Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Thursday, 14 July 2011 at 16:00

Qualification: My opinion on a number of issues, especially on literature associated with FEMRITE’s early years and on diaspora life, have since changed so radically, from when I wrote this, but I reproduce it faithfully as it was, on original posting.

After reading a few of the publications by many of Ugandan female writers published by FEMRITE (Association of Uganda Women Writers), the predictability of their themes in a way put me off. Notably because the portrayal of men in many of the FEMRITE published stories as villains, as oppressive, as selfish, as brutal, as the sole cause of all problems of the woman became too much and to an extent unnecessarily sensational. In a way, my vigour regarding Ugandan fiction was affected by the FEMRITE spin to the Ugandan experience that blames the Ugandan male for all wrongs in society and the female portrayed as the eternal victim. It used to take a very good commendation from a friend for me to read a FEMRITE book, especially when the friend would tell me what the theme of the publication was.

For some time therefore, I did not pay attention to many female writers published by FEMRITE because I was pushed off by Mary Karooro Okurut’s novels (notably The Invisible Weevil and Child of a Delegate) that portrayed the Ugandan man as hell itself. This attitude however started changing with time as some female authors even when groomed by FEMRITE started writing beyond the anger, beyond the outbursts the earlier FEMRITE authors were known for.

There is no reason why I should bring FEMRITE up when talking about Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish; Tales from Entebbe. Not only because it is not published by FEMRITE but also because Baingana’s book should not be compared to Karooro’s Child of a Delegate for example. The two are so many miles apart. Now, that sounds very harsh to Karooro, but yes, it is my subjective truth. I blame the bias about female writers FEMRITE created in me, especially the first FEMRITE releases, for my late acquisition of Baingana’s book.

So, this history of my bias aside, I bought Baingana’s Tropical Fish, Tales from Entebbe on Friday, 8th July, 2011, and several years after it was published. Praise for Baingana’s novel, or can we safely call it a collection of eight linked short stories told by three sisters, arrives ahead of the book. From the moment, I devoured the first story in the collection, about a last born child’s imaginations of her parents’ master bedroom, I was glued to the book until the last story, Questions of Home! There are many stories I had to re-read and I am sure I will read them again and again. Two stories stand out for me, A Thank You Note and Lost in Los Angeles.

I have read quite a bit of Ugandan fiction about HIV/AIDS but Baingana’s A Thank You Note really deserves my own Thank You Note to her for pulling off a difficult story so effortlessly and so emotionally without the stereotypical tired storyline many writers usually adopt on writing about the impact of the disease. The preachy way the disease is written about mostly bores than delights. Today, it is not HIV/AIDS that I am picking from Baingana’s page-turner though. It is something about her story on an African’s life in America, Lost in Los Angeles. Sometimes I do not want to use my own words to make the points she makes in the story or to try to re-describe what she describes so excellently, so I will extensively quote parts of the story that moved some sense into my head, as regards life in the diaspora.

I must first of all put a disclaimer that she also puts, that there is nothing autobiographical in her book. I must add that I have never lived beyond the borders of Uganda for more than one week, so, definitely I do not directly relate with the story, except that a larger part of the people who influence the quality of my life at this moment live in the diaspora – no big deal, someone says. Maybe they may relate to the extracts below.

Lost in Los Angeles

Pages 122 – 3

It’s the small things that bother me most. My teeth aren’t white, straight, and perfect, like everyone else’s here. My teeth disturb people; they frown when I smile. Small children stare up at me, puzzled. Look Mummy, a freak! I imagine they’ve been taught to say. I have to repeat myself two or three times; it’s easier not to talk. Even black people don’t look straight at me or talk, gesture, or act the way I do. I am just as strange to them. I want to ask why, but don’t dare to. My skirts and blouses, are they too long, too loose, too bright and flowery, out of date?

(…)

Page 124 – 127

I’ve heard Africans who’ve been here too long talk in the same nasal way; it grows on you, unbidden. I swear never to, if I can help it. Like a good colonial subject, I like to think I have a British accent, the proper one.

Luckily, because everything works and is automatic, there is less and less need to talk. My salary mysteriously enters my account; I don’t need to touch money itself, or go to the bank. I find a window-like machine and punch in some numbers. They mean something: out slips money, silently, smoothly, it must be mine. I take it. At the supermarket, I don’t even need to use cash; I give the person at the counter my card and she lets me take the groceries, which are all wrapped up in four or five layers of crinkly paper and packed in coloured boxes with pictures as though they were children’s toys. There’s no need to talk to anyone. In the supermarket, everything is laid out for you; you walk through chilly bright aisles, read the labels, pick out food. The fruits and meats smell of nothing, taste of nothing. A machine tells you how much, and the person at the counter smiles mechanically. She may say, how are you, ma’am, smiling on and off like a switch, but is she really talking to me, me, or to a body buying food? The price is fixed anyway. There is nothing to argue about, nothing to say.

I swipe my card through the metal box, my food rolls down the rubber plank, is packed quickly, efficiently, and I roll it out, down to the garage, a cement cage of cars upon cars, immense and lifeless. No one drives small cars here, and there are very few old ones. Most of the cars are huge and shiny and prosperous-looking. I have a ticket that slipped out of a metal box all by itself; it knew I needed it, it knew I was there. I took the ticket and somehow a long pole rose up, letting me into the garage. The same thing happens in reverse as I leave, only this time there’s a person hidden behind a glass cage. He or she doesn’t glance my way, and after I’ve done this enough times, neither do I. I slip my ticket and a few dollars into a metal drawer, which slips not the glass cage, slides back out with change, and the long pole ahead of me rises up. Smoothly, soundlessly, straight and narrow. Metal, metal everywhere, and I need a drink.

