I love my husband.
Nabanda was in deep thought as she added wood to the fire and adjusted the pot on top of it. It was beans again. Lanjesi would not be pleased. But they had no choice. That was all she had in the house.
The chiperoni winds were particularly bad that evening. She wrapped her shawl tightly around her shoulders as she sat outside her matrimonial hut, tending to her cooking. The sun had set. Mavuto and Chimwemwe were not back yet. Their father was going to beat them up again.
Nabanda sighed and shifted on her stool. Two sons at twenty-eight, she thought. And to think, thirteen years before, she had been the village beauty, an innocent girl who had not known a man. That had changed when Lanjesi came along. Out of all the boys and men in the village who had tried to win over the light-skinned, brown-eyed beauty, it was he who had succeeded. Lanjesi, the village’s most popular football player.
The sound of feet shuffling behind her interrupted Nabanda’s thoughts. She knew who it was even before she turned around. “Where have you two been? Didn’t you see the sun setting?”
“It is not my fault, mother,” nine-year-old Chimwemwe quickly spoke, while pointing at his elder brother. “I wanted to come back sooner, but he did not. I had to wait for him.”
“Liar,” said Mavuto, his only contribution to the conversation. Only twelve years old but already developing a reputation as a football player and fighter, he truly was his father’s child.
“Never mind,” Nabanda snapped. “Go wash your feet and get inside. I don’t want to see you outside again unless I call you. You are both lucky your father is not here yet.”
As she watched her sons go behind the hut, Nabanda felt relieved. At least she and Lanjesi would not have a discussion on why the children came home late. It always happened when her husband came home before the children did. And no matter how good her arguments were, Nabanda always ended up floored.
It was late in the night when he finally showed up. He sat quietly at the table. His droopy red eyes and muscular body said nothing. That is, until he saw what was for dinner.
“Beans? Again? What is the meaning of this?”
That is all we had, Mavuto’s father. There was nothing else.”
“What is wrong with you, woman? Why didn’t you say anything before I left this morning?”
Nabanda grew tense. “But I did. I told you last night and again this morning. Maybe you must have forgotten because you didn’t leave any money and…”
“So everything is my fault? When I am the only one providing for this family? You sit around on your fat behind, waiting for me to give you money so you can go to the market and gossip with those whores you call friends! Why don’t you try bringing food on the table for a change?”
Nabanda did not say anything. She already knew what was coming. Talking back only made things worse. She got up from the table and made for the bedroom.
A sharp kick in her backside propelled Nabanda into the very door she was trying to open. The wooden-framed door hit her squarely in the face, bringing involuntary tears. She steadied herself and turned around, just in time for a heavy slap to connect with her right cheek.
“Where are you going? Did I say we were done?” Lanjesi now stood an inch from his wife, his chest heaving. Nabanda could smell the alcohol fumes coming from his mouth. She said nothing. It was the part that she did not like. She remained absolutely still, tears still streaming down her cheeks, this time laden not only with pain, but also with emotion.
“You do not walk away from me while we are still talking! Who is teaching you such disrespect? Those whores? Well, I’ll show you!”
Nabanda was hit in the stomach and this time she did cry out as she doubled over. She fell to the floor, but her husband was not done. He kicked her where she lay, ignoring her cries. Satisfied, Lanjesi stepped over her and into their bedroom.
The tattered brown couch in the living room protested as Nabanda gently eased her weight onto it. The worn-out springs creaked and sank further down while she made herself comfortable. Her body was on the piece of furniture but her mind was elsewhere.
Her marriage was the constant topic of conversation among the women in the village. That Lanjesi used his wife as a punching bag was common knowledge. Even their marriage counsellors had grown tired of the complaints. At first, they had only admonished Lanjesi and asked Nabanda to be a little more persevering. And then everyone came to the same conclusion, that Nabanda and Lanjesi should divorce. They both refused.
A slight breeze drifted through the living room door, waking Nabanda up. The sun was coming out. She tried to get up and at once her body resisted. Wincing, Nabanda got up anyway. Her children and husband needed to be fed. And they needed to bathe.
