Lubega is sitting singly on a settee in one corner of Club Ambience, a half-filled paper cup in his hand. Three bottles of Smirnoff, one obviously half full, are huddled together on the glass table before him as if frightened of the beams that keep swooping on the floor and sweeping up the walls. Young pleasure seekers are dancing, drinking, smoking shisha and making out in the party fog, something clubs never had in Lubega’s time. Back then, most of the music played was from Congo and South Africa. Nowadays, home musicians dominate playlists, though once in a while the DJ slots in works recorded in typical West African pidgin and Jamaican patois.
The MC keeps reminding the revellers, who he fondly refers to as “child-of-my-mother,” that life is short, and encourages them to “enjoy it to the maximum.” Where is the lie? It seems like only yesterday that Lubega and others were the flowers of Kampala. Today, he cannot tell where all the bubbly girls he partied with in the 80s disappeared to. It is as though Dionysus called time on bell-bottoms and miniskirts, and sent them off the pitch of revelry saying, “Go y’all and prepare for frequent doctor’s visits.” Little wonder Lubega has already caught too many faces giving him more than a glance and exchanging surprised looks. Anyone would find it hard to understand what a man in his sixties, wearing a pinstriped suit and a necktie the size of Zwangendaba’s panga, is looking for in a typical youth nightclub.
At what point does one start to eschew trends and snub calls to happenings? At what age does one stop cherishing ‘less cloth, more skin’ and become a judge of morality? Ha! Life is short indeed. For Lubega, he never returned to nightlife after losing his first child. He and Christine resorted to soul-searching. By the time Lwanga was born, three years before Violet followed, nightlife was long forgotten.
It is now past midnight. The club is literally on fire, with everyone on their feet except this old man refreshing his paper cup. Christine would be surprised to find him drinking and staring – she would call it that – at girls grinding their bottoms against boys’ groins, others being spanked and loving it. Lubega hates to think Violet and Bridget, who are 25 and 23 respectively, dance like this too. Though he admits they did some really crazy things in his time, girls didn’t wrap their legs around men’s waists by way of dance.
Now check out these two girls grinding on each other. When Lubega’s eyes meet those of the smaller girl, she smiles at him, revealing a gap between her teeth. He smiles back, unwilling to give away his dejection. The girl whispers something to her friend, and gives Lubega the glad eye. He frowns and returns dismissively to thoughts of his son, who he left in hospital three hours earlier.
Lwanga just made 30 today. His wife rang up Christine four days prior to ask her and Lubega to turn up for the birthday party. Lubega was lounging on the balcony, reading the People & Power pullout in Sunday Monitor, when Christine came lamenting, “I cannot believe I no longer own my own son.” Though she seemed to be speaking to herself, Lubega knew she was seeking his attention. He cocked his head to the side, and shot her this look that asks: What do you mean you no longer own your own son? “I have been thinking of throwing a surprise party for Jonah on his birthday...” Not that Lubega remembered their son’s exact date of birth. “Sharon has pulled the plug on me, she’s asking us to join her in surprising him on Friday.” Lubega appeared to slowly return to the newspaper, but not to the thoughts of Bobi Wine’s magical rise in Ugandan politics and its implications. “Hubby?” He was absentminded. “Hubby, are you fine?”
“Oh, we will go,” he said, suddenly grabbing at the pullout. He picked it up and returned to his previous posture, pretending to Christine that nothing was wrong. “We will go. I am very fine.”
“Well, I’ll leave you to do your things. We’ll talk about it later.”
“But I have just said we will go.”
“I mean talking about whatever is bothering you now.”
In bed after supper, Christine tried to drag the reason for the sad, thoughtful demeanor out of her husband, but all her efforts matched the description of milking a rock. Lubega insisted he had a mild headache which wouldn’t continue into the next day. But his spirits remained low on the morrow, much to Christine’s disgust. By evening, however, Lubega had accepted that worrying, just like not worrying, might not abate his worst fears now that Lwanga was turning 30.
He’s considering starting on the second bottle when the girl who winked at him moments ago appears before him. She stands positioned like a fashion model posing for pictures on the catwalk. Her short translucent dress, high heels, and long legs force an embarrassingly ample view of her thighs on Lubega. But thanks to the thoughts about his family, he will not easily give in to the enticement of a girl his daughters’ age.
Her next move is to amble around the table and sit right beside her prey with her right leg crossed over the left. It goes without saying that her dress has slid up by two inches. She even has the temerity to refresh the paper cup and down it in two deuced gulps before casting her prey a hungry look. Her eyes are glittering like a serpent’s. Poor old Lubega is simply out of ideas; yet his tormentor is still full of moves. She undoes the crossed legs, and shifts so tactically on the couch that she nudges him with her hip. If he doesn't react, positively that is, she will go a notch higher. These girls are, as per Ganda parlance, no food.
