The Crypt

Living in a maze, one does not know what is real and what’s an illusion. The roads, windswept and trodden hundreds of times in the hot African sun; many hot African suns, are not clearly defined even at high noon. It is the dust swirling around the weary traveller, but it is also the ghosts of opposition.

The opposition is always present: lurking in the shadows even when the words out of the mouths of the usual allies are positive, inviting. Opposition is what defines some journeys making the slog that much more unpleasant.

Red. There’s a red mist hanging over the world. The bull that looks through these lenses sees red even when the actual color on any given code may be green.

Red. Because in this brave new world, the robot overlords are already comfortable in their lofty places.

There was a time when all our overlords where green. But those are old days. The old masters are on a dung heap, their green paint is peeling off and they are soon to fade from living memory.

So here we are. Seeing red. Blocked at every level, knowing there’s no way to even dream of turning the code to green again.

Red. There’s no escape. The old bridges are ashes now. What’s more, bridges are not made the old way anymore. We stand on this beach and try to look to sea. For any sign we’ll be rescued. We do not want to be marooned another minute.

But then we know also, deep in our consciences, the red robots are with us for ever.

 

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Random meetings

I work at different locations, and cities, in a week. My job requires me to drive to different stores often far from my home.

I visit Fremont, CA twice a week.

Now I love to travel. It gives me some badly needed alone time. That’s when I think best. Scratch that; there’s nothing new there.

Driving, like doing the dishes and folding laundry allows the conscious mind to disengage just enough so the right brain can take over. And that’s where all the creativity lurks. In dreams, visions and kick-ass awesomeness.

The drive to Fremont from my home is a good 80 miles, so even when I am doing more than the 65mph limit (and California drivers are likely to be over in any given morning), I am comfortable because that’s when I really think.

Lately though, I am wondering if this stop is worth it. The gas re-embursement is to die for, I admit. The shady characters hanging around the store where I do my merchandising is not.

I am old enough to look with disdain at 25 year olds with sagging pants and frown. Ok, even 30 year olds.

It’s like every Friday morning when I pull up at the place, there are as many as 30 young men and a few young women who, by the way, always look ill-fitting in the posse.

There’s the one with the tired look. She’s very light and probably not fully African-American, but also not Caucasian. In a past life, she used to be beautiful.

She is always there, standing with the boys and taking swig after swig out of her Modelo as if to match the pace of the guys standing around.

This morning, I saw another girl, younger than the first. She was of small build and she was sucking on a cig like her life was directly drawn from the stick.

She seemed to be here against her better judgement. She opened the door to the black truck parked in the air section, sat in the back seat then got out again, went over to a white garden table, grabbed a large bottle with what looked like piss in it, pressed it to her lips and chugged.

The boys are more comfortable. After the last elections, marijuana was freed. It is not unusual to see saggy pants weighed down by bags of the stuff, with other bags in both hands of the wearer. It is open season on being high.

This morning was a little different than others. Usually, I arrive and to while away the minutes as I wait for my truck to deliver the merch, I observe the world around me and basically just sink into day dreams.

I went into the store and got a hot cup of coffee and sat back in my little Mazda and immediately felt a difference in the air. I looked up and there were two guys, one with a bad Mohawk and the other, a Caucasian male, sporting deeds in that fashion that makes you want to plead to Jah to explain that you don’t have fi dred to be rastahhh.

Anyway, the way they were staring at me made me uneasy.

Whatever they were saying, since I couldn’t hear it my windows rolled-up, I didn’t want it to be something that would propel them to take a step in my direction.

Now I am all for reasoned conversations and I am a firm believer in Isaiah 1:18, but these dudes were not looking reasonable. What’s worse, I had been seeing them smoke up globule after globe in their multi-colored bongs.

One of them came forward.

Many times, when I speak to natives here, the first rude question they’ll ask is,”Where are you from?”

Now I usually turn it into an opportunity and wax lyrical about Uganda, thanks UTB, send my check tomorrow. It’s easy when you’re not thinking you’re a subject of mistaken identity.

He was asking me something. I rolled down my window. “Can I help you?” I asked him not unlike an undercover cop.

