Her name was Nalule. Everyone called her Naalu, except for the silly estate boys who spent their afternoons whistling after girls. They called her Shortido. They said she was a dwarf. That her legs were short and fat. That her calves were the size of Kimbo tins. The boys said there were no more than twenty strands of hair on Naalu’s scalp. But these things weren’t true. Naalu’s hair was thin, but it was dark and beautiful. Her calves were more like tumpeco mugs.
Naalu and her family lived a block from us, in number G.16 in the housing estates. Many things about our houses were similar. Their size: a kitchen and store, a sitting room and a bedroom. The paint: cream and magenta against a brown tiled roof. Only our backyards were different. Theirs was almost bare—grassless and without any bougainvillea, thornbrush, or red euphorbia fencing to keep trespassers or vagabonds away. Ours was lush with paspalum grass. We had flowers too. In the rain season, dahlias and hibiscuses bloomed; so did roses and sophornitellas, cosmos and bleeding heart vines. Everyone who passed by our house said the garden gave a fine display of color and fragrance. “What is your secret?” they asked. Ma said it was hard work, but I thought she should say it was passion.
Our garden was different from any other in the estates. Many people assumed that Ma had been born with the ability to tell which flowers worked best with which shrubs, which leaves looked best if planted at the edges, which plants kept snakes away. But Ma’s gardening knowledge had been transplanted from her school years at Our Lady of Good Counsel, the Catholic girl’s school. Home economics was compulsory then. Ma never did like the cooking and baking bits. She saw no point in learning cuisines whose ingredient names were so foreign they could have been strange illnesses. But she did like gardening. A house, she often said, starts at the backyard. See the state of the backyard and you’ll know if you want to enter.
Gardening might have seemed viable in Catholic boarding school, but in the real world things were different. In the estates, only potato fields and cassava survived to maturity. They were unspectacular. The silly boys were not interested in them; nor were the children who liked to roam about the houses breaking windows or anything that looked fragile. Plant fences and flowers, on the other hand, were different. They were colorful. They were boastful. They attracted everyone. In that sense, then, our garden was exposed. Because it was void of any deterrents, it was like a gateless home: anyone could enter. And oftentimes people did stop to examine the garden arrangement or to pick flowers to stick in their hair. These people were generally not troublesome. Ma tolerated them. The lot she found unbearable, though, were the market vendors.
Every day, as soon as the sun started to show, as soon as customers turned scarce, the vendors left the market. They crossed Estate Close, the road that separated the market from the estates, and came to sit in our backyard. They were choosy, those vendors. They avoided all the other backyards on the block. They came straight for ours, and laid down their tired and sweaty bottoms. Our backyard was a place to forget about the market and its unsold sacks of potatoes and bananas, a place to gossip, a place to laugh out loud at anyone, including our distinguished house guests.
One particular guest among all others ignited fits of laughter among the vendors. Perhaps there was something about his temperament that provoked them. Perhaps it was his German bowl haircut. Or maybe it was the fact that he often talked to himself. The man’s name was Patrick Aculu. I had always known Patrick Aculu as a strange little man from our church. He was thin and unassuming, watchful and quiet. Because his demeanor seemed over-tolerant, I was convinced he had suffered heavily at the hands of bullies in his school days.
The first day Patrick Aculu came to visit us, it was at Ma’s insistence. The market vendors, when they saw him, laughed with tears in their eyes. They clapped. They did not stop for a long time. I opened the door for him as soon as he made it past the vendors. I showed him into our sitting room. I even called him Uncle Aculu in the hope of pacifying him. But Uncle Aculu did not look up, did not show any interest in Ma’s gold cushion covers, the new curtains, or the vase with fresh roses.
On Uncle Aculu’s second visit the next day, the vendors still laughed, but the insult was not as severe as before. Uncle Aculu sat in the sitting room. When I went to the kitchen to make him some tea, Ma followed. I thought she wanted to help, but she just wanted to talk. Ma said I should not call Patrick Aculu “Uncle Aculu” anymore. It was better to call him Brother Patrick, she said, because he was our brother in Christ. I did not tell her that the Sunday school children would not have agreed. They called him Red Devil. They thought his eyes were the color of red devil peppers and that he talked like he was chewing fire, exactly like the devil on Uganda Television.
