I would be hard-pressed to describe with clarity the scene that lay at my feet in the plantation of Muzeyi Mukabya on the cold, dewy morning of June 23rd.
Having only arrived in the hut-dotted village of Kiwanga two weeks before with a reluctant wife and a teething toddler, I had been hoping to sail smoothly through the rest of the month without much work trafficking through my office. The entire district of Mukono was desperately undermanned in the investigative department and, despite my most importunate protestations, it had only been a matter of time before I was sent to one of its drab and impoverished hamlets, miles away from the plush and comfort of my beloved Kololo.
The Chief Inspector had warned me about the witchcraft and theft that was rife in this part of the country, but thieves and voodoo would have been child’s play in comparison to the dead man that lay face-down among the weeds with a hoe planted firmly in the back of his neck, his blood-soaked shirt clinging to his lifeless mass in a wet, lurid mess.
I pulled up my sleeves and squatted next to the corpse. A small crowd of people had gathered around me and my deputy – Sergeant Brian Kavuma – and it was getting increasingly difficult to keep the crime scene incorrupt and pristine.
“Get these folks away from here,” I told Kavuma, a bit irritably. He clapped his hands and shooed them away and they trudged off slowly and sullenly, with a few of the women weeping and clicking their tongues at the gruesome ending of a man that only the day before had lived and drunk and eaten among them.
“Hamza Lukwago,” I said.
“Yes,” Kavuma replied. “You knew him?”
“He brought me and Faith a crate of beer the first night we arrived here.”
“It’s a pity, boss. I hear he was planning on standing for LC one this year.”
“Any idea what happened here?” I asked.
“None,” Kavuma replied. “I got the call at about six when Muzeyi’s wife came to dig and I radioed you immediately boss.”
“What about Mrs Lukwago? Where is she?”
“Well, apparently she was one of the first people alerted. She came over, took one look at him and ran back to her house.”
“Is she there now?”
“I believe so Inspector.”
“Stay here and call in the department and the mortuary,” I said.
“I’m going to make a house call.”
Something caught my eye as I stood up away from the dead man. His left hand, which was nearest to my feet as he was sprawled in the wet green of the weeds, was balled in a tight fist. I reached down and uncoiled his fingers from around a navy blue piece of woolly cloth that I assumed had been torn from the garment of whoever his assailant had been. I took it from him and placed it neatly between the folds of my handkerchief before making my way to the Lukwago residence.
Their home was one of three medium-sized houses that enclosed a compound near the plantation. I walked straight past the two houses on either side to the one facing me and knocked on the door. I looked around to reconnoitre my surroundings as I waited for someone to open up and when I turned to the house on my right I caught sight of a woman’s face watching me from behind the window. When our eyes met she was startled and quickly released the curtain, disappearing from view.
I was pondering over her bizarre behaviour when the door to the Lukwago house suddenly creaked open and I turned back to see the brown, oval face of a young girl at the entrance.
“Hello,” I said. “Is Madam Lukwago in?”
“Da dee de dum dah,” she replied.
“I beg your pardon?” I asked.
“Da de dum dee daa dah,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite get you.”
“She doesn’t speak properly,” a voice spoke from behind the girl.
I looked to see a darkish young man standing in the foyer, a walking stick in his left hand. I looked down instinctively and noticed, with some pity, the withered left leg that was the reason for the stick.
“I am Inspector James Twine. I wish to speak to Mrs Lukwago,” I said.
“Please come in, Inspector.”
I entered and took a seat on the only sofa in the room – the other two seats being smaller, similar-coloured chairs that were evidently part of the set. I glanced around the room before reverting my attention to the boy with polio. The young girl was still standing at the entrance, regarding me with a distrustful look.
“Is she around?” I asked the boy.
“Yes, she’s in the bedroom,” he replied, before shouting, “Maama!”
A middle-aged, olive-skinned woman in a heavily creased nightgown emerged from an entrance on my right and stood next to the sofa, staring down at me. Her eyes were bloodshot and pudgy and she kept sniffing, occasionally wiping the wetness from her nose with a handkerchief bunched in her fist. She greeted me in a hushed tone and even in the sorry state she was in I immediately saw that she was a pretty woman on a good day.
She sat in the smaller chair opposite me and wiped a few more tears from her face before composing herself and looking straight at me.
“Good morning ma’am. I am Inspector Twine from the Kiwanga Police Department of Mukono,” I introduced myself.
“Good morning Inspector,” she replied. “Would you like some tea?”
“No no. I’m quite fine. But thank you. I want to ask you about…”
“Oh. You’ve already had tea this morning?”
“No, but I…”
“Well then take some tea for goodness sake!”
