There are no skies like African skies. These skies are deep as the ocean, of a fierce fiery blue. One day when I was a little girl my mother took me to a small hill near our village and we climbed, drinking water, in the cool of early morning. We gazed out at so many miles of land, until, many walks away, I saw where the land joined the sky, and I asked my mother, ‘Can we one day walk until we see how the sky meets the land?’
My mother had a big laugh, and in the trembling heat of the day, she would throw back her head and laugh ‘like a man’, my father said, but he did not mind. That day she laughed whenever she remembered my saying.
My mother was proud of me, I think. She never went to school, she could not read or write, but she wanted her children to learn. We could not keep books in our hut – it was too damp in the rains, and the beetle liked to eat paper. So, from the age of six, I went to village school. There was a tall metal cupboard in our classroom, which was kept locked. When we finished one book, she would call us up to her desk and we had to tell her ‘a precis’, which was hard, for some books needed every word they used. Then we were allowed to choose a new book and take it home, always to be protected by its plastic cover, to keep it safe. Every child in our class had one. There were fifty of us in that class, some from our village, some from other settlements.
I loved my school. It was better than a rest to come away from the work that always needed to be done, collecting vegetables from our plot, digging, more digging, feeding our chickens, sweeping the dirt floor of our home, stirring the pot of meal porridge. School was like a drink of cold clear water, it was simple and it felt so right to drink.
Some girls did not want to go to big school, they wanted to get married and have a home and babies. Someday I would want that too, but for now, to go to a big school which would be full of books was my only wish.
I was twelve years old when I started at the secondary school. There was a uniform! My parents had to save to buy it for me, a few pounds at a time. But when it was all mine, I felt so proud walking in my colours of purple and yellow. There were five other girls from my village at our new school, and we had a bus that came to collect us and bring us home. We felt so rich, so grown-up, to drive in a bus every day!
All the time I was growing, I loved to look at the sky. Especially at night, when it wrapped me around like blue-black velvet. The stars were tiny holes, cut out to show the light of heaven peeping through. I never told anyone of this fancy, but it pleased me to choose the star I would slip through on my way to heaven. Because, in my dreams, everyone would be allowed to choose their star.
I asked at school if they had a book about the stars. The shapes they made. How many there were. To study the stars was the art of astronomy. Mr Edwards, my teacher, told me that it was possible to work as an astronomer, and from the age of thirteen, I told anyone who asked me that was what I wanted to be. It was a puzzle to match the stars I saw with the constellations in my book. I could never learn them all. Were there any stars not in a constellation?
Round about then I became a woman. My mother helped me, but it was a nuisance. I felt different now, at a certain time of the month; sometimes I was moody and angry for no reason. It was a necessary part of being a woman. Boys had no such moment. For a while, I wished I was a boy. I did not like my breasts becoming larger, and tender, so if I got pushed or struck in the chest, it hurt more than when I was little. I stopped wrestling with boys.
So we come to the day when everything was lost to me. We were in our classroom, we had just had our morning prayers, because this was a Christian school, and in our home, we had a cross on the wall which my mother would sometimes kiss for luck. So I did not mind the prayers, although I yearned always to begin the class, to learn more.
We had all sat down. Mr Edwards gave out our maths books. I loved maths. I loved all lessons, but maths seemed to bring the sky closer.
It was a cloudy day in summer, hot and heavy. Our school had windows, not like my village school, and we opened them all to let in the dusty air. Then someone said, two buses are coming into the school yard. It was unusual. We crowded to the windows, even Mr Edwards, to see the doors open and men coming out, wearing hoods so we could not see their faces. Each man carried a long black gun.
Mr Edwards said, Girls, get under your desks. I will speak with them.
We did as we were told. But then he left the classroom and we had to see what happened. We crept back to the windows and watched as he came up to the men and lifted his hand, as he did in class when he wanted silence. But these men did not obey him. One raised the gun a little, and shot Mr Edwards in the head.
Girls started screaming. We tried to get back under our desks. The door was kicked open and a handful of men came in, shooting their guns at the ceiling. They told us we had been rescued and that we must go with them. No one asked, rescued from what?