With one knee on the couch and the other leg attempting to wedge Lubega’s legs open, she loosens his necktie, knowing her boobies are almost popping out of the dress – on purpose. Zwangendaba’s panga defied, and now a look of incredulity on Lubega’s face, she proceeds to the coat. To Lubega’s own disappointment, he obeys. He would have resisted her straddling him if he had predicted it. The heat introduced to the area of contact is actually less startling than the rocking that follows.
When the DJ fades in a Jamaican song, the rocking turns into aggressive grinding, and his reaction threatens to equal her action. She has awakened something that has long been in slumber. Lubega feels helpless with embarrassment, not that his tormentor cares. Her vodka-smelling lips keep spewing hot air around his neck. She’s soon getting what she came for.
It’s really miraculous that Lubega feels her crooked hand sliding into his trouser. As she reaches her head to push Lubega’s phone into the band in her hair, the old man grabs hold of her hand. So much for her cunning.
In the afternoon, precisely eleven hours back, Lubega and Christine first drove to a gift shop on Entebbe Road and bought a Rolex watch and, by Christine’s insistence, a pair of brogues and a canister of Hugo Boss perfume. They always give their children the best things they can afford. But now the premonition was getting the better of Lubega, so much that he complained, “Waste of money.” Christine stopped and gazed at her husband as though he had uttered a swear word in public. Then she turned and carried the items to the counter.
Outside the shop, she threw a tantrum. “I will repay the money. It will be back on the account by close of the day.”
“I didn't mean that,” said Lubega, entering the car to avoid causing a scene.
“Then what did you mean?” Christine demanded, occupying the passenger seat.
Lubega improvised, “All Sharon expects of us is our presence.”
“What about Jonah?” asked Christine. “What are his expectations?” No other word was uttered until they arrived at Lwanga’s home in Buziga.
Buziga is a quiet high-class neighbourhood on the fringes of Kampala. Lwanga’s house, like all the rest in the estate, is a sturdy two-storey bungalow with grey roofing tiles, white walls and light blue reflective glass panes. When Sharon received them, they acted as if they were on the best talking terms ever.
“How is everything?” asked Christine with a sweeping gesture. Their granddaughter Claire was laughing from being tickled by Lubega.
“Very good,” said Sharon. “Three of his friends and our neighbours across the street are already here. Claire has promised she will not give anything away, though she insists on welcoming him back home as she always does.”
“Won’t this car give Dad a clue?” asked Claire with a note of concern in her voice. “It should be parked behind the house like all the rest.”
“Goodness! Those are my genes,” said Christine proudly.
“Let me have the keys, I will park it behind,” offered Sharon.
Lubega thought his daughter-in-law was doing so much to please her man that she might regret before long. Even Lwanga’s friends and neighbours were to him unnecessarily excited when they joined them in the living room. He had attended two or three funerals where a mourner cried, “We were with him a few days ago. I can't believe he’s gone.”
“Dad, is anything the matter?” asked Sharon, seeing that Lubega was not looking fine; in fact, he was not even involved in looking at Lwanga’s pictures taken over the years. He straightened the involuntary frown. “Can I give you some food?” continued Sharon, solicitously, knowing that her quite conservative father-in-law wouldn’t openly ask her for food if he felt hungry. “My pans are not yet holed, Sharon.” Christine played spokesperson. “He ate before coming here.”
“I am sorry, Mum.”
“Only jesting, my dear,” said Christine before turning to whisper in Lubega’s ear. “Let’s forget about the little quarrel, big boy.” She was mistaken about what weighed on his mind.
Claire took her grandparents through the birthday songs, putting them on a par with the other guests, and Sharon briefed them on delivering a little speech each. “We’ll then count down from thirty to zero, and Jonah will cut the cake.” Lubega wanted to raise an objection to the idea of counting down, but it clogged up in his throat before coming out as a benign grunt. In some way, Sharon’s idea made him imagine Lwanga would be living on borrowed time from that day onwards.
When Claire heard the honk of her dad’s car, she ran out to receive him. Lubega didn't like the way everyone else ran up the stairs to the corridor that led to the master bedroom. He took his time climbing up, much to the anxiety of the rest. Sharon handed each of them a candle, and lit them one by one. They could now hear Lwanga and Claire coming up the stairs. Lubega alone didn’t hold his breath. Hardly had Lwanga stepped onto the landing when the surprise singing of “Happy birthday...” threw him off balance. He reflexively yanked Claire’s hand, and together they avalanched back down the stairs.
