The air was filled with dust, as the cars whizzed past the road to the Sumila Village. Children were playing by the roadside as it was the August holidays. Adults were on their farms, and others on the roadside selling their wares. Shops were open, full of buyers seeking to quench the thirst brought on by the heat. The sun was shining too bright for 11 am. For Penina, the cool breeze of her mud-thatched house was enough for her to continue with her business. Her three children would be home anytime soon for their snacks before heading out again to play, and she had to prepare a decent meal for her husband, who was to arrive in the afternoon with his mother.

“That woman!” Penina lamented out loud in the kitchen. “She’ll probably hate everything I do…the food will be too salty, the water will taste of earth. She’ll even ask if I am planning to kill her son.”

It was no secret that Mama Gloria hated her. Penina’s brother had warned her about this the first time he witnessed an altercation between the two women. For the first three years of her marriage, Penina had to let Mama Gloria do whatever she wanted in her son’s house. When the babies started coming along, her mother-in-law grew worse: policing Penina on how to raise her kids to become “true Otienos”.

Mama Gloria never really wanted Penina as her son’s wife, and she made this clear to everyone. In family meetings, she would sit far from Penina as if she were a leper, and she even denied her food when she visited her home during the holidays. Neighbours and other relatives living near Mama Gloria had to step in and help out, offering left-over scraps apologetically. Penina tried everything from being polite to trying to be oblivious to her rants but it never worked. She finally resorted to talking to Otieno, her husband, about it.

“You never support me when Mama is here.”

“Are you trying to make me choose between my mother and you?” he would ask looking earnestly at her. At loss for words, Penina would stare at the man she married, knowing this was a battle she would have to fight alone.

***

A loud yelp of her name indicated the arrival of Mama Gloria, and slowly, Penina got up to help her with the luggage she was carrying.

“Lazy woman!” Mama Gloria shrieked. “How do you let an old woman like me suffer with such heavy luggage?”

“Sorry Mama,” Penina responded, feigning regret.

“You better be,” Mama Gloria sharply retorted as she walked into the house. “My son stayed behind to finish some business.”

Penina wondered what Otieno was up to. She suspected that he was keeping his distance, trying to avoid the confrontation between the women in his life. It was not the first time he had done this. He had let Penina and the children go to his mother’s house alone, while he stayed out late into the night, drinking in a bar at a neighbouring town. Mama Gloria was not amused and Penina had had an earful of how she was at fault as her son was not in the mood to run home to his mother. Mama Gloria had scrunched up her face, making her wrinkles even more pronounced as she locked Penina out of the main house.

Penina quickly snapped out of her thoughts and began serving Mama Gloria some food. She made sure that Mama Gloria had enough for her usual appetite, before the old woman’s abuses and insults ensued.

“Penina yawa, what is this eh?” she shouted. “This is poison!” She flipped over the small wooden table with all the food on it. A scream escaped Penina’s lips and she stared at her mother-in-law in hatred. The rage within her simmered like never before.

Utado?” Mama Gloria asked with a sneer. “Tell me, what can you do about it?”

Penina did not remember how she had picked up the table and brought it down on Mama Gloria, and neither could she remember for how long she punched her. But she remembered the silence that fell, and the coolness of the room. She remembered staring at the cold body of Mama Gloria which lay limp on the earthen floor. Outside, the sun continued burning the earth, the continued children playing, and the women busied themselves selling wares by the roadside. A sharp gust of wind lifted the road’s red dust and the women shielded their faces to cover their eyes.

 

Notes

Yawa – A Luo exclamation to show disbelief.

Utado – Slang for ‘What will you do?’