Juliet Lubega


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It is 7 pm in Uganda

Around 7pm it was getting dark and the temperatures plummeting. I was sitting outside trying to keep warm in front on the burning charcoal stove. My son sat next to me observing how my niece was cooking sauce in a pan over the hostile flames.
The chicken appeared from the corner of the house walking towards us. He jumped up from his stool.
“Sit down” I told him.
“The chicken is coming” he replied.
“It just needs to pass to go to bed” I said.
“Where is it its bed?” he asked
“In the indoor kitchen” I replied.
“Do they all have beds?” he asked.
“Yes, at 7 pm every day, they all stop running around and go home?” I replied.
I explained that every chicken is trained by its owner to know its home. When we brought this one from the village, it was tied using a banana fibre by one leg, to a post near the house for 3 days to enable it to learn its surroundings. Then it was let to run freely around the neighbourhood during the day, pecking for food.
“When you see the chicken coming home, then you know it is 7 pm” I told him.
He looked at me in astonishment.
“Do you mean all the chicken know their homes?” He asked
“Yes they do” I replied.
He remained standing looking at the chicken as it walked past us; its head straight ahead towards the door, gliding like a ship on water, it went through two entrances and passed all the shopping we had brought earlier and settled down in its corner in the kitchen for the night.
My son shortly went in the kitchen to see if it was there. He came back with a big smile on his face.
“It will wake up at dawn” I told him.
“How will it get out of the house?” he asked
I explained to him that it will walk up to this back door, where it will wait and may crow or make chuckling noises until someone wakes up to let it out of the house for

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2016)

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Being a baked bean-what next?

I couldn’t see who was below or above me for it was dark. I then heard a cranky noise above, in slow and swift motion. One, two, three, four, I counted in my head as it became louder and louder with each turn. Slowly and steadily the light appeared. I could see a solid piece of metal with a sharp end piercing the roof top. A hairy hand with contoured wrinkles and large solid fingers gripped the two metal rods. I started to smell fried bacon. As the top lifted the sizzle of the fry became more audible.
I felt frightened of what was to come once I was out of this tin.”You cannot trust humans” I murmured. I mulled over all options. I could end up in a pan next to that bacon feeling hot or in a bowl in the fridge freezing. Either way I will be eaten, if not today, tomorrow or the day after. I preferred that to being wasted as a left over or a rot and thrown away in the garbage among strangers.
I felt the tin lift off the bottom and swing in the air. The grip around it felt heavy, it turned the tin into a slant and I looked on as my mates were rapidly being poured onto a plate next to the steamy bacon. Just as my turn came and I was thinking “this is it, I am for eating” the tin was turned to pour into a plastic bowl.
I had a glimpse of my master, a man with a beard and moustache. He had deep set brown eyes and his hair looked scruffy. He smelt fresh like he was just out the shower. I looked into his eyes pleading for mercy but deep down I knew I had no choice; my fate was in his hands.
I glanced sideways and through the bowl and saw the tin, my previous home; ‘Heinz Beanz’, the bold white letters standing against a black and turquoise blue backdrop. I wished I was back in there, safe in the darkness.

 

©Juliet.Lubega (unpublished 2014


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Real Daughter?

She raised her head upwards, looked straight into my eyes and said “Where did you buy these my daughter?”.”At the Ugandan shop in West Green Road” I replied softly. “How do they get here still fresh? She asked as she twisted the green kikuta in which the beans lay. Five pink beans lying there like sleeping beauties. From a garden somewhere in Uganda they had been confined to these pods throughout the eight hour flight to London, before she unceremoniously plucked them out and dropped them into a pan to be cooked.

“I actually don’t know. I seldom see the fresh beans” I replied as I sat down next to her. Mama Ahebwa was a formidable woman. She was tall and huge with very wide hips. A typical Hima, light skinned, beautiful, a large smile and dark gums. Ahebwa was Daudi’s youngest brother, she dotted on him and it earned her the name Mama Ahebwa.

Daudi and I had been married for two years. The wedding took place in Uganda because of the low cost and convenience of carrying out all the traditional marriage customs with our families. We had three weeks annual leave which was spent bogged down in ceremonies and did not get enough time to get to know each other’s families. So when he suggested that his mother comes to London to visit and get to know me better, I had no reservations.

