The Park Cleaner
There wasn’t an alarm clock but it wasn’t really needed by Minla. Her body was so used to waking up early that when the time arrived, her eyes opened automatically. She saw the sleeping form of her husband, Precious, lying beside her.
With a smile on her lips, Minla slowly and quietly got out of bed. It wouldn’t do to wake her husband up before she could get breakfast ready. Walking naked expect for the heavy metal rings on her waists and ankles, she went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.
Breakfast in Himbaya is a simple affair; Minla prepared some sandwiches with eggs for her husband. For herself, she prepared some gruel. A bottle of goat’s milk for both of them rounded up the breakfast. Minla placed everything on the carpet where they will have breakfast.
She then took in the time and was pleased that it was still early. Minla went out to the backyard. Typical of most houses in Himbaya, their house was a small one-storey building with a backyard at the back. A high wall surrounded the house blocking the view for outsiders. At the very back of the house was a small hut. Situated right along the back wall, this hut was typically known as the ‘Women Hut’. Most men would never go near the hut, and with good reason. It’s where women stay when their bleeding period starts. Every month, Minla had to stay at the hut till her period was over. It wasn’t her time of the month yet but she went there for another reason.
A dry, hot country, Himbaya was sunny all year round expect for a raining season which usually lasted about 6 weeks every year. The rest of the year, the sun was merciless to everyone. However, Himbayans had long discovered ways to protect themselves. The most ancient and effective way was the ocher cream. A mixture of rancid butterfat and ochre powder, the cream was designed to protect the wearer from the sun. Minla lovingly applied it all over her hair and body. The cream lends her body an intense reddish shine, which is consistent to the Himbaya ideal of beauty. Some of the richer women of the country perfumed the butterfat to give them an extra pleasant smell, but considering the work Minla was doing, that was an unnecessary luxury.
Next came her hair. Women in Himbaya have a distinctive plaited hairstyle which is not found anywhere else in the world. Minla divided her hair into several plaits. If she was unmarried, she could only have a maximum of four plaits but as a married woman, Minla wears 14 thick plaits which she lovingly put together. She then added in the erembe, a headdress which was made of soft leather, at the top of her head.
Minla adjusted the hair till it made her liking. Seeing that it was in place, she now wore her necklace around her neck. The ornamental necklace had a conch shell that hangs between her breasts in the front and a metal-studded leather plate that hangs down the center of her back. It was heavy but after a lifetime of wearing it, the weight was second nature to her.
Once everything was done, Minla stepped out into the backyard again. Clothes, hairstyle and jewelry are all of particular significance to the Himbaya’s culture and the 2 hours Minla took to get ready was considered normal for most Himbayan women.
Minla walked back to the table and saw that her husband was there already. They smiled at each other. As she neared within 5 steps of her husband, Minla fell to the ground and slowly crawled to her husband on her hands and knees. When she arrived at the table, Minla stayed on her knees and placed her hands on her lap. Looking down submissively, she waits for the approval of her husband.
A word from Precious later and Minla was into her gruel. The breakfast passed as they always did, with jokes and laughter between the two of them. Some countries like Vippon may believe in a stoic distance between husband and wife, but not in Himbaya however. Himbayans generally believe that people should live life with joy and laughter. The old saying, “a laughing family is a lasting family,” came from the Himbayans.
The breakfast was over quickly and it was time to leave for work. Minla went into the bedroom and put on her sarong. A wide piece of cloth, Minla wrapped it around her body and soon it covered her body from her beast to her ankles. She then took out her veil from the dresser. The veil was the standard wedding gift given to all wives from their husband at their wedding ceremony. Brown in color, the veil covered the front of the face with only 2 small eyeholes for the woman to see through. Minla attached the top part of the veil to her erembe, and hooked the bottom of the veil to her necklace.
Minla tested it to make sure it was firmly in place. Mostly she was worried about how firmly attached the veil was to the erembe. As a married woman, it was of vital importance that she covered her face in public and only showed it to her husband. No man, not even her father, may see her face after marriage. In some families where the wife stayed with her extended family, this means that the woman had to put on the veil even at home. Luckily for Minla, she and her husband lived alone.
Not that it bothers Minla that much; after all the veil was a personal gift handmade by Precious himself. As per tradition, the veil was hand-made by the husband to be given to the wife on the day of the wedding. Weeks before the wedding, Precious killed a goat and skinned it. He washed and dried the skin, before putting it in a solution that hardens the skin. After drying it again, Precious laid a layer of his dung onto the veil. Letting the dung baked in the hot sun, Precious then painted it brown. Some men nowadays prefer to just buy a veil off the rack before adding their dung and painting it, but Minla always loved the fact her veil came from a goat killed by her husband. There was just something empowering about it. She loved it even more than the fact that she was wearing her husband’s shit on her face everyday.
Minla thought of the various stories and legends she had heard regarding the veil. No one really knows when or how Himbayan veiling came into being, but there were many legends about it. Personally, Minla preferred the one about the twins.
‘The ancient legend had it that once long ago; a man was married to twins. Both women were identical in everyway and the twins were very close to each other. It was a happy marriage as the man treated both women equally. How could he not; they were exactly the same. One day while the women and the children were out gathering firewood, they were attacked by a wild animal. In the defense of the children, one of the twins was clawed by the animal. She survived, but had a huge scar on her face.
