A penny for your thoughts: A story about Betty

This is a real life story.

It is a story about a young girl called Betty. Betty came to work for my family, in the mid Nineties, as a house girl. Yes, that’s what we called them in those days, before feminism and political correctness turned a perfectly good term into house-keepers/house-helpers/domestic assistants. I was 9, going on 10. She was about 15 or 16. Right on the edge of beginning her life.

I do not know how she came to work for us, for my Mum actually. I wasn’t old enough to be privy to those details. But from conversations overheard in the kitchen between her and various older people (older than me) who lived with us then, I gathered it was the stereotypical story – absentee/negligent father, lack of school fees, working to support herself and maybe some siblings. In return for her house girl-ing, my mother would send her to school in the coming year, this being the Christmas holidays. Nursing school or secretarial studies or nursery teaching college were the options in those days.

She was a pleasant enough girl. Worked hard. Got on well with us children. Even helped me with my holiday homework once or twice. We weren’t particularly demanding children anyway, some porridge in the morning, a sugarcane snack, a spot of lunch, maybe some errands round the house and we were sorted. We were quite content to be left to our own devices, climbing the guava tree or making playthings out of the clay from the anthill or driving our wire cars round the house verandah. Which is how I saw my first used condom.

We lived in an old double storeyed house. The family bedrooms were upstairs, directly over the ground floor sitting room. So there I was, going round the side of the house and just about to reach the sitting room windows when I looked down to ensure I didn’t catch the tyre of my wire car in the crack in the verandah as I turned the corner, and saw, right at the edge of my field of vision, a … well, a used rubber.

Out there in the open ffwa, like a tiny dirty linen…

Those were the days when condom use demonstrations were held using a yellow banana. Philly Bongoley Lutaaya had just died. So we had all seen condoms. Obviously there was a difference – in content – between the condom on the banana and this one in the grass just beyond my feet. That’s how – drum roll – I discovered what a used one looked like.

‘course I stopped, squatted down and looked at it. Took a good, hard, long look. Then I wondered where it had come from. The window to my right opened into the corridor from the sitting room to the unoccupied ground floor guestroom. Then, with realisation dawning in my brain, I slowly looked up, to the first floor window of the bedroom occupied by one of the various older people mentioned above. My Mum’s cousin. My Uncle. Who shared a bedroom with Betty. Their beds were separated by a curtain. A Nytil curtain.

Suddenly, I recalled a fact that my pre-pubescent brain had filed away. A few weeks after Betty had joined our household, Uncle had slowly taken to joining her in the kitchen after supper. Uncle, who like a typical Musoga man of those days didn’t like to do housework. Me I just assumed he was helping her wash the dishes. After all we laid the table and brought the food to the table and cleared the table after eating. The least he could do was help her wash up. So I thought. It now appeared that he was helping her with more than the dishes.

I eventually got up and drove on but only to call my siblings to come and see. We poked it a bit with a stick, got bored and carried it, with the stick, to the fence where we chucked it into the undergrowth. And then I promptly forgot about it.

Until about a week later, when my grandfather showed up in the evening. Which meant he was going to spend the night. My grandfather didn’t like to sit in the house after dusk, said he found it too warm and stuffy. So he sat outside under the old Kabaka-njagala tree, with my Uncle, My Mum, my Grandmum and one or two other people. In those days the Swahili news, with Swalley Khisa, on UTV came on about 7:30 pm which is when we served them tea, followed by the Luganda news – or maybe it was the other way round, I don’t remember. What I do remember is that they talked from when the first news bulletin came on, up to the English news with Bbaale Francis – or was it Lucy Banya that day? – which was at 10:00 pm. I know, because Jajja always watched the news and when the opening tune struck up I went to get him. Which closed the discussion.

So, the duration between two news bulletins is how long it took to decide the course of a young girl’s life, and how it’d go from that point on. Maybe it was decided the night before I found the used condom, maybe it was decided over a sinkful of dirty dishes and soap suds, maybe it was decided when her father either failed or neglected to pay her school fees. All I know is that my part in the decision making process was serving the tea and roast groundnuts which fuelled the discussion.

