Can you hear me?

There was this one game that father and I enjoyed playing when I was much younger. He would stuff a polythene bag with dried leaves and stocks and if we were lucky, a few papers we found here and there to create what I later got to learn was a football. The thrill of running after the ball was more exhilarating than kicking it back to father. Other times he showed me how to make tight knots with rope and rubber to create hunting tools he and I would use to trap animals for food.

I grew up in a little village. I had a loving father and an ever present mother. Their love was the strong kind of love that wasn’t hidden from our eyes. Even if they didn’t say much, I could see it in the way father always helped mother lift the firewood or the pot of water from her head and place it on the ground when she returned home. Other times, my mother sang a love song about a stubborn man that kept tugging at her heart strings. They even had a special pot that only they ate from or stored wild honey that only they ate deep in the night. Though my father was the head of the house, my mother was the glue that held us together. My mother often said our father will always be her first born. It was a lie and a truth at the same time.

We all knew each other in our little community and we had principles that saw to it that we lived in harmony with one another. Conflict was rarely heard of – if ever. The children were never allowed to go hungry. Theft, we were taught from very early on, was not beneficial. The women cooked together and shared ideas while the men went on hunts and panned a way forward in times of crisis. When death visited us it was a terrible time. The mourning took weeks and sometimes months. We made songs to let them know we missed them and thought about them often. I wondered if they heard us in that other world father told me they go to. Death was never an end. It was an entry to the next place we all go to.

Growing up, we sat by the fireplace in the evening while the sun sunk into the sky. Our elders shared stories with us about the times that were. The children got to know about the fierce battles their forefathers won and lost. They got to know through these stories what they should do in times of trouble and in times of plenty. It was by the fire and smoke that stories of love and loss were told and new songs were hatched. The fireplace taught the boys to be men and the girls to be warriors in their own right. It was by the fireplace that I got to know my ancestors down to the ninth generation. Song and dance always filled the air and this was where my little feet learnt the rhythm of the land.

My people have known pain and loss. The kind of pain that bites at your heart and will never let go. An unredeemable pain. We have been robbed, demonised and hurt in more ways than I wish to talk about because the memory of it hurts more than death.

I was only eleven when gun men surrounded the hut that I lived in with my brothers and was taken. I watched as my father was tortured and killed. My mother was violated in a way I find hard to express to you. They lay their bodies on top of her, one after another, while she begged for them to stop. My head was held and I was forced to watch. If I dared to even blink, they whipped me. They left her there bleeding and so drained of life, there was no need to administer a final blow of death. She was already on her way to the other side. She could hardly move. She wasn’t fighting anymore. I don’t know how to explain what I felt but it was something found in the middle of raw anger, sadness, frustration and helplessness.

They gave me a load to carry and told me I was now theirs. I was suddenly a man and life was about to change. I wasn’t in my body for a long time. I seemed to levitate somewhere above it but being in it meant feeling things that I didn’t have the courage to. I wasn’t ready. With time, they gave me a nickname and a gun. Later, a woman. A kind timid girl my age or younger to pleasure me. Even though I didn’t want this to happen, it was a source of entertainment to my abductors and so it happened. It was no surprise that one morning we found her body hanging from a tree with a pregnancy believed to be mine.

My mother survived. She was found by a few other women of our community that had been lucky enough to escape. Mother was nursed back to health. It took a while but one bright morning it was announced over the radio that the war had finally ended. Peace had finally come they said. But what was peace to the mothers that lost their children and watched their husbands brutally murdered? What was peace to the mothers who fell pregnant and now mothered children of wicked men? What was peace to a mind in a body that had been violated and left with the memory of its tormentor? What was peace to eyes that saw and bodies that still carried marks of death and war? What was peace to a community scattered and massacred? What was peace to the spirits they broke?

I’m in a far away place right now. I traveled here in the night. The moon was bright and the smell of gunpowder was everywhere. I am not quite sure what sent me here but it ended my life. It might have been a bullet from a gun or something in the ground that I step on. As I lay in the cold and stared up into the sky I asked it to swallow me and put me out of my misery. In my final moments I remembered my father and asked him for forgiveness. I wasn’t brave enough when he needed me most that day when he tried to fight to protect us. I asked my mother to forgive me for what my eyes perceived while they hurt her so deeply. I said farewell to my brothers and sisters that I had not seen in seven years and asked the ones that had gone ahead of me to receive me well.

I see my mother but she doesn’t know that now I watch over her from the heavens. I watch as she cooks my favourite meal of cassava with millet and groundnut paste. I walk with her as she goes to the missing persons hut and tries to summon me home in song and tears. She doesn’t know whether to bury me and put up a gravestone in my memory or hope that one day I will walk back into our compound as a grown man and take care of her. Inside this hut she talks to me and tells me she misses me. She shows me the food she’s made and reminds me how much I enjoyed it. On nights when I ate it I slept with a smile on my face till the morning came, she says. How can I tell her that I hold her face in my hands and gently wipe her tears though she can’t see me? She shuffles her feet and dances while she whistles a sad tune. I dance along with her and in that moment our feet speak a language we both understand – the rhythm of our land.

