I wouldn’t be surprised if my mother committed suicide. She’s insinuated doing it since I was twelve years old. She’d say, Oh Solo…you know I’m not good at anything. I’m not even a good mother. If I died, it’d be a blessing I think.
At thirteen I tried to birth her desert roses, those impossible kinds that even bloom on land- locked islands. But she couldn’t see the roses springing from the openings in my body. The roots coming from my eyes, the stems from my nose. At fourteen, sinewy fibres vined their way down and porous mucous sapped from the inside of my ears. But she couldn’t see any of it.
Perhaps that is where my woundedness was born, from constantly trying to push something from my womb that wasn’t mine to carry. I would think, there must be something I can do – should do – to make the noise around us less shrill.
I felt maybe if I were better behaved and quieter, maybe then she would realize her place was with me. I tried to be quiet. I’d pull my lips in real tight so that I couldn’t say a word … But ten minutes in and my motor mouth would rev its engine.
At eighteen I felt like a weary dark-skinned Atlas. So I let it go, dropped the wound on its head and watched it roll away. I decided to focus on her brighter parts instead, those disorienting dissonances housed in one body. How she could weave the spiritual into the theoretical. How she lived in a room of moving colours and how the muses housed in her brain would craft beauty from the mundane. I always secretly wished she would give in to the artisan that sat inside her fingers. But she would get discouraged and pieces of majik would sit a dusty kind of lonely in the back of her room.
The first year of Moses’s and my relationship, whenever I spent the night I would ask him to tell me when to leave so that I didn’t bother him. He would sigh and ask why he would be in a relationship with someone whose presence bothered him. But how could he know I had started carrying it again? The wound of shrinking. And even though I told myself to believe him when he said he wanted me around, I still felt that tapping sound. The knock that whispered, you have overstayed your welcome, it’s time to go.
So I would watch him. The curvature of his mouth. The patterns of his footsteps. Any ritual that signified he was ready to be left to his solitude. And if you are looking, you will always find. I would find it, there inside the curvature when I said something he disagreed with. His lips would turn downward as though I had squeezed pili-pili on the insides of his mouth. And when I saw it I knew it was time to leave before I broke something I didn’t know the shape of.
But somehow he convinced me that perhaps, yes, with him is where I should be. I mean he even knew about the years I fell in love with a radical politic and other women. He eroticized it I think…the musky smells that at one time were my North Stars signaling me to realizations away from this one. But even though he knew of sexual acts, I knew he couldn’t understand that I had been desperately searching for life in the crevices of those women’s bodies. And today that Solome, the desperately searching one, is far away for him. But that Solome understands today’s one. The one who no longer searches for life, but for purpose everywhere … And can’t find it anywhere.
At twenty-five, I realize purpose has left me. Stretched along Moses’s bed, I prop myself up with a sigh and dial my mother’s number. I want to talk about the tunnel that seems to stretch into nothingness…how it could be hell, a purgatory limbo, or even heaven itself. The stoic nothingness that chills its way into my body until even my heart doesn’t want to pump anymore.
Instead, I tell her about Ngenyo.
I think the name Ngenyo does not make sense for me at this point in my life, I say into the mouthpiece. I don’t know what it means or where it comes from! And I get so embarrassed when people ask, where is your name from? What does your name mean? And I have no answers. I can’t be this old still dealing with identity shame!
Ngenyo, Ngenyo … We’ve real tried and tried to get a name or a number … Anything to give you some kind of an anchor, she says.
I know, I croon. I wish jaajaa gave us something! This whole thing has been so tiring … Stalkers masquerading as cousins … Clan meetings held without me to resume some long-standing ritual … Realising jaajaa disowned everybody, except me, with the last name Ngenyo! I didn’t realize how stubborn he was until he consistently refused to give us any information.
Moses’s phone rings and my mother, laughing, asks, mafia girl, how many phones do you have?
I pick up the phone facing downwards on the table next to the bed and see the letter T. I silence the ringer quickly. Sorry about that … Anyway, mom, even Joseph …
You mean your father?
She sighs. You’ve always been a writer Solo. I remember all the stories you wrote when you were a teenager … Even after you went to university. There would always be one character … Let me see if I remember the wording correctly … You wrote about a quiet man with glasses that reminded you of pictures of Patrice Lumumba. No matter how many times you wrote it, it always caught me unaware.
What caught you? I ask, a bit irritated that she cut me off.
The way you could do that … Capture the essence of a man in a sentence.
I smile, flattered. Well memories split. There is him, with the glasses, and then there are other patchy memories, the ones after the separation. Was it really him, flighty and hostile, banging on our door in London with police officers behind him?
