The new Kitale Bus Stage is quiet and calm in the morning. There is hardly a soul on the streets when Nekesa arrives aboard an ancient TVS Star whose faulty engine pants and howls to rouse the whole town from sleep. She left the bowels of Chepchoina at midnight to arrive this early. She wipes tears and dust from her face before giving the bodaboda a 200-shillings note. The guy holds it between his fingers, unsatisfied, and grunts. He drops her luggage down, turns and speeds off. The creaking sound of his motorcycle, reduced to a mass of rusted iron by age and bad roads, as he manoeuvres potholes that decorate the roads in the CBD, can be heard from far. She sits on a waiting bench, buries her face in her hands and waits.

Wangila will be here soon. She has to kiss him goodbye. She waits for him forever, sliding in and out of slumber. She wakes when someone touches her. She turns and is met by a smiling face. It is bright and warm as it was on their first meeting, five years ago. It reminds her of the colourful dreams she holds dear. Dreams of waking up to loud laughter. He brightens the dark alleys of her life.

“Sasa sweetie,” he whispers and sits next to her.

“Oh, boy, what kept you? I’ve grown old just sitting here.”

“I’m sorry. I had a few things to settle before leaving. My boda also delayed me.”

“It’s okay. I understand.” She  stares into space feigning disinterest in the conversation.

“Thank you, darling.”

A century of silence engulfs them. She avoids his eyes. She is going to miss him. Wangila completed his military training at Moi Barracks eight years ago and proceeded to Sandhurst Military Academy in the UK for specialized training. He had just returned home with big dreams, to marry and commence his career as a gallant army officer. Things have not turned out well. The deployment of KDF soldiers into Somalia is ongoing to subdue battle against Al Shabaab. He has to put his marriage plans on hold. Duty calls. This will be his first assignment, a golden opportunity for a soldier.

It is just a few months to their grand wedding. She cannot imagine that he is leaving. How will she live without him? Being away from Wangila  for a single day was like a whole year. She will need more than prayers. She sobs. He is needed at the barracks by 3 pm. He should be going. Her tears touch his nerves. He wipes them with his hands. Consoles her.

“Sweetheart, I’ll be back before you know it,” he says, “Don’t  cry.”

She buries her face into his broad chest and cries even more. Later, she hands over the foodstuffs she had carried for him, and gifts him a gold chain inscribed with his name. She rises to leave.

“Thank you,” he says admiring the jewellery

“You’re welcome. See you in August, dearest! I’ll be eagerly longing for you.”

As he boards a Nairobi-bound Kangaroo Shuttle, her teary face is on his mind. She stands there motionless, looking on. The Shuttle leaves as the stage is ruffled with hooting vehicles, revving car engines, stale sweat and farts from touts, and the scramble for passengers. Truck drivers urinate on truck tires to avert bad omen attracted from prostitutes as the town wakes.

*        *         *

They met five years ago at a friend’s wedding. Nekesa was a student at Kitale Polytechnic, studying Accounting. Wangila had graduated with a degree in Criminology from Moi University. After tarmacking for God-knows-how-long, he joined the army. His family sold part of his inheritance to buy him the army job, hoping that he would earn good money and rescue them from the demons of poverty.

“Hey Neks, please meet my cuzo Wangish. Bros, this is Neks, my best friend,” her friend  introduced them.

“Hi… Pleasure to meet you…”

“Hi too… It’s my pleasure to…”

They shook hands, barely talked during the wedding ceremonies, but could not keep their eyes off one another. It was as if they were bound by some mysterious force. After the event, they  called and texted each other every day. This went on for years until one day, after his military pass out parade, he, in full military regalia, unexpectedly went down on his knee.

“Omusime wange, will you marry me?” he asked softly.

She did not see that one coming. A full-grown man, in broad daylight under the full glare of thousands, knelt to propose to a woman. She had seen it in the movies. But she did not expect someone to kneel before her, worst of all a Luhya man. He must have swallowed his pride and dared the gods of his ancestors. She was lost for words. She cried like a baby and accepted his proposal.

They opted to settle down. Wangila suggested that after paying her bride price, they would move to Nairobi. He did not want a wedding. He had paid her bride price through the nose. He had nothing more to spend. She would hear none of that.

“I’m an obedient child of God. I can’t just secretly move in with you. Are we eloping or something?Ese tawe mako! My spiritual father must be present when you take me.”

“See dear, I’m not rejecting your idea of a wedding. It’s just that I’m terribly broke now. Besides, if I had money, I would suggest that we invest in business instead of just feeding and pleasing people. We can hold the wedding later please.”

“Then I won’t marry you. Find someone else to elope with,” she dismissed him summarily.

“But…”

“There are no buts… I’m not that cheap. If you can’t take me in the rightful fashion, vow before the world that I’m the woman you’ll forever live and die for, you won’t take me at all. You can go to my father and take back your bride price.”

“But must we really strip ourselves naked in public and announce our things?”

She won. Women have always triumphed over men. No matter how powerful, intelligent and brave men are. Women cut men to size and push them to the wall until they beg or dance to their tune like mere slaves.

“What do we do now?” he asked resignedly.

“Let’s pull up resources and hold a wedding. We don’t need an enormous budget, just something to make the event hold.”

The big day was just three months away when duty called. They had done everything humanly possible to have a dream wedding. They imported the wedding gown from Dubai and hired a fashionista to design dresses of the bridesmaids. Men’s suits were specially made. They hired vehicles and booked the venue —Poa Place. Only time stood between them and the big day. They could not wait to walk down the aisle, to be husband and wife.

