from Mai Means Water
by Kayo Mpoyi
introduced and translated by Alex Fleming
Tanzania, early 1990s. Adi Mukendi, the young daughter of a Zairian diplomat, lives with her parents and two of her sisters, Mai and Dina, in embassy accommodation in Dar es Salaam. Adi’s younger sister Mai is often in and out of hospital, and the girls’ home life is punctuated by prayers, intense study, and punishment for any minor misbehaviour. God is everywhere, they are told, and he sometimes comes to Adi in the form of a young boy in glasses and a blazer – a witness to traumas that no one else sees, and a silent judge of her actions.
Narrated through Adi’s curious, imaginative eyes, Mai Means Water explores shame, intergenerational cycles of trauma and abuse, and the different narratives that shape us as humans. But, perhaps most directly, it is also a richly layered portrait of the complexities of sisterhood. This extract comes at a turning point in the novel, where a familial rift forces Adi to contemplate her relationship with her two closest sisters.
During a visit from two older siblings, Kimba and Zo, the family is shaken when it emerges that fifteen-year-old Dina is pregnant with their neighbour Elombe’s child.
from Mai Means Water
Everyone’s eyes are down on their plates at breakfast. Dina hasn’t left our room. Papa doesn’t eat with us. He went out early, before it was even light. Now he’s back in their bedroom. We can hear him ripping pages, praying and singing loudly. When he comes out he asks where Dina is. He tells Mama to go fetch her, but when nothing happens he goes in and thunders at Dina himself. Then she comes out and sits down. It looks like she hasn’t eaten in days.
Papa has a bundle of papers in front of him.
‘I have prayed and prayed. We have talked all night; there is nothing left to say. A great wickedness has come over my house, and you children are doing your all to destroy me. You, Kimpa, have lived in sin with a man in Kinshasa. To have to hear such a thing from my neighbour, a colleague of mine. Have I worked so hard only to be subjected to this? For shame! Who taught you these ways? It is my fault, I know; it was I who chose your mother. Look at Dina, you are your mother’s daughter! That I should come to regret that choice so bitterly.’ When Papa says this Mama stands up and leaves the room. In all the commotion I turn to god, who is sitting under the table, and whisper:
What does Dina have to do with Mama?
All in good time, god replies.
After a while Papa goes on.
‘It is possible that someone has cast a spell on you. I don’t know what you ate while you were with your uncles, or if they asked you to bring fetishes here and spread misfortune in my home. Let me say, first and foremost, that it will not work. I do not intend to let you be poor examples to your younger siblings. All the work I have put in for you is now entirely in vain. You are beyond saving. I hope by god’s grace that you make it through, but you will exploit me no more. We must cleanse this house of the wickedness that you have brought here.’
Papa reads from the Bible. While Dina’s tears flow Papa reads of women on whom god has turned his back. Street women, says Papa. Women without worth. Without respect for god’s law. Women who dance with Satan and young men who drink alcohol, and all of them have deserted god and welcomed Satan into their hearts. Then we pray and sing and Papa talks about shame, how it can never be washed away. It sets upon you, changes the colour of your skin, stains your face. DUMBA. The word eats away at Papa, and once he’s spat it out it starts to eat away at us, too. Dumba, the women we’ve seen out in short skirts and high heels. Women who stand at the roadside and wave at the cars.
When we break off to make dinner Kimpa sits with Dina, who has stopped crying but is now staring blindly into space. Zo says it will all be ok. They are together. Mai and I creep around the edges of their conversations. Mama has returned, but her mouth is a tight line. Papa is smarting from all the words he has spilled through the day. They press at his shaking hands, make damp stains on the walls, stop the oxygen from getting in through the open windows.
Papa doesn’t eat any dinner. Mai pokes at her food and slips her chicken skin onto Mama’s plate.
‘No, Mai, you have to eat it all!’ I whisper.
She gives me a sour look.
Papa drinks some water but then jumps up and leaves the table. He comes back later with Mai’s baby bath and tells Mama to fill it with water. Mama puts down her cutlery and looks at us as though she doesn’t recognise us. As though she doesn’t even know who she is. Her look scares me. When god comes back I must ask him. Ask if he can’t explain what happens.
