Powder in the Wind by Munira Hussein

Dear diary,

They want to know what it feels like being me, mostly because I was raised in an environment that seems incapable of bringing forth, an enigma like me. Well, it is confusing, because some days, I have me figured out but most days, I am meeting me for the first time and I have to constantly stop and ask “who are you?”

I spend a lot of time in the vastness of my mind and if imaginations and thoughts turned into things instantly, I would be a planet by now. Like every other person, I have moments when I am thriving but I have come to learn that I flourish on discomfort and trouble, so I constantly seek pain. It is destructive, I know but in comfort, I am dead, I am worthless, I feel lost but in the moments when I am hurting and feeling motions of emotions, I feel alive, I feel myself growing, I feel strength.

A year ago, I wanted love and I sought it. I do not know if this is downgrade or upgrade but these days, I want temporary things. I see a man from where I am seated in a matatu, imagine his life, but never want to be a part of it. That has been my life lately, not feeling love, especially the kind of intimate love that we have been conditioned to seek.

Growing up without the knowledge of the vastness of the world has something to do with my desire to conquer it. I am a house of emotions and I unapologetically unleash them to the world. Why? Because I seek those same emotions constantly in order to stay alive. I take people to places within themselves, that they haven’t been to before.

I go there myself, see the mess it is and present it to people, people who are afraid of admitting just how strongly they feel, people who want us to see them as towers of strength and power. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, when we have overcome our physical and psychological battles, we will go home to where our feelings are, yet publicly, we are ashamed of that part of us.

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“You are thirty years old and you are looking for stability, whatever that means. I am a woman after intensity. Look Hassan, we have been seeing each other for over two weeks now and I feel like I am leading you on. I can’t settle with anyone, so I want to make it clear to you that this will be our last meeting.

Go on ahead and find yourself someone who wants what you want.” She said softly, unsure of whether he was listening. She regretted saying that she felt like she was leading him on when all the while, she had told him in no uncertain terms, that she wasn’t interested in him.

He had however, insisted on seeing her again and again, claiming that if she kept seeing him, she would get used to his presence and finally fall for him. “A woman’s no is always a yes.” He insisted. This statement infuriated her. It was the moment for her to object to the statement but she had a tendency to let words go unsaid. It would hurt her later, she knew, but she had already hurt his feelings by rejecting him, she wasn’t going to shoot an already poisoned soul. She stood up and gracefully walked away.

Zeinab had grown up in a religion and culture where marriage was the first order of the day. You’d be lucky if you had basic schooling but you’d be blessed if you went all the way. It was a new era, especially for women, an era of education and independence, or so it seemed until you went into the heart of northern Kenya. Zeinab had observed that there was so much going on for other women in the world except the women from her place. It could be that the empowerment movement wasn’t reaching the grass root, at least not enough but she was glad to have been a beneficiary of such a project. She made a vow to enable others as soon as she had completed her course.

She did not detest marriage, or even hate it but she just didn’t feel any bone within her that had a spirit to settle. She had received beatings from her grandmother even as a child because she said she would never have children. “Falfaltu (witch), her grandmother would shout, chasing after her.  Ages had gone by and even as she matured into a beautiful, capable woman, it became clearer and clearer in her mind, that she wanted so much out of life yet having a child wasn’t one of them. A number of times, she thought about opening up to her friend, Marian, about this but her mouth went dry and her voice became hot whenever she tried, often times, she felt like a foreigner to someone she had known for so long . She and Marian had grown up together even though Marian was now married with two children. They still kept in touch but the hole in their friendship keep going deeper and deeper.