Where were our teachers? Those men and women whose word was law? They stood outside, up against the wall. Guns were holding them back from saving us. They were forced to watch while girls from all classes were loaded onto the buses. Three hundred of us. A whole school. The youngest was twelve; the oldest nearly eighteen.
Then began the terror time. We did not understand anything. We did not dare ask our kidnappers any questions. One girl needed the toilet but they would not stop for her and she had to sit in her own wetness for many miles. We were thirsty; we longed for water.
Once the buses stopped so the men could talk to each other. They laughed a lot. They were pleased with themselves. There was one man on our bus, but he was not intelligent. He had counted us all as we got on, but slowly, as if counting was difficult for him. He still had his hood on, but it was troubling him. He decided to remove it. To do this, he put his gun down, and in that split second while his eyes were blind, two girls squeezed themselves out of the windows and ran into the bush. Two out of so many. I wished I had had the courage to do as they did. But when the men stopped talking, they discovered that two girls were missing, and this made them very angry. They took one girl from each bus and shot her without even time to say a prayer. I had never seen anyone die before, and to die in that lonely place was terrible. I said a prayer for them, but this made the men even more angry, to hear some girls say God and Amen, and they came into our bus and shouted at us that we were infidels and we must change our religion or we would die, they said, but slowly, more slowly than Mr Edwards or our schoolmates.
After that we were allowed to get off the bus in groups of ten, and we had to do our business in full sight of the men, who laughed and pointed. It was a shameful interlude. When I was on the bus I tried to think of anything in my life that would help me. Had I learned any facts at school that applied to this situation? What would my older brothers, my mother, my father, do in my plight? Thinking about them brought their dear faces before me and I began to cry, as many were doing. The men let us cry for a while, but then shouted at us to stop. Anyone who did not stop would be shot. It is surprising how fear can dam up tears. Soon it was dull silence. Then one man pushed his hood back and told us that we must change our religion, because Christianity was bad. We had to become Muslim, we had to worship a new god called Allah.
I did not understand how there could be two Gods in heaven. We started whispering to each other, to try and make sense of this order, but he shouted at us again, that anyone whispering would die, but not by shooting. This shut us up. He said then that we had been ‘rescued’ to fulfil our destiny, which was to marry and become mothers. I knew some girls were only little, too young to even think about a husband. But this man told us in the eyes of Allah we were ready, and our husbands had been chosen for us.
So we dreaded coming to the end of our journey. We arrived at their camp after a day of travelling. The first thing I noticed was a man cooking. I had never seen such a sight. He was stirring a pot, and even though we were tired and thirsty, we longed to eat.
They gave us all water from a calabash, we had to drink from cupped hands, never enough. There were only a few bowls for the stew, so we had to take turns. By then we were so frightened that we did everything we were ordered without a murmur. I had begun to dream that police would come, that soldiers would come, that our parents would come. That was our only hope.
As the girls came forward to get their food, they would have to stand and eat while the men watched each one. After eating, the man who had done all the talking would point a finger at a girl, and ask ‘Who wants this wife?’ and the men were allowed to choose us. Then we had to go and stand with this man. All had guns, our husbands.
By now I was feeling this truly was a bad dream. It could not be real, that my life, our lives, could be snatched away. I must be dreaming the blood on my friend’s faces, the exploding head of Mr Edwards. Every time I closed my eyes I revisited that scene.
It was my turn. I ate my stew and the finger was pointed at me. A man quickly came forward to claim me. He was not young; he wore shorts and his legs were ugly, bent and bowed with huge knots of dark blue veins up and down. I could not believe this was my fate. He was grinning as he seized me roughly by the wrist and pulled me over to stand next to him.
Soon all of us were standing with a husband. A man who said he was an imam made a brief statement to the effect that this was our marriage ceremony and we did not have to say a word. We could not defend ourselves in any way. I was so angry for the little girls, who were not ready for husbands. I did not know what being married would be like. The men gave their responses and there was much shouting about Allah and words we did not understand. Night was falling now, and I looked up to see my stars still shining down on me as if they did not care. At that moment I hated the stars. My favourite constellation was Cassiopeia, but even seeing her brought me no pleasure. My husband had some teeth missing and his hair was grey in parts. They had married me to an old man.
