We called her Maama. She was the third born, in a family of six members. We loved Maama, an apple of my father’s eye, our mother’s heart beat.
We, her four siblings loved her too, to death . She was the nicest person you would come across. She was never involved in any sibling rivalry unlike the many fights we had with the other siblings.
No one would start a fight with Maama. We handled her with utmost care. At her smallest cry, we dropped everything to meet her demands. Sometimes, it would be to help her move from one point to the other. Other times it would be to pick something she had dropped on the floor.
You probably can guess by now that Maama was and still is disabled. Both of her legs were too weak to hold her weight.
My parents knew from birth that this child was different. My mother even says she knew even while pregnant with Maama that her unborn was not like the other two,Dafu and I.
We lived in utter deprivation. My mother had given birth to my elder sibling and I in our tiny wooden house. Maama was no different.
When we came home from fetching water at a stream far away, we met mother lying in bed, a small baby lying next to her. We were excited but our mother hushed as quickly, that we shouldn’t alert any neighbours or passers-by about the newborn.
You see, I come from a community where disabled children are seen as bad omen not only for the family but also for the whole community.
We are in the 21st century, yes, but some people will never leave their culture, however archaic. Father and mother warned us against such people who if they heard mother had given birth to a child with legs as thin as knitting needles, they would demand for her death, to save the community from a curse.
According to our culture, Maama was supposed to be killed , albeit mercifully (to show they had a heart). Because they believed that The Creator was perfect, would not create an imperfect child. A disabled child would have come from the devil. And after the mercy killing, our home would be cleansed from the devil’s visit.
Father was first skeptical about hiding Maama but he saw her eyes, bright and beautiful staring at him, as if communicating love to him. They bonded at first instant and when she cooed , he looked at her, adoration written all over him. She would cease to cry when he held her and even tried to make baby sounds. He was smitten by his third born child.
Maama was like a drug. When we had a bad day at school, after walking miles to and fro, she would wait for us and her smile made us forget the fatigue we had experienced, the scorching sun and the stern teachers.
We never spoke a word about Maama outside home. She was a well kept secret. Lucky for us, our home wasn’t the kind visitors were eager to get in. The few who visited were served outside the dilapidated house. Maama as if she knew she was an unwanted child, kept quiet, never did she cry when there were visitors.
Those who inquired about mother’s pregnancy were told she had lost it. This wasn’t unheard of. So many mothers lost their children at birth or after birth. Our neighbours were also too engrossed in searching for each evening’s plate than they were in minding people’s businesses. Poverty and gossip are not at all allies.
When we went to school, Maama was left at home. Mother had built a semi-permanent fence behind the house for Maama to allow her breath in some fresh air and feel the healthy rays of the sun. She would pick Maama quickly, and ran her inside the house, if she saw anyone approaching.
One day, an elderly man came home. It wasn’t a school day so we were home but father was away at the local market to make a few trades for his animals.
The elderly man was known all over the village. He was stern and primitive, a diehard of the community’s way of life. So many times we heard it was the likes of him who had blocked modernism champions in our society.
They had even refused the building of schools in the community citing that the foreigner’s education would not augur well with our relgious and traditional beliefs. But much to their anger, most of the community members embraced education eagerly and even though we had to walk miles away to the school in the nearby community, we were determined to quench the thirst for the ‘key to success.’
We watched as he wobbled into our homestead. Mother pushed her long sleek hair backwards, a sign of anxiety. We saw her praying silently mentioning Allah’s name several times.
He grunted at mother, his way of greeting. Mother extended her hand to him respectfully but pulled it away fast when he sneered at it.
“Where is he?” He asked looking at us, sneering continuously at us who stared right back, curiously.
“Please sit down here, he should be here anytime.” Mother said as she offered my father’s stool to him. He glanced at it, made a low guttural sound again and then made as if to speak.
Father interrupted. He appeared from behind the elderly man. We were chased away like one would chase stubborn chicken. That evening, both my parents were pensive.
“Are you sure none of you has told anyone about Maama?” Father asked us for the umpteenth time. We shook our heads defiantly.
Maama would smile everytime her name was mentioned then she would get her eyes back at one of our books, perusing through the pages, so attentively that one would have thought she understood what was in the books.
We looked at each other suspiciously, wondering who would want Maama killed.
Years later, mother told us that the elderly man had told them that he had had a dream that our family was hiding a snake in the house. The elder had come to enquire whether they were hiding anything but our parents had been undaunted in refuting such accusations and the man had left with a warning.
