on in the evening, the girl had glimpsed him. He of the saxophone. He of the
cleft lip; of the slight stutter. She had quickened her steps in another
direction. But the man had seen her. She could feel the earth’s slight tremor
from his every step transmit to her from behind. His voice reached her ears.
“Where are you off to now, my beautiful maiden?”
The girl could not bring herself to stop. Or answer. She walked on, resolutely.
The man trotted after her, his limp more pronounced than ever. The man wished he
were younger. Perhaps if he were, just perhaps…
“You will be at the grand dance tonight, won’t you, my maiden?” the man said.
The girl slowed down.
“Yes,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Surely you will dance for me, then?” the man, slowing down too, continued,
panting and spraying her face with spittle. She did not answer, but turned her
face away, preferring instead to stare at her feet. She didn’t like the way his
thin, rough skin, like parchment, visible through his torn singlet flailed in
and out, as if it would suddenly snag on the jutting rib bones and tear and the
man would collapse. What would she do then?
The girl still didn’t understand why her heart always beat faster whenever she
ran into this man. Maybe it was the fear. But how was it that this same fear
dissolved like ice brought near a raging fire when he was playing his saxophone
and she was dancing? In those instances, with the villagers yelling at the top
of their voices at what she was doing with her feet and waist and chest, she
even found herself drawn to him, like iron fillings to a magnet. It was ironic.
It always seemed then as if her life depended on the sounds emanating from his
rusting musical instrument. They were a pair in these circumstances, she and the
man with the split upper lip.
The girl had long noted that the man did not apply himself to his saxophone when
he played for the other girls. She could tell that the saxophone sounded
differently when he played for her. And the man knew this too. Didn’t his eyes
come alive and shine as bright as the stars? Didn’t he lose all semblance of
composure, becoming carefree, like a babe in the presence of its mother? Didn’t
he follow her every movement- her feet, her hands, her buttocks, all rising and
falling in unison as if by magic; as if in a dream?
The girl’s confusion, which prevented her from replying to the man’s question,
‘Surely you will dance for me, then?’ had been clearly evident from her
countenance. Her shoulders slumped and sweat beads broke out on her face. She
was embarrassed, knowing that she had lingered too long. Afraid that the man,
whom she knew missed nothing, would misinterpret everything, she made to shuffle
on. But the man chose to play on her confusion.
“I know where you are off to …to the riverside, to await your grandmother’s
return from her farm on the other side of the river,” he stuttered, spraying her
a generous amount of spittle. “But stay awhile with me, my beautiful maiden.
Come. I will milk you some milk from my cows. It will do you good after
“No, thank you,” the girl said, a little too quickly.
“Perhaps next time then?”
This time a mischievous smile played on his dried, weather-beaten lips.
“I-I d-don’t know,” the girl said.
The man, now facing the girl took in her blouse; noted the small tear by the
armpit; feasted his eyes on her bosom.
“Tomorrow?” the man said, his eyes glinting; his voice soft.
“I don’t know,” the girl said, her voice raised a little.
The girl moved away without raising her head. She was gone before the man had a
chance to begin another round of small talk, or tried to make her follow him by
promising something else. The man caressed his gray goatee. With clouded, old,
wizened eyes he watched the fleeing girl’s back, ramrod straight. He was at a
loss how to handle the young woman now. In his mind’s eye, he saw how she would
entrance the crowd only hours ahead with her dazzling smiles and mystifying
steps. He would devote the last ounce of what was left of his strength to make
her shine. Already, in his mind’s ear, he could hear the crowd roaring as the
girl did wonders with her youthful body, dancing in a manner that showed the
gods had her in mind when they created dance. In his mind’s eye, he saw her
sidestep this way like an antelope, and strut that way like a peacock, dancing
as if she owned the copyright to dance. The man’s heartbeat quickened as he
pictured again the girl’s breasts -young, round, supple, rising and falling in
rhythm; the little nipples hard.
The man knew that in tonight’s contest to chose the representative of the three
villages in the regional dance contest coming up soon, the girl would win. He
would be there to play for her, to make her shine, to make her the greatest
dancer ever. The contest was only a matter of weeks, but it seemed like light
years away. He couldn’t wait. Raising his head, he was in time to see the girl,
shoulders held high as she disappeared among a cluster of shrubs in the
distance. He sighed, thinking, It wasn’t my fault, what happened last time.
