Odokonyero is here

In July, last year, Madhu Krishnan and I convened two creative writing workshops in Kampala and Gulu, taught by Nick Makoha and Jennifer Makumbi, respectively.  Moses Odokonyero and Jacob Katumusiime were very central to the secondary school teachers’ focus group discussions we held alongside the workshop. The results of the workshop are eighteen short stories, written by emerging and young Ugandan writers, now available for public enjoyment in an anthology, published by Black Letter Media.

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Alongside the workshops, in the same month last year, Noosim Naimasiah and I collaborated on a documentary film project on the question of social media and its impact on creative writing. For the film, I interviewed five major Ugandan writers, namely, Jennifer Makumbi, Stella Nyanzi, Nyana Kakoma, Ernest Bazanye and Acan Innocent.

The July days spent with Noosim, Zahara Abdul, Lewis Ainebyona and Esther Mirembe were enjoyable and I am proud of the product of our labour. I am personally grateful to Henry Brefo who has been the key strategy man for Writivism since 2016, Roland Byagaba who has been the man in charge of all things Writivism since September 2017, Rukundo Joschua, and Mulialia Okumu for their labour, and unflinching support.

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The final version of the documentary film is on tour in the United Kingdom next week. The film will be screened in Brighton, London and Birmingham. The Uganda screening news will be released as soon as they will be available. I want to be there, obviously. While I wait anxiously to travel to Kampala for that screening, and the launch of Odokonyero, the anthology, enjoy four of the eighteen short stories in the anthology, below.

Candano by Fred Sunday Mugisha

Tendo by Esther Mirembe 

My Name is Ojwiny by George Ocen 

Let me Write to Dad by Jacob Katumusiime 

It was a pleasure doing these things, to celebrate five years of Writivism, no wonder my electronic self passed out in August, and I missed two weeks at the beginning of the semester. I am happy to see the fruits of all that labour.

On Nyana Kakoma’s “Chief Mourner”

There is no story that has made it hard for me to review without spoilers as Nyana Kakoma’s “Chief Mourner”. It is hard to compare it with another short story by a Ugandan, without spoiling too much. But I will try. This is afterall an experiment in writing very brief reviews and not spoiling.

 

“Chief Mourner” is published in the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing anthology, A Memory This Size and other stories. It is the very last story, and it is such a powerful way to end the anthology. It is a story that stays with you.

 

“Chief Mourner” is a story of our times. As the trend is when it comes to African literature in English, every single short story is read as representative of Africa, as carrying a burden to paint an image of that country, Africa, and Nyana starts hers thus: “There is a lot to be said about finding out that your boyfriend, Jude has died via Facebook.”

 

Nyana’s Africa is in the technology era. It is an Africa with Facebook. An Africa dominated by social media, that you can read all about African life on the social network. Lives are lived online as much as they are, offline. And news of death travels online faster than it does offline.

 

The protagonist in the story, lives in Mbale, a country town on the Ugandan Kenyan border and her boyfriend Jude dies on his way back to Kampala, from visiting her. Reading this story brought me memories of the days Mateos was a popular hangout place, and Ban cafe was the coffee shop of choice in Kampala.

 

It is a short story that captures our times. By ‘our’, I mean Ugandans who came of age in the social media era. We were born in the 1980s, we were joining university at the time blogging was the thing to do, indeed, Nyana’s tribute to Joel Ntwatwa captures what I am describing. Ntwatwa, whom we lost recently was one of our generation.

 

“Chief Mourner” has a place among the short stories that mark our stamp on Ugandan literature. Nyana is a luminary of our generation. And Jude represents those we have lost.

 

While Ntwatwa died this year, five years after Nyana’s story was published, I feel the story is a literary tribute to him and others of our generation who have passed on. I have here in mind, Hillary Kuteitsa and Boaz Muhumuza among others who died in their 20s and 30s respectively. “Chief Mourner” is told from the perspective of the girlfriend who wasn’t introduced to the family as a girlfriend and how she mourns, and what she finds out about her deceased boyfriend during the vigil and other mourning rituals. When he can no longer answer, as Weasle sings of Mowzey Radio.

 

It is a great story, to which I will return when I dispense with the restraint on including spoilers in the review.

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The 2013 Caine Prize anthology was published by New Internationalist, Jacana, and Sub-Saharan publishers.

