Chameleone, by Moses Isegawa, 2011
Yesterday I saw the pictures of the mudslide that washed away our village.
I saw the big brown emptiness, where our houses, school, church, gardens and trees used to be, and I felt confused.
I saw the rusting yellow excavator brought in by the army two weeks after the incident, which didn’t dig up a single body, and which somebody left there as an emblem of the incident or maybe as an indication that they will come back and finish the job some time in the future.
It is two years now and I don’t plan to go back. I have a life here in the city and I hope to continue with my education and the business of keeping body and soul together.
I lost an ear to flying glass, for on the day I was in class studying the division of cells.
It is strange that my current schoolmates ask me to tell them about the rebels. They think it is those characters that took my ear.
I try to tell them the truth but they don’t believe me.
I’ve decided to play their game and blame the rebels for my situation. Maybe now they will leave me alone.
I’ve made up a tall tale about how I fled, hid, and overcame terrible hardship before I arrived in the city.
As I’m polishing up my story, Aunt Atworo’s voice fills the room.
Her shouting irritates me. Losing an ear doesn’t mean that I’m deaf. Why doesn’t she approach my door and call gently?
Shyness stops me from telling her to change her ways. After all, this is her house.
I resent the intrusion, for I told her yesterday that today I would wake up late. I think she forgot or is so used to our early morning routine that she can’t help it.
To express my annoyance, I sit on my words and silence swells between us.
Offended, she grumbles, “Don’t blame me when you are late.”
“Late for what?”
I get the feeling that she is tired of me and I need to move out. Maybe I’ve overstayed my welcome.
“Stop muttering, sleepy head.”
Her tone confuses me. I have the impression that she is talking to a child of six, not a teenager; or addressing Lamunu, her daughter who was taken away by Aunt’s father-in-law soon after her husband’s burial.
Maybe in her eyes I’m still a child.
With my mood shattered, I push off the blanket and jump out of bed. I stand in the middle of the room and seethe.
I want to go to her and demand that she never speak to me before I speak to her in the morning.
Often, it is the only time one has to reflect or to let one’s mind wander, before the noise of the city swallows one’s peace of mind.
In the end, I calm down sufficiently to see reason. Such demands I can only make under my own roof.
I look at the bare walls, which have seen so many people come and go that the plaster has fallen away and exposed the bricks and cement underneath.
On one wall there is a family photo Aunt put there before I came. From within the confines of the dark frame Mother, this aunt and one uncle stare at me.
Mother is in a white, short-sleeved dress, Aunt in a dark gown. Uncle Tar is wearing a white shirt. Mother is smiling. I imagine her saying, as she often did before the mudslide, “Water is life.”
When I ask where Uncle Tar is, Aunt says that she doesn’t know.
Rumour has it that he is in government, though nobody knows in what capacity. My efforts to locate him have been in vain.
He has always been elusive, taking years between visits to the village.
I used to like him a lot, especially because of the magnifying glass he once gave me, but now I hate him and I call him Hyena.
Looking at him, I hiss, “Hyena, Hyena.” I despise him for hiding from me and for being in a government that has failed to bring peace to the north of the country.
As my anger threatens to overtake reason, I look at the window. It is dressed in black polythene because in Red Sea, an area characterized by rusty roofs, ramshackle houses and clogged gutters, there is little worth seeing.
The Catholic Church, the grandest building around, isn’t visible from here. On Sunday morning, the bell calling the faithful to Mass reminds us of its existence and Aunt hurries up the hill for worship.
When I want to see things, I leave Red Sea; when I return, I close my eyes to everything outside these walls.
For a moment, I feel disoriented and I look round to locate familiar objects.
I see my yellow jerry cans, my red bucket, and my blue basin, which remind me of the pilgrimages I made to the well every day. Two kilometers down, two up.
An old tyre marked the opening. Somebody cut a jerry can in half that we used to scoop up the water and pour it into our jerry cans.
During droughts, people fight over water. Then it becomes a matter of life and death. I think Mother should have said, “Water is life and death.”
Here I fetch water from a tap one hundred metres away. When it rains hard, water enters the houses and remains there for days and people sleep on top of cupboards.
In the worst hit areas, where buildings block the drainage system, children, chickens and cats are swept into the gutters.
My spirits lift when I see bars of sunshine shooting through the ventilators. A hot day is better than a wet one. One’s shoes get dusty, not muddy.
