“Little Cabbages” by Charlie Muhumuza
Kizito looks at the pale, cross-eyed Minnie Mouse on Soleil’s white shirt, carefully tucked into a black tutu skirt. The skirt is slightly askew, swallowing her entire stomach. His eyes lead him to her shiny Vaseline-drenched legs sticking into neat pink sneakers that she has worn the other way round. He sighs. His eyes lead him back to the top. Foam in hair. The Minnie Mouse: no, she isn’t pale, she isn’t cross-eyed; the shirt is inside out. The tutu skirt: she’s wearing it backward.
“Cheri, let me see,” Pulling her closer he examines the hair, removing the foam. He checks behind her ears, but they are dry. He looks at her eyes, her mother’s, always sharp and accusing, and smiles.
He contemplates for a bit, then pulls her tutu skirt up. The excess bottom of the panties is heaped at the front.
“Isn’t that uncomfortable?” he asks. No one will notice.
“Where are we going, papa?”
“It’s a surprise.”
“For me?” she isn’t excited.
“For mommy. But I’ll get you something,” He says, pleased to get away with it. She won’t get out of the house once he mentions the hospital. She didn’t always hate hospitals. Maybe children exchange scary monster tales about hospitals while at school. He tries to remember if this fear started before or after she started school.
“See this Soleil? Yeah? It’s a label. Labels should disappear,” Kizito turns up the waistline of the tutu skirt to show her the little cutout sewn onto the skirt.
“The trick is to never see it. So it must be at the back, and inside,” he tries to make it snappy and fun like a game, but she doesn’t pay him any attention.
He inspects her now. Ready. Shoes in order. Her mother wouldn’t have approved of the shirt and sneakers, but Soleil wouldn’t have it any other way. He sighs like it has been the most excruciating of tasks. But it’s a sigh of pleasure, of pride, like the sigh of his father as Kizito himself stood by the living room door in his school uniform: a white collar seated neatly on his shoulders, over a green sweater, green shorts pale and pressed, saying “daddy, I’m ready.” His father, giving a big disappointed sigh for being distracted from his newspaper, would place it down, adjust his heavy body with a groan too loud for his age, and drop his solid legs off the footstool one after the other with a thud, pick up the car keys and drive Kizito to school.
Kizito dreaded those rides. Those long, wisdom-filled warnings upon long winding roads. What unsettled him the most was watching his always jolly, bragging, weighing-the-belly-with-his-hand father carefully pack the jokes and tie them at the front bumper of the car, the way he saw some people tie fresh fish. He would then unbox a serving of tales and admonitions that Kizito did not know him to be. It was only the journeys to his grandfather’s that were less dreadful and almost exciting. Kizito remembers these as vivid and colorful, in the way childhood memories are often remembered . His father’s warnings would trickle in slowly, sparingly, like a loose faucet.
Kizito’s grandfather was a tall thin dark man, very arrogant in his step with a defiantly long nose. He always welcomed Kizito first, hugging him and kissing him on the head. He would then speak a slew of Kinyarwanda that Kizito did not understand. Smiling and transfixing his eyes on the ground, Kizito would raise his eyes again only to find the watery grey pupils of his grandfather still peering down on him, and with a shaky smile he would ask in English, “why are you so shy?” Kizito would simply smile. His grandfather would then rub Kizito’s head, and tell him to go play, but Kizito would remain planted right under the wide warm palm.
Kizito later discovered that the barrage of Kinyarwanda questions his grandfather heaped upon his father weren’t greetings, but a scolding on why he was consistently denying his grandchildren their rights. I’m tired of speaking English Eugene, he would say. The only time Kizito remembers his father and grandfather speak English to one another was just before his grandfather left them, his father, frustrated, saying “why, you can’t do this,” and his grandfather replying, “Eugene, what do you know.”
“Papa, you said we were going where,” Soleil absent-minded, fidgets with a few buttons on the dashboard. Kizito resists the urge to slap the fingers away. He cannot dare to shout, and he swallows the guilt of wanting to slap the hands.
“Mon petit chou, did I ever tell you that grandpa’s dad never allowed grandpa to sit in his car? Probably because children are always fidgeting with stuff. Maybe,” he looks at her but she does not pick the cue.
“Oh. Yes, Grandpa Eugene had a dad too, he was called Louis.”
“Yes cheri, even grandpa’s dad had a dad too. Everyone has a father.”
“No, no. we don’t know him. I mean grandpa and me. It was always just grandpa’s dad, who is my grandpa you know.”
“Papa, I want ice-cream?” Soleil, bored with talk of grandfathers’ fathers, looks at her own.
“And chocolate. And biscuit.”
“What? Yeah sure, thanks for the reminder mon chou.”
In the supermarket, Soleil picks a yogurt and ice cream, and Kizito replacing the yogurt with an apple, picks a minute maid for himself. He almost puts the yoghurt back into the trolley, not wanting to project his own dislikes onto her. But he knows she won’t eat it all. Kizito’s lactose intolerance was something his grandfather never understood. He often promised him little rewards; some chocolate, a new ball for soccer or a visit to the zoo if he could take one cup of milk. He once pushed a spoonful of ghee in Kizito’s mouth as he slept, like a vaccine, which only served to worsen the intolerance. After, Kizito would become nauseated by the smell of ghee.
