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©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2018)

 

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Moving on my son?

‘Look after Tom and the home’ those were the last words, she closed her eyes and took the last breath. I took a step forward, towards the hospital bed and placed my sweaty palm over her fore head. I felt a one part cold an another warm as my emotions got mixed up too; hot and cold. She was gone, lifeless and breathless. I looked at the meaningless tubes inserted in her arm. The oxygen mask hanging upside down on the wall, but I knew nothing could have saved her
That was 10 years ago now and nothing seemed different. Every year on this day I heard those same words in my ears, see her face and remember when we met as giggling teenagers at a school disco. I had been staring at her across the hall for about half an hour before I picked up the courage to go and ask her to dance with me. She had felt light and tender in my arms as we swayed from left to right to the gentle sounds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’. The aroma from her perfume filled my nostrils and I felt my stomach turning as her body pressed against mine.
When Tom was born, my life became complete. I had married my dream girl and we had the perfect baby. It fell apart on that dreaded Thursday afternoon March 19th.I was left to raise Tom alone.
‘Dad dinner is ready’ he stood in the door way of my bedroom. I raised my head and attempted a smile
‘Okay, I am coming’.
‘Are you alright’
‘Yes, I am son’
I always tried to hide my sadness from Tom since his mother died but he could read me like a book. The 8-old boy who wept in my arms at his mother’s funeral was now towering above my head. Tall and elegant, cultured beyond his years. As time went by, he wanted to make it more of a celebration and had offered to make the dinner that night, we would have a quiet reflection and look at the family albums later. I listened as he told me the day’s plan.
‘Dad’
‘Yes’
‘Have you thought….’ His voice trailed off like a train wagon in the distance.
There was silence. The knives and forks talked as I cut my chicken quarter leg in half.
‘Thought about what?’
‘Maybe you could…’ he stopped again mid- sentence.
I looked at him, his dark velvet skin shimmered under the light, and that questioning look in his eyes, just like his mother stared at me at the school disco when I asked her to dance all those years ago.
‘Go on tell me’
‘I was just saying’
‘I am listening’
‘About you trying to find another wife’ he paused. ‘I am sure Mum would want you to be happy’
I broke into a smile. He smiled back.

©Juliet.Lubega (unpublished 2018)


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She couldn’t sleep

The night seemed long, very long and tiring. She turned and faced the wall, pulled the covers over her head and her middle finger on the right hand got stuck in a hole. She had noticed the hole when she washed her bedsheets last week. It hadn’t bothered her that much, but tonight her mind was wide awake, more than usual “I need to ask Mama for new bedsheets” she said out loud.
A tiny ray of light pierced through the window curtains and she stretched her arm to read her watch. The time was 2 am, three hours since Rosa got in bed. She had lost count of how many times she had turned in bed looking for sleep. At one point she sat up staring at the ceiling to tire her body, the cloudy white pearl bulb hanging in the middle looked down on her, it had no light and had tired for the night. She longed to be switched off as well, so that she doesn’t have to endure the agonising wait.
She laid on the pillow and pulled the covers over her head, her legs curled together, and her knees raised in a squatting position below. The hole in the sheets reminded her that she hadn’t seen Mama Kokwenda since the war ended. She sold second hand clothes and Mama had bought these floral cotton sheets from her.
Mama Koku as they called her, was a tall, big woman and wore ankle length skirts. She always had a multi coloured kanga scarf tied over her head like an upright haystack and her big lips covered in bright red lipstick. She lived a short distance away from them, near the coffee processing plant, and went around houses with a big red bag full of second hand shoes, dresses, shirts, trousers and bed sheets acquired from whole sellers in Masaka town. They were discarded or donated clothing from far away countries like England, America, Italy and France and arrived in big bales ‘endiboota’ which were then retailed to people like Mama Koku and market traders. It was big business.
Rosa closed her eyes and through the darkness of the eye lids and imagined Mama Koku, with her bag sat on the kanga, balancing on her head talking to her mother in a Tanzanian accent, and struggling to construct Luganda sentences;
“Mama Rosa, I have first class bed sheets, America”
“I don’t have money today” Mama would reply
“You will pay me when you get”
“I don’t know if the children need any bedsheets”
“I have other things”
“Rosa, Kintu” Mama would call us
Kintu, Rosa’s 18year old brother was only interested in anything Nike or Adidas from Mama Koku’s bag.
“I don’t have anything for Kintu today”
Mama Koku would get into the kitchen where her mother would be cooking or washing up or in the lounge if she was sewing her table clothes. She didn’t ever want to break what she was doing when Mama Koku came around because she never stopped talking. She would empty her bag, showing Mama each item, one by one.

