. The minutes are moving faster. I am now coming to the end of my letter. The room is hot. There is a breeze but not enough to make the place cool. As usual, I can smell some of the concoctions in Baba’s room. He is probably awake, making all sorts of things for his numerous clients. Or maybe he is awake, praying. He could also be just reading his Koran. The smell from his room is very fresh.
Mother is fast asleep. I am sure she hopes to see me in the morning. She will come to wake me up. She will come to say, ‘N’damba my daughter, are you not going to work today?’ Then I will reply, ‘No, Mama, today is my day off.’ Then she will go and prepare breakfast. Breakfast that is always like a feast in this house.
I am now looking at my wardrobe. It is full of all sorts of clothes. Clothes that all of you have always admired and wished to have and wear. But where do you wear them to? To the office? I look at my many trousers and shoes. They are so nice. But of what use are they if they cannot be worn in freedom? I cannot wear them in Baba’s house. It would have been worse at Alhaji Hamsu’s son’s house. Now, as I look at them, I feel happy, I enjoy them, I enjoy the feeling of possession. It is a wonderful feeling.
Finally, my dear sisters, it is said in the Koran that there is life after death. I am not sure about that. Let us hope it is true. If it is true, then we shall meet again. It will be a wonderful reunion. I will be eager to hear the stories of your lives, to know if they were different from mine. Then we shall make merry eternally and live for ever after.
Stephen Gray (editor)
The Picador book of African stories
London, Picador, 2000