To the star that never shone…


Government releases O-Level results. In Ntungamo District, Sekyondwa goes to pick his results from school. It is Third Grade. Aggregate 68. He is devastated! He goes home. Takes poison. Dies. His parents weep. His friends miss him. His head teacher recalls he was “an average student” because he also got third grade in mock exams.

Elsewhere, O-Level “stars” are starring in national newspapers (for a bloody full week), smiling and lifting each other on national TV and dreaming aloud about becoming pilots and doctors and engineers and lawyers and pursuing all manner of posh careers in the future. We can’t blame them! It’s either that or they are doomed. We told them that, we tell them that.

In Ntungamo, a family is burying a child because we – yes all of us – made it a capital offence, a sin (the General will soon declare it treason too) to get nothing less than a “good” first grade.

And some of these stars will go to A-Level expecting nothing less than 1AAAA, whether that involves excelling through “alternative” means. And on to the university they will go, buying or sleeping their way to first class or second class upper degrees, buying or sleeping their way into jobs…and at some point getting caught boxers or knickers down when they can’t deliver on the job…

Some of the stars sweated their way to stardom, they have it sorted when it comes to books, you know! Genes and all. We (will) envy them, rightly so. They will soar beyond the classroom and reassure you, we still gaat this! But some of the “legit” stars will also flunk in life, because all they know is ace exams and flunk in anything else other than pen and answer sheets (because we didn’t give a proper shit about them becoming all-round people).

To those ones we will say, eh but that dude had a brain mahn, I wonder what happened to him? Eh but that babe used to whip our asses in exams mahn, oba who bewitched her?

And some of the “fake” stars, the ones who forge their way into everything and everywhere, will surprise you by doing just fine and you will wonder, qwe, do you remember that babe/dude? Kale she/he was aaaaaaaa but see where she/he is now!

And we can’t blame them! Our education system is a single-formula affair. You either know the formula or you don’t. If you don’t, give way!

When shall be stop being so average? Oops, my bad!

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I killed a man last night


It started like this. The Doc said I have a syndrome.

When the syndrome comes, it sets my spine on fire, my intestines go into a pull and shrink mode, my mind forgets what it should remember and remembers what it should forget.

My hormones get jumpy; sometimes (most times) I don’t want to get out of bed because my body acquires the weight of a train and aches like it’s aching to win a Nobel. On those days, I hate the music that usually make me smile and I shrink like a tortoise, convincing the world I don’t exist.

On such days, I hate popcorn and sweet bananas and sugarcane and I refuse to make pancakes even when on other days they are the only food that drive my foul mood to the woods.

On such days, I take long walks around the neighborhood and ignore the dogs I usually fear; close my ears to the hissing of men who call me sweet baby without a clue about the bile I carry inside.

On days like those, I jog on that steep hill even when the Doc said, keep it low impact, dear. I jog long and hard because sweat drowns some of my demons.

On such days, I get fatigued without lifting a finger and sleep becomes a difficult lover to woo.

But…

Sometimes I wake up before my alarm shrieks, I prepare breakfast and actually enjoy it.

On such days, I wear my hair wild and put on red lipstick and a mini-skirt and ditch my bra and play loud music in the car and drive fast.

On those days, I arrive at work on time, work so hard I get scared my boss might think I’m after his job.

On such days, I watch movies with guns and mischief and love. When the night arrives,  I cry looonnng and hard for no particular reason and feel good about it; I dance before the mirror and walk around the house naked.

See,

When the Doc told me about the syndrome, my mind deleted its contents in a flash, my eyes zoned out everything and I felt my ears fly off my head. I didn’t hear the Doc ask if I am okay.

Of course I was not okay. But I told the Doc I was perfect and smiled that smile that I only smile when I am with my mother or when fantasizing about twins and living in a tree-house.

The Doc said I had taken the news better than he’d imagined and I heard his breath stroll out of his nose loud and relieved, his face creased in a cautious smile.

How could I not take it well when it’d been years of whoring from one doctor to another, one hospital to another trying to find the clan and religion that this disease subscribes to? How could I not smile that smile, when it had taken years of guess diagnosis and misdiagnosis and mis-treatment.

