“Onen and his Daughter” by Dilman Dila

Onen and his daughter


Onen peddled fast over the brown rooftops, through the low hanging clouds that swept down from the mountains, bringing a chill to the village, promising a storm that could stop him from seeing his daughter before she died.

He had not seen her in twenty years. He had tried to talk to her, to tell her that he did not kill her lover, but she had refused to answer his calls. Now, she wanted to see him.

He used all the strength in his eighty year old body to push the bruka, but the ornithopter was too old, too rusty. Its wings had big holes. It could not go fast enough. Tears stung his eyes, clouding his vision, putting him at risk of crashing into the mwiko trees that stood like little mountains above the village. He might crash and end up like his dear little girl Anena.

The call had come as he sat on a papyrus mat in his living room, drinking beer from a calabash. It interrupted an old movie on the vidisimu, a twenty-one inch gadget that the government supplied for free. It was illegal not to have one. It combined all the functions of the luxurious gadgets in his pre-teen years, radio, TV, phone, computer, items his peasant parents had never imagined to own. A nurse had appeared on the screen, behind her was a maternity ambulance entangled in a mwiko tree, half of which was burnt.

“It’s your daughter,” the nurse had said.

Even before she said the name, Onen stiffened, his fingers squeezing the calabash so hard that he felt pain. He did not know that Anena had joined the maternity services. He could not concentrate on the face of the nurse. He kept looking at the background, trying to see if indeed it was Anena in the wreckage.

“She wants to see you,” the nurse had added.

“Anena?” he whispered, but the microphone, though over ten feet away, picked it up, and relayed it to the nurse.

“Yes,” the nurse said. “There was an accident. She was racing to answer an emergency when strong winds drove her into the tree.”

“She wants to see me?”

“Yes,” the nurse said. “Please, hurry.”

The bruka could not go fast enough. He wished he had a Mosquito, the attack flyers they had used in the military. He would have covered the twenty miles to the grazing fields in under a minute. His bruka was a pioneer model, from a time in his childhood when air travel was a reserve for the privileged, before the technological revolution delivered ornithopters that were cheaper than bicycles. It was shaped like an egg. It had four wings, and two seats. He had bought it with his first salary at the age of eighteen, and had flown it every day thereafter until he went to jail. Upon his release, he had fitted it with an engine, to comply with new traffic laws, but now he wished he had instead bought a newer model, one that was fully automatic and ran on solar power. It would have been quicker.

Peddling the craft drained his energy, reminding him of his frailty. When he had gone to jail twenty years earlier, although he was already sixty, he still had the vitality of youth. He belonged to the warrior clan, the Abasura, whose role it was to guard the nation. He had served in the military from the age of eighteen. It kept his body youthful. But incarceration had wasted it all away, turning him into just another old man.

He prayed to the ancestors to bless him with his old strength, just one more time, so he could reach Anena before she died. She wanted to see him. That was the only sign of reconciliation he had got from his family. His three wives still ignored him. His eighteen children avoided him. His grandchildren did not know him. But now all that did not matter. Anena was calling for him. She was at the doorsteps of death. She did not call for her mother, or her siblings, or her husband. He wondered if she had a husband, if she had found another lover and gotten married. He brushed the thought away. She had called for him, her father, who the family had out casted. It could only mean that she was ready to forgive him.

Upon his release a few weeks before, he had found his homestead in ruins. His children and wives had abandoned it. Weeds chocked the compound. The grass-thatched roof had fallen in. Thieves had stolen everything of value, apart from two items. One was his ornithopter, which they probably ignored as junk. The other was a bridal basket, which Anena’s fiancé had used to ferry the dowry. It still lay in the front yard under the ruins of the tent her brothers had constructed for the marriage ceremony. It was made of stainless Nyoro iron, and was large enough to carry twenty bulls among other gifts. The iron was of high value, and could have fetched a handsome price. He could not understand why thieves had ignored it. Was it because of the blood stains?