Betty left, with Uncle Mugaya. Whatever he was studying at the YMCA while he lived at our house probably ended there as well. The next time I saw her, 2 kids in tow, at a function at Jajja’s village house a couple of years later, she looked rather haggard. I assumed since she was living in Jajja’s boys quarters with Uncle, whom I knew was unemployed – from his numerous messages to my Mum asking her to fix him somewhere, she was probably digging for a living. She had heard, and was super excited, that I’d gotten a 4 in PLE; I couldn’t bring myself to ask how her life was. I just thanked her for her good wishes, smiled and kept quiet but inside me, something died a little.



P.S: Betty still lives in the village but no longer in Jajja’s compound. She’s a lot bigger and a lot browner, but with dark patches on her cheekbones now. Her husband, my Uncle, after a long spell of subsistence farming and produce trading is now a Gombolola Internal Security Officer (GISO). Lord knows how he wangled that. They’ve had a couple more kids. With his new status and the government motorcycle came, naturally, a second wife. Our house girl is now my Aunt. Aunt Betty.

A penny for your thoughts: A story about Betty

A penny for your thoughts: Motivation, aka Afande dodges the bullet

ISS (37)

The valley between Wakitaka and Musima villages is where the transformation occurs. He knows this. He’s not ok with it but he’s learnt to live with it. It’s the uniform you see. In Musima, the village-village, the uniform is a sign of status, it makes him stand out. It gets him called Afande, Boss, even Ssebo. In Musima he looks people in the eye or above their heads. In Wakitaka, more town than village, he becomes part of the background, another splash of colour in the kaleidoscope of town colours, smells and sounds. Another punctuation mark on the page of life.

He rides through Wakitaka on his way to work at the restaurant. This bicycle was the first thing he bought with his first salary. There were a lot of hungry nights after he bought the bicycle, most of which he spent lying on his threadbare mattress gazing upon his bicycle. These hungry nights taught him something. You must plan for things. You don’t just do things anyhow. If he could go back, he would have deposited money on the bicycle, paid it off slowly. Hadn’t the Muyindi told him that most people did that, pay slowly? But he knew why he did it. An afande shouldn’t walk through the village of Musima. Walking was for other people. That wasn’t the real reason.

It all started with a girl. As most things do. Her name was Fatina. By village standards she was a raving beauty. With her big eyes and the gap in her front teeth and of course, her kabina. God had compensated what she lacked in height by giving her a fairly large bum. What God didn’t count on, or maybe He knew and found it funny, is that also giving her knock-knees would exaggerate the appearance of her already large bum. When Fatina walked through the centre of Musima, all six shops of it, everyone who was watching had a reaction. The chaps lying on their bodas watched her through half shut eyes, as if to better focus, slowly sucking their breath in through their teeth as they fantasised about doing it to her. The older women stared scornfully at her, despising her youth, the firmness of her bust and the smoothness of her skin. The older men thanked God they were not her father, for surely, no good could come out of such beauty. It swelled a woman’s head, gave her ideas.

It was that bum that started it all. Fatina was walking from the shop, with her sachet of cooking oil and her halfu of posho flour, when – as his eyes followed her down the road – he suddenly caught Apuuli’s eye from across the road, following Fatina’s progress. Him and Apuuli had never got on. Maybe it was the town airs that Apuuli affected; he went to school in town, rather than at the local Wakitaka Secondary. Maybe it was the fact that Apuuli liked to ride his father’s Bajaj motorcycle up and down the road, almost always coating him in dust as he returned home carrying two 20-litre jerrycans of water from the borehole. Whatever it was, from that September day when he and Apuuli caught themselves lusting after Fatina’s bum, it was on.

Fatina liked animals. She was the type to rescue puppies from the roadside or look after people’s wayward chicken and turkeys. He figured that maybe if he got her a puppy from that Mzungu woman who had a shelter in town, where his neighbour Kirya worked, he’d be in the door. So he set his plan in motion. Talked to Kirya. Kirya talked to the Mzungu. Came back and told him to wait two weeks. So he waited. When it was almost time, he sent Fatina’s friend Nabirye to tell Fatina that he had a message for her and was bringing it on Thursday.  After supper. He was secretly hoping to find one of her parents at home so that they’d notice him. Bold move, yes, but our man was never one for prudence. Nabirye came back to tell him Fatina would be waiting.

