African Story

 

By James Alex Veech

 

It was not the dust that made the top of Kenya a hell, but that could have been a good place to start, nor was it the dying vegetation, or the deprivation to villages used to eking out a living from the earth. The real keys to it being hell were held by the unholy spawn of the Sahel, the Muslim militants under the crescent of Allah, who were turning the lands below the Sahel into an infernal place with their raids on the defenseless to steal their food, kill their cattle, kidnap their boys to be child soldiers, and take their girls for ransom or to be child brides.

It was into this hell place that Loiyan Mwafunzi Yamat was born ten years ago. She lived with her mother and father in a village so small and ignominious it did not warrant a name on the map of Kenya. Villagers had a name for it though in their language – “this place of dust.”

Nomadic villages like Loiyan’s, out in the open as they were, had been raided by rebels for years. The last raid, six years ago, Loiyan’s brother was taken, dead now, or if not dead, a boy soldier told to fight or he would die. Those of these marginal lands learned soon enough, a moving cloud of dust on the horizon signals the approach of danger on horseback, and at the moment villagers were watching just such an ominous cloud which minutes ago had appeared in the distance and was rapidly bearing down on the village. All motion momentarily came to a standstill as the villagers registered the danger, and then pandemonium broke loose. Ten horsemen showing guns and pangas galloped through the village, spreading fear. Twenty men, women and children – the entire village – scattered in all directions. They knew better than to resist. Resist and these heartless men would set the village ablaze. Run, let them take what they wanted, and trust in God and your legs for safety. At least you might avoid slaughter and save your huts from being set afire.

In the raid six years before, a bandit’s horse had trampled Loiyan’s father, and he had limped ever since. Her mother had grabbed little Loiyan then and run, carrying her to the safety of the bush, and now here they were four years later, the three of them, being forced to flee again.

“Run, mother, run. Father, hurry, hurry. We still have time to hide.”

The three escaped from one side of the village as the marauders rode in from the other. The father limped, the mother ran, pulled by Loiyan into the thin scrub where they cowered where they stopped.

“Mother, father?” Loiyan whispered. “Should we run more?”

Her father put his fingers to his mouth to signal silence and shook his head no.

Her mother in answer could only make an anguished twitching of her lips through which the solitary sound was a moan. This repeat of the raid six years ago that took her son now left her frozen in fear and she thrashed her head about looking for danger. But the scrub brush was too thin, picked over as it was by a generation of villagers in need of firewood; and with the father’s limp, they had not been able to run far enough to get to the thicker brush. They sat huddled, exposed for bandit eyes to discover. A horseman, followed by another, jerked to a stop inches away.

“There, my brother. There is just the kind we have come for.” The man on horseback who discovered them pointed at Loiyan. “Quick. Go. Bring her.”

The second bandit drove his horse into the brush. Loiyan’s father rose, hands pleading, to slow the horsemen and was knocked backwards by the horse to the ground where he lay not moving. The mother wrapped her arms around her daughter, only to be slashed aside by the bandit’s panga.

“Oh, mother,” Loiyan exclaimed and reached down to help her.

“Run, daughter,” the mother pleaded. ”Leave me. Run for your life.”

Loiyan refused to leave her wounded mother. As she rose to protect her from further harm, the bandit spurred his horse forward, snatching Loiyan up from the spot where she stood. He dragged her over the neck of the horse and galloped off.

Loiyan Yamat was taken.

o0o

Loiyan was ten in the year she was kidnapped; she was twelve years old in the year she escaped. For the two years in between she was a prisoner with other young girls captured in raids just as she had been. The girls were held for ransom, and if they were not ransomed, they became slaves in Sudan or were kept as wives for the rebels.

In the first year of her captivity Loiyan had seen the Sudanese slavers come into camp. She was embarrassed that she could not avert her eyes from watching the suffering of the wretched girls when it was their turn to be sold.  She had a natural fear that she could suffer such a fate, sold into who knew what kind of inhumanity, just so that Saddiq al-Saif, the rebel leader, could buy more arms. But it was also not her way to show fear.

The rebel camp was a simple village unto itself, easy enough to move quickly to a safer place when the Kenyan army came too close.

To al-Saif’s good fortune, the Army unit assigned to disrupt rebel groups in the borderlands had been preoccupied for months. Its full-time attention had been on the Uganda border, trying to prevent religious Moslem rebels from harassing Christian refugees who had fled into Kenya, leaving al-Saif’s camp unthreatened. The camp took on a feel of semi-permanence, and camp life had achieved a semblance of African normalcy.

Women cleaned and cooked. Men hunted for fresh kill when it was needed, and when it wasn’t, they chewed khat leaves in the afternoons in the shade of an acacia tree, till their eyes were glazed and conversation turned listless.

There was commerce. Small-time arms dealers came to sell. Sudanese slavers came to buy. There was a school. An imam with a switch from a thorn bush sat the girls on swept dirt in the mornings to read from the Koran and punished them for any lack of diligence.

Learning the Koran was a hardship for Loiyan. She knew she was Christian. Her Kikuyu father was a good Christian and had read to her from the Bible. On occasion he had taken her with him on foot to a distant church. But smart girl that she was, she recognized what she had to do to survive and did not resist learning to read in Arabic or to doing women’s work in the afternoons with the other girls. She made no trouble, and her cleverness about camp made her so useful it provided her a natural protection from being handed over to a Sudanese slaver.

During her second year, as her physical beauty emerged, Loiyan caught the eye of Saddiq. Camp talk was that she was special, and when he took the time to see for himself, he was impressed. The more he observed her, the more his sense that the talk in camp was accurate – she was alert, unafraid, and intelligent. And beautiful.

Loiyan was attractively slender, an inch taller than the other girls, the legacy of an intermarriage of her Kikuyu grandfather with a Turkana woman which explained not only her height but also her dark olive skin with the faintest of red undertone. Her hair, in corn rows that the captive girls wove for each other, was hidden beneath the hood of her hijab. Her face was pleasant, its symmetrical parts excellently arranged. High cheekbones that caught the light and gave her a slightly aristocratic look. Eyes dark, clear and honest. A nose not overly broad. She had white even teeth which against her dark olive skin and darker still lips, showed even whiter. With even the tiniest of smiles her face lit up. 

“I like this one called Loiyan,” Saddiq announced to his wife one day. “She learns her verses from the Koran easily. She wears her hijab proudly. I think I may take her as a bride once ‘the cutting’ is done.”

Obedience was what al-Saif expected from his wife. After her many beatings over even the smallest matter that displeased him, she knew better than to object. She lowered her eyes and a gentle movement of her headscarf indicated her ascent. Nothing further need be said between them. She understood Loiyan was now to be considered part of the family circle, and she would have Loiyan as her responsibility. Loiyan would be little more than a servant to start, but Saddiq’s wife knew her job would be to groom Loiyan for her husband. And that would mean explaining to her what “the cutting” that she would be facing was all about.

 


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