Claire gave one cry and nothing more. When the shocked choir ran down the stairs, they found Lwanga bleeding from the nose and mouth. Christine feverishly picked up two of her granddaughter’s teeth as though she might replace them. Lubega was looking on, utterly astounded. The candle wax was dripping onto his fingers but, like a leper, he seemed not to notice it.
Clubs and bars have maintained the culture of not fixing clocks to their walls. They don’t want to warn customers that they are running late. Whenever Lubega wants to know what time it is, he has to consult his phone because his wristwatch isn’t bright enough to be read under the moving coloured beams.
It's 2:32 AM. Luckily, he has not received any calls from Sharon, Christine, or any of Lwanga’s friends. For the first time, he appreciates the logic in the English saying ‘No news is good news,’ but there is a growing feeling of regret in one half of his heart. He feels he could have prevented the accident if only he had opened up about his premonition. The other half stands up for him, arguing he would have been ignored nonetheless. Or Lwanga would still have choked on a piece of cake. By the time Lubega left Case Hospital, he didn't know how the odds stood. Only Sharon and Christine had been permitted into the ICU rooms, each attending to her child. However, a doctor in the emergency unit had specified who needed more prayers between Lwanga and Claire despite the fact that Lwanga had bled profusely. Perhaps there was a chance of survival for him, even when Claire’s death would imply the jinx no longer spared females.
Lubega left Lwanga’s friends in the waiting lounge of the ICU, all of them tearful. When he wondered which place to drive to, he remembered the venue of Christine’s last birthday, a restaurant near the club. But he had no appetite, and a restaurant would not allow him to wait inside till morning.
3 AM. The revellers are still so full of energy you might think it’s only 10 PM. It’s clear they have no son or granddaughter on life support. Lubega is praying for time to stop moving because once dawn breaks and the club closes, he will have no option but to return to hospital. That is, if there is still no news by then. His stomach grumbles, and he decides to go to the washroom, only to find himself rooted to the floor without the smallest urge to use the facility.
He’s coming out when a club muscleman stops him. “We don't encourage anyone to leave their drinks unattended, Mzee,” he booms close to Lubega’s ear. “And no man is allowed to use the ladies'.” Lubega turns to look where the man’s finger is pointing, and sees the female sign emblazoned on a plaque above the door. “I am sorry,” he says, fiddling with his phone, which just vibrated. Luckily, it is a useless message from the telecom company. “Is anything the matter, Mzee?” asks the bouncer. “You won’t understand,” Lubega replies after a momentary hesitation. Even if he chooses to confide, he knows he will not go beyond the accident to talk about the mystery known only to him and his late grandmother.
Lubega became orphaned at eleven months. His father was gunned down at the Uganda-Kenya border, apparently for smuggling salt into Uganda. Two Ugandan soldiers had ordered Lubega’s father to eat his sandals, which he refused to do. Feeling disrespected, they roped him to the back of their pickup and dragged him six times around the compound of their station. Save a few scratches on his back and the chafed wrists, Lubega was not that injured. That was even more disrespectful to the soldiers. “Let’s see how a bullet might do,” they said, according to his friend, who had accepted to eat his own shoes. Perhaps one bullet wouldn't have killed Lubega’s father; but the soldiers fired over eight rounds at him. All for smuggling Kenyan salt into the country. The incident was never investigated since the victim was a nobody.
Two months after his father’s burial, Lubega’s nineteen-year-old mother dumped him at her paternal grandmother’s house in Masaka. When John, Lubega’s cousin, opened the door in the morning, he was surprised to find a baby sitting in the doorway, nibbling at a slice of bread, a sisal bag beside him. Perhaps Lubega’s mother had said to him in baby talk, “Wait here, my child, I will not be long!” The front of Lubega’s overalls was decorated with crumbs. Among the contents of the sisal bag was a note which Lubega’s grandmother asked the village chairman to read to her and the gathering of neighbours.
Maama, I have found a white man. I am going with him to Bungereza. Bungereza is Luganda for England. The bad thing is that I was dishonest with him about my motherhood, so he does not expect a stepchild. I love my child so much I will not pass up this chance to give him a good future. Please take care of your grandson.
It was after the chairman had read the last sentence that Lubega’s grandmother bent down and frowned a gaze at Lubega’s face. Now she recognized the baby she had seen at her son’s funeral two months earlier. She burst into tears.
It is 3:46 AM.
Perhaps Lubega’s grandmother wouldn’t have been so hurt if her daughter-in-law had remarried after thereabouts four years. Then Lubega would be old enough to join his cousins in doing some chores. She decided to write her off, and told herself she was Lubega’s mother and father although, as Lubega grew up, she called him mwami (husband). Lubega was the heir of his father and therefore the heir of his grandmother’s husband, who had been survived by three daughters and one son, Lubega’s father.
