Originally Posted on Saturday, 8 January 2011 at 19:55
Austin Ejiet’s name is perhaps better known for his excellent Take it or Leave It column in the Sunday Monitor newspaper. When Ejiet still breathed this same air with us, I read his column in the Sunday Monitor religiously. Ejiet’s wit was so accessible, whether the reader was taken by the gymnastics of Victorian English or not. My memory of Ejiet, and the fact that we lost him forced me to look for his literary work, besides the column.
Aida, Hurray for Somo and other stories, published by Fountain Publishers in 2004 is what I have so far found. And it was worth the energy I expended in looking it up. I did not put it down, once I got hold of it and I have so far read it three times non-stop in a period of seven days, finishing it and re-reading it, and I will read it more! The fifteen stories are that hilarious, beautifully written and outright entertaining. I have to date not seen a Ugandan writer describe human physical features as ably as Ejiet. If I did not disclose that Ejiet also wrote three children’s books in Ateso, his mother tongue, I would be behaving in a dishonest manner. Yes, he did but beyond that, I am yet to find anything else.
Aida, Hurray for Somo and other stories is a revision of the original collection, Hurray for Somo and other stories. Ejiet in introducing the new edition says that he dropped two stories from the original, retained ten and added five brand new stories. Thus, by reading Aida, Hurray for Somo and other stories, one would have read the original Hurray for Somo and other stories, save for the two stories he dropped. I must admit here that I long to see those two, someone who bought their Hurray for Somo and other stories before the revision should help me here.
Aida, Hurray for Somo and other stories is not like the collection of short stories on the next shelf. The fifteen different stories are uniquely knitted with one thread, that the transition from story to story is almost unnoticeable save for the headings. Yet the stories remain independent of each other due to the varied setting in geography, time and the identity of characters. Some reviewers say that stories are about the different aspects of life and its absurdities, I prefer four words to give a sneak-peek into what I can say the collection is about; Madness, Blood, Beliefs and Nature. You will meet one if not two, or three or even all of those four things in each story you touch from the fifteen.
Ejiet’s work strikes one as proudly Ugandan from the start. In Aida (the first story you meet), Ejiet uses Luganda phrases to bring out the effect of the hero-turning-villain process on the story-teller’s old friend, Kassim. Blood is introduced so early in the anthology, as we are told of how Kassim came to shouting “Mbadde ntaddeko busatu!” to everyone. Indeed, it is with madness that the collection ends as Kokota mutters her tragic refrain, “It’s him! It’s him!”
The way in which Ejiet deals with infidelity and the human reaction to it leaves the reader amazed at the author’s mastery of satire. In Namakwekwe, we see trickery turning infidelity into blood as one man turns to sleeping with another man’s wife to revenge on the same man who had slept with his, a tale that ends in tragedy. The clever use of the symbolism of rain is not lost on the reader. And yes, there was blood involved, I found my mouth open on finishing this particular story.
Ejiet travels as far as Rukungiri in South Western Uganda in setting his stories. There, a human elephant is floored with a concerted clever effort of village men using a forbidding coil of faecal matter of organic brown colouring already turning black. Give it to him, the medicine man was treated with his own medicine in the most interesting of ways. From Rukungiri, we travel to Wakiso where an expected groom never turned up and again, blood is involved.
Ejiet does not hesitate to corrupt the English spellings to bring out particular pronunciations of words by certain characters. Thus Sarah becomes Saala, statements as “Eat, dlink and make melly. Tomollow …” are not results of poor spelling, but aspects of Ejiet’s style. Later in another story, you literally hear an Indian speaking when Ejiet writes, “Vhat do you …” and an Acholi becomes visible when one reads; “… s’ould … what, shmas’er (smasher) of a girl. S’e …”.
The Teetotaler who believed that the medicine for hangover is to drink more beer because you become immune, incidentally does not drink because the same beer turned him into a ghost, when he emerged from the mortuary! It’s in The Ringed Moon that Ejiet won all that was left of my emotions.
Sex and its struggles with the marriage institution is not an isolated theme of only one story. You will meet it tormenting those below the marriageable age, as the girl who left school for Kisangani which she later realised was a hut in Nebbi, you will find it with the single daughter whose ways were caught by the father because a storm was threatening to spoil a cassava harvest and from the effects of this sex, we meet flies all over the place.
Operation SuperGlue is easily the most satirical of all. That Indians are part of us, yet never really part of us is not the only interesting thing about the Operation. The Indian who needed a pat on the butt to get himself free of someone’s wife could not amuse you further when he brings out what we publicly know as the legendary “meanness” of Indians. He says; “You tink money it grow on trees? Vhat you are saying, my prend? African wagina very tamu, but where do you tink I’m going to get all that money?” Well, the whole Indian community got all the money to get their colleague separated from someone’s wife! I was in stitches on finishing this story.
I am yet to physically see a man distributing kisses to every beautiful woman he meets on the street but The Kiss of Death creates the picture that I will meet the man. His name may not be Rwatangabo and he may or may not have seen a kiss stolen from him on his wedding day. I must add that I had no part in writing Mistaken Identity with Ejiet, I actually never met him while he lived but reading that story brought live my personal stories of being mistaken for who I am not.
I may not bring this piece to an end if I go further than this paragraph. I have not told you of the confession of a one Okalebo Felix who took a comely, ravishing little thing called a nun to bed to earn himself abuses from the priest to whom he was confessing! Have I even told you of the beauty of that one who was sylph-like, as if she has no bones… that one with a long neck, a small pointed nose, a full honey coloured mouth … You will probably not capture the sadness of Louisa’s history including being a genocide survivor because of Ejiet’s generosity with words in describing her beauty.
And, those who know my obsession with nurses should laugh at me now. Night-Duty seems to be more than that at the hospital. That is what I read from Ejiet and The Pipe and the Lesu just ends everything and leaves you wanting more. But can we reject the fact that it’s Him? I mean It’s Ejiet himself, who died at 58, and surely left us wanting more, like his child Aida, Hurray for Somo and other stories leaves us wanting more, but agreeing that It’s Him!
As part of the #UgBlogWeek, for November I am re-posting excerpts from, reviews of and commentaries on Ugandan books. These posts were originally written five years ago (2011) and shared on Facebook. There will be one post per day, throughout the #UgBlogWeek, to reminisce on my deliberate focus on Ugandan Literature in 2011, and also as a shout-out to the intellectual labourers who make our society richer with their work. This is the first post.