Juliet Lubega


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The Return

19th December 2012.The tall and big rectangular white billboard among numerous small ones, zoomed in front of us as we approached the muram (earth) feeder road off the Kampala-Masaka highway; ’King’s College Budo, Budo Junior School-Gakyali Mabaga’ the red letters stood bold and firm against the white background like an older brother protecting a young one.
I smiled at the same old address P.O. Box 1712 Kampala. An address that was at the fore front of my memory as I wrote letters to my parents complaining of hunger, the bad school food of the 1970’s and reminding them of the visiting days. I turned to my mother, who was sitting behind me in the car and said, “I think you remember the address well”. She smiled and nodded in agreement.
My daughter asked her “Jajja how did you send Mum to a school so far from Masaka?”
“It is one of the best schools” she answered.
“Didn’t you miss her?” she continued.
“Off course I did but it was what was best for her”
“Mum, would you have wanted to send me to boarding school in England?” she asked me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t for two reasons. First, I can’t afford it; boarding schools in England are very expensive. It is not the sums of money we are talking about here in Uganda. Most important; and one of the main reasons I am taking you to see my school is: in the time I have lived in England I have had to be defensive about attending a boarding school so young. I learnt quite early on that I shouldn’t talk about it. If I am being honest, I feel cheated that I should be made to feel ashamed of that part of my upbringing, a background I should be incredibly proud of and what made me the person I am today. The place of boarding schools in Ugandan society is very different from England. Jajja did not take me to boarding because she ‘didn’t want responsibility’ and I don’t feel ‘unloved’ or ‘neglected’ as a child.”
There was absolute silence while I poured out my explanation. My voice croaking and breaking as my impaired speech struggled to contain the emotion. I recalled the struggles and sacrifices my parents had made to bring me here in their quest for my education: no holidays, no days out or luxuries, my mother only bought a new dress probably once a year, she saved her teachers’ salary to pay my fees.
”What?” Isa, our driver asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
” Apparently so” I replied.

 

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2018)

 

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The Invisible Web

She was chatting to Maggie as they appeared through the door way. I couldn’t hear what she said but Maggie nodded in reply. I knew straight away she was the new girl joining the team. Her tall figure towered up to the ceiling, I looked up and for the first time realised how low the ceiling was. Various fans hanging off its white paint, rotated in swift motion pumping cold air for the staff busy at their desks below. The temperatures were soaring outside, the sky clear blue and cloudless.
As they approached my desk, her dark velvet skin shimmered. Behind her forehead was a scarlet band that held her long braids firmly behind her neck and they dangled onto her back with patience. She was wearing a red sleeveless blouse with a white petal collar that sat on top on the waist band of her long pencil skirt.
I turned back to my computer screen pretending I hadn’t seen them. I laid my right hand on the cursor and then realised that my thumb was trembling. I opened Microsoft Word and started typing ‘To whom it May Concern’ but I could hear their voices and footsteps as they approached me.
Before I could think of another word Maggie said;
‘Can I introduce you to Amooti?’ Graham.
‘Amooti this is Graham, he will show you everything?’
I looked up at Amooti’s face, she had a glint in her eyes.
‘Nice to meet you and welcome to the team’ I said.
‘Nice to meet you too’ she replied, breaking into a large smile revealing her dark gums.
I had been volunteering for a small charity UK based Charity, Grace, for Old People in Western Uganda during my gap year before going to University some years ago and knew about the name ‘Amooti’. A unisex pet name among the Batoro and Banyoro tribes. My colleagues in the Charity had given me a pet name ‘Akiki’ and now that I was back in UK I had never used it again.
Amooti sat down on a desk next to mine clutching her handbag on her lap. I had helped Maggie put up her desk top and wire it to our joint printer.
Her hands looked delicate with red nail polish on her finger nails. I looked at her long legs stretched below the desk.
‘Do you want a cup of coffee? I was about to make one.’ I asked
‘Yes please, thank you’ she replied’
I was starting to gasp for breath talking to her and began to panic at what was happening to me. I felt a loud voice in my head saying ‘no’. No to what? I couldn’t it figure out.
I stood up and started walking towards the pantry and as I took my first step, I turned my head and said.
‘Empako yawe’
She looked at me, eyes lit with excitement and shock. I had taken her to a place she didn’t expect.
‘You speak my language’? she asked.
‘Just a little bit’ I said. Patting my left palm on my chest to signal ‘me’. ‘This muzungu lived in Fort Portal’
‘Amooti, kandi eyaawe?’ she asked
‘Akiki’ I replied
She started shaking her head in amusement and before she could find her words. I turned my back on her and walked towards the pantry, smiling from ear to ear.
I felt like I was being woven in an invisible web of inexplicable emotions.

