The Doll Thief
Susan’s doll looked just like her. Blonde hair covered her head in soft curls. She stared out of big, pale blue eyes, the same shade as the sky on a bright, sunny day. Her plumped, white skin was soft, inviting. I wanted to stroke it gently.
Susan was neat and tidy. She looked as if she never ran, never tumbled with anyone, never got dirty. Her mother didn’t have to shout at her to come down from trees, to stop playing football with boys.
Susan couldn’t see me. I was crouched on the floor, on the other side of the divider, screening off the toilets. I was desperately trying to tie the laces of my new white takkies.
It was my second day at my new school. Instinctively, I knew not to come out from behind that screen. I kept silent and still, waiting for another surprise. Susan sat on one of the long, black benches in the girl’s cloakroom, bent over her doll, singing to it like a doting mother. She rocked the fat little doll in her arms.
It wasn’t going well. My shoelaces refused to behave. I couldn’t seem to bring my two hands together, to coordinate my fingers. The right hand kept pulling upwards, missing the knot waiting to receive it in my left hand.
I had practised over and over again at home, my mother standing over me for the first failed efforts. I could feel the hot breath of her held-back anger. My clumsy hands shook. “Try again, Betty!” Her voice, a hard exclamation mark, only made me more nervous.
“Look, it’s easy. I won’t be there to tie them for you at school.” By now I knew not to talk back to my mother, and never when she was a small volcano waiting to explode. I steeled myself. I hated those new shoes that squeezed my feet.
I bit my lower lip. Took one pristine white shoelace, made a bow like she had shown me, repeated the action with the other one, and at last managed to tie them. It took all my concentration.
“Good, untie them and do it again,” my mother instructed. Relief relaxed her voice. I hesitated for a moment, unwilling to undo my success.
My mother caught my hesitation, bent down, and pulled my laces apart in one swift motion.
“Yes, you have to do it again and again. Ten times, Sitawa!” She raised her voice, letting her exasperation through. “Ten times!” Her index finger pointed at me with brisk annoyance.
Sitawa? I knew she wasn’t joking.
“I will come back to see if you can do it quickly, not like a malenge!”
My heart sank. I slumped in despair. It was Sunday evening, and already I was dreading Monday and my new school.
I looked up at Mai, watching her tight mouth speak. In anger, it was as thin as the non-existent lips of a mzungu. She strode off, high heel shoes clipping rapidly on the terrazzo floor of the bedroom I shared with my sister, two brothers, and assorted up-country relatives when they came to visit. The room was basic and bare. It was painted plain white. Four single, black Vono beds with mismatched bed covers were crammed up against each other. A dark brown wooden chest of drawers was the only other piece of furniture in the room.
My mother wore my favourite dress, the one I wanted when I grew up. It was white with black dots and a pleated skirt that ended two inches above her knee. A little black bow accentuated the V-shaped neckline, showing off my mother’s gazelle neck. The dress revealed her beautiful figure and her trim waistline. She always wore stockings, which she used to stuff pillows once they were laddered.
But it was her glasses I really wanted. They were shaped like the eyes of a cat. Six months before, she had walked in from work with them, and they mesmerised me. She had laughed as I stared. A craving like a tight ball in the pit of my stomach had made me feel slightly sick.
“Do you like them?” she asked my sister and me.
“Oh Mai, they are lovely,” I replied with my mouth open.
I didn’t want to go out to my PE lesson. I was hiding from the new things all around me, trying to breathe. My new school was a maze of buildings and mzungus. Rapid English floated confidently around me. Disdainful eyes followed me, making me feel like an unwelcome disturbance. I didn’t follow much of the lesson and spent that first day just looking around, examining everything in minute detail.
In my new class I sat in the third row, sharing a desk with a green-eyed girl named Kim, who ignored me. The classroom was bright, and light flooded in from rows of bare windows running halfway down two walls. Blue walls contrasted sharply with a white ceiling. I felt alone and lost.
My new desk had a lid that opened and shut. In a moment of boredom, I started to play with it, until I became aware of a shadow looming over me, accompanied by a powdery sweet smell. Mrs Taylor’s pale yellow dress, exposed red knees, and thin, veiny legs that didn’t seem capable of holding up her bulky upper body. Her large, red face stared down at me with strange colourless eyes that made me think of cold water for some reason.
Will she pop?” I cringed at the thought.
“Will you stop that at once!” Her voice was loud and firm. Then she turned on her heels and walked briskly back to the front of the class, back to the lesson. I shut the lid slowly, shrinking with shame, and sat quite still on my hands to stop them from betraying me again.