Yes, she replies slowly, each letter suspended between the receivers next to our mouths. I visited with Joseph about five times after they separated, each time in a new residence. Once in someone’s garage, another time in a friend’s guest room, the other three locations silhouettes I can never place. The pictures of my mother during this time show a shell. Her cheeks sunken, her legs the size of twigs. She laughs when she sees I carry them in my wallet. You surely are a weird child, Solo. Why would you want to keep pictures of such an ugly woman? Look, you can even see the bones under my eyes!
I don’t know when we stopped referring to Joseph Ngenyo outside of family reunions. We learnt not to grieve over people who leave. I learnt, first from my mother, to fill the memory of emptiness through one-way tickets to places further away from the cradle of betrayal.
When she speaks again, her voice sounds like a faraway lighthouse beckoning me back, will you change your names into something more traditional and African-y? She asks. I laugh.
No seriously Solo, she says quickly, I know it’s what’s hip with the Pan-Africanists … I’m just waiting to read a poem by Olumide Ngenyo formerly known as Solome.
I laugh again, this time from somewhere deep and ringing. Olumide is so far from my reality! If you ever read a poem by Olumide Ngenyo formerly known as Solome, please give me a nice big mstcheeew slap over the phone!
She giggles. You haven’t answered my question. Are you going to keep Solome?
I mean … I’ve definitely thought about changing it. Especially when I first began going to these Afro events. Man, the way they Malcolm X us all into believing anything that seems relatively mainstream, read white, is somehow a false consciousness. But I think some things are a bit deeper than that. When you named me Solome, you did so with intention.
And what intention was that?
Well … The skin of sound is sometimes thick and taut, veiny and melanin rich. And I have fallen into the sound … Or rather the skin.
My God, she interrupts, where did you learn to become so melodramatic?
I ignore the question and continue. From me, Solome, to you, Sarah, whose mother named you a Biblical skin, to your mother, Juliet, who was grafted a skin of Latin derivatives. Three generations laden in a grip so tightly wound only we can see a reflection of something other than oppressed. I see it: the whiteness, the syllables that pray difficult on relatives’ lips…but still how can I change my name? As though I am ashamed of your decisions …
She interrupts me again, but it was Malcolm X who said he does not know his name because it was a slave name, hence the X. That his father did not know his name either and his father’s father because they were given names of the white man. There’s that story too Solo, the story of erasure.
I tell her, my story lies in you naming me. While it may not speak to nativity the way some would like to romanticise it, it does speak to our reality of passage, of conversion, and yes, of too much luzungu in our mouths.
She is quiet and I wonder if the international package on the phone I bought has finished. You know I was just reading about a tribe, I do not remember which but they have a practice that is so interesting … She pauses and sucks in air before she continues, well before a mother gives birth she goes to a tree. I’m not sure how the tree is picked, but it is picked and she goes to the tree and listens. Inside the tree plays her child’s song and as she listens she memorises it. When the baby is born, she sings the song. And that is how it is … Anytime the child covers a milestone or a rite of passage, the child’s song is sung … I read that and thought, my goodness! Maybe if I had a song life wouldn’t have turned out this way for me you know? If only… well, anyway, even when the child messes up, you know maybe becomes a thief or something, the family gathers and calls the child. They sing the song and it is up to the child to choose whether she or he wants to return to goodness…
She finishes her story and I sigh again, that is so beautiful.
Yeah, I thought so too. I remembered it when you told me the reason you wanted to keep the name Solome.
I smile into the phone. I want to sing her a song or offer her a gift of re-birthed desert-roses, but we never say the words that are most honest.
She interrupts my thoughts. Well … It is getting quite late your side and I know your credit is about to finish, love you.
Love you too.
We get off the phone and I climb off the bed and stretch a bit. I decide to check on Moses and walk downstairs.
He is asleep on the couch; I watch him sprawled like an unending question and try to figure out where I can squeeze myself in. I slide next to him, now the both of us curled into a pair.
Skin to skin the only thing clearly distinct between us, heartbeat and even the rhythm harmonises after some time.
With his mouth open the way it is, I imagine a dark hollowed tunnel where steam-engines get lost. Destination: beyond the limitation of boundaries and borders. But even I know it is never that simple. He shifts and sighs while snuggling me closer. Babe, I can hear you thinking.
I fall asleep snuggled next to him but his phone rings upstairs and I wake up with a start. I look at the lighted clock on the desk and ask, it’s past midnight and your phone is ringing?
Probably a silly telecom or something, he mumbles half asleep slowly nudging me off the sofa so we can go to bed.