The voices of two drunks calling each other names fill the room.
I remember the hours I spent tossing and turning due to noise pollution.
I hear dance music coming from a nearby beer hall and machinery grinding in the distance.
The growl of traffic fills me with the urge to get moving.
A rush of anticipation shoots through me whenever I’m about to go out.
Here, we have no bathrooms for daytime use. Our bedrooms double as our bathrooms.
I pour water from a jerry can into a basin, stand on a square of polythene and sponge myself.
Afterwards, I brush my teeth and spit in the basin. I cover the dirty water with another basin and find it a place underneath the bed.
I will empty it at night.
I put on a pair of dark blue cords, a white shirt and black shoes.
I comb my hair, cover my head with a cap with flaps and look in the mirror.
Instinctively, my face turns left. A friend nicknamed me “Forty-five”, saying that my face is ever turned that number of degrees.
Some people think I’m untrustworthy because I don’t look straight at them. That is perception for you. What we think of others is never the whole truth, for so much is hidden and we end up seeing what we want to see.
My friend Gorogoro doesn’t care for such things. He likes facts, black and white situations, with no room for speculation. I envy him sometimes.
When I step into the sitting room, I see the things I dream of leaving behind: the sooty rafters, the dirty plaster, the grimy furniture and the glossy picture of the Holy Family, whose bright colours underscore the dilapidation around it.
I can’t help thinking: How Aunt has fallen! How she must hate the situation that brought her here!
More than on other days, I note the absence of a female touch, something to lead the eye away from the rotting wood or the broken floor.
Aunt’s house was always decorated with pictures, mats, calabashes, drums and ostrich feathers. Giving up on that side of things says much about her present state of mind.
I find her pouring tea in our mugs. She must have been on the verge of calling me again, an irate edge to her voice. I’m glad that my timing is perfect.
The surface of the table not covered by the tray shows a film of grey dust. The maize mills in the area enrich the air with this dust that the wind blows into our homes. It covers all surfaces and defeats every effort to remove it.
Aunt is a very light sleeper. She spends the best part of her nights making necklaces.
On most days, she has breakfast ready when I awake. I always find her sitting at this table.
To my greeting, she replies, “Did you sleep well?”
“Manchester Bar played music all night.”
“Every day is a red-letter day for them.”
“They should be closed down.”
“You should teach yourself to ignore the noise,” she says, a cheeky smile on her face.
“Why don’t you come out and say it?”
“For somebody in your condition, you let too much noise into your head.”
She is the only person with the licence to make such digs. It elevates her from a paternal aunt to a mother figure.
Her words help me to keep things in perspective. After all, whatever happens, life goes on.
I sit opposite her, pick up my mug and sip. I’m so used to her eyes that I no longer feel them. They only register at certain moments, like now. “And how was your night?”
“The same,” she replies. “I’ve just heard on the radio that armed robbers stole ten cars and killed two people last night.”
On some days, I have the impression that we always talk about the same things, in the same manner. The golden rule is never to point that out.
I pick up a piece of cassava, chew and wash it down with tea. My idea of a heavenly breakfast is bread, butter and strawberry jam, luxuries rarely sampled.
I can’t help thinking: Aunt, you don’t have a car and you probably never will. Why worry? Yet, in many parts of the city, robbery is a growing problem.
Over a month ago, robbers emptied houses near the Catholic Church and stabbed a woman repeatedly for resisting them. It was the lead story in the tabloids, with the gruesome pictures on the front page.
“It’s high time government did something,” I mumble, wondering what became of the woman’s children. Did somebody in government help them? We all put whatever perplexes us in the hands of government.
I see Aunt gazing at the picture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I know it is time for a lecture or a rant. I keep quiet to give her room to air her feelings.
In the silence, a drunk passing by calls somebody a shit-licker. Aunt pretends that nothing has happened and, to avoid bursting into laughter, I look into my mug.
“I thank God for giving us a house in the heart of the city. Everything is within walking distance.”
“We are so blessed,” I murmur, thinking that she always tries to be positive and overlooks the terrible facilities we have to endure.
“Of course we are, with or without your sarcasm. I came here empty-handed, but I still managed to get this house.”
Her attempt at heroism gets to me. I say, “Surely, you must have had some money. Otherwise, the landlord would have thrown you out.”