The siblings look at each other uncertainly when Mama comes back with the full bath. Papa tells her to set it down in the living room. Then he kneels down before it and prays. Zo makes a face and I clap my hands to my mouth to muffle my nervous titters. Dina isn’t eating. Her eyes are on the open door and the darkening sky outside.
Then Papa tells us to sit down in the living room again. I can feel a sharp prickling in my toes, and the pressure in my chest is making me want to cry. He says that there is holy water in the bath.
‘Papa, the water came from the kitchen,’ says Mai, and this time my titters burst out unchecked.
‘CHILDREN! Understand the gravity of the situation!’
We all flinch.
‘God offers forgiveness to those who seek it. But to walk on in god’s light one must make a decision and allow oneself to be purified by god’s water. Come here, Dina!’
The next morning Dina, Kimpa and Zo are gone. Many of Dina’s things are still here. Her scarf, her school books. Her uniform is still hanging in the wardrobe, but I can’t find her favourite shoes. Nor her Michael Jackson cassette. Nor her lipstick. Nor the others’ suitcases.
The nail polish I stole is still here. I took it, once, to look at, and accidentally left the lid off. Dina looked everywhere. I hid it in the small crack on the veranda floor. Covered by the mat that once had a thousand colours, she couldn’t find it.
That deed is also on god’s list. Now he’s down in the yard, scouring the ground for tracks. He writes down what he sees. Then he raises his eyes skywards, makes a note of the clouds. I don’t dare ask which way Dina went. Was it to the sky, or down below?
Mama isn’t talking. She doesn’t make us breakfast. Papa tells Mai and me to stay in Dina’s and my bedroom. We eat bread in bed, something that is normally forbidden. It would attract mice, who would nibble at our fingers while we sleep.
We spoon on more marmalade than we are usually allowed. They are the best marmalade slices ever. We eat the whole loaf and wash it down with soda. I love the sound of bread being dipped in cola. The prickly taste afterwards, the cold, soft bread in my mouth. Mai copies what I do and the sounds I make.
From Dina’s and my room, which has a window out onto the veranda, we see Mama sit and stare. She mumbles to herself. Her voice is dry and her lips smack.
Not even when Papa goes outside and tells her that the children need food does she look at him. She just sits there on the old mat of a thousand colours, lets it draw its marks in her skin.
That Sunday Papa gets out the food; Zuri doesn’t come to us on Sundays. He asks me to peel some carrots, says that Mama should have taught me basic cooking skills by now.
Just before dusk it starts to rain violently, and I hear Mama come in from the veranda. Mai is already asleep. I lie in bed and listen to Mama’s footsteps. She goes into the bathroom and the water heater starts up. Then she comes in to see us.
She sits by the bed, sees that I’m awake and asks if we’ve eaten.
‘Mama, where’s Dina?’ I ask.
‘She’s gone with the others to South Africa.’
‘Why did she just disappear?’
‘No questions, Adi. Not now.’
Tears run down my cheeks. I want to tell her that god has come for me, so that I can atone for my sins. I want her to promise that Dina will come back. I wish I had gone with them.
‘Why didn’t she wake me up?’
Thunder rattles the house.
‘Now it’s raining,’ Mama says.
And it rains for a whole week.
‘Dina was swallowed up by the water in your baby bath,’ I tell Mai when she asks where Dina is. We look at the tub in the bathroom and from then on Mai, who has always insisted on sitting in it while we shower, can no longer touch it.
‘The water grew arms and pulled her in. All that’s left of her is the school uniform in the wardrobe,’ I whisper to Mai, who stares at me wide-eyed.
That week Mai and I watch as the yard floods, Mama’s plants die. They say that entire villages have been washed away, that a church sank into the ground with the priest and the choir still inside. By the time the mud had dried, the cross on the roof was all there was to say that a church had ever stood there. Mama reads about Noah from the Bible, and tells us yet again about girls who didn’t listen to their parents and as a result dissolved in the rain.