Awkwardness consumed me. I withered into myself, trying to disappear from the mocking eyes of the other children who had turned to look at me. The silence I had carried around me since morning amplified, engulfing me. It was the only protection I had in this new world. Silence and careful stillness would keep me safe from the ridicule, which followed swiftly on the heels of my inescapable blunders.
I was still smarting from the mocking laughter that had chased away my confidence at break time on the first day of school. It was my first encounter with a drinking-water faucet. A small gang of white children stood giggling as I pulled and pushed the faucet unsuccessfully for what seemed like an eternity. I could not get the water to spout. Their laughter fixed me to the spot. I couldn’t stop squeezing, pulling, pushing even though I was feeding the witnesses of my defeat. I turned to look for my friends, Anna, Florence and Esther only to find them missing. I was alone. Embarrassment rose from the pit of my stomach like a fever, intensifying and settling on my face. My ears felt hot, and I kept my head down. And then the singing started.
“Asante sana squash banana, mimi nugu, wewe nani,
Asante sana squash banana mimi nugu, wewe nani,
Asante sana squash banana mimi nugu, wewe nani.”
The laughter intensified. A passing teacher finally saved me.
For the rest of that day, I played it safe, only watching unfamiliar life hurtle and ping around me, with no opening for me to join in and play.
“There, there, don’t cry, Samantha. Mummy will be back,” Susan spoke in a tender voice.
The doll blinked her long, black eyelashes. Susan reached down and kissed it.
I was startled. Just when I had decided it was not real, it started to cry!
I held my breath. Questions clouded my mind. I scrunched my forehead like my dad did when he listened intently.
It’s crying like my baby brother! And the eyes, how did they move? Is it a real baby? Did she bring a real baby to school?
I clasped my hand over my mouth to stop any sound from escaping. Here was another mystery on the scale of those little people inside the TV and those voices in the radio.
I felt life rush past, taking me to new places, tantalising new mysteries dangled.
Susan placed the doll back into her blue school satchel like a tender mother.
I didn’t move. I waited to be sure she was not coming back. Forgetting my clumsiness, I finished tying my shoelaces quickly and stood up, walked quickly to Susan’s bag, opened it, and took out the doll. Its hardness startled me. I cradled the doll, squeezed the fat thighs, feeling the cool plastic with my fingers. I pulled down the soft cotton bloomers and touched its hard, round bottom. Careful not to make it cry, I quickly, gently, put the doll into my new school satchel hanging four hooks away from Susan’s. Raw anticipation burst in my chest. The blue walls of the cloakroom shone in bright approval.
The next day in the classroom, I handed the doll back to Susan calmly.
“Here is your toll.”
I smiled as I held it out to her. Susan looked at me. Shock crossed her brow, and her cheeks reddened. She snatched her doll away from me, burst into tears, and ran away.
My friendly smile died, and I felt a twinge of fear. Had I done something wrong? I wondered.
I did not expect what followed the next day – my third day of school.
The break time bell rang. In these two days, this was the time I had come to live for. I watched Mrs Taylor ready to project myself up and out of my chair. “Stop, stop, stop,” I chanted silently, willing Mrs Taylor to stop eating into break time. I twitched with the unbearable anticipation of playing with my friends Anna, Esther, and Florence. These three girls were my refuge in this new school. Our parents were friends, and we had known each other long before coming to this school. During break time, I slipped out of the cloak of awkwardness that engulfed me all day and became confident, voluble, playful.
I was two steps out of the door when Mrs Taylor called me back. I stopped mid-flight and looked back, irritated. “Betty, come, come back. I’m afraid the headmaster would like to have a word with you in his office.”
Mrs Taylor spoke as if there was something in her mouth obstructing clear speech. She stood framed by the door, her hands clasped together in front of her, lips pursed, a smug look on her face.
I hesitated a moment as if I had the choice to refuse. My dejection escaped in a sharp breath. I turned and stepped back into the classroom, my shoulders slumped as fear and uncertainty gathered in the depths of my stomach, made only worse as I watched the headmaster Mr Brown, stride into the classroom standing at the front of the class holding Susan’s hand. Beside him, Susan looked even smaller than usual. He was a towering man, thin, with brown hair and probing eyes that made me uncomfortable. I felt seen by him.
He wore dark brown trousers with a jacket with patches on the elbows. Why didn’t he just buy a new jacket instead of patching the holes in his elbows? I wondered.
“Come with us, Betty.” Mr. Brown spoke through his nose, his voice deep and thick.