It was probably the millionth time the man had told himself this. He had tried
to prevent it. But it was beyond his power. He knew the girl’s grandmother was
suspicious of his every move now. He would win the old woman’s heart first and
I shouldn’t have waited to chat with him, the girl thought as she hurried
towards their village square, venue for the night’s dance. He may begin to think
that… The girl couldn’t bring herself to say what the man may begin to think.
She swallowed hard. It was painful. Apart from the shrill, but reassuring cries
of crickets and an occasional chatter of bats overhead, there was no other sound
to be heard except the steady beating of her heart, which resonated in her ears,
and her light footsteps, which went, ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the dusty path.
The village square was rowdy, and buzzing with activities by the time the girl
arrived. The moon was in full bloom. One could easily tell a grain of wheat from
that of millet on the cold, sandy soil. As one amateur dancer left the dancing
arena, another quickly commandeered it, showing off what she could do with her
body, flexible like rubber. It would continue like this until after midnight
when the actual contest would begin.
Everywhere, people mixed, freely. They ate roast meat, drank local tea brewed on
miniature coal pots, chatted happily, the rigors of the farms and the daily
struggle for survival on dug out canoes forgotten. Men and women, the old and
the young teased each other. Everyone was lively. And lighthearted.
Every other month, the dance night was like this. The villagers looked forward
to it: the men missing it terribly, the women longing for it. There were no
restraints. Everyone mixed as he or she wished. Everyone shared freely with the
other what he or she held sacrosanct.
Several days before these dance nights, the women took time off their routines
of carrying and fetching, cooking and hoeing, grinding and weeding to preen
themselves. They must look their best. Oil dripped from their hair, made into
the latest fashion. Long rings adorned their ears. And noses. The soles of their
feet and palms were decorated with dyes: red, indigo, yellow and other brilliant
colors. Black too. On the actual dance nights, they wore expensive perfumes
meant especially for the night. Every corner of the three villages was a garden
with flowers in full bloom.
Alcohol made the dance days even more fun. The men folk who usually spent a
greater portion of their day relaxing under tree shades, or visiting each other
began drinking as soon as breakfast was over. One after the other, kegs and
calabashes of palm wine were emptied. By evening, the men were truly soaked and
ready for the dance. Just like their sweet smelling women folk.
The village square was big enough to house all the inhabitants of more than five
villages for any occasion. As far as living memory could be relied on, the
two-monthly dance among the three villages had always been held here. Huge
silk-cotton, neem and mango trees, which formed a circle around the square
ensured that no sandstorm, no matter how ferocious disturbed any events taking
place in it. Wide, corrugated trunks provided enough crevices, deep enough to
cheat the moon rays, especially on nights as this when the moon blazed away in
Dinner over, inhabitants of the three villages began flocking to the dance
venue. The mingling would then begin. Husbands and wives looked the other way
when they saw their spouses engaged in gaily, sometimes hushed discussions with
total strangers. As casual as possible, new partnerships were formed. Strolling
hand in hand, the new partners found suitable places in and around the village
square. There, their chitchats continued.
Every now and then, from somewhere in the dark, laughter rang out. Elsewhere,
someone would smile knowingly, caressing the partner in response. Elsewhere
still, some other person would giggle in ecstasy. This was how the inhabitants
of the three villages, and even strangers from beyond would saturate all nooks
and corners, until the climax of the night when the village maidens would cap it
all with their tantalizing dances.
After the dance, those who weren’t up to more gallivanting went home, to sleep
off the effects of the night. The more adventurous, usually greater in number,
found more intimate places to settle down.
Heaving and sweating bodies would litter the surrounding fields. One only needed
to cough lightly, or shuffle his feet to disentangle entangled souls. It would
be in the wee hours, as the dew began to descend and the temperature dropped
before husbands saw wives, and wives husbands. Each would smile affectionately.
Each would hug the other endearingly.
By daybreak, only the scintillating performances of the dancers occupied
people’s lips. During the coming days and weeks, partners of the dance night
would run into each other. They would not acknowledge themselves.
At the end of each dance night, rather than lose herself like everyone else and
partake in the night’s fun, the girl was filled with revulsion as she watched
admirers, some of whom they hardly know, lead her friends into the bowels of
darkness. Especially she felt sour as women flocked around the man, praising him
for his expertise on the saxophone; touching him here and touching him there,
fondly. Always, the man got lured into the night. The girl would never see him
until the next day. Or several days later.
