She leaves the house at 4 am carrying a big, tall bucket and a smaller one-gallon container. She’s not alone. By the time she embarks on her trip under the night sky, there are always a few more girls on this same dark path. They never questioned why it was girls facing this potential danger. In pursuit of water. In avoidance of trouble. They had heard reports of girls being attacked. The serenity of the night belies the danger. They had never arranged it on purpose, but it’s lucky she’s not alone on this perilous, daily journey. She’s grateful she doesn’t have to walk by herself, and she feels safer, in the company of distracting conversations. It makes the trip shorter too- less focused on the fear and the distance, more focused on daily happenings, upcoming events and sometimes gossip about somebody else’s troubles.
Nene had been sent away last month, or so they heard. Rumour has it she had been sent back to her mother because her Aunt Maggie is jealous of her beauty. Or because she doubts her new husband’s integrity. Or both. Otherwise why else would she be scared that he would not look at Nene as his own child?
Maggie had been Nene’s official guardian since the girl was five. For the last seven years she had taken her as her own child. Her sister had given the girl to her one Christmas when she went to visit her home village. She had too many boys in the house, she said, and Nene is the only girl. Also her dad had refused to register the girl for school and she can’t go against her husband’s word. Besides, for her to challenge that, she would need money. Where would she get the fees and uniform and daily lunch from? It was futile to question his authority. And the girl was quite special: smart, and brave, coming up to her aunt, touching her face and telling her “aunty Maggie, you are so pretty. Can I have some lipstick too?”
Troubles had already started brewing since Maggie started this relationship last year, even before the official marriage ceremony. But somehow she believed she could manage the situation. Or she hoped he would at least stop complaining about the girl once he got to know her better. She had never had any problems with Nene. Not a single complain from the school and not even from a neighbor. What could possibly annoy him so much about the child? She couldn’t figure it out, but it seemed Nene could do no right in his eyes. He always found reason to scold the child in her presence.
She had private conversations with Nene, trying to encourage her to be nicer to uncle, to try not to annoy him all the time. The girl didn’t respond. She looked sulky. This made Maggie mad. How dare she, this insolent child! Doesn’t she realize how much she had done for her? How many sacrifices she had made for her? Maybe she wanted to destroy her relationship. Maybe she is doing this deliberately so this man would leave her. How dare she! Well one of them will certainly have to go if push came to shove, but it would not be her husband -to -be, that’s for sure! After this outburst, the child ran out of the room sobbing wildly.
Now Nene had ‘disappeared’. Some said the aunt was tired of the tension in the house and she didn’t want to destroy her home so she sent the girl away; for her own protection, of course. It seemed the man didn’t want any children, and he certainly didn’t want to raise somebody else’s. He grumbled all day and mistreated the girl any chance he got. So it was better this way, for the child’s sake. And for her marriage.
There was also speculation that things had already gone awry. Nene had missed too many days of school and she had not joined them on their water journey for a few weeks now. They had stopped by too many mornings on the way to school shouting for her to hurry before she made them all late, as usual. But for weeks, the only response from her aunt was “Nene will not be going to school today”.
She was always late, but always immaculate. Nene would not leave her house with a hair out of place or her uniform not perfectly starched and ironed. They tried to be like her: prim, polite and proper, but they knew she was in a league of her own. Her books, perfectly wrapped with old newspaper and her homework without the scratches that filled theirs, were also a reflection of her neat mind. Nene didn’t talk a lot, but when she did, they hung onto her every word.
Then they heard about the disappearance. They heard the grown ups saying that he touched her and his new wife caught him he blamed the child and said she threw herself at him. But he had been so discreet she never would’ve suspected if she hadn’t come home early that day. The ruse he had created was perfect. As far as his wife was concerned his contempt for her niece was quite clear: the girl was quite incapable of doing anything right. His constant berating of her left the woman in no doubt that the girl’s behaviour was a problem, that the child was a problem. He had expressed his dislike of the girl several times in no uncertain terms. He had even asked her to send Nene away at some point before they got married because “ otherwise she would cause problems in our new home“. She had told him to please try to find it in his heart to forgive Nene’s mistakes, to make an effort to bond with her. Aunty promised him that she would talk to the child too so she could realize her mistakes.
“Well my mom is friends with Aunt Maggie. She came to our house crying, saying ‘how did I not know? How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I see this before?’ She kept talking to herself and my mom said ‘it’s not your fault’.”
“They say Nene is sick, like she can’t even walk. That’s why she can’t go to school. The hospitals couldn’t fix her so they sent her back to her village.”
“No, that’s not true. The hospital couldn’t fix her because they couldn’t find anything wrong with her. It’s not a regular disease, it’s super natural so only the native doctors will be able to help her.”
“I heard that he made her very sick. That’s why her aunt kept her home from school. Her aunt called the police and they arrested him, her own husband! My mother says she is very brave, and that most women would not have done that.”
Every voice spoke incredulously, only half believing the words their mouths were forming, and understanding even less. The chit chat drew to a close as they approached the water well and got ready to expend energy fighting for the right to clean water. By the time they collected their water from the well and started the journey back, there was total silence: due to the heavy loads they balanced on their heads and hands, but most definitely due to the shared burden of their hearts. And so began the long journey home.