‘Dear Liz’ by Kakinda Maria Birungi

“I am a man of action,” Musa says with finality.
When I fell in love with him, I became the spring flower that unfolded itself enticingly, to him pleading to be touched and plucked and pinned either to his hairline or his collarbone or even his ring finger. Somewhere that the whole world would glimpse with envy. And I hoped that the glue that stuck me to his dark features would not come undone.

It was a habit of his to mark a milestone with Idi Amin quotes.

“Idi Amin was my father!” he often rumbled as if to convince not only me, but himself as well. His supposed father was an omnipresent ghost which dined with us and more often than not also accompanying us to office parties.

“Although some people felt Adolf Hitler was bad, he was a great man and a real conqueror whose name will never be forgotten.”

On many a night, it sat by the window looking at us, stark naked. Ebony against Asian skin. Musa clutching my hands, sticking his feet to mine, willing me to match his speed.

“You cannot run faster than a bullet!”

The ghost had silently sneaked in the labour ward when I gave birth to our son.

“I will name him Idi Amin Dada,” he had shot out.

“I said I am a man of action,” he repeats.

“I do not doubt it, sire.”

Sweat runs down his chin such that he looks like he bathed himself in a generous amount of petroleum jelly. His fingers are balled into a fist. I know he is harbouring a war. He wants to hit me but he does not attempt to. Not yet.

“Why the jealousy then? Why provoke Aminatta, Malyamu and Racheal? Why tell them that we plan on abandoning them here in this God-forsaken country? The women may decide to kill me, for all I know!”

How do I explain to a man that when he plucked my flowery self I lost my roots of identity? What words do I use to say that when he pinned me to his hairline and collar bone and ring finger all at the same time that he exposed me to the elements of blizzards and that my rich oriental skin faded into a paler colour, which left me ladled with insecurity and even more ravenous for attention? How do I weightlessly carry the shame of the envy that I feel for my co-wives who I once was; beautiful and feisty, but no longer is?

I say to him instead, “I did not sign up for this.”

“For Allah’s sake! For what goddamit? An overly attentive man? A devout Muslim man in whose house you can worship your Buddha gods? A man who catches you exposing your ageing flesh to the driver and all he does is to fire the good-for-nothing man? If it had been my father, you’d never have seen the light of day! You’d be the late Anandi-Nidhana ….. just like my step-mother Kay…”

“Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off dead!”

He comes after me. Fingers unclasped, spread out. Knifing through the air with eagle-like precision. I have been anticipating this such that I make a dash for the door within the bedroom. I bang the door shut and turn the key clockwise twice. Once to lock him out. Twice to amplify the space between us. He pounds on the door.

“Come on Anandi-Liz, my love. You know I was only joking.”

I can picture him outside the door. My big giant of a man whose spirit is too weak to contain all the 6 foot 5 inches of muscle and flesh. Him trying to stop his hands from shaking. Masking his anger behind a softer voice that I know all too well he has laboriously constructed.

* * *

9th October 2004. Jinja, Uganda. ~ Independence Day Celebration.

I step on the accelerator urging the car to go beyond its limit. It coughs and sputters as if in protest to say, ‘Musa, I can’t go any further!’ I am that persistent lover soothing my car turned partner, with ballads by Oliver Ngoma. The radio arduously carries his voice and I whistle along. I put my right arm outside enjoying the rub of the wind against my skin.

We smoothly move along the Kampala-Jinja highway towards the Bujagaali Falls. They hold fond memories for me. My maamas in bellbottoms and cotton blouses. Fancy clothes for us, the children. Plenty of food. Plenty of laughter. But best of all; Papa Amin Dada-His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

Larger than life Papa. Our very own Doctor. Papa with his loud roaring laughter. Papa with his jokes. Papa swimming with us. Papa dancing. Papa. Papa. Papa…

I very narrowly miss a globally sized pothole and in dodging it, I almost hit a cyclist. He yells something that I do not quite catch. I do not care.

He should blame his incompetent Government that I have nothing to do with. The day will come. The day when grown men and women will wear bark cloth and fast, wailing beseechingly to my father. Pleading with him to come back from the dead. But he won’t come. Their apologies to him for feeding him to the Western wolves and letting them rip his image will not suffice. In his resting place, he would have found eternal loyalty.

I approach the gate at the Bujagaali Falls.

“Olotya? Abakulu nga gwe basasula mutwalo.” the gateman says.