When we had eaten we were dismissed for the night, and each couple went to their own sleeping place. Ours was a cave in the side of a hill; some had huts, most slept in the forest. Our cave was dark and there was a pile of stinking animal skins on the floor, which my husband patted, saying, this is our bed. He had not even asked my name. I lay down in my school uniform, but he frowned and told me to take off all my clothes, every stitch. I had to do as he said. His gun was watching us, leaning against the side of the cave. I got back on the bed and he gave me a cloth to cover us both. He stripped off. I tried to pray, I tried to think, I tried to use my brain to rescue myself, but no help came. All I had time to calculate was the sum of wanting to live, minus this hell. How much did I want to live, at that moment? Only enough to do whatever he said. He told me to touch him. His part swelled. I tried to think of it as a biology lesson. He put his hand on my breast, and I screamed. Immediately his hand was across my mouth, cutting off the scream, and he told me what would happen if I screamed again. He told me to open my legs. Then he did things to me that changed me forever. I lost my ambition that night. My career as astronomer shot high into the clouds, as far away as the constellations I loved to study. It exploded in a burst of dark light; tears ran down my cheeks all the time my husband was doing his business. I did not know his name until afterwards. He wanted to know mine, and I told him it was Cassiopeia. He shortened it to Cassie. He fell asleep and snored loudly while I lay awake, thinking about the little girls and what torture they were going through. Surely they would see that these twelve year olds were too small, not fully grown, not old enough to be married?
The morning brought fresh horrors. We girls saw each other at breakfast, when we were told by the man whose name was Ahmed the rules of our imprisonment. For every girl who ran away, five would be killed. Education for girls was sinful. We should never have gone to school, so it was our fault that we had been there that day. Now we all had to become Muslims; he was going to ask each one if she agreed. Those who did not, he said, would have a dog’s death. Of course we agreed. Except Lilly. Her father was a priest, and her whole family loved the church.. How could they ask her to betray her father, betray Jesus? When it came to her turn, she said no, she could not worship another god. She was pulled out of the group and put to one side. Her husband looked angry. Soon we had all agreed to become Muslims and they told us how lucky we were to have been chosen. But then we had to watch what happened to Lilly.
It was beginning to get hot, so the men took it in turns to dig a deep narrow hole, and four of them put Lilly into it, only her head showing. They piled the earth around her so her face was undefended from the sun. I wondered if that was the death, to leave her to bake in the sun we had been taught to shelter from since we were babies. Her lips were moving but silently she prayed, her eyes were closed, but every so often they flickered open. I thought it could get no worse than this.
The men were scrabbling around , picking up stones until they had a pile of different sizes. A young man was the first; as if he was a teacher, he showed us how to do what they wanted us to do. He picked a stone and threw it at Lilly, hitting her forehead. Then they ordered us all to throw the stones at Lilly, yes, to throw at her innocent face. No one stepped forward to do this thing. So they pointed at each one of us, and we were forced to take a stone and throw it, or we would suffer the same fate. They shouted at us to throw harder, but we could not. Lilly’s face began to bleed, and her mouth opened and she cried out ‘Sisters, I forgive you in the name of Jesus’. This made the men so angry that they seized rocks and big stones and rained them down on her. Our feeble efforts were nothing. They aimed for her nose, eyes and mouth, they broke her teeth, but still she tried to pray. Where was her husband? He was throwing rocks with the rest of them, saying it was the will of Allah.
By now it was hot and I felt faint and sick. Some of the girls vomited in their terror. But these men had no mercy; we had to stand and watch until Lilly ‘s face drowned in blood and her mouth was no longer a mouth. We couldn’t make out her words, except I think she said Jesus; I think she called on Jesus to come to her. It was a terrible lesson.
That night I went out of the cave when Ahmed was sleeping. I did not know where this camp was, I did not know how far we had come, but the clouds had cleared and I moved about until I could see the constellations as I saw them from my hill at home. I guessed my village was south, away from the pole star. I sent a prayer to Lilly, not a Muslim prayer, but my own, to God and Jesus and Mary to look after Lilly and all of us, to bring us to heaven. I wondered which star had opened wide enough to let Lilly in. For her I chose Canopus, in the constellation of Carina, which is an Italian word that means a darling girl. That twinkling star was the door I would have chosen for myself. It was a bitter consolation, to know that I was only one star away from heaven.