Dear Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of Uganda

On January 25, 1986 when the Uganda National Liberation Front military government was defeated by your National Resistance Army (NRA), I did not exist in any form. Not even as an idea. Not even as a foetus. I was born almost two years after that day. This means that as you celebrate the feat of leading Uganda for thirty one uninterrupted years this 26th day of the month of January, the year of our Lord 2017, I will wait for ten more months before celebrating my thirtieth birthday.

Our generation of Ugandans, born in 1986 and after deserves to be named after your stay in power. We deserve to be known as the Museveni generation. We grew up knowing that your name is a synonym for presidency. Indeed we said things like, Kenya has changed its museveni, to mark the handing over of presidency in that country from Moi to Kibaki and from Kibaki to Uhuru Kenyatta. To us, the office of the president is you, and you are the office of the president. That is reductionist. You are more than the office of the president. You have defined much of the reality in which we have grown.

We remember our childhood, teenage and young adulthood days by the various policy and political events in which you were the central player. Whether it is the start of the Universal Primary Education programme in the 1990s, under which most of us attained elementary education, or the 2000 political challenge for the presidency of your organisation (system), the National Resistance Movement by Kizza Besigye, or even the 2005 Juba Peace Talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army, or the 2011 Walk to Work protests: you were the lead player that shaped those events, and as a result, you dominate how we remember our own personal histories.

You have re-imagined and created Uganda in your image. You have been in power for longer than the combined years previous leaders stayed in office. Today, I like to think about these realities as merely that: facts, without imposing any value judgement. My letter to you, Yoweri has nothing to do with whether it is right or wrong for you to have shaped our generation through your short and continuing stay in power. I know that your handlers and propagandists are itching already, to tear down whatever I wish to say, if they sense that this letter is criticising your short stay in power. I wish not to indulge them.

Yoweri: I want to ask about a side of you, that I wish to see more of. Can I call you Grandpa? I have read that people called you Mzee, even before I was born, you were already called Old Man. To a person born in 1987, age-wise, you qualify to be a grandfather. But also, given your role in shaping the conditions and realities of my short life on earth so far, I think it is respectful to call you Grandpa. After all, where I grew up, they taught us not to call elders by name. I apologise for the bad manners exhibited in the previous paragraphs. Can we cut out the handlers and propagandists at this stage? They should not care what grandchildren tell their grannies.

Grandpa: I wish to see more of your intellectual side. I remember glancing through my father’s copies of Sowing the Mustard Seed and What is Africa’s Problem in the late 1990s, when I was too young to appreciate your wisdom. As a young adult, I would read you in detail and appreciate that you wrote that scholarly verification of Fanon’s Theory of Revolutionary Violence in Mozambique during your undergraduate study. That thesis is important for my political commitment to and interest in the fight against imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, to borrow bell hooks’ naming of the system of our oppression. I also appreciate that you published selected essays on protracted warfare that military strategists world over should also be thankful for.

I appreciate most of your speeches, where you forget to score points against perceived Ugandan political opponents and go off on tangents in which you seek to interpret phenomena on your own terms as an ideas man. Most times I pick interest in how your neo-liberal practices as president contradict your ‘freedom fighter’ rhetoric. Your actions have entrenched the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’s hold onto Ugandan society. But I remain greedy Grandpa, for your written material and intellectual things, and so allow me, as you would a grandchild, to ask for more. Please publish more, Grandpa. Our generation deserves to read more narration of events that have shaped our lives from your perspective. Just as you disagreed with your teacher Walter Rodney at University of Dar es Salaam on the issue of the existence of God, you know for sure that some of us will disagree with your viewpoint as is expected in a situation where there are two and more working minds.

I know that some of the propagandists in your employ are now tempted to respond to this blog post by attacking me personally, and listing all your publications. They probably think that I am not aware of the long list of your publications. I do not know if they sometimes think that our generation does not know how to use Google to find information, or they are the ones who do not know how helpful that search engine is. So, indeed we Google a lot, and specifically I, look out for any intellectual material authored by yourself there is, online. I also look for the same offline. Our generation is after all not able to live fully digital lives because of what you would call infrastructural bottlenecks, when you wear the bureaucratic jargon on your tongue. Your critics would add the fact that sometimes you pull out of that hat, a vague justification, that gift that keeps giving, of ‘national security’ to try to deny us the use of the internet as happened during the 2016 election. But let me not pay attention to the propagandists in your employ and their antagonists, your critics.

Let me state my second ask. It is related to the first. Grandpa: why don’t you impose a cultural agenda onto your government? Maybe that is a wrong way to phrase it. Let me re-phrase. Grandpa: can you impose a cultural agenda onto your government? Surely, you can’t limit the role of culture in the revolution to the military songs of the NRA. You know that Amilcal Cabral’s concept of the building of national culture and consciousness went beyond that.