Kizito’s father counted this as a small resistance against his own father, who almost entirely survived on milk and only ate food the way one drunk water; untimed and in mood-driven quantities. Once, while visiting him at the office during lunch hour, Eugene found him with a flask of milk tea on his desk as his colleagues dug into steaming hot matooke, and he felt embarrassed. After a cup of tea that his father had given him, he accepted a plate of food, one of his resistances. He fed himself on the combined diet until people, startled at the stark difference in size, would exclaim, “that’s really your father?” He would tilt his head and say; “yeah I tell you” like it’s a mystery not even he can fathom.
Eugene was convinced that it was for such reasons his father never got promotions at work. He spoke better English than the entire ministry, and his French rolled through his nose and mouth like a breeze, though it didn’t seem of much use. He must have attended school in Europe like most ministers. Eugene had never heard his father talk about his education and history, and spent most of his time alone at his farm. He, therefore, filled up his imagination with what considered educated guesses, like his mother, a figure that sauntered between imagination and memory.
Maybe that’s why when Eugene meets his wife, Yvonne, everything he knows about wives lays in his imagination, not accepting any variants. Kizito’s mother never liked flowers, an accusation Eugene loudly held up against her, until she, digging within herself, was convinced that the reason she never liked them was that she cared so much about what money could do. But still she hated them, and Kizito grows up thinking women don’t truly love flowers, until he meets his wife. And so when Kizito goes to the florist outside the supermarket, he is slow to choose and tells Soleil to pick any, and she points to a luscious bouquet of bright yellow flowers that look like a splash of the sun.
Kizito’s father had never been in love with his wife Yvonne. Not with her smooth brown skin, bright round eyes and chiselled nose and small pouty lips. But all his friends were in love with her, and so he loved her. He had been courting a young lawyer from a family whose name was entrenched upon square miles of land in Kampala. But on learning that his name wasn’t actually Katumba, a Kiganda name christened by a friend who joked that Eugene’s Luganda was the stuff of royal, and was actually the Kinyarwanda Gatumba, her family became reluctant. When Eugene’s father found out about her, perplexed, he asked his son why he never told him he was looking for a wife. The following month, Yvonne arrived from the border town of Kisoro, her beauty as deep as the hundreds of miles she had covered. After a slew of concessions to Eugene; speaking English to him and the child, kneeling while greeting, wearing a gomesi for every wedding and event and a few tens or hundreds of such instructions, she moved to Nairobi when her son turned six.
“Thanks Soleil, they are just like you, mon petit chou,” He examines the flowers and scoops her up in the other arm.
“Papa, what does mompeti shoe mean?”
“Ha-ha, its mon petit chou. And in French it means little cabbage,” He plants a peck on her cheek.
“No,” she protests, arms flailing vigorously, “I’m not little cabbage, you’re little cabbage,” she accuses him with her sharp eyes, her face contorted in genuine harmless anger.
He can’t hold it and putting her down, bellows in laughter then scrunching to her level, swallows the rest of it.-*9
“It’s a term of endearment. Plus, some things get lost in translation you see, maybe they were never meant to be changed.”
She examines his face, shrugs and smiles then races to the car.
Kizito has loved French for as long as he can remember. When in primary four his classmates were still exclaiming about female tables and masculine apple trees, Kizito had learned to look at them simply as words, with just a few rules to follow, the way maths did. And when he visited his grandfather, Kizito was excited that they would get to communicate in French, which he was more lenient to for a foreign language. But his grandfather, purring through his nose, kept saying ‘non,’ until Kizito realized he hadn’t learned much in school, and his grandfather was teaching him anew. But by primary six, Kizito was scooping academic awards for excellence in the French language at every end of the term. On the weekends at the farm, his grandfather sung him songs and told him stories in French as they walked through, showing him which cow was named who, all brown, some with white patches. Kizito relished those weekends. He wished he could have the memory to distinguish identical beasts or drink a glass of milk fresh from the cow, warm, like it was just off the fire.
Kizito’s grandfather often admonished Eugene for never drinking cow-fresh milk, telling him he was weakening his immunity, even suggesting Kizito’s intolerance for milk could be linked to his father drinking boiled milk. He often told Kizito, in French so Kizito’s father wouldn’t overhear, you should blame your father, as if his lactose intolerance were a sort of paralysing disability.
When Kizito’s wife Abigail gets the pangs of labor on a luminous Sunday afternoon and gives birth to a girl who already has his mouth and ears, Kizito names the little girl Soleil, his sun. Soleil: a word perhaps plain in France, but a beautiful name to him. Two years after her birth, he reads an article online that Rwanda has changed its official language from French to English, and he feels cheated. He remembers the vacation he had agreed on with Abigail that they kept postponing, and that he held as a pilgrimage for his grandfather. To him, one of the few strings that led to a hidden history had broken, snapping back to bind him in an eternal hazy cloud.
