No beers here…


I’m 13 years old and in a bar. Music is blaring from loud speakers. There is happiness everywhere, like the disco lights spilling on dancing bodies. I’m standing between my cousin, Grace and her husband, William. He came up with the idea of “outing” so that I can see the other side of life in Bweyale.

“What’re you going to drink?”

“Nile special,” Grace says.

I have neither the age nor experience to drink a liquor in a bar. But instead of my favourite Fanta, they choose for me Pilsner Lager “because it’s sweet and mild”.

Grace starts to dance. Fiercely, like the dance floor has feet-tickling powers. She continues to dance. Like she wants to shake off an invisible demon. William is dancing too but showily, eyes darting about as if to check if his moves are making an impression.

I stand aside, taking it all in. Then, a few sips later, my head begins to spin but I don’t put down the bottle. It’s sweet after all, and gets sweeter with every sip.  William buys another one and I continue drinking. The disco lights are more now – bright and dim, bright and dim. Colorful.  I’m also speaking a lot of English.

**

Two weeks earlier, Daddy had grudgingly allowed me to go spend part of my Primary Seven vacation with my cousin Grace in Bweyale – 110 kilometers from home. It had been years of different relatives begging my parents to allow me go spend some time with them. Mama was the easy one, but Daddy never budged. They accused him of being overprotective and mean with his children, as if we are breakable porcelain.

I was ecstatic when Daddy said yes to my Bweyale trip. I would see Karuma Falls and the baboons at the bridge and a whole lot of things. I would leave Gulu for the first time in my life! Coolness!

Boarding a taxi to Bweyale alone was both scary and exciting. At Karuma Falls, the taxi snail-paced over the bridge as if going fast would make it plunge into the fierce milky waves below. I shivered as I watched the waves slap rocks whose heads protruded above the water.

The chit-chat and laughter that had earlier engulfed the taxi as passengers watched baboons fight over maize cobs and bananas thrown to them through the window, or how little baboons hung from the belly of their mothers – were replaced by a stony silence.

It was only until Karuma was out of sight that someone cleared their throat and said:  You see that Karuma, it has a powerful god.  In fact, President Museveni one day dived into the falls in a well ironed suit and hours later, emerged without a drop of water on him. We listened in disbelief but everyone seemed too have not yet recovered from the tension in the taxi to interrogate the story. We all settled for the theory that the big man recharges his ‘power bank’ from a god who resides on the bed of Karuma Falls.

Once in Bweyale, Grace bought for me new clothes and shoes and took me to the market which had more fish than anything else. I was also amazed at how much Acholi was spoken in this land of Banyoro but I was soon reminded that the area is host to LRA refugees from Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda.  Bweyale felt like home and not a refugee town.

**

The morning after the bar spree, Grace comes to wake me up, which is a first. My beer-laden head makes it a battle to get up. Alinga and I sleep in a hut, just next to Grace’s one-bedroomed rented house.  Being a 13-year-old, I’m ‘too old’ to a house with a couple still active in bedroom matters. I may see and hear what I shouldn’t. In any case, their two children, the eldest only about three years old, already occupy most of the space in the sitting room.

Grace enters our “bedroom” and shakes me awake. A smirk lingers on her face. She starts ranting about the previous night’s rendezvous and how I rapped to them in English. Me rapping? Everyone knows that you can’t get more than five words out of my mouth unless you threaten me with a civil war. I’m the quiet one, the ‘well-behaved’ girl. Quietness, I have been told, is synonymous to good behaviour. Even at school, my report card always reads “polite pupil” in the comment section and that makes me keep my head down the more. I talk even less when elders are around.

I ignore Grace’s mockeries and go about my daily chores, pushing my hangover body hard. But by midday, I’m getting drunk afresh. Grace notices the clumsiness in my steps and says, ahaaa, the beer is reworking, to which William recommends another beer.

“The cure of a hangover is taking more alcohol,” he says.

I respond with a firm no, and head out of the house in protest.  I run into a lanky man at the doorway.  He has a camera slung across his chest and a white envelop in his right hand. He holds my hand and walks me back inside. He is a photographer. I soon learn that not all that flashed on my face the previous night were disco lights.

He gives the pictures to William and he looks at them, his eyes lingering on a particular one, before he passes it over to Grace. She looks at the photo, looks at William and they burst out laughing.

