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