A new year comes, and the ground dries out in the short dry season it brings. Mai sleeps with me now. I sleep on the outside. On the nights when Mai has trouble breathing Mama puts a mattress down and sleeps with us, like an extra sentry.
In the evenings now it’s Mai who squeezes up to my arm, afraid of the crocodiles under the bed.
Where’s Dina, she asks every night, as though it were the first.
She got gobbled up by your baby bath, I sometimes reply.
She flew away on a blue bird all the way to South Africa, I say at others.
Tonight I say that she went out in the rain even though she wasn’t allowed. Mama had warned her, for Dina was made of clay. But she went out in the rain all the same, and she melted. This story makes Mai start to cry, she wants to go to Mama and sleep with them. But I promise her that the next day we’ll go look for Dina in the yard, and that we’re sure to find something spectacular.
The next day is a Saturday. While Mama attends to her plants we claw at the ground looking for eyes and fingers, for remains of disobedient girls who melted in the rain.
Naughty girl where are you, we sing.
Whenever we see anything glint we give a start and scream, but it always turns out to be something other than the body parts of melted naughty girls. Mostly they are the remains of soda cans or pieces of glass.
But then Mai cries: ‘I’ve found something!’
‘Let me see,’ I demand.
In Mai’s hands lies Dina’s stone. The one with a spiral that I lost long ago, when Moise was rough and shoved me. I never thought I would see it again.
‘Do you know what you’ve found, Mai? An eye! The cursed eye. Best give it to me, or else you’ll wake up tomorrow to find you’ve been turned to clay.’
Mai drops the stone at once and I put it in my pocket.
When evening comes I take out the stone. Mama is giving Mai a bath while Papa listens to the news on the radio. He changes the channel often, as though listening out for something specific. Possibly some news about three teenagers who ran away from home only to be found in a ditch far from Dar es Salaam. Maybe they got shot by gangsters after stumbling into a battle over land. Maybe they got trampled by an angry herd of buffalo while on the run from a lorry driver who had promised to drive them to Johannesburg but had instead tried to sell them into forced labour on a farm in Mozambique.
Or maybe at this very moment Dina is sitting by a wardrobe just like the one she left behind, looking at a doll made out of a dress she stole from me. I put the stone in place so it becomes the eye on the Dina doll I have made. I whisper that of course I miss her, too. Watch out for the hunters, Dina. Watch out for lorry drivers with wicked plans. I put sweets and treasures in the Dina doll’s pockets.
In the morning Mama finds the Dina doll and is horrified. She had been looking for her teardrop-patterned pagne. Since the others ran away she has wrapped the garment just under her breasts. She doesn’t wet her hair with lavender-scented oil before braiding it anymore, but wears it up in a head wrap, a worn yellow wrap that she washes every third day. When she sits out on the veranda she puts a pagne over her shoulders, like the mothers at church do when in mourning. In the evenings she folds them. She opens her wardrobe, a meadow of red spirals, yellow-dotted skies and brown animals in a fabric-forest of pinks, blues and greens. She folds them end to end, traces the patterns with her finger and presses the fabric with both hands, then neatly hangs them back in place. When she goes up to the roof terrace with her Bible for her now-regular weekend fasts, in which she doesn’t even drink any water despite the dry season, despite its beating sun that sends cracks through the earth, she puts a pagne over her head and prays for several hours.
Mama says she fears for me and pulls the Dina doll apart. The stone drops out and I hide it under my foot. She says that she will pray for me. Then she looks at my hands in sorrow, as though she sees something in them.
I look at my hands.
They are just hands.
They are just hands, god confirms.
‘The evil is inside us,’ says Mama. ‘We must go to church,’ she concludes.
Later that Sunday morning we stop in front of the trees leading up to the vicarage.
Mama is holding her Bible. She has brought the one in Swahili.
‘I often think of my childhood home when I come here,’ she says, taking a long look at the houses and the trees. She closes her eyes and prays a silent prayer.
Mai tugs at her arm.
‘I want to sit down.’ Mai never has the energy to walk very far.
