A scream in the night

I think about that little girl a lot.

It all started on a dark, stormy night one month ago.

I had ignored the persistent, irritating knocking at the gate, but sat up abruptly as screams shattered the night five minutes later. A quick glance at my phone showed 9.45pm.

I muted the news on television and walked swiftly to the small window at the end of the corridor that overlooked the courtyard at the back of our compound. Cautiously lifting the latch, I peered out into the night.

As the quarter moon struggled to penetrate the dark clouds, it cast long shadows and silvers of light every few seconds.

Nisaidieni tafadhali, anatumaliza (help us please, he’s killing us)!”

There was no one out there. Just that tortured sound which seemed to be coming from the house behind mine.

Baba Ken is beating his wife.

I don’t know why that thought came to my mind first. Perhaps it was because although a lot of people lived in our compound, only Mama Ken was married. He had never beaten her before, but hey, the mind thinks what it wants to.

I lived in a one bedroom unit in what had been the main house at the front, which the landlady had converted into two units. Several siblings lived in the adjacent two-bedroom unit. Mama Ken lived in what had been the 2-room servant quarter behind my bedroom with her husband and two sons – Ken aged 10, Jamo, 3 and their live-in maid Nduta.

Four bedsitters, two on each floor made up the rest of the compound. Carol a single mother lived in the downstairs unit on the left with Peter, her young son who was the same age as Ken. A bachelor who had recently moved into the compound occupied the unit above hers. In the downstairs unit on the right lived two women, who I rarely saw. They too had recently moved in.

A door repeatedly opened then slammed shut creating a continuous banging sound.

Tusaidieni jameni, anaenda (help us please she’s dying)!”

I saw her then. The dark shadow dashed out of the house still screaming for help then rushed back. A smaller shadow rushed out of the house. A child. Was it Ken?

This is a domestic dispute. Should I interfere? It was none of my business surely. Then again, am I going to do nothing while another woman is beaten?

Tusaidieni, amedunga kisu (help, he has stabbed her)!”

I froze in my tracks halfway to my front door. A knife wielding assailant was a whole different ball game. I remembered the knocking at the gate earlier. What if there was more than one? I was a woman, alone in my house. Did I stand a chance against a man who had already stabbed at least one person? I stood frozen in indecision, agonising over what to do.

There were men in the compound. Why didn’t they do something!

Woi! Ita taxi, anaenda (call a taxi, she’s dying).”

I rushed for the door, grabbed the keys and fumbled to open it. Simultaneously doors opened as the other neighbours too rushed out of their houses, almost as if that last scream had galvanised us all into action.

The screaming woman supported her injured sister as they walked to the gate. It was locked. As if with one accord, several of us rushed back to our houses to get the keys. Nduta beat us to it.

The injured woman’s silence was unnerving in the face of her sister’s continued screams for someone to call a taxi. At first I thought she was wearing a dark t-shirt and skirt. But when she struggled to get on her feet only to collapse in a heap, I realised her t-shirt was white, soaked in blood.

Oh God she really is dying. All that blood.

With the small gate finally open, her sister pulled her into her arms and dragged her out of the compound. All of us stood and stared as if in a daze.

“Who did this?” Baba Ken finally asked. No one had yet moved to call a taxi.

Sijui, ameenda (I don’t know, he’s gone),” replied the sister. “Tusaidie tafadhali (please help us),” she screamed.

Ni yule bwana yake. Tumeona mtu akiruka gate na kutoroka (It was her husband. He just jumped over the gate and ran away),” said Mutua, who owned a vegetable stall a few metres away.

By this time the screams had attracted neighbours from the houses up and down the road. They peered out from behind the safety of their gates at the unfolding drama.

Ni yeye, tusaidieni, dada yangu anaenda (Yes, it was him, please help, my sister is dying),” the woman admitted.

The bachelor walked to his car and opened the driver’s door, yelling for someone to open the gate completely. Baba Ken rushed to his house and came back with a blanket. “Wrap her in this so the blood doesn’t stain your seats.”

Where a minute ago everyone had seemed stuck in inertia, now eager hands took the woman out of her sister’s hands and assisted them both into the back seat.

As the bachelor reversed the car debate ensued as to the nearest hospital to take them. There was a missionary hospital in the estate but they didn’t accept anyone after 6pm, not even if they were dying. Someone suggested a nearby clinic which operated 24 hours.

The car was now on the main road but the bachelor wasn’t moving.

What is he waiting for? She will die right here.

Soldier si ukuje tuende (come with me)?” He was talking to the watchman who guarded the kiosks that lined both sides of the road at night. The watchman didn’t move.

The bachelor turned to the small crowd. “Someone please come with me.”

My immediate impulse was to jump into the front seat. But I stilled it. What if she died? It would become a police case. I didn’t want to deal with the cops.

Time stood still. No one moved or spoke.

Another muted scream rent the air. The bachelor put his foot on the accelerator and the car shot forward, disappearing around the corner.

I started praying.

The neighbours were still speaking in soft tones as I entered my house.

I prayed for her before I went to sleep and again the next morning when I woke up. But I was afraid it was too late and she was dead. She had lost too much blood.

I got the whole story from Mama Ken the next day. The woman and her husband were separated. He had come demanding the children. When she refused to give them up, he pulled a knife and lunged at her. The knife grazed her neck, left arm and temple as she struggled to escape him.

Her sister came to her aid and received the worst of it. She was stabbed in the chest. It was deep which is why she lost so much blood. She got to the clinic in time however, and the nurses saved her life. She was transferred later that day to the mission hospital.

The banging I kept hearing was Mama Ken struggling to keep her husband from going outside to intervene. Every time he opened the door, she slammed it shut.

We’re not sure who opened the gate at that time of night to a complete stranger. Nduta and one of the siblings who live next door to me admit going to the gate when the knocking became too persistent. But each claims it was the other who actually opened it. One thing is for sure, no one will repeat that mistake.

The two children went to stay with another sister at Ngong.

They are back now. The boy is a baby, too young to understand what happened. But I worry about the girl.

She is 10 years old. She saw her father stab her mother and aunt. How does a child get over that?

I remember when I was a little girl no more than five; we lived next door to this couple that used to fight all the time. I never met them but would often hear her screams as they did battle at all hours. A few times my parents were called in to mediate in their quarrels.

One morning I was playing with my friends from the neighbourhood and heard the woman screaming. Ordinarily, our maid would whisk us into the house to avoid seeing the fight but she wasn’t nearby that day. We stopped our play and stared at each other in terror as sounds of blows being rained on someone were punctuated by screams.

Curiosity finally overcame my fear and I climbed the fence to take a closer look. He was dragging her by her heels over the rocky, path. Her dress had slipped up to her waist and I could see her panties. She was bleeding but I couldn’t tell whether it was from her mouth, nose, ears, head, or from all those orifices.

I had never seen so much blood in my life. Until then, I had never seen violence up close. I didn’t cry, scream or react visibly in any way. I think the horror of it had numbed me. I don’t know how long I stayed perched on that fence watching the horrific scene, but finally our maid came and pulled me down, and took me into the house.

People say that children are resilient. Yet 30 years later, I have been unable to erase that scene from my head. I wasn’t even related to those people. I got traumatised by perfect strangers. Imagine if it were my own family?

That is why I worry about that little girl. I pray to God to heal her because watching her father stab her mother and aunt is the perfect recipe for dysfunctional relationships when she’s an adult.

I think about her a lot.


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