Sunday, 5 February 2017

MAKING ITORO A WOMAN


Ekong Itoro clenched her hands in the anticipation of the pain that would jolt through her in a few minutes. She breathed in quickly…and then slowly, making sure to count to five before letting each breath out. Her back was already drenched in sweat from lying on the pile of clothes in the very hot and fetid room. She could taste the blood at the back of her throat from pressing down on her teeth to keep them from clattering. She could also feel the warmth dripping from between her thighs; thighs she held together tightly as a final act of defiance before she was forced to spread them wide open.

Her mother and aunties all told her it would only hurt for a minute. She desperately wanted to believe them but the screams of all the girls who had passed through this room revealed their bare faced lie. Those long, sad and broken screams sang a song of sorrow night after night until Itoro could barely sleep. When she finally managed to get some shut eye, she was jolted awake from nightmares of the girls walking out of THE room.

She had watched girl after girl enter the room and come out wailing in pain. She had heard the screams of those classified as ‘not strong enough’ as they waddled in anguish. She wished her family didn’t live so close to Nne-ekami, the old gnarled woman who ensured all girls a certain age went through the traditional rites. She wished her window wasn’t directly opposite Nne-ekami’s small, worn out hut. She wished she didn’t notice Nne-ekami checking her out, waiting patiently like a vulture at the site of a dying child. But Itoro knew that she could wish all she wanted and nothing would change what was about to happen. As per the customs of her people, she must be circumcised after her first expulsion of blood.

The other vulture-like old women began to enter the room. There were four of them. They were there to ensure no girl ran away from what their culture demanded. They were a people of upright character and they would not allow any girl bring shame to her family and their people.

Itoro would have scuttled away if there was room to. Instead, she closed her eyes and dug her nails deeper into her palms. She swore she wouldn’t cry but the tears started falling by themselves. She unclenched her hands to wipe them away only to be hit with the smell of blood and death that she associated with Nne-ekami. Itoro didn’t know when a gasp escaped from her.

She opened her eyes and standing right in front of her was Nne-ekami holding a dull, jagged razor blade. Itoro had never seen anything more menacing in her life. The razor refused to glint, somehow mirroring the dire circumstances of what was about to happen. She wished she could die rather than go through this moment.

For some reason, the things the other girls had told her started coming back.

‘It is the worst feeling I have ever felt in my life….’

‘I begged God to take my life…’

‘After the circumcision, my nyash swelled up and was smelling for days. They had to use leaves to get the swelling down…’

‘When I went to urinate, it was like someone put burning charcoal in my nyash…’

‘When my husband sleeps with me, I don’t feel anything…’

‘Nwaha died after they cut her. What a lucky girl…’

And Itoro started to scream. She was not just screaming for herself. She was screaming for all the other girls who had been a visitor in this room. She screamed for mothers who went through this and still demanded their daughters suffer the same. She screamed because there was no one who was going to speak up for the women of their community; not their king, not the men and not the women either.

‘I see this girl wants to bring disgrace to our people. I have not even touched her and she is shouting like a pig.’ Nne-ekami looked at the other women. They knew what to do; even though no word was said.

On either side of Itoro a woman held an appendage. Two of the women knelt on Itoro’s hands, sending a shot of pain right through her arms and all the way through her spine. Like a well-planned routine, they clamped their hands over Itoro’s mouth as she trashed even more. The other two women pried her legs wide open at awkward angles until Itoro thought she would die.

Nne-ekami patted Itoro’s thighs and smiled. She pinched her clitoris and held it firmly in place. Itoro could sense all her nerve endings on edge. Then came the grating voice. ‘From today, you shall be a proper woman. Don’t worry, we have all gone through this and this will make sure that you don’t become a prostitute. Don’t worry ehn.’

And then she cut.

Itoro thought her hands nearly pulled out of its socket was painful. She begged God to kill her when her leg was pulled painfully apart. She thought suffocating under the sweaty, smelly hands of these women was horrifying. But nothing – absolutely nothing – prepared her for the pain that shot through her entire being when the razor sliced through her super sensitive clitoris and labia. Nothing prepared her for the white hot fire that was sent to her body from the hands of Nne-ekami. When her eyes rolled back into her head, she was glad to welcome the nothingness that numbed her excruciating suffering.

Ekong Itoro was only eleven years old when she saw her first period. It was fitting that one so young could only live for eleven years.

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