Red Devil became a daily guest. Every evening after his job skinning fish for export in the industrial area, he headed not to his home but to ours. Red Devil wore a brown polyester suit. He lined the suit’s pocket with two sets of pens in four colors: black, blue, green, and pink. I found the pens alarming, and constantly worried that Red Devil’s brain was not wired properly. It did not help that at dinner time he used too much Blue Band on his bread and blew at the tea. These were things Ma had punished me for with several slaps on the cheeks. They were things Ma said that only people with no manners did.
Now that he was a regular guest, Ma started to plan him into our evenings. When she bought maize flour, she added an extra quarter kilo just for Red Devil. When she cooked meat, she added three ladles of soup. When we ate dinner, she invited his thoughts and opinions. Ma encouraged him to speak like he was part of the family. That was generally the nature of our evenings, until Red Devil surprised me. I’d assumed he would always wait for Ma’s cue before speaking. He would seek her encouragement before venturing his observations. But after a few weeks, Red Devil’s confidence had grown bigger than the man himself.
Late one evening at the dinner table, Red Devil offered his unsolicited thoughts about the market vendors. I noticed he was careful about the way he approached the subject. Before he said anything, Red Devil dropped his hand into his plate. He did not take it out. The man looked at Ma and spoke like it was normal for a grown man to sit at a dining table with his hand stuck in his plate while he talked to his host about market vendors.
“Your backyard is beautiful,” Red Devil said, “but those vendors are too much. Have you seen the papers they leave on the grass? Have you seen how they pluck the roses? The way they leave your beautiful garden defiled, I cannot believe it sincerely.”
Ma did not speak immediately. When she did, she said, “Good point. Very good point, Brother Patrick.”
Chei, I thought, such nonsense!
During their discussions I preferred to stay silent. But this time I responded out of the conviction that if I stayed silent the consequences would be grave. It felt like something was about to go wrong, as if a prophecy of doom would come—something as severe as Joseph telling Pharaoh to prepare for seven years of famine.
“Those vendors need to be dealt with, Sister. They need to be dealt with,” Red Devil said.
“The vendors will never leave,” I said. “They are here to stay.”
Red Devil took his hand from the plate. He rested his elbow on the table. He clasped his hands together. The man nodded carefully as if he was about to deliver some great insight into the meaning of life. Instead Red Devil smiled.
“Eh, Amito,” he said. “You will be surprised at what God can do in this world.” He smiled again.
“You are right, Brother Patrick,” Ma said. “That is a good thing you just pointed out.”
Ma was quick to support and encourage him. She was too eager. She had forgotten what she always said, that people who are quick to agree with anyone need God to cure them from the demon of foolishness. They need to be exorcised.
Though she was quick to agree, she was careful about implementing his advice. From the day Red Devil suggested doing something about the vendors, I waited one week, and still nothing had happened. I should have known Ma. She needed no cure, no exorcism.
About half a week later, Ma confronted the vendors. She left her office at the printing press early, walked home as usual, and before entering the house, stopped by the backyard. She surprised the vendors, but they were happy to see her. There must have been a dozen of them, at least. They sat up respectfully in the grass and listened to Ma as if they were schoolchildren. But being as ill mannered as they were, the vendors lost interest as soon as they realized that her stopover was not friendly. Accustomed to talking as loud as they liked without rebuke, accustomed to shouting at passing girls and calling them whores without consequence, they did not take to being scolded. I watched with amusement from the sitting room window, curious to see what the outcome might be. That evening, when Red Devil came, Ma told him it had gone very well.
“You really have good ideas,” Ma said. “You should have been a lawyer.”
“Ah, Sister, I can still be a lawyer. With God, nothing is impossible. That is what the Book of Mark tells us about our good Lord.”
Chei, I thought. Such nonsense.
That evening there were fewer silences between Ma and Red Devil at the dinner table. The two of them talked adult things, reckless, as if I was too stupid to understand. They talked about God and his plans for the future. It was God who had widowed both of them, they said. It was God who knew what tomorrow looked like.
