If I told you the lady stepping out of the Audi Q7 dressed in a floral sheer kimono and burnt orange palazzo pants is a survivor of FGM, you most probably won’t believe me. Like in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the apparel oft proclaims Anissa*, a sculpted figure with a burnished chocolate complexion. I felt acutely underdressed as I watched her step out of the car, her weight balancing on the nude heels. Beneath the kimono was a peach turtleneck top matching her headgear. She had lost some weight. Either life or workouts must’ve happened.
Anissa had picked The Chatroom, a little hideaway in Nairobi’s Kilimani’s Wood Avenue for an impromptu rendezvous she’d asked for. Before the call, I had assumed Anissa was sashaying in London, where she’d moved four years ago. The last time I’d seen Anissa was in 2019, just before the novel coronavirus struck. Before that, we’d met on 23 July 2017. I remember the exact date not because it was the last time Anissa reminded me, as she always would, of the need to increase my tolerance (not of water, milk or soup). That date stuck with me because it was the first and last time Anissa visited me at my house in Mwiki, in the proper outskirts of Nairobi, where I had just started life. She had been driven for almost 30 kilometres from South C in a Mercedes to cry on my shoulder for more than an hour straight. Every time she tried to stop, a fresh stream gushed out. I felt she wasn’t trying enough. I didn’t cry with her.
As Anissa cried, I allowed my mind to wander into a different world to avoid plunging her onto the cushionless chair. Maybe I wasn’t being a good friend. I started thinking about a study scholarship I had secured in China and why I’d turned it down. I thought about my ex, who had joined the army. Had he not left, he would have returned to sing me a whisky lullaby. I did not trust this man long before he took the uniform, but I was more worried about what he would do if he discovered I only had one leg in. As it would be, both his legs were out. I thought of everything but Anissa, this spoilt girl who was weighing my shoulder down with what I felt were unworthy tears. I was happy when after she’d cried a river, Anissa dug into her brown bag and removed a piece of cloth, a dera, with a common Somali print.
“Handle that gently Akilo, make my haram act count,” she muttered softly, without emotion. I wanted to remind her for the umpteenth time that my name is Akello, born after twins – not Akilo – but I was more concerned about the 400ml pinot noir wine, wrapped in the Dera.
“I could not bring myself to buy a whisky,’’ she atoned. ‘‘It felt like a bigger sin.”
“Thank you,” I told her, handing back the dress.
“I got that for you. It is the main gift,” she said, laughing at my facial protest.
That day, we never spoke about the tears. My thoughts had strayed so far away that I never got a chance to think-up a pep talk on ‘‘how everything would be alright’’. It wasn’t until two years later, in 2019, when Anissa decided to explain her tears out of the blue.
We met at the Cafe Deli at the junction of Nkrumah Avenue and Nkrumah Lane. In his book Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama says he used to frequent the joint, previously called Green Corner, for Samosas. Anissa loves the joint out of Barrack’s recommendation. I love it for a different reason – cocktails. Anissa knew. Not even downtown Nairobi traffic would stand between me and the cocktails. It was thus an automatic yes from me when she called.
A few cocktails in – at least for me – Anissa started talking about 23 June 2012. She lost her characteristic smiley face for a moment when she told me that though she knew I had judged her for crying the way she did, she didn’t really care. She was just happy I never asked any questions. Out of guilt, I nodded continuously, only once interjecting that though I thought she was a spoilt kid, I truly cared. I blamed her for never sharing anything about her life, even in moments when she was ugly-crying on my shoulders. That was the button that opened her up.
Habibi*, Anissa’s niece, had called her on 21 June 2017 and asked that she calls her father urgently. That day, Anissa was so busy as a rapporteur for a regional conference, so much so that she forgot to make the call to her brother. When Anissa eventually reached out to him the next day, Anissa knew she was too late. Her brother had happily informed her that her 13 year old niece was now a woman. Anissa’s heart sank. Her brother’s language was code for her niece having undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) that morning. She was recuperating.
“Ever since she was seven, Habibi had made me promise that I would keep her from the knife. When she was younger, all she ever wanted was a kitten for every birthday, but after she turned seven, she only wanted to avoid FGM,” Anissa had told me. Anissa said she doubted that her phone call would have made a difference, but she will never know because she never tried. I wondered why she felt so bad when she didn’t think her words would matter.
“I was cut badly when I was 13, then soon after they gave me to Adan* (Anissa’s husband),’’ she said, unflinching. ‘‘If he wanted, Adan would have ‘wifed’ me immediately. But he waited.”
I stopped tapping the glass of the cocktail with a vulgar name. I stared at her. An intense pain was written all over her face. Anissa told me she’d resisted the cut and had sworn to keep up a fight to the last minute. Unfortunately for her, the kicks were no way out of the right of passage that was supposed to make her family proud. They had societal standing to maintain, and all her elder siblings had undergone FGM. She had little chance of escaping.
