Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is one of my favorite new novelists--see my profile of her "Let’s Tell This Story," and my interview with her, "Postcoloniality Sells"--and she's allowed me to post a short excerpt from her second novel, Nnambi, a work in progress. The novel is about a ten year old girl, Kirabo, growing up under the shadow of an absent mother.
“Once a day came?” Kirabo’s ten years old voice cut shrilly through the chatter of the teenagers. Their heads turned. The silence that fell could have brought down trees. Two dozen eyes bore into Kirabo. For some time, because of the silence, Kirabo’s call resonated in the air. Gradually, the teenagers’ ‘how dare’ turned to sullen anger.
Another child might have been intimidated by the umbrage. Not Kirabo. She stared straight, her mouth in a defiant pout. She was the kabejja of her grandparents, all the love in the house belonged to her. Tonight the teenagers, her uncles and aunts, would listen to her story. But Kirabo’s large eyes – the eyes were the first thing you saw on Kirabo’s skinny self – with eyelids darker than shadows and eyelashes as long as brush bristles, betrayed her. They blinked rapidly, a sign that she was not immune to the air in the room. Yet, for her, it had come to this; either she muscled her way through the incessant gossip and giggles of the big boys and girls or she would never tell the story.
No answer to her call.
The teenagers sat up on double-decker beds – some lay, some sat with their legs dangling, all were squeezed, two or three on a bed. They had gathered in the girls’ bedroom, as they normally did after supper, to converse. Though Kirabo was not welcome to these chatters, she always sneaked into the room. Today the teenagers did not notice her until she called out. By then it was too late to throw her out.
Kirabo sat, leg tucked under her bottom, on the floor close to a kerosene candle. It lit the room only partially, throwing her shadow, elongated like a mural and twitchy like a spectre, against the wall. The teenagers’ refusal to respond to her call made her falter. She looked down at the candle’s yellow flame. A slender column of smoke rose and streamed steadily up, up to the beams. The flame was puny and vulnerable. It had flickered when she called out.
Kirabo could not begin her story until she was invited by the listeners. A savage thought occurred to her. She would whistle the candle out and turn the room blind dark. And to annoy them properly she would say, kalyonso, as you do to someone who deserves their aggravation. She would then scamper off to Grandfather’s bedroom taking the matchbox with her, leaving them squirming in the dark. Then they would have reason to be sullen.
Kirabo’s good-self, the sensible one, prevailed. She cradled the candle flame between her palms to protect it from her breath. Her evil-self, which brought on rash and destructive thoughts, retreated. Her breathing slowed, her palms fell away from the flame and she looked up briefly. Whenever an injustice happened to Kirabo, her evil-self reared its head and did horrible things.
Still no response.
It was getting awkward. The surly air felt sticky on the back of her neck. Grandmother and Grandfather had retired to their bedrooms, otherwise they would have replied to her call by now. Kirabo pursed her lips tight. Why were there so many big boys and girls in her home? Sometimes the sheer number of them in the house made her feel like a calf in a kraal. Most of them came on the bus from nowhere, uninvited, and crowded her home as if it was a bus station. They arrived at the beginning of the first school term and the following day Grandfather took them to one of the three secondary schools close by. After that, they became part of the family, calling Grandmother maama and Grandfather taata.
Kirabo tried to blink away her bad thoughts. The teenagers came because her grandfather, Miiro, was good at keeping children in school. He was on the board of governors for all three secondary schools and his house was close by them. Also, they were nieces and nephews of her grandparents. Still she wanted to say, go back wherever you came from if you don’t want to listen to my stories.
"Kin, you were our eyes."
Grandfather's invitation, from the room next door, leapt over the wall and Kirabo sat up. He was listening! Her face was a beam of triumph. Grandfather had felt the teenagers’ rejection and intervened. Kirabo was exultant. She had worked hard on her story. She had told it to Giibwa – her best friend when they did not fight – and she was envious, awed. Then she tried it on Grandmother, and everyone knew Grandmother did waste words on empty compliments. She had said, “Your skill is growing.” The day before, when Kirabo took the goats to graze, she stood on top of an anthill and told it to the plain – singing the song, clapping and swaying and gesticulating, her voice carrying far – and the story had come out so perfect that the goats stood in silence.