“You know, Sister, the book of Song of Solomon might be about God’s relationship with the church, but it has also taught me many things. Very many,” Red Devil said. Ma laughed. She laughed so much she almost choked on her saliva.
“Amito, maybe it is time for you to sleep now.”
In my bed that night, I thought I ought to pray for Ma. It was true what they said about some diseases being contagious. Red Devil had infected Ma with his. Now the wires in Ma’s head were not working properly either.
The next day, I waited at the window for Ma’s return from work. I saw her making her way through the market joyful and excited, holding a pineapple in her hand. When she reached our backyard, she looked stunned. There were at least twenty vendors, some of them sleeping on the grass, others on the stairs. The paspalum grass was scattered with flower petals, as if someone was trying to decorate the yard. Papers and polythene bags from the market were everywhere. So were packets of milk and cardboard boxes, banana peels and maize husks.
Instead of threatening the vendors with eviction, Ma went directly into the house and stayed in the bedroom for a while. When she finally came out, she had changed into a black dress. She was wearing boots and carrying a spade. In the backyard, Ma found the vendors laughing and talking, happy, as if all was well. She tried to speak to them. They did not pay her any attention—not until she started to yell at them, her small arms shaking and her wig unstable on her scalp. I thought her migraines would return as soon as she left that place. Ma would go back to being the way she was when she lost her husband. She would start visiting clinics to get prescriptions. She would be at hospitals for X-rays and scans. She would attend evangelical crusades looking for cures for her swollen feet, her aching stomach, her ulcers, her typhoid, her demons, and the witches putting curses on her.
“Leave. I want all of you to leave my compound now,” Ma said.
“Your compound?” one vendor said. The rest joined in, and they did not allow Ma to speak again. If she wanted to live like the rich, she was in the wrong estate. She should hire a truck, load her household items on it, and head for Kampala’s hills, where the houses were large and double-storied and there were dogs and long walled fences to keep people away.
“I am not going anywhere. I am not, this is my house,” Ma said, repeating herself until she started pointing to the ground, claiming her backyard for her own, refusing to be defeated in this fight.
“Your house? You think this is your house?”
The vendors were undeterred in their efforts to make Ma shut up. They told her that no one came into the estates with any piece of land on their heads. They called my mother a whore. They said she was a husbandless slut, a fanatic Christian, a sex-starved bitch who should migrate back to the north of the country where people were uncivilized and lacked manners.
I hoped Red Devil would walk up. If he did, and if he tried to come to Ma’s defense, the vendors would beat him until all his teeth fell out. Maybe if he stayed in Mulago Hospital long enough, Ma would forget him. But he was lucky, that Red Devil. He only heard about these exchanges from Ma. And being the Red Devil he was, he just said, “Um, um, if I were you, I would really make sure those men leave for good. This is your house, they need to know that.”
On the third day of the confrontations, Ma decided to return late from the office, when day would be giving way to night. The day vendors would have left, and in their place would be the night vendors, who were not troublesome. The night vendors kept away from people’s backyards. They spread themselves around the market and along Estate Close with their tables full of bread and milk for sale, tomatoes heaped on sisal sacks, kerosene lamps, and large saucepans of cow-leg soup cooking, offals, pancakes, roast meat, and fried cassava, and filled the roadside with the aroma of life. Men, laborers from the industrial area, the market, and the factories around the estates, stationed themselves on benches waiting to be served. Ma always said those men fed their families on eggplant while they fattened themselves on roadside chicken and beef.
I waited for Ma at the window. I was anxious for her, hoping the vendors would be gone by the time she returned. But they weren’t. When Ma arrived home, there were as many as the day before.
“You. You thought we would leave just because you came late? You thought we would leave?” The vendors started even before Ma crossed Estate Close. She avoided looking at them and hurried toward the house. They were not ready to let her pass. They whistled, they shouted, they pointed, they called, they clapped. Everyone in the market stopped to see what was going on. Ma stopped too. She turned.
“You started all of this. You started it, now you ask us what?”