“This dress will fit Rosa, it is from Italy. These are my last Hawaii shirts; the boys will like them”

Before Rosa arrived, a pile of dresses and shoes would be waiting for her from all the exotic countries she had studied in Geography lessons at school. She knew where France, America and all the others were on the map and that all these clothes and shoes were worn in the Summer months as Uganda is very hot throughout the year.

Next time she only needed bed sheets from Mama Koku. She was most interested in American sheets for their colourful patterns, they were durable, flat and large, not boxed to fit a mattress. The Vitafoam mattresses did not size up the bed sheets from England.

Her holed pair had lasted nearly 4years.She used them at home in the holidays and never took them to school as she was afraid of gossip behind her back that she had second hand market bed sheets. She was happy with her Jinja material sheets, new and locally made, even school uniform was made of Jinja.
Now in first year at university she had upgraded to the less durable but cheap cotton bed sheets from China which had flooded Kampala shops with the return of the Ugandan Asians on the high street since they had been expelled by Amin in 1972.
Gun fire sounded in the far distance, Rosa jerked, and realised she had drifted off to sleep. Her thoughts turned to the soldier she met earlier in the bar. She remembered the day the National Resistance Army (NRA) came into the town nearly three weeks ago. The single file of soldiers, matching with their guns strapped to their backs and singing. The first time she saw a woman soldier, how new and exciting that was to Uganda and she was speaking her language, Luganda.
“Where are you from?” Rosa asked
“Luwero” she replied
Most of these NRA were from Luwero, where the war had started five years ago; ‘The Luwero Triangle’.
The site of child soldiers (Kadogos) was heart breaking, and their stories of joining the NRA, as abandoned unaccompanied orphans after their villages had been burned down by government forces in the Triangle were chilling.
She felt cold as she recalled her first encounter with a child soldier who wasn’t forthcoming with information about himself. She had not bothered to ask his name because he seemed extremely angry, his face pale and eyes bloodshot. Instead she had offered him a sugar cane, Mama had just bought from Siragye, the hawker as life was beginning to get back to normal
Then there was this soldier she met earlier that day. There was something about him, he said he was not from Luwero. He was not like the others she had met before and didn’t want to see her tomorrow.
“Did he answer my last question?” Rosa spoke out loud and her words echoed through the silent night.
“No, he didn’t” she replied herself.
Her emotions were running high and she felt a headache and her forehead was sweaty.
She closed her eyes to try and get some sleep, but she couldn’t shake him off. She mulled over the events of the evening and could see his face, his smile and that pistol stuck under his belt through the darkness.
What was his name? She didn’t ask him and didn’t know why.
The soldier she served had called him Afande but that is a tittle. She still didn’t know his name.
The cock’s crow outside hit her ears, followed by the birds twittering. It was 6 am and she hadn’t slept

 

© Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2017)

 


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The Meal

“The guests are arriving in just under two hours”
Rose chops the red peppers on top of the pine board.
Her sharp blade slices through the cover, and swings with ease through the hollow middle.
The sliced red pieces look like flower petals fallen apart.

Birabwa drops the pan covers on the tiled floor
They sound like Church bells on a Sunday morning.
Music echoes in the air, and cuts through the busy atmosphere
Abana ba Afrigo batuuse.

Tom stirs through the beef stew with a wooden spoon
His waist swaying to the beat

Nambi wraps the matooke into foil paper and
Puts it in the heated oven.
She goes to assist Helen stuff the minced meat into the samosa covers.
Its aroma of fresh onion and coriander tickles her nostrils.

Rose puts three big spoons of coconut oil in the pan.
The furious flame under the pan melts it in a few seconds.
She adds onions, tomatoes, and rose coco beans before salt, curry and chilli powder.

The rice simmers in the rice cooker, the yellow sweet potatoes can be seen through the glass as steam permeates their peeled bodies.

While the oil on the frying pan continues to bubble next to him,
Mutebi rolls over the dough into a flat chapatti.

The clock above his head ticks to 1 pm.

Balungi and Rachel are laying the table, the noise from the plates and cutlery gets to Matt’s ears, he is preparing hot water in the pan to make the Ugali.

“Fifteen more minutes” Rose informs everyone. “Start on the Ugali Matt”.

 

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2017)

 

 

 


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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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This is a secret

What?

I said it is a secret

What if she finds out?

She will not find out?

She may, you never know

Who will tell her?

She doesn’t need to be told

How will she find out then?

The way you act

Act?

Yes, I mean your actions

Like what?

Your eyes

What about my eyes?

They wander over my body

What is wrong with that?

It is suggestive?

Of what?

Of the way you see me

I just look

It is more than that.

How?

It shows the way you feel

Don’t you know?

What?

Actions speak louder than words.

 

©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2016)