Mama Ahebwa had been with us for two weeks now. She learnt her way around the kitchen very quickly and was active in cooking. She insisted that as long as she was here, there was enough time, and her son had to eat ‘proper’ food. Therefore, we will not eat pasta and sandwiches.

”Do they sell Ugandan millet flour here” she had asked on her first day. “Yes” I replied. “Do you have any in the house?” she continued.”I don’t buy or cook it. We leave very early for work, and have no time to make bushera for breakfast” I replied.

She was silent. Did she expect me to cook breakfast for her son? I wondered. As much as I would like, and maybe even my own mother expected me to, work schedules and life in London was too fast to allow it.

“So what happens in the morning my daughter?” she said with a sinister smile.”We each make our own cereal, tea and toast” I said. There was a feel of honesty in my voice and I hoped she would understand because that was what was going to happen the next day.”I will buy millet flour tomorrow for you Mama” I assured her.

Within two weeks our lives had turned upside down. Mama Ahebwa  woke up earlier than us every day and by the time I was ready to come down , the bushera was ready. “My daughter, your breakfast is ready” she always said without a smile. I sensed she wasn’t happy but let it pass.

I did the cooking as much as she allowed me too, silently and patiently, and bought what she wanted to cook and eat.; matooke,cassava,millet,sweetpotatoes,groundnuts sauce, tilapia fish, cat fish,beans,ugali you name it.  Our shopping budget went through the roof.

 

“For how long are we going to go on?” I asked Daudi. “She is not going to live here for ever” he replied dismissively.”I understand that, we only eat Ugandan food occasionally because it is imported and expensive.” I said. Daudi just looked at me. “Maybe you should have a word with her” I suggested.

Daudi came back from work just as we finished the beans and Mama Ahebwa followed him upstairs. On my way to the bathroom shortly afterwards, I passed by her bedroom, he was in there.

“What sort of wife is this? It is two years and she hasn’t given you a child. She can’t even wake up to make you breakfast .We paid a lot of cows and heavy dowry my son. You should have married Kajuna’s daughter”. Mama Ahebwa said in a serious voice.

“You are right Mama.I regret marrying her. I should have listened to you.” Daudi replied

His words stung like a bee. Fighting back tears I tiptoed down stairs.”I can never be her real daughter. I thought they were talking about food” I murmured under my breath.

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2013)


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West Green Road-Part 2

One, two , three, I counted through my head as the matooke fingers went in my shopping basket. I only buy six fingers to make an additional dish to my meals. I remembered the look on my mother’s face when we first bought counted matooke fingers on West Green Road during her visit to London a couple of years ago. Astonished is an understatement “How can anyone count matooke to cook?” She asked.  She shook her head in disbelief at me counting Matooke. “We are in London and not Masaka”. ”We are even lucky to be able to buy it” I said to her shrieking with laughter. In London, matooke arrives as a mixture of biwagu and minwe in a box. It is sold in kilograms, you either buy the whole box, or count and pick  fingers up to the weight you can afford to buy and consume.

As I was leaving the shop, two women were picking matooke ,looking down inside the boxes. They turned to make way for me to pass. ”Juliet” one of them shouted. I looked at her in puzzlement, her face was known to me but in that split second I couldn’t place it in any part of the universe. It was obvious from waiting to pick matooke that she was Ugandan. She quickly picked up that I didn’t immediately recognise who she was, she then said “Uganda Red Cross”. My eyes and mouth went wide open. “Sande” I shouted, “I am pleased to see you”. Sande was the receptionist at The Uganda Red Cross Society when I worked there 1987-1990.I last saw her in 1990 when I moved to Britain. In 2010 we were meeting on West Green Road.

To know another person of Ugandan origin in Britain is good enough, but to meet one you knew in Uganda is a blessing. Not only do you share an experience, you share a past from back home. “How are you? Where do you live? Do you live in the UK?” the questions came out of my mouth like tongues of flame. “I am here on a visit and I stay with my niece Zawedde on Lordship Lane” She replied, as she introduced me to her niece. “It will be nice to meet up before your visit ends” I said excitedly. “What happened at work when I left?” We all laughed out loud and immediately shut our mouths, when a dark skinned short woman with long hair braids, who was picking bright yellow plantain from a box next to us, gave us a dirty look. “Maybe you can come to my house for an afternoon, and tell me about Kakande, Rob hm hm”I said. Sande and Zawedde burst out and laughed.”Do you remember those men? Rob died a few years ago” She replied. “Oh bambi nga kitalo” Oh too bad, I said sympathetically. I glanced around and realised were beginning to draw attention of the shoppers by our laughter.