The next day, I have lunch with a colleague. Moses is really a catch, she says as though I asked her opinion. Handsome, educated, successful. I mean … Every educated Ugandan woman is trying to meet such a guy … Perhaps if we all had that American accent of yours we would have a chance.
You really believe the only reason Moses is attracted to me is because of my accent?
She looks at me incredulously. Honestly the only reason you were able to meet him is because of your diaspora privilege!
I never know what weight to give such comments because to her, all things I do and say are viewed within the lens of diaspora privilege. But the nuances within desire and power are too mired for me to examine during lunch on a Friday, so I joke instead: Honey, with this face and booty, regardless of which country I’m in, I never have a problem getting successful, handsome dates!
She smiles at the joke in a fake kind of way.
Moses makes his pili-pili face when I tell him about the conversation. We are home from work lying on the sofa. He is seated upright and my head is on his lap, my torso foetal- position curved and my legs stretched across the rest of the couch. Miles Davis is playing and he slowly uses his index finger to tap elongated time signatures on my forehead.
He looks at me and stops tapping, privilege is a heavy word. I think these things have more depth than whatever she is jealous about. I think the real underlying point to take away is that you need to have lunch with other people.
I remind him it’s not just this person. That we are immersed in a global culture that values some bodies more than others. Valued bodies, if not white, tend to speak a certain kind of English. They tend to be groomed bourgeoisie in a certain way, and when you can play the game, the playing field is completely different. It’s important to know the ways in which cultural power structures position one’s body and experiences as valuable because it does so at the expense of others.
Oh my god, he says rolling his eyes. Edward Said called, he wants his thesis back.
I smile and roll my eyes back at him. As he smiles at me, I search to find it in his face. The rescue boat that will pull me away from an inherited depression and closer to a grounded shore.
Later that night, I revel in his tight grip. In the middle of making love, his phone rings. Because I’m on top, I see the flashing phone on the drawer. The letter T flashes and I’m suddenly un-aroused.
Moses looks at me with a face I don’t recognize. Why the hell would someone call me three o’ clock in the morning?
I look him in the eye, I don’t know …. It’s probably important. Pick it up.
Nah, they can call tomorrow. By this time I’m climbing off of him. Baby, come back, he pleads. Where you going? I walk to the toilet and bang the door shut.
Babe, I hear his voice a few minutes later. You’ve been in there for a while. I miss you … You left me hanging. Come back to bed.
I shake my head, I’ll be in here for a while.
I hear his footsteps moving back to the bedroom. I somehow muster the strength to walk out of the bathroom and crawl back into bed. With my back turned to him, I curl into myself. Wrapping himself around me, he begins kissing the nape of my neck. Not right now, I say into the pillow, my voice drowned but still audible.
That’s alright, baby, that’s alright. Let’s get some rest then, he purrs in my ear.
My mother calls me in the morning to check in. Our conversation is brief because it is one in the morning her time.
Right before she says bye I ask, Mom let me ask you, what is better to use, the head or the heart?
She pauses, Solome … I’m surprised you have to ask. Remember when we were in the storm … The belly of the beast I guess you could call it? We went through those tough times together and you know better than I do that the head is what led us to better places. If I followed my heart, we would not be where we are. We would just be … Confused, I guess. It is always the head, Solo, always the head.
I want to joke that we are still confused, that she was right all along … We could end chasing all of this vanity by not waking up the next morning, but it seems today I have learnt to pull in my lips.
I have dinner with a close friend later in the evening. But Otieno, why are you single again? I ask mischievously. It just doesn’t make sense!
He smiles. You know I am married to my work.
I understand that it is easier to be accountable to something that does not demand an emotional investment, but to be thirty and accountable to nothing? What are you running from?
He looks at me. I should be asking you the same question, Solo.
How do I say that I searched everywhere for the wound to stop throbbing, but that it refused? How do I say I am running from the cradle of betrayal?
Melissa Kiguwa is a poet, thinker, and radical feminist. She received her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Arizona and her Msc in Media, Communications, and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work is rooted in acknowledging and giving praise to diverse afro-experiences. Her work focuses on imperialism, love, sexuality, spirituality, and trauma. Her debut collection of poetry, Reveries of Longing, was published in 2014. Melissa attended the 2014 Writivism workshop in Kampala and was mentored by Yewande Omotoso, under whose guidance she wrote The Wound of Shrinking. The Wound of Shrinking was longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and included in Fire in the Night and other stories: the 2014 Writivism Annual Short Story Anthology. She is now a mentor on the 2015 Writivism programme.Follow @JaladaAfrica