Then it is my turn to look at the photos. I look dazed in most of them. Drunk.  Then I see the picture that must have caused the laughter. In the photo, William’s lips has enveloped mine –-like a child learning how to drink from a small-mouthed soda bottle. My big round eyes are wide open, like I have seen something I shouldn’t have. Grace is standing there, slightly away from us, her teeth out in a smile, her cheeks dimpled.

I look up from the photo to Grace and William, and on my face they read the message that I have seen the photo of interest. They started laughing again. The laughter carries the sound of a rehearsed mockery. I still hear it.

**

William is a builder. He has recently got a contract to build a house near home. He is the foreman. So he comes home as frequently as he chooses. He also has money. That means he drinks more and showers his kids and wife with niceties.

Since my arrival at his home, William acts as though I’m invisible, unwanted. So I watch my every step, go over my words before I utter them, even if it’s just a greeting. I only speak to him when he says something to me, which is rarely.  But that changes after the bar episode. He looks at me more intently, speaks nicely to me when Grace is away but becomes the complete opposite when she is around.

It is one of those days when he has come home at lunch time that he finds me seated on the table, my back to the door, as I sort rice. He slips his hand inside my blouse and grabs my breast, tilts my head backwards with the other, and kisses me.

I walks away, without a word. It becomes clear, that I can no longer blame alcohol for the bar incident. I wash my mouth with soap.

The next day, William comes home again, when Grace is away in the market. Their daughter is about two years old. She is the favorite of his two children. He lifts her off the floor, places her on his laps and kisses her full on the mouth. She pulls away fiercely.

I crave the resistance of that two-year old.

**

Results of the Primary Leaving Exams are soon out and that means I have to return to Gulu and prepare to join Senior One. Grace buys for me more new clothes and shoes. She also shops some essentials for me to take to my parents and to thank them for entrusting me with her.

I have been a hardworking and a disciplined child, she says. The neighbors agree.

A day before my journey back home, William comes home in the afternoon and goes straight to their bedroom. Grace is in the market, as usual, vending foodstuff.

From the verandah, I can hear William call my name. The second time he calls, I go inside and stand in the living room. “Come here,” he beckons, his voice restrained from the bedroom. He is lying on his back. He doesn’t get up when I enter the bedroom.

“How are you?”

The smallness of the bedroom means the head of the bed is by the entrance, where I’m standing. He grabs my hand before I get time to respond to his how are you. From that position of his eyes facing the ceiling, he pulls me to a bending position, my head, directly over his. He holds me by the back of my head and closes the gap between my head and his.

Outside, the sound of Grace’s laughter at the neighbor’s house makes him disengage, like my lips has suddenly become embers.

The next day, I board a taxi back to Gulu, my bag full of new clothes, shoes, soap, sugar, salt, cooking oil and my heart, heavy with a secret.

***

17 years later,

I tell my sister,

Okot dipped his tongue

in my mouth when I was 13.

He tried to make dough out of my breasts.

My sister says,

Why are you telling me this now?

I tell my sister,

My heart wasn’t ready to empty the secret,

my mind did a good job at trying to forget.

My sister says,

I’m going out to throw up,

I say to myself,

How lucky! My own vomit has been stuck

in my throat since 1999

***

 

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Dear man, imagine yourself with a vagina for a day


Imagine yourself, a man, with a vagina tucked in that place where your balls and penis once dangled.

Now, imagine several pairs of eyes strolling your body, daily. Pairs of eyes that belong to people who have never walked a mile in your vagina-ed self. Pairs of eyes from people who prescribe how you should walk, talk, react to advances; how you should dress and undress; how loud your laughter should ring; how much layer of flesh should sit on your bones, and the distribution level per body part.

Imagine yourself, a man, with a vagina, just for a day. That should be the least of your worries though. The big deal is in having to explain yourself, every time, when someone whacks you across the face, insults the body you were told was created in the creator’s image; and reduces you to a under-the-table creature.

Imagine yourself with a vagina one morning; and at your door are a group of men who disregard that you are a daughter, sister, mother, friend, human first – and not just a vagina bearer.

