I died on 15 September 2019. I hate that word, let’s say ‘passed on’ or any of the thousands of euphemisms for death. As my lifeless body lay on that narrow bed in a congested local clinic, the irony that I had been a nurse in a government hospital was not lost on me. My husband too, you see, was a senior doctor at a regional referral hospital.
Let me start at the beginning. I am sorry for the labyrinth of confusion and sorrow in which my story may weave you, but I feel my brain slowly dissipating to gristle, so I’ll hurry it along.
My name is Beatrice Atimnirwoth, but everyone calls… called me Atim. I met my husband, Wilfred Ogen, at Angal Senior Secondary School. A student teacher in his Senior 6 vacation awaiting enrolment into Mulago Paramedical School. I was a Senior 4 student at the time, young and wild. According to my mother; a kind, soft-spoken, slight woman, the lustrous black mane on my head, midnight black skin and legs as thick as a bamboo tree made me the most beautiful girl in the community. I was acutely aware of my good looks and it did not surprise me when I received a love chit from Ogen.
Ours was an unimpassioned union, a battle of egos. He had been the best student in the region, I was the trophy glinting in the January sunshine waiting to be claimed. Three months later, I was pregnant at sixteen and Ogen was due to travel from Nebbi to Kampala for a brighter future while mine vaporized like morning dew under the midday sun. My mother appeased my father to let me have the child in his compound since Ogen was still living under his father’s roof. Ha! I will never forget the look of disgust he diligently threw me every time our paths crossed.
“Nyara, don’t cry, he will come around when the baby is born,” Mother whispered to my bent over back contorted into an arch of sorrow.
My baby girl, Gladys Giramiya Ogen was born on 11 February 1994. Much to my father’s delight, she was a quiet baby and rarely made a sound. Ogen, who had joined paramedical school was escorted by his people to pay my bride price. This was a condition set in lieu of his arrest for defilement.
I moved to Kampala after the Christmas of 1995 to continue my education while Ogen pursued his diploma. Life as a young mother in school was anxiety-inducing and overwhelming. The meagre allowance that Ogen earned as a government student allowed us to rent a small one-bedroom apartment that we unwittingly shared with cockroaches and rats.
My husband, as it turned out, was a violent man, quick to use his fist every time we disagreed — which was often. Maybe it was the poor ventilation and humidity that coated the unpainted walls of the apartment with a slick layer of moisture that had his nerves permanently frayed. The marriage siphoned my joy with the zeal of a toddler who has recently learned the function of a drinking straw.
My husband’s people also harboured a hatred towards me. It was so potent it pulsated. It seemed as if they breathed life into it and it morphed into a dark living thing that they carried around like a newborn every time they visited us in the city.
My sole source of happiness was my daughter, whom we called ‘Miya’, a version of her name that she could manage.
I carried all those problems on my back, you see. Like a real woman. Like a true Alur woman. Hmmm, that man! Do you know that he beat me up in front of our child? Do you know that if I dared to run during an altercation he would continue where he left off the next time he saw me? Ptooey! I spit on you, Ogen. I spit on the lame excuse of a marriage that I risked everything to protect.
You ask why I stayed. Leaving presented a luxury so foreign, so out of reach that I dared not think about it. My brain was a blank sheet of paper with no thoughts of my own. Ogen’s heavy fist moulded me into a flaccidity of spirit that made me malleable to his will. I palsied whenever he came back home and I knew it was a matter of time before my teeth rattled at the contact with his open palm. I had stopped fighting years before.
I look at this coffin, wooden and tapered, its interior lined with cheap white bed sheets, leaden with a finality and sorrow only death brings yet it feels more at home than I ever did in that marriage.
My postmortem report indicates in its deliberateness: death due to brain haemorrhage. Of course that god-forsaken clinic did not have the capacity to carry out a scan, so I lay on that bed bleeding out till my spirit left its battered shell.