“Alright,” I said, defeated. “Mrs Lukwago, if you don’t mind, I would like to ask you about…”
“Dee Dee, quit standing there like a tree and make the Inspector some tea!” she said to the young girl at the door who was still eyeing me like a hawk and then, turning to me, she continued, “Her real name is Margaret but we call her Dee Dee because that is the only sound she makes.” She smiled a bit then and for a moment I saw a bit of light go back into her features. Dee Dee trudged on to the kitchen as I resumed my attempted conversation with her mother.
“I’m sorry about your husband, Mrs. Lukwago,” I continued.
“Thank you, Inspector. And please, call me Nina.”
“Did you see what happened to him?”
“I didn’t. Mrs. Mukabya came running to my house early at about five-thirty screaming that my husband was dead. I ran back with her and when I saw him there…”
She began to sob and for the next five odd minutes her son held her tightly, and soon he too began to whimper. It was a full ten minutes before she calmed down again and I proceeded with the questioning as gently as I knew how. Dee Dee emerged from the kitchen with a tray holding two small flasks, a cup and a bowl of sugar which she placed on a stool before me.
“Do you know anyone who would want your husband dead?” I asked as I poured milk into the cup.
“But who would want my husband dead, Inspector? He was good to everyone in Kiwanga. Everyone I know was even prepared to vote for him when he stood for chairman!”
“I see. Well, for my part I can promise you that we will do everything in our power to find the culprit and bring him to justice.”
“Thank you Inspector,” she said before sobbing again, this time with both her grief-stricken children holding onto her.
I returned to the Lukwago compound the next day hoping to talk to the curious neighbour I had caught eyeing me from behind her curtain. I knocked twice on the door before an old, heavyset lady opened up and stood staring grimly at me.
“Good morning, ma’am!” I said. “I am…”
“Oh I already know who you are, young man,” she said.
“Everybody knows who you are. You’ve been announcing it all over the place ever since that poor man died!”
I managed a laugh before continuing. “I just have a few questions, ma’am, and I wanted answers from someone who knew Lukwago outside his family. May I please come in?”
In the old lady Nakku’s tiny foyer I found myself, for the second day running, assailed by china cups and milk flasks. Among the accusations she made about Nina Lukwago being involved in witchcraft and other morbid activities, one detail in particular piqued my interest.
“They fought a lot?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” Nakku replied. “The night before Hamza was murdered there was a terrible uproar in that house. Me and the old man could hear their racket all night. Hamza shouted that the children couldn’t be his. That invalid and his dumb sister, he called them.”
“But why would he doubt his children’s paternity? Was Nina being unfaithful?”
“Young man, who here in this village didn’t know about her indiscretions with that boy Lutalo?”
“A big, black handsome boy!” she said, before looking in amazement at the full cup of cold brown milk in front of me.
“Goodness!” she exclaimed, “You haven’t touched your tea my child!”
I quickly and apologetically raised the cup to my mouth and took a sip.
“So,” I continued, setting the cup back down. “You said Hamza found out about the affair?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “Hamza beat her terribly that night. He kept shouting that he was going to kill her and her mulema son.”
“And then he turned up dead in Mukabya’s plantation.” She clapped her hands and sighed loudly. “Poor Hamza. If you ask me I think that wretched woman is to blame. Bringing that blue-sweatered boy into her husband’s bed!”
I halted the tea cup just before it touched my lips and looked up.
“Blue sweater?” I asked.
“Yes. He wore that thing all the time!”
“I see!” I exclaimed, abruptly setting the cup down and getting up from the sofa. “Thank you very much for your help and hospitality, Mrs. Nakku. I appreciate it.” I rushed for the door as she stood up and followed me outside, bemused by my sudden reaction. I was excited by the new information and knew I had enough to bring the case to swift closure.
We brought in a bewildered Emma Lutalo that evening in handcuffs and sat him in the questioning room for two hours before I went in and had a go at him. He admitted to having an affair with Nina but vehemently denied killing her husband.
“Do you own a blue sweater?” I asked him.
“A blue sweater? Y…yes, w…why?” he stuttered.
“We found a piece of blue sweater cloth on Hamza’s body.”
“B…but I don’t even have that sweater now, officer. I left it at Nina’s place th…the last time I was there! I swear officer!”
“We will go and search both your place and hers. For now though, you will be spending the night here.”
After we had locked up the distraughtly plaintive Lutalo I made my way home and got there just as Faith was putting Michael to bed. I sat at my study desk and took out the handkerchief with the blue cloth, spreading it out before me. Something about the cloth perturbed me. Something did not look right about it.
“Everything okay Jim?” Faith’s hand on my shoulder startled me. I looked up and breathed.
“Yes hun. It’s just…there’s something about this cloth that feels off.”
“You have a prime suspect now, Jim. Cheer up and come to bed.”
I sighed and got up from the desk. I put my .44 revolver – an old, second-hand thing that I had never fired – on top of the desk next to the cloth and began to dress down.
