No beers here…


“What’re you going to drink?”

“Water.”

“And…?”

“Probably a wine later?”

“Beer?”

“Nah…”

“You’re such a bore.”

“Let me tell you a story…”

**

I was 13 years old and in a bar. Music blared from loud speakers. There was happiness everywhere, like the disco lights spilling on swaying bodies. I was sandwiched between my cousin, Grace and her husband, William. He had come up with the idea of “outing” so that I could see the other side of life in Bweyale.

“What’re you going to drink?”

“Nile special,” Grace said.

I had neither the age nor experience to choose a liquor in a bar so Pilsner Lager was chosen for me “because it’s sweet and mild”.

Grace danced. Fiercely, like the dance floor had feet-tickling powers. Grace danced. Barely stopping, like she wanted to shake off an invisible demon. William danced too, showily, eyes darting about as if to check if his moves were making an impression.

I stood there, taking it all in. Then, a few sips later, my head began to spin but I didn’t put down the bottle. It was sweet after all, and got sweeter with every sip.  William bought another one and I continued drinking. I don’t know if I took a Pilsner Lager. But I remember the disco lights. Bright and dim, bright and dim. Colorful.  I also remember speaking a lot of English that night.

**

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, 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 scared to interrogate the story. We all settled for the theory that the big man refills 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 the area is host to LRA refugees from Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda.  Bweyale felt like home and not a refugee town.

**

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

Grace entered our “bedroom” and shook me awake. A smirk lingered on her face. She started ranting about the previous night’s rendezvous and how I had rapped to them in English. English was not the big deal though, but rapping was. Everyone knew that you couldn’t get more than five words out of my mouth at any point those days. I was the quiet one, the ‘well-behaved’ girl. Quietness went hand in hand with good behavior, I was told. Even at school, my report card always had “polite pupil” in the comment section and that made me keep my head down the more. I talked even less – especially if elders are watching.

I ignored Grace’s tease and went about my daily chores, pushing my hangover body hard. But by midday, I was getting drunk afresh. Grace noticed the clumsiness in my steps and said, ahaaa, the beer is reworking, to which William recommended another beer.

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

I responded with a firm no, and headed out of the house in protest.  I ran into a lanky man at the doorway.  He had a camera slung across his chest and a white envelop in his right hand. He held my hand and walked me back inside. He was our photographer at the bar the previous night. It became clear that not all that flashed on my face were disco lights.

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

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

I looked up from the photo to Grace and William, and on my face they must have read the message that I had seen the photo of interest. They started laughing again. The laughter carried the sound of a well done mockery. I still hear it.

**

William was a builder. He had recently got a contract to build a house near home. He was the foreman. So he would come home as frequently as he chose. He also had money. That meant he drunk more and showered his kids and wife with niceties.

Since my arrival at his home, William acted as though he could see everyone else but me, he gave me a vibe that made me watch my every step. Other than greetings, I only spoke to him when he said something to me, which was rarely.  But that changed after the bar incident. He looked at me more intently, spoke nicely to me when Grace was away but became the complete opposite when she was around.

It was one of those days when he had come home at lunch time when he found me seated on the table, my back to the door, as I sorted rice. He slipped his hand inside my blouse and grabbed my breast, tilted my head backwards with the other and kissed me.

I washed my mouth with soap, hoping it would take away the revulsion. It also became clear, that I could no longer blame alcohol for the first bar incident.

The next day, William came home again, when Grace was away in the market. Their daughter was about two years old then. She was the favorite of his two children. He lifted her off the floor, placed her on his laps and kissed her full on the mouth. She pulled away fiercely.

I craved the resistance of that two-year old.

**

Results of the Primary Leaving Exams were soon out and that meant I had to return to Gulu and prepare to join Senior One. Grace bought me more new clothes and shoes. She also shopped some essentials for me to take to my parents and to thank them for entrusting me with her.

I had been a hardworking and disciplined child, she said. The neighbors agreed.

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

From the verandah, I could hear William call my name. The second time he called, I went inside and stood in the living room. “Come here,” he beckoned, his voice restrained from the bedroom. He was there, lying on his back on the bed. He didn’t get up when I entered the bedroom.

“How are you?”

I didn’t have time to respond. The smallness of that bedroom meant the head of the bed was by the entrance, where I stood. He grabbed my hand, even from that position of his eyes facing the ceiling, and pulled me to a bending position, my head, directly over his. He held me by the back of my head now, and closed the gap between my head and his.

Outside, the sound of Grace’s laughter at the neighbor’s house made him disengage, like my lips had suddenly become embers; my presence unsolicited.

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

**

“That, J, is the reason I don’t take beer.”

“…”

 

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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.