Unlike Christmas days, New Year days have never been times of grief for me. If anything, they have always spelt redemption where I thought I was done for. One joyful New Year day comes immediately to mind when I think back.
1965 found me in Nshungerezi, south-western Uganda. We had just arrived from Congo, survivors of a campaign by the Congolese government to wipe us out for being sympathisers of Mulele Mayi, a rebel outfit we hardly knew, let alone associate with.
Still, all experiences have their lessons, and our stint in Congo was no exception. Being in Congo had taught us the fine art of singing and dancing, as you’d expect, but it had also taught us how to fight with the head.
As Ba-Congoman (no, the plural is not Congomen!), therefore, we were not only constantly hired as entertainers at wedding ceremonies but also as bouncers at all types of ceremonies.
However, New Year days in Uganda did not mean ceremonies. I remember New Year day in 1965 was a Friday, just like this year’s. So as to have time for rest, we had decided to do our usual chores early.
At cockcrow, then, all the youths of Sector 20 of the refugee camp convened at the usual place so that we could go to Lulongo stream in a convoy.
We always went thus at this early hour because beasts of prey were still out prowling in the bushes.
We set off in our usual musululu, Indian file, as the footpath was narrow. With all the noise of conversation, foot-stamping and containers, especially sufurias, wild animals usually kept their distance.
However, there were some crafty animals that knew how to get their victims without exposing themselves to danger. Those were dangerous because they always caught you unawares.
Having seen how unusually long the line of youths was, and having noticed that I was at the tail of it, I had dropped my guard. So, when I heard rustling in the grass behind me, I turned to look.
As an experienced forester who’d been in Belgian Congo (D.R. Congo today), I’d made a very grave mistake by turning. There it was, all puffed up and ready to hurl its missile of venom at me!
Anyone who has lived in the grasslands of Ankole, Uganda, would tell you exactly what it is that I refer to. Inshira, spitting cobra, is notorious for its ability to lure its victims by tricking them into exposing their faces.
In me, however, it had met its match. When I turned and noticed it, I fixed its eyes with my unflinching look. As we locked eyes, it hesitated a flipping second and that was all I needed to whip my sufuria off my head and cover my face.
Its venom hit the sufuria with a dull thud and I knew that I was now safe. It was going to be harmless a while, since it takes time to gather its venom anew, so I teased it around with my walking stick before joining the musululu again.
Our next chore was gathering firewood and we went to it in haste, after getting the water home. This time I was leading the musululu, not in fear but just because I happened to be in front, as we entered Lulongo forest.
When I pushed my head into a thicket and it couldn’t enter, a smaller friend behind me teasingly pushed me aside, making mocking gestures and mattering: “Mongol!” He was referring to my nickname, which I had earned in respect of my big head!
That friend was called Charles but we had nicknamed him Ilivuzumwami because of his slight stature. Ilivuze (short for Ilivuzumwami) was a very small but very agile young man who was capable of doing even the undoable.
I was recalling all that as I crawled after him into the thicket, meanwhile also trying to rebut his derogatory comment on me. Before I could formulate a rebuttal, however, I screamed. Ilivuze was vanishing!
I lunged for his toes but they soon also vanished! When Ilivuze had wholly disappeared, I froze when I realised I was staring into a pair of eyes. After I had recovered, I slowly crawled back, keeping my eyes trained on the thing.
Then I froze again. The eyes were rolling, as if the thing was in agony. It seemed to be gasping for air. Then the eyes assumed a blank state, and the thing became motionless.
I continued to stare, unable to comprehend what was happening. Then again, I froze: something was stirring and crawling out of it! Then a bundle of mucus and blood came towards me, and again I screamed, calling for help.
“Mongol”, it hissed, “can you stop yelling and help me out?” Phew! It was Ilivuze! He had been swallowed by uruziramire, a python!
Lucky midget, he had gone into a python’s tummy with his mupanga, cutting knife and managed to cut his way out!