I love that in your personal capacity as an intellectual, you have been part of two groups of linguists that have worked on a translation dictionary, and a thesaurus. I have expressed elsewhere my issues with these two projects. I have questioned the dominance of Runyankore and Nkore ways at the expense of Rukiga and Kiga ways, yet they are described as including both the Banyankore and Bakiga nationalities. My critique of the work does not take away its value. I think that it is important work. Indeed as bell hooks says, the critic only engages the work that they ascribe value to. Given the technological domination of the world by White Supremacist Eurocentric media and modes of knowledge, our generation appreciates the labour of those intellectual fighters who keep our own languages and heritage accessible to us. In your personal capacity, you are one of them.

But Grandpa: why do you do these projects as an individual? Why doesn’t your government have a cultural and language policy to support this work, in the process extending it to other nationalities in Uganda, beyond the Banyankore and Bakiga? I could list the various provisions of international human rights treaties ratified by Uganda that require the state to promote indigenous languages and heritage. Indeed, even the 1995 Ugandan Constitution has provisions that support this case. Sections of various Acts of Parliament can also be cited to boost the case for state investment in indigenous languages and heritage. But for now, I choose to write to you a blog post than to take your government to task in the courts of law. From your Kavunuuzi and Katondoozi projects referred to above, I know that you are interested in this type of work, as an individual. Why, Grandpa: doesn’t this interest and personal investment seep into public policy?

As a President of Uganda, your government’s cultural and language policies for the last 31 years have served a colonial and imperial agenda. They enforce White Supremacy in the name of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’. They turn full lives into commodities, following neo-liberal capitalist logics. They alienate black children from their immediate environments, history and heritage, to the benefit of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Grandpa: knowing that you are a former student of Walter Rodney, the Guyanese historian and Pan Africanist Marxist who gave us How Europe Underdeveloped Africa among other revolutionary texts, I know that this gospel is a staple on your ideological plate. I imagine that at a personal level, you do not like your own government’s cultural and language policy framework. But why does your government continue to do this damage, Grandpa?

Instead of you always asking UNESCO to fund your personal heritage and language projects, a state institution should exist to support this work. As you know, our generation has its many demands on the state and on your generation, given the conditions of our growing up. You are all we know. We may not yet be big on demanding a cultural and language renaissance, but you can be sure that we will appreciate this in the long term. Why don’t you institutionalise your personal hobby of contributing to projects around Runyankore and Nkore heritage so that other intellectual workers in the indigenous arts, from other Ugandan nationalities can make their contributions? Grandpa: is this too much to ask? You surely can persuade your colleagues in government to allocate some of the hundreds of millions of US Dollars the Consolidated Fund already has, from oil related income (that batch for which the handshake was given) to this.

My final ask is petty, Grandpa. It may even be problematic. Actually, it is. Please Grandpa: do not allow your handlers and various propagandists to come here and pretend to respond to this open letter. I know this last paragraph is a gift to them, as they think that they will use it to delegitimise what they may perceive as an attempt at discrediting you. Grandpa: please prevail on them. They may not see how well intentioned this plea from a child who has no choice but to carry the label with your own name, having been born during your era as Ugandan president, is. I know you are busy, and that this last paragraph could be the reason this letter may not reach you, but I believe that there are spiritual dimensions to our existence on earth and so you may find this letter telepathically. I will be glad to receive a response through action, Grandpa. Or even clairvoyantly.

Sincerely

Furayide: P.O Box Nyanja, Kabale.

Wait

When he says that he likes your smile

You start thinking that he means more

 

Wait

 

When he takes your number

Your friends hear that he must be interested

 

Wait

 

When he WhatsApps you the hearts

Your fears begin to fly away

 

Wait

 

When he asks to meet at a restaurant

Your friends confirm his interest for him

 

Wait

 

When he asks how you feel about him

Your heart wants to burst with excitement

 

Wait

 

Wait and wait until he thinks that you are not interested in him

Wait and wait until he stops initiating things

Wait and wait for your own leadership to emerge

Wait and wait for your own existence to shake so much you grab the phone and demand to see him and tell him what you have been feeling before it kills you.

Stop me from talking

I want to listen

To sit and hear you talk

I want to be told things

 

But I can’t stop myself from talking

I can’t help but respond to everything I hear

Teach me how to keep quiet, how to listen without responding

 

You are telling me about when you were spanked

I do not know why I have to tell you about my own spanking experience

The time that man looked under your skirt

I do not know where the story of that girl in the neighbourhood who was molested comes from.