Now eight months have passed and Wangila is yet to come back. The wedding has been postponed and postponed. Nekesa has wept bitterly. She cannot remember when she talked to him last. His warm and heavy voice is a distant memory. She has tried to call him a thousand times but his phone is permanently off. She has sent him countless texts but none has been answered. She is restless and sullen and does not talk. She does not touch food. Her once fine body, bright and beautiful face and full breasts has disappeared. She is a mere shadow of her former self. Loneliness and sorrow are her only friends.

*           *             *

Her phone suddenly rings one night. She jumps on her feet and picks the call, trembling and sweating. It is Wangila’s number.

Nobody speaks at first. All she can hear are gunshots. Her heart beats thunderously.

“Sweetheart, are you there? What’s going on? Where have you been…” she fires questions as if they were bullets from a machine gun.

Silence. Gunshots. Screams. Pandemonium.

She can tell there is trouble when she finally hears his voice..

“Nekesa…”

“Yes!”

“We’ve been ambushed… I’m badly hit. I’m in the middle of fire that has consumed my friends… I… don’t… know if… I’ll make it…”

He struggles to explain and suddenly hangs up.

“What do you mean? What happened…”

No reply. The  reality of his words hits her like a thunderbolt. She screams and rushes out of the house like a madman.

The next day, the country wakes up to news that Al-Shabaab insurgents overran a Kenyan military base near El Adde, in the Gedo region of Somalia. Hundreds of soldiers are dead. Many more taken hostage. Others are MIA. The remains of the fallen heroes are flown into the country for identification and burial. Their names and photos are published in a gazette. Kins are requested to go to Nairobi to identify bodies. The government will shoulder all funeral expenses, grieving families are told.

Nekesa combs the list. Her betrothed is not there! What’s going on? She is sure he is dead. He  said he was badly hit. He must be dead. But his name is not in the gazetted list. It baffles her. She travels to Nairobi, with prospective in-laws in tow, for DNA tests. A family’s only hope and light is probably gone. A dark cloud of sorrow threatens to engulf them. But Wangila’s body cannot be found. No DNA matches. Nekesa is confused. Reports from Somalia are scanty and shrouded in secrecy. Gossip FM says the government has not accounted for all casualties. Al Shabaab propaganda video, celebrating the victory of the attack, fans the fires of speculation online. Nekesa returns home and waits. Nothing promising comes up. A banana stem is buried in the absence of the body as tradition dictates. She refuses to attend his burial. She swears never to love again. She will dedicate her life to serving God and her career.

*        *       *

Ten years have slipped away quietly like water under the bridge. The government is yet to come clean on the whereabouts of many soldiers presumed dead but whose bodies have never been found. Many, like Wangila, are MIA. They are soon forgotten.

“Girl, you better hurry up, don’t keep everyone waiting. Your husband is here…” Belinda shouts at Nekesa.

She puts on her heels, grabs her bouquet of flowers and walks towards the door leisurely. You would think it is Belinda’s wedding but she is just a bridesmaid! She is the kind that dances more and sings loudest in other weddings.

“Now?” Nekesa asks, surprised.

“Yes. Leo ni leo my sister. You thought it’ll not come, eh?” asks Belinda.

Nekesa’s heart beats thunderously like a drum. A thin film of sweat forms on her forehead. She could not sleep the whole night. She had so many things on her mind. She could not wait for the day to break to look into Kiptoo’s eyes and accept him as a lifetime partner before the whole world.

The New Independent Lighthouse Church is full to capacity. Nekesa arrives in an elegant convoy after Kiptoo. Money has been spent. Kiptoo is a man of means. Nekesa is pleased. Who doesn’t love fine things in this world?

She feels eyes prick her as she walks down the aisle to meet him. Eyes strip her naked and expose her fear. She sees him standing miles away, through her veil, smiling widely at her. His arms are open to receive her. His thick lips burning with a longing to kiss her. There is singing and dancing all over. But she does not hear anything. She wants to increase her pace into his embrace but something holds her. She feels like she is walking backwards.

“Kiptoo…” the bishop’s commanding voice bellows, “Do you take Nekesa as your lawfully wedded wife…in good health and in sickness…”

She does not hear anything. Her mind is clouded by something she cannot tell. The world spins around her. Oh God, what’s happening to me? She wonders.

“Yes, I do!”

Kiptoo vows and plants a handcuff on her finger. Screams and ululations  rent the air.

“Nekesa…” the man of God calls, “do you take this man as your lawfully wedded husband…in good health and in sickness…?”

She does not respond. The bishop screams out the powerful words again. Her tongue is too heavy, chained to the roof of her mouth. No words come out. Kiptoo’s smile dies like a candle on a windy night. His charm is washed away by a questioning coldness.

A wave of murmuring sweeps across the church.  She is sweating profusely behind the veil. Something is not right. The bishop stares her, disapprovingly. He starts cursing and exorcising the demons that have bound her tongue. The background music suddenly dies and then the ‘ahs’ and ‘ehs’ ‘aais’ fill the air. People scramble out of the church as if a ghost or terrorist has entered through the backdoor. Nekesa, pulled by a strong force, turns and what she sees shocks her. At the door stands the man. The man she nearly married. The man who went missing for years and was presumed dead. The man she had mourned and cried for until she nearly lost her head. The man she had first loved. Sorrow is written all over his face. His tongue  burns with questions, words he wishes to pour out. Hot tears flood his cheeks. He is a man who has been to hell and back. Nekesa, mouth agape, runs towards the man. Kiptoo tries to stop her to no avail. She runs. He runs after her but is no match. She is possessed. She collapses, midway across the church, and passes out.

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