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©Juliet Lubega (unpublished 2018)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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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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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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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)