We would now seriously involve Maama in our reading. She was elated, she read all the books we brought from school, all, especially Dafu and mine. Saumu’s a,e,i,o,u was too easy for her.
She in turn urged me to improve my spelling.
“Environment.” She would say, sweetly then giggle. And when I said it well, she would clap delightedly.
“Devastated.” She said another. I awed at how easy it was for her to pronounce such words. That word was a new one for me.
“Maama, I don’t know desavated,” I said as she extended a hug to me, sensing my embarrassment. Then she would say the letters slowly as I repeated after her and when I got it right, she would be so thrilled as if it was her own triumph.
Needless to say, I won the spelling competition. My teacher was over the moon. The headteacher was in cloud nine. The school had a new bus courtesy of my victory. I smiled as everyone congratulated me at school but Dafu and I knew that this was Maama’s win. She should have been the one getting all the applause.
The following day, a Saturday, surprise surprise. The headteacher drove to our compound. Our hearts pounded. Father saw her first, he ran out of the house to meet her.
“My visit is about Tamina.” She said. I wondered what I had done to deserve my headteacher’s visit.
“Ehe, what has she done?” Mother asked nervously.
“There’s an international academic contest that I would like her, with your permission, to participate. If she won it would put our small community on the map. Tamina can choose any subject she is comfortable with. Her class teacher suggests she compete in English. I am here to request you to allow her to register.” The headteacher said, you could feel the controlled plea in her voice.
There was silence. We all but the teacher had one thought in mind. Maama. She was fit for this role. Maama was a genius. She could take on the contest, in all subjects, not just English.
Father sat on his stool, his head on his hands. Mother looked at her husband achingly as the headteacher continued,
“The sponsors of the contest will pay for travel and accomodation expenses plus any other needs. The contest will be aired on local television shows.”
“Tamina, will you register?” Father asked. I looked at him questioningly. We knew there was someone better for this competition. His eyes were hurting. I knew then that he wouldn’t risk the life of Maama. I nodded in understanding.
The headteacher was besides herself with joy. She hugged me and promised to give me the papers to sign as soon as I arrived on Monday. She drove away. There was no joy in the house as one would have expected. Maama tried to sing a song , that always lifted our spirits but not that day. We looked at her mercifully. I did not even feel excited at joining the competition.
“Tam, start practising for that contest. Maama will help you, won’t you Maama?” Father asked. He looked defeated but when Maama nodded with a wide grin on her face, his eyes lit up and he smiled. We all laughed. She always had a way of cheering up the family when we were down.
We retired to bed early that day.
The headteacher did as she had promised. There she was on Monday at the school gate waiting for me. I should have felt like a queen, important, but there is something about stolen glory. It has no great feeling. I was stealing Maama’s glory.
She rushed me to her office,pulled out blue documents and laid them on the desk for me to fill. I took the black pen from her. I scanned through the document and then saw a phrase that made my eyes water. My hands shook and my heart started beating.
Do you suffer any form of disability? Yes……No……
The words rang in my head painfully.
“Are you ok Tamina? I can help you fill the document. Let’s start here. Your name, write Tamina.” The headteacher said softly to reassure me.
I tried to move my hands to write my name but I couldn’t. She urged me and I found the strength to write.
“Tamina, you wrote your name wrong. Who is Maama? Oh My God, there’s only one copy of this. What will I do?” She spoke in panic. I wiped my tears with the back of my hand. If I did not faint then, I will never faint in my lifetime. My head was pounding.
“Mwalim, Maama is my sister.” I said. She frowned, confused. She only knew two of my siblings, Dafu and Saumu.
“She is…is disabled…” I realised that I had revealed the family secret. My hands were dripping with sweat. The devil’s voice kept whispering to me that I would be the end of Maama. Tears started to flow.
I felt a strong embrace. The headteacher patted my head and I held back in fear, hoping and praying that Maama would not be put in danger because of my revelation.
Later, she listened silently as I told her everything. Her face changed from worry to amazement to admiration.
“It must be hard carrying such a secret for you and your family…Tamina, I promise you that no one will hurt Maama. Those conservatives have no place in this modern era. You will see.”
She wanted to give me the day off school that day but I opted to stay, afraid to tell my parents that I had betrayed Maama.
When we got home that evening, I made every effort to act normal and I was able to deceive everyone except Maama. When we all retired to bed,she crawled to me and nudged me.
“I know you did it because you love me. Thank you.” She whispered and crawled back to her bed. My heart broke. When dawn cracked, my pillow was damp with tears.
For one month, the contest was not mentioned. The headteacher also did not give me any updates. A part of me wished that all that should be forgotten.
Then the unexpected happened. We were preparing for school early Tuesday morning when we saw two large cars drive into our homestead. We seldom saw white people but on this day, they were several. They exited their powerful machines that had company labelled number plates. We ran out leaving Maama like we always did.
“We request to meet Maama.” A Caucasian man, dressed in official attire addressed a stunned father. You could hear a pin drop even on an earthy floor like ours. But the shock wasn’t over yet.
Maama appeared, crawling and said, “I am Maama.” She spoke in English. No, this isn’t my sister, I whispered in disbelief. She had never let herself out. There was a self assured attitude in her, a communication that her time to hatch had come. There was no stopping her.