Now she started again,
Once a day came when a man called Luzze married his woman! ...
“Mswuu,” a lad close-by sucked his teeth quietly, “would he marry your woman instead?’
Kirabo ignored him.
They had many children, but alas, they were all girls...
“Aaaah!” a girl sighed as if the story was already predictable, not worth listening to.
Luzze became sad as every birth the woman brought forth another girl. At first, Luzze thought it was just bad luck that only girl children kept coming. But then the woman turned it into a habit; every time, girl, girl, girl, girl, eh!
Finally, Luzze decided to do something about it. He summoned the woman inside the house. She came in from the kitchen and knelt before him. Luzze adjusted himself on his stool and started,
"You’ve let me down,” Kirabo's voice was now deep. “Every time you’ve done nothing but bring forth a girl." He paused and puffed on his pipe thoughtfully, “I’ve been thinking,” Luzze paused again. “I’ve decided to bring someone else to help you.”
Kirabo took a breath. The air in the room had not yet forgiven her.
That year Luzze married another woman. They had many children but once again they were all girls. Luzze despaired, Kirabo dropped her head. “What is wrong with me? Why do I marry girl-bearing women?” Luzze wished that girl-bearing women were labelled so he could avoid them. But still he took his chance and married yet another woman. She bore him many children, but once again, they were all girls.
One day, when he had had enough, Luzze called all his three women into the house and announced,
“From today onwards,” he had no pipe this time, he jabbed a finger at each woman in turn, “if you or you or you bears me another female, don’t bother bringing her home."
The women went away frightened. Each knew that unless something was done, she would bring home a daughter the following year.
That year, the women worked harder. Eventually, they all fell pregnant. The first one to deliver had a daughter; one look at the offensive child and she was packing. The second woman too delivered; it was a girl and she left with her daughter. When the third delivered, it was a boy! Oh, she held her breasts with joy. But wait; there was something left in the stomach. She pushed and out came a hefty girl. The woman despaired. She looked first at her son and then at the daughter, at the son again and then the daughter. She made up her mind.
Next to her was an anthill – you know in those days babies were delivered in banana plantations. The anthill had a big hole that opened into the ground. The woman picked up the baby girl and stuffed her inside the hole. She promised to come back later and feed her. Then, with the boy properly swathed in backcloth, she carried him home and presented him to Luzze.
Oh, the celebrations. The jubilation. They went on for weeks and weeks.
Luzze named the boy Mulinde because he had waited a long time for him. Meanwhile, every day, the woman crept back to the plantation and nursed her daughter. Every time as she stuffed her back into the hole, the woman would shhhh her, “Stay quiet: we don’t want to be discovered!” But as the daughter grew older, she devised songs to keep herself company and to make the darkness bearable. Meanwhile, Mulinde played out in the gardens and in the fields and ran up the hills and climbed the trees.
One day, Mulinde walked towards the anthill. When he got closer, he heard a sweet but sad voice singing,
We were born multiple like twins – Wasswa.
But father had dropped a heavy word – Wasswa.
That if you bear a girl, don’t bring her home – Wasswa.
But a boy, a boy, bring the boy home – Wasswa.
I keep my own company with song – Wasswa.
Oh Wasswa you are a lie – Wasswa.
Oh Wasswa you are a lie – Wasswa.”
Even though Mulinde was not a twin, the song tugged at his heart. Even when he went home the song would not leave him alone. The following day he was drawn back to the anthill to hear the song and the day after and every day. At mealtime, he kept some of his food – that was all he could think of – and when he got a chance, he crept to the banana plantation and threw the food down the hole of the anthill. Still the sad song came.
Eventually, Luzze noticed that Mulinde was growing cheerless. When he asked him what was wrong, Mulinde had no words to explain his misery. Luzze was so troubled that he kept a close eye on him. In time, he observed a pattern. Firstly, Mulinde did not eat all his food: he hid some. Then he disappeared into the plantation with the food. For a while, Luzze let it pass: children play all sorts of games.