Ma turned to leave. The vendors resumed the shouting, but one voice among them commanded more attention. It was the man with keloidal scars all over his chin. He sold charcoal—maybe that is why only his eyes and teeth looked clean. He said no woman should talk to them like that, most especially Ma. She was unworthy. He said nothing good ever came out of her. He said even Ma’s womb carried the ugliest of children, children who came out with heads the size of water basins and nostrils that could fit a man’s fist. I had no brother or sister. The insult was aimed at only me. I didn’t move from the window for a long time.
Later that evening, I told myself I shouldn’t be affected by the stupid things those uneducated vendors said. The vendors came and went, and the market didn’t even notice. But me, I was destined for greater things. I was going to end up in Makerere University, Kampala’s hills, and maybe even outside countries, the ones Naalu my friend always spoke of. Naalu said that in London, which was one of the cities we could easily end up in, people were rich. They left cars by the roadside if they didn’t like them. Every morning the city council worked overtime clearing the street of unwanted merchandise.
I woke up early the next morning, hoping the previous evening would be forgotten. But bitterness and doubt stayed with me like an illness. Throughout the day at school, I found myself holding a fist to my nose to gauge its size. In class, even when the teacher said funny things about Didi Comedy on Uganda Television, I did not smile. I thought it was my fault I did not have many friends. I was not pretty—and good looks, it seemed, were a prerequisite for everything, even for being at the top of the class.
On my way home that evening, I waited for Naalu at the end of Estate Close. She went to another school, and we always met by the cemetery before walking together. That evening, when Naalu joined me, I asked her if she thought I was ugly. Yes, she said, and then realizing I was serious, she asked what was wrong with me.
“Okay, okay,” I said, and I told Naalu the vendors must be evicted from our backyard. I told her I was fed up.
“Eh, this is serious,” Naalu said. But she offered to help, as long as we did whatever we were planning to do when her father was not home.
The next afternoon, I sat in the cemetery waiting for Naalu. After an hour, I started to worry. But just when I was getting restless, Naalu burst through the cemetery, running. She reached me and did not stop. I ran after her, slowing only when Naalu herself slowed down half a kilometer later, by the city council hospital.
“Is someone chasing you?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but it is better to run just in case.” And then: “The bastards must pay. It is war. It is war!”
The sun was still hot and evening seemed far away. Naalu and I walked along Estate Close, then turned into the flats to make our way to the estates. Finally, we reached Mama Benja’s house one block from ours to the left. Mama Benja was the Jehovah’s Witness whose plant fence was high, thick, and threatening enough to keep the vendors away. It was said that her backyard was host to a family of cobras which she kept tamed and nourished. If anyone ever tampered with her, she sent the cobras after them. I assumed only people as stupid as the market vendors could believe such nonsense.
From the safety of her fence, Naalu and I threw stones. There were about nine men under the umbrella tree that day, in the middle of our compound. The tree was small, but in the afternoon its shade turned generous and could accommodate several of them stretched out in the grass beneath. It took at least three stone throws before the vendors noticed that someone was trying to command their attention. They stood up one at a time. Their bicycles and motorcycles lay over the dying flowers and Ma’s sprouting red euphorbia. One of the men, the one with the keloidal scars, made as if to come toward us, squinting to peer through the thick layer of fence.
Naalu and I ran. At the corner of Mama Benja’s block, I fell and scraped my knees bloody. Naalu raced on. She stopped at the large jambula tree. During its most fertile months, that tree bore nothing but large caterpillars, which stank like rotten cabbage. The caterpillars were well known. If they as much as brushed one’s skin, they raised large boils that needed several injections to calm them down.
I rose from my fall and darted through Mama Farouk’s thevetia peruviana fence. Although it was mature and high, it was thin at the stems, aged and ragged. No amount of careful gardening could have rescued those miserable fences, which were as bony as Mariba storks. Children playing under them had turned the backs brown, and what was left of the green leaves and yellow flowers had been bled for their sap to glue notebooks or torn paper money.
When I reached Naalu at the jambula tree, the man with the keloidal scars appeared at the corner of Mama Benja’s house. Off we raced again, past the rubbish pit where broken glass, plastic bottles, and polyethylene papers never rotted. Past the pit where the soil was black and the healthiest tomatoes grew.