The split lid of the coffin reveals my stiff body. Try as I may, I cannot find any resemblance to the corpse whose eyes are being held shut by death. The deep contours in its face, moue of its mouth and tell-tales of the dents of its life.
I move around the house, amusing myself by looking at the mourners trying to decipher whether the fallen faces they wear mirror actual grief or veiled bliss.
I spot Miya sitting in a far corner of the house resting her head on her grandmother’s lap. She is spent, my poor child. I’m sure she has not eaten, that girl. Who will force feed her now that I’m gone? I peel my eyes away from the heart-wrenching sight to find my husband.
My essence is transported into our bedroom. He sits at the edge of the bed with his head hanging low. I draw close to him and resist the urge to put my hand on his back and comfort him. That is not my role now. I am free. Look at that! Who knew that there was freedom in death?
The room is a mess, my suitcases are scattered on the floor. My sister-in-law stands over a fabric mountain, arms akimbo. I try to block out the muffled cries of the mourners permeating the thin walls.
“Did I know this many people?” I wonder to myself.
There are people there I have not seen since high school. People really do revere death. The women alternate between lifting their hands onto their heads as if burdened by invisible baskets of cassava and then lowering them to cup their tear-stricken faces while the men sit in clusters shaking their heads and sucking their teeth, all the while making burial arrangements.
“I told you from the start that Atim was trouble. But did you listen to me? No!” my sister-in-law exclaims while rummaging through one of my suitcases, looting some of my dresses.
I roll my eyes at her crassness. She will not at the very least accord me the courtesy of being buried first before hoarding the spoils of my life.
“Olar is a powerful witchdoctor, he can do that job for less than 20,000 shillings. I have already talked to the elders about it. They agree,” she continues.
Ogen’s slight nod is the only indication that he heard anything she said at all.
“Bind her spirit before she comes back for your head,” she finishes while looking around as if half expecting me to make a dramatic entrance.
Does it ever occur to the living that sometimes they are the ones who haunt the dead? Laughter lodges in my chest threatening to escape. I fight to hold it in. I realize with a start that I am free to laugh. I do not have to censor myself anymore. So, I throw my head back and laugh with an abandon I have not felt in aeons.
The fact that my sister-in-law thinks I’ll spend my freedom roaming this earthly realm to haunt her brother is wildly entertaining to me.
I am here to tell my story in my own words. To make sure that the winds blowing over my grave carry my name and my story long after the cliché verse engraved on my headstone commending me for fighting the good fight has been polished into oblivion by time and the unforgiving Nebbi sun. That through the cracks in the grave I will share in my daughter’s joy and sorrow. That I will comfort my mother in her remaining days. That the rains which sodden the earth where I rest will whisper secrets of the living to me.
Only the oppressor believes in the golden nature of silence. Let me eulogize myself, because who knows us better than we know ourselves?
When I had just arrived in Kampala, I quickly found out many things. Firstly, that my village beauty dimmed in the face of city girls who lined their brows with coal, reddened their lips with lipstick and dressed in a way that would make the elders in my village gather for an intervention. I also found that my husband had a wandering eye for these beauties, who were not scarce in his paramedical school.
When I lamented to my mother about my husband’s promiscuous ways, she pointed quietly to our homestead which housed four huts, the number of wives my father had. I never brought it up again. The women’s choir at St Stephen’s Church of Uganda emitted offended clucks and implored me to yield more to his authority. How much more though, they did not say.
He did not drink, my husband. I always thought that intoxication would have proved a plausible excuse for the battering I faced in that marriage. But, no, it was sufficient to say that he was simply a monster. He was not always a monster though. Miya loved him more than life. She worshipped her father and he indulged her. Sometimes when his face lit up as he played with her, I had to pinch myself to make sure that this was reality.
The monster wore the face of a familiar man.
My spirit is carried out of the bedroom into the stuffy living room that is packed with mostly female relatives and friends, the men still roam outside like dust angered by a Fuso tractor.