Lanjesi was in high spirits that morning. He seemed different from the hostile man he had been the night before. He cracked jokes with his sons while they had their breakfast of tea and boiled sweet potatoes. Nabanda was not surprised. He was almost always like this after a night of their serious discussions.
She went to the market later that morning. Her husband had been generous enough to leave money for food. Even after giving birth to two children, her perky breasts, hidden under a black blouse, seemed to bounce in synchronized rhythm with her curvaceous hips, which swayed underneath her tight chitenje, the wrapper she loved the most. Although she had delivered two lives into the world and was constantly used as a punching bag, her voluptuous figure still turned heads and people still marvelled at the radiant, oval-shaped face that came with the figure.
Nabanda was used to people staring at her. She walked, seemingly without a care in the world. She knew many men wanted her, although she often wondered why. She thought she was past her prime, a used product. But it did not matter. Most of the men did not dare express their feelings to her, especially those who knew Lanjesi. And for those who tried, she shot them down instantly. “I am happily married. I love my husband.” The only people who spoke to her freely about her beauty were her friends, with whom she met at the market.
“You look very lovely today, sister. That chitenje suits you,” said Apatsa as soon as they met.
“Yes, that is true,” Nangondo chimed in, her short, plump stature shifting from side to side. “You are even glowing.”
“I guess that means your husband did not beat you up yesterday?” continued Apatsa.
Nabanda only smiled. She knew better than to discuss her marriage with her friends, even though everyone knew that Lanjesi was abusive. She had stuck to the words her mother had told her.
“What happens in your home, my daughter, is between you and your husband. Never talk about your marital problems with your friends. He is your husband, not theirs. If you shame your husband, then you shame yourself and your marriage in the eyes of your friends. If you have problems, go to your marriage counsellors.”
But Apatsa was relentless. She kept talking as they bought vegetables from different market stalls. A lanky, dark-skinned beauty, she also attracted attention from men. But she had vowed never to get married.
“Seriously, sister, when are you going to leave that beast of a husband? Are you waiting for him to maim or kill you? You are beautiful! You can easily find another man to take care of you! Or, you can stay single, like me.”
Nabanda laughed. “Sister, have you forgotten that I have two children? Who would want to marry me now? Besides, that does not really matter. I love my husband.”
This time, it was Nangondo who spoke up. “By the way, Kabango is back from town. He came yesterday. He is on holiday.”
Nabanda’s heart skipped a beat. “Kabango? The one we went to primary school with?”
Nangondo’s large, squashed nose twitched excitedly. “Yes, him. The one who used to be around you all the time. He is visiting his parents. He even has a car now. A pickup.”
Nangondo kept on talking but Nabanda was no longer listening. Her mind wandered back to her primary school days. Kabango had always helped her with schoolwork. He was one of the most intelligent pupils at the school, but he was not a football player. Then he had gone off to a secondary school in the city and Nabanda had never seen him again.
A few days later, Nabanda did get to see Kabango. He parked his car outside the only maize mill in the village just as she was walking out. Kabango was busy helping two women offload three bags of maize that he did not notice her approach him. He was taller than she thought he would be. His dark skin shone with what was clearly a sign of good health. Toned muscles bulged from his white, short-sleeved shirt.
Startled, he turned around. “Hello, how are you?”
“I am fine, Kabango. You don’t recognize me, I see. I am Harriet.”
Slowly, Kabango’s face changed from confusion to elated recognition. “Harriet! Is this really you? I cannot believe it! How are you?”
Nabanda’s caramel skin flushed with embarrassment. “I am fine. How are you? I am no longer known by my childhood name now. I am Nabanda. I heard you were back to visit us. For how long will you be staying?”
“I am leaving tomorrow. I kept asking about you. I heard that you are married to Lanjesi now. How is he? I am happy for you two.”
Nabanda told him about her marriage and her two children, leaving out the part that her husband used her for boxing practice. In turn, Kabango told her about his own family. He was married to a girl he had met in secondary school and they had two children. He had gone to vocational school and was now head driver at an international organisation, after studying motor vehicle mechanics.
When she was about to leave, he fished out his wallet and gave her a thousand Kwacha. She protested at once. “Please,” he insisted. “Buy something for your children. And tell Lanjesi I said hello. I have not seen him in a long time.”