Now, if we are together at this stage, then you’ll know why a woman who was stalked and harassed by a 25-year-old man, is being blamed for the two-year jail sentence the dude got. You’ll know why, even when the man pleaded guilty, the woman still had to explain herself with tears down her face as the ‘young man’ laughed throughout the court session. You’ll understand why this woman- Kabarole Woman MP Sylvia Rwabwogo — is being accused of ruining the future of the ‘young man’ by taking him to court, instead of ignoring him like the rest of harassed women do.

And you’ll be puzzled too, at the men [and women] who will sanitise your pain and belittle your anger.

Imagine yourself with a vagina for a day, dear man, then we can talk.

Empty Chair


The bullet sliced the air above bodies

swept to the ground with fear.

Then it landed

on her.

Why her?

Why not her?

She’s only 2. Julian Nalwanga.

She’s lucky to have left

the madness of this place

for a better one below.

 

Her mother disagrees.

She paces the verandah

of the court building,

remembering 2011,

when walking to work

was a crime.

 

Her eyes shift from the empty dock

to the empty chair

bearing the magistrate’s jacket.

 

Still, she waits.

My depression…


…is me avoiding eye contact coz I haven’t mastered the art of looking friends in the eye and lying about the darkness I carry. It’s me adding speed to my steps to hide the sluggishness of my spirit; turning my face from the person walking past the office door coz I’m hiding eyes I just wiped. It’s me storming out of office coz everyone turns on an invisible tap in my eyes.

It makes me blink back tears in the presence of people I know and openly sob on a stranger’s boda boda home. It sends me to bed at 6pm, wakes me at midnight and keeps me up till morning like thoughts about an on-off lover. It drives me to a counsellor who I immediately dislike and I leave cursing all hospitals.

…it’s me cancelling phone calls and ignoring text messages; deactivating my Facebook and typing DON’T CALL OR TEXT in the family WhatsApp; flinging the phone across the room and curling in bed, cuddling pillows warmed up by tears.

It makes me mute the TV from six to six because voices of strangers stoke the voices in my head, and yet the sight of faces behind the screen keeps the world here. It helps me close the door to everyone knocking and makes me look at my darkness in the eye, admiringly.

…it’s me detesting dance. Even poetry.

It makes me eat everything I shouldn’t because food is the only thing I can control. It makes me crave the anti-deps because they understand my love for sleep. It makes me listen to Run on repeat and pray for the sky to fall together with the rain.

…it’s me shutting out voices that ask; You have it all together, what do you mean things are falling apart? You don’t look it, are you sure? It’s me switching off the phone 30 minutes to girls’ night out coz the thought of a crowd suddenly has me gasping for breath. It’s about finding the right words to explain why work – like my life – is undone. It’s me thinking about what I’ll say when the sky clears coz, I was just feeling low no longer sounds convincing, even to me.

When it visited this time, depression said life after here is a garden of flowers that bloom poetry.

 

embers


We knew the battle was lost

when doors and windows puked

black smoke.

 

Thatch became wings

of fire that refused to furl

for the drizzle.

 

Huts knelt

before men

waving logs with crimson tongues.

 

The sun rose too late

to test its rays against

embers glowing in

Acoli

Lango

Teso

West Nile

Congo

Sudan

CAR

***

© Harriet Anena

Coming up in a collection about the two-decade Lord’s Resistance Army war in northern Uganda. 

Uganda


…another woman’s throat will be cut tonight, her naked body dumped in a plantation, by the roadside, in a thicket, a stick stuck in her vagina. But we’ll see no blood, hear no wail, scratch not our heads about the similarity in these murders. She’ll be number 25 or is it 26? a statistic piling up since May. We’ll hear the news from one ear, forget it from the other. Because we are busy sharpening knives to chop another limb of the national bible. We are hungry and the dead are dead. Uganda!

Third Floor


Is it our secret

cracking your bedroom

wall like leprosy?

 

Did the wall see me

sneak in

that night like

an experienced thief,

face half covered by

hat rim and designer shades?

 

Did it hear the light tap

of my shoes on tiled stairs,

the hurried welcome,

snap of buttons and

thudding of hearts?

 

Does it remember

my muffled moans

cautious pleas,

the flow of tears inwards and

you grunting, ‘cum quickly before she finds us’?

 

How could I make the peak,

when instead of mine

you called her name,

smacked my ass

when I didn’t say ‘yes baby’

until I did?