Come Thursday. Kirya returned from work with the puppy in a box. He checked it, made sure it had no fleas or ticks and gave it some scraps to keep it content and happy. Then he had his supper, hoisted the box onto his shoulder and strode purposefully towards Fatina’s compound. Deciding at the last minute to use the back entrance, he detoured through Kayiwa’s compound and round the back of Fatina’s. Pushing the back gate open, he slowly stepped through the entrance. As he turned to close the gate he caught the reflection of light off a piece of chrome, from under the Jackfruit tree opposite the gate. Figuring her father was home; he suddenly realized maybe this wasn’t such a smart move after all. Unfortunately it was too late and someone must have heard him entering for there was a suddenly a sound as of footsteps rapidly approaching the back door from inside the house.

Before he could figure out a move, the door was pulled open a bit, someone peered out, then it was flung half open and Fatina stood there, her hair slightly disheveled, one blouse strap hanging off her shoulder. Even from where he was standing he could see two things clearly as she hissed at him in an angry whisper, asking what was he doing there. First, under her thin cotton vest, she clearly had no bra on. Second, was her kabina peeking out from under the towel draped loosely around her waist. Temporarily bereft of words, he soundlessly held out the box towards her. Two things then happened in rapid succession. The door opened all the way, revealing Apuuli in boxer shorts, and, the box moved in his hands and out leaped the puppy, landing halfway between him and the doorway.

He looked at Fatina. She looked at the puppy. The puppy growled at Apuuli. Apuuli looked at him. An eternity passed. It could have been a couple of seconds. Then Apuuli snaked one arm around Fatina’s waist and pulled her back into the house, as he watched, all the blood draining from his body down into his legs, making them feel as heavy as a mature banana stem. “Kale, I thought it was your father, I thought he had caught me this time…” floated out just before the door handle clicked shut.

He closed his eyes. Opened them. Closed them again. Opened them. No, it was still there. The image of Apuuli in his boxer shorts. Damn Apuuli. He didn’t even wear normal underwear like the rest of them! Damn Apuuli and his father’s Bajaj motorcycle. Damn him and his town ways.

The nuzzling of the puppy at his feet is what woke him from his stupor.

He’d picked it up, left through the back gate, leaving it open, and dropped the puppy in front of Kayiwa’s house as he strode through the compound. He walked to the shops, bought 3 sachets of coffee-flavoured gin, sucked them dry then went to sleep. He woke late the next day and walked to town, to the restaurant where his aunt worked as a cleaner, and he asked for a job. Three days later he got the call: He’d been hired as an askari. He bought a bicycle with his first salary.

He didn’t much see Fatina anymore. The gossip was Apuuli had given her kabwotongo. Syphillis. On top of a pregnancy. Mbu her parents had taken her to her grandmother to have it. Apuuli was seen less and less, and never on the bajaj. Someone must have told him his stock had fallen in value in the eyes of the village. It didn’t matter to him now. He had a job. A uniform. And a bicycle. His own bicycle.

Photocredit: Matthias Mugisha, Pearl Eyes Photography 

A penny for your thoughts: Motivation, aka Afande dodges the bullet


II – Do it now or do it later

His name is Henry. He’s about 5’ 2”, but he has a way of walking, bouncing really, that makes him seem much taller. He’s wearing a faded blue checked shirt, rolled up to the sleeves. His collar is frayed and the shirt is missing the top and bottom buttons. His shorts are denim, cut roughly just below the knee. His dusty feet are clad in battered ‘Bidco’ plastic shoes – the knock off version of your Crocs.

He’s sitting on the step that leads into his one room tenement, what you call a ‘muzigo’. His, the last one on the right, is one of a line of 6 mizigo. They stand at a right angle to a larger block of 4, two roomed mizigo. From where he’s seated he can just make out the images on Isabirye’s television, through the open door of No. 2. That’s another thing, the bigger rooms have electricity and his do not. When he makes enough money to buy a radio, he reckons he’ll have enough to move up in the world, into the muzigo with electricity. He keeps bouncing his clenched right fist off his knee.