 It isn’t that she did not believe in her decision, on the contrary, it felt more right with every passing dusk. However, it had been abominable even in her childhood, and to act it in adulthood would be banishable. This was backed up by the fact that her father put emphasis on the importance of a marriage. “According to Islam, you will be fulfilling the sunnahs of the prophet Muhammad.” He would say. It didn’t matter to him that sunnahs meant something that was not obligatory according to Islam. She tried to remember why he emphasized on it. It had something to do with fulfilling half of the religion’s expectation of you just by getting married. It sounded reasonable and easy but the most difficult question for her to answer had always been “why don’t you want to get married? Don’t you want children?” the few people that she answered had reacted as if she had sworn by the name of the devil, making her feel like she sacrificed her mother for wealth. She had been called mean and selfish simply because she had made a choice to keep her womb away from hosting a baby.

Her argument was fair. Bringing forth a child required a lifetime of commitment. It was not something you did and moved on from. From the time of conception, you had a responsibility to take care of something so delicate and vulnerable until it was old enough to take care of itself. Even then, a part of you went with it wherever it went, and for the rest of your life, you would wander from place to place, sometimes thrilled, sometimes horrified because of the choices they made.

It was something other women took pride in but to Zeinab, it only sounded like a lifetime of urinary tract infection; discomfort.  At last, she decided that she didn’t owe anyone an explanation and she had a right to do as she pleased, with her life. After all, it wasn’t hurting anyone and if there were consequences, she’d be the one to deal with them. 

A part of her had believed in the gap between intention and action to change her mind, not because she particularly wanted it but because she had no idea how else to carry on with her life with the kind of decision. It wasn’t a hard one to make. In her world, she would let people be, she would let them make choices but in the real world, she was part of a community in which decisions were made communally, people thought on behalf of each other and imposed those decisions on whoever wanted to abide by them and whoever didn’t.

Most women who were where they were, she knew, was as a result of the redundancy of their brain. They had never had a choice to make their decisions, from their husbands, to their level of education and how many children they had or even, if they wanted to have any. The scholarship she had won had done her good but even now, as a medical doctor pursuing her masters, she felt like she was betraying a part of her.

Two weeks after ending it with Hassan, she was lying on this familiar bed that always felt strange, she wondered how better off she was than the women who had no choice. She rarely thought hard about the lives of the men she slept with but today, she couldn’t help it. Liam had been persistent. Even though he never took her to his house, they had met at an out of city hotel a number of times. He made sure to book the same room every other time. She didn’t have to honor the meetings but for a reason even she could not explain, she did.

He insisted that he wanted her exclusively and he would divorce his wife for her. She felt sorry for the woman who’d given up everything in order to make this man’s dreams possible, yet here she was, having not lifted a finger to ease his life, but enjoying everything he had to offer. She now wondered how many women he had brought to this same bed, probably afraid that his wife would find out if he took them home. Had he lied to them about divorcing his wife for them too? Had he promised to take care of them? Then why did he keep seeing her? Maybe he meant it this time. He was honest enough to tell her that his wife had had a baby and was away at his parents’ place till she had recovered from the aftermath of childbirth. 

Slowly, his lips went down to her thighs. She didn’t want him to but she felt guilty about having to stop him, especially after he had paid for such an expensive hotel. So with her eyes wide open, her mind flooded with myriads of thoughts, she waited for it to be over, as he went down on her.

“Are you okay?” he asked, briefly raising his head up from between her thighs. She said a silent yeah and went back into her head.

She let her mind wander farther, analyzing all the men that had come into her life. Something about her made them want to give up everything they had for her. “Your intelligence is rare.” Some of them said. Eager to prove to her that she was better than other women, they gave examples of women they had met that were worthless.

“All these other women out here want to use us men, they want our money but they bring nothing to the table. They have no value themselves, so they will not add any value to our lives.” She had heard this same statement from men who were too broke to afford their lives, they insisted that women bring value to the table, which wasn’t a bad thing if they didn’t pass such harsh judgments on women whose journeys they barely understood. This wasn’t only about women, it was about how human beings were quick to condemn anything or anyone that differed from their ways of life. It was about how they found diversity unbearable, it was about how much energy they invested in changing the course of things instead of embracing them.