“My boy and I was arguing, what year is your wheels, bro?”

Sigh of relief.

If you’re talking about a brother’s car, have the decency to smile.

 

 

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A long history of violence

At the long table with most members of his family, The Man thought how remarkable it was that history had persistently pushed its way into all their lives and caused sharp unavoidable turns. The many gray heads at different positions around the family table were punctuated with heads with a multitude of colors and texture.

It was a family day just like many the gathering had enjoyed before. The loud voices skipped easily over the sounds of forks and other cutlery as the famed cooking of Great Nana was consumed: beans, chicken, potatoes, rice, pork, beefsteak, peanut gravy, yam, corn…the long table adjacent to the dinner place where they all sat was as heavy laden as the place where the different generations ate, laughed and spoke, seemingly all at once.

Uncle Z, a well-travelled, stately gentleman, who also had the characteristic pushy nature of Ugandans who have travelled the world, who have gone back home and realised things are not what they should be like, but when they’ve raised their voices, have been met with blank stares. Uncle Z had been there. He had run for the parliamentary seat of his county and lost to a seemingly backward equally-pompous political type who had been in the game for far longer.

“What do you make of this strange push for closed borders, this fever burning up the world?” he asked no one in particular. Most people around the table had an idea where this was likely to go: he asked because he expected nobody would offer an opinion and he would gladly supply his. As always.

It was a Sunday afternoon and the meal was mostly sitting in the distended bellies of young and elderly in the big airy room. Uncle Z started to speak, but he was cut off by his father, Gramps Olughase. “It is the violence,” the old man, closing in on his 96th birthday, said simply.

Now everybody turned reverently in his direction. Though the room had people from many corners of the world, many who had joined the family through marriage, the respect for Olughase went beyond cultures and borders.

Olughase had lived an eventful life. He rarely spoke about it, but those who sought to know more about his life did not have to dig too deep to know the man. He was the embodiment of the history of his country. Beyond that, he had not let history just happen to him; he had been involved and he had in his way changed the course of its flow.

“How do you mean, Gramps?” one young girl with almost yellow skin asked.

“The violent nature of humans. That’s what is happening. The fever is breaking, but first the world will twist and turn violently,” the old man spoke as though he was trying to recite bad poetry. It was not clear if he was just being dramatic with his dystopian judgement, or if it was all down to a senior moment.

A voice from the living room, where a few people had retired to recline, having been floored by the food, rang out.

“Ask me about violence. I have seen it.”

It was Raj. Originally from India, he and Monica, The Man’s sister, had met while at college. After 10 years of marriage, which were mostly spent travelling the world working for the United Nations, both had decided to settle in Uganda.

April 12, 2007

Raj was newly arrived in Kampala. He was all about exploring the country, see the parks and meet the people before taking up a position with the World Bank office in Kampala.

He was in a Pajero being driven by Musa, the family’s chauffeur of 20 years. Being a Thursday, it was important for this trip to go as planned. Raj had to meet the prime minister to conclude negotiations for a planned major agricultural project. Thursday was when the week ended for government types.

It was the boda bodas whizzing past erratically that alerted Raj there was something in the air. Too erratically.

Boda drivers all over Africa have their own law. You do not cross into the road as a pedestrian without permission from them. It doesn’t matter if the road signs say ,’No Motorcycle Taxis,’ or if the traffic flow should be in one direction, bodas will break all rules.

But on this Thursday, Raj who had been in Uganda for only a four months knew enough about the chaotic bikers to notice when the madness had been kicked up many notches. Even in his air-conditioned sanctuary of a rich man’s vehicle, the pungent fear colored the atmosphere.

Then at Clock Tower, Musa came to a stop at an all-too-common scene in Kampala: an accident. From what he could see, Raj thought the unfortunate Asian-looking man in a dark shirt and cream colored slacks had knocked another man. A journalist from the paraphernalia strewn near him.

A mob was forming fast. There had been demonstration that the journalist, later to be identified as one who worked for Radio One, was covering. Many locals were angry that the government was planning to hand over a portion of Mabira Forest to a sugar baron. The frustration was over what activists said was the government’s intransigence about having a discussion with the nation on the deal.