Lubega enjoyed special treatment from his grandmother to such an extent that whenever a food item of any kind was too small to be shared among all the grandchildren, she said the fair thing to do was to leave it for Lubega. One day, Jajja Daphne – grandmother of Daphne, for whom the boy would later form a deep liking – sent Lubega’s grandmother a basket of sweet potatoes from her garden. One of them became orangeish once peeled. All the grandchildren desired it, wondering what it would taste like once cooked. But when the food was ready and placed on the lujjuliro – the traditional dining table, which is not really a table but an arrangement where boys sit and girls kneel down around a heap of food – their grandmother cut the coveted potato into two pieces, took one, and gave the other to Lubega, who always sat right by her side at meals.
Be that as it may, Lubega received the most serious beatings for wrongdoing where his cousins mostly went unpunished. When John started escaping from school to go and catch fish at the lake, their grandmother turned a blind eye, but when Lubega stayed out playing with Daphne, he was beaten like a snake.
By the time Lubega started going to school, having cleared the test of passing a hand over his head to touch the other ear, only his uncle, Jackson, had visited him from his mother’s side. Four times. He came riding a Raleigh bicycle, the cuffs of his trousers tucked into the socks to prevent the chain from catching them as he rode. Lubega’s grandmother became uneasy whenever Jackson said Lubega resembled his mother.
“Do you hear from her?” she would inquire. Each time, Jackson said they had not heard from her, but she would come back someday. “That is unnecessary,” Lubega’s grandmother once replied.
For Lubega, it was amazing to imagine he even had a mother, a black woman who lived among the whites. He often wondered what she looked like. He once broke his grandmother’s mirror while looking at his face to visualize what his mother looked like, and received the worst beating of his life.
It was Daphne who reached out to him on one side of the house and consoled him. From that moment on, he was more fond of her than of any one of his cousins. Daphne was not the only girl in the neighbourhood, but the only one whose hair was not kinky, but rather alluring like wet cat fur. She was also the only girl who made his heart leap when she smiled, mesmerizing him as he watched her skip the banana-fibre rope. Such was Lubega’s attraction that whenever family make-believe was to be played, he wanted to act the role of father with Daphne as mother. Playmates often took issue, and assigned him the part of child on the grounds that he was about two years younger than Daphne.
It is 4 AM. Lubega has so far seen two revellers throwing up on the floor. The cleaners quickly swept up the mess, and bouncers pushed the offenders out. Now his mind wanders back to the past.
He was in primary two when Jackson came one Saturday to tell his grandmother that Sarah had returned from Bungereza. Jackson broke the news so happily. Lubega was excited, but his grandmother’s reply nipped his expectations in the bud. “So what?” she asked, unpacking bread and sugar from the package Jackson had brought her. “She wants to have her son back,” replied Jackson. The old woman paused for some moments, replaced the things in the satchel, and pushed it toward Jackson. “Go call the neighbours,” she told John. The village chairman, a bad-tempered man who beat children for playing at the well, was the first to respond.
Everyone wondered about the audacity of Lubega’s mother. “I think she left all her manners in Bungereza,” said Lubega’s grandmother.
“Is it wrong for a woman to ask for her child?” asked Jackson.
“Do you see that door?” retorted Lubega’s grandmother, pointing at the front door of her house. “Go and pick whichever child you find sitting there, and take them to her.”
The chairman asked Jackson, “How do we know she’s the mother of the boy? And how sure is she that this is her child? How sure is she that the child was not stolen from the door where she left him?”
“But I have been coming here many times to see the child,” Jackson said, puzzled.
The chairman replied, “That doesn’t mean the child you’ve been seeing is your sister’s.”
Jackson stood up and kicked the stand of his bicycle with the heel.
“Lindako ssebo! Take your things with you,” said Lubega's grandmother, referring to the bread and sugar. “Go and give them to your mother.”
Jackson was moved to tears. He and Sarah had neither mother nor father, and Lubega’s grandmother knew it.
A few weeks later, Lubega was attending a social studies class when the deputy head teacher came in, a policeman in tow, and called his name. “Come out,” he said.
“Alright. Let’s go, young boy,” the policeman said to Lubega, who was nearly peeing on himself. The officer led him to a car parked at the road. Lubega had never sat in a car, and the only such car he had seen was the District Education Officer’s when he guested at the speech day the previous year. As he looked behind, tears streaming down his cheeks, the deputy headteacher and almost all the regular teachers were watching from the veranda, looking on unhelpfully. His fellow learners were peering through the windows. Why him among all the pupils? His cousins were in the windows too, he imagined. “Don’t look back again,” said the policeman, his voice making Lubega shudder. The policeman opened the backdoor and told him to get inside. Had it not been an order, he would have hesitated because his feet and lower half of the legs were dusty. But when he laid eyes on the face of the woman in the back, it took only moments before he knew she was his mother. He felt it too.
