I was only weeks away from my 16th birthday when I became of age, the woman I had fancied ever since I was a seven-year-old. It was the belated gift that nature would give me, which, in time, was the salvation I received from the route to men, early marriage and a humble career.
One morning, in a biology lab at secondary school, I was the last to clear my group’s station after completing some grueling experiments as we revised the experiments in prepping for the school term’s finals. As I rose to place the lab utensils in their places, I felt the feeling of dampness that manifested itself in the stickiness of my clothes to my body. In the disbelief of what it really might have been, I toyed with the idea of whether I had spilled water on myself. The biology teacher noticed my discomfort, and he came closer and enquired if I had forgotten my dates. My bewilderment and discernable wandering mind immediately communicated this was only my first time. He quickly explained to me the cycle that was now going to be a part of me for much of the rest of my life, and the compassion in his smile confirmed I was going to be alright. Wow! Of all the people I imagined would be part of my big day, the jackpot was won by a Mr. Kanyika…a male…my biology teacher.
I grew up in a world where traditions and tribal values define your essence of being. Finding a place for myself as a girl, and eventually a woman, in the community where the patriarchy has a permanent home, was the journey I had to take. As a young girl, one was made aware of the unquestionable expectations society laid out before you. With my friends, I was taught to take pride in embracing femininity, in becoming the women who would be wives and mothers someday soon. Every day after school we could gather in the bush, or at our aunt’s place, to go over the day’s class on the subject matter of womenfolk. We took time to understand our bodies and learn about the changes taking place and how paramount that was on our journey of life as women.
A true woman, we were told, was the one who understood herself as a woman, whose feminine nature defined her. Our difference lied in life’s purpose as wives built and molded to please and pleasure our future husbands.
From 11 years onwards, older women monitored us closely. We were well schooled on what to expect or what to be on the look-out for. Through this age, we grew breasts and hair in all the right places, our faces started weaning from babyish looks and taking on sturdy maturity. We could tell among ourselves who was almost ripe, ready to burst into womanhood. It was a phase every girl in my village fantasized most, for it was a stage that distinguished girls from women. Facial pimples were the sign of most imminent menses. Puberty marked the next chapter in our lives, since people respected girls who had reached it. Even young men always loitered around mature girls, making the girls feel adored and special. And friendships could cease once your friend crossed to the other side. She would graduate from the group of girls into the realm of women. Anticipating puberty became my only dream, my passport to societal respect and a shot at appealing to my dream love, Rambo, a childhood crush that came as a result of my overindulgence in screenings of First Blood in the village’s video showrooms.
At age 14, my chest was as flat as a seven-year-old’s. All the textbook signs of menses were absent in me, while the friends I had were speeding past me. And so, no old women of the village were in sight to give me the chat that would make me one of the esteemed women of the village. Although at the depth of my desires, marriage did not rank as favorably, I could not deny the forces working on me that would make me yield to a higher social order and likely embrace marriage. However, I wanted to be a woman first and worry about other things later, although Rambo and my consequential journey to America (to meet him) remained part of the grand plan. I felt my body betrayed me, which seemed comfortable maturing at the pace of a tortoise. All around me, talk was about becoming a woman and the concerns about my progress to womanhood, exerting more pressure. For many girls, the pressure somehow blurred the lines between becoming a woman and getting educated and it mattered less whether a girl got her education or not. As I had more people educated in my family who somehow defined the standards how far we could go with school, that made my case different from many girls around me.
At some point in my fourteenth year, one of my 11-year-old cousins had her big day, evidently way before many of her friends, more importantly including me. She did not even have a fully mellowed body, no pimples, no dermal changes, almost no bosom. Just little buds. And yet, there she was subliming into a woman! I felt depressed for myself as I saw her start dating in the few months that followed. She had won gold in the Olympics, and lottery on top of it! I spent the next couple of months observing myself and any changes on my body. Just a few more hairs. Sentiments as “you would be mistaken for a boy” enraged me as much as the prospect frightened me. My friends were dating secondary school boys, trainee teachers, and where ambition was wanting, fishermen. Although my type was Rambo, I knew my flat rib cage would not quite cut it for him. I needed a burgeoning chest, some pimples and a softer matured skin so all could acknowledge I was not a hopeless case.
