JUST BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T WIN by Nyana Kakoma
You will know you have reached Kiwamirembe Trading Centre when the taxi turns around and makes as if to take you back where you came from. By then, you will most likely be the only passenger in the taxi, the others having gotten off one by one at busier towns along the way. There will be a road sloping down to your left and a slight uphill climb on your right. Take the big, dusty road on your right.
Because you are new to the place, all the shop-keepers at the trading centre will stop what they will be doing and unashamedly stare. Some will whisper questions under their breath about who you might be and wonder who you could be looking for. If you so much as stop and allow your eyes to dart around in confusion Maama Dhikusoka, in a shrill voice which startles more than assures, will call out and ask how she can help you.
“Have you lost your way?” she will ask.
Your eyes might dart around some more, shocked by the attentive audience, but your brain will hopefully remember and allow your mouth to say, “I am looking for the village hall. I have a case to hear there.”
There will be a moment of conspiratorial silence. They will hesitate to help you, an outsider, called in to judge one of their own. But then they will remember the grudges they have against me and they will tell Maama Dhikusoka to give you directions. “You go on straight ahead. It’s the unfinished building with brown bricks. There is even a big guava tree in its compound. You can’t miss it.” They will then all close their shops and follow you to the village hall.
You will go past a dog tied to a tree like a goat. That is Maguja, the village bitch. If it is a cold afternoon, she will be lying down on her side, her huge, dirty tits cluttered in front of her like shoes outside a mosque. She will be deep asleep or her eyes will be half-closed bargaining for sleep. If it is a hot day, she will be howling like a wolf and trying hard to tear herself away from the tree.
These people believe my problems began the day Maguja bit me. It is always about a bitch after all, isn’t it? Maguja used to roam around freely, zigzagging across the road like a man in a drunken stupor. All the children knew her – she was there for as long as they could remember – and so she was never the kind of dog they were afraid of. Shop owners grudgingly threw her the scraps remaining from the little they ate.
At one time we were the best of friends, Maguja and I. Whenever I went out to the nearby forest to collect firewood or to the nearby swamp to collect clay to make bricks, Maguja went with me. It always felt like we were up to some huge hunting expedition. People got so used to seeing us together that when I was not seen with her they asked, “Did Maguja also finally get tired of you?”
The morning Maguja bit me is one that confuses me to date. People say I drank so much the evening before that I urinated all over myself. If I were you I wouldn’t believe that story. People here say all sorts of things about other people. I do remember, though, that for every step I took after downing my last glass of waragi the ground whirled under my feet and with every step I took the ground asked me, “Why bother?” I was determined to get to my bed but my head could not take the whirling and, eventually, the ground won. And so I lay down in Maama Mangada’s compound and tried to sleep. But sleep goes to people who are nicely tucked in their beds, their dreams warm and secure, so I ended up spending most of the night swatting mosquitoes away and begging Maama Mangada to let me into her house so I could sleep better. As soon as the sun came up I asked Seruyange, the boda boda man near Maama Mangada’s place, to take me home. After making me promise that I would indeed pay him his 500 shillings upon arrival, reminding me how hard it had been for me to pay him the last time, we set off.
It was a warm morning and Maguja was roaming around, begging for breakfast from the shopkeepers with her eyes. It must have been the rev of the boda boda that interrupted her begging because, overcome with what could have been a thousand demons, Maguja began to howl and chase after the boda boda. It was funny at first, seeing her not leisurely trotting but, for once, running full throttle like a real dog. I lifted my legs and taunted her, “Oh, look who can run!” Some shopkeepers sat up straight on the benches on their verandas, craned their necks, while others ran to the roadside and cheered Maguja on. Their cheers must have encouraged her because Maguja and her demons then grabbed at my pants and began to tear me off the boda boda. Seruyange tried to go faster but Maguja had me. “Maguja, Maguja, Maguja!” I tried to sternly call off her madness but she had me. Seruyange tried to go even faster. I jerked backwards, lost my grip on his waist and fell off the bike, hit my head on the dusty, hard road and Maguja made off with a chunk of my leg. Howling like I was possessed by Maguja’s demons, I cried out for help to a stunned crowd. When they finally shook off their shock, they thought of ways to get me to a doctor. Seruyange, more annoyed about his money than the mad chase with Maguja, first refused to take me. Who wanted to ride a man as cursed as I obviously was?