Despite all his dirtiness, his mother grabbed him into her embrace. Lubega found himself crying afresh when he saw the tears in her eyes. The policeman, now driving, would say nothing throughout the journey.
Lubega’s mother gave him a cupcake and juice in a plastic bottle. She observed him encouragingly as he ate, her eyes still bloodshot. Moments after another cupcake had been devoured, she replaced Lubega’s uniform with a new T-shirt and a pair of shorts. She cast the uniform out through the window. She had new shoes for him as well, but decided against getting them out.
Nothing interested the village boy more than seeing trees race backwards, along with cars and buildings he had never thought existed.
When they arrived at his mother’s home, the policeman was given his pay and drove away.
4:25 AM. Lubega sits alone at his table, nothing new in that, but he finds himself checking the time more frequently. The nightclub is nearly half-empty, and less noisy. At the table across from his sits a lean man, who appears to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He speaks only in whispers, and his face is covered in a deep, unshed sob. From what Lubega can gather, he is not crying because of the music or the people, but because he has spent all his money. I could offer to buy him a couple of drinks, Lubega thinks to himself mockingly, in exchange for some sympathy.
There was an even bigger car parked in the compound. Two small girls, who looked like those whites who came to Lubega’s school and the pupils danced for them, answered the door. They wanted to hug their mother, but stepped back as if they had seen a ghost standing beside her. Then came the home help. Her skin was slightly lighter than that of Lubega’s mother; it looked like Daphne’s.
The trio glared at Lubega’s feet, and the girls said things he couldn't understand. But the surprise on their faces was so clear that he was fast feeling out of place. Their mother told them to get out of the way and, holding Lubega’s hand, led him into the house. “Prepare something good for my child,” she said to the help and carried Lubega to her bedroom, the way you would a baby.
Lubega reappeared at supper time in a pair of trousers and shirt, his feet now cleaner than he had ever seen them. He smelled so fresh he could barely believe he was the same person. The girls still eyed him as though he had two heads. “This is Willy, your brother,” said their mother. “You mean stepbrother?” asked the taller of the girls. Their mother said nothing, but the help nudged the young girl's shoulder. The girl was Esther, but Lubega was to call her Essie. The other was Sandra, alias Sunny. The help was Aunt Stella, and their mother was Mummy.
For the first three nights, Lubega slept in Mummy’s bed because that was what she wanted. It was on one of those nights that Lubega was told about the circumstances which had forced Mummy to leave Uganda. “I didn't know what to do after your father's death,” she said. “So when the opportunity appeared, I took it up immediately.” This country had seemed like a dead end, so when an exit appeared out of the blue, she immediately took it. She had abandoned him, true, but only because she had no other choice. “If I had consulted your grandmother, she would have objected to the idea. Still, I might have been arrested and charged with child neglect had I not dropped you at the door. Forgive me, Willy,” she said contritely. “I did all that so you would have a good life. Which I am sure you’ve started living now.” Lubega understood. He asked one thing: that Mummy took him to see his grandmother every once in a while.
Essie and Sunny were driven to school every morning after the 6:30 breakfast. Lubega stayed at home with Aunt Stella, as Mummy kept a boutique in Kampala and returned home in the evening with the girls.
Lubega now had lots of good clothes and shoes, and a magnificent bedroom with a real bed, all to himself. His dressing mirror was so big he wondered what his grandmother would have done to him if that were the one he had broken while trying to imagine what his mother looked like. Watching people in a box was more fascinating than hearing them speak inside his grandmother’s radio. Eating meat on a random weekday was normal here. Even when Mummy didn’t rear any hens, the icebox never ran out of chicken, and everyone ate to their belly’s satisfaction. Instead of the small tin known as tadooba, which operates on paraffin and has to be relit whenever the breeze or a mere stream of air from someone exhaling puts it out, bright bulbs hung down from the ceiling to light the whole house. Instead of the lujjuliro, they sat comfortably in chairs around the dining table for meals. Moreover, Sunny and Essie were not punished for talking during meals. They didn’t have to go to the well; their water flowed out from pipes. Aunt Stella didn’t use wood for making fire; therefore the walls of the kitchen were not covered in soot.
All the children of the neighbourhood enjoyed far more freedom than Lubega had ever imagined possible. Some of them looked like Essie and Sunny, they were children of white settlers. Essie and Sunny often joined them in playing. Intimidated by their fluency in English, Lubega just watched them. Every day after supper, Mummy taught him how to pronounce English words correctly. Lubega was shocked to discover that his village teachers had taught him all the wrong pronunciations. After thereabouts three weeks, he found himself able to understand most of the things Essie and Sunny said, although he was still afraid of engaging in their conversations. Understanding a language is one thing, speaking it well quite another.