 

© Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2018)


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My ancestral home

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The drops of rain hit my window on this cold and dark January morning. I long for them to clear the snow which had been falling over the last few days. I turn to face the wall thinking of the summer months, hot, like in the land of my ancestors. It was the home of my grand father, where my father grew up and, I was born there in 1964.

The elegant banana trees tower below the sky, and their ever dark green leaves spread out like cobwebs. They shield the drying beans, wrapped in their shrinking pods from the scorching sun at this time of year. They protect the secrets of a family too. It is the final resting place of our fallen.

Some graves are un- marked; others are names with stories told by those who met them. In my mind, I can touch the faces of my three sisters while I walk through the plantation. Their laughter echoes through my ears. The good and sad times we shared are memories I hold on to in my sleep.

I shut my eyes and stop to greet Alice, the youngest. Eighteen years was too soon to go. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of her. Where would she be living? What would be her job? Would she be married? What about her children? It wasn’t to be.

I arrive at the tall palm tree. I know it is the place where our house used to be. I sat here playing with my dolls made of dry banana stems, ebyayi, their square heads without hair or eyes, with straight arms and no legs. I was oblivious to the world I now live in, where they walk and talk.

My mother was usually seated yards away, and often glanced her watchful eyes over my play. Weaving her bright coloured wool thread into patterns of artistic crotchet, her hands moved in rhythmical strides.

Whilst I lie in bed, thousands of miles away, across the seas and no earth road besides a matooke plantation. My ancestral home, Bubango village is forever in my heart.

 

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2017)

 


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‘To my Daddy’

 

She lifted up the mattress, her hand slid to tuck in bottom bed sheet and her fingers touched its edges. It felt foreign to be under the mattress as she couldn’t recall putting or seeing anything there before. She pushed her hand further beneath and it felt, smooth and straight. Her fingers quivered at the sharpness. The surface appeared small with a flap, so she pulled out the small blue envelope and it flipped open.

A lined paper was folded and a picture of a young girl inserted inside. She pulled out the picture. The girl looked about 5 years old, same as her own Maria. She was dark skinned, her hair was in single plaits with yellow, red and white beads scattered at the edges. The eyes were deep and large. Her white dress matched with her smile and sandals. She turned to the back, the words ‘Meme 5 years old’ were written in red ink. She felt her knees weaken below the skirt and sat down on the bed. Her hands trembled as she opened the paper.

She started reading, her eyes quickly skipped from word to word as the warm liquid filled their sockets. Soon tears were streaming down her face. It was to her Kaku, the husband of 15 years and 3 children.

The assignment to Uganda had been full of excitement. In the 5 years, Kaku was the Director of Operations in the East African region, they had lived in the up market Kololo suburb of Kampala. They had spent their holidays touring the National Parks and admiring the landscape from the savannah plains in the North to the cascading hills of Kabale, in the South West .The Rwenzori mountain range on the western boarder, to the Elgon mountains  on its boarder with Kenya.  They had a team of dedicated staff, from drivers to home helpers. Life was perfect.

She turned her eyes to the bottom of the page. It was signed by Birungi. There was no picture but recalled her as one of the 6 home helpers she had employed with special duties to look after the children. She had not stayed long, and terminated her contract after 6 months. To her surprise, Birungi hadn’t complained when she reduced her pay for breaching her terms of employment. She didn’t think any thing of it until now that she was holding a letter to her husband.

In the letter, Birungi said, she hadn’t heard from Kaku for 6 months, and her housing contract was coming to an end. She needed to pay the landlord and was struggling with the upkeep of his daughter after clearing all her school fees.

Tears continued to stream down her face as she realised that caring for children in her house gave home helpers access to most of the bedrooms. She stuck out her tongue and tasted the bitterness of the truth with the salty liquid. A picture of Kaku and Birungi lying naked in hers, or their children’s beds clouded her head. “No!”, she squealed at the betrayal and deceit.

A tear dropped on the smaller letter splattering on the words; ‘To my Daddy’

 

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2017

 

 

 


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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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Idi Amin ; A legacy or curse?

