* — October 26, 2017
Swear Not to Look
McKay Savage, 2010
Chibwire is a girl of fourteen. She lives with her mother in 3F. Her mother owns the hovel down the road, where men huddle at dusk to listen to the stern staccato of tragedy on the nine o’clock news and to exchange spittle in the unwashed mouths of their brew mugs.
Chibwire’s mother ferments millet all day and serves it all night, and so Chibwire is left to her own devices. The girl spends her days walking from house to house, peering through kitchen windows to see who has spread jam on their bread and who has eaten yesterday’s cold ugali for breakfast.
Sarah sees Chibwire crossing the courtyard, and she says, “Akh!” even before Chibwire stands outside the kitchen window and rubs the glass with the bib of her dress and peers inside. Sarah says to Chibwire, “You have the manners of a mongoose.”
People always say things like that to Chibwire. Once, she peered into the schoolteacher’s window and the schoolteacher told her that she had the manners of a duck-billed platypus, and it was the most exhilarating thing that anyone had ever heard.
Chibwire says to Sarah, “Wah-wah-wah! You must be told what happened.”
Again, Sarah says, “Akh!” but she does not throw a slipper at Chibwire and murmur, “Get out of here, you ruffian,” like the other neighbours do.
On Sundays, Sarah takes out a sheet of newspaper and lines the sofa set so that Chibwire can sit on it with her filthy dress. Then she brings out a pitcher of tamarind juice and pours it into two plastic cups, and the juice is sour and they have to drink it with one eye fluttering open and shut.
Sarah says, “Go on then and tell me the thing that I must be told.”
Chibwire says, “You have to come out and sit with me before I tell you the thing that you must be told.”
Sarah puts away the yam which she had been scraping with a blunt knife. She opens the door and follows Chibwire into the courtyard.
Chibwire has a sticky ball of simsim in her pocket. She puts the entire ball of simsim in her mouth and breaks it with her teeth and spits it into her grimy palm and offers some of it to Sarah.
Sarah chooses the smaller piece. She wipes it against her dress first, and then she crushes the ball and arranges the tiny seeds in a straight line down the middle of her tongue. She watches as Chibwire sticks her tongue out to see if she can see the seeds. They look like dead sugar ants. They stick to her tongue, and she scrapes at them with the nail of her forefinger.
Chibwire touches her neck with her tongue. Her mouth stretches into a brazen cavern, and a glistening serpent emerges from it, slithering over the boulders of her lips, crawling over the chipped, granite wall of her chin, to the steep escarpment of her neck. Chibwire swallows a cloud of gnats, and she spits in the grass and rubs her tongue with the bib of her dress. Her fingers are clammy with saliva.
Nearby, Bahati from 2G is bent over her veranda, mopping, her buttocks jiggling inside her lesso. The writing on her lesso says: He who is not taught by Mother is taught by World.
Bahati talks to herself as she works. She says, “Haiwezekani! How can someone come to your house and bring you porcupine juice, as though porcupine juice sates anything but the appetite for porcupine juice? What about other appetites?”
She wrings her mop-cloth into a bucket of ochre-coloured water, and she hangs the mop cloth on the wash lines, and she scrubs her feet beneath the tap until her soles are as white as the pulp of a pear fruit. She hurls the dirty water across the courtyard. It splatters against the glass windows of neighbouring houses. Bahati rinses her bucket under the tap, then she waddles away, bucket beneath her arm.
They watch her disappear into the dark orifice of her house.
Chibwire says, “Let me just tell you! You see Bahati’s man-friend? Yesterday, heh! He spent the day chewing miraa, my god. You know how when you chew miraa your thing does not work? Now he came home to her and she took off her dress for him, and he couldn’t even raise a finger. You do not want to hear the bad names that they started calling each other! She called him, ‘Makende,’ and he called her, ‘Kuma.’”
Chibwire curls her tongue, relishing the taste of her own vulgarities. Sarah slaps the girl’s wrists. “You, don’t speak such mud loudly, people will hear!”
They watch as Kadogo strolls down the street. Kadogo is a thirteen-year-old housemaid. She lives in house 2A, and works for Mama Boi. Mama Boi is called Mama Boi, even though she does not have any children. She is called Mama Boi because she likes to talk about Boi, the boy-child she will give birth to one day.
Boi will eat potato chips and Coca-Cola every day for supper, and he will read only the pretty Ladybird storybooks. Boi’s mouth will not hold the curdled taste of Swahili words in them, and he will be
above playing with the dirty little ruffians of Kinshasa Street. Boi will be a half-American child, and if not, then a half-British child, and if not, then concessions will have to be made to allow him be half-Indian or Chinese or Arab.
Chibwire watches Kadogo for a few moments, then lowers her voice to a conspiratorial tone. She says to Sarah, “You know what happened this morning? Mama Boi counted the stew and found twelve pieces of meat instead of fifteen. Also, one potato was missing. So Kadogo is not being paid for this month. This morning I saw her in the kitchen, crying monkey tears.”
Kadogo throws a rock at Chibwire. “Stop gossiping, mango head.”
Across the street, a woman huffs as she climbs off the back of a bicycle. Beneath her right arm, a chicken is smothered, gasping for air.
Chibwire says, “My god, look at the size of that woman’s melons.”
Kadogo, who has ambled closer and now sits with Chibwire and Sarah, says, “Wah, those are not even melons. They are potato sacks. Do you think she sleeps on her back, with those slung over the headboard?”
Chibwire pulls at the bib of her dress and peers down her chest. She says, “I swear, Bible red! When mine grow, they shall be oranges.”
“Why oranges?”
“Oranges fit well in a man’s hand. Pawpaws ripen too soon, and they squiggle and leak and take the shape of anything they can find. Melons, where will someone find a sling to carry their melons inside? Just look at that woman, dragging hers on the ground.”
