This short story shows the true nature of rivalry in African polygamous families. This is a tale of a young girl Khadija who escapes marriage at the age of nine…
Khadija longed for the comforting embrace of her dead mother. Queen Illa died of malaria a few days after the third moon was in a waning gibbous phase. The people of Kaura all loved her because she was a kind and gentle woman who was sympathetic to their troubles. She was a doula for the village mothers and counsellor for all abused women. Queen Illa loathed men who insisted on marrying little girls before their 16th harvest.
Khadija was nine years old and was overdue for marriage. Most girls in her village got betrothed at the age of five and were sent off to be with their husbands from the age of seven. But her mother had protected her. Queen Illa dissuaded her husband- King Ahmed- whenever he insisted that Khadija was ripe for marriage. The King loved his queen so much he could not refuse her anything. But now that her mother was gone Khadija feared that she might be given away in marriage to Sheik Musa.
The year was 1805, and the village of Kaura was vibrant and festive. The people celebrated death because they believed that those who had passed on were with their gods and ancestors. The King was in anguish over the loss of his beloved Queen Illa. Like all other wealthy men he had done what tradition demanded by marrying other wives, but his heart still belonged to Illa. He was in his chambers with his second wife, Queen Hawa. He had married seven wives and the next in line as queen of his household was Hawa; she could not conceal her eagerness to take over her duties. Not even to the king who was in mourning.
“My King, you have not eaten or slept for a week,” she said with a voice dripping with false melancholia.
“I do not have the desire to eat or sleep. Let me be.” The King said dismissively.
“But you need your strength and energy now more than ever. You do not have a male child and the council members are beginning to worry about your ability to rule them.” She goaded him; she was a very tenacious woman.
“I am King Ahmed. I don’t care what the council says. All I want is to be left alone.” He said with finality.
Queen Hawa walked out of the King’s quarters unhappy with the way he spoke to her. He would never treat Illa this way; she thought to herself. As she approached the wives quarters, she saw Khadija playing with the other children. Khadija was the oldest of the King’s daughters, and in her opinion was spoilt. Her mother had set a dangerous precedent by not letting Khadija marry at the age of five just like other girls did. Queen Hawa had a daughter who would be turning six by the next harvest season, and she was troubled her little Oye was still unmarried. All because of Khadija.
Khadija’s presence irked her. She was already regarded in Kaura as an old maid at the age of nine years old. She would not let Illa’s choices for Khadija affect her hopes and dreams for Oye.
She walked up to Khadija;
“What are you doing out here Khadija?” She asked her.
“Playing with my sisters,” Khadija answered with an innocent smile on her angelic face.
She picked up Khadija’s hands, bare of Mehndi designs and none on her face either. She looked simple and ugly; Queen Hawa thought.
“Why have you not beautified yourself?” She asked Khadija. “You look like a simple girl that works in the fields. Don’t you realize you are the daughter of a King?” She admonished Khadija.
“I don’t want designs on my body. My mama said that I am just as beautiful without designs.” She protested.
Queen Hawa smiled. Khadijah’s mother had truly spoilt her with ideas of simplistic grandeur. Did she think she was better than the rest of them? Did she not understand that traditions had to be upheld? Khadija’s stubbornness was not her problem. In fact, it will count as a benefit to her daughter Oye, whom will have a wider choice of suitors. She thought as she plotted Khadija’s destruction.
The King held a supper for the royal family in memory of Queen Illa. The King’s Square was filled with royal visitors from far and wide. There were elaborate decorations with bronze sculptures and wax fixtures placed around the ceremonial fire. The drummers belted out their best beats while the villagers swayed and danced. Men showed off their wealth with brilliantly dyed animal skins, and the women had colourful Mendhi designs on their hands and feet. The women wore coverings around their waists while they left their breasts exposed. The wives of the King had imperial designs to accentuate their perky breasts.
Khadija sat next to her father on her mother’s old seat. With Queen Illa gone, Hawa had expected to take her place on the throne next to the King. Instead, the King insisted that Khadija sits next to him. This came as a surprise to the whole court. They saw how the King fawned over Khadija, and it became apparent that he had transferred all the love
and favouritism he felt for Queen Illa to her daughter Khadija.
That night Queen Hawa requested the King’s audience; she preferred to speak with him when he was in a festive mood.
“My King,” she said sadly in a low mousy voice.
“Permit an uneducated woman like me to express my concern.” She paused and waited for his response, and he waved her on.
“I think it is time for Khadija to find a husband. She is nine years old, and an alliance with wealthy and powerful men from other villages will be a benefit to our people. Besides you are the upholder of traditions, and you are not keeping to traditions when you leave her unmarried at her age. People have started to talk, and they are saying that there is something wrong with your seed that is why your first child is still unmarried.” She stopped in fear that she had overstepped her bounds.