Does the Doc know what it means for your hair to start falling off your head because they got fed up of the meds and stress and neglect? Does he know what it means to learn that you were on anti-depressants you could have done without? How do you detox your mind from such gamble?

How could I not smile when the disease I had moved around with for years suddenly had a name, even if it’s a chronic?

Omera,

This Doc didn’t just shove tablets down my throat like I had gotten used to. He said, take note of how you feel when you eat anything. Exercise in moderation. MANAGE STRESS. I loved him for that. For putting me in charge of my syndrome. My IBS (Google it).

I have done all that. I do all that the Doc says. In fact he says I’ve become a Doc myself (I guess I just need a practicing certificate).

But you see, my body still throws tantrums and my skin hasn’t grown tough enough to shake off stress with ease; my tummy is still proud, choosy and bossy. I’ll take wheat for breakfast today and my system coils its tail like an obedient dog, and the next day I eat wheat for breakfast and my body gets defiant and every body part wants to do a Brexit on me.

I try.

I know I try because my back got one solution. It loves the hardness of the floor.

On most days I ditch the softness of my bed and embrace the hardness of the PS – the Presidential Suite (see, someone had to give it a befitting name to make it lovable). My back loves how the PS extends its arms past the fluffy carpet and kneads by skin and spine and everything. The fire in my spine dies out on those days and I lie there, eyes on the ceiling, creating stanzas in my head or storming out of the PS to grab the laptop and write down words before they retreat to that place in my mind that forgets what it should remember.

And then it happened.

It was on one of those nights when sleep gets tired of playing hard to get and offers itself for free. On one such night, my eyes fluttered open when my ears caught a click-click sound. From my PS, I saw him standing outside the door. I waited, and held the blanket tighter.

The click-click came again and the door flung open. The security light from without followed him in and I saw shock engulf his face when his eyes landed on the frame in the living room. The encounter had come too soon.

He moved closer, pulled the blanket off my body and I sat up in that speed that seizes my body on days when I wake up before the alarm.

I hit him on the neck in that spot where they say life resides. I left him to finish dying and I walked out of the house to take some air outside.

There was no dead man in the morning. No blood. Just bits and pieces of what used to be my blender, scattered on the floor like it died struggling to take say a prayer.

You see…

I do everything the Doc tells me to do.

He just didn’t tell me how to snap out of a dream that involves killing a man.

My midro income status


I was just minding my mouth eating a samosa when I saw them. I slowed down as I inched closer to the roundabout and the traffic lights turned red. The rest of the cars ground to a halt and they, like majestic bees scanning which flower has the sweetest nectar, started towards us.

I watched them huddle near windows of cars ahead of me. I saw them knocking on the windows gently, insistently, and stretching out their hands to the man or woman on the wheel.

Knock, look the driver in the eyes, and stretch out your hand or both. It is a pattern. The rhythm rings in the head.

I was too busy chewing and watching the spectacle that I didn’t see him approach.

 Auntie, mpa kikumi. Auntie…

I swear I didn’t have the Shs100 he was asking for.

When I set out for a meeting in town that morning, Shs10,000 was the only cash that stood between me and brokiasis (the highest point of brokeness, according to an important person at Makerere as he briefed us on reckless spending one afternoon in 2006).

Since there was no parking space at my meeting place, I drove to the National Theatre for relatively safe parking. I wouldn’t have to worry about someone harvesting the body parts of my car if I’d parked on Musisi’s roadside parking lot.

Problem is, by the time my meeting ended, the parking machine alleged I owe it Shs8,000. Not that I was surprised (the parking here is pocket unfriendly), my only beef was that the meeting encroached on my lunch time and my purse was gloomy.

With Shs2,000 left, I bought two samosas and two bananas and started back to office. I was enjoying my lunch until this boy (of about 10 years old) happened.

Auntie, mpa kikumi. Auntie…

I turned to look at him properly and said, I don’t have money, with my hands. He gave me that I don’t believe you look, and I think I replied with my eyes too; I swear, I don’t have money. Then his eyes landed on my lunch which was on the co-driver’s seat. Damn!

He asked for it.