When my cousin had her first mensuration, tradition required that she stayed for a month without cooking or touching fire, or adding salt to food, and she was kept in seclusion mostly. Any breach would bring bad luck to the village. Crossing paths with boys and men was an admonition that tradition put in place to secure a girl’s second mensuration. This only lengthened seclusion and guaranteed the fortune of the second menses. The truth about seclusion, though, meant she wore the same clothes the entire month, the clothes in which she witnessed her first mensuration, even during school days. For some girls, staying away from school the entire month until their second cycle was over converted into the practical solution.
When she had had her second mensuration, my cousin went through a cleansing ritual. Her whole body was shaven, she cooked some food, wear new clothes. She was then presented to society as a full woman. Old women sang and ululated as they were being remunerated with money in the midst of celebrating her coming of age. Boys had not much to do but hang around, checking out the latest virgin on the block. That is if she were one, as it was not strange for a few valiant ones to break their virginity before their first mensuration. Tradition was not worried much about virginity for one to pass the pre-puberty certificate, although it was the perfect gift to your husband on your wedding night. But girls in my village rarely had a wedding in a church or other religious house. Many settled at custom marriages while others got married as a formality shepherded by baby bumps.
So, my cousin cooked and salted the food, demonstrating the mark of a new chapter, communicating the end of seclusion, and nearly signaling her official readiness for playing tango with men. That ceremony was the part I looked forward to the most. But girls like me, who had yet to witness their own transition, were never allowed to be a part of the observance. It was a ceremony only designed for accomplished women. By this time, many of my friends had a clean pass, and I had to nurture myself some respect to keep some distance, because I was still a girl. It hurt so badly. So I hid in the bushes with some curious 10-year-olds to watch the ceremony, as the girl became a woman.
As I questioned my femininity in the desperation of wanting to be a woman, I entertained trials with bugs and tadpoles, which rumor had made us believe could bring all the physical features of a woman to full bloom. After the disappointment of these not working, and hurting a few would-be-frogs in anger along the way, I thought of turning to my grandmother, a woman who made traditional science work for everyone. I had never gathered enough nerve to convince her, and instead resorted to stuffing my chest for some time. And although my mother was at my disposal, tradition prohibited me to discuss such matters with her as this was the purview of the aunts, my father’s sisters.
The less my frustrations found a way of abating, the more the voices of my parents at romanticizing my future became louder in my head. Soon I became preoccupied with the fantasy of my life as a lawyer or a medical doctor, dreams that were quite distant from the minds of my friends, who were now busy nursing growing families and their husband’s appetites. While they became busied with ‘noble’ family responsibilities, I was discovering Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, who were inspiring me into writing as a possible career alongside my parents’ competing career advice. After all, it was intriguing how my family’s drama resonated with Things Fall Apart! And slowly, I began to see role models emerge in my life, like my cousin who had just graduated from the university to become the first female police officer I knew.
By the time I came face-to-face with womanhood in the biology lab, I was geared towards my education and career in more ways than one. I felt lucky that my body had betrayed me as long as it did, unlike many of the girlfriends I had grown up with. I feel gratified that it was instead a male teacher that was instrumental in my early journey into womanhood, and not my aunt who would have probably prescribed marriage as the necessary end to my crossing this rite of passage. My bad luck somehow turned into a life’s possession that would land me into the corridors of the University of Malawi, a Master’s Degree in Europe, and a certain path to success.
Although life did not deliver Rambo, Rambo revealed himself in many other ways, many better ways. As a matter of fact, Rambo had inspired me more significantly than development assistance to my country would ever have.
Many of the girls my age, whose bodies had the opportunity to conform to tradition, have not lived to tell such a story.
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