Soon, the Asian-looking man was yanked off his motorcycle and hurled to the ground. His pleas were drowned out by the louder voices, incoherent with a hundred screams, mouths turned into ugly gashes exposing teeth fanged and ready to bite. The thirst for answers was quickly morphing into a thirst for something darker: blood.

Raj did not know who threw the first stone. In these cases it is not easy to know. Musa, always quick thinking, knew who would be the next target in the next few seconds. It was almost a certainty that the Asian-looking, now on the ground slowly disappearing under a cloud of dust, man was going to die.

Somehow, Musa turned that Pajero around and gunning the engine (and sending the message clearly that if anyone stood in the way, they would surely die), he raced back to Tank Hill, Muyenga, where sanity ruled.

When the dust settled, the world was looking at Uganda in that all-too-farmiliar light: another mad episode in an african basket case country. There were many casualties of the madness that day, but the lasting image was one circulated widely of the Asian-looking man, dead, with another man pulling on his finger trying to remove a gold ring.

Raj’s reverie was interrupted by the voice of Uncle Cayeman. The older members of the extended family knew the origins of his unusual name.

His name was Kayibanda. He had the unfortunate distinction of having lived through two genocides and then the ensuring the Xenophobia in Uganda.

“It is true. It is a madness that many people do not understand,” he said in a measured thoughtful tone. He had a British accent, cultivated over 20 years. “I have lived long enough to know that when ugliness tears rears its head, at that moment when the head is still a small insignificant thing, it must be stomped on. Viciously.”

He went on to tell the story he had told to countless audiences around the world. The itinerant professor had found a home in Britain, changed his name perhaps in the unconscious belief that this would help him put distance between him and his unhappy past.

He was now a British citizen. He had earned his pips in academics and he had grabbed at his new life with zest.

He had married a Bradford girl and settled to a quiet life, only to be drawn back to Uganda, and ultimately to Rwanda by way of marriage. Yvonne, his daughter had married Jimmy the second son of Uncle Z.

Because Yvonne and Jimmy had no qualms about returning to the old country, countries in their case, Kayibanda had no option but to make that difficult journey back to where it all started. He realized he could not escape from his history.

April 6, 1994

On that Wednesday night, Kayibanda, slightly over 35, was working late at the ministry of information in Kigali when his phone rang.

He reached for it as he continued sorting the documents he was preparing for a meeting the next day with the directors of media houses. For months, he had been trying to convince his boss that a better handling of the rhetoric on national radio was needed.

His analysis that the increased references to ethnicity, especially demonising of Tutsis, on radio was eventually going to lead to chaos had finally been accepted amid increasing calls for a final solution, openly advocated by radio presenters. His boss had told him to put together a work plan to direct media houses on how to control the narrative.

The rotary dial telephone on his desk rang and when he picked it, a voice on the other end of the line whispered that he should get out of the office now. He did not know who it was. Briefly, the voice said President Habyarimana was dead and that all Tutsis were going to be killed.

As crazy as the message sounded, Kayibanda did not wait around. He had heard enough hate spewed over the airwaves.

He grabbed his tiny radio, a Sound Solo, and left the building. He did not have many family members as his mother had died two years previously. His father had died in 1959 when Kayibanda was only two months old.

President Habyarimana had been rumored on the verge of signing a peace deal with rebels fighting his government. The rebels, mostly Tutsis, were believed to have been supported by the army of Uganda next door.

Kayibanda had taken to moving with his passport at all times. He called a diplomat friend at the Gregoire Kayibanda International Airport, later to be renamed Kigali International Airport. There were road blocks but there was also chaos. The soldiers seemed in disarray. Kayibanda connected it all to the reports on his Sound Solo in the passenger seat: the BBC was reporting that President Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira had been killed in a plane crash as they were about to land at the very airport Kayibanda was driving to. He needed to think fast. It could mean only one thing. A dark cloud had descended on Kigali, but he had to find his way out.

Pierre, his U.N. peace force commander friend, seemed to have been expecting him when arrived at his office after a circuitous route to avoid any roadblocks. He already had three other people, who later revealed they were also Tutsi. Pierre got the group onto a military flight to Nairobi.