His faded army green uniform stares at me, begging me to give him extra money. I hand over the exact entrance fee.

“Jumbo. Habari za subui.” I say while smiling and make a salute gesture.

A few metres past the gate, I bring the car to a halt and alight from it. It’s a relief that I finally get to stretch my cramped legs. Approaching the art and crafts shops, I glance around. It’s a bit crowded today. Lots of Indians and Ugandans. There’s an assortment of languages. Lusoga. Indian. Luganda. Lunyankore. Swahili. I leaf through the crafts and nothing of interest catches my eyes. The women will more than make up for it!

Where the hell is Abdullah? Ah! Ugandans and time-keeping! Especially the ones who are bred in Uganda with no travel experience. The ones whose heels have been worn completely by the dust of Kampala or Masaka or Kabale or Arua or Mbale. None of the Oxford autumn wind or Californian sun or even the southern African cold winters.

A man beats my back firmly and I immediately know it is Abdullah.

“It was about time! I have never had a knack for patience!”

“Eh but Musa! I arrived here about an hour ago. I figured I could start in on the fun.”

“I see you have added ‘liar’ to your résumé too. ‘Smuggler. Con-artist. Liar … has a nice ring to it. I can picture it as a remarkable tag-line on a bill-board at Workers’ House. Will be good for business.”

He lets out a shout of laughter accompanied by periodical gasps for breath. All I do is smile. I have been told that I am a funny man.
We take two seats at a white plastic table and order two bottles of tonic water. We aimlessly talk about everything and anything. His trading and lottery ticket businesses. My money-lending business. His incessantly nagging girlfriend, Julie. My seven-minute female exploits. We argue about the state of affairs in the country, him being a staunch supporter of the incumbent Government. Abdullah’s father, a supporter too, hailing from Soroti is a recently retired high-ranking civil servant.

“We largely have peace now. The economy is brimming with profits.”

“Profits for whom?”

“For us all! They are ploughed back into employment! Why can’t you see Musa? The Musevenic era is the best era we have ever witnessed.”

“Best era? Institutions broken. No National Bank? No National Airline? Farmers’ Cooperatives disintegrated.”

“At least there’s democracy!”

“A façade… a façade I tell you! Every Politician in Africa at least adheres to the fact that Politics is like boxing-you try to knock out your opponents!”

“I cannot attempt to reason with you when you allow yourself to reason like a boor!”

We have been here before. At a small crack, standing on either side. Watching in despair as our political views threaten to spill emotion into the crack and widen it into a gulf. For fear of the crack widening, we hold out our hands and fill them with the plasticine of silence. We drop it into the crack with relief.

Desperately searching to reverse the awkwardness, I slightly shake my head from side to side in tune to the music of the troupe dancers. A plastic but marvellous exhibition of my ability to brush off emotion.

“Those girls have been staring at us,” Abdullah says a few minutes later.

“The girls next to the bar? I noticed them too.”

“Heheehe… You did and yet you did not make a pass? What happened to the Musa ‘MacGyver’ I know?”

“I need something new. It’s always the same game. Ask her to dance. She plays hard to get for a minute. Whisper a few things that I can’t believe they fall for. Four songs later, she’s in my car and fifteen minutes later, at my house. Fuuuckinngg bore, I tell you!”

“You want a challenge?”

“I welcome one.”

“The Indian girls at the neighbouring table. That should give you the sweat you are looking for.”

“Fine. Watch closely and… learn.”

I approach the table and locate my prey. She’s the most beautiful one of the five girls. She has a slender neck wrapped by glowing skin that runs all over her body. Her white teeth blend in harmony with her fair skin. She’s in Indian wear and is wearing a short pick blouse revealing her navel. She has a pink silk sheath wrapped around her.

“Would you like to dance?” I ask while extending my large palm.

The girls slyly look at each other and meekly let out giggles.

“I do not dance.”

“Neither do I. But I saw you from across the gardens and figured that we’d both be missing out. I on your beauty, you on such a handsome and tall man as myself.”

The girls do not bother to stifle their mirth this time. They squeal together and two of them attempt to even hold hands.

“And as you can see… I’m a helerrr funny guuuy.” I etch the British accent that I vigorously learnt during my university days in Liverpool even deeper into my voice. Then I wink.

She stands up and I lead her to an area where other couples have replaced the dance troupe and are now dancing to tunes of Afrigo Band. We attempt to move to the rhythm coming from the speakers.