Try as much as he could, Lubega still missed his grandmother, cousins and school friends deeply. He missed climbing guava trees and playing hopscotch. He missed Daphne and wondered whether she felt the same way.
Lubega passed the interview at his sisters’ school, which was an institution for the children of big people – ministers, members of Parliament, rich whites and Indians. He was clearly the oldest pupil in his class, even when many of his classmates were bigger in size as a result of feeding well all their lives.
Although Mummy was not as rich as the ministers, she was satisfied with herself. Plus, she spoke excellent English, and knew England better than the whites who had spent decades in Uganda, communicating home by mail.
Essie and Sunny received mail from their father regularly. Mummy picked up the mail from Posta. Most times, there were photographs enclosed. Mummy, in turn, called a photographer to take pictures of the girls, and would then send them to Liverpool. She often took pictures herself, but never sent one to her white husband. She didn’t want him anymore. In fact, some big black man used to come around and spend weekends with her. The children called him Uncle Bob. One night when Lubega had left his homework book in the living room, he stumbled over Mummy and Uncle Bob kissing, an act he had never seen in his life. Mummy came to his bedroom moments later and apologized to him. He never saw Uncle Bob again; but when Mummy caught Essie and Sunny kissing in their bedroom, she pulled their ears and scolded them.
After one year, Lubega was pestering Mummy to take him to his grandmother’s. She finally gave in, but told him to wait until December. One evening, a week before Christmas, she took him to the barbershop, and told him as they drove back home that they would be traveling to Masaka the next morning. “What of Essie and Sunny?” Lubega asked. “They will stay home with Aunt Stella, I don’t think they would like the village.” She was right; the girls wanted their TV that much. “Aren’t we taking any things for Jajja?” he asked. “We’ll do some shopping for her in the morning, but you should know I will leave you with her and pick you up a day after.” Lubega remonstrated. “You said you wanted to see her; is it me who wants to see her?” Mummy's voice was rising with anger. “Who told you she wants to see me?” Nobody, of course.
Before they left Kampala the next day, they bought sugar, bread, butter, cooking oil and other things, although Mummy said she knew Lubega’s grandmother would reject them.
Lubega’s grandmother was on all fours, gathering peanuts. It was just 3 PM, but the sky was cloudy with prospects of rain. The old woman raised her head and gazed at the car as it came down into her compound. Lubega knew she couldn’t guess he was the passenger. He wanted to jump out even before the vehicle could stop, wanted to shout, “Jajja, I'm back!” Mummy just ignored him when he scampered out excitedly and hugged the old woman very tightly. Lubega’s grandmother was taken by surprise. When he released her, she cocked her head back and looked into his eyes. “You left me here!” she said, “I thought I would never see you again. I thought you had gone to live among the Bazungu. We looked for you everywhere... until we gave up.” Tears ran down her face, but Lubega understood they were tears of joy. “Mummy is here,” he said, pointing to the car. His mother was still inside, looking at them. The old woman stared back at her, and the barrier between them became evident. “Aren’t you going to come out and greet me?” Lubega’s grandmother called out. “Can she hear me inside there?” Lubega replied, “She can hear you.” Mummy opened the door on her side with her face crumpled up. She was fighting back the tears, the way she had done when explaining to her son why she had left him behind.
Fresh tears ran down the old woman’s cheeks; it was becoming a very emotional moment. Lubega looked away before he found himself picking a peanut and cracking it open, something his grandmother would have beaten him for in the past. He popped the seeds into his mouth. When he realized he couldn’t stop his ears from capturing the exchange of questions and answers between the two women, he called over his cousins, who were watching from the front of the house, then proceeded to open the boot. They carried their grandmother’s stuff into the house, and started their own conversation. John was not around. He still went to the lake and sometimes reappeared after four or more days. According to these cousins of Lubega's, even the village chairman, for all his toughness on young people, had washed his hands his hands of John.
Lubega’s grandmother and cousins were unable to stop talking about how different, and how rich, he looked. When he spoke in English to Mummy, they all kept quiet to listen. For lunch, Lubega and Mummy ate the katogo, a combination of beans and triangular cassava pieces, which had been prepared before their arrival. But as they ate, matooke and chicken were being cooked; that’s the appropriate meal for visitors. Lubega joined his cousins when they picked up cans to go and fetch water from the well. He took the smallest can because his grandmother refused him the bigger ones. Even so, he could remember her saying, over one year ago, “You are now a big man; stop carrying the small cans.” Other village children they found at the well couldn’t hide their admiration for Lubega; once one of them, now looking like a prince.