The Asian shopkeeper was coming towards us from inside the shop, the look on his face was  piercing. It was a warning to us to move away, we were obstructing the fruit and vegetable area for shoppers. We stepped away from the stall, and after a brief conversation it became clear that we had a lot to talk about; our past life working in the same organisation. I wanted to catch up on every colleague of that era in Uganda Red Cross, and the current life we now lead. We exchanged telephone numbers and I invited her to my house, we agreed to make arrangements on phone. I decided to continue walking, there were a couple of shops a few yards away I needed to visit before hopping on to bus no 41 at the next stop.

My mind occupied by Sande, I began to question my decision to invite her to my house. Until we met that day on West Green road, I only knew her as a work colleague, standing behind the reception desk at the Uganda Red Cross offices at Nakasero. I used say “hello” every morning and speak to her if there was any matter of concern, otherwise we were not friends. My father especially loved to come to my work place. I lived in Kampala at that time and my family lived in Masaka. Whenever he was in town or just wanted to see me, he would travel 2 hrs from Masaka to meet me for lunch in Kampala. At times he came early that he had to wait for me at reception for a considerable amount of time until my lunch break. Offering cups of tea is not really common office practice , there was a tea girl employed to make teas for all staff including receptionists at 10am.So apart from giving my father a seat and notifying me, Sande wasn’t really involved. Our jobs were far apart, I was head of the AIDS Control Programme. I didn’t socialise with her outside of work and none of us knew where each other lived.

This was a start of a new relationship, a new balance of power and I wasn’t sure what the ‘friendship’ would be or if I wanted it. In 2010 had my house become my castle or did I still have the ‘open door to all’ like in Uganda? I debated with myself. I was so immersed in my thoughts wondering whether this is the process of integration, but then I had just bought matooke. I felt a cloud in my brain through which I could hear my Mother’s words of the Baganda saying growing up, ‘Munnyumba temuli kubo’, and ‘there is no path through a home, every one is a visitor’. With no clear answer, I just put it down to imagining if it had been me, what would I have expected if I met another Ugandan from the past? Staring in space  and feeling empty, I startled and nearly lost my balance as my feet felt heavy from the uneven pedestrian pavement. As if waking up from a bad dream, I heard the voice of Adjoa my Ghanaian hairdresser calling me in her West African accent, from the saloon opposite. “Juliet”

After my discussion with Adjoa, I walked on, my thoughts soon drifted back to Sande as if Adjoa had just interrupted a bad dream. My reservations about her arose from an experience I had with Musa, another previous colleague from Uganda Red Cross Society in 1996.I was busy putting last touches to a dinner one dark winter Saturday afternoon. My old school friend Alikisa and her family were coming round for the evening. I had bumped into her three weeks earlier in Wood Green shopping city. We had not seen each other since 1981 after Uganda Certificate of Education (GCSE) when we shared a cubicle at boarding school in Cox House, Gayaza High School. This was a catch up evening and to introduce our children and meet her husband. I was very excited.

“Hello” I answered the phone.”Can I speak to Juliet?” a man asked in a deep coarse voice. “Speaking, may I know who is calling?” “Musa” he replied. “Musa who, if, I may ask?” “Musa you worked with in Uganda Red Cross”. “Oh I remember you? Where are you calling from? Are you in the UK? I asked rapidly to establish where he was. It was extremely unlikely that someone so long in my past would phone me from Uganda, even my family don’t call. The best you can get is a text message asking you to call or a beep indicating you should call. An international phone bill is none of their business. It has never occurred to them that we pay for calls.”I am at London Heathrow” he replied.”Are you at immigration?” I asked apprehensively. “No”.  Musa went on to explain that he had entered the country a few days ago on a business trip, but the hotels at Heathrow were too expensive, and asked  if I could pick him up and to stay with me.

