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Fatima Saleh by Alexander Ikawah

© Alexander Ikawah

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The moon bathed the haphazard clusters of tattered tents and ramshackle structures that housed Kakuma’s 71,500 refugees in an ethereal light. The night was just quieting down; most people obeying the 9:00pm curfew the Kenya Police had imposed after the murders of the Sudanese asylum seekers. Behind one of the tents, Fatima Saleh was squatting in the new patch she had cleared earlier after the old one got messy. It still hurt from yesterday but she was not going to see a doctor about it; word travelled too fast in the camp. The patch of sand swallowed the warm torrent thankfully, as if it understood no other moisture would have come its way if she hadn’t squatted there. Desert nights were cold and as Fatima stood, her jilbab falling to cover her legs, a thin steam was already rising from the wet patch. She spat and parted the thorn brush and headed for her tent.

Nights like this one made her think of Jamal; the fool. Giving away his life for a cause that took and took without ever giving back. It was under a full moon like this one that he had said goodbye for the final time back in Kismayu. He had been smiling, confident he would return. Promising her a son, to be named after both his father and hers; Farah Saleh he would have been. The fool, he was lost somewhere. Dead in a foreign land no doubt. The enemies he had gone to kill had come looking for him and found only her. When they began the bombing she had stayed, hoping the fighting would bring her fighter back home. Instead, the men who came were fiends. Ruthless animals without souls. Men Jamal would have shot himself though they claimed the same purpose for war. It was no place for a woman of her nature. She had packed up and left with the last groups of refugees that made it out of Somalia before the Al-Shabaab took over. Now here she was in a foreign land, surrounded by strangers. Even old friends and acquaintances were strangers here. They kept quiet in the night when monsters came; offering no help, not even a shout. Their silence was the ultimate betrayal. If Jamal had died for these traitors, he had died in vain. She would fight only for herself.

Muhammad was waiting behind an acacia tree halfway between the brush and Fatima’s tent. He watched her as she approached, his eyes lingering over her tall frame as she walked towards him. She was a beautiful woman by whatever measure. Even in the half light she seemed graceful, her jilbab struggling to conceal the sweeping curves of her womanhood. He stepped out from the shadows and showed himself, standing squarely in her way, a fire burning in his eyes.

‘Salaam Aleikum.’

‘Aleikum Salaam’ she replied, unsure of his intrusion. ‘What do you want?’

He was glad she hadn’t assumed anything. He looked in her eyes, noting the fear, the defiance, and the steely glint that always made him reconsider his wish to court her. This was different however, dangerous even. She could be cast out for this, treated like a pariah, maybe even killed. He had to be cautious.

‘I heard what happened yesternight Fatima, I heard everything. I’m very sorry.’

She stared at him intently in the moonlight, watching for any slight sign of his true intentions. ‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘I won’t tell anyone’ he continued.

‘What do you want?’ she demanded.

‘Their names’ he replied. ‘I want their names.’

She finally understood. She walked up to him, her lips quivering with rage.

‘So just like that you are going to defend my honour? Is that it? Am I to have no choice in this matter too?’ Her voice was getting louder, hot tears stinging her eyes as she spoke. ‘Is that your great plan to have me indebted to you? Am I to fall in love with you and become your fawning wife after that? Is that it?’ She was standing right in front of him now, her face an inch from his face, her breath hot with anger. ‘Answer me Muhammad!! Am I to be shunted like a football, from one man’s penis to another man’s hut?’ And as he drew back to slink away, worried about the heads that were beginning to poke out of hurriedly opened tent flaps, she drew back her hand and slapped him with all her strength.

A flurry of emotions wracked Muhammad, his intense rage eventually losing the battle to his more intense admiration. Quietly, he turned around and began to walk to his tent.

‘Muhammad’ she called behind him. He kept walking, eager to leave the scene before anyone else showed up.

‘I know who you are’ she declared.

This time he turned, his eyes narrowing dangerously at the import of her threat. She stared back at him, unflinching. The standoff held for just over half a minute, each unwilling to make the next move or retreat, then they walked their separate ways.
She entered her tent without a sound, the chill just as bad within the flimsy flaps of tarpaulin as outside. The pain was still intense, sharper when she moved. She swallowed one of the little pills, waiting a small eternity for it to ebb away. It would be a trying night.


