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The hut belongs to the husband

Work
Kenya

I look at Sophie, who sits now in the grass before me: 28 years old, mother of five, her belly large with number six. She alone has the responsibility for her children: her husband, like many others, has moved to the city in search of work.

I ask if she has anyone to help her, now that she is heavy with child. She shakes her head and wipes her brow. She’s sweating: a different kind of sweat that has nothing to do with the sun. Is she ill? Is the child on its way?

I ask her, and she replies with a grimace. Then she looks at me – an appraising look.

‘My husband was home recently,’ she says.

I do not understand. What has the recent visit of her husband to do with her sitting here, sweating and in pain? Sophie will say no more. Laboriously she climbs to her feet and waddles across to Rachel, who sits weaving in front of her house.

A picture of the courtyard, encircled by huts and houses; the drainpipe that carries the water off the roofs and down into a large tub in the rainy season; the jacaranda bushes with their violet flowers; the sedate cows; the wizened old man in the brown cap in the background; two women in the foreground.

Sophie and Rachel: the one big with child and sway-backed; the other easy and lithe. Rachel gesticulates; she strokes her friend’s arm. Together they disappear into Rachel’s sleeping-hut.

They emerge a few minutes later, Sophie clutching a small bundle in her fist They’re speaking a language I do not understand and Rachel holds one of Sophie’s hands in both of hers. She releases it, and Sophie leaves: out between the huts she goes, slowly, down the dry, red road.

So many stories.

Rachel stands before me, washing clothes. She works fast, with snappy movements. Her voice is low and angry.

Men in bars. African men of all ages; side by side on the bar-stools, and at small tables packed with bottles and glasses. Men digging deep in their pockets for a few shillings, money that changes hands, money for beer and bard liquor. Loud-mouthed men. Men with hungry looks; indifferent looks; nonchalant looks at the few women who share the bar; women who have moved away from their men; women who have been chased away – prostitutes.

Men on their way home in the dark. Men stumbling into their huts to their wives; stumbling over sleeping children; throwing themselves on the women they own to have what they desire. Does she refuse his body? Dare she say ‘No’?

‘That’s the way it is,’ says Rachel. ‘Remember us talking about circumcision? We have never practised it. But what difference does it make, when it’s all a question of fear? Fear of being pregnant again; fear of being sick. The men do as they like. They go to anyone they fancy. A man can have two, three, four wives, but he can still go to other women if he wants. We live in the man’s hut. The hut belongs to him. We belong to him.

‘When my sister became a widow her husband’s brothers emptied the hut completely. As their brother was dead they claimed that everything belonged to them...

‘You ask me about love. Look at Sophie. While she was away at school a man came to her parents and paid them the bridal fee. When she came home she was told to go to him: she was married to a man she didn’t know; a man she didn’t want. And he forced her to stay with him for days, until he was sure he’d made her pregnant. Now he lives in the city and works in a restaurant and he’s been to see her twice in the last few years. The first time he made her pregnant again. The second time he made her ill...’

Rachel rinses out the clothes and hangs them out to dry over some bushes.

I wonder if African women ever cry.

Ex-journalist and typesetter Toril Brekke lives in Oslo and is now a full-time novelist. Jenny was Fired, published in 1976, is about unemployment in Norway, and her most recent book, The Film on Chatella, is set in a Lebanese Refugee Camp.

New Internationalist issue 149 magazine cover This article is from the July 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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