“If you must know,” Faith said as she pulled back the bedcovers, “I’ve been making friends with some of the village women. Talk is already circulating.”
“About Nina. From what I gather she’s into some kind of voodoo. Cosmetic stuff. The women say she sells them beauty potions and similar things.”
“Okay. But what would that have to do with Hamza’s murder?”
“I don’t know. I just thought you’d like to know.”
I sighed again as I got under the bedcovers. “We’ll have to wait and see, I guess,” I said. “Michael went to sleep early today, I see.”
“He was hyper all day. The poor thing wore himself out.”
“So does that mean we finally get to christen this damn house?”
She looked at me and smiled shyly, before walking over to the switch and turning off the lights.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay awake in bed till about three listening to dogs howling in the distance and Faith snoring lightly next to me. There was something I was missing about this case but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I turned the case over and over in my mind until it hit me suddenly.
“Of course!” I shouted, inadvertently waking Faith.
“Hun?” she said sleepily.
“I can’t believe I didn’t see it before!”
“See what, hun?”
“It’s perfectly symmetrical!”
“Babe you’re worrying me.”
“The blue cloth! It’s a perfect rectangle! It couldn’t have been ripped off the sweater!”
She sat up. “Jim, what are you saying?”
“It’s a cut-out! It was cut out of the sweater! She framed him!”
I leapt out of bed and turned on the lights. I dressed up and put my badge and a pair of handcuffs in my pocket before turning to leave. Then, reconsidering, I looked back down at the desk and grabbed the .44. Faith was still rubbing her sleepy eyes in confusion when I ran out into the dead of night and drove my car straight to the Lukwago compound.
The whole compound was shrouded in darkness when I arrived but there was a dim glow coming from the kitchen window of the Lukwago house. I heard what sounded like incantations emanating from the kitchen as I tiptoed my way there and peeked in through a gap between the curtain and the glass.
There, kneeling on the floor with her children behind her, was Nina Lukwago with her hands dipped in a large bowl in front of her. In the dim light of a crude-looking, sooty tadooba I saw Nina raise her hands, which were now stained with what I clearly saw was blood, and smear her face with them. I made the most innocuous of movements but her eyes shot to the window and when they met mine she let out a shriek so shrill it did not sound human. As she scrambled off the floor I ran over to the front of the house and kicked the door in.
Nina looked strangely aged and haggard behind the blood-stains on her face when I brought her into custody that morning. I placed her in the questioning room and ordered Kavuma to go back to her house and retrieve the blue sweater. And then I went in to face Nina.
“You framed the poor boy!” I said to her as she stared at me across the table. “Lutalo. You scissored that piece from the sweater he left at your house to make it look like he did it!”
She said nothing but kept glaring at me, her face streaked with rivulets of clotted blood.
“You’re a clever woman, I’ll give you that,” I said. “Tell me if I’ve got this right: Hamza was always suspicious about you, and your participation in cosmetic witchcraft didn’t help matters. But that night, finding out about Lutalo, he blew his lid and went murderous. He turned to your son. He was intent on making someone pay. He dragged the boy out to the plantation but you followed them and hoed him down. Then you planted the cloth to deflect suspicion. Is there anything I have left out?”
I waited for a response but all I got was that constant, hateful glare. I had given up on getting anything out of her and turned to leave the room when she spoke up suddenly, halting me.
“You think you know everything, don’t you Inspector!”
“I know enough to put you away for life.”
“Tell me, Inspector,” she continued, “What would you give to protect your child?”
“Would you give your life?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She looked up at me and gave me a grin so sinister that I began to feel uneasy. I ordered the guard to take her in and decided to go home. I was knackered and craving sleep.
It was when I was driving home that her words began to ring again in my head and I picked up my phone and called Faith.
“Are you at home?” I asked.
“Yes. Why?” she replied
“And Michael? He’s with you? He’s alright?”
“Yes. Jim, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Just something Nina said. I’ll be home soon.”
I hang up the phone and drove all the way to my gate in relative calm. But Nina’s words came back to me: What would you give to protect your child? I nearly rammed into the gate as I was struck by a new, chilling realisation. I slammed the brakes and grabbed my scanner.
“Kavuma!” I shouted into the mouthpiece.
“It’s one of the children!” I yelled.
“Come again, boss?”
“One of the children killed Hamza! Nina is covering up for them!
Get out of that house this instant!”
And then came the loud thud and the yell over the scanner, two haunting sounds that are the hallmarks of all my memories about my time in Kiwanga. I will never forget the feeling of mortal dread that filled me as I sat behind the steering wheel staring at the grey gate ahead of me. Only the sound of static filled the car.
“Kavuma!” I shouted.
“Sergeant, do you copy!”
A small, soft voice spoke up from the other side, cutting through the static and mumbling syllables that were incomprehensible and yet held a world of meaning to my ears.
“Dee de dah dum,” it said, and giggled.