I looked at the lights and they had turned green. Phew! But no car was moving. The traffic cops must have decided we won’t follow the lights after all. Their whistle and swinging hands would direct us on when to move.

I turned to look at the boy, standing there, tapping at my window as hunger tapped on the walls of my stomach.

‘I am hungry,’ he said and added a don’t be so mean reprimand with his eyes.

I picked the remaining samosa and banana and gave him.

He smiled, said a thank you and quickly hid the eats under his shirt (away from the prying eyes of other ‘give me Shs100’ girls and boys, men and women).

By the time the cars on my side of the road was flagged off, my fuel gauge was blinking a warning. There was Shell fuel station right across the road but my purse was blinking red. Kyaba too much for this dream of ‘midro (read middle) income status!

Then I remembered what my friend Rosie (or was it Jackie) said, that even if the gauge starts warning, it doesn’t mean fuel is completely done. “See that last bar with an E? Yes, as long as the thingie isn’t on the E, don’t worry.”

Great!

But as I approached Kabalagala, I couldn’t shake off the discomfort that the car could just die for me in traffic jam. I turned off to Shell fuel station where an ATM was (thankfully) located. The savings account will have to be invaded today.

The security guard manning the place smiled at me broadly, followed by an elaborate greeting and a joke. It felt good, relaxing my sulking stomach muscles with a good laugh. I didn’t know I would pay for that laugh.

When I was done withdrawing money, the guard, in between goodbyes and a smile said, madam, something small for lunch. I gave him lunch and reversed the car to a fueling point. When I was done, I looked for a parking spot so I could buy proper lunch (not really proper because junk makes me sick, literally, and I had long gotten over the excitement of KFC).

I was almost done parking when another security guard appeared and started directing me on how far back I should reverse. She smiled and gave me a thumbs up when I was done.

About 10 minutes later, I walked out of KFC with my junk lunch and was ready to go earn my pay for the remaining part of the day. As the car roared to life, the security guard appeared from nowhere, walked casually towards me and smiled. Usually, that is a sign for you to smile back, roll down your car window, call them over,  and press a note of Shs1,000, Shs2,000 or whatever amount, in their hands.

I smiled back and drove off!

Teach Me How To Loot


(Extract from a novel in progress)

BY HARRIET ANENA 

The mouth of Aswa River is full, its stomach rising and falling against panting waves.

By its banks, an army of men, women and children stand in a line, their hearts beating loudly in their mouths.

Their eyes shift from the rope in Commander Ocan Bunia’s hands, to the expanse of water ahead of them.

Their legs tremble. Their eyes turn misty. They wait.

When the rope is securely latched from Tree A to Tree B on the other end of Aswa, everyone takes a deep breath. It could as well be their last. They wait.

“It’s time to go,” Commander Bunia bellows.

Holding onto the rope tightly, Commander takes the lead, wading through the water, balancing his weight against slaps by waves until he’s at the other end.

The rest follow, slowly, as they wonder what’s quaking more – their bodies, or the neck-high water around them.

Fifteen minutes later, everyone is on the other side, except Lapwony.

He grabs the rope, starts the walk, slowly until he’s in the middle of the water. Then the rope starts to give way. He can hear it crack, and then snap.

“He’s going! He’s going!”

He can hear the voices getting louder, then they begin to fade until what’s left are whispers from the waves.

His kicks to the stomach of Aswa yields little. It swallows him instead. And he swallows it back – the water.

By the time Commander Bunia drags Lapwony to the shore, his stomach is a river, bulging and drowning his breath, one minute at a time.

When he finally snaps out unconsciousness and sees the pairs of eyes scanning his body, he knows this journey will be as difficult as castrating a dog.

Kampala, beloved


Omera,

Kampala is a lover with bad breath

Edible lips,

Firm hands that know how to cup a face before a kiss

Then

He’ll breathe that thing Besigye hates into your eyes

But…

You’ll love the pearl of seven hills that dot his compound

The Lake Victoria Jacuzzi in his backyard

The flashy cars that defy potholed roads

And…

His deep pockets make many hold hands in awe of his wallet

 

But don’t forget

He’s a late riser. 9:00am on the road for a 7:30am strategic meeting

Respect his right of way. Even on that jam-packed one-way street

 

Omera,

Kampala is my sweet hopeless lover

Can I bring him home?