“Oh dear!” I sighed feeling angry.”Where did you get my phone number from anyway? I lashed out. He didn’t answer, though I could hear his hard breathing at the end of the line. I felt a sense of betrayal, anguish and despair. Musa was putting me in a difficult position. He had not contacted me before he left Uganda and I had no idea about his business arrangements. I did have a good relationship with him when we worked together, in fact we were friends. But that was a long time ago and we didn’t keep in touch. Alikisa and her family were due anytime soon. There was no way I was going to cancel my visitors to pick him up at Heathrow. “Does he have any idea how far away I was? This is equivalent to a drive from Masaka to Kampala.”

To be continued…


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West Green Road- Part 1

The atmosphere was absolutely buzzing when I stepped out of Seven Sisters Underground station. Standing at the entrance, on top of the stairs that lead into the station, a man with an unshaven beard was selling the ‘Big Issue’ magazine to passersby. A huge crowd gathered at the bus stop immediately outside the station, three red double Decker London buses in a rugged row boarding passengers to Edmonton Green, Ponders End and as far afield as Waltham Cross. It reminded me of my early morning runs when my daughter  started secondary school in 2002, we made a short walk from our old home on Avenue Road, off West Green Road to get bus no 41 and get to this ever crowded bus stop. I had to make sure she got on the bus no 279 to Waltham Cross. This bus passed by her school, a routine which lasted about two years until she was confident enough to make the journey by herself, push through the crowds and get on the right bus. It seemed long ago now but the bus stop hasn’t changed all these years. A lady dressed in a bright pink frock, her full lips covered in red lipstick and her hair tied in a long pony tail, was trying to get off a bus with a push chair and a toddler holding on to her dress amidst a crowd of rowdy teenagers. “Please may I get through? She asked loudly.

On the next bus in the row an elderly pale faced lady wearing a green and white tartan skirt, and short sleeved white blouse dragging a shopping trolley, was trying to get on being helped by a young well built man with dreadlocks. “She must be coming from Tesco”, I thought to myself. I glanced at the large red bricked Tesco’s supermarket, the land mark of the Seven Sister’s junction, with its head sign “Tesco” in bright red and blue dazzling against the clear blue skyline.  Its large windows facing me like extra large spectacles. I could see the busy cashiers and shop floor displays at a distance through them. I smiled to myself as I thought of the stone just as you enter Tesco it reads; ‘This Tesco store was opened in 1981.The  Royal Wedding’ cited among the list of significant events that took place in 1981’

The first time I saw this stone I was very amused. On this day I watched the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana on a black and white television stuck up high on the dining room wall, at Gayaza High School for the occasion. It was in the middle of Uganda National Certificate of Education mock exams(UCE/GCSE). The English Head teacher, Sheelagh Warren rearranged our exam timetable and gave a day off school to enable the girls to watch the Royal Wedding. At 17 years old I was just happy to have a rare chance at an African boarding school to be part of a world historical day, a history that I now experience when I shop at Tesco Seven Sisters. I didn’t realise what it meant to Miss Warren, even when she proudly announced the birth of Prince William in 1982 in our school Assembly. It was about ‘home’.

It was a bright hot sunny day with a clear blue sky. On the pavement besides West Green Road, the African women in their multi coloured kitengi fabric some of them with matching hair bands stood out from the crowds. They were crossing in and out of shops near the junction; the hair products, wigs, braids, black skin products, the fish market, exotic foods supermarket, vegetables and fruits. The elderly women were gently swaying their shopping trolleys through the pedestrian traffic and heading towards Tesco. A group of young looking girls were looking at the display of hair wigs in the hair shop window. Just as I approached the junction at the start of West Green road, the traffic lights turned red interrupting the flow of the traffic. A big black four wheel top of the range BMW stopped in front of the traffic lights. Its windows were blackened out and I couldn’t work out the occupants, but from inside came gushing out very loud Reggae music. A less familiar sight these days,  since I moved into Tottenham just five years after the Broad Water Farm riots. It reminded me of how much the population landscape of West Green Road has changed over the years. You are more likely to hear a person speaking Luganda, Lingala, Polish, Turkish or Somali among pedestrians these days than loud music playing in blacked out window cars unlike the early 1990s.