Where had that blood come from? Was it her lover’s blood?

Onen had rebuilt his home, and repaired the bruka, but he left the basket where it had lain for twenty years, overgrown with grass. A creeping plant with yellow flowers had twisted itself around the bars. He was afraid to touch it. The stains of blood. Could it be her lover’s? His body had been found at the bottom of a rocky valley, smashed to pulp. Maybe Ajwakas had smeared his blood on it in a ritual to cleanse the home of murder.

I did not kill him, Onen had tried to tell Anena. For twenty years. She had refused to talk to him, like everyone else in his family. They thought he did it for he was the only one who objected to her marriage. Her fiancé, Macika, a chubby fellow who crafted chairs for a living, belonged to the Sungura clan, whose traditional role was to clean toilets. Macika had rejected culture, and instead became a carpenter. Still, the old customary laws forbade him from marrying a higher clan’s daughter.

Being a warrior, with a war raging in the Southern Lakelands, Onen had rarely been home. He had already missed two of his children’s weddings. When Anena’s turn came, she had insisted on his presence. She sent a request to his commanders, and they forced him to go on leave to give away his daughter. On arriving home, Anena and her fiancé Macika were waiting in the bruka landing pad to welcome him. She knelt to greet him. Macika bowed his head slightly.

“My son,” Onen had said. He had mistaken Macika for one of his children, and as he searched his memory for a name, he remembered that none of his sons kept a beard. The shock of that realization, that he was forgetting his own children, immediately vanished when it struck him that none of his sons had come out to welcome him. They had left that duty to the groom. “Where is – Ocaka,” he asked Anena. Ocaka was his first born son, and his heir. He should have been there to welcome him. “Where are your mothers? Where is everybody?”

“They are not happy,” Anena replied. She did not have to explain why. They did not understand his long absences for other warriors returned frequently to see their loved ones.

At that moment, he decided to retire. He had done the right thing in coming home for his daughter’s wedding, and he hoped his announcement would be the first step in asking for his family’s forgiveness. Then he saw the tattoo on the groom’s neck, the snout of a pig, etched at birth to mark him for life as a Sungura. A toilet cleaner.

“You can’t marry him,” he told Anena.

She kept quiet for a long time. The smile faded from Macika’s face. When she spoke, her voice was so low he almost did not hear it, but it sliced through his skin like the cold winds of the rainy season.

“I thought you were a good man,” she said.

She took her lover’s hand and dragged him away. Macika kept looking back, maybe to plead, but not once did Anena look back. She climbed into their bruka, and in a few heartbeats they had vanished into the blue sky.

Nobody talked to Onen that night. He visited the huts of each wife, and the homes of each son, but they all shut the door on his face. He had been absent in their life for so long, then on his return he spoils a feast they have been planning for months. And all because of a social structure that was imposed by Indian colonialists about three hundred years back. They could not forgive him for that.

The next morning, Onen woke up to find a dozen warriors waiting for him. At first he thought fighting had flared again and his leave was being cancelled, until one officer handcuffed him, as another showed him a picture of a body, smashed to pulp. Macika, Anena’s fiancé.

“You are under arrest for murder,” the officers told him.

Onen did not get a chance to plead his innocence. The government was trying to stamp out the hate practice of killing inter-clan lovers. They believed Onen to be the murderer for he was the only one who had objected to his daughter marrying a toilet cleaner. They threw him into jail, without a proper investigation, without any trial, though he was a decorated warrior, to send a message to conservatives.

Onen had not seen Anena since then. Now, she was stuck on a mwiko tree, two-hundred feet above the ground, dying. He had to reach her quick, to tell her that he did not kill her fiancé. He did not know why she had summoned him. Maybe she wanted to spit into his face before dying. Maybe she wanted to kill him for what she thought he did to her lover. He could not let her die with hatred in her heart. He had to make her believe in his innocence.