She could feel his eyes following her as she took the footpath that led deep into the village and her home, a reed basket full of flour balanced atop her head. Her little black slippers shuffled nervously while she tried as hard as she could not to let her hips shake. As soon as she was sure Kabango could no longer see her, Nabanda relaxed. She walked freely, in sharp contrast with her mind. Her thoughts had drifted back to primary school, when she was fourteen and in standard seven.
Apart from her two brothers, Kabango had been the only boy she was really close to. He was a year ahead of Nabanda in school and considered one of the most intelligent boys in the village. Kabango had helped Nabanda with her studies. Everything had gone well, until her infatuation with Lanjesi.
“Harriet,” Kabango had spoken one day, “you are not concentrating on your schoolwork anymore. You are either too busy playing with your friends or watching football matches at the school ground these days. Look at how you have failed your last four exercises.”
“It wasn’t my fault. It is just too hard,” had shot back defensively.
“That is not true, Harriet. We studied how to do this. You are just not paying attention. You seem to be spending too much time with Lanjesi instead of…”
“What is your problem? Lanjesi is just my friend and I like talking with him. It has nothing to do with my school!”
Kabango immediately recoiled. “I did not mean anything by it, Harriet. I just think that you are spending too much time with him and not your books.”
Nabanda stood still, arms planted on her hips, her adolescent bosom heaving. “You are just jealous, Kabango. You are not as famous as Lanjesi. You don’t even play football. If you do not like my friendship with him then I am sorry. That is your problem.”
Stunned, Kabango had turned to Nabanda. “You know, teachers tell us that education is the key to a bright future. I believe them and I hope you do too. After I write my standard eight examinations in a few weeks’ time, I am going to the city to live with my uncle. Hopefully, I will go to a decent secondary school there. Please concentrate on your studies. Take care of yourself, Harriet.” Without looking at Nabanda, Kabango had walked away.
Some maize flour fell from the reed basket and onto Nabanda’s nose, disturbing her thoughts for a few seconds. She was almost home. Even from afar, she could tell that her sons were not around. The house’s surroundings were quiet.
She had not seen Kabango again since the day he had walked away from her. Until she had met him at the maize mill, Nabanda had avoided him before he left the village and every time he came back to visit. Now, he seemed to have done well for himself while she had dropped out of school right after her standard eight examinations, after falling pregnant. It does not matter, Nabanda told herself. I am glad I stuck with Lanjesi. I married him. I love my husband.
He was late again that night. As soon as he walked in, Nabanda was hit by the foul smell of opaque beer and home-distilled spirits. She was glad the children had already gone to bed. It was especially bad today. Nabanda sincerely hoped there would be no serious discussions tonight. No such luck.
“So you have now decided to disrespect me in public, eh? Letting everyone know about your whoring ways?”
“Mavuto’s father, what are you talking about? What wrong have I done? What are you accusing me of?”
“Do you think I am stupid, Nabanda? Do you think I am a fool?” The words were complimented by a blow to Nabanda’s face. She reeled backwards, regaining her balance thanks to the dining table behind her. Blood trickled down from her left nostril, down her chin and onto her blouse.
“So you have no shame, gallivanting with other men out in the open! In broad daylight! Even at a maize mill! The bastard even gave you money! Well, I’ll show you!”
Lanjesi’s knee to Nabanda’s abdomen drove her to her own knees. She looked up at her husband just before his right foot connected with her neck. She looked into her husband’s eyes and she knew. Finally, she saw it.
This was not the man she married. This was not her love. This was a monster.
They had all been right. Her father, the marriage counsellors, even her friends. She should have left. She should leave.
The children were screaming from their bedroom but she did not hear them. Lanjesi was hurling insults at her on top of his voice but she paid no attention. Fists rained on her beautiful face. She was kicked in the groin until she lost control of her bladder. She was in her own personal hell and it hurt badly but Nabanda did not care. She knew what she had to do. She had to leave.
As she lay on the floor, Nabanda had a vision. She was outside a big, beautiful house with her two children. They were all smartly dressed and looked happy. Behind them, tall and smart, keys of a pickup truck in hand, stood Kabango. As she closed her eyes for the last time, Nabanda smiled.
She loved her husband.