“I started drinking alcohol the day I fell into Maama’s womb. Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking her up until she dried up dead.”
I have memorized the phrases often enough. I will recite them word by word to my grandfather, Mukulu, this evening on our way to Tongo’s bar. Fleshy lies! Mukulu will say. I would know; Mukulu always tells me that everything Jjaja Mukyala says when she is angry is nothing but lies. Nonsense!
Jjaja Mukyala’s hatred for me was born the minute she opened the door of her mud-and-wattle-house to let me and Aunty Lito inside. When Aunty Lito introduced herself as Maama’s former friend and explained that I was the child of Jjaja Mukyala’s only son, the late Damulira, Jjaja Mukyala told Aunty Lito not to talk ill of her dead son, and then she hurried to the bedroom and returned with a bowl of water. She darted around the house, dipping a small bundle of bisenke grass into the bowl and spraying spurts of water in the corners and on the walls. She said she was safeguarding her house with holy water because I wasn’t her grandchild but a curse.
Ever since then, Jjaja Mukyala’s anger toward me has been relentless. I was seven years then. Now I am ten and I know that she thinks I'm a pest.
But Mukulu loves me. He calls me his grandson.
This afternoon Jjaja Mukyala ordered me to fetch water and fill up the hundred-liter water drum to the brim. She has never asked me to fill this drum before. I suspect she wants to keep me occupied so I won’t escort Mukulu to the bar.
Mukulu goes to bars often, and every time he takes me with him. He says he needs me because someone has to hold his walking stick in case he needs to it. Mukulu never uses his walking stick, not even when he is drunk. He takes me with him to keep me away from Jjaja Mukyala at night.
This is my fifth trip from the borehole. Already my neck has reacted to the weight of this twenty-liter jerry can; it is so stiff that every step I make revives the pain. Yet I have to keep going. The water drum is only halfway full.
Jjaja Mukyala sits sideways on the ground under the bent stall by the roadside, where she sells smoked fish the size of my palms, tomatoes the size of my nose, and half-rotten vegetables, nakati and bbuga. She’s stretched her legs in front of her, her dirty feet almost touching the ditch of stagnant water that separates her stall from the road. She has her arms crossed under her hefty breasts as if for support, and she is wearing that tight black-and-pink sleeveless blouse and a brown skirt, the clothes she wears almost every day. Clothes which outline the abundant flesh on her arms, chest, stomach, and waist compared to the sparse flesh on her exposed legs.
I am trying my best to avoid her, so I take the longer route behind the house, and then back to the front where the plastic water drum sits raised on kirundu logs. I haul myself up onto the platform I made with bricks. The platform helps me beat the height of the water drum. I steady my feet and as I empty the jerry can, I keep my eyes on the pouring water because I can feel Jjaja Mukyala’s venomous stare on my face. How I wish she could shout an insult at me; I prefer insults to the fiery streak in her eyes.
I watch the water as it rushes into the water drum with violent gushes exaggerated by the puncture at the top of the jerry can. During my fourth trip, the jerry can toppled off my head and landed on a sharp metal sticking out from the ground. Jjaja Mukyala will burn me alive if she learns of the mishap that befell her container.
I am surprised that she hasn’t thrown an insult at me since I started pouring out the water. Her insults no longer bother me. It’s what she says about dear dead Maama that bothers me. That’s why I can’t wait to have Mukulu back from town so we can go to the bar where he will get drunk. When Mukulu is drunk, he answers all my questions in detail. I will ask him to explain to me all that Jjaja Mukyala said about Maama.
Mukulu was drunk when he told me that he loved me, drunk when he told me that Maama loved me, that Maama’s friends Aunty Lito, Aunty Karo, and Aunty Naki, who took turns taking care of me after Maama died, all loved me. Every time he is drunk he tells me he is glad he has a grandson. He was drunk when he taught me the English alphabet and counting numbers. Every weekend, on our way from the bar, he teaches me the English tenses. He is the reason I am at the top of my class every term even though I miss school sometimes.
If he was here now he would be rescuing me from this weighty task…unless…His voice?
