Even during war there is time to fall in love?
Mugabi yawned, stretched his arms up high up in the air and twisted his bum in rigorous motion on the worn out leather seat on top of the tall the wooden bar stool. He needed to do something; groan, whistle, whisper, anything to attract her attention. Every time she smiled, her dimples seemed deeper and deeper. In turn his heart pounded faster and faster, he could feel each thud in his ears as well as feel the speed of his breath. She turned her head right in his direction to reach for some glasses placed on a silver tray. He felt a hot sensation run through his body at the thought of being noticed. He opened his mouth as to try and say something, call her name at least and make an order. Suddenly he realised that he didn’t know her name, he had spent the last few minutes in awe of her that he forgot what had brought him to the counter in the first place.
“Tendo” a tall, elderly man who was standing at the far end behind the counter impatiently called in an urgent voice.”Wangi” she replied.”Can you serve that gentleman, he has been waiting for a long time” he continued as he pointed towards his direction. He broke into a smile as he repeated her name underneath his breath.”Tendo, Tendo” silently and softly. Tendo turned to Mugabi and said politely “I will be with you in a few minutes”. She turned to a couple who were standing in front of her. A soldier, dressed in dark green and black army uniform and heavy black boots. He was carrying a long gun on his back, its belt running diagonally across his chest. With him was a fair skinned girl, with her curvy bum sticking out in her green tight mini skirt. The soldier suddenly noticed Mugabi on the stool next to them; he had not recognised him as he was wearing civilian clothes. A plain red short sleeved shirt, and black trousers with white stripes. The soldier suddenly stood straight and saluted him saying ‘Afande’ leader. Mugabi nodded his head in agreement. Tendo looked on in amusement at the realisation that the gentleman she had been told to serve was also a soldier. She had noticed him sitting on the stool and was wondering why he was not in a hurry to be served. He didn’t seem to behave like the others and had no gun or a younger soldier escorting him around.”How can I help you?” Tendo asked the couple.”Can we have two shots of Uganda Waragi please”,” Plain or mixed”.”Plain”. She poured out the shots for them and they left the counter to join another group of soldiers in the courtyard.
Mugabi observed Tendo serving the couple, her smooth chocolate brown arms delicately holding the Waragi bottle and gently filling the small glasses. He felt uneasy about the junior soldier saluting him in front of her. Since the Idi Amin regime in the 1970s, soldiers were associated with terror and disregard for human life. They were above the law; they could kill, steal and do what they wanted using their guns. Theirs, the National Resistance Army (NRA) was a new army of the liberators who cared about people. During the five years of war, a lot had been done to build its image. Mugabi wasn’t sure of Tendo’s attitude towards being very personal with soldiers, and certainly the salute gave his identity away before he could find his words of charm.
“How can I help you?” Tendo’s soft tone blew away his fears. He sat straight, looking into her deep brown eyes as her long eye lashed flicked up and down.”A bottle of Nile Special beer”.”Do you want a glass or straw”?”Do you have straws?” “We stocked a lot before the shops closed, and you people advanced on the town”, as she gently placed the straw into the bottle. Breathing deeply, Mugabi let out the words “Thank you Tendo”.”How do you know my name?” Tendo asked with a stern look. His pulse began to race feeling he had blown it.”I heard that gentleman over there calling you”. “Oh, my father”.”So you are not a bar employee?” “No I am a University student stranded at home because the road to Kampala was cut off by the war. There is only one employee here at the moment, all the others left. She went to check on her family in the village and I am helping my father”. He felt sweaty as he listened to Tendo. Her articulation brought shivers to his spine. He sucked a sip of the cold beer through the straw and felt it trickle through down his body.
There was silence. A butterfly in bright purple and green zigzagged its way between their heads. Its wings flapping, cutting through the still air. Their eyes followed it as they avoided each other. Tendo felt her legs weaken, and felt a warm sensation throughout her body. She was angry with herself at how much personal information she had just told a stranger, a soldier. She recalled how a group of soldiers mugged her and took her watch, and money on a day out while she boarded a matatu back to school in Kampala Taxi Park, two years ago. She had no respect for soldiers. She despised their arrogance and use of the Swahili language to intimidate. To change the topic she then said “I am not used to soldiers speaking Luganda.I believe you are also from the Luwero triangle” “Why” “Every soldier I have met since Masaka fell and speaks Luganda is from Luwero where this war started” “No I am from Masaka”. Tendo opened her mouth wide in disbelief. “Masaka?” she asked to double check if she heard Mugabi right.”My parents live in a village about 10 km on Mbarara Road.”
Suddenly she felt relaxed. She didn’t want to get so close to these soldiers because the war was still going on and even if they survived, they will go back to where they came from. She had no chance of seeing them again. Girls in the neighbourhood were dating them, but she remained aloof. However, Mugabi’s revelation changed all that and she suddenly felt a common ground with him; she admired his good looks and coolness. She was still staring in space trying to work out what to say to him, that she didn’t notice a group of soldiers come up to him to leave. She just felt the warmth of his palm rest on top of her hand and she looked straight into his eyes.”Tunawonana” see you again, he said in Swahili. Her Swahili was limited but she found an answer “keso?” tomorrow? He just smiled and got up from the stool to go. Tendo smiled back, and that is when she noticed a pistol stuck inside his waist belt. Until that moment she still had doubts as to whether he was soldier, he certainly didn’t behave like one.
Her eyes followed them leave the building and as they disappeared from view, she turned to look through the window. The bright orange circular sun was setting on the horizon, she felt her heart sinking with it.
By Juliet Lubega (unpublished)