But then it went on and on until Luzze decided to follow the boy. What he saw almost blinded him. Mulinde walked up to the anthill in the matooke plantation and when he got close, the anthill started to sing. Instead of running away, Mulinde walked right up to the anthill and threw his food down the hole. The song stopped but after a short pause, the anthill sang again – a sad tormenting song.
Luzze ran home and sounded the ‘nation come’ alarm drums – gwanga mujje, gwanga mujje, gwanga mujje.
All men, wherever they were, whatever they were doing, picked up their weapons and converged in Luzze’s courtyard armed with shields and spears, bows and arrows and, e mbukuli!
When they had gathered, Luzze addressed them,
“Brothers, this is not for shivering cowards. Something beyond words is in my plantation, inside an anthill,” he pointed towards the matooke plantation. Whatever it is, we must approach with caution. I suggest that liquid hearted men stay here with the women.”
The real men, warriors mostly, tightened their girdles and started by surrounding the banana plantation. Slowly, they closed in on the anthill – their tread soft as if the earth would crumble, palms sweating around the spears, muscles strained as they crouched – until the anthill was tightly surrounded. Sure enough it started to sing. The bravest, Luzze – it was his own garden – put his spear down and started to dig the anthill. The others watched.
After a long while of digging deftly, of scratching carefully and of scooping the earth away, a girl child emerged. She was fully-formed only crumpled. The men threw their spears down and wiped their sweat – what else could they do in the face of a singing child?
Even though the sun blinded her and she had to shield her eyes with her hand to look at the huge warriors, even though she was as pale as a queen termite from the lack sunshine, even though she was surrounded by a vast world she did not understand, the girl sang again.
“We were born multiple like twins – Wasswa.
But father had dropped a heavy word – Wasswa.
That if you bear a girl don’t bring her home – Wasswa.
But a boy, a boy, bring him home – Wasswa. …”
Luzze listened to the song and looked at his son. He took a long look at the girl and then at his son again. They were twins! Kdto! His anger mounted. When he was properly swollen, he exploded,
“Where is she,” and lodged his spear into the earth with such force that it quivered.
The misnaming of his family! A Wasswa called Mulinde? And the poor girl denied of sunlight? Then there was himself – Ssalongo, the ultra-virile called mere Luzze like ordinary men!
“Today she shall see me,” he promised the world. “She should get off my land before I kill her. I should not find her in my house.”
But apart from Luzze’s anger, nothing else was said; just a long hush that fell over the warriors and over the banana plantation and stretched up to where the women and the cowards stood. From time to time, the warriors shook their heads and sucked their teeth and sighed, but they had no words to say. Their spears lay useless on the ground. You see, in the face of a singing child, the weapons accused the warriors.
“Women,” one of the warriors finally started, “the way they seem so weak and helpless that you look at them kindly. But I am telling you beneath that helplessness they’re deep, a dangerous depth without a bottom!” He nailed the last words into a fist with an invisible hammer. “You live with them, love them and have children with them like they are fellow humans, but wuuubi,” and he whistled, “I am telling you right here, right now, you know nothing – you know nothing about them."
“Kdto! Even then my brother," the other man shook his head quietly, "this one,” he pointed to the anthill, “is a woman and a half.”
At that moment I decided to leave. The other men were restraining Luzze lest he did something they would all regret. The women, now having drawn close to the anthill to see the child for themselves, were especially wrathful that a woman who woke up one morning and developed breasts, could bury her own child in an anthill! What about the other women that left with their daughters? Weren’t they women enough? It was such women that brought disgrace on all womankind. “And you wonder why the world thinks that all women all evil.”
Much as I wanted to stay and see it all, I, Kirabo, could not wait for the woman’s retribution. I hurried back home on these feet, Kirabo pointed to her feet to show that indeed she had just arrived from storyland, to tell the tale.
There was such silence all over the house that Kirabo became uneasy. Her eyes darted here and there. Had her story not regaled them as she had hoped? Then, Miiro broke out,
"Ohhhh: is this a griot or is she something else?” He clapped his hands. “Ah ah! I've never seen anything like this before! Ktdo,” he clicked his tongue, “this child is just like my grandmother. When my grandmother raised her voice in a tale, kdto, even the mice fell silent."