“Let’s not get into a fight,” she says, her voice rising. “I had lost everything…”
“Nobody is contesting that. But landlords...”
“Drop the subject, will you?”
She has talked so many times about her arrival in the city that I can repeat the story word for word. The best way to shut her up is to change the subject.
“How many necklaces did you make?”
“One. It was a very productive night.”
I can’t help saying, like I’ve done many times before, “You offer quality. That is why you don’t sell. Tourists love trash.”
“Tourists put food on the table, Mr. Know-it-all,” she snaps.
Knowing that taking advice is never her strong point, I capitulate. “What would we do without them? Last year over half a million came to see the gorillas.”
“Before I forget, the sugar is finished. We also need millet flour.”
I think to myself: The day you start making trash will be the day we will start eating bread, butter and strawberry jam whenever we want.
But I’m not looking for a pyrrhic victory.
Aunt lost her husband six years ago.
Suspected of helping the rebels, government agents picked him up on his way home, took him to a military detach and interrogated him. Rebel collaborator or not, he died after a few days.
Whenever she talks about her husband’s death, Aunt blames Hyena for not rescuing him. She doesn’t specify, though, how he could have accomplished that.
We rarely talk about the deceased and, when we do, her eyes brim with tears. It breaks my heart to witness her powerlessness and my uselessness.
As though determined to ruin her completely, days after his burial, the same agents requisitioned the cows and the great bull Aunt and her husband kept.
I’m surprised that Aunt still has the promissory notes they gave her.
In her position, I would have thrown them away.
Aunt is mad at her father-in-law, for she hasn’t seen her daughter in all these years. She knows that their area was evacuated and the people sent to a displaced people’s camp.
But her attempts to locate her have failed. On her bedside table, she has a picture of her, taken years ago.
She is a teenager now.
I imagine her in the uniform of the nearby secondary school: white blouse, maroon skirt and white socks. A satchel is bouncing on her hip. She is the tallest of a group of girls giggling, arguing, on their way to school.
Twice a month, Aunt visits the women who sell her products. Like her, they are survivors of rebel attacks.
I’ve no idea what they get up to, but she returns home looking serene, her gait precarious.
I put my empty mug on the tray and, like the man of the house, say, “Don’t worry.”
“I was just informing you.”
I reach across the table and place my hand on top of hers. Normally, Aunt hates being touched; I’m the exception.
“I will take care of it,” I say and withdraw my hand. “And thank you for the tea.”
She smiles and I look in her eyes, which remain untouched by the smile. Nothing can hide the severity that has crept into her features. It is the severity of somebody who no longer believes in happiness.
“It was a pleasure.”
The sadness in her eyes makes me pity this woman, whose life is upside down, whose child is lost in the wilderness. I wish I can find her and become her hero.
I’m grateful that she took me in. It is the reason why I pull my weight whenever I can. I don’t want to be a burden.
Pensively, I return to my room. I switch on my phone and the screen fills with a strong red colour. When the network signal settles, I wait for messages. Minutes pass.
I eventually get one from a classmate asking if I want to attend a dance late in the afternoon. He says girls from the nearby school will be there.
I don’t know if I want to go. I’ve no money to buy drinks.
I wonder what my friend Gorogoro is doing. He likes social functions and will most likely attend.
I look at my watch. I miss the ticking of a mechanical watch. Mother had one, lost in the mud.
I cover my bed with black polythene and clean my teeth.
I open a bag containing toiletries and a change of clothes, in case there is cooking oil or boxes of soap to offload.
I close the bag and take it to the sitting room.
Aunt is standing near the window. Her eyes are bright, her lips parted in a gentle smile. Perhaps, she is back in the village inspecting the cows or her husband has just told her a rare joke.
When she sees me, she gasps. Collecting herself, she says, “You look smart.”
“Thank you,” I say quickly, hoping I will somehow manage to get the money to buy what we need. In this place, one is nothing without money.
I sometimes think of the village, where I didn’t have to buy sugar or millet flour.
“May the Lord accompany you.”
In the picture, I see Infant Jesus sitting on his mother’s lap, his deep blue eyes vacant. He exudes total apathy. I quickly look away.
Outside Carcass for Hounds, as I call our ramshackle building, the sky is high and blue and the air smells of burning plastic.
Somebody is burning garbage or manufacturing something in the vicinity.
Four children sit on the broken steps, their genitals exposed.