From a white van packed on a double yellow line was a medium built Asian looking man off loading food stuffs, looking around every few seconds in case a traffic warden turns up, to  issue him a packing fine. Just next to the van was a short plump woman, with a pale skin and dark blue eyes. Her head was covered by a blue scarf,  and her long dress gave a glimpse of  worn out red sandals .She was pushing a baby in a pram and stretching out her arm to passersby. I looked at the baby peaceful and sound asleep, an innocent soul, oblivious to all of what was going on around. As I passed her, she asked me for 50p to buy milk for her baby. I quickly looked away as I thought it was rather strange she could have no money at all.

I then saw one of the Somali men who own the internet cafe, and phone booths near the zebra crossing towards the end of the shops, walking towards me in long rhythmical strides. Tall, slim, a rather small head and stretched neck. The Nilo-Hamitic features, and long pointed nose made him look like a giraffe about to reach green leaves on top of a tree. He had seen my encounter with the woman. He knew me as I usually go to the cafe to buy international phone cards or make phone calls to Uganda. With a concerned expression on his face he said to me in Luganda “mwegendereze” be careful about her. I nodded my head in agreement and smiled back at him.

I had a few errands to do on West Green Road before I made my way home. First I entered the world food supermarket to get some spices. Whilst inside I drew some money from a public cash machine and exchanged a silent nod with the Asian girl dressed in a blue Sari at the cash till cashier when I paid for my goods, a silent ‘thank you’. As I headed for the bus 41 stop on the right hand side of the road, a slim built man was standing at the entrance of the hair products shop, waving a bunch of bandanas and scarves at me, to buy. I said “No thank you” as I passed him, to get to the next shop and to pick some matooke (green banana) from the outside vegetable and fruit display.

I waited patiently for my turn, as there were two women in-front of me excited to see matooke. One was pointing to the matooke fingers loosely placed in a light brown box and the other looking on, her beaming smile revealing a set of unequal white teeth. The women were quite tanned, wearing ankle length dresses, their long brown hair tied loosely behind their necks. I couldn’t work out what language they were speaking but looked on in amusement and with pride as another population in the UK seemed to be fascinated by what I assumed was a Ugandan staple food. This was flattering I thought, “I have bought matooke in this shop for over 15 years, I had never met anyone outside the Ugandan community near these boxes”. A mixture of excitement and confusion overcame me as I looked at the box where the matooke was to confirm the label; ‘Produce Of Uganda’.  Eventually, I lost patience with myself and asked them “Where are you from?” “Colombia” they answered in unison. I nodded in satisfaction unable to proceed with further questions due to the language barrier .They continued to debate about the matooke .I stood there motionless, and in amazement, visualising in mind where Colombia was on the world map. I then realised it is in South America and part of the Equator belt, it shares a climate and food with Uganda.

My thoughts drifted onto my own Uganda Equator crossing at Nabusanke on the Kampala-Masaka highway, the two white circles and the imaginary line across the road that marked the middle of the Earth. I wondered how the one in Colombia was land marked. What was matooke called in Columbia? The individual matooke names my grandmother taught me as a little girl came flooding in my mind; muvubo, nakitembe, nakinyika,nakabululu. I always admired her for differentiating what was just ‘green banana’ to me. Many times in the boxes at this shop I had tried to name them. Muvubo, the longest or tallest type finger is the only one I could identify from the box although nakabululu on the other end of the scale, short and plump is familiar. Where these women trying to work out the different types of matooke as they knew them in Colombia? I wondered.

As the women disappeared inside the shop, to pay for their pick, still standing in the same spot outside and stunned by what I had just seen. I recalled how enthralled I and my housemates were when we discovered frozen cassava; ‘Produce of Costa Rica’ which tasted like that of Uganda, and Tilapia frozen fish like that from Lake Victoria, ‘Produce of Sri Lanka’ in shops on West Green Road in 1991.This was long before Ugandan food was sold in shops in the UK.  Uganda food started appearing in shops on West Green Road in the mid 1990’s as local shopkeepers in certain areas of London became aware of a local Ugandan population. Ugandan traders first opened grocery shops in East London. We used to travel to Upton Park to buy matooke. Prior to that, in 1991 rumour spread in the community that the green banana from the Caribbean tasted like Matooke. However, it was not as soft and had to be eaten soon after cooking otherwise it would harden further. While trying to buy the Caribbean green banana to improvise for Matooke on West Green Road, we discovered packed frozen cassava, we took a leap of faith and bought it. We could not believe our luck after boiling it, it tasted like that of home. If some Costa Ricans had been watching like I watched the Columbian women, it must have been embarrassing.