A dreamer’s guide on how to remain relevant on Facebook


Social media is like a marketplace, a slum, a village, a city, a lonely yet crowded street, or a queue of people screaming or whispering or, even begging to be read, seen, watched and listened to.

My MA thesis that dwells on Facebook and the kind of platform it offers in regard to freedom of expression in Uganda, has seen me roam social media sites a little more in the recent past; and Oh my! Interesting things and people you’ll find.

It isn’t easy staying relevant on these sites; but for a start, follow the 10-Point Facebook Guide below [written under the influence of so many things…]

 

  1. Show us the place

Where are you or where are you going? Tell us, but do it cleverly, you don’t want to put us off by showing off. So say something like this: “Starving, but this sea food! Dear Mombasa, treat me with kindness”; “Damn this airline…missed my flight to America [yeah, America!]”; “Mbarara, this land really flows with milk and honey…”

If you don’t want to write, just post a photo, a selfie of you in the plane, or at the beach, or before that Mandela statue in Graham’s town. And please make use of that phone or computer, set it to show us your location without you losing a strand of hair – it’s that simple!

  1. Love

Forget people who say marking your relationship status as ‘married/engaged to XYZ’ will make people stalk both of you, to see how you are progressing. It’s your life, so flaunt the love and the loveless can go hang! When you break up, it’ll just be because that’s life, right?

And make the eye-catching posts on her/his wall; ‘I miss you’, ‘You complete me’ or better still, post a silhouette of you two in some sweet random place we can’t guess. In minutes, you’ll see comments like ‘Awww!”; “Sweetness”; “My couple of the year” and “Cheers to love” flowing. Tomorrow’s relationship status will sort itself, life has to go on.

  1. Play

There are people you have never met, but they are your friends on Facebook. And by the way, they are hot. So when they post that photo, just say it: “Damn! Hotness”; “God must have created you in the morning”; “Those eyes, Oh!”; “Thank God I have you [it doesn’t matter whether you’ve never chatted or met or if you know each other beyond the fb friendship].

I know we have said play, but don’t do it too much. That might make you say too much, and like someone said, everything that goes online, will eventually come ‘outline’. You don’t want your things flying from the inbox to the wall or a hacker to teach you a lesson…

  1. Give us some brain

Questions like what happened to the Nigerian girls, when everyone is hash-tagging #BringBackOurGirls, will make you appear like you are from the ‘grassroots’. Tell us what you think about Russia’s bigheadedness or the mess in South Sudan that seems so juicy for some or what you think is the diagnosis for Kampala’s madness – we’ll respect you. But beware, such posts may not get you as many comments, but you’ll get likes, or shares – and that’s ok.

  1. Annoy

When everyone is bashing Museveni for calling Nabukenya childish, go the other direction and praise the old-man, he is the bearer of our vision, not so? Or when the world is sympathizing with Lukwago’s woes, rant about how the dude has not done anything constructive other than cause chaos – some people might agree with you.

  1. Grab that attention

Everyone wants attention once in a while. So lines like, “I’m depressed,”; “I need a hug now”; “This headache is killing me [even when you are swinging your legs somewhere]; “I’m the happiest woman on earth tonight”; “I did it” – will make people beg you to tell them more, or shower you with ‘get well soon hun’ comments.

  1. Show us something

Beautiful skin, that hair, chest or that well-done photo that brings out your eyes or legs, or lips will have people commenting. Or, do you have a baby, wife or husband, even boyfriend and that girlfriend, why not – show us how they look – we’ll like and comment, nicely, it’s just good manners from us…

  1. Know the basics

You’ll switch on the wrong lights when you start a chat with your new-found friend and start off with; “Where are you based?, what do you do?” Profile infors exist for you to get such information about your ‘friend’. Some people will not indicate the actual place and work they do, but you can still find out [either through their posts, or randomly through a chat] instead of appearing like you are on an interrogation/stalking mission.