I glanced at my parents. My mother had her eyes closed, I knew she was praying. Father’s eyes moved from Saumu, to Dafu, to me then to mother, trying to catch the traitor. I glanced at Maama quickly not to meet his eyes, blinking severally in apprehension.
“Maama, so nice to meet you. How old are you?” The man said lovingly as he lifted Maama up. She had the sweet grin, answered his questions adoringly. The man was clearly blown away by Maama’s amicable and prudent personality.
His associates, all of the white race looked on with marvelled faces. We, Maama’s family watched proudly as the two spoke as if they had known each other for ages.
He introduced himself as the founder of a famous NGO. His organization’s mission was to help those in marginalised areas, especially the disabled, to live better lives despite their physical challenges.
“How did you know about Maama?” Father asked, a hint of skepticism escaping his voice. It was understood, this was Maama we were talking about, the apple of his eye.
The tycoon was quick to evade the question by commenting about Maama’s high intellect. I sighed in relief because suffice to say, I knew that our headteacher was behind all these.
“Why?” Mother whispered.
“Pardon?” The white man asked.
“Why Maama? You just decide to spend all your wealth on helping people like Maama, why?”
He smiled as she asked then remained silent for sometime. Carefully, he gave Maama to her father and bent, lifting one trouser up from his ankle up to his knee. We gasped in shock. Instead of a white hairy leg was a thin metal rod that obviously helped him stand. The man had no leg but a prosthetic.
“I know what it feels like to be physically challenged. When I meet people like Maama, I want to make them feel that their disability should not deter them from achieving their dreams in life.”
A few minutes later, the headteacher drove in.
“I see you have already met Mr. Harris. His NGO is one of the groups that will sponsor the academic contest. There are six more companies supporting the competition.” She said. You could tell the hunger in her eyes for that win. Maama’s win would be hers too.
Two days later, Maama with twenty two more contestants from all over the country were on television. Mother had travelled with her. She was among the chosen few audience. My father, Dafu, Saumu and I were in a neighbour’s house watching my sister as she, the only physically challenged took on an academic battle with other mental giants.
It was a tough battle. Contestants lost one by one. Maama failed none of the quizzes directed to her. She was calm, answering with a warm smile. The judges stared in amazement at the little girl who sat on a wheelchair. She was humble even as the facilitator showered praises at her.
She won, all the seven subjects.
The air was euphoric. Even her competitors clapped in admiration. One would have thought that the television audience knew Maama. We watched as they jumped in joy at Maama’s victory. Everyone had wanted Maama to win. She had such a likeable attitude. You fell in love with her at first sight.
We walked home excitedly, eager to have Maama back at home so that we hug and congratulate her. We had forgotten about the proponents of the ugly side of tradition.
There were five elderly men waiting at our homestead. They asked to speak to father alone. We entered the house and went to the windows to eavesdrop.
We heard one of them spitting curses at father, rebuking him for going against tradition. He would pay dearly, they threatened. They left but promised that they would come back to remove the devil’s child in our midst. We were scared for Maama. I cried at how foolish I had been for telling about her.
“What shall we do father, what if they kill Maama?” I asked.
Father shook his head. “I don’t know Tamina, only Allah knows.”
She came like a president, in a motorcade. Villagers danced and sang for her. The little community of Gahalo was on everyone’s lips now, thanks to Maama.
Our school headteacher was promoted. She was so excited. A better house was built for us by the local county government. Companies made pledges to continue changing Maama’s life. The government promised to build a school nearer, to cater for students like us who had to travel kilometres to study. Life changed.
She had become the country’s golden girl. Several times, she featured in shows and interviews on radio and TV.
Even then we watched Maama’s back. The threat to kill her by the traditionalists was still fresh on our minds. Father always accompanied her to her shows or interviews.
One particular TV show changed it all. A listener had been attentive to Maama narrating how she had been kept hidden for years to avoid being murdered because of traditional myths. She even revealed how she still lived in constant fear despite being famous.
The listener called the TV Show.
“Maama, I come from your community. I am the wife of one of the religious elders who want you killed. But I will disclose this today to the world. You are not alone. We too have a son, a disabled one who has no legs. We have hidden him for close to thirty years. I will not hide my son Kholo anymore. ” She hang up.
We knew Mama Shazu. She was always quiet. Her husband was the elderly man that had come to warn us about the “snake.” We were appalled. He was among the five who had recently threatened to kill Maama. All this time he had a physically challenged son yet he was proposing Maama’s death!
He died of a heart attack after the pronouncement. The other traditional elders were too embarrassed to show their faces after that.
Kholo was in bad shape. He saw and felt the sun after thirty years of being born. Mr Harris came to his rescue. He took him to a good hospital that ensured that Kholo was a man of good health months later.
Kholo’s interest lies in sports. He loves netball. Sometimes he doesn’t want to get out of bed, he feels like his thirty years were wasted , like he has nothing to live for anymore. But everytime he feels low, he visits Maama at our house. She keeps reminding him that disability is not inability. That he has to keep pushing.
She is now, only fifteen but she is such an inspiration. When mothers in our village give birth to disabled kids, they call them Maama. They don’t hide them anymore. They are thankful for The Creator’s precious gift.
Maama still has the sweet smile. She is still humble despite the fame. She goes to school now with no fear. She tops the class all the time. Havard University wrote her a letter the other day. They want her to join them. She responded that she wants more time to think about it. This is the fourth letter they have written. This girl, Maama, she truly is a gem.