It was not until 3:00am that Fatima Saleh heard the familiar rumble of the Landrover truck outside her tent. She was wide awake when they came, having spent the night trying to imagine away the dull throbbing between her legs. She moved quickly, setting the half full bottle of Coca-Cola next to the metal suitcase, a bit behind it, as if she was trying to hide it. The alleso was still warm; it had cost her all the money she made at the market yesterday. She opened the lid on the saucepan slightly, releasing its subtle aroma into the tent. The rag she used to clean her only plate was lying on top of the pan. She grabbed it and soaked it in the liquid from the small bottle then pulled up her jilbab dabbing each breast lightly with the cold wetness. She went to the tent flap, opened it a crack to see what was going on outside.

A cold wind licked the side of her face from outside the tent, trying to force a chill down her dress. There were three men near the truck, its engine still running, engaged in an argument. The two from the day before were there, and a third one now. A fat ugly pig-like brute of a man; his distended belly bursting out of the blue uniform. Strains of Swahili from their argument filtered through, interrupted only by the cold howling wind. They lit cigarettes and then laughed a bit, an agreement had been reached it seemed. A heavy lump of hot lead was settling in Fatima's stomach, churning her insides with fear. Her bowels felt loose as she turned into the tent. It wasn't as bad as yesternight at least, they didn't have surprise this time. Behind her, the fat man put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a wad of notes, handing it to the men from yesternight. Then he turned, and began to walk towards Fatima’s tent. She had returned to the bed and pulled the covers over her head, pretending to be dead asleep. Pretending not to hear as the tent flaps parted and the fat man entered, his hands already at his belt.

Fatima Saleh didn’t scream. They took turns, tearing, grunting, eating, sucking, and drinking and finally, urinating on the side of the tent, their piss flowing back inside due to the slope of the land. They left at 4:30, their Landover's rev setting off the crowing of neighboring cocks. The wind erasing the trails of their sojourn from the sand as soon as the wheels had passed. Leaving no trails behind them to lead back to the tent, to the pain they had caused. She got up only after the sound of the vehicle was no more. Her tears streaming down her face as they had done all night. She took the pills out of her bag and swallowed two, washing them down with the half glass of drinking water they had left in her jug. One for the pain that threatened to split her in two, the other for the vile sludge the pigs had left inside. She took her aluminium pail and went outside.

The wind was cold, blowing her tears in crazy patterns as they flowed down her cheeks. Whipping puffs of sand at her legs and making her jilbab flutter behind her with loud clapping noises. She grabbed the hem of it and rolled it up into a knot, leaving her legs exposed from the knees down. Now the wind changed tact, blowing into the jilbab from underneath, making it billow to twice her size. She held its wraps tight with one hand and headed for the taps. The tent where women bathed was almost 500 metres away, the path there winding between other women’s tents. Fatima contemplated walking there, brushing past other early risers with the scent of pig on her. Instead she headed back to her tent, moving the bedding and utensils to the side. There in the middle of her tent, she took off the jilbab and washed with the icy water, scrubbing her skin until one pain surpassed the other.

When she was finished, she put on fresh clothes and lit the fire outside. The red flames burned crazily, dancing like hungry demons in the morning half-light. She fed them; her jilbab, the plates, the sheets, the cleaning rag, the flimsy mattress, the water bottle; everything that smelled of pig. The inferno raged, fanned by the crazy wind whose temperature was slowly warming with the rising desert sun.


When Fatima Saleh went to the marketplace with her wares at noon that day, it was impossible to tell she had hardly slept. The painkillers were working fine and she had more in her coin purse. She greeted her friends and customers with the same cheery demeanor she wore everyday, her face radiant. They streamed to her mat to buy, to gossip, to envy, to tell her the latest news. Three of the Kenyan policemen had been found dead, their car had rammed into a tree. She acted surprised, asked if they might have been drunk. The storyteller leaned close; there was a lot of vomit in the car, they might have been poisoned. She frowned, she shook her head, she lamented on the state of security in the camp. The storyteller agreed, happy to have been the first to bring the news to Fatima Saleh.


She was squatting in the new patch she had cleared earlier after the old one got messy. It still hurt from yesterday but she was not going to see a doctor about it; word traveled too fast in the camp. The patch of sand swallowed the warm torrent thankfully, as if it understood no other moisture would have come its way if she hadn’t squatted there. Desert nights were cold and as Fatima stood, her jilbab falling to cover her legs, a thin steam was already rising from the wet patch. She spat and parted the thorn brush and headed for her tent.

‘I know who you are’ said Muhammad stepping out from the shadows behind the acacia tree, ‘And I’m sorry I displeased you before’ he continued.

She didn’t even stop walking, brushing past him, making him follow. ‘Forget me Muhammad; I will not be the wife of a mujahedeen again.’

‘Then may I have the honor of being the husband of one.’

She turned, the surprise showing in her eyes for a moment before she regained her composure. Then she walked away from him, unable to believe that somewhere deep inside, she was actually considering it.

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