We find the church mothers on the church steps. Mama wants to take up her place in the choir again, but the mothers say it’s best that she not anger her husband. Mama assures them it’s been settled, but they don’t want to listen. Their eyes pop at the thought of letting Mama sing their hymns with them.
‘You can do other things for the church,’ the mothers say, suggesting everything from cooking for the poor to cleaning up after Sunday school.
‘I have the best voice of the whole lot,’ Mama declares, hurt, as the church mothers hurry inside. I look at Mai, but she’s busy sighing at her weary, bow-adorned feet. I like it when Mama sings. The song is shrill and she sings it from the heart. I could listen to her song any time, but maybe that’s just me.
We go inside the church.
‘Beware of him who finds god in everyday things. Beware of those who claim to see god outside of church, outside of the Bible.’ One of the church mothers gives her testimony:
‘I look away immediately when the devil’s spirits come to tempt me.’
The church mother raises her hands, she speaks in big gestures: ‘Jesus, I cry!’ She points at the people in the packed church. Most are Tanzanians, some Indians. ‘Beware of placing your devotion in small things. I hear people speak of the god they bear on their waists; the god they bear behind their ears. Satan wants to make you believe that there are many paths to god. There is only one path to god, and that is here. From this pulpit. Satan disguises himself, pretends to be god’s voice. He comes to us humans because of our desire and our longing, our pride and disobedience. Everyone who succumbs to these sins falls.’
‘Amen,’ says Mamma.
God is nowhere. I can’t remember him ever coming with me inside the church.
One Saturday in February Mama says that something stifling has come over the house.
There’s no work coming from the university now, she says, for Papa has a pain in his stomach and he’s no good at sums any more. And his embassy pay is sporadic. There’s unrest in Zaire, and in Tanzania there have been mysterious deaths in the Zairian families. Someone got eaten by a goat. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
Mama is so stifled by the house that she decides we should walk to Cocoa Beach.
‘Papa doesn’t want to drive any more than necessary,’ she explains. ‘Papa wants to move out of Upanga,’ she says too. For Papa and Papa Kabeya are enemies now. Elombe has been sent away to a relative in France, and Moise says it’s all Dina’s fault. But we can’t move. The embassy has no spare houses.
Yusuf, who is sometimes a chauffeur too, offers to drive us.
‘Papa has a pain in his stomach,’ Mama says again, as though the words are stuck in her head.
On the beach Mai and I eat grilled corn on the cob. We run and the winds give us a push. We walk at the water’s edge and jump when the waves hit us.
Don’t let go of her hand, god says.
Why should I always have to look after her? I ask.
For she is yours to love.
A Masai man stands staring at us. Screw caps, shards of glass and seaweed tangled up with an old rag wash up onto the shore. His sandaled feet kick away a plastic bottle. The sky behind his head is grey. He has stopped to watch us. The bracelets in his hand clink.
At my feet lies Mai, and Mama is rocking her. Mai coughs and coughs, again and again. She has asthma, Mama explains to someone who asks. Not that the water came down on Mai and me in vengeance. Not that I wasn’t holding her hand. Not that, for a few seconds, Mai was gone from the face of the earth. God takes his notes, his suit wet with seawater.
Am I evil? I wasn’t holding her hand and then she was gone.
Silence from god.
Where did she go?
The other side, says god.
Is Mai going to die?
God wrings the drips out of his wet blazer sleeves, but doesn’t reply.
Can anyone save her?
You can, god says.
Mai betyder vatten
Rights: Norstedts Agency, Catherine Mörk
We are grateful to Norstedts Agency for permission to publish this translated extract from Mai betyder vatten.
Mai betyder vatten is reviewed in SBR 2020:1-2.
Kayo Mpoyi was born in 1986 and lives in Stockholm. She has studied at the renowned writer's school Biskops-Arnö and currently works as a media producer. Mai Means Water is her debut novel and is inspired by myths told in her own family. It was winner of the 2020 Katapult Prize for best literary debut.
Alex Fleming is a freelance translator from Swedish and Russian.