“Dala dala!” Grandmother agreed quietly.
No one else complimented Kirabo. The boys slid off the beds and ambled towards their bedroom. The girls stretched and yawned.
Kirabo’s head dropped and her eyes started to burn. That was when she asked,
"Where is my mother?” It was a whisper. Her lower lip, widening with hurt, quivered. “I want to go to my mother," she lifted her right hand to her eyes. There was no doubt in Kirabo’s mind that her own mother would have loved that story.
The big boys and girls snapped to attention. Suddenly they marvelled at Kirabo’s skills. If Miiro heard what Kirabo had just said and knew that she had been made to long for her mother, someone was going to cry. Kirabo had to be consoled before she went to bed: Kirabo slept in her grandfather's bedroom.
"Did you hear her story,” someone asked belatedly, “that child is gifted."
"Too gifted,” a boy said, “I could not tell stories like that at her age."
"You must be sleepy Kirabo," one of the girls, Gayi, caressed her cheek. "I'll take you outside so you can relieve yourself before you go to bed." She pulled Kirabo’s hand away from the eyes and held it lovingly. Gayi led her out of the bedroom, into the sitting room, where she picked up a hurricane lamp, and outside the house. But their attention had come too late; Kirabo had already slumped into self-pity.
"I must be a witch," she whispered to Gayi as she squatted to pass water. But Kirabo did not explain that she was a witch because she had two selves, that one did bad things and flew out of her body, because even Gayi would not understand. She was peeing near the bustani hedge that grew around the toilet and the open bath cubicle. Though she was not allowed to squat there, no one told her off. She did not want to go inside the dark toilet because of the lizards and cockroaches and knew that the teenagers would not dare stop her for fear of making her cry.
"Don't say things like that, Kirabo."
"Then where is she?"
"We don’t know: no one knows," Gayi shook her head sadly. “In God’s truth, the one in heaven, we don’t know!”
Everyone else was silent. Kirabo could feel their anxiety as if she had opened a door they would rather keep closed. She did not believe they did not know who her mother was; had she fallen from the sky?
"Don't think about her Kirabo," Gayi brought the hurricane lamp close to Kirabo’s face and looked in her eyes. "Think about your father, Tom, and how he loves you.”
At this there were a lot kyekyo and dala dala from the teenagers as if they had rehearsed a chorus.
“And then you know how Grandmother and Grandfather will give up the world for you," Gayi added.
“Too true,” a boy agreed, “if you died today, Kirabo, I swear those two would offer to be buried instead of you.”
Kirabo smiled despite her misery. Those three, Tom and her grandparents loved her beyond words. Grandmother loved her quietly but Grandfather’s love was very loud. As for Tom, his love was in a hurry; Kirabo had not yet learnt to call him taata because everyone else called him Tom. Still, Kirabo thought, again they have avoided telling me about my mother. She could not ask her grandparents about her because, if she did, it would be saying to them that their love was not enough.
She waited for the big boys and girls taking turns to use the toilet. She looked up at the sky. The moon was mean and remote, the stars static and scanty. Night was indifferent. A shooting star fell from the sky but before she gasped, kibunomu, it was gone. Where was her mother? What was she doing? Perhaps she rejected her because she knew she had given birth to a child with two selves. A mother would know such things. Perhaps she had known that her child would become a witch and she abandoned her. Did she start to fly out of her body when she was a baby? The thought filled Kirabo with dread. Her skin started to thicken with goose pimples. If only she could stop the flights!
It was then, as she rubbed the goose bumps on her arms, that Kirabo decided to consult Nsuuta, the village witch. One problem stood in the way to Nsuuta, she was Grandmother’s enemy. Visiting her would be not only to indulge in sorcery. It would be to betray Grandmother. Witchery, treachery, committing both atrocities at once. But that night, considering the situation, with the night being so scornful, and none of her family offering to help find her mother, and with the fear that she might be a witch hanging over her, Kirabo decided that Nsuuta was the only option.