Idi Amin Dada, Africa’s most notorious dictator of the 1970’s.The 3rd President of Uganda since its independence from Britain in 1962.With virtually no formal education he rose through the ranks of the army from the colonial Kings Rifles through to being trained at Sandhurst (UK), until he seized power in a military coup from a civil government in 1971.He put Uganda and her people on the International stage for all the wrong reasons.
Idi Amin is the greeting that you get on the streets of Tottenham in North London when you introduce yourself as coming from Uganda. Very little tourist information is known about this small African state, the hospitality of its people and sense of community, the richness of its culture and language and its ever green vegetation.
Set at the Equator and nicknamed “the Pearl of Africa”, Uganda is home to the world’s highest mountain range, the Mountains of the Moon in the Ruwenzori National Park. It is the source the River Nile, the second longest river in the world, and it has the highest concentration of primates on earth, including the majestic mountain gorilla, one of the rarest animals on the planet. It is safer to say you are from Kenya or Tanzania, to avoid the reference to Idi Amin.
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Nagawa was born in London in 1991. Idi Amin’s Uganda bears little relevance to her. To this British born young girl, the story of Idi Amin as told in the film ‘The Last King of Scotland’ is the nearest she will ever get to understand.
I was busy typing away the corrections of my story from the creative writing course that I didn’t notice the shadow of Nagawa as she turned to open the front door. She was returning from an overnight stay and her school friend’s house in South London. “Hello Maama?” she said as her light brown face peered through the living room door where I was working. ”Hello, how are you? Did you enjoy the party and how is Kukuwa?” She sat in the brown leather sofa, fiddling with the bunch of keys and staring at me with a blank face. “What is the matter? I asked.
She recited what had happened at the party, at her Ghanaian friend Kukuwa’s house. When she introduced herself as coming from Uganda, the adults at the party wanted to know about Idi Amin. What did you say? I asked. “All I know about Amin is in the Last King of Scotland” she replied
I felt pain in my heart as I realized that the Idi Amin trail had found my daughter as she mixed in the social circles of the UK. I looked her and wondered how she was going to cope with the endless questions about Idi Amin and whether there was any possibility of this chapter in Uganda’s past fading from the world history. I realized how living in another country has brought us closer to this part of life we would rather stay away from, read about in books or watch in films.
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In Uganda, Idi Amin has been forgotten. His existence is firmly placed in the country’s history. During a family holiday in December 2012 I and my children visited the refurbished Mengo Palace, following the airing of the BBC 3 documentary ‘Under Cover Princess’ in 2010 that featured the Buganda Princess Cinderella Nvannungi. Formerly the official residence of the Kabaka of the Buganda Kingdom, it had been turned into the notorious Lubiri military barracks after the abolition of the Kingdoms in 1967.It holds now the derelict Idi Amin torture chambers where more than 300000 Ugandans are believed to have been electrocuted to death and their remains dumped in the nearby man made Lake;Kayanja ka Kabaka to feed crocodiles that were bred there. As the short dark well spoken man, our guide took us on a tour of the site, he informed us that it was a major attraction to tourists and we were shortly joined by 4 Kenyan tourists. He expected a group of German tourists in the coming hours. That was the only brush with the Idi Amin for the month we spent in Uganda.
However, The Last King of Scotland was waiting for us on board a British Airways return flight to London Heathrow in January 2013.A reminder of the inquiries and explanations about Idi Amin, Ugandans of all generations are faced with outside the country.

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2014)


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A unique city – Kampala,December 2012

It had been 20 years since I was in Uganda in December. The 20th of December in Kampala was a world away from London I and my children had left two weeks ago . The bitter cold wind, foggy mist , twinkling lights on the roadside light poles, lonely Christmas trees in open parks, decorations sparkling in every shop window, shoppers carrying bags of presents, Santa red and white fleece hats on sale and workers planning office parties to see their managers drunk.
Driving around Kampala all you could hear was occasional bursts of Christmas songs, like Sekukulu eyasokera ddala by the late Philly Lutaya or the timeless Mary’s boy by Bonny M from music shops. It was business as usual.
The sun was hot and unforgiving. The air was cloudy and filled with dust. The roads were full of pot holes but busy; mini buses packed with people, police men and women dressed in white manning congestion hot points and failed traffic lights. The boda boda motorcycles were whizzing around, squeezing between cars like termites, carrying people and goods.
A boda boda surged to over take us with woman passenger carrying a baby tied to her back. “Look Mum” my daughter shouted pointing at them. “They would be arrested in London” I replied. “Social Services would take the baby” she continued.
For my children this was the most unusual build up to Christmas they had ever experienced. They sat in silence as we drove past Makerere University. “This is my University” I said pointing to the main gate. “Oh yes, I remember we went inside during our last visit in 2001” my daughter said.
A new shopping mall has been built opposite the gate. I could see the colourful displays of dummies dressed in the latest fashion outfits, made to attract University students. “I can imagine spending all my money in this shopping mall in my days here”. I said. Its tinted glass walls were shining in the blazing sun, but there was no sign of the Christmas spirit.
“I haven’t seen a single decoration so far” my daughter said. “People here don’t decorate” I replied. “I can’t imagine what a tree with lights outside would look like in the hot weather” I continued. They both laughed. “I have never seen anyone selling a Christmas tree”. I said. “Do they grow them?” my son asked. “Hedges, sedero is what you can use to make a Christmas tree” I said. “With no decorations?” my daughter asked. “When I was young, I remember my mother putting cotton wool and some glitter, if she ever  made a tree” I replied.

Same old Kampala, not fussy about Christmas decorations, cards or presents.

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2014)