“Seruyange, consider this your service to the Virgin Mary and take the poor man to hospital.”
“No one invites problems onto themselves. This could have been anyone.”
“Waaaaa! This could never ever be me. I do not drink whatever little money I have!”
“Let’s deal with the man’s problem now. He shall pay the debt after. How will people from neighbouring villages hear that we abandoned a man who had been bitten by a dog?”
After they collected money amongst themselves and handed it to Seruyange, he agreed to take me to the nearest health centre 6 kilometres from Kiwamirembe. Maama Dhikusoka offered to go with me. The entire way to the health centre, she reprimanded me for my alcohol breath and ignored the fact that I could not feel my leg. At the health centre, my wound was cleaned and I was given something to relieve my pain but they said they did not have the medicine that could protect me from Maguja’s demons. Back home, Maama Dhikusoka reported everything as it had happened and people began to watch me closely, looking for signs and waiting for the moment I would get possessed by Maguja’s demons, stick my tongue out and howl like a wolf.
This is the story you will probably hear as they walk behind you to the village hall. It is one they tell each other over and over again.
You will see the unfinished building with brown bricks after a short walk. There will be children playing under the guava tree and a couple of people will have gathered in the hall already. You will greet them and they will answer you in a unison of unintelligible mumbles. The hall, which is just a handful of benches, will, despite being unfinished, be stuffy with all those people trying to fit in at once. There, at the table in the front of the hall, I will be seated, waiting for my trial for having tried and failed to put myself into a sleep I could not wake up from.
A throng of gossiping villagers in your wake, your eyes scurrying around nervously, the village elders will rush to your side to welcome you, excitedly pumping your hands in greeting and only later will they remember that you are here for a solemn occasion.
Is this the first of its kind for you? They do this sort of thing, our elders. Calling in an outsider to come and help them decide whether the naked man who was found carrying a neighbour’s bunch of bananas ought to be sentenced to manual work for as long as they see fit or if the woman who starved her stepson should be banished from the village market until she finds her soul. I doubt though that all those sessions prepared them for the day I was found kicking and choking, my bed sheet around my neck.
I remember the first time my twin brother and I saw a dead body. It was an uncle of ours, our mother’s brother. Our father, having been recently widowed and not trusting anyone to look after us well, decided to travel to my mother’s village with us. It was the greatest adventure of our lives as we had never left our village before. The banana plantations beside the road looked like they were chasing the car we were in and, while the older people cursed the driver under their breaths, my brother and I competed to claim whatever other car we saw on the road as our own. My brother was faster and so he ended up owning two or three cars more than me that day.
Having found his dead body hanging in his bedroom, our uncle’s family and other villagers rid him of his clothes and wrapped him in bark cloth to make an example of him. We got there when all the men were still getting ready to make this example. My father, before anyone else could and without hesitating, grabbed a cane from a bystander and went into the house to flog some sense into the dead body. It could have been because he had recently lost his wife and could not understand how one would widow another so willingly or it could have been because he did not get on so well with his deceased brother-in-law. My brother and I stood where we could see everything. Our dead uncle’s tearful wife stood at a distance surrounded by other women as she fought so hard not to be seen crying for a man who obviously had not valued his life. We were at first amused by the whole thing. The body lay still when the beatings began to rain down on it but, as the men raised their reprimanding voices, it bounced around with each flog. We stood with our hands held together in mortification, half expecting the dead body to ask for forgiveness. But no plea for forgiveness was heard, even when the bark cloth in which the body was wrapped began to tear. The men only stopped when their sweaty shirts clung to their bodies.
The buzz in the hall dies down and they all stare at me. The men cannot stop shaking their heads. “I have seen him arguing with himself!” Lukwago tells his friends, who shake their heads as if what happened is just too inconceivable for them. The women clap their hands and turn to each other in utter bewilderment.
Senkantuuka, one of the village elders, calls the room to order and, with face drawn, introduces my case.
“Kato here tried to take his life. This very dear gift of life that Our Almighty God granted us this Kato tried to take. By God’s mercies, he was found hanging in his hut before he was successful and I believe the Almighty wants to make an example of him. I ask a few people in the audience to say some few words and then we shall proceed.”