The mourners are startled by dramatic wailing full of flair and gesturing. My mother’s sister, Majuma, enters the house. She looks around at the mourners, eyes wild and unblinking as if daring death to show his face. She snakes her way through and looks directly into my coffin. Her running nose threatens to spill its contents onto my bloated face, I cringe mentally. Aunt Majuma has never fallen short in theatrics. She reaches into the coffin and roughly yanks my cold body.
“Wake up, nyathin pa nyamira, wake up. You cannot leave my sister like this. You are her only child,” she screams, her breath, I presume, rancid on my face.
Now she turns and frantically swings her flabby arms towards the mourners, who fall over each other trying to comfort her.
“My sisters, is it not against the order of nature for a mother to bury her child?” she asks, her words dripping with rhetoric. She then pauses to adjust the colourful kitenge tied loosely around her waist.
“The debt will be paid. It will be blood for blood.” She spits. The mourners look at each other, not sure how to react to this declaration.
Miya is woken by the commotion and I can see her big brown eyes swirling in confusion. She lifts her head from her grandmother’s lap, an onslaught of grief causing fresh tears to dance brightly in her eyes. My mother, who unlike her sister, is as meek as a lamb, bursts into tears.
Up until that moment, my mother was a rock, comforting her granddaughter and receiving condolences with a stoicism that made the mourners squirm. They knew what to do with a grieving mother who clawed her hair, beat her chest and tore her clothes. A stone-faced woman who did not flinch in the face of such misfortune was unchartered territory.
Witnessing the tears gave the mourners the courage they needed to surround my mother and attempt consolation. Was it the end of the world? Did Atim not leave behind a gracious granddaughter who would look after her in her old age? Was it not the Good Lord who gave and took away? Why then would she not wipe her tears and look at the bright side?
Her body heaved with exertion and it seemed as though grief would drive a hole through her heart. Her cry was guttural, loud and punctuated only by questions towards the heavens. She cried till her voice grew hoarse from overuse.
A few days before my death, my husband and I had a fight. He wanted a son, an heir to his name and estate. The birth of Miya sealed my womb and my husband grew bitter from the frustration of having one child, a girl. For his sake, I accepted the good intentioned remedies my peers offered with promises of the adorable sound of toddlers in the house. Nothing. My womb remained as silent as a graveyard.
On that day he was in a particularly bad mood that left me nursing a black eye and a few other bruises. I did not raise my hand to protect my face and when it was all over I did not pull out my foundation to hide the eye this time. I refused to go to the hospital to have my ribs checked. I wore my injuries like a badge of a failed marriage. I welcomed the pain with all my being.
Maybe if I had gone earlier, the doctor would have treated the haemorrhage but to what end? So I could go back a week later with a broken arm or missing teeth?
That evening, I took a long walk not bothering to conceal my wounds. I passed by the Port Bell market and bought my Miya a nice black dress. Little did I know that my daughter would retrospectively try to interpret this otherwise mundane act as my final goodbye.
How true that is, I too, do not know. Does a cow feel uneasy on the day of Eid? Does a chicken sense danger on Christmas Day?
But what do I feel, you ask? I feel liberated. There is freedom in completing your journey. I feel a release that I had never experienced in my life. For the first time, I did not have to prove a point to anyone, about anything. I was free to just be me.
My husband did not kill me. I had a brain haemorrhage.
Please let me own my death. I lived under the highhandedness and sunk to the whims of a man I called my husband. I will not allow anyone to claim my death. I refuse to have the end of my life attributed to that man. You will not erase my individuality. My husband did not kill me. It was my time to go.
I look down at my body in the coffin that will be home for the rest of time. The white gown that I had tailored for my daughter’s christening party and had not worn for centuries but my mother thought had an import to where I would end up in the afterlife, clings to my bloated body like a glove holding water.
“Great is thy faithfulness Lord, unto me.” For some reason I could not get that hymn out of my head.
Lornah Afoyomungu Olum is a lawyer and is passionate about women’s rights.
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