|Photo by Ahmedherz via Wikimedia Commons|
"Water does not stay in the sky forever" - Kalenjin (Kenyan) proverb about despair
Word that the fighters were coming wormed its way through the village, by whispers and undulating hands, in hurried trips to the well to fill jerrycans and the braying of donkeys jerked from their sunlit dozing. Amanisa, heavily pregnant and already the mother of two, made her preparations: one cup, one plate, a rolled up palm sleeping mat. One small pouch of dried meat and another of fruit. Two jerrycans, filled to the brim. One old, matted and slightly lame donkey who swiveled his ears continually as though searching for a signal from a distant rescue station.
Go to the camp over the border her husband had written. One day I will be able to find you there. They must trust me before I will be allowed out of their sight and I can flee. Be strong.
It was good to have word, but it would have been better to have money as well. Amanisa had questioned the messenger, a sulky teenager whose bare feet were cracked and split and whose eyes swept the horizon.
"No money? None? It could be forgiven if you were tempted to spend a little. Perhaps you were hungry?" She gave him the option to save face, jiggling her tiny daughter on her hip in an attempt to remind him of her own need. Perhaps he would hand over some of what she knew her husband must have sent.
The boy spat into the dust. "No Mam. No. There was nothing, only the writing. I came a long way to give it to you. I was hoping that maybe... he trailed off and then boldly met her eyes. "I should have something for my troubles."
Amanisa laughed, a harsh barking noise that might have been mistaken for a jackal in the night. She motioned toward the meagre contents of their hut. "You may carry off whatever treasure you find after we leave tonight. But make sure that I am gone before you enter. Mukulaal mininkeeda joogta miciyo libaax bay leedahay...a cat in her house has the teeth of a lion."
They traveled under the gelid moon and tried to sleep during the broiling desert afternoons. Her guide set out for water on the third day, and never returned. The donkey died on the fifth day. Had there been another man with them, he might have butchered the animal, but Amanisa had neither the knowledge nor the inclination. The children, who had driven her nearly mad with sobbing and complaining the first few days, had lapsed into a stunned and starving silence. God will provide she told herself even if it is death.
On the seventh evening she sighted a bundle along the path. Hoping that it was a load abandoned by some overburdened family, she hurried toward it on bleeding feet, the children strapped to her back and side already shivering enough to make their mother's body tremble as well. The heap was a blanket, and peeling back a corner revealed a woman's contorted face with blotched skin and fissured lips. A puff of warm fetid air escaped and then vanished into the chilled desert.
Amanisa sat down and considered carefully. A glowing smudge in the distance signaled a possible end - the UN camp. One days walk? Two? There was a weak groan from the ground and answering mewls from the burden on her shoulders. She allowed herself one sob.
Once she had placed the children under the blanket - the body's febrile heat quieted them almost instantly - she poured a little water into the old woman's mouth and tucked the goatskin with the remainder into a gnarled hand. Perhaps a supply truck would find them on its way to deliver goods. If not, then she would send help once she got to her destination. Surely the NGO people would go to find them. With any luck they would all be taken to a clinic or hospital. White sheets. Cool, clean water. Food. A bed free of sand.
These are the things that she dreamed of, setting off again into the desert, lighter and heavier, toward the darkness, toward the light.