Not that she cared.
For the girl, this aspect of the night spoilt the beauty of her performance. It
took away the joy that dancing brought. She was never able to regale at her
achievement as the most gifted dancer in all the three villages. She didn’t
understand why things were like this.
When she was much younger and just perfecting her dance steps, she had taken the
issue up with her grandmother.
“It is our tradition,” her grandmother said. “It is our uniqueness.”
“What,” the girl said, “is our uniqueness?”
“To share,” her grandmother answered. “To share with each other what we have.”
“And that includes our bodies?” the girl said, cringing.
“It was like this during my mother’s days.”
“But grandmother, is it right? Can’t one say no?”
“You are barely thirteen. Stop asking such questions. They will say I did not
bring you up properly.”
“But I want to know. Is it right, doing this thing?”
“There is nothing you or anybody can do about it. It is our way of life.”
The girl, greatly repulsed shrank from her grandmother.
“Soon, I tell you my daughter,” the grandmother said, “you will come to look
forward to these nights, not because you want to dance but because you want to
be free. Free to exercise your powers as a woman. Free to explore. I am old,
doubly bent now and cannot partake in, as you call it, this ‘thing’ anymore, but
in my days when I was as spry as you are now, possibly a bit older, I salivated
“My daughter, show me the person who can turn against his tradition, and I will
hand the heavens to you as a reward.”
Now sixteen, the girl was still amazed at this way of life, this tradition that
gave no one the right to say, ‘no’; this tradition that gave no one the right to
cast away what was wrong, what was evil.
What would happen if she continued to think differently? Her friends, already
indoctrinated were beginning to rib her. Could she, a mere girl, a mere woman,
As the girl stood there, thinking and surveying the crowd, she mentally sorted
her steps. She knew she would win again tonight. It ailed her that she had no
serious competitor in the three villages. It is just as well that the dance
festival is coming up, she thought. With head held high, back straight, she
strode determinedly past several young men. They were in the mood, which the
night dictated. They catcalled her. The women called out too. Other girls who
had come simply to have a go at what the night held afterwards whispered about
her. She caught the envious glints in their painted, brown eyes. Other dancers
called out to her. She did not respond. They let her be. She was in that
trance-like mood which she fell into before every dance. Over the years, they
had come to recognize it.
Her corner in the dressing area was empty. Untying her small bag, and with the
help of the little girls who had gathered around her, the girl began to don her
costume. She felt sorry for the innocent little girls. They didn’t know yet what
life held in store for them. They spoke to her. She answered with her smiles.
She moved about as if possessed. Soon, she was lost again in her world of
uncertainties. Thoughts about many things she didn’t understand filled her mind.
These many things hurt her. Like that time she had been cut. She was eleven
years old then.
Slowly and vividly, the girl recalled her circumcision.
It was a terrible experience. One that she would never forget. Her cutting and
that of a few other girls had been particularly traumatizing. By the time it got
to their turn, the only knife being employed for the cutting had lost its
sharpness, its cutting edge having been dulled by the congealed blood from the
other girls, which lay thick on its rusted surface. Sharpening the knife on the
piece of rock nearby only made the pain worse as the knife, now serrated, cut
After the cutting, she had bled profusely. The palm oil and other concoctions
derived from fluids expressed from various wild plants and fruits did nothing to
alleviate her pain. If anything, the herbal applications worsened her condition.
For days after, she was like the living dead. It was still a wonder that she had
survived the severe bleeding and high fever, which accompanied the skin
infection she had subsequently contracted. At the end of the day, though her
damaged skin healed, it left behind a terrible scar, an ugly streak of pink.
The girl knew she would never get over this scar.
Once in a while she still experienced terrible pains from this scar, especially
when she danced so hard or walked long distances or did any hard work on the
“It was the same with me and with your mother and all other women of our tribe,”
her grandmother had consoled. “We all went through these same rites of passage.
That is what makes a woman a woman. The pain will come and go but eventually you
will outgrow it. It is the pain of womanhood. It is what prepares you for the
uncertainties of time.”
For the girl, over time, this ‘Pain of Womanhood’, has changed its nature,
assuming newer dimensions. It was now a psychological torture; a ‘Pain of
Shame’. She felt humiliated and cheated by the act. She felt violated, debased.
