2015 BURT Award for African Literature (Kenya)

Although I knew the story of my novella, Sabina and the Mystery of the Ogre, was good, I wasn’t sure what position it was going to take. I am happy to be the 2015 winner of this prestigious literary prize. I also congratulate the other nominees, Mark Chetambe (1st runners up) and Charles Okoth (2nd Runners up). Their works were equally of high quality.

I thank the Canadian Organization for Development in Education (CODE), the William Burt Foundation (the prize donor), the National Book Development Council of Kenya (NBDCK) and jurors for their exemplary work. I also thank my publisher, Nsemia Inc. who have actually nurtured and promoted my creative talent, starting from the year when they published my first anthology of poetry to date when they entered my winning story for the award. I also thank all those who encouraged me to write; this includes my wife and children. To them I say: I have won for you, my success is for you my family. I also thank my literature students at Kisii University who kept praying that I get first position in the competition. To them I say: write, write, write, and become the next Ngugis.

Sabina and the Mystery of the Ogre

Suddenly the girl, third from her, became a whirlwind of arms and legs and sharp raking teeth and fingernails. “Throw your hands backwards!” a nervous murmur came.

“Hold her hands!” someone shouted.

“Put her legs apart! Her legs!” another anxious voice burst forth.

A fierce struggle ensued. Sabina listened to every word and to every action and, for a moment, she thought she was dreaming. She held her breath and stiffened her fingers on the ground, so tightly that she heard them snap. Her heart skipped and pounded beneath her tattered leso. The ground beneath her shook and swayed, crushed and crumbled and she seemed to fall through into the hollowness, screaming and shouting for help. No one came to her aid. No God was around. Neither was her mother. Ghostly drums seemed to beat in her head, clogging her ears and for a brief moment she was shut off from the world, from reality.

Suddenly the girl next to her burst into a scream, a sharp scream that broke the serenity of the valley. The women went mum and only whispers and breathing could be heard. Sabina shuddered, like a race horse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear. Sweat trickled down her nape, and she could feel it accumulating at the tip of her chin.

It was now Sabina’s turn. It was her chance to become a woman. She had twice escaped the cruel knife that is meant to shape her into a woman. Now the time had come and she had no two ways out of it. Sabina was lifted up by the scruff of her neck, and as this happened, she closed her eyes tightly. Her little body was thrown on the initiation stone, a depressed ground whose floor was a flat rock, behind which stood a mogumo tree. Her hands were thrown back on to the tree. Her legs were spread apart.

“Sit properly, saucy girl!” a frail voice hissed. “Look up to the sky!” the voice added. Sabina’s head was tilted up by a hand. Silence invaded the valley. Shortly afterwards Sabina felt a hand groping towards her organ. She winced; she brought her legs together. “Stop it!” a voice urged and pushed those tiny legs apart. Her legs started shaking. She cringed and shook with terror. When her legs had found peace, a hand again clandestinely crept between them, went up her thighs and reached for her gento. She winced; she fidgeted and moved her legs.

“Stop playing with us, little girl!” a voice shouted and pushed the tiny legs apart once more. Silence ensued. Her breath came thickly. She waited, and there came the same hand again, creeping about her legs, going along her thighs, and finally reaching her organ. Sabina cringed and shouted: “Oh, no! Mama-a-a-a, where are you?”

“What?” a woman’s voice came sharp, with a twinge of shock.

“Hold her, women!” voices shouted in unison.

They had sensed trouble with her. They had to ensure she was cut. More women were summoned to surround Sabina. With the reinforcement of women, the circumciser hoped to succeed this time round. She brought out her hand again, moved it along the tiny legs, up the boney thighs and reached the tiny organ. Caressed it gently. Then caressed it again. Sabina winced and moved her legs. She then shouted: “Oh no! Don’t circumcise me!” Shock wrinkled everyone’s face. More reinforcement was built around her. She was threatened with dire consequences if she ever moved her legs again. The circumciser inserted her hand again, drove it gently up her thighs. She froze it there for a while, before finally reaching Sabina’s organ. Sabina didn’t wince, but tightened her eyes and tightened her legs and hand muscles.

“The bravery test is complete!” the circumciser whispered to other women. “She is now composed and ready.” She turned herself round and picked up a whetting stone. She then took her traditional knife and ran it gently several times on the piece of stone, making an ear-renting and teeth-irritating sound that sent a cold terror into Sabina’s heart. A violent trembling seized and shook Sabina, and she subsequently farted!

“Pheeeeeew!” the women exclaimed, pinching their noses.

“Bad manners!” one woman rebuked, and all of them burst into a delirious laughter.

“Don’t be a coward, saucy girl!” another whispered.

“How can you break wind at such a reckoning hour of the ritual?” another wondered.

“Forgive her,” another concluded. “It must have been just a slip of the wind.”

After running the knife on the stone several times, the circumciser touched the blade with her fingers to gauge the degree of its sharpness. “It is now ready,” she whispered to other women. She knelt between Sabina’s thin legs and signalled to the other women to be ready for a song.

Sabina was trembling. She had waited for another touch of her thing, but the touch never came. Suddenly, now, being wielded in the air above her was that crude, cruel knife. That bloody metal came cutting through the darkness. It hovered above her like an eagle ready to grab and fly off. It came down, slashing through the chilling night. Before it could touch her organ, before it could turn her into a woman, Sabina burst into one loud scream that rent the still air of the valley. She then became a whirlwind of hands and legs. The circumciser closed her eyes to avoid being hurt and, in the confusion and panic, her knife dropped to the ground. As she was fumbling for it in the dark wet ground, Sabina, with the support of her right hand, lifted her torso up from the wet initiation stone, stepped on the piece of metal, and flew over the circumciser’s back, bent low and crept under the withered knees, bony legs and near fleshless thighs of octogenarians.

The women were caught unawares. The octogenarians’ feeble legs and poor judgment enabled Sabina to squeeze her little body through the over-flowing skirts and shawls and slip away. She could feel their withered hands, vein-lined arms and clammy fingers reaching for her heels, her back and the tip of her leso. The octogenarians were left sprawling on the bare earth, as Sabina flew from them, like a leaf from a storm, tripping, stumbling, falling on and rising from the uneven dark ground of the valley; and finally jumping over the hedgerow that guarded the valley.

“Huyo! Huyo! Shika yeye!” they shouted.

“Women run! Women run!” Shouts and cries reverberated through the dark forest. By the time reality dawned on them, Sabina had disappeared into the dark night. They clutched their cheeks and could not believe their eyes. It had never happened before. Nothing like this!

©Christopher Okemwa