And, comment, like, share – we will reciprocate. Use ‘LOL’ when you really need to. That’s why you’ll have to think about a post like “Good night friends. LOL”. By the way, you can take the private conversations to a chat. We’ll feel really weird reading you rant about your private things with someone on your wall.

  1. Respect

Don’t go throwing words that irritate, insult or bring down people, moreover on their walls. It’s just bad manners! You can do it on your wall and we will understand by throwing the dirt back at you, or we may just read you, shut up, shun you or like you.

  1. Get lost

Deal with the fb addiction. It can rub on us too. The urge to wash every aspect of your life on fb is tempting, we know that. You are in the gym and you feel like posting a photo of your sweaty self or tell us that taxi tale or the dude/chick who couldn’t keep their hands off you. But it won’t hurt to ‘disappear’ for a while. Don’t be on our faces all the time, we get bored and overfed by your posts and before you know it, we’ll put off notifications for your posts. You don’t want that, so take a breather, you’ll be back and still find Facebook alive.

 

[To be continued when the weather says so…]

 

 

 

 

This tribal exam: I’m tired!


Image

I don’t rant. It’s not in my nature to send my mouth on a verbal parade. I rant from within and… I sweat words through my hands onto the paper when I’m angry or happy. And today, I’ll rant, because thorny words are lodged in my throat…

Encounter 1 [At a flight booking counter]

“What’s your name?”

ME: Anena.

“Who?”

ME: Anena…Harriet

“Anena…that’s a rare name. I have never heard it before.”

ME: [smiles]

“Which district do you come from?”

ME: Gulu. Gulu District

“Gulu? In the north?”

ME: Yes sir

“So you are a Langi?”

ME: No, I am an Acholi

“Nooooo…you can’t be”

ME: I have just told you I am.

“You don’t look like them.”

ME: How are they supposed to look?

“They are black [read, dark], tall and…”

ME: I know…I have heard that several times

***

Encounter 2 (Passenger in a bus]

ME: Good morning

“Yes…Good morning. Ogenda wa?”

ME: I’m going to Kampala

“[He asks several questions in some language that sound like a mix of Luganda and Runyankole]”

[I don’t understand any of it…]

ME: Pardon me…

“Is Kampala home…?”

ME: No, that’s where I work

“So, you come from where?”

ME: Gulu?

“Nooo. You don’t look like them.”

ME: I am them

“Hmmmm…you look like you come from western…like the Baganda, or us Banyankole…not Acholi

ME: [Tries so hard to keep a smile on…]

“So your parents, they are both Acholi?”

ME: Yes…they are

“Hmmm…you are brown. Those people are not brown. They are black like those ones [pointing to couple seated on the front seat]”

ME: [Silence]

That is just a few incidents I remember in detail. But I’m tired of always having to justify my ‘Acholiness’. I’m fed up of having to explain why I’m not as ‘black’ as ‘real’ Acholi are supposed to be and why I’m not tall and why I’m not ugly and why I have big eyes and why my hair is not ‘hard’ and why it is even long in the first place.

“Isn’t that place like so hot it makes your hair so steel wire-like? But your hair is different…” A work-mate once told me last year.

What could I say? I kept quiet and smiled, a smile wrapped in so many emotions I don’t want to give it a name.

“But how come you don’t have their accent? The accent of ‘dis sis my brada Sals’ [This is my brother Charles’. Why don’t I have that Acholi accent? Why?

And what is Anena supposed to answer? Should I ask my tongue why it walks over the ‘h’ and ‘s’ with ease when they are not supposed to? Why must I look like ‘them’ to qualify as ‘them’?

This shadeism, this tribal screening is not what I want to undergo. I’m not supposed to. Is it my fault that of the six children my parents sired I’m the only ‘brown’ one? My mum is light skinned, but must I always explain why I turned out ‘lighter’ than her?

I’m the daughter of my mother and my father. I am proud of them. I’m even proud of Uganda [with all its madness], but why must I be subjected to this tribal exam and told ‘you are not them’?  Why don’t you believe me?

Why can’t we just be us? People? Human beings?

Lessons under water


Getting hold of a [research] supervisor at Makerere University is a pain in all the wrong places. If you have gone through that institution and carried out research as part of your degree, you will be familiar with what I’m talking about.  The supervisor is either very busy, out of the country, doesn’t answer the phone or the phone is not available at all.

