I had accompanied my grandma to the thorny bushes in search of wood for charcoal. As I cleared thorns in a thin branch, it slipped from my hand and fell onto my left foot. The thorn pierced through my foot, all in. No visible marks. No pain. I continued with work. By the time I reached home that evening, I was limping, hobbling, and braving piercing pain. However, I wove fictitious stories about how I felt, and what had happened. In her book Chronic Pain and Family, Julie Silver, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, writes, such psychological unwillingness to express the pain I felt originates from “powerful social taboos against men expressing pain” (Silver, 5). Indeed, boys in my village were expected to be courageous, regardless of age. It was a widely accepted fact, the truth; as a boy, you were born into it.
That evening, when I crawled back to my sleeping pallets, I struggled with the pain, crying silently careful not to attract attention. I whimpered and groaned, silently. However, that pain behaviors “are things that people do or say to let others around them know they are suffering” (Silver,12), there was no way I could have received any form of help without informing my grandma a part of me was excruciatingly painful, that the pain was real, and the suffering genuine. Probably the prolonged pain I endured was, in part at least, due to my fear of going against the stereotype, being labeled a coward, or simply lacking words to verbalize how I felt, what had happened. Maybe I did not receive immediate medical interventions for these reasons. No one understood my pain, understandably so; I did. I masked it, successfully so, at least for a while. Courage failed me.
By the next morning, the entire left foot was swollen, and itchy. Grandma asked what had happened. I narrated a somewhat truer account of what had happened but downplayed the pain and the discomfort it caused. I am not sure if she noted the uneasiness, however. After a few days, out of concern for the increased swelling, she took me to my mum’s.
My mum’s homestead consisted of an 8 by 8 feet grass thatched, mud-walled and oblong-shaped hut. Sticks protruded through the mud. The door ushered into a partitioned floor, subdivided by animal skins embroidered into two sections: a section was an in-house kitchen where three sufurias (metallic cooking pots), two cups and a mug for the visitors lay scattered. The other was a bedroom-simple, a spare quarter. A swath of ell-dried cow hides spread across the floor. The hide was the mattress, with a simple shuka serving as a blanket. As a visitor, I was to sleep in the kitchen segment. I lay on a home-made mat, spread over an uneven floor. So as not to aggravate and hurt the foot further, I devised how I should sleep. I slept on one side, my affected foot resting on a thick piece of clothing suspended to a raised position by two ropes, a daunting task given my usual erratic sleeping patterns. That and the pain from the foot made the night unbearable. I sobbed, cried and woke up severally at night. Again, silently.
Days melted into each other and the foot kept getting worse. All the courage and the fear of being labeled a ‘coward’ and the hope I had had was now fading, dimming with every new day. When I could no longer bear the pain, I confided in grandma and mum, albeit reservedly.
I cried and wept all day, openly, this time. Kids stared expressionless as I grunted in burning pain. My mum was restless. She was troubled. A quick glance revealed a woman in deep contemplation. As silver notes, the pain elicited in me certain moods and feelings: anger, impulsiveness, short-temper, defiance, and aggression. These behavioral swings and unstable frame of mind placed my mum in a precarious emotional state. She was restless. Troubled. A quick glance revealed a woman deep in contemplation. She could not focus at her workplace: she got fired weeks later as a result. Certainly, “suffering is really a manifestation not of pain itself but of the losses that occur when pain persists” (Silver, 54). My pain was mum’s; hers was compounded by a job loss, however. The emotional, and the suffering, it caused continued to present an incredible burden for any of us to bear.
Nothing positive came out of clinic visits partly because we could not afford the expected medical costs; partly because the condition was at an advanced stage. I would go back home and fight back tears, biting through severe pain all night long. On nights when the pain abated, I would listen to the conversation on the other end of the room. My sisters caught up with the latest village gossip, my younger brother contributed hearty laughs. Albeit the agony, I shared in the fun and the laughs. These special moments somehow helped ease the pain.
Outside, life went on. I had missed months of studying. Save for the storybook I riffed during the few but rare moments the pain calmed down, I hadn’t done any actual studying. The end-year exam was soon approaching; it had been slated for the coming week. The exam was of great significance and carried with it ramifications: failing to take part meant I had to repeat 3rd grade; I wasn’t ready for this. I was wheeled to school for the exam, therefore. My mum had been against the idea of me doing the exam in such condition of health. To her, my health was critical and came first, above all else. After hours of persuasion, she finally gave in, albeit grudgingly. Once in school, heads turned, glances shot; looks of pity, sympathy, and worry. Students stepped out of class, walked up to me, and had closer look at the swollen foot. More kids poured out of their classrooms, older kids offered quick-recovery messages, younger ones asked what had happened.
