Three years ago when she started, she did not know that the big black covered cup with the wire joined to the wall could boil water. So when Aunty Hajiya, her madam said something to her and said " kin gane? " she nodded. She left her in the kitchen satisfied she understood, when in reality she had no idea what she had just said. Before now, Alisabatu's command of Hausa had been limited to the weekly conversations with Fulanin Gwari. He lived near them with his family and cattle in Sabon Gaya and he came every Monday to Kasuwan Litinin market to buy ginger from their family stall.
Moreover, Mai Ungwa, the man that brought them to Kaduna had told them to always keep their faces blank, say yes and nod to everything they were told. And more importantly, never to ask questions. So when Aunty Hajiya got back and started shouting, she kept saying, "kiyi hakuri," apologising for whatever it was she was shouting about. Mai Ungwa also told them to say that whenever they were shouted at.
And as she was shouting she took the big cup, opened and filled it with water, put it in the wall and pressed the red part. It boiled while she was still shouting. That was how she learnt, learnt that shouting meant she was about to be taught something the right way and she had to watch attentively.
The slaps started the next day, when she put the mop in the freezer to clean out the dirty melted ice that lay at the bottom. She heard the shout before she felt the sting of the slap. She grabbed the mop from her and threw a rag at her which she quickly deduced was the right thing to use. As Alisabatu looked at her blankly, she asked "what are you looking it, are you daring me?" She threatened to slap her again for looking her in the eye. But Mai Ungwa had forgot to warn her that a blank expression could also be seen as an act of insolence that could also attract a slap.
She gathered much later that Aunty Hajiya believed she was possessed, all because when she first came, the lights in the room she shared with the children went on, off, on, off for a good while. She was moved to the store near the kitchen where the rats were familiar, the only thing in this place that reminded her of home. She wished Mai Ungwa had told her that the kitchen had to be cleaner and shinier than Oga James' 'hospital' back home, it was the only place that had electricity in the village and she was never allowed to switch it on or off.
She wished that she would be given money to buy something nice and new, something that belonged to her first. A hair clip, or maybe a phone, but especially sanitary towels, so she doesn't get shouted at every month when she says she can't find the freezer rag.
She wished that Mai Ungwa would come before the rainy season, so he can talk to Aunty Hajiya about putting her in school or learning a trade. Recently she had been threatening to send her away. Alisabatu wished she had been the one that had gone to Abuja to Aunty Hajiya's sister. She was kinder to Murna, who had been sent her to learn to sew as soon as she arrived.
And even though Murna got pregnant for Shuaibu, Oga's driver; who denied her. She had opened a tailoring shop in Sabon Gaya and was making money, she had soon got a husband; even though it was the village drunk without having to live at Mama Karuwa's house in the station selling her body and badly cooked food.
Maybe next year she will ask Mai Ungwa to follow the Abuja bus.