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They hated us for fighting back. Unforgivable, that. Gays, albinos and shunned wives should be easy prey. Lying down quietly and taking it was the least we could do, for our sin of existing.
It was summer, scant water, sand everywhere. Laughter and slaughter. The world. They did not want us in it.
One by one, from every corner, we who’d heard about it found refuge in a cave, halfway up a hill surrounded by hills.
There was fresh water at the back of the cave and we piled brush in front, always careful to wipe our footprints, coming and going. That was as far as our plans went, until we found Khuma.
Khuma had collapsed beside a dried-out acacia at the foot of our hill, legs streaked with blood and piss, her pelvis caked in red mud. Dragging her up the hill she seemed typical, just another reject, dribbling from the front and rear after getting herself gang-raped by soldiers, shot in the loins, then driven from her village by husband and kin for the crime of being violated. But her eyes, if you really looked: No horror there, no shame, no timidity. They were deep brown with slivers of amber. When you looked into Khuma’s eyes, a lion stared back at you.
We never discussed it. We were four used-up old women accused of witchcraft, two shy boys who liked each other’s bodies too much, and an albino, starving in a cave. By the time she could walk a few steps, Khuma had become our teacher.
She taught us how to read using an old newspaper. And how to set traps for spiny mice. She made our worlds bigger and she showed us how to survive without the laughing slaughterers.
We would still have been in that cave, staying out of sight, but for two things. First, there were the soldiers who every day came closer to finding our hiding place. And then there were the guns and bullets we’d found buried next to the spring at the back of the cave.
Before one of the soldiers shot her, Khuma had watched him load the magazine of his rifle, smack it in, and take off the safety. That she knew how to show us. That was enough.
Where did we find the courage to follow Khuma’s lead? Perhaps it was because she recognised the man who’d broken her, and we could not deny her. Or perhaps none of us much wanted to return to our respective hells that day. Either way, we had this one chance, and with her example, everything that followed seemed to happen without having to decide anything. We crouched behind outcroppings, waited gravely, and pulled our triggers as soon as Khuma did.
Half a dozen soldiers dead or dying in minutes, far below. Their blood black on green uniforms, bright clouds of flies appearing instantly.
I did not move afterwards; just stared at the bodies. I don’t think I would have picked up that gun, much less use it, if there had been more time to think. Killing someone, even a man who was coming to hurt you – there is no turning back. But they were gone and we were still there. Our ears were ringing, and I felt giddy, as if I had heatstroke. We never found out whether they had been looking for us or someone else.
The next day, though, there was no doubt that we were the ones being hunted. One of them had gotten away. We did not know that, and were unprepared for the swarm of soldiers and villagers who came for us just after sunrise.
I was away, digging among the rocks for anything that scurried or crawled. But I was close enough to hear and see my friends dying. Not before all the women were raped again, of course. This time, though, no limb remained attached, no face was recognizable. I only knew who was who because I watched as they were butchered.
My girl, you may think we achieved nothing by killing those soldiers. But that was the day when we fought for our lives. You stand up for yourself, or you learn how.
Now finish sharpening your knife. You stand first guard.