“My name’s Musa. What’s yours?”

“Anandi-Nidhana.”

“You’re Ugandan?”

“Yes, I was born here.”

“You seem not to be too keen on talking.”

“I don’t usually dance with strangers. More so…. How do I say this and not sound racist? …Ugandans. Northerner, I presume? Your skin tone makes me think you are one.”

“I’m from the West-Nile. Would it help if I told you I own a red beetle that was once Amin’s? Would that make me even more attractive?”

She laughs.

“No kidding! You do?”

“Would you like to see?

“Ummm… Not today.”

“Not today? Does that mean sometime?”

“Maybe…”

“You should come to Kampala and see me.”

“I haven’t been there yet.”

“You haven’t been? My father once wrote to the Queen of England and told her “Dear Liz, if you want to know a real man, come to Kampala.” I will not break the family tradition by not inviting a queen to Kampala. In fact, I shall call you Anandi-Liz…”

* * *

7th December, 2015. Kampala, Uganda.

“Anandi-Liz… Open up mukwano!”

“I’ll be out in a minute. Just stop attempting to bang the door down!”

“Open the damn door! Now! My patience is running out. This is my house. Anything I say gives.”

Silence.

“Liz?”

Silence.

“Liz? Dammit…..Say something!”

Frantic bangs on the door accompanied with kicks.

“Answer me woman!”

A minute’s silence.

“Mukwano! Liz? Liiz? ”

More banging.

“I swear I have done nothing! Mungu is my witness. Liz, don’t do anything stupid in my bathroom! Not here! Not now!”

Banging continues.

“How will this look? Liz? Liiiz? I beg of you. I have had enough of my life in newspapers. What will the world say? That madness follows the heels of my kika and that I married a mad woman? Just like my father? Clearly I’m the only sane one here!”

He lets out a tentative laugh. Silence.

“Okay, look. That was surely a joke in bad taste. You know I was joking, don’t you? It’s the reason you love me. You once told me so.”

Silence continues.

“Stop scaring me Liz! I know you are capable of many things. I have seen you do stuff but please don’t let me add death to them…”

Weak flowers drop their petals and die off forever. The stronger ones may die, but will bloom for other seasons. I’d like to think that I am a rare breed. I dropped my petals seasons ago. In a new season, this season, in the stead of petals, I have grown thorns. My thorns are insensitive to touch and detached from reason.
I have come to love hearing him run mad. His shouts, now turned sobs soothe me. They quiet the demons that I can’t conquer alone. Pain. Insecurity. Fear of uselessness.

I hear a body drop down. It rocks itself against the door. Having given up on banging against the door, sobs are heaved from it. This is the Musa I crave. I have done this before. Fake terminal disease diagnoses. Pretend hijacks. This is what you do to an erratic man. You hand him an imaginary crown and let him play with it for a while, while you hold the real thing in your palms. Men and their toys! I let out a silent giggle.

“My parents left me alone! Don’t leave me! Those other women have never quite matched up to you Liz…,”

I mentally urge him to shout louder.

“Woooooooooooooooweeeeeeee…”

Ah…! There it comes. His first wail. The first of many.
I get out my phone from my jean skirt pocket. I plug earphones into it and search randomly for a radio station. He will be at it for a while. I then Google ‘Reasons Flowers Die And How To Keep Them Alive.’ Something to keep me busy.

There’s a paragraph that grabs onto the lapels of my mind;

‘…Some people know that plants can become pot bound. This means that the roots have spread as far as possible within the pot and so their growth and health are affected as the roots spiral around, twisting in on themselves in search of fresh soil.
Therefore, take great care of the roots of the plant, rather than worrying about the parts of the plant that you can see. When repotting your plant, gently loosen and remove as much of the old soil as you can from in between the main roots. Thereafter, carefully prune off any surplus roots, aiming to remove broken or damaged roots. In short, love the roots of your plant – they make the shiny leaves and pretty flowers.’

After reading the article, I check the time. Nine minutes have since passed. I then open the door and find him curled in a ball, lying on our bed. There’s a steady rise and fall of his chest. Eyes closed, his arms lie together between his knees that are closely bent towards his chest. I put his head on my laps. Dry traces of fluid run down his cheeks. Then stroking his hairline, his collar bone and his ring finger, I whisper into his ears.

“Sometimes, we get our strengths from others’ weaknesses. Don’t you forget that.”

#SSWCIII
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