I’m missing from her eyes, but I’m not missing from her heart. We’ll meet again. Stay strong. I’m watching over you.

Namisango

When she imagined the enormity of life she saw herself hunched over with my dress pulled under my toes, sitting in the valley of mighty hills. She hugged her knees. In the middle of it all; the afternoon sun and the breeze conjured up her most sultry memories. Other days she thought of busy bus stops and matatus racing down the streets of Kampala and her standing in the middle of it all in so much confusion. This particular thought did not give her much freedom to daydream even longer and further. It left her nibbling at her fingernails with eyes wide open. Kampala was a place for survivors.

What excited her even more was that following day, Uncle Juma would return from the city to prepare the land for the next planting season. He rounded up a few idle boys from the village square and promised them a thousand shillings for a week of hard work. If they finished sooner than he expected, he gave each of them five hundred shillings extra. Namisango used this as a chance to earn a little money but what she enjoyed most were the moments she would take a break under the muwafu tree with Uncle Juma and ask him endless questions about the big city.

Uncle Juma had also been the one who told Namisango about her mother. Maama had returned to the city the day after Namisango turned four. The pregnancy was never planned and she vowed to never tell anyone who her father was. When she was six months into the pregnancy, she was no longer an asset to the restaurant she worked for. The protrusion got in the way of her work. Some uncanny customers told the management they felt uncomfortable being served by a pregnant woman. Miria was given two months wage and sent on her way. Nothing broke her more than the thought of going back to having nothing, having a child on the way and a boyfriend that was no longer interested in her.

“The city is full of thugs these days. Everyone wants an eye for an eye. Nothing is as cheap as it used to be back in the nineties. Only the rich eat fish and the rest of us have to find our place.”  – It was one story of discouragement after another. Uncle Juma once told her about a street that she longed to visit called Ben Kiwanuka. This was because Kiwanuka always took her for a ride on his bicycle every time he came to visit but also because uncle Juma once got robbed on this street. He animated everything that happened so much that Namisango found herself laughing more than she felt sorry for him! He had just saved up ten thousand shillings to buy a pair of shoes he had been wanting for a long time. He had specifically walked in and begged the shopkeeper to be patient with him. He would return.  After making a good sell at the end of the week, he proudly returned to the shoe shop. It was still in the secondhand section but this particular pair looked very brand new. He thanked the shopkeeper maybe more than he should have!

As uncle Juma descended Ben Kiwanuka street, swinging his polythene bag with abandon, he explained that he didn’t know where this short idiot of a thief came from but he didn’t leave him even a second to tag onto the bag. He just looked on as the rat raced down the street with his new shoes. There was no energy to make a chase; there was hardly anything he could do. The lady that sat at the corner of the street selling air time cards and groundnuts looked at him with sympathy and offered him a stool to sit for a while just so he could recover. She told him to take heart. He had not been the only victim that day. From that day on uncle Juma walks with his bags close to his chest.

Namisango loved hearing these stories from uncle Juma. There was so much she wanted to see for herself. The police cars that did not obey road rules and drove on sidewalks sending people running all directions; the traffic lights that told cars to go and then stop; the bodabodas cyclists that rode with one hand to show off. Namisango wanted to see it all, hearing it was not enough.

It was Wednesday morning. Her memories of laughter with uncle Juma were still fresh in her mind. But today was an important day. Namisango had to go to school and find out her results for her Primary Leaving Exams. She had been put under immense pressure to read and concentrate. It was well known throughout the school that she was a day dreamer. For hours she would sit by the road and watch cars come and go. One day Namisango would be at the back of a truck hanging on for dear life heading to Kampala. Despite four passes and an aggregate of twenty eight, she was the star pupil in her school. When she told jajja the ‘good news’, she let her catch one of her favourite cocks to slaughter. There would be feasting that night! This was one of those good days that Namisango would look back on with pride. For a child with a life that was less than straightforward she didn’t ask many questions. She would ask those questions one day but not any time soon. Life was already hard enough as it seemed.

Jajja woke up troubled the next day. Namisango could tell from her endless sighing that something deeply bothered her. When this happened, Namisango gently hummed a hymn for grandmother to quiet her soul. And in a few minutes or sometimes hours’ jajja would be back to her usual self. But this time around it didn’t seem to help.

Miria had tried as much as she could to send some money home from time to time. When she failed to send some she kept quiet for months. This is when jajja knew that things were not going easy for her little girl. In the quiet of her little house she worried. In her worry she whispered prayer over her. Many times she spoke to Miria like she were right in front of her; telling her that her legs were not as strong as they used to be or how she remembers Miria was born in the month of the grasshoppers deep in the night. Jajja missed Miria. But for Namisango, Miria was a face she couldn’t recall too well. There was only one picture of Miria that Jajja had. While they sat by the fire that evening, jajja pulled out the picture to show Namisango how much she resembled her Miria, her mother. This time around it angered Namisango. Where was she if she cared so much? But she didn’t dare express this to jajja. Night time was starting to fall.