“I bled so much that I lost consciousness,’’ she told of the day they came for her. ‘‘When I woke up in a tiny smelly house, I was surrounded by women from my community; young and old. I wanted a glass of water, but I received what felt like an hour of scolding. I thought I was dying. I could feel the other side calling. And just before I surrendered, I felt a glass of water touch my lips. I stayed there for four days, and on the day I was ‘discharged’, an old woman held me up and said to the crowd of women watching that I was a lesson to young girls who, like me, thought they could resist their way out of this right of passage. Girls who are lost.”
Anissa said she stopped going to school until the wound healed. It left a growth that the ‘old women’ referred to as a curse.
“I could feel a keloid scar form on my vagina,’’ she told me. ‘‘And when I walked, I could feel my thighs rub against it. My walking style changed, and when people remarked about how I walked, I thought they could see the keloid and did not just want to tell it to me straight.”
Anissa said what was left of her was a shell of her former self. She barely spoke to anyone, and for the first time, willingly accepted her father’s offer to pick her up right after school. She didn’t want to meet or talk to anyone.
“I used to feel a lot of pain when urinating,’’ she said. ‘‘I waited for the pain to go away until I eventually learned to live with it.”
After withstanding all the pain and tribulations, Anissa unlocked a new pain on her wedding night. “I screamed,’’ she said. ‘‘I pushed him away violently. I bled. Do you know the way when you knock your elbow the pain reverberates all through your arm? That’s how the pain felt through my thighs and lower belly. Only that it was that pain multifold. I cannot describe it, but when I talk about it, I feel it.” Though at first, Anissa said they both thought it was the pain of breaking virginity, every attempt at intercourse brought the same kind of pain.
“It never got better. I dreaded bedtime. All my excuses were used up. I could see how frustrated my husband was getting, but he remained patient,” she said.
And now I was breaking her heart. Or so I thought.
“Akilo, I didn’t think your pair of dry eyes had a chance of drizzling, let alone raining,” she said teasingly. Anissa mocked my tears, saying they were lilac, her favourite colour. She then laughed and cursed and teased. I was weak, apparently. Unfeminine. She wanted to go home. “Adan (a medical doctor) got a job with the British military,’’ Anissa suddenly changed the topic, faking a British accent. ‘‘We will be moving to London next week.”
I was too shaken to protest at Anissa’s late revelation about her relocation. I waited for Adan to pick her up before getting back to the restaurant. I needed a stronger drink.
Fast forward to one afternoon three years later, on 27 January 2023, when I received a call from Adan. I picked up the phone in a panic, wondering what news my friend’s husband bore.
“Akilo, this town is too hot,’’ Anissa said. ‘‘I know you are broke this Njaanuary. I’ll spare some pounds for your coffee.”
“Njaanuary is good for my health,’’ I retorted, ‘‘but coffee is good for my wealth.”
Without thinking, Anissa picked The Chatroom for our reunion. She however did not warn me that she would dress up. It was a Friday. I was in jeans and a tee. She, on the other hand, was dressed to the nines, full makeup complete with a cat eye.
“Do you see the glow on my face?” she asked as she dragged a seat next to the pool.
“You always glow,” I said.
“This is different,’’ she pushed. ‘‘Look deeply into my face. Put on your poetic lens.”
“The winter glow?” I asked.
“How old are you? You are becoming senile too soon,” she said. “This glow is very specific to a healthy reproductive system.”
I thought Anissa was referring to pregnancy, but I limited my words to cover my cluelessness. She must have noticed, or maybe she was just so eager to share the news. She passed her phone and asked me to scroll, after a warning that the images were X-rated. First, a photo of Anissa in hospital attire, grinning. She wore a silver headgear, wrapped around her bun.
“I declined to put on the hospital headgear,’’ she said. ‘‘Mine was taken and sterilised.”
The second was a photo of a keloid. A shiny lump the size of a baby’s fist firmly planted on her genitalia, covering most of it. “That’s her. That is Auma. She covered everything,” Anissa explained, laughing. She had named the keloid Auma, Luo for ‘covered’. She had been asking me for Luo names and what they meant a few months earlier. I never thought she’d wanted to name a lump. The third photo would have been graphic, she said, had I had the ability to see through the thick layer of bandages. Instead of a keloid, her womanhood was bandaged-up.
“I had my first orgasm at 34. Seven years after marriage,” she said in a whisper, loud enough for whoever cared to listen. Her face lit up. I could now see the glow. Anissa told me she had undergone an FGM reconstructive surgery that cost her husband a pretty sum of pounds.
“God gave me Adan,’’ she said. ‘‘Though he spies on me every day, he is the only man who has claimed to feel my pain and done something about it. When you tell this story, tell men that feeling sorry isn’t enough. Do something.”
She spoke with the kind of conviction I knew she had from when I first met her in 2016.
*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.