She listened to each of their stories, keenly, trying to see if she could find the weakness within them that made them speak so ill of women. She realized in the end, that they were all conformers who were afraid of the difference in different women. They were people who believed that women were programmed to behave a certain way and anyone who diverged from the preset path was less of a woman. She would not seek to be loved any other way, especially by men who insisted on belittling other women in trying to prove to her how different she was from the rest of ’them’. They did not know that she was all of ‘them’.

She wondered why society imposed so many standards on women, on how they should walk, talk, eat, sleep. Even their right to party and have fun was unwelcome. They were required to stay in the house. They were labeled sheesha bellowing machines and alcohol guzzlers. You would expect the narrative to change with education, civilization and whatnot but the difference was the same. Sometimes, she wondered if she was like those men, if not, what was it that kept them coming to her? She wasn’t interested in the lifetime of commitment they were all offering, yet they called the women that wanted their lifetime, leeches.

Liam parted her thighs a little further, disrupting her thoughts for a while. Even the room that usually screamed in colors seemed to have toned it down today. The lights appeared to be dimmer and light that poured in from the window did not go past the window panes.  We are always busy listening to people who aren’t even talking to us, she thought, glancing at Liam. A few people believed that they wanted their children to be like her, Zeinab, but she didn’t deserve such an honor especially when she herself, wanted nothing to do with children.

She hoped and prayed, sometimes that they didn’t grow up to be anything like her because of the demons she had loved and how destructive she always felt. Men had fallen at her feet in tears, Prince even kissed her feet, literally, swearing that if he didn’t have her as a wife, then he would never marry. She moved out of her house and changed her contacts to get away from him. She tried as hard as she could not to assume position in people’s lives but they seemed to create space for her on sight.

She was supposed to be glad but all her depression and guilt were as a result of people making space for her, in their hearts when her own parents couldn’t. She had felt loved as a child. It had been a harsh love but it had been love.  She missed her childhood under the fullness of moonlight, she missed the warm morning mugs of milk from her grandmother, she missed the wildness of her childhood mind and she wondered if her parents would still have had her, had they known she would turn out to be an outcast.

On the other hand, she was sometimes content with her life. She had seen enough people whose fear for life was greater than their desire to conquer. People who hoped for the fall of safety where the ground was tender and spongy, they were afraid of their own thoughts and left everything about their life to be decided on by life. In the end, they were just shells of people left behind by pain and hurt caused by decisions they didn’t make. She had made a deliberate decision to be in control of her life and most days, she was glad to have come so far. Had her journey not taken a different path, she would be a wife to a husband with two other wives and eight children, whom she would be struggling to feed, let alone school.

Liam who hadn’t received a reaction from her got off his knees and stood up. He had expected her to be writhing in pleasure, calling out his name, cheering him on to keep going. On the contrary, she lay still, like a corpse whose eyes were still open. He wanted to call out to her but he thought against it. Instead, he leaned against the door frame and watched her. He watched the lean frame of her naked body lie half on the bed, with her feet on the floor. She had a deeply chocolate skin that one could lick and lick without exhausting. Her breath was even, as if the things going through her mind were a consolation to her reality. He had tried pushing her into being with him, he knew that she didn’t believe anything he said, she wouldn’t take the promises he gave for free, let alone buy them but he meant every word of it. He had been with a lot of women but none of them ever made him feel the way she did. The most beautiful thing about her was that she didn’t even know how much impact she had on people. There was something about her kind of woman, a woman who chose her path, wherever it led, and followed it to the latter.  He could see the torrents going on within her, yet she looked at peace with where she was, however confusing.

He walked over to her. “Zeinab,” he called, gently brushing her hair. She wasn’t startled, she just turned her head towards him and their eyes met. She smiled a quiet smile that sent a resounding echo in his soul, “you look so peaceful.” He added.