 

How could I sprinkle, when

you groped my head for

hair full and silky like hers

breasts soldierly and disarming like hers

skin soft on touch like hers

found none and demanded

‘what happened to you?’

 

How can I delete the chapter of

that night on third floor when

the face of your gate man asking

‘sister, what is this you’re doing to yourself’

never leaves my mind?

Of minis & tight pants: Let’s know when to shut up


By penning this blog, I’m probably committing the same sin I’m about to reproach a section of our media for – not knowing when to shut up. So I’ll keep it short like the mini-skirt that is once again dominating our public discourse.

We woke up on Tuesday to a directive by the Public Service Ministry, telling all permanent secretaries and chief administrative officers to enforce a strict dress code.

While some of us were busy scratching our heads over the uncomfortable talk about a possible removal of presidential age limit, the proposed compulsory acquisition of land by government, and pinches from our bleeding economy, other people were rolling on the ground protesting “indecent dressing” among some government workers.  The ministry heard their cry and responded.

In fact, the director, human resources at the Public Ministry Adah Muwanga, explained how horrible the situation is. She said “some female officers are pumping up their breasts…” Stop there for a minute and have a mental picture of that. Hmmm see what I mean?

She added that the same female officers are wearing miniskirts and in the process sexually harassing their male counterparts. And that is where I get really distressed about this mini-skirt/indecent dressing talk.

Every time we accuse women of “indecent” dressing, we insult men in the process. We (unknowingly I hope) brand men as libido-laden creatures with zero breaks in their pants. Andrew Karamagi drove the point home by articulating in a Daily Monitor commentary that it’s not true that men cannot restrain their sexual appetite.  Where are the other men to defend the restraint of their manhood, or is Muwanga actually right? If she is indeed right that your zipper goes gaga at the sight of a mini-skirt wearer, then the problem is still actually yours.

Anyway, I was expecting the media to ignore this “story” and tell us that indeed, the crisis we are facing in this country is not even close to mini. It’s maxi. But what do we see, front page coverage of the issue in both leading newspapers on Wednesday, July 5.

Thursday Op-eds in both New Vision and Daily Monitor were well-dressed but problematic in stance on the issue. The Vision one noted: “While it is desirable to maintain a good public image of the civil service, enforcing the directive as stipulated by the permanent secretary is not practical and could be open to abuse.” What the public needs, according to the New Vision editorial, is sensitization on how to dress “decently” and not a directive.

The Daily Monitor on the other hand, started with an entrapping headline, “People need services, not rules on dressing,” before detailing in the editorial that “Whereas the dress code policy is well-intentioned because it aims at fighting indecency in public offices thus shaping morality there, the question is whether the directive was absolutely necessary at this point in time”. So the directive is actually needed but poorly timed?

Let’s leave the issue of dressing and dress-code alone, people. The indecency that plagues this country and its public servants lie beneath the cloak – it’s in the mind, the hands, the eyes and every body part used to deny ordinary citizens what is due to them. That, is the stinking indecency we should be revolted by. That’s the indecency that should make us speak until our throats dry.

This is not the first time we are being distracted by this miniskirt babble by the way. In 2014, the signing into law of the “miniskirt” Bill by President Museveni caused quite a stir and I wrote about it here.  When Makerere University research fellow Dr. Stella Nyanzi stripped to her lingerie in protest against mistreatment at work, there was a similar outpouring of chatter and I, in this blog, wondered whether there’s anyone still fully dressed in this country.

We never learn, yet we should, and focus on the big picture, if not for anything then for the sake of our country that is facing actual issues. If we can’t, let’s at least remember that before all this came to be, there were once human beings strutting the face of this earth with nothing on, except maybe leaves, figs or animal skin. Did the men in that era mount women indiscriminately because they had no clothes on? Has the dress-code police chief, Fr. Lokodo reported more cases of rape in his Karamoja home area since they stay nude or half-dressed culturally?

Sometimes we should just let sleeping dogs lie!

But since the media decided not to shut up (because one of its roles is to inform), the worst they could’ve done was frame the coverage of this “dress-code/indecent dressing” directive appropriately (challenge, question, dissect) instead of reproducing the stereotype that Muwanga and her ilk are presenting.

And as you can see, this blog is now more than 800 words! So I’ll end here, lest I get accused of indecent writing.