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 favorite Fanta, a bottle of Pilsner Lager is pressed in my hand “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 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 were breakable porcelain.
I was ecstatic when Daddy said yes to my Bweyale trip. I would see Karuma Falls and the baboons at Karuma 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 was still recovering from the fright of crossing Karuma 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 refugees from Gulu and other parts of northern Uganda who fled the LRA rebel insurgency. 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 share 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 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 loud no, and head out of the house. 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 a stool, 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.
He walk away, without a word. 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 fish.
From the veranda, 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 have 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.