A light Sunday morning sunrise struggles to permeate the dark gloom in my room, and into my life. Its rays stream through the minute patches between the pieces of rusting tin.
I try to resist hope. Hope is for those who have life, I do not. But the rays persist. They attempt to shine through the stuffy micro sphere of hopelessness.
My room has become my doom.
Hell beckons from anywhere, everywhere. From the roof, the under bed, the muffed air, the cockroach noises, they all scream in unison - hell.
I feel like walking into the streets of Kampala, to hurl myself in front of a speeding truck. I want to step into the creaky lifts of Uganda House to take the bumpy ride to the rooftop, then take a more gracious flight back, fly off into the world of the nether.
Quick, efficient and painless.
Oh, I almost forgot that I can’t. Not with all the index fingers that will point at me.
“There goes the whore!” hey would mutter under their breath, with screwed up faces, full of disgust, warning their daughters away from this affliction. In my part of the world, the transformation from angel to whore can be very swift.
“You mean she has been sleeping around?”“Are you the only one in this town who has not heard? Which country do you live in?”
“But she is barely eighteen!”“Who, that Malaya…?”
Mothers caution their daughters from the prostitute.
Do not be deceived by the beauty of a tropical daybreak. I live in Katanga.
My new life of two weeks has passed in my muzigo, since mum crumpled a fifty thousand shilling note from her ATM, hurriedly, as if she had done me a favor. It is all made of old U.S. vegetable oil debes.
The story of my life resembles that of those rusting containers of American generosity.
Am sure, my mum loves me.
That is what mothers do for their children. When she sent me away into hiding, she meant me only good.
“Aaiih Gigi, your father is going to kill us? What have you done?” is all she could say.
Here I am, a government minister’s first-born daughter, living on deep-fried cassava chips and salty borehole water, in a shack, sleeping on the flattened pieces of milk cartons, lying on the bare earth floor.
The cream Woolworth outfit my parents gave me on my seventeenth birthday quickly turning brown.
“You have to be discreet, nobody must know.”I wonder what they will tell the neighbours, and my church choir friends, something like, “We sent her to Malaysia for a better education.”
I can imagine him grinning, full of a father’s pride, “you know she was too bright for these Ugandan schools.”
Dad joined the government on the cardinal’s recommendation. They needed an honest conservative catholic to head the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity.
They were spot on. Dad would rob a bank for the pope. I know he is frustrated. You don’t abandon a well paying accounting career to legitimize a corrupt government in a banana republic with your hard-won reputation.
Anyway, this is what happens when you are an intelligent, beautiful student leader in a renowned high school.
You are fed up of being the best in everything. Always topping your class, head girl, president of the debating club and apple in every teacher’s eye, let alone the bearer of a famous surname - Mangeni.
The world becomes too predictable and you soon begin to seek out new challenges.
“Girls, I wish you were all like Gaudencia…!” The gaudy headmistress all the time managed to throw in that line at least once when addressing her students.
I would swell inwardly with the realization that being me was the ideal. Visitation day would be like a how-to-be-like-the-Mangenis day.
My parents would drive in a huge Mercedes Benz accompanied by a double cabin pick up truck, full of showy but clearly emaciated gun-wielding policemen, with a bountiful of presents for the staff.
Even the gateman would proudly walk away with a few bars of washing soap. Scores of unvisited girls would be invited to join in on the abundance of grilled birds.
It would always end with some donation to the latest project the headmistress had managed to cook up, she, cheque in one hand, the other gripping me like a favourite daughter while waving to my dad in the way voters wave to politicians who had just won a rigged election in Africa.
What will my schoolmates say when they begin to hear the rumours? Before today, that thought would have brought an overwhelming sadness, frequently resulting in involuntary sobs.
Now that I have decided to stop crying and deal with it, I care less about what they would think or say.
I can not continue mourning my life forever. After all it was not my mistake. Nor was it his.
It was not anyone’s mistake. I did not want to be like dad, blaming every bad thing on everyone except himself. Some things were just supposed to happen.
Mr. Otim had unlike everyone else resisted the temptation of singing me unnecessary praises. My dreams in life did not lie near his literature texts but his stimulating dissections of life’s situations and somehow appealed to my obsession with understanding life in its basics.
Even though my incessant fascination with biological sciences was absorbing, I found literature a fresh way of appreciating the inexplicable things in life.
His weekend literary discussions which were open for everyone and which the headmistress emphasized a necessity to any civilized human, to understand the topic of books; it quickly became my bad habit.
I somehow fell in love with Ngugi Wa’thiongo’s characters in The River Between, such that at times whenever I took him one-on-one over opinions which I thought were too heavy on the character, or too critical of the author, or too sensational for the situation, everyone else marvelled at my literary maturity and the peer-like respectful criticism that passed between us.
“Sometimes I think you ought to be studying the arts,” he would end up saying whenever our corridor reflection on the previous text happened, which would draw my silent ire.
That is on one of the few times when I felt racist against my own countrymen, my own black kin - black skin.
These silly African stereotypes borrowed from nowhere, grown in the ritual cramming class that passes for academic excellence and which will die with the reality of life careers.
Intelligence is measured in the amount of perfectly retold lines of West Africa history of kingdoms as opposed to IQ or even matters of logical thought.
Passing exams is like a ritual of death. Primary Leaving, Ordinary and Advanced Level examinations make and break a person; hogwash.
Any intelligent fool does not have to love Shakespeare to understand it. It is like human nature.
You must love something other than the money, sweating your ass to make a living, whether flying a Boeing, driving a rickety matatu or riding a bodaboda passenger bicycle.
“You should read Petals of Blood.”
Eventually, I came to slowly learn that it was not any of Mr. Otim’s faults to think like he used to. It was all he knew, at least that is what he had been raised to believe.
So I forgave him for his stupidity. I learnt to appreciate the side that was of use to me and came to trust him completely on that one.
“I already had a cup of tea this evening.”
“That is why I have made you a cup of coffee, it is good for your brain,” he would say while pushing a mug-full of the brown liquid towards me, “it keeps your brain in tip top condition.”
“To the ordinary eye, Naipaul is an insane old recluse who has failed to reconcile with the fact that the India he thought he belongs to has disowned him.”
“Is that why he tried to become an African in a long-short story?”
“Actually, to the contrary, he discovered freedom in his lack of sentimental attachment to patriotism…”
…and time would pass in a rush before suddenly the lights-off siren would remind us that it was too late for a student to be in a teacher’s house.
With time we learnt to ignore it as we lost ourselves in our world of philosophical idealism and what-if reality scenarios from where the ordinary world of timetables, positions and ranks, ages and sexes was absent.
“You see, the world is God’s stage and he gives everyone a role. You Gaudencia, he gave a lead role in the play of life.”
I convince myself as I collect my ever weary bones; carefully arrange the second-hand kitenge wrapper I had bought for five hundred shillings at a nearby flea market into some sort of veil, so I can sit outside my shack to enjoy some of my last moments of fresh atmospheric air.
I lay a black polythene bag on my “veranda” a few inches away from a sewer gutter that runs in the middle of the two blocks of slum buildings like a necessary boundary and attempt to act as if I have lived in these pathetic conditions all my life.
Memories of my grandmother suddenly surprised me. Does she know already? How would she anyway? Ever since dad forbade us to go to the village except for funerals.
No wonder they were becoming pretty common these days. I almost felt her frail touch of a one whose blood truly runs through your veins, running roughly but tenderly on my head.
(To be continued)