Daphne came around before dusk, but she didn’t say a word to Lubega. She greeted Mummy, however. After picking some red charcoal from the kitchen, she disappeared into the path to her grandmother’s house. Lubega felt disappointed. Had Daphne possibly transferred her affection to someone else? Did he look too young for her, or did she find his appearance intimidating? Could she have taken it badly when he left the village, even though it didn't happen by choice? Lubega couldn't help wondering. But as he parted from his cousins, he handed one of them a bill to give to her.
He returned to the village once a year before he joined university, but never got to talk to Daphne any of those times. In fact, by the time he started highschool, two of his cousins had left the village to face the world.
When Mummy succumbed to a stroke, Lubega was in his second year at university. Essie and Sunny returned to England, where they now stay with Bridget and Violet.
After graduation, it took Lubega time to settle down because he had too many girlfriends. He had a nurse who was not ready for commitment; a commissioner's wife, who gave him freedom to date other girls; a teacher, who seemed to want to rush him to the altar and was a menace to his pockets; and Christine, who had a tendency to be very jealous.
Lubega next went to see his grandmother after two-and-a-half years when she summoned him through one of the Kampala-Masaka bus drivers. Amidst work and love pursuits, he seemed to have forgotten about her, though he still sent her things on the Masaka-bound buses.
His grandmother was evidently older than he had left her. The skin at her throat appeared so thin you could nearly see the saliva when she swallowed. Her back was slightly hunched; she could no longer stand straight. Her lower eyelids appeared baggy. The village too had changed profoundly. It had new houses, and the government had brought them electricity. Most people were not connected to the grid, which they feared they couldn't manage using. When Lubega suggested connecting his grandmother's house to the grid, she objected, saying the electric lights would kill her eyes. The big mango tree from which John had once nearly fallen had been cut to allow passage for the installations.
The young woman cooking food in the kitchen happened to be John’s wife. She stayed with the old woman when her husband traveled to the lake to catch fish. From the veranda at the back of the house, Lubega could see her roasting maize cobs by the fire. Another set of cooking stones had a soot-blackened kettle on it. Lubega's grandmother reminded her for the second time not to roast for her cobs with hard kernels. “For me, they are the ones I like,” said Lubega. His grandmother shrugged her shoulders and said, “You still have your teeth, but look!” She opened her mouth to show him. “You can count them on your fingers.”
John’s wife brought the kettle out to the veranda, its spout spewing steam. She poured them a cup each, and added sugar from a glass bowl and fresh mint leaves picked from the banana garden. Knowing the rims of metallic cups to burn, Lubega started with the maize as the tea cooled off. His grandmother, on the other hand, was blowing steam off the surface and slurping off the tea. While Lubega picked off the kernels with his fingers and popped them into his mouth, his grandmother would use her two front teeth, leaving the coats of the young kernels on her cob.
She told Lubega how people he couldn’t remember had died, married or committed the sin of changing their religion. As if to hurt his feelings, she even mentioned that Daphne now had three kids. A long silence followed.
When lunch was ready, John’s wife carried the round metallic container of meat to the veranda, and returned to the kitchen to slice food onto the plates. Their grandmother lamented that village people no longer sat at the lujjuliro. “They cut food onto plates and scatter. Some eat while standing, others from their beds. That’s why the banana gardens are no longer very productive these days.”
Lubega’s food came on a special earthenware plate, and a similar plate was put on the side for his sauce. Hands washed, never mind they hadn’t washed them before eating the maize, Lubega’s grandmother opened the hot container without insulating her hands with cooked banana leaves as John’s wife had done. She didn't even wince. The old village meat aroma assailed Lubega’s nose. His grandmother waded her serving spoon through the sauce, looking for the best pieces of meat for her grandson, her husband. She scooped out the first, and placed it on his sauce plate with a smile of a great discoverer. Then the second, third and fourth pieces. She explored further, and brought up a very fatty piece. “Do you still like fat?” she asked, but was already placing the piece on Lubega’s sauce plate. He gave a laugh and said yes. “You should eat it while it’s still hot. Or cover it inside a slice of matooke. That way, you can be sure to find it hot when you are ready to eat it.” Without caring about size or quality, she served herself and John’s quiet wife.
After the meal, the old woman took a siesta, and Lubega had a light conversation with John’s wife. The young woman said she didn’t trust men, that she knew John had someone who kept him company when he went to the lake. “Don’t worry about John. By the time he returns, we’ll have made strides,” Lubega joked. “I heard you,” said their grandmother as if talking in her sleep. With that, she rose off the mat and stretched. “Why don't you accompany me into the banana garden?” she asked Lubega.
The garden still had a number of big bunches despite the fact that people no longer ate at lujjuliro. It was mulched with a type of grass that grew in the swamp. Lubega's grandmother said she gave some young village couple food, and they did the work for her in return. “If you had a wife, you would take that bunch to her,” she said, pointing to a bulky bunch, the type called kibuzi in Luganda. Lubega didn’t look up. A childhood spirit had come over him; he was uprooting a sugarcane. His grandmother didn't comment. She wouldn't prevent those who had their teeth from enjoying the sugarcane.