The woman was now respected, but no longer loved by her husband. The scar has made her ugly and the man now favored her sister more. Both sisters were sad about this and together, they visited the village shaman. The shaman said, “Since your difference is on your face, take away your face and you shall be one again.” So the veil was born as the face was taken away from the women and all married women in Himbaya were now the same.’
Minla always loved that story. Far more than the one Precious liked: ‘a chief who convert the beautiful wife of a rival chief and wanted to steal her; wife-stealing being fully acceptable back in those days. When the rival chief heard about it, the two tribes went to war. To prevent this, married women are now required to wear this veil to prevent this sort of ‘misunderstanding’ from happening ever again.’War, death and wife-stealing; Minla shook her head slightly. There was just no accounting for men’s taste.
A cry from her husband shook Minla from her daydreams and she rushed to the door. Precious made a quick check on the veil and they were quickly out of the door. They walked to the bus-stop but as Precious waited there for the next bus, Minla continued onwards. Minla gave a small nod as her husband’s smiled at her. They offered each other a goodbye, though Minla gave her goodbye in sign language. Traditionally women were not allowed to talk in public but Himbayan women, resourceful as ever, went around that rule by developing sign language. The ancient Himbayan sign language was so advanced that it had became the standard sign lauguage of the world. Even foreigners had no problem speaking with Himbayan’s women in public nowadays.
Whereas Precious worked in the Central Business District, her job as a park cleaner was far nearer and within walking distance. Like most big cities in Himbaya, the City of Kaoko has many city parks. Most of Himbaya was hot, dry and unforgiving; that’s why Himbayans generally were great nature lovers. They loved the green the trees and plants give off, things so unnatural yet so beautiful.
Minla headed for the park station the moment she reached the outskirts of the park. The park station was where all the staff were headquartered. From here, they would carry out the cleaning needed for today.
Minla entered via the side-door in the station; a few steps later, she entered the women locker room. The change was quick as all Minla had to do was to take off her sarong and donned the tradition goat skinned mini-skirt. In some ways, Minla prefer the mini-skirt to the sarong but since the Modesty Party came into the government 8 years ago, it’s no longer acceptable to show your breast in public anymore. However the Kaoko City Park is pretty famous and tourists do visit. Coming to Himbaya, most tourists wanted a taste for the traditional culture and as such the old way of dressing was still allowed here.
Seeing that everything is in place, Minla headed towards the huts. About a hundred meters beyond the station was some old/new Himbaya dwellings. Maintaining the ancestral style of the dwellings, these newly built conical huts were made from palm leaves, mud and cattle dung to give the tourist a sense of ancient times.
Minla saw that a few of the other cleaners had arrived already. She sat among the group as they waited patiently for the supervisor to arrive. Waiting there in the hot sun, the women did what women do in such situations. They talked.
To be exact, they signal among themselves. Even between women, talking in public was considered taboo. Minla learned that one of the women was getting married next month; another was pregnant with her fifth child. Another cleaner’s sister just got a job as a sewer cleaner. Minla and the rest of the cleaners envied that woman; a dirty, smelly job like that was the highest-paying career a woman could have in Himbaya.
The talking stopped when a busload of tourists came in. They were earlier than usual. Minla saw that the female tourists were wearing the all covering robe known as the burqa and guessed that the tourists were from the nation of Trisban. A tiny republic friendly with Himbaya, most female tourists wearing the burqa in Himbaya were from Trisban. That was good as rich Trisbanians were known to be big spenders. Minla guessed the park’s various shops and stores would make a killing today.
Minutes later, the supervisor came up from the station. As was proper in Himbaya, the supervisor was a man. The women respectfully looked at the ground as the man gave out the assignments. The instructions were pretty routine; each cleaner was assigned a specific area and had the job of making sure her area was clean of all rubbish thrown by visitors. The instructions were swiftly given and the women were told to be quick about the cleaning today as there were tourists here already. As expected by Minla, the women were also told to be respectful at all times with the tourists.
Minla followed the other women to the shed once the instructions were finished. Minla quickly pick up her rake and plastic bag. Man-made parks were loved and enjoyed by all sectors of Himbayan society. On any given day, you could see a multi-millionaire walking alongside a beggar in one of the country’s green parks and a park cleaner job was considered a job of high responsibility. As the tourists entered the park proper, Minla happily moved to her cleaning area.
Minla first start raking the leaving which had fallen onto the footpath. The job was simple but she knew that won’t last. The hot sun would make the job harder in the day, so Minla tried to be fast and through at the same time.
However, that only lasted half an hour. A couple from Trisban came up to her and asked if she could help them take a photo of them. Remembering her orders to be respectful to the tourists, Minla quickly agreed. After the photo, the woman wanted to talk to Minla. In her black burqa, she was very curious about the Himbayan clothing. When she saw that Minla will only answer in sign language, she became even more curious. At first the woman thought it was a religious thing, like being a follower of the Silent God, but when she discovered it was a tradition in Himbaya; it lead to a whole series of other questions. By the time the woman was finished, the sun was already high in the sky.
Still, Minla thanked the couple for visiting and then went back to her work. She wasn’t really that put off by the questioning as it was part of the job. Minla knew that though there were better paying job for a woman in the city, but none could match hers’. She could enjoy the park everyday, how could you put money on that? Right there in the park among the sun, trees and clean air, Minla knew joy.