“If there is truly a snake, knock off its head with force, before it poisons you all.”
We became more secretive and watchful, because my parents were sure that the narrative about a dream was untrue. Someone had let the cat out of the bag.
For years, the secret was safe. Maama was kept hidden from the public. The question, until when would she be a secret, crossed our minds many times but there was never an answer. We focused on the laughter she brought to the house, the joy around her.
“Spell the word army,” Dafu, my fourteen year old brother asked me. I was set for a spelling contest the following week in a neighbouring county. I was the best my class had and the teacher had told me to do enough practice because my win would be the school’s win too.
“A.R.M.Y.” I spelt. Dafu congratulated me and Maamu who was watching as intently clapped happily. I grinned at her and tickled her quickly.
“Now spell the word soldier,” He said as he scanned through the page of a torn newspaper that we had collected from school.
“S.O…” I started but I realized that even though I had heard the word mentioned several times at school, I did not know the actual words that spelt it.
“L.D…” Dafu glanced at Maamu and opened his eyes wide. She continued, I.E.R!” Dafu stood up in shock and shrieked.
“Maama, spell the word soldier?” He asked excitedly.
Maama giggled as she spelt it,”S.O.L.D.I.E.R.”
We stared at her as she giggled sweetly. Maama was a girl of few words. We had even been led to believe that her uncommunicative personality was due to her disability.
We clapped at the ten year old who had never attended anyone’s school. The only contact she had with school content was through our books or old newspapers.
“Maama, spell the word atmosphere,” I asked anxiously. It was a word that Dafu at that time thought very difficult for him. He had just learnt how to spell it right. She giggled again and started
“A.T.M.O.S.P.H.E.R.E.” She was right again. I screamt as Dafu rubbed his hands on his face in puzzlement. This was unbelievable.
Mother and Sauma came in, their eyes big with curiosity.
“What is it?” Mother asked as my four year old sister looked at us, clutching at mother’s dress.
“Mum, you will not believe this. Maama spell the word mother.” Dafu spoke, his hands shaking.
Maama chuckled, went silent and for a moment Dafu and I thought we had been dreaming. Mother was impatient. She turned to leave as Sauma made as if to follow her but Maama’s voice interrupted her.
“M.O.T.H.E.R” She whispered, then started to bite the sleeve of her dress nervously. Mother’s response must have worried her.
Mother gaped at her, her mouth open,unmoving like a statue. For a minute was dead silent then she knelt down and started a prayer. She started to cry as she prayed. We were dazed, wondering whether we had done the right thing.
Father came in and noticed the unusual setting. She rose up quickly at father’s entrance. She asked us to shut up just as we were about to tell him of the stunning news. She helped him sit down, served him a cup of camel milk tea.
“Dafu, give her a word.” She ordered. Dafu looked around in deep thought then addressed Maama,
“Maama, spell the word capital.” Dafu said to his sister,softly to assure her that all was well. She smiled at him,looked at us,her siblings. I grinned at her, urging her on with raised eyebrows. She started off shyly then gained confidence at the brightened eyes of father.
Father sprang up,spilling his tea but paying less attention to it.
“No!This is a trick!”He said as he paced to where Maama was, “Maama, Maama, is it true? ” She giggled, “Maama, school, spell the word school,Maama!”
Maama, now encouraged by father’s enthusiasm, spelt it fast, “S.C.H.O.O.L” A wide eyed father looked at us in disbelief and pride.
“Yeey! How is this possible? Maama has never gone to school.How could she be so knowledgeable?” He exclaimed.
Mother and father realized that they had a different child,not only physically, but also intellectually. All the time we thought she was staring at our books blankly, she was actually reading. She had learnt to read and write from us, as we did our assignments, revised for tests and discussed what we had been taught in class.
We spent a good amount of that evening discussing the mental giant, Maama. Over and over we interrogated her, with academic questions but she would answer them all correctly, so easily and innocently that we were left wowed. It was clear that Maama’s IQ was above normal.
The enthusiasm died off when we remembered that no one else besides us knew her. Because of her physical disability, she had been hidden for ten years. It was a hard pill to swallow for all of us to accept that our genius sister would have to remain unseen to the world to save her own life.
But Maama was like a chick whose 21 days had finally ended. There was no stopping the hatching.
TO BE CONTINUED