Henry is in town – well actually, a trading centre on the outskirts of this upcountry town – because he run away from the village. He left his village as soon as the news of Hellen’s pregnancy became public. When he first arrived here he convinced himself that he’d make enough money to support her, maybe even send for her to join him. He pretended that they could become a family, in the bright two-roomed mizigo. Now weeks have become months, and he doesn’t even know if Hellen had the baby. No one knows where he is. He knows that. He rode off on his dad’s bicycle, just threw a few things in his school bag and left. He has since sold the bicycle. He bought a mattress, 2 inches thick, a basin, some NICE plastic plates and cups. Paid rent. Which is Ush 20,000 a month.

He got a job on a Mugaga’s construction site. The ‘Mugaga’ is the rich man paying for the construction work. Henry is a porter. He mixes the cement, sand and water and delivers the mortar to the masons. When the masons need more bricks, Henry delivers them. He is also responsible for cleaning up the site. Things like broken bricks and spilt mortar. The Mugaga doesn’t like to find that sort of thing. Says it’s wastage. Henry sees the Mugaga arrive in his car sometimes, usually as they’re winding up for the day and he’s cleaning up and putting the tools away for the night. The Mugaga noticed him once and spoke to him. Gave him Ush 5,000. Henry hoped it would lead to something more. Maybe a better job. He hoped the Mugaga had seen the promise in him. But he hasn’t spoken to him since then.

Working on the site is hard. Especially now that its’ been raining. All the heavy lifting, and now working in the rain, is hurting his chest. He has been coughing for a week. His daily wage does not cover medical bills. He bought some tablets at the health centre. The nurse there is kind to him, treats him like a mother would. She’s the only person who has asked after his family in the six months he has been here.

He misses his family. He misses his siblings. He wonders what they say about him now. When he left, his younger brother Fred was preparing to sit his Primary Leaving Examination. His parents always told Fred to be like Henry. To read hard and go to secondary school like Henry. He misses secondary school. He only had a year to go to finish his ‘O’ Levels. Sometimes he hated school but now he mostly misses it. He misses Hellen too but wouldn’t admit it to anyone.

Back then he made it seem like if she didn’t prove she loved him he’d walk away. He knows now he wouldn’t have walked away. If she’d stood her ground, he probably would have waited. Sometimes he wonders why he pushed her to choose to do it then? Why then when they could have done it later?

There’s no point thinking about that now. He has a more important question to deal with right now. Which is how to spend the Ush 500 coin clenched in his right fist. Should he buy a chapatti now and go to sleep on a full stomach or, should he buy it in the morning and start work on a full stomach?



I – Where was he when my cousin needed him?

I’m still unsure how I found out. It was a process. It was as if the knowledge of it kept expanding and growing until it was right there in our faces.

Maybe it was when she stopped attending classes, and stayed in bed most of the day. Maybe it was the fattening of the cheeks and the way that her skin tone slowly changed colour, becoming lighter by the week.

We joked about the lightness of her skin, commenting that maybe she had begun to use Fair & Lovely. She laughed with us in a way that told me something was wrong. Jenna’s mother had passed away when she was still a girl and her father, a university lecturer, buried himself in his work. Jenna sometimes complained that he had more time for his students than he did for her and her brother Timothy.

They were our cousins and so we sometimes spent holidays with each other. This holiday turned out to be the last we ever spent together; things were never the same after that. I used to hang out with Timothy; we went swimming and spent time at the youth fellowship. Always had the feeling that we were not ‘cool’ enough for Timothy so I wasn’t surprised when he begun seeking the attention of the guys at the basketball court.

In an effort to be supportive, I begun attending basketball games to watch Timothy play. It wasn’t too long before Jenna started coming along, and cheering loudly whenever Timothy made a three pointer. He wasn’t tall enough to dunk but he sure could shoot a basket. That’s how we met Michael, Mikey to his friends. Mikey was on the team, which made him super cool, and I guess that’s made him attractive to Jenna because in the months to come, the really difficult ones, we never saw anything of him.

After games, we took to walking home together, the four of us. Except that I walked with Timothy while Jenna walked with Mikey. Then one day, Jenna told us to go on without her; she’d catch up later. We didn’t think too much of it because, secretly, we were relieved. See, Timothy and I liked to stop by this place on the way home for a ka-glass of gin and a kilo of roast pork. Jenna didn’t like any of it, the smell of the gin, the dirt in the joint or even the way the serving girls always ignored her and spoke only to Timothy, or occasionally to me.