My eyes opened to the fact that very different populations in the world had been brought together by food on West Green Road.

 

Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2013)


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The roadside market

Patiently waiting like unsung heroes, the vegetables and fruits have occupied this spot on the Kampala-Masaka highway since time immemorial. Unaware of the time of day, weather or  the corrugated iron sheets roof falling apart over them .They hold on tightly to the vitamins and minerals they provide oblivious to their importance to human nourishment. Some sit in gymnastic rows and columns while others lazily lie on sheets placed to protect them from  the dusty ground. They are organic, and should be proud of that.

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Their masters, are small scale farmers who nurture them in the plots and gardens behind this  mouth watering display. Year after year, they stare at the passing high speed traffic above, pining for cars and lorries to veer off the road towards them to shop.

I have shopped in this market about 25 years on my travels between Kampala and Masaka. There are no safety barriers, so let us celebrate the survival of this roadside market besides the notorious Kampala- Masaka highway.

Juliet Lubega, Unpublished 2013


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Uganda Matooke/Caribbean green banana in London

Uganda Matooke/Caribbean green banana in London

 Matooke is a big bunch of green bananas which grows off the top of a tall stemmed, banana tree supported by very large green leaves .It is grown in a plantation form. In Uganda it is sold or picked from the garden in bunches enkota and divided in portions ebiwagu to determine how many fingers eminwe to cook. In Uganda it is unlikely that anyone would be counting individual fingers eminwe, in the preparation stages. . You get a nkota, and then divide it into biwagu and strip off eminwe to peel with a knife and cook. Traditionally matooke is steamed in fresh stem free banana leaves. After all the fingers are stripped off the bunch, the middle stem on which they grow is then cut into bits, the bits  or alternatively the stems from the fresh banana leaves emizingonyo, are placed at the bottom of the sauce pan or clay pots in the days of my grandmother. To create a steamer water is added to the pan. In a separate preparation, two banana tree fibres ebyayi (stem of the banana tree in dry form) are put in a basket ekibbo and a fresh stem free banana leaf is put on top. The peeled fingers are then placed on the leaf in the basket, covered and secured with the fibre. The preparation is then placed in the steamer. Several stem free banana leaves are covered over the preparation to ensure the steam stays in to cook. The steamer is either placed on three stones over a wood made fire, a hot charcoal stove esigiri. Half way the cooking, the covering leaves are removed and the cooked matooke still securely tied in its banana leaf is placed in a basket, and then mashed through the cooked banana leaf using hands. It is then placed back in the steamer and cooked for a further period of time to ensure flavour and a soft texture.

In London with no fresh banana leaves, the peeled matooke is boiled in a pan, the water drained out and then it is mashed using a wooden spoon or potato masher. Cling film is laid out on top of foil paper separately. The mashed matooke is then wrapped up in the lined foil paper and placed in a pre-heated oven at medium heat for about 1.5 hours to get flavour and a soft texture. It tastes the same.

Ugandan matooke is served with any stew, however the major cooking method is boiling or steaming and very little use of oil. Stews can be made boiled or steamed in pans or a young stem free banana leaf oluwombo placed on top of the matooke preparation in the steaming process.

The Caribbean green banana (fingers) on the other hand is peeled by hand and rubbed with lemon. Separately water in a pan is boiled on the cooker… Oil and salt are added to the boiling water before the peeled bananas is put into the pan; the preparation is cooked until bananas are soft. The water is drained and the bananas served with a steamed fish and vegetables.

Mashed green banana is prepared by adding, boiled bananas to a bowl and crush with a fork or potato masher. Butter, milk, salt and pepper are then added and mashed until smooth. It is served with meat and vegetables.

Green banana porridge is made by; grating the raw bananas. Separately put pan of water on to boil. When water is boiling add grated banana and stir for 4 minutes. After this add milk, spices, vanilla essence and sugar. Continue stirring until the banana takes on a porridge consistency.

By Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2012)©