“When I am a better woman, when I have picked the pieces of me that I lost to fear and failure, when I have said the words that only came out as stinging tears in my eyes, when I have corrected all the errors I have made and repaired the torn parts of my spirit, when I have found the pieces of me that I lost to people and places, only then will I tell you about being peaceful.” She said.

“Are you all right?” he asked, worry spread across his face like Blue Band on bread. “I am alright, I just need you to hug me in your dreams tonight, so that this weight of the day that I am carrying to bed will vanish, so that the warmth of your arms will tighten my grip on life, so that the fear I carry in my heart will evaporate. It is not yours to carry, but you are my dose of peace and I haven’t taken you today, or lately. So tonight, make it up to me in your dreams.” She recited, as if she had been preparing it all her life. Liam knew about her love for poetry and she had one of her own for every situation. However, her poems didn’t calm her down, they unlocked her demons.

“Why should I hug you in your dreams when I can hold you now, in reality?” he said, snuggling close.

“What is reality?” she asked, positioning her body comfortably on the bed. Liam was silent.

She thought about apologizing for her absentmindedness but thought against it. She had apologized far too much for things she shouldn’t have apologized for.

 “You are a strong woman Zeinab,” Liam said. “you just need to stop over thinking.”

He was right. All she had to do was make peace with her choices and their consequences. She thought of her parents. She missed them direly, but their love for her had always been conditioned. That is why it had been so easy for them to disown her the moment she professed to being irreligious. “I believe in God. I have faith in Him. But not in the way that religion dictates.” She had argued. Her father’s nose shook with fury, droplets of sweat forming on his partially bald head. Without a warning, he pounced on her and when she awoke, she was covered in blood and wounds. She wondered why it was always easy for intolerance to dominate the minds of people who claimed to love religion. They felt threatened by the ideas of other people and acted defensive when faced with difference. She had forgiven him long before she recovered but when he swore to kill her if she ever showed her face in his house, she was broken. She heard those words resound in her ears and in her mind over and over, until they became a solid fear in her heart. Now she had no parents or siblings. She had a lot to come to terms with but this had been the hardest. Her mother had begged her to just change her mind and everything would be back to normal. She thought hard about it. What did it mean to be normal? Paulo Coelho believed in madness. He had clearly stated in Veronika Decides to Die, that madness was welcome. Madness was an indication that you were brave enough to make choices that suited you. She recommended that book to everyone who would care to read it. Most of them said they didn’t get his point but others thanked her profusely for the recommendation.

Her pain was mostly caused by her mother, her pleading voice, yet Zeinab was resilient. How could she give up her family? It was no good now. All she needed, she felt, was a tiara. A tiara for the days that she felt like a conqueror, for the days she felt like a solitary slum among castles, for the days she looked at her bravery in awe and for the days when her image in the mirror was blurry because of the tears in her eyes, to remind her that however things were, she remained as she was until she changed for the better. And on days like this when sex gave her no pleasure, she just needed a book and a mug of coffee. Liam had learnt to let her wallow with little or no interruption whenever she needed it. The sun was beginning to set and the night was quickly kicking in.

She knew that she shouldn’t be here with him in the first place. She never wanted to be the woman that took away another woman’s comfort but they were two adults. He was here with her out of his own accord. She didn’t want to judge him but she did tell him to face it and tell his wife that he didn’t want to be with her anymore.  His defense line was that he didn’t want to hurt her, but what he was doing would be more damaging than honesty. She knew he wouldn’t end up with her, like all of them that had wanted to, but she would be more comfortable if he came clean with his wife.  She reinforced this by asking about his baby, by buying diapers and wipes from time to time. At first, he resisted but she gave him a condition to either take them or she wouldn’t see him.

“Liam, this is the last night we’re spending together. I can’t do this exclusive thing. I have never been able to, that’s why I couldn’t even pick a religion. I guess you notice that I have been to all the churches and mosques. The only one place we can find God is within our hearts and souls. Each one of us is a mosque, a church, a temple, a synagogue. We are a place of worship, we are a house of God and we will walk miles and miles in search of a God that is right within us. God is our kind thoughts, He is our acts of mercy, He is in the hopes within our minds. He is wherever we are.” She paused. “My father might have kicked me out for being irreligious, but my faith will forever keep me connected to God.”