The stretch that went past the next group of houses was steep. But Naalu and I conquered the hill panting. We never looked back until we stopped at the road that turned into the police barracks. I wanted us to stay by that junction for a while. Perhaps we could sit under the mango tree and count cars while we waited for dark. But Naalu was worried that her father would be home, and so with dusty feet and bruised knees, and afraid, we made our way back through the estate houses towards the dead water point.
At one time this water point had been the main source for our neighborhood. Age and lack of use had rusted the taps, which looked fit for scrap only. But not to be deterred, Naalu’s father, who was also the chairman of our residential area—the man charged with settling petty quarrels and taking small bribes for writing letters of introduction and stamping passport applications—had raised funds to renovate the water point and replace the taps. For a month straight, activity returned. People thought it was good they didn’t have to trek half a kilometer to fetch water in Lugogo, but by six in the morning, jerry cans were lined up as people fought over whose turn it was. Housewives laid claim by standing over the taps with their legs spread, leading men to suggest that the new rust was a direct consequence of their womanly aroma. Then the jerry cans, even if they were carefully labeled, even if marks were sliced into the plastic with hot knives, started to disappear. The next time the taps broke, water flowed all the way to the market. It spewed everywhere and children ran around naked, happy for the artificial rain. After that episode, no one bothered with the water point again.
Just as she feared, Naalu’s father was at the door when we made it through. He stood there, his tall dark self, smoking a Rex cigarette, and blew circles of smoke toward the herbs. He did not see us, so we carefully avoided him by retreating toward the concrete walls of the water tap to find alternative routes and arrive home in turns.
After our first try at evicting the vendors, the evening of the next day came. This time Naalu left her school bag at home, although she stayed in her St. Jude School uniform.
Because excitement turned Naalu slow and frightful sometimes, I told her we needed to hurry. “It is better to do these things quickly quickly,” I said. We were inside our house.
“Ah,” Naalu said. “Quickly, quickly.”
In the kitchen, I fetched a bucket full of water that I had used to clean the fresh fish from the night before. The water was going stale now, the scent of rotting tilapia fermenting and turning the house into a fish brewery.
Ma was still at work. She would not be home soon. But I was still worried that if we did not hurry, she would return to find the house still smelling of fish. So I repeated to Naalu that we really needed to be quick.
“Quickly, quickly,” Naalu said, but she sounded afraid.
“Naalu, quickly quickly,” I said, and we lifted the bucket.
The men were still in our backyard, basking and anticipating another exciting confrontation with Ma while Naalu helped me carry the bucket of water from the kitchen to the sitting room.
“I think you can carry it from here,” she said when we reached the back door. I looked at her and frowned. I was hoping to blackmail her with my needy expression, but seeing her standing there worried and fearful, I knew she would not go outside with me even if I threatened witchcraft.
I opened the back door, then descended the stairs by myself, carrying the bucket of water slowly down. On the grass, I pulled the bucket toward the umbrella tree. I wasn’t sure if the men were paying attention to me, but I knew they had seen me. I knew this because they stopped for a moment and then continued. They continued basking in the splendor of my mother’s backyard.
On the grass, I worried that I might decide to run away. But those were bad thoughts, I knew, thoughts from the fearful voice in my head. I pulled my bucket farther. As soon as I sensed I was too anxious to go on, I lifted. It was heavy but not as heavy as I had expected it to be. I directed the bucket toward the umbrella tree, then I poured and ran. On the stairs I said to myself, “Hallelujah, hallelujah. Praise be to God!” In the house, under the bed in the bedroom where I stayed the whole evening, all I thought was “Hallelujah, hallelujah. Praise be to God!”
Ma came home to a riot—men with stones and bricks. She also came home to find Naalu’s father standing on our stairs, trying to make sure everyone understood he’d come as chairman to settle the matter.