The thought propelled him through the low hanging clouds, through the dangerous air ways littered with mwiko trees, over the brown villages that lay far below him happily waiting for the first drops of rain. He wished he could go faster.

He reached the grazing fields just as the rain started to fall. The half burnt tree stood alone at the top of a hill, at the edge of a cliff. The mangled wreck of an ambulance was stuck in the branches, but the place was empty. No police. No medics. No flyers. His heartbeat slowed. When he was close enough to the tree, he saw the nurse. She sat on a branch, holding a large leaf above her head to shield from the rain.

“Where is she?” he said, his voice husky, strained with tears.

She did not hear him above the roar of the wind. She leapt off the tree. A small jetpack propelled her to the bruka. He flipped open a door, and she climbed into the seat behind him. The rain fell hard.

“Where is she?” he said.

“It is dangerous to fly in this storm,” she said. “Go down.”

The rain blurred his vision. Wipers squeaked as they struggled to clear the windshield of rain. Onen wanted to insist on knowing where they had taken Anena, but a gust of wind hit the bruka, threatening to push into the tree. He pulled a lever to fold the wings, and punched a button to ignite the emergency engine, which could not fly the craft, but allowed for safer landing in a crisis. The bruka dropped to the ground. The wind was so strong that for a moment Onen feared the engine would fail and they would crash into the tree trunk. The tail of the ornithopter scraped bark off the tree, but the impact did not send the flyer out of control. They landed.

The wind did not give up. It pushed them through the thicket. They had to abandon the craft, or risk falling off the cliff in it. A small hut stood a short distance away. They raced to it. They were dripping wet when they entered. Inside were three herdsmen around a fire, eating miraa. The herdsmen welcomed them with goatskin to sit on and khat to chew. Onen declined the miraa, but the nurse shoved a fistful of the leaves into her mouth.

“Is she okay?” he asked.

The nurse shook her head. “I’m sorry,” she said.

A long moment passed. Onen stared at the rain pouring outside the hut’s door.

The nurse then gave him a black box so small it fit in his palm. He did not know what it was. She pressed a green button on the box to throw up a red light, which then materialized into the head of a woman. It looked like a real head, of flesh, blood, and bones. It was nothing like the blurry holographs he knew. Though she was twenty years older, he recognized her.

“Baba,” she said.

Onen dropped the box in terror, and the image went out.

“Don’t be afraid,” the nurse said. Onen turned to her, but something was wrong with his eyes for he could not see her clearly. She was blurry, like the old holographs. That is when he realized that he was crying. “She asked us to record what she wanted to tell you. Please listen.”

The nurse picked up the box again and restarted the recording. Onen was afraid of what she would say. Though the recording was done on her deathbed, it captured nothing of the agony, or the wounds. Instead, Anena had projected happy images so her face looked as it would have had they met before the accident.

“I know you didn’t kill Macika,” Anena said. “I did.”

Onen did not know what to feel, how to react to that.

“It was an accident,” Anena continued. “We were having an argument because I had not told you about his clan.”

Onen hated himself. He should have not loved the warrior’s barracks more than he loved his family, then he would not have had to learn about Macika on the wedding day.

“Please, forgive me,” Anena said.

Onen looked away from the holograph, out of the door, at the rain that fell upon his old flying bicycle, which the wind was squeezing against a tree trunk. Tears filled the wrinkles on his face with pools of sadness.


Dilman Dila recently published a collection of speculative short stories, A Killing in the Sun. He was long listed for the BBC Radio Playwriting Competition (2014), shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013), twice long listed for the Short Story Day Africa prize, and nominated for the 2008 Million Writers Awards. His films include the masterpiece, What Happened in Room 13 (2007), and the narrative feature, The Felistas Fable (2013), which was nominated for Best First Feature at AMAA 2014, and which won four major awards at the Uganda Film Festival 2014. More of his life and works is available at his website http://www.dilmandila.com.