We made our way to the headmaster’s office, walking through groups of loud, playing children. Most were too intent on their break time games to notice the tall man walking hand in hand with the small, blonde child, followed four steps behind by a small African child. A few stopped to glance at us.
I followed them into Mr Brown’s office and stopped when I saw my mother standing in front of the headmaster’s large, stark desk. I could tell she was barely holding onto her anger. My bewilderment communicated. Her face softened. Her eyes suddenly shone as if lit from inside.
“Sitawa, come here.” She used my home name, the anger back in place.
Startled, I jumped and almost ran to her. Her hands gripped my shoulders roughly, hurting me. I flinched.
“Is this the girl who stole your doll, Susan?” I looked in the direction of a smooth, soft voice to see Susan’s mother. Blonde, small, and neat. Very much the kind of mother who would produce the tidy Susan. Her blue skirt and white blouse were crisp and starched and looked overwashed. Susan’s mother conjured an image of ordinariness. She was self-effacing, easy to ignore. Her demeanour enhanced my mother, whose presence filled the room, her impatient verve enhanced by a black shift, classic high heels, and a string of pearls.
“Stole? Are you calling my daughter a thief?” My mother spoke up in my defence. “You people are crazy. How can you accuse a young child, a six-year-old, of being a thief? You want to create a big story over a small thing like this?” Her voice was loud. “You called me all the way here for this?” She waved her right hand dismissing all of them.
“Well, Mrs Wamalwa, your daughter did take Susan’s doll. We know it was her. She handed it back to Susan herself?” Mr Brown spoke, a small smile playing on his lips, his voice sounding reasonable. He talked as if he were talking to a small child.
My mother looked at me, her eyes surprised. I turned away from her probing eyes.
“She returned the doll?”
She looked at me and I saw her gather herself.
“Would a thief do that? Surely, a thief would not want to be caught? You need to know something about my daughter: she is extremely curious. This child wants to know everything. She must have taken the doll to—”
“All children are curious, Mrs Wamalwa – that’s the nature of childhood. It’s really no excuse,” Mr Brown interrupted my mother. His voice managed to sound both amused and impatient.
Mr. Brown looked at me with a twisted mouth as if I emitted an unpleasant odour.
“Well, Mrs Wamalwa – ‘curiosity’, that’s an interesting perspective. Clearly you approve of such behaviour. I daresay it was you who encouraged her to steal Susan’s doll in the first place.” Susan’s mother spoke, ejecting the word steal out of her mouth as if she was trying to get rid of a nasty taste.
“What? Now you are calling us a family of thieves? Who do you think you’re talking to? Ousilu, avanju vano!” My mother’s voice was raised. She had abandoned English and slipped into Kinyala. Her face contorted in anger. She squeezed my shoulders harder, and I shifted to get out of her grip.
At my movement, she looked down, released my shoulders, and took a step toward Susan’s mother.
Susan’s mother let out a sharp gasp. Mr Brown quickly stepped in between the two women.
“Now, now. We can handle this calmly. There is no need for raised temperatures.” He turned to my mother. Avoiding the offending word – “thief” – he said, “Mrs. Wamalwa, I am willing to let the matter drop as long as Betty apologises to Susan and promises to never take what does not belong to her again.”
A fake smile stained his face. My mother hesitated. Susan’s mother stopped shrinking. All the adults turned to face me. I looked down, feeling trapped and alone. My legs turned into loose strings – any minute, they would collapse! At the thought of even more humiliation, I stiffened and turned to face Susan. I was surprised to find her quietly crying, holding onto her mother’s dress. She seemed to have regressed and become a baby again.
“Well, Betty, we are waiting!” Mr Brown spoke loudly from his great height.
Bitter guilt curdled my blood and thickened my tongue. “Am sorry I ton’t still your toll aken,” I whispered quickly.
I wasn’t the only one who flinched.
Sitawa Namwalie is an award-winning Kenyan poet, playwright, and performer known for her unique dramatised poetry performances, which combine poetry and traditional Kenyan music. Cut off My Tongue was her first production and has toured Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and the Hay Festival, UK. She has been a fellow of the Sundance Theatre Lab. Her growing body of work includes articles, short stories, dramatised poetry productions and plays: Homecoming (2010), Silence is a Woman, (2014), Black Maria on Koinange Street, Room of Lost Names (2015, translated into French 2020), Taking My Father Home (2020), and Escape (2021). Sitawa lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and Zoology from the University of Nairobi and a Master of Arts degree in Environment, Society and Technology from Clark University in Massachusetts, USA. Sitawa has achieved excellence in many areas of life, including representing Kenya in tennis and hockey in her youth.