No one was ready for what the tide would bring in early the following morning. Namisango was up to her usual mischief. She had developed a liking for Kiwanuka, the neighbour’s son. She did not quite understand why she felt the need to see him at least twice a day but later she’d understand what he meant every time he searching scratched the center of her palm. Other than that he was good company. He rode her on his bicycle whenever they were together. One day he asked her if he could touch her breasts and feel what they were like. She was hesitant to let him do this. Jajja had told her countless folk tales like Nsangi that she knew were an initiation into puberty. Her breasts barely hang from her chest but they pointed the way for all to see. The day Kiwanuka asked her it both scared her and excited her.

She knew it was wrong, but she let him do it anyways. It created awkwardness in their friendship but they found a way of getting passed it and continuing on. She was starting to like him more than she did a month ago.

Miria slowly strolled into the compound carrying a bag on her back. She must have heard grandmothers cries the day before beckoning her home. She looked tired even though it was only eleven that morning. Her footsteps led her into her mother’s small hut. She dropped to her knees and greeted her mother with elaborate salutations. Jajja was not her usual self. Miria could tell. Life had gone by so fast these past five years she had not had a chance to come home to check on her. The guilt ate through her gut and made her eyes burn with tears.

The rumour of her mother’s return found Namisango playing with her classmates at the village square. As she walked home she thought about what she would say to Miria. Would she have the courage to tell her how hurt she was? Or maybe she should be meek and respectful like jajja had always taught her to be.

Namisango, oyaniriza gwo’manyi ne gwo’tomanyi. Togira busungu.

Miria would be the stranger she would greet with respect. The closer she got the more fearful she became. Emotion betrayed her and made her contemplate running round to Kiwanuka’s house and asking him to hug her for a while like he did when she cried or was confused. But this was something she had to do on her own. After gathering all she had, she stepped into the hut and saw Miria. She was a beautiful woman. She smelled of flowers and had a head of hair that was long and straight. It was not curly like hers. When she was past the shock, she knelt and greeted her mother. Thereafter, she walked straight out the door and only returned after dark.

Saturday was market day at the village square. Namisango had saved her money from Uncle Juma and knew exactly what she wanted to buy. It was a denim skirt that held her tight and flowed down to the ground. She would pair it with her white t-shirt that she wore to church on Sunday. After greeting jajja that morning and making sure she was well, she greeted her mother, barely making eye contact with her. She lit the sigiri and boiled some water for tea and porridge. The slightest chance she got, she sneaked round the back and run down the street to the village square. She quickly tried on the skirt and turned round and round in circles looking at herself searching for stains or holes. It had to look right and fit right. When she was satisfied she handed the lady a thousand shillings. She would save what was left of the money for later.

That evening her Miria asked Namisango to sit beside her while they prepared the evening meal. Though it made her uncomfortable she complied. Her greatest fear was loving this woman only to have her run off with her heart – again. She had done it once before. She could do it again. Miria told Namisango of Kampala; how the streets were lit up at night by lamps on long sticks and about tall buildings that almost went up into the sky. She mesmerized Namisango and in that moment they bonded like the day dreamers they both were…

Jajja didn’t wake up that Sunday morning. She had journeyed. Namisango had worn her skirt and white shirt and had come to tell her she would pray for her, just like she did every Sunday. Only this time she never got an answer. She shook her with all her might and tore into tears and screams that sent Miria running in. Miria held Namisango and told her it would be well. Namisango was inconsolable. When she ran outside, the sky was bright and blue. The sun was daring to rise that day. Didn’t they know that jajja had travelled? Why did they look so beautiful on such a sad day…?

Main Street

One foot in front of another

I gently balance – hands outstretched

On the sidewalk of your main street

It’s autumn…winter will soon be here

Your life is a big city…

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get used to the lights

And wandering eyes

The man down the street – he showed he where the park is

Tomorrow I’ll spend the afternoon reading

In the shade of a giant tree I hope to find

With big strong branches

In the silent shower of golden leaves…

You’re beautiful.

Mine Alone

Windy roads and sellers lies 
Masked men and desert trails

Tell me of the sands of time 
Show me only what’s mine

Thieving nights and glaring suns 
I’ve seen too much to be fazed or dazed

These years that start to seem like days 
Days then hours then hours then gone…

Show me what’s mine and mine alone
While time I still have and sight my eyes

Speak, Don’t Stop

I’m on the other side of every line you say,
Catching each word, in the valley of my cotton skirt…
Before it hits the ground…

You intrigue me…
Don’t stop.
It’s your voice that makes perfect sense to me.

Fancy words and phrases
I’ve heard but never heard before…
I become unlearned around you.
…undone at the sound of ordinary words…