 

Teach me to listen

I now do not know how you ended up on the boat to Italy

Because my tongue spilled half-known stories of exes who migrated.

 

I ask you to pick up the story from where you left it, where I do not remember

You oblige but forget to tell me not to take what looks like your thunder before it gathers steam

And so I start talking about postcolonialism and all the isms that take us away from your story.

 

Does imprisonment help people who do not know how to control their tongues?

Is there a school for listening?

Where do those who can’t listen go to learn how to listen?

Six Apologies

I am sorry that our parents did not teach us to leave when the love runs out

I am sorry that leaving abusive unions has become a revolutionary act

I am sorry that the world does not like it when we choose ourselves

I am sorry that we have to forgive ourselves for wanting peace

I am sorry that we have to be shamed for preferring ourselves

I am sorry that I have to apologise for your right to love you

Okot p’Bitek’s White Teeth #UgBlogWeek

Originally posted on Saturday, 30 July 2011 at 19:01

Okot p’Bitek is known largely for his poetry, for his “songs” than for his prose. In fact, one friend of mine once wished the man had written a novel. Well, he did write a novel and it was his first major work. He was twenty two years old when he did. The novel turned out to be the only novel he wrote. It was first published in 1953 by the East African Literature Bureau, Eagle Press, and written in Acoli language under the title Lak Tar Miyo Kinyero Wilobo (White Teeth make us laugh on earth) shortened as Lak Tar (White Teeth). Even when Okot always noted that translation of his works from Acoli to English made them lose the flavour they come with in Acoli, there is a lot of Acoli-ness that stays.

Just as Lawino berates the invasion of African culture by new Western ways in Song of Lawino, in White Teeth, Okot disparages the changes which were taking place in the custom of bride wealth with the increased monetization of the economy during colonial times. As Okeca, the main character in the novel discovers when he reaches Kampala; the colonial monetization of the economy had also wrecked the once tightly-knit clan system of the Acoli people, introduced massive corruption in society and also saw the callous exploitation of African workers by Indians on sugar plantations.

It would not be fair for those who have not read White Teeth or any other work of Okot if I do not give them a taste of the beauty of the language Okot writes in. We will do with a few excerpts;

At page 14; describing Cecilia, the girl whose hand in marriage Okeca longed for;

“That girl in front of the others was spotless. Tall but not too tall. Brown, yet not brown. Her skin was tender like the young grass shoot. It was soft and tender as if she used Lux bathing soap. This must have been the case, for her brother had just come home on leave from the army.

She was leading the other girls to the market like a bull antelope leading others to the drinking place. She had draped her tender frame with a soft silky dress and on her crested crane neck was a single giraffe-tail hair necklace. Her hair was carefully combed and pressed, and on her head was balanced an abino, earthen jar, whose neck was like that of its carrier.

Faultlessly beautiful.

Spotlessly clean.

The leader of the girls bore abino.

Cecilia Laliya, chief of girls.”

At page 22-23; describing a conversation involving Okeca, Cecilia and Otto at an Orak dance to celebrate the marriage of the son of Timotimo;

“Cecilia Laliya, sister of Otto, Laliya the chief of girls, was there in front of all the Paibona girls, leading the dancing beauties. She was wearing a nylon dance skirt, her breasts barely covered. The breasts were ripe like a pair of ripened tugu fruits and the tattoos on her back were like olok fruits. Her heels sparkled as she danced; her hair shone, black and thick but not bushy. Cecilia was there in the arena! She was dancing, challenging and provoking all! I beckoned her out of the arena so that we would converge a little. She obeyed. A perfumed scent she exuded filled my nostrils. The glowing sunset light made healthy sweat flowing freely on her smooth skin look like strings of glassy beads. She stood there, smiling, exposing teeth and a gap in the upper row of teeth. The teeth were white beyond compare! What a haunting beauty Cecilia’s teeth were!

“How’s it with you today? Why aren’t you dancing today?”

She ventured to ask me after seeing I could not bring myself to say anything to her. But could I answer her? Where could Okeca Ladwong get the voice with which to say anything to Cecilia when her beauty had dazzled and robbed him of words!

Otto Luru had to come to my rescue:

“Today we have decided to come and feed our eyes on pretty ones like you.”

“Okeca, you better tell me quickly what you have called me here for. I want to go back and dance,” she said, dancing.

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 seventh post.

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.

(…)

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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.