It was not clear to Kayibanda if the 100 days of slaughter in 1994 were worse than the senselessness of 1959 through 1961. That prior nightmare took Kayibanda’s father and made the family, that had been proud of their heritage and connections to Rwanda’s Umwami to a life of servitude in Uganda where the majority Baganda employed the newcomers as herdsmen to take care of their animals and to tend the shambas.

The years leading into the Museveni era in Uganda were increasingly years of the Tutsis regrouping quietly in their dirty shamba boy clothes, disarming smiles and a burning heat in their breasts imploring them to head back home. Many Rwandans changed their names to sound Ugandan, often because of the disdain many Ugandans looked down on them with. The refugees held up the economy of Buganda, producing matooke and milk and making the central Ugandan tribe even more fiancially strong, but all this was taken for granted. Not many Baganda thought the end would come and the Balaalo would one day get up and go, taking all their industry with them.

Kayibanda remembered all this.

Now

The Man cleared his throat. He was third generation and he did not often speak up in the presence of all the old bazeei. But the passion was running free now.

“I do not know what to call my experience then,” he began. “It seems this cancer, what you have called the madness, this fever that has boiled under our skins for so long and which breaks out every so often, it is hidden in our very beings. We do not know how to get to it and extract it for good.”

“How do you mean,” Olughase asked.

“I am talking about the madness that grips a crowd that was peacefully demonstrating against this injustice or that. The moment when secondary school students with genuine complaints against a headmaster lead the whole school, with the student council bosses up front, but then at some point, somebody throws a rock into the glass of the dining hall. Nobody can explain it when the dust settles and the wounds are stitched and the parents are called to take their wayward sons back home, away from Busoga College Mwiri.”

The Man described the madness that is talked about by philosophers on bar stools with enough liquor in their system to get away with saying out loud what they want to do with people “who come from the west” when Museveni finally leaves the scene. The same madness that caused terror when the Kabaka was blocked from visiting Kayunga in September 2009. The madness was in Ugandans turning on other Ugandans and demanding that they sing the Buganda anthem, failure of which would result in any kind of violence.

But The Man had also witnessed the madness in seemingly innocuous gestures. like when in school, students would say to him, “Oh, but you are different. Not like other Basoga.” Or when a relative of his girlfriend, thinking he did not understand his language, described The Man as Omukooko. These are the seeds that, in The Man’s opinion, germinate into full fledged violence. It was a cry for air to breath.

The violence had followed members of this family wherever they went. Maybe it was because it was part of their DNA; however much they washed off the grime and tried to separate themselves from the Great Unwashed of Nakivubo, there was no escape.

 

 

 

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A time to fight

What does it mean to be a creative in Uganda today? To ask this is the same as to ponder the implications of self expression in an ever-narrowing space.

The detention of Makerere academic, Stella Nyanzi was watched with curiosity by many who might have a stake in the creative economy of Uganda.

A government that made an effort to pretend to be different from those for whose excesses it justified it’s emergence has thrown away all pretensions: it is Byron Kawadwa vs Idi Amin all over again some would say.

Nyanzi’s use of provocative langage has riled many in the past few years. Even many who would normally describe themselves as progressive, have criticized her “profane” attacks on personalities. 

Before Nyanzi’s “pair-of-buttocks” saga, before the drama that has followed her for the last few years, she was better known among the creative writing set for her expressive use of language. She was not known to shy away from the hot potatoes of the day, but she was still flying under the radar. At least publicly, it was not overt that the powers that be had any problem with her.

The argument that she could have crossed a line when she went after the president’s wife could be valid, but this too might be simplistic. A political family that has weathered insults for decades was incensed by the crude imagery spouted by an activist? The family that has ignored critics and/or eventually bought them off?

It is hard to imagine Nyanzi’s words were too horrible to even try to silence her in less public ways. Cue all the top critics who have mellowed over the years only to end up with corner offices in nondescript government-connected houses doubling as offices in Kololo. If your favourite columnist who says all manner of truth-telling to power has not stopped, chances are efforts have been underway to buy them into the NRM fold for some time now.

Yoweri Museveni famously ignored the innuendo in tabloids until some stories started hitting too close to home. To the truth, maybe?