“Zeinab, darling, what are you looking for? You have all you need, and me.” Liam said, letting his fingers interlock hers. 

“I am not searching for anything in particular, maybe the unconditional love of my parents, but I am not the kind of woman that would turn your house into a home. That’s the kind of woman that most of your species are looking for.” She was unbelievably calm. This wasn’t part of her plan but she knew she had to say it sooner or later.

He stood up and paced the room. He fumbled with his hands, looking for the right place to put them before finally placing them on Zeinab’s cheeks. He gently lifted her head and made her look into his eyes.

“You don’t have to give me anything Zeinab, I just need you to be with me.” He said.

That was part of the problem. No one ever asked anything of her. She wondered if it was because she had nothing to offer or because they believed that in taking nothing from her, they would make her stay.

“I can’t stay,” she said, “I am a woman after intensity, not stability. There are enough women out there who need that. Go give it to them. Help them live.”

“You can’t recommend other women to me,” he was beginning to get angry. “I knew they were there, yet I chose you.”

“But you didn’t do me any favor by doing that.” She tried not to show her irritation.

She had made her decision. She would face her father. She would try and make him understand her understanding of God as she had explained to Liam. If he killed her before she did, it would have been a worthy death, martyr-like even.  If he chased her out again, it meant there was a chance. When that was over, she could tell him that she wasn’t getting married and she wasn’t having a child either. Society can then sacrifice her to the devil. She slipped into her sweatpants and t-shirt, picked her car keys, gave Liam gentle peck on his pink lips and took off.  She liked that about him. He never tried to stop her. Many had said that she’ll die lonely, but looking at Liam, a married man whose loneliness manifested in every breath he took, she was sure that alone, in no way, equated to lonely. Loneliness wasn’t brought about by being alone, it was a source of wrong company and also by the fact that most people were scared of spending time with themselves. They chose shallow conversations and meaningless relationships in order to avoid being alone. They took too long to realize how much of them was being lost every time they were at a place they didn’t want to be, with people they would rather avoid.

In her car, she took out her poetry book and wrote:

I am told that I am not like other girls,
 but I consider me a woman who’s been through shady phases.
To the girls who have been used as examples to categorize me,
I am sorry that the world looks at you the way it does.
If you are not who you’d rather be,
Faking perfection and awesomeness,
Drop it, you don’t owe anyone a different version of who you really are.
Show them the real you that comes out in the comfort of your house.
If you are scared of losing everything that you have,
Remember that you can never lose what is rightfully yours.
To the girls that have made me look unique by choosing to be different,
I respect your choices.
I sincerely hope that you are comfortable where you are,
and with the paths you have chosen.

She drove off at a break-neck speed, feeling like she just earned her freedom. In a hotel room with a married man, she had learned what her greatest loss was. The problem wasn’t the decisions she had made; it wasn’t about her madness. It was about the unsettling loss of her family. If she changed that, she would keep living like she always had. Whenever she felt lost, she had found herself in the voice of strangers, she had seen herself in the hearts of passersby and continuously landed in the arms of men whose desires for her were limited.

This was exactly the life she wanted to live; temporary moments to complement temporary life. She had grown, she had learned to talk to herself and learn about her through the world and all that life put on her path. She had realised that all the motivation, happiness, joy and above everything, peace and fulfilment were within her. In her growth, she had learned the power within her. She had learned about life through her own ways and nothing gave her more pleasure. She wasn’t defying anything. She was embracing herself.

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Powder in the Wind is a Short Story by Munira Hussein published under the Story Village Series Category at Fatuma's Voice.
Powder in the Wind is a Short Story by Munira Hussein published under the Story Village Series Category at Fatuma’s Voice.