Sarah says, “Who has been filling your head with such mud?”
Chibwire and Kadogo laugh.
The sky is the colour of the insides of someone’s eyelids. The sun is a dried, wispy leaf, and it is gently blowing down to the ground. Children stamp on it with their bare feet as they race down the street, saying to each other, “The last person to touch the red gate is the wife of Mr. Frog.”
The breeze is hot, and it flicks grit into people’s mouths, and the grit knocks against the enamel of people’s teeth and fizzles in their saliva. Chibwire spins coins in the soil, singing Mwamba Mwamba.
Her voice is a thin wire. It twists round and round, and in the end it breaks into two incongruent pieces. When her voice breaks, Chibwire has two voices, and she sings soprano with one voice and alto with the other. If you closed your eyes, you would think that there were two people singing.
Sarah imagines that the voice that has broken off is perched higher up Chibwire’s head, and that it curls out in soft tendrils through Chibwire’s ears.
Chibwire gets up to go, and Sarah clutches at the corner of her filthy dress. “Come back, you little wench.”
“I have things to do.”
“Oh, I know what things,” Sarah says, rising to her feet. “That’s enough spying through windows for a day. You follow me now, Chibwire. God knows when someone last scrubbed that grimy body of yours.”
Chibwire’s forehead crumples. “You are going to scrub me?”
“Well, your mother does not care enough to do it herself.”
Chibwire throws Kadogo a furtive glance.
“What is it?” Sarah asks. Chibwire does not respond, and so Sarah turns her questioning eyes to Kadogo.
Kadogo says, “Chibwire is afraid that you will see her naked.”
Sarah laughs. “Is that it? I won’t even look.”
“You will look. Everyone looks at nakedness every chance they get.”
“Chibwire,” Sarah says, placing a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. “I will not look at your nakedness. The whole time I will just be bending, scrubbing the wrinkly skin between your toes or washing the soles of your slippers.”
“Swear it.”
Sarah licks her forefinger and holds it up. “Bible red!”
As they walk away, Chibwire says, “Kadogo told me that if someone touches you, people can tell just by looking.”
“What do you think?”
“I think they can tell sometimes.”
“Like when?”
“Like when someone touches your hair and rearranges the braids, holding them up with rubber bands, everyone can tell. Or if someone touches your white dress with muddy fingers, everyone can tell. Or if you were eating and someone touched you by mistake, and they hit your elbow, and they made you miss your mouth, everyone can tell: they will see all the peas and cabbage and potatoes over the front of your dress.”
“And when can’t someone tell just by looking?”
“Well, if you were in the bus and the conductor touched your shoulder and said to you, ‘Pesa, madam?’ How could anyone tell then that the conductor had touched you? Does the conductor leave finger-shaped holes in the shoulder pads of your dress? Or if you were walking down the street and you met a friend of yours and you exchanged a high five, how could anyone tell that your friend had touched you? Could someone take your palm and study it and say, ‘This is where your fingerprints smudged when your friend’s hand slammed into yours?’”
Sarah pours hot water into a basin, and the two of them stand naked in the little bathroom with the rotten, rat-chewed door.
“Turn around, Chibwire,” Sarah says. She flattens her palms against the girl’s back, spreading soap in circular motions, making thin white paths that lead down to her buttocks. Chibwire’s flesh is supple, like warm plasticine. It bends and folds under Sarah’s hand, and if she squeezes it with her slippery fingers, it takes the shape of a banana or an avocado or a brew mug.
Later they sit on Sarah’s bed and towel each other and spread coconut oil on each other’s legs, and Sarah rolls a pair of white socks up Chibwire’s thighs. Sarah holds Chibwire for a few minutes, both of them naked save for the socks.
Sarah’s hand is limp on Chibwire’s waist and Sarah’s chin is soft on Chibwire’s shoulder. For a few moments, Sarah does not smell the harshness of Imperial Leather or the sickly sweet odour of coconut oil. All she smells is the gauziness of smiles dismantled from faces, smiles placed on footrests, next to metal tea cups with chinks in their corners, next to rag dolls and tightly wound dreams.
Sarah sits up. Her breasts are pressed down hard against her stomach, her nipples aligning themselves with her distended navel. Those nipples, they are puckered, sad nipples, like little grieving faces. They are surrounded by rings as wide and as chapped as the tobacco-singed mouths of men who must have loved her once.
“Chibwire,” Sarah says. “You would tell me if someone touched you, wouldn’t you?”
Chibwire says nothing.
Sarah unfolds a clean dress. She holds it up against the light, studying the macramé of patches, studying the flaps of fabric stretched over holes, like Elastoplast over a cut. The dress looks as though it has hit itself hard, as though there is pus inside the cloth.
Sarah wiggles into the dress. She unfolds another dress, one whose fabric is softer, sinfully softer, like the copper hair that falls over cobs of maize in the garden. She pulls it over Chibwire’s head. A pin scratches the small of Chibwire’s back.

“Turn,” Sarah says, and when Chibwire does, Sarah pulls the zipper up until it pinches the back of Chibwire’s neck.
They sit on the doorstep and eat dried fish and ugali and listen to the death news on the transistor radio.

Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 2. View full issue & more.

Okwiri Oduor was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her short story My Father’s Head won the 2014 Caine Prize for African Writing as well as the 2013 Short Story Day Africa’s Feast, Famine and Potluck story contest. Her work has appeared in several journals and anthologies. She was a 2014 MacDowell Colony Fellow and a 2015 Art OMI Ledig House fiction resident. Okwiri has just graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.