This seeming use of a machine gun for a mosquito might be part of a bigger push, and it might be directed to creative’s in the country.

Revolutions are sustained by the willing masses, but the messaging has got to be right or else they will be stillbirths. The messaging is crafted by the artists, the singers, the wisemen; those with too much kerere.

And that’s the crux of the matter.

When the artists stop doing what the regime would rather have them do and turn their attention to the day’s pains, if you are a government analyst, it is time to earn your pay by pointing out that a hydra head is growing and it has to be cut off.

Museveni’s war had its own sound track. When the rag-tag revolutionaries stumbled hungry and wornout into Kampala in 1986, songs accompanied them. Videos on national TV gave us musical soldiers like Sgt. Kifulugunyu. Omoto Nawaka was a delightful ear worm. So one would say this government knows the power of the arts in revolution.

There was a time when creative people were just the entertainment. They provided the cheap thrills but nothing would come of their views.

It was a general African way of thinking. This is why when Gaetano Kaggwa, Uganda’s first Big Brother Africa housemate was believed to have had sex on TV with Abergail Plaatjes of South Africa, even when he was considered by many to have been the most popular housemate, he had already lost the prize. Columnist Timothy Kalyegira at the time predicted Kaggwa would lose because of this blunder.

But times changed. Government is not ignoring creative’s anymore. Right now, Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) is running for political office. We have of course already elected a professional comedian to Parliament. We know that when nusicians marshal their armies on social media, things get done. The 40-40 organisation, without resorting to government patronage has taken on social issues, like building a dormitory for needy children. The creative’s are coming.

What it all means is that if you are going to be a creative person in Uganda today, you need to choose your weapons carefully. Because this is not child’s play anymore.

Everything you write, all the songs you compose; your audience just grew exponentially and your words carry weight. Are you ready to change your writing style so no one will be able to ignore you? Are you able to stand up to the government?

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The Anti Christ wears a golden halo

“Donald Trump is the Anti Christ!”

The woman screamed the words, as she woke up with a start. Her husband beside her stirred slowly awake. He did not know what the matter was, but he had been married to his wife long enough to have figured out what some of her more dramatic episodes might mean.

“What?” he asked. He had heard her fine the first time. He was only playing for time. He had been woken up many times before because his wife had had a vision, and she had to share it immediately.

“I just heard the Spirit tell me, Donald Trump is the Anti Christ,” she spat out with a little impatience.

Inside the man’s head, regretful thoughts chased each other. It was 3am and he had only two more hours. Soon he would hit the road to beat the Entebbe Road traffic jam into Kampala City for another day of toil.

But voicing these thoughts was fruitless, he knew. It would lead into many micro-arguments about faith and the end times and the man’s failure to work on his faith.

Outside, dogs barked. Distant drones of boda bodas rode the night like surfers.

It was hot in the tiny room. The house being situated close to the cool Lake Victoria did not seem to have any effect on the heat.

It was close to Christmas 2016. Life in Entebbe was close to normal again. The couple, as had the rest of their neighbours with busy lives of toil were expected to have forgotten about politics, and concentrated on work.

Except this was far from the truth.

The upheaval had started midway 2015. The campaigns for president were heating up. Kizza Besigye was showing such strength, most people thought even after failing to unseat the current president, Yoweri Museveni three previous times, he had a real chance this time.

The crescendo of campaign rhetoric increased as February 2016 approached. Then Museveni won, and a morose blanket seemed to cover sections of Uganda. Those with internet connection, anyway. Because it was not easy to know if the people in the rural areas even cared.

The couple were not totally devastated. From their small house in Nakiwogo, they were following the American campaigns.

Surely this was going to be a win. It was the stuff of wild imagination: the first Black president of the USA would hand over to the first female president.

On election night, already Wednesday morning in Nakiwogo, there was a festive mood in the house. The husband, though he had to be at work, was in the living room watching TV.

It was a clear done deal. The polls said so. The respected newspapers said so. Donald Trump had made so many goofs, the American voter was going to show him who was boss.