During the last day of the exam, my class teacher requested to examine my foot. She unwrapped it, carefully. On a closer look, she gasped, and stared some more. She sprinkled powdery stuff, smeared an oily substance, massaging it all the while; with increased intensity, it gradually pained. I couldn’t bear the pain anymore, but my pitiful complaints went unheard. Bursting into a wail, I threatened to pull back the foot. She held it more tightly, pressing harder in the process. Minutes later, watery and reddish discharge oozed out followed by a large volume of pus. At this point, I had done enough crying and blind with pain. I was all over the floor wailing uncontrollably. She sighed with relief and gasped.
I cried all night. Painkillers couldn’t help. I angrily whisked away my elder sisters who brought dinner. I stopped crying in the early hours of the morning. The pain had died down but for some reason, I was still angry. Somehow though, I was relieved. My foot was reducing in size, almost a pound down, or so it seemed. This is when it dawned on me that the process of healing had just begun. The sleepless nights slowly morphed into nights of calming, deep sleep. Each morning, I compared the sizes of my feet to ascertain the extent of the healing, glad each day of the progress.
Excited, I would sit on a mat under the sun and watch kids play cha baba, cha mama (a beloved child game where kids play-act adults). Their adult accents and voices in good kilter: words rolled off their tongue in beautiful cadence; their composure and mastery of Turkana language admirable. Their kids behaved in utmost respect, obedience, and dignity. Boys and girls had very different roles: while the boys hunted in the forest and looked after cows and goats, girls' duties tethered them within the homestead. Beside where they acted, a soccer team was playing. I had helped construct the ball they used. I had skillfully passed threads through bits of leaves of paper before binding them in precision, my eyes squinted. Normally, they would need my approval before the game. Normally, I would be a high-profile person: I determined when the game started and when it ended, and I could brandish either a red or yellow card as I wished. Such was the power and clout I could have had. But today was no normal day.
Just like watching the kids and the soccer team, my grandma’s stories provided another outlet from the easing pain. My grandma’s storytelling was one of those rituals that were observed daily, even when we were dead tired, or sick, as was the case. I couldn’t have been to grandma’s if I didn’t go back home with a story- real or woven from imagination-richer. Through the stories, she spoke of her childhood and teenagerhood experiences: the struggles, the love, the war, the triumphs, the failures. Through the stories, she spoke of mum: her hard work, undying resilience, and boundless compassion. I couldn’t agree more with her observations on mum. My constant presence at home allowed me to observe my mum, and grandma, more closely, in ways I couldn’t normally. Her hard work, passion, and love for family. Her relentless struggle to singlehandedly provide for the family: she woke up each morning to prepare me tea over the sooty hearth. Her daily but undesirable morning routine—of battling with charcoal smoke—at the communal fire makeshift. Her confident steps, even when she had no idea what we would eat in the evening. Her valiant struggles to replace loosely attached bundles of grass that made the roof. Her struggles, self-sacrifice, unconditional love, undying resilience, boundless compassion. Just as grandma had observed.
Suffice to note that the injury brought me closer to these two important women in my life: it made me appreciate their sacrifices and love in ways I couldn’t have done before. More importantly, however, I’ve always wondered whether the injury and the struggles I endured created in them a softer spot for me. For example, each time I did well, my grandma and mum expressed joy, uniquely, in ways they had not done before the injury. Upon my admission to a school in the United States of America, for example, grandma thumped her feet and created poems in celebration. She prayed I become a person of significance soon, a chief may be- a position that would enable me to preside over endemic grazing land conflicts and solve matters early marriages and polygamy. My mum, seated on a mat, kept singing a medley of her favorite songs, one after another late into the night. In her songs, she stressed and reaffirmed grandma’s hope of me becoming the Chief of the land; she expressed solid hopes of me receiving the best education, becoming wealthy, and changing the condition of our house from its bent, oblong-shaped and mud-walled status to something decent. They were both lively, excited and joyful. We all partook in a meal of Chapatis, quite a rare pan-cake shaped meal reserved for special occasions. Their encouragements, concerns, love, and compassion.
Author Notes: Events as I remember: this was 2006.