“I called you because I had an important matter to speak to you about,” she finally broke the silence as they reached a jambula (black plum) tree heavy with green fruits.
“About what matter, Jajja?” Lubega asked.
She took her time to respond, first bending to reorganize some mulches where a hen had scratched. “You went quiet; you no longer come to see me. If I were a bad wife, I would get other men.” There was a note of jest in her voice.
“But most young men have gone to Kampala,” Lubega returned the joke.
“One or two still roam aimlessly around the village,” said the old woman before complaining about Jajja Daphne’s goats, which had eaten the leaves off a number of her sweet potato mounds. “The point is that I want you to get married,” she picked up where she had left. “The Bible says it in the Beginning: it is not good for a man to be alone. All your cousins have married. Will you first develop a spur to accept you’re old enough?”
Lubega laughed mid-chew and spat out the sugarcane pulp.
“These days, it's hard for young men to get marriageable girls. I don't blame them. Very many girls these days are bayaaye (unscrupulous). Your young eyes cannot detect a good wife. I got John his wife.”
Lubega almost choked on the cane juice as he laughed again. “How did you pick her out from others?” he asked.
“I can tell a well-mannered girl when I look at her. She’s also very beautiful. I know you educated men think it’s old-fashioned...” They were returning to the house. “I will not get you a wife, but take it upon yourself to get one and impregnate her without delay.” Lubega could barely believe his ears. “I hope you’re listening to me.”
“I will find one at the right time,” said Lubega. “The Bible also says there is a time for everything.”
“That is right,” agreed his grandmother. She called John’s wife, and asked her to bring her the basket containing the mat she was weaving. She sat down and stretched out her legs. The mat had white and purple palm leaves. Lubega quietly wondered why she used only two colours; yet these days, mats had numerous colours in them. “Why I am concerned is...” His grandmother trailed off after shaking him out of his thoughts.
“Am I getting too old? I am only 29.”
“That’s why I am worried.”
Lubega could have sworn there was a note of frank fear in her voice. She made two loud snivels.
“Your father died at 30. Your grandfather died at 30; a buffalo gored him badly when he was hunting. And your great grandfather was about the same age when he drowned in the lake, according to what my late mother-in-law told me.” Lubega’s heart started pounding. “When you look at it, my husband was the heir of his father, just like you're the heir of your father, who was my husband's heir. I worry for you, mwami. Get a woman, and waste no time.”
Shortly after Lubega had returned to Kampala, Christine came to his workplace to confront him. “Why did you lie and say you didn't come inside me?” she asked, looking as though she might swallow him up. Lubega knew the basic repercussions of impregnating a clergyman’s daughter without first marrying her. “You held me inside you, what did you expect me to do?” sounded his question, as if that had been a good reason to lie. They looked at each other like two sick dogs. “Then you’ll start living with me,” Lubega said finally. “Oh, I see... So this is how you planned to have me move in with you?” Christine asked incredulously. “The baby is not your parents’ responsibility,” he responded. “You cannot continue staying with your parents.”
Their wedding was hastened, and Christine’s labour pains came five months afterward. Lubega drove her to Mulago Hospital, where he had a friend in the obstetrics department. When the doctor listened to the baby’s heart, his hands dropped limp.
Lubega still believes the baby died in his place.
After two years of asking God countless questions, Christine conceived again. Despite her staunch Christian background, she desperately accepted to use the herbs Lubega’s grandmother sent her. Then Lwanga was born. Lubega's grandmother died three weeks after naming the baby after its grandfather.
Now, Lubega is wondering if Claire might die in her father’s place. The only sure way of breaking the jinx, he knows, is by losing his son. And hopefully, Sharon is not pregnant with a boy.
5:32 AM. The club is still active when the phone rings. Lubega’s innards plummet down. It is Sharon calling. Lubega doesn’t remember when his daughter-in-law last rang him up. He’s too afraid to pick up. He’s starting to think his granddaughter is dead when another call comes, from Christine. He squeezes out of the club. Finally out, he walks toward his car. He takes a deep breath and returns Christine’s call. The moment she picks up, he asks, “Lwanga or Claire?”
About the author
Zeddekia Ssekyonda, fondly called Zed, is a Ugandan fiction writer and activist for democracy and ethnic/tribal tolerance. He was born on 16th September, 1997, in Masaka, Buganda Kingdom. Most of his stories are centered on gender, African traditional beliefs, challenges of youth and political crime.
Zed is a student of Medicine and Surgery at Uganda Christian University.