Kizito owes his name to being born the size of his father’s fists put together, thus the name of the little saint, Kizito, the twelve-year-old and youngest of the Uganda martyrs. He was then stamped with Michael for no reason except that his father considered it a plain name that would serve its purpose. Growing up, Kizito’s father was often asked where he was from, after numerous mispronunciations of his name. When he informed them that Eugene was a Christian name and therefore his first name, he was again asked where he was from. He would then tell them he was born and raised in Kampala, and they would ask for his surname. Upon telling them it was Gatumba, they would tell him his name was from Rwanda, and thereafter talk to him mimicking what they thought was a Kinyarwanda accent.
But Kizito, having floated through much of Primary school ignoring the few questions about his clan and saying “we are from Kampala just not Baganda,” squeezes the name Gatumba on the National Examinations Registration form. In a time of undocumented births, this is all the government registration needed, and thinking of how proud his grandfather would be, he effectively christens himself. His father is not thrilled but pats him, and worries for him. Kizito does not understand this, not until he has started his secondary school, and news comes in of an airplane shot down in the neighboring Rwanda, with Rwanda’s President Habyarima on board. Next follows news of war, then evidence of war, front pages of the dailies with pictures of rivers floating with half decomposed bodies carried into Uganda. The world calls it a civil war, at least for now, not genocide against Tutsi people. Yet some ask him, “Gatumba, are you the cockroaches or the murderers.” They look at his thin nose and narrow mouth and say, this one must be a cockroach, and they tell him to go fight for his people. So when his grandfather says he has to travel, it’s now that Kizito notices he is a little older. He looks the same, but his voice is hoarse and he smells more strongly of milk and the dry smell of old age. And he understands him. When he tells Kizito, I’m glad your heart remembers, for blood, which knows the way home, wasn’t made for memory, Kizito is proud and hopeful. Maybe he’ll come back with answers. But he does not return. They do not mourn or bury. Even 20 years later, when his death is all but guaranteed. On a quiet night, as he drinks a beer with his father by the veranda of the family property overlooking the banana plantation that had once been the farm, his father tells him when he passes, two graves are to be dug.
“Hello,” The woman at the reception smiles at Kizito in a warm familiar way. Between admiration and a question, the way men with children are often greeted.
“Your name sir,” She smiles and waves at Soleil.
“Kizito. Gatumba,” he smiles back politely, “I was here earlier.”
“Oh. You are the… please follow me,” she ushers them in.
When Kizito had first met Abigail, at the University bazaar both in their first year, he walked over to her and greeted saying; bitte, the only Kinyarwanda greeting he knew. Turning around, long-faced and sharp-eyed, she told him, “you people are annoying.” He apologized and said he was relieved she didn’t answer because he doesn’t know what he would have replied. Later, when they became comfortable around each other, he asked her if she was sure, really really sure, she has no Kinyarwanda relations. “But your nose, you can’t blame me,” he would say.
“No, I’m a Muganda girl Michael, my father can walk you through our lineage to pre-colonial days off-head.” And when Soleil was born, Kizito flaunted the idea of giving her Abigail’s maiden name, but Abigail objected.
“You know it’s not customary for most cultures here to give girls male names. It’s a western thing,” he had told her. He knows surnames, traditional names, are not things you pluck from the air, like a flower whose color has caught your eye or scent your nose. Those privileges are exclusive to first names, where a fond friend or the roll of the tongue is sufficient reason for a name. But how do you explain your clan holds only one name, and it weighs him down like he’s the custodian of a secret whose innards he’s unaware of.
Abigail, pale, still wearing her white hospital robe, looks at Kizito and smiles, then smiling at Soleil, looks back at him and frowns. He looks at Soleil, the Minnie Mouse shirt is tucked out, one shoe off, tutu skirt inside out, label seated proudly just below her belly button. How? Did we stop to pee? He cannot remember. Then he begins to laugh.
“I can’t explain that honestly,” he surrenders his arms, “let me look at the little prince.”
“Don’t book the ears already,” Abigail says.
“I mean, just look them, I don’t have to say.” he laughs, “These are exactly our ears.”
He has been thinking about his father and grandfather lately. What they would do, what they wouldn’t, and what he wouldn’t. He worries he tries too much. The yellow bouquet, still voluminous, lays on the bed still undedicated.
“Soleil picked these,” he tries to salvage the moment, but he knows he doesn’t need to, she’s happy. She smiles in her way of saying everything is perfect.
“Soleil, this is your little brother,” he tries to show her, carefully peeking at the little face covered in rolls of white cotton, and whispering “mon petit chou” to him.
Soleil, excited, jumps around screaming, “He’s also a little cabbage, he’s also a little cabbage.”
“It can also mean cream puffs Soleil, maybe he’s a cream puff right?” Kizito tells her.
“No, you’re little cabbage, baby is little cabbage,” she is defiant.
“Okay Soleil, you’re also a little cabbage, so we are all little cabbages.” He smiles.
Charlie Muhumuza is an emerging Ugandan writer, whose work has been featured on The Kalahari Review, and the IBUA Journal. He lives in Kampala, Uganda.
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