It was her body. Was it not rightly her place to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to whatever
anyone wanted to do to it? What if she had died from the infection she
contracted? What if she had caught this new disease people got by sharing knives
and needles? Now that they had severed her sensitive parts, what if she never
enjoyed sex? Who would shoulder the blame if it turned out that she never got
pregnant? Who would shoulder the blame when due to lack of a child she became a
pariah in society?
The magical sound of a saxophone suddenly floated over to the girl, rousing her
from her deep thoughts. She was surprised to note that she had completed
dressing. Judging from the time it usually took under normal circumstances, it
meant that her mind had been roaming the past for upwards of half an hour. She
sighed regrettably as the memories receded from her brain. She knew they would
come back to haunt her before the night was over.
Looking up, she saw that the other dancers were bent double in the dancing
arena, rocking steadily to the soothing melody of the saxophone which rose and
fell, rose and fell as if coming from a far, far distance on the back of a
gentle wind. She did not have to strain herself to see who was playing. The
quality of the sound was all too familiar. In a moment she sprang to her feet
like an agitated tigress. The crowd roared as they discovered who had come to
Gingerly, she approached the man, as a lioness would stalk an antelope it was
sure to have for dinner. She beckoned him with her hands, teased and dazzled him
with her smiles. She rolled her tongue at him and her full waist rocked left and
right; up and down. The sound of the vibrating metallic bangles on her ankles
and wrists blended perfectly with the drums and flutes, now accompanying the
The girl was soon lost in her art. As she wove this way and that, the frenzied
crowd went crazy, lending their clapping to the sounds of the musical
instruments. The night came alive, pulsating like an angry monster as the ground
shook with the stamping of thousands of excited feet. Everything else blurred
into oblivion for the girl. Two other dancers, now joining in tried to divert
attention from the girl, but it was impossible to tear one’s eyes from the girl
once she was dancing, hypnotized by the magical sounds of the man’s saxophone.
The girl’s eyes locked with the man’s eyes briefly as she raised her head to
beckon to the gods of music and dance, far away and watching in the bright
starry sky. And the man saw her smile, saw her flirt with him… just fleetingly
and his cleft lip parted in a gentle smile and the loneliness which resided in
his heart skipped away, albeit temporarily and he knew instant happiness; knew
instant bliss. With his mind’s arms, he clutched her smile firmly, burying it in
the recess of his being. These nights… these dancing nights, when the girl
danced for him, he thought. How he longed for them.
Shaking his head wildly, as if delirious, the frail, old man threw himself into
his saxophone, prepared to play out his soul. Cradling his saxophone to his
chest, he limped about like a monkey, unconscious of the giggles his acrobatics
drew. The dancing was approaching its crescendo when suddenly the girl halted in
mid action, lost steam and went limp.
She would save her best for last.
The crowd sighed. Hungrily. The girl had strung them so tight and had released
them without warning. Stepping back and wiping the sweat off their foreheads,
they exhaled deeply. They couldn’t wait for the real thing later.
Just as she had entered, the girl exited the arena. Children crowded her, chants
in her praise filling the dusty night air.
Hobbling away, the man retired under an old neem tree to wipe perspiration off
his brow and get back his breath. He collapsed on the dry wood of one of several
buttress roots, which had since lost their fleshy coverings due to over usage by
both humans and beasts. Taking out a piece of cloth from his shirt pocket, he
painstakingly wiped the mouthparts of his saxophone, after first wiping the
sides of his own mouth which was crusted with saliva. All the while, he thought
about the girl. One moment she was all tensed up, and wouldn’t utter a single
word to him. The next she was as willing as a wily cat. She confused him. In
fact, he still blamed her for everything. His hands shook and a ripple went
through him as he recalled their shame.
Slowly the night progressed. Midnight came and went. When the dance finally
ended hours later and the man, alone and lonely, and unable to stop himself,
tried to lure the girl away into the blackness, the moon having gone to bed, all
he got was a face loaded with questions. Questions he had no answers to. He
didn’t press her, thinking, Soon, out of her own volition she will come around.
She has no choice in the matter. The man knew that like all other women of the
three villages, the girl was trapped. She was trapped in the ways prescribed by
custom and tradition. Only she didn’t know it.
The man felt sorry for the girl. And for himself too.