“Musika Musika, quick, quick, let’s go. Bring my walking stick. We are already late.”
Mukulu is back!
He calls me Musika, heir, because he says that everything he has belongs to me. Neither of them calls me by my name, Joshua Mondo. Jjaja Mukyala has different names for me. Mbwa gwe, kisiraani gwe, Muzimu gwe. But Mukulu also told me that she has a name for every curse and misfortune that has ever happened in her life. It’s not my fault that she chooses to christen her heap of misfortunes through me. So I ignore her insulting names.
“Yes, Mukulu!” I shake out the remaining water, jump off the platform, and then I dash across the compound to meet him, tell him I have five more jerry cans of water to fetch.
“No no no. That can wait. Get ready quick and bring my walking stick.” He’s just jumped the ditch and he is now towering over sulking Jjaja Mukyala.
I dash to the house.
Inside the house, in this multipurpose section that serves as my bedroom at night, and as the sitting room during the day, the window above my bed is open and the air carries the venom of Jjaja Mukyala’s words, stinging like hot ash in the eyes.
“Where are you going today?” she shouts at Mukulu. “To Brown’s? Tina’s? Disaster upon your journey! A fall! A muscle pull! A broken leg!”
Mukulu is still standing by her. I am worried he may be swayed by her outbursts of bad omens and decide against our outing. Again, Mukulu and I are going out of the kikubo neighborhood; we are going to Tongo’s bar! To Tongo’s bar more than anywhere else!
I love Tongo.
Among the many women who serve alcohol at the bars Mukulu and I have been to, Tongo is my favorite because she is a smiling woman just like Maama was. I would know. When I first asked Mukulu about Maama, he told me he never met her when she was still alive but the one thing he heard about her was that she was a smiling woman. “A woman who smiled for everyone,” he said.
Tongo smiles all the time. She smiles for me, and when she does, I see Maama’s love. And in her touch, when she pats my shoulders, I feel Maama’s love; I forget the loss I suffered as a baby.
Besides, it is at Tongo’s that I will get the remaining material for my catapult. I need a rubber string which I will steal from Mukayi’s bicycle carrier. Every time we go to Tongo’s bar, we find Mukayi drunk.
Yesterday I made a catapult. This weapon will protect us because these days we come back from the bars very late in the night. I secured a mupeera tree branch shaped in a letter Y. With a dab of saliva on my fingertips—I see Mukulu dab his fingers with saliva when he is fixing things—I tightly fastened a rubber band at the upper ends of the catapult. What I am missing is a longer, wider rubber string I will use to wrap around the Y-stick so that the smoothness of the stick is replaced by the roughness of the rubber string. The roughness is good for a perfect grip when shooting. And a perfect grip is useful for a good target. Last week I collected a full mug of smooth round stones which I will use as bullets for my catapult.
As I reach into the black polythene bag that cases my belongings, I pray that Mukulu runs away from Jjaja Mukyala’s outbursts soon. I pull out my light blue shirt—the only long-sleeved shirt I own, the one Mukulu bought me last Christmas—and my khaki shorts. I spread the shirt on my folded mattress, and then I make an effort to press out the creases with my hands. Then I wet the rag which is also my bathing sponge, and I use it to brush the dust off my feet.
Jjaja Mukyala suddenly storms inside the house. She finds me fidgeting with my torn zip.
“If you don’t stop going to bars with your grandfather, alcohol will slowly finish you off like it did your mother!” She spits at my feet.
More nonsense. She thinks I drink alcohol but I don’t. I don’t know if I will ever drink when I grow up. Mukulu says I should never drink. At the bars, he buys me mubisi, a sweet juice made from ripe bananas. At Tongo’s, Mukulu buys me Fanta soda, my favorite.
“Your little body is a mixture of alcohol, beer, tonto, malwa, mandule… eh! Njogereki ndekeki?” She bends over me but I don’t look up at her as she wants me to. She is standing so close to me that the putrid smell of the rotting nsenene in the basket she is holding is stinging my nostrils. I picked the nsenene yesterday, but she stopped me from frying them while they were still fresh. Now they are rotting and she still wants to eat them.