Three years ago, I switched from supervisor A to B and back to A. None of them seems keen enough to notice my desperation to complete my Thesis so I can graduate in time. It took insistence and some strongly-worded emails before my work could get the attention it needed.

And now I find myself back to this academic hide and seek. He is not at his office, does not pick his phone and…frustrated after several weeks of trying, I pay a visit to my course coordinator.

I knock on his office door, and as I walk in, water lazily flows towards my direction. The office floor is half-covered with water and before I could ask what happened, the Dr says ‘I hope you came with a boat to swim’.

He laughs, I almost laugh too, but instead I ask, ‘what happened to your office?’ He goes on to explain how the floor has been ‘emitting’ water since morning.

He then pulls a chair and tells me to place it on the ‘drier’ side of the office. He extends a fist for a ‘bonga’ kind of greeting and asks ‘how is life?’

My eyes are on the floor and I’m watching my shoes to keep them away from this water, whose origin is unseen.

Finally I tell him, ‘I have failed to get a hold of my supervisor, and time is really not on my side’.

Did you check on him at his office? Is he in the country? Did you call him? My answers were yes, yes, yes and brief explanations.

He is visibly concerned about my dilemma but he tells me, ‘Keep trying. Keep pushing. When you are done, you’ll say I succeeded despite the problems, and not I failed because of the problems’.

I take a second walk back to my supervisor’s office and he is there. He will look at my work and gave me an appointment for next week. He even apologises for locking up his phone in office the whole morning to charge, thus the missed calls. Great!

As I left the university, my head was a workshop of thoughts and images. I kept seeing the face of a seemingly unbothered Dr, sitting in a water-invaded office and tapping away at his keyboard like nothing is amiss.

I thought about his advice and how he joked about the state of his office, which despite being tiny had been invaded by some unwanted liquid.

Hmmm…but such is life, after all. You take it easy, you keep the hope burning, regardless.


We raided the tree. Sat atop the tallest and hopped from one branch to another, plucking ripe yellow things. We thrust our teeth into them as cold yellow juices trickled down our hands. We ate in haste as though we were being chased by rival mango-eaters.  When we had stripped the tree of its fruits, we hurried down for Raid No 2. A few of us stumbled and fell on scattered peelings lying lazily below. We headed for the swamp.

The sugarcane had grown, taller than all of us, including uncle Ocii who planted them. We wrapped our hands around one stem at a time and pulled it off the marshy ground. We prepared a leaf-made mat and sat. We chewed and chewed the sugarcane until our lips and tongue complained.

Then the walk home began. Suddenly Owelo stopped under the tamarind tree and pressed his stomach against the trunk. He belched – long and hard. We all did the same and felt lighter as we carried our weights home. The yellow lines of mango juices and the whitish ones from the sugarcane gave our cheeks and stomach a dirty make-up. We didn’t care.

7:00pm.

Our stomachs tormented us. They were an unwanted luggage. But Ma insisted we had to eat. In her home, nobody refuses food. So we looked for parking space in our stomachs to accommodate the plate of pasted peas and millet bread. Then we stood behind the main hut, washed our legs, arms and face in disguised baths.

It was soon time for Ododo. We sat in a circle around the wangoo and listened to Ma’s tales about the tortoise and the elephant, the hyena and the ogre. Our ears consumed each story with infant greed. But when the moon flashed its rays upon Ma’s home, our bodies begged for the bed and our eyes impatiently closed beneath the luggage of sleep.

9:00pm.

The sound of snores fled our throats and hovered above thirteen sleeping heads. Legs and hands were strewn across the shared papyrus mattress in careless, childish fashion. On the dung-smeared floor, heaps of blankets lay dejectedly. And the grass-thatched hut was perfumed with air from over-fed stomachs and moist fragrance from urine-soaked mats.

Outside, goats ran about the compound with passion-laden steps. The chicken perched on the tree and chirped with sleepy energies.  The moon patrolled the sky with gentility, sprinkled its rays upon Ma’s home and bore witness to activities outside and within.

[Extract from The Dogs Are Hungry]