The crowd breaks into loud murmurs but I cannot make out what they are saying. They turn to each other and ask questions whose answers I think I have. In the first row I can see Byenkya’s wife, Maria, in a faded yellow VOTE NRM shirt. On it a faded picture of our beloved leader in a hat stares at me and, from his smirk, I wager to think he does not judge me. Byenkya is the richest farmer in our village. A self-made man, a man of few words, they say of him. Of his wife, well, we call her the bowl on account of all the men she has slept with (and is willing to sleep with). Men point at her and say, “Yiiiiyiiii! Even me, she gave me and I took. It is only children who have not dipped into that bowl.” Others have called her ekigaali, that make-shift bicycle that young boys use before they learn to ride a real one. With a rich husband and the most beautiful face it puzzles all of us why she is the village bowl. Some men have been known to grudgingly sleep with her because, they say, “Surely her husband’s cobra must be dysfunctional, otherwise why would she so freely give?” Maria looks at me and smiles a taunting smile. She probably thinks she is the reason I tried to put myself to sleep so I could not wake up.
You see, Maria offered herself up to me three days ago. I was seated at Maama Mangada’s, drinking my sorrows away. They were great sorrows and I was on a mission to drown them. Maria sat next to me, grabbed my hand and started running it up and down her thigh. I pride myself in being one of those men who quickly notices when God sends me something that even I didn’t know I needed. A woman would be perfect to drown my sorrow into, I told myself, and thanked God. I asked Maama Mangada to get the woman anything she wanted to drink and, a few minutes later, I excused myself to the pit latrines. You see, I had noticed that my cobra, untempted by the free prey in front of me, was dead asleep. Ah! These were big sorrows indeed because, as much as I begged, my cobra refused to rise. As I angrily walked out of the latrine I found Maria waiting for me, smiling sheepishly. She walked towards me. “Go away! Why do you never keep your legs together?” I angrily asked as I walked past her. My rejection must have puzzled more than annoyed her. Because who am I to have walked to the well and rejected waters so sweet no other pot could dare resist? And now there she sits with a glint in her eyes, obviously amused at what she believes my rejection of her led me to do.
Her husband stands up to be the first to speak. He hands over his last born son (a child who we have all noticed looks like his neighbour Senkandwa) to his wife and straightens himself up.
“I get extremely annoyed when I see young men like this one here take their lives and fortune for granted. You all know me – I have seen quite a bit in my lifetime and very few things annoy me but this recklessness extremely infuriates me. As you all know, I had nothing and well, now, Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin have given me some few things. But look at this man with all the energy we all wish we had squandering it! It must be these things they drink, these children. And the grass they chew like goats. In our day we didn’t do that and look at us now. This grass is altering their thinking! What a disgrace! What a waste of youthful energy!”
His disgust joins the others’ and my shame is presented to me, naked like a man on the day he is born. Maama Dhikusoka stands up quickly to follow. She clutches her chest and says how her heart breaks when she sees me.
“I saw this boy just here the other day. When his poor mother died we, the whole village, chose to take him and his brother as our own children. I raised them with my own Dhikusoka. I saw them just here the other day, running around naked and urinating on sand, rolling the wet sand after into balls they pretended were mandazi. Just the other day, here, I smacked them for their foolishness when I caught them peeping over the bathroom as my neighbour’s daughter bathed. Just the other day.”
Her voice begins to shake and her disgusted eyes well up.
**“Your poor father must be turning in his grave for bringing such shame to his name!”
She suddenly seems to remember that she is perhaps not one to judge. After all she is the mother of the village outcast, Dhikusoka. She lowers her voice and the disgust leaves her eyes.
“Maybe we can’t blame him. He grew up almost alone. His father died when he was barely a man. Maybe Kato should not be blamed.”
Senkandwa immediately rises and waves his hands wildly.
“No. No. No! Is he the first orphan? Is he the only one who has known the sorrow of growing up alone? He isn’t! We all move around with sorrows that burden our hearts so much that, if we were not men, we would not even stand before you. And yet we try. We show up every day. In our gardens, in village meetings, to our shops, we show up! This boy is just a useless woman!”