One is sucking thumb, eyes half closed.
Another is nibbling a piece of stale posho that looks hard enough to bend a nail.
The mother of Posho Boy calls, her voice rough and heavy.
I call her Hermaphrodite. She is a big, tall woman who fled the nineteen ninety-four genocide in Rwanda and landed here.
Like many refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Congo and elsewhere, she doesn’t want to return home.
While the former hope to use Uganda as a transit to Europe or America, she wants to stay here.
“It will take a battalion to send me back,” she occasionally boasts.
On one side of the courtyard are wires laden with children’s laundry. On one, unwashed sheets with wet patches are spread out to dry.
The smell of urine hits me and I start walking.
I walk on cracked verandas, in the space between houses and on a meandering path strewn with garbage.
On verandas, women and children are washing clothes or doing dishes, with soapy water draining into the gutters.
Manchester Bar, Chelsea Hotel, Arsenal Club and other beer halls are open and bleary-eyed diehards nurse glasses of liquor or doze on the benches.
On rubbish heaps, bluebottles are waking up to a new day and they complain loudly when I venture too near their territories.
When I emerge from this warren, I see the walls and lights of the sports stadium. The local football league occasionally stages matches there, though few fans bother to turn up.
The gods of the English Premier League have captured the hearts and minds of most football lovers and the local piggies can’t compete.
The main gate faces a big yard that serves as a car park during the off-season. Dozens of cars are already parked there; soon, there will be more, including the odd bus.
I put my bag on the bonnet of a car, take a brush and clean my shoes. On the street, I try to give the impression that I come from one of the posh suburbs.
Afterwards, I take a quick look in the mirror. Now I’m ready to hit the streets.
On Luwum Street, the rush of traffic, the din of car horns and the crush of pedestrians put me on my guard.
Hawkers, cobblers, beggars and conmen occupy strategic positions on the sidewalk awaiting their prey.
Wary of phone snatchers, I keep my hand at the mouth of my left hip pocket.
Midway, I turn left, cross William Street and climb towards Kampala Road.
With the sun in my face, cool air on my skin, I feel proud that I’m headed uptown like the professionals and top business people.
I puff up my chest and widen my elbows. I feel like a warrior out to pry his prize from the jaws of beasts.
When I reach Kampala Road, I turn left at Pioneer Mall.
I devour the cars, phones, clothes and other goods on the billboards. The sky is indeed a world of plenty, peddling instantaneous gratification and the camaraderie of consumption.
I envy the Africans on the billboards and those who throughout the day will be visiting the shops and supermarkets.
Below the billboards, on the smooth, hot tarmac, hundreds of vehicles growl, a sound that is the real heartbeat of the city.
I station myself on the sidewalk opposite Ambassador House.
Behind me, Indian businessmen sell electrical appliances, the display fridges white and shiny. Indian music competes with car horns and the farts of old diesel engines.
On the ground floor of Ambassador House, other Indians sell muscle-toning equipment. In a city where a big belly denotes money, power or both, it is no easy task.
Maybe they get resident whites and city boys and girls obsessed with their weight. Maybe they sell other things on the side.
On the floors above, African law firms sell their services. With landowners evicting squatters in villages and towns, they are making a killing.
But I don’t begrudge them their luck. I want to become an entomologist and know as much as possible about insects. I’ve been interested in insects since I was a child.
I used to catch spiders, caterpillars and millipedes and frighten women and girls by pretending to rub them against their skin.
Each week I spent hours looking for ladybirds, butterflies, beetles and other insects to look at under the magnifying glass.
Here, I miss the sound of crickets at nightfall.
My phone vibrates and cuts short my reverie.
“Gorogoro,” the caller says gruffly.
“Very good news.”
“What do we have?”
“Somebody needs sixty jerry cans of cooking oil. All we need is to find a trader willing to give us a commission.”
“When will you be here?”
“I’m on my way.”
Gorogoro is sixteen, yet he conducts himself with the gravity of a much older person. Unlike many people in the city, he is a man of his word.
Due to excitement, I want to sit down. Suddenly, I hear somebody saying, “Water is life.”
“Life and death,” I reply, my head filling with images of the chaos that followed the mudslide and the floods that harass many slums.
Slowly, dodging vendors, conmen, beggars and people walking to shops and offices, I walk towards Constitution Square to go and wait under the mango trees.
Moses Isegawa, July 2011