Trump was loud, leud, bigoted, a braggart and sexist. He had has refused to release his tax returns, had made suggestions he wanted to sleep with his daughter and had said he’s win even if stood in the middle of the street and shot people dead.

The wife, though she was not interested enough to kill her morning, knew that this was a big deal. She had not had any messages from God about it, but she felt it deep in her heart.

Then Clinton lost so spectacularly.

The fallout from the November loss of Hillary Clinton will probably be studied for a long time.

For the couple, everything just felt wrong. There must be something supernatural about this.

The wife had not been following the news as closely as her husband, so she only knew what he told her. So in her head, there was no way this man could have convinced America to choose him over Clinton.

The husband, long a student of his wife’s histrionics, had neglected to point out to her that Trump won on the strength of the Christian vote. Bible-thumping, spirit-filled, demon-chasing Christians had decided this was their candidate. Not all of them, but a decidedly big enough number to push him over, it seemed.

It had been an interesting start of December.

This close to Chrismas, the husband was not sure he had the energy to get back into that whole drama. He started to tell his wife it was not possible Trump is the Anti-Christ because he’s not done the three-and-a-half years preceding the rupture. Those three and a half years should have given us a Trump with almost magical powers: where was the wound that should have killed him, but did not? where was the world peace?(many Evangelicals say the dude who achieves peace in the Middle East will be the One).

Trump had rode on an improbable bet and it had paid off. But all this was to expend energy he could not afford.

So he asked the one thing he could think of. “Should I get you some ice cream from the fridge?”

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Three little monsters

My girls are always thirsting for me when get back home from work, and they are always talking fast, non-stop. They realise there’s just too little time for us to interact. And the time is flying.

I have to endure breathless shouted reports about their day, each doing their best to get their story out before they are told it’s time to go to the bathroom, or something. They are much like journalists trying to scoop each other.

The times they mis-speak or interrupt each other feel like what happens when journos rush to tweet so they can write better stories later with the satisfaction of having broken the story in the first place.

Most days, I am also just tired, wanting to just relax. I am a private person, as I’ve rediscovered lately, but these apples have fallen way off from the tree.

I know. Soon, there’ll be nothing to tell me. I wonder if that will be as lonely as most people in books make it sound. Something tells me I am so much like Mr. Bennett in Jane Eyre. That man perfected the art of being aloof.

Bennett’s house was like mine in a number of ways. Only that his daughters were much older (at least at the time we were introduced to him), but of course there were years when he had just three and they were as young as mine.

Life goals, Mr Bennett.

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Back to the future

1938. Eastern Uganda. The lithe 30-year-old mother of five is stranded. She just cried her eyes out. She looks over at her children ranging from 10 to two years old,all sitting quietly. They are dazed.

The mother suddenly stops sniffing. She has sight in only the right eye. That doesn’t matter now. The only person whose opinion on that mattered has logged out. Her husband is laid out in the big family house.

The women wail. The men speak in hushed tones. The January rains have been particularly brutal this year. The banana plantation at the back of the home has been hit. There are only a few matooke in there and even feeding the mourners, who will continue to come for the next six days is still a puzzle.

The widow has no time for self pity. She grabs her gomesi around her and stands up. She snakes through the throng on her left and right, her feet leaving marks in the red Busoga dirt. She heads to the Chief’s home.

The nuns from the Catholic church, who have been given lodgings by the chief, will surely help. They are always talking about the merits of a Mzungu education. She doesn’t know it it then, but this trip will culminate in her children all leaving home to learn at the feet of the White man.

She knows what the villagers say behind her back. They think she’s crazy. Some say she killed her husband. Many do not understand her obsession with education. She is ready to do anything to get education for her children.

1930s Uganda is still too virgin for many to look that far in the future, but this newly widowed mother knows it will be the educated that will take over the country. The British empire has grown too big to survive. One day the White man will hand Uganda back to Ugandans.

The twins will live long but they’ll die decades apart. The youngest will become a sought-after economist. Gideon, the second, will die young. Ignatius will travel far off and live in a cold country.

The 30-year-old widow has no time to explain all this to her detractors. They think she has a nut loose, anyway. She has seen the future and she’s going to grab it with two hands.

One good eye and five children to raise, it is time to harness the future.

 

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