Mukulu enters the house. Out of the corner of my eye I look at him, hoping he will snatch the walking stick and raise it at Jjaja Mukyala to scare her off my ground. He does not. He continues across the room to his bedroom. But trust Mukulu. Once he notices that Jjaja Mukyala is being harsh to me, he will react.
“Take my walking stick, Musika,” he says. “And wait for me outside.”
Jjaja Mukyala shambles away and throws herself down by the door. Her hefty backside occupies half of the doorway. She is probably planning to grab my legs and whack my ankles with her knuckles as I pass by her.
“You will as well take him to the grave with you,” Jjaja Mukyala calls after us as we jump over the ditch. She is mumbling between a mouthful of the rotten nsenene, mixing words with exoskeletons, wings, and flesh.
I halt because I no longer hear the slap of Mukulu’s lugabire against his heels. I turn in time to see him match back toward Jjaja Mukyala. He stops right in front of her, looking down at her. I want to dash and hand him the walking stick so he hits her. I think Jjaja Mukyala needs a lesson that will make her stop harassing me but I stay still because I know Mukulu won’t hit her. It’s always been my wish to see Jjaja Mukyala feel the pain of a blow, a smack, a jab. Once she tastes the pangs, she will stop hurting me.
He is facing away but I know he is giving her the usual scowl, his wrinkles exaggerated with fury, the black balls of his eyes scorching her face. This is what he does every time she provokes him, scowl and glare. A few times he brandishes his walking stick but he never brings it down on her. He raises an open palm but he never strikes her.
She mumbles something that makes Mukulu turn away at once. She has probably told him “sorry” so he will leave her alone. Jjaja Mukyala is never sorry. Every day she continues to provoke him, and to harm me. Whenever Mukulu is not aware, she does something to me: steps on my foot, nudges me with her elbow, hits my head if she is passing by; and when she is seated, she pinches my calf muscles as I pass by her.
As usual I take the lead through Kikubo slums which make up our neighborhood. All the houses are low-built; now and again Mukulu bends down to dodge the elephant grass thatch that obstructs his way. I know all the short cuts through Kikubo. Crossing through the slums is not so easy since we have to jump over stinking ditches, and to walk over heaps of rubbish. Some of the heaps are mountainous so we have to meander around these mountains, stepping on remains of rotting dogs and cats, dodging broken bottles and tins. I walk with extra care because I don’t have shoes.
Sometimes, after school, I stroll around the slums looking for routes where we don’t have to jump ditches and to meander around rubbish mountains. I haven’t found any yet. Mukulu cannot jump the wider ditches. He connects his way across loose bridges. But I am not worried because I know he is too tall to drown if a bridge gave away and he fell in the sewage.
I am used to the routine of Mukulu’s silence, which in time has become my own silence. Everything around us speaks but us. I have a question for Mukulu but breaking our routine silence feels so wrong. I break it anyway.
“Mukulu, is it possible that something in your body can eat up … can drink up all the … blood?”
“Is it possible that … if someone drinks a lot of alcohol, does the alcohol drink up all her blood?”
“Is it something Jjaja Mukyala said?”
“Yes. That Maama died of alcohol. She started drinking young and died young. She drank too much alcohol until a time came when she could no longer drink; and then the alcohol in her body started drinking on her until she dried up dead.”
I slow my steps, waiting for the touch of his right hand on my shoulder. This is what he does when he is about to explain something to me.
I change my earlier pace, hurrying forward because I am angry and hurting; not from Mukulu’s silence but from my impatience. I should have waited until he was drunk. Mukulu never explains anything to me unless he is drunk.
I realize I have shown my anger to Mukulu, so I reduce my speed. I should never be angry with Mukulu. He loves me. His ability to teach and to explain things to me when he is drunk puzzles me. It makes me more confused about alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad and so good? Every day Jjaja Mukyala shouts, “If there is anything that will kill you it will be alcohol.” But Mukulu says that if there is anything that keeps him alive, it is alcohol. How can alcohol be so bad as to kill Maama, and yet so good as to keep Mukulu alive?