The King listened patiently to all her concerns. These were the same issues he had previously voiced to Queen Illa. Hearing Hawa talk about the virility of his seed made him slightly worried; He knew the woman was always plotting something. She was probably jealous because Khadija had taken the throne next to him at the square; he thought smugly. Even though King Ahmed agreed with all Hawa said, he did not want to give her the satisfaction of his acquiescence.
Queen Hawa continued with her plan to destroy Khadija. So she requested for Khadija presence in her quarters.
“Your father wants to give away your hand in marriage to Sheik Musa’s father.” She knew this would terrify Khadija, Sheik Musa’s father was Iman Shamu. He was as old and mean as Mallam Haruna- Kaura’s oldest man.
“But I agree with your mother,” she said to Khadija in a conciliatory tone.
“Girls your age should not be married away. I have devised a plan, which will help you stay single until the right age.” She smiled at Khadija.
Khadija listened excitedly; she had started to cry when she heard Mallam Haruna’s name mentioned. All the children were scared of Mallam Haruna. He was a drunk and beat the girls with his walking sticks whenever they walked by his hut. She did not understand most of what Queen Hawa said, but she knew that she didn’t want to get married. She wanted to help the villagers like her mother did, and she wanted to love her husband like her mother had loved her father.
Queen Hawa proceeded in a conspiratory manner. She shut her door and retrieved a skin filled with reddish liquid from a calabash. Sitting next to Khadija she started to whisper;
“Every night you will pour some drops from this skin of goat’s blood on your bed.” She handed Khadija a skin of blood.
“Not too much and not too little. Pour this every day until I tell you to stop. People will think that the gods have cursed you, and no man will want to take you as his wife. I will keep supplying the blood. All you have to do is conceal the skin and tell no one of our arrangement. If people know that you have been lying, you will be sent off to marry Mallam Haruna.” She shook her head as she mentioned Mallam Haruna’s name one more time. She saw the effect the name had on Khadija, and she took pleasure in exploiting her fear.
“Do you understand?” She asked the child. Who shook her head and responded “No.” Queen Hawa repeated the instructions until she was sure that Khadija understood what she had to do.
So that night Khadija poured some blood on her bed and the next morning her maids reported this to the King and his Queens.
The King was distraught because he thought that Khadija had started her menstruation early. The news convinced him that Queen Hawa was right. Khadija was ready for marriage. So he invited Khadija to see him.
“Hadi,” He called her by her pet name. “I was informed that the gods have now made you a woman,” He said smiling gently.
“Yes papa.” She replied looking away. She was afraid he would mention Mallam Haruna’s name.
“It is time for you to get married and start your own family. I have waited too long, and I know that your mother will agree with me if she was alive.” He brushed the hair from her eyes as he saw them filling with tears at the mention of her mother.
“Mama did not want me to marry before my 16th harvest moon,” She said starry-eyed.
“I don’t think your mother thought of the implications of having a nine-year-old girl single,” He said sternly.
“But papa…” She tried to explain what her mother had told her. Queen Illa had told her that while she assisted pregnant girls as their doula, she discovered that little girls became deformed from childbirth.
“Please do not argue with me. Princesses do not argue. It is unbecoming.” He said to Khadija with the tone of a King, who had made a decision that could not be overturned. So King Ahmed called for a meeting of the council to discuss his daughter’s betrothal and marriage. The councilmen picked Sheik Musa because they needed the support of his father, and besides he was the most suitable bachelor in the kingdom.
The King looked miserable. He was sitting in front of the village juju man in a shabbily decorated mud house. It had been one month since Khadija’s travails began and the maids have not stopped reporting her progress. Every morning for the last one month the chambermaids informed him that Khadija was still bleeding. The betrothal ceremony has now been cancelled indefinitely, and the King wanted to know if the bleeding will ever stop.
“The gods say that Khadija will not marry. She is a scourge in your kingdom, and I advise you to banish her from the village. That’s the only way you can continue to rule invincibly.” Said the juju man who had just received a Cockrell and He-goat from Queen Hawa as payment for his services.
“Never.” Bellowed the King.
“Even if Khadija brings my family shame. I will never send her away.” The King declared fiercely.
“But my lord she will not stop bleeding. She is cursed by the gods because her mother did not obey our traditions. I will advise you to make sure all your daughters are betrothed before the next full moon. That might appease the gods so that no other child in your household is cursed.”
The juju man finished. He had succeeded in doing the job that he was paid to do.
So King Ahmed did as the juju man advised him. He gave away his daughters hands in marriage to kings and princes. All except Khadija, who he was told had not stopped bleeding. She had lost favour before the suitors of Kaura and other surrounding villages. But she remained unviolated.
Queen Illa smiled in her grave.