Years later, Ma would talk about that evening often. When she spoke about it, she would speak of Naalu’s father. Ma would say that when she came back from work and saw him standing on the stairs trying to calm everyone, she didn’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed. It was well known among our neighbors that Ma and Naalu’s father did not like each other. Naalu’s father thought northerners were to blame for every single thing that had ever gone wrong in the country—the coups d’états, the bad roads, the hospitals without medicine, the high price of sugar, his addiction to nicotine, and the fact that the country was landlocked. As for Ma, her reasons for disliking the man were simple. He was Catholic, like the unforgiving nuns of her school days; he supported the Democratic Party; and he was a Muganda, like most of the vendors who messed her backyard. According to Ma, all three things were incurable ailments. Catholics worshipped idols. DP was a dead political party led by a goat of an old man who did nothing but make dead deals. And Ma thought the Baganda* were thieving traitors who’d been selling the country to the highest bidder right from the time of the British. Ma said it often that Baganda treasured money over loyalty. They would steal your hand if you turned away. The Baganda were banana eaters. They consumed matooke for a staple. Ma said matooke was a useless food, one percent air and ninety-nine percent water. She thought the Baganda were a weak people, fearful of confrontation and conflict, who chose the easy way instead of the upstream path of honesty, clarity, and directness. My friendship with Naalu Ma had tolerated for the most part because of the day she found Naalu and me in our sitting sharing a plate of dried fish and millet. Ma asked Naalu if she liked it.
“Yes,” Naalu said.
“Good,” Ma said. “Tell that to your father when you see him. Tell him you eat millet these days, not bananas!”
In our backyard, Naalu’s father forgot about his ongoing war with Ma. He focused on the vendors and spoke with eloquence and seriousness. He told all the gathered people that the market and the estates were two different entities. It was irrelevant that they were both owned by Kampala city council. If the men wanted to use such flimsy arguments, he said, we should as well go and camp at the state house and tell the president it was our right as citizens. If the vendors did not stop coming to Ma’s backyard, or any other backyard in the estates for that matter, he would take this issue up with the market management.
That evening a new law came into force, written on plywood with charcoal and hurried by a carpenter. It was erected right next to Ma’s newly planted red euphorbia fence. Anyone caught crossing over to the estates would be fined twenty thousand shillings. When I saw the sign from the safety of our window, I thought it would be pulled down. But that signpost survived hail and dogs, vendors and trucks for years.
Red Devil came home just when Naalu’s father was trying to settle the matter. With the confidence he’d built over the weeks of coming to our home, he tried to intervene on her behalf. Someone took the pens from his brown suit pocket and pocked his skull with them. They ordered Red Devil to shut up because he had no right to speak. A man who knew him well took the opportunity to embarrass him. He said that Red Devil was not a Christian. He did not care about God—only about the Christian women he infected with gonorrhea while reciting verses from the book of Mark and the Song of Solomon. Red Devil did not have a job at the fish factory, only a string of illegitimate children and women waiting for marriage proposals.
I did not see Red Devil after that, but neither did I see Naalu. Over the next days, I searched for any sign of her in their front yard, in their herb garden, and in their latrine. When she did eventually surface, it was only because her father had sent her to the market to buy cooking oil for the house. Naalu hurried there, running as if there was fire on her hem. When she saw me following, she broke into a sprint and left the market without buying the cooking oil. She did not look back either. Maybe she was afraid she would turn into a pillar of salt like Lot. Naalu raced up the tarmac hill as if it was a flat football field. And that was the last time I saw her. Ma was not speaking to Naalu’s father again, and Naalu’s brother, Nviiri, was not talking to me, so I could not ask him. Only the silly estate boys seemed available to offer some answers. It took several tries before they told me what they knew. They said that Naalu’s father, fearing that I would turn her into a good-for-nothing millet-eating uncivilized northerner, had enrolled her in a Catholic boarding school to join the Order of St. Bruno, the crazy nuns who committed to a vow of silence and solitude for the rest of their lives.
Chei, I thought. Such nonsense. But it was not nonsense, of course, because Naalu did not return.
*Baganda is the plural of Muganda_._ [return]
Monica Arac de Nyeko is from Uganda. She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2004 for her story “Strange Fruit” and won the prize in 2007 for “Jambula Tree.” (updated 10/2010)