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…?