For one full holiday, Jenna and Mikey seemed to spend more and more time together until we barely saw them any more. Even basketball was forgotten. If Jenna needed anything, Mikey would be the first in line to get it.

It was the long Christmas holiday before the first term of Senior 6, and Christmas was making everyone cheerful. At our home, however, there was news of something else. I’m still unsure how I found out, because issues of ‘adults’ are never discussed with children around. But somehow, the news of Jenna’s pregnancy filtered through the family. My mother was the first to discover it. Two more aunties visited our home in rapid succession. And then Jenna’s father came. My father came home. There were tears. There was shouting. Then more tears, and more shouting. Finally, resignation. Concern.

Had Jenna been to the doctor? No. Did she know when she was due? No. Did she know who the father was? Silence. Timothy and I immediately thought of Mikey, but out of some sense of loyalty to Jenna, we decided it was not our place to say. We thought Mikey would surely come. Him and Jenna were so close. He would come. The news of the pregnancy got out – outside the family, and into our friends. Still no Mikey. Eventually, after the baby was born, Jenna spoke up and named Mikey. His mother came to the hospital to see the new baby girl. And then she came back the next day with Mikey’s father, but still no Mikey.

At the time it seemed like love, it seemed so romantic, but trust me; there was nothing romantic about having a baby in secondary school. There was nothing romantic about losing all her friends. There was nothing romantic about having to join ‘A’ level when us guys were in First year at Campus.

Jenna lost two years of school, falling behind me, but with support from the whole family, her baby was taken care of when she finally returned to a new school to repeat Senior 5. They wouldn’t let her join Senior 6 otherwise. A new school where no one knew her. Where there were no memories. Where the path home did not run past the basketball court. Mikey went on with his life, conveniently pursuing further studies abroad. Jenna was lucky to have the support to catch up with hers.

Jenna no longer spoke much, outside of stuff to do with the baby. She didn’t complain much about where she ended up but I’ve often wondered if she’d have wanted to study something else at Campus, had she been free.

Suubi. That is her daughter’s name. It means Hope.


Flying the flag for Uganda.

November 1, 2015

A while ago, I was in an internet cafe getting some paperwork done. In the midst of it, an old Mzungu man walked in in a bit of a state. He needed to get a document to someone in the UK and he needed to do it yesterday.

So, the nice lady at the front desk scanned his document and then emailed it for him. Because he had interrupted my transaction, with my permission – respect for one’s elders and all that – I guess he felt compelled to share with me what the fuss was about.

The pensions authority in the UK had written him in June, asking him to send them his bank details (he retired here) so they could wire him his ka-pension. The letter reached him today hence his kavuuyo.

I advised him to go up the street to Aramex and open an account so in future his mail would arrive on time. It would cost him a bit more but he’d never have to rely on the empathy of strangers again.

While I waited for my stuff to be finished, we got into conversation. He was convinced that I had lived in his country (which I have but that’s besides the point) because “I was helpful like his countrymen”.

… I politely disagreed, pointing out that Ugandans are helpful! He must just be hanging out with the wrong ones … then we went into a bit of a back and forth, him dissing Ugandan mechanics, carpenters, plumbers, just about everyone in the service industry and me trying to defend all of us. Then he said this, and I paraphrase,

 “… The pensions guys in the UK ‘followed’ him up to UG and asked him for his bank details so they can give him his money. In UG, even if you personally trek to the Ministry of Public Service for months, nay, years, someone will still conspire to steal your pension. Lord forbid that after retirement you move to Kagera village in Kisoro! …” That Kisoro bit is mine but you get the point.

What could I say?

 Then I left the cafe and crossed the road to the car. Guess what, the attendant hadn’t ticketed me and when I asked how many parking tickets I owed him, he instead asked whether I didn’t have any money to give him. Kale imagine, I’ve just spent 30 minutes of my life assuring this Mzungu that we are not all thugs trying to reap where we have not sowed and here is this jackass trying to rip off his employer!

After giving him a proper earful, I drove to his company office and reported him. Then I called the pensioner, and accepted his offer of a drink to smooth over my ruffled Ugandan feathers.


Flying the flag for Uganda.