The same thing happens at my apartment. After the side flat perfect roads, I click my garage door open; the metal rises up, disappearing into the wall. I slip not the cement womb of the building, enter my car slot, get out, and press a button. The elevator doors slip open soundlessly, then close. A metal box lifts me up, but it’s so smooth I can hardly feel it. It opens again and lets me out. I wish something would go wrong. I wish things weren’t so perfect. My mouth is sticky from not talking, my face sticky with silent tears. I am home I crawl into bed and try to remember the dirty smells of Kitooro, the dark swirling mud after an hour of rain like vengeance, hard fast rain that means it. The rotting fruit and swarming flies of Nakasero market; the unkempt, uncut grass that creeps, uncontained, uncontainable, disruptive, across any kind of man-made borders. I have been torn from natural living chaos that wrapped itself strongly around our lives. I am alone and trapped in metal. I am lost.

III

My cousin Kema has left for Uganda. I live by myself now. She did a lot to help me settle in, got me my first job, and introduced me to her friends, who are all Africans. They live the Southern California suburban life while saving money to build houses back home, educate their kids, make money, live well, what’s so wrong with that? They are very nice people, all shiny with cream and fatty food, and they welcome new Africans with open arms – those who are educated and ambitious, that is. In America, we are nothing, but Africans: lumped together, generic, black. Our voices get whiny and nasal too, but we can’t erase the African lilt. Our children are American, though: noisy, demanding, insolent, confident, and fat.

Every weekend there is a gathering at one house or another, and we talk about home. When we were there last, five years ago, ten, even twenty. We are going back for good, eventually, but not anytime soon, oh no, who wants to live with the insecurity, the rule of army men and guns, the magendo – black market – such a tough way of life. Here, we have grown soft and comfortable with steady salaries we can live on; why go back to desperately running around chasing deals, sweating in that dusty heat? Someone, another recent arrival (not me I only observe, and smile if anyone happens to look my way), tries to protest.

(…)

Page 128 – 132

We escape our American lives on the fringe and take centre stage again. At these moments we are so far away from America, we might as well be at Sophie’s Bar and Bakery in Wandegeya, sitting on wooden stools out in the open, eating roast meat and drinking Port Bell beer, swatting away the flies. Or maybe up on the Diplomat Hotel rooftop, washing away the day’s sweat with sundowners. It feels that good.

“Daaad.” The child’s petulant cry swiftly brings us back. We are here in America, and we all need our reasons to stay, despite our vows not to die here, oh no! Alone in an apartment where your body may rot for days and no one will miss you? Here, where no one knows you even exist? Imagine ending life in a retirement home, where you have to pay someone to look after you, as if you have no children no family? What disgrace! We are going back home in two years, home is home. Five years maybe. No, for us, our kids have to get into college first; you know the schools at home. When I finish my house; when I’ve set up my business; when I get the UN job I’ve been promised. That’s the only way to survive, you know, to get paid in dollars. If when, if, when, but in the meantime … oh, here’s the food, let’s eat.

We rally around the barbecued chicken, limp salads, meat stew and rice, posho made with semolina flour. It’s the same food every time; not quite home food, but close enough. It’s better than sandwiches or macaroni or some other fake food, and so we eat. The talk subsides to contented murmurs and grunts of appreciation. Afterwards, the women clear up, bustling up and down, their big hips swaying heavily with each move, as purposeful and confident as the huge swathes of bright-colored kitenge wrapped around them. What a warming sight to see. I don’t help much; I prefer to watch. But the single men take note and cancel me off their lists; not to mention, my hips aren’t big enough.

(…)

The fast, syncopated, guitar-energized Congolese music is another way to go back home. It’s a relief from battling the alien world that envelops us the minute we step outside our doors. We cluster together and dance to break away from the self or non-self we have to be at work, among foreigners, in the white world (even though there are blacks there). It’s a difficult act, a tiring one. So why not let the wails of Lingala, well-known oldies played again and again – Franco, Papa Wemba, Kanda Bongoman – why not let them take us back to that safe, known place? Sure, we left it willingly, and it wasn’t haven. Now, it seems like it was.

We know the dhombolo, we love doing it together, churning our waists and hips, arms flung up in the air as if this will save us. But I tire soon. Some of us (“Oba, who do they think they are?” I imagine the others thinking) danced more to zungu music than Congolese hits back home. Black American hits actually, not white zungu; Michael Jackson, Kool and the Gang, the Commodores.

(…)

Page 136

Raab says he likes my large lips, and I instead of replying, “Everyone I know has ‘large’ lips,” I say, “You can have them,” and we kiss. It’s even easier, smoother, after that. Really, I think, as we explore each other’s face, men and women don’t have to talk; we should just rub faces, eyebrows, noses. Sniff each other like dogs. We do, and end up in his bed (an especially long one), panting and entangled. His long, hairy legs and arms are everywhere, under and over me; it’s like I am making love with an octopus. A warm, furry, active, attentive octopus. I remember an old TV cartoon of a one-octopus band: it played all the instruments, its tentacles wriggling gracefully everywhere. I tell him. He laughs and winds tight around me. I bite his large nose gently, smooth his eyebrows hold on to his long abdomen. Here I am, mind and body together, in this boy’s bed, in Los Angeles. This is new. Let me turn away from the past. I am so tired of it.

Raab is friendly in the morning, as if it’s perfectly normal to wake up with a stranger, an African woman who is hangover and silent, in your bed. He offers me breakfast, but I don’t want to eat anything – maybe some coffee. He gives me aspirin and juice and is casual and sweet. We exchange phone numbers, and then he drives me home in an old Volvo his parents gave him. “Take care,” he says, kissing my check. “Of what?” I ask. He laughs, and waves his large hairy hand.”

 

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 sixth post.

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