As Maama Dhikusoka takes her seat, her head bowed, I remember her story and smile to myself. Eh! That woman tried to beat the idiocy out of us. The day we were caught peeping over Nantongo’s bathroom as she bathed should have caused her to worry more about her son than us because, while my brother Wasswa and I stood on our toes for a good look, Dhikusoka stood away from the bathroom, uninterested in seeing what Nantongo hid beneath her skirt. He talked like a girl, between his teeth as if he was afraid to hurt the words that came through them. He thrust out his chest as he walked and hung his hand at the elbow as if holding a rotten fish. When Nantongo’s breasts began to rise on her chest we waylaid her on the way to the well and stared at them, longing to touch them and still Dhikusoka remained uninterested. Before long the village was talking, calling him a misfit, a thing, a curse that wanted to devour men. They called him dirty and prayed to God to deliver him. They pitied his mother, the poor widow – maybe the death of his father had led him to that. One day the village woke up to no Dhikusoka. His mother, in feigned excitement, told everyone who could hear that she had sent him to the big city to make a life for himself. We grew weary of asking about him and he became that thing that was never talked about.
I cannot tell whether Mama Dhikusoka now cries tears of joy, relieved that her son’s shame pales in comparison with mine. I catch Maama Namu speaking.
“…even Mzee Kityo, just down the road here is ailing. That man is so old some of us have never seen his back straight and yet he fights for his life even now, now on his deathbed.”
This makes me laugh – a loud jovial laugh which makes all of them go quiet and confirms my madness. She speaks of him as if he’s a stranger. Of course I know Mzee Kityo. He was a friend to my father. Since he got ill I have been visiting him, helping his granddaughter fetch water from the well as she cannot leave him by himself. Just last week he asked me why they would not let him go. He is tired. He has lived his life so why are they letting him die in shame? Treating him like a child yet he was once a man who had looked after himself. “Why won’t they let me die?” he had weakly croaked. I wish I could repeat this conversation to them but I am so amused by all this that I just clutch my stomach and laugh.
My laughter dies and, when I look through the crowd, I see Wasswa at the back of the room. He showed up, for the first time since he’d left, the afternoon our father was buried and disappeared shortly after. We did not speak at all that day; there was nothing to say. Wasswa left home a long time ago, while we were still boys. My father always said it was because he had failed to look after us that Wasswa left. I stayed and worked on our farm and yet, with each passing day, our father failed to acknowledge that I had stayed. He said Wasswa may have found a way out for us, a better life, maybe in the city and he believed that he would come back for us one day. That did not happen and our father died of a weakened heart because his beloved son left him and I was not enough.
For several days now, Wasswa has been coming to our home more often. At first I refused to acknowledge his presence, of course. Why was he suddenly interested in the life he himself had abandoned? Why was he showing up after our father had died of a broken heart? I chose to ignore him but everywhere I went he followed me, telling me how useless I was and how he blamed me for not looking after our father’s land. He asked that I sell it to a more deserving person who would develop the land and make a fortune for themselves. To the garden, to Maama Mangada’s and once to the village meeting he followed me. Three days ago, after a bitter exchange with him, I sat in the doorway of our house and thought about my father and how Wasswa’s departure had slowly killed him and how his reappearance in my life was beginning to kill me. That is the day the desire to put myself into a sleep I would never wake up from was born in me.
I hold Wasswa’s gaze at the back of the hall, looking for any sign of shame or guilt in him. He stands, unmoved and unnoticed. I startle you as I point him out to you. Surely, let him for once not get way with the pain he has caused me. You follow where I am pointing and ask what I am pointing at. “It’s Wasswa, my brother!” I say. “He is the reason for all this.” I see the confusion in your eyes and watch it spread to the rest of the room.
The moment the confusion in your eyes turns to pity, I figure out what you are going to tell me. It is something I have heard people say when strangers ask about my twin brother. You are going to tell me that he is dead, that he died beside me when we were 11 years old while we slept. That our father found us, one twin dead while the other slept soundly through his brother’s death. And yet here he stands, unmoved and unnoticed, getting away with all the pain he has caused.
Nyana Kakoma (@nyanaKakoma) has worked in the media industry in Uganda since she was in college as a reporter, columnist, sub-Editor and Magazine Editor. She is now on sabbatical from the media to concentrate on the fictional stories she needs to tell. Her work has previously been published under the name Hellen Nyana.
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