We hit the first ditch, the one that separates Taata Kiwa’s house from Taata Lule’s. Lule and Kiwa go to my school. The dirty brown foam on the surface of the ditch is bubbling like thick millet porridge boiling in a heating pot. Two days ago it filled to the brim during the torrent of rain that fell. The sewage level has lowered slightly but it’s still high enough to drown a two-year-old child, like what happened during the rain.
Two half-naked girls squat by the ditch breaking up pieces of loam-soil-made bricks and throwing the pieces into the foaming sewage; they giggle as the bigger pieces hit the sewage, forming more bubbles, and making a noise that sounds like the noise Jjaja Mukyala makes when she burps.
The bridge Mukulu has to cross over is made of two kifenensi logs placed several inches away from each other. I am happy that there is a bridge nearby so we don’t have to waste time searching; but I also know that we may not find the logs on our way back. Someone will probably steal them for firewood.
As I jump over the ditch, a stinking spatter of sewage settles on my left sleeve, leaving a dirty brown star on my shirt. I steal toward the girls and quickly knock each of them on the head with the base of Mukulu’s walking stick.
“Hold it!” Mukulu shouts, hurrying toward me.
“Look, Mukulu!” I confidently hold out my hand for him to see the ugly smudge on the shirt he bought me.
“What did I tell you about women?” He does not take his eyes away from my face. He does not give me the burning glare he gives Jjaja Mukyala, but he gives me the raised voice he never gives her.
“They are weak,” I say, trying to keep my voice low so the girls don’t notice that I am afraid. “They are the weaker sex.” I wish Mukulu, too, would lower his voice.
“And that I should never beat them.”
“And what did you just do?”
“They destroyed my shirt.”
“And what did you just do?”
“I knocked their heads with your walking stick.”
I quickly turn and say sorry to the girls only to appease Mukulu, but I don’t mean my apology. Inside I am glad I knocked their heads. They learned the lesson. Already they’ve stopped tossing stones in the ditch.
We are the last to arrive. All Mukulu’s friends—he calls them the generals—are seated on low benches inside Tongo’s one-room house. Mukayi’s bicycle is parked against Tongo’s water drum outside. The sun is still up but soon it will get dark, and Mukayi will get drunk, and he will ask me to transfer his bicycle to the veranda. I take my place on a fiber mat in the corner from where I can see Tongo go in and out of the pink-flowered cream curtain that separates her bed chamber from her bar.
Tongo has a different wig on her head today. And she is wearing a short red skirt. The generals pat and pinch her legs as she places glasses of alcohol on the small table in their midst. She laughs and promises to kick them but she does not. Other days, when she wears trousers, the generals pat her buttocks and she promises to slap them but she never does it. Everyone touches her except Mukulu. I wonder why.
Every time I see her place glasses on the table I wonder if Maama did it the same way. If Maama changed wigs like Tongo, if her lips were always bloody red. If there were generals in her bar who patted and pinched her legs and buttocks—I would shoot them with my catapult.
Tongo dances around, flailing her arms in the air. She is smiling. Then she sits on the table, taking care to avoid the glasses. This reminds me; what did Jjaja Mukyala mean yesterday when she said I was conceived on the table where Maama served her customers’ drinks? I will ask Mukulu on our way home.
We are on our way back home. The rubber string I stole from Mukayi’s bicycle is safely wrapped around my left leg, shielded by my khaki shorts. But its tightness is starting to cause me numbness. I feel like I will soon start to limp and Mukulu will notice. I want to pause and untie the string, but he will stop and watch me. I want to ask him my questions: how Maama conceived me on the table, how alcohol drank her dead, how I started drinking the day I fell into Maama’s womb, but I can’t. He will touch my shoulder to make me stop walking, and then he will start explaining. And I will fret and he will notice my discomfort. Mukulu can never know that I stole the rubber string. He can never think that I am a bad boy.
“Amaka Gange Amaggya” © Glaydah Namukasa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Merit Ronald Kabugo. All rights reserved.