1999 seems like such a long time ago but it isn’t. It’s merely what older people say when they’re lecturing you about time and how one minute it’s within your grasp and the next, it’s like an old bus you’ve been waiting for at the stop cantering away in a cloud of dust, into the dusty Kampala sunset, without you.
And so it is with me today. It seems that yesterday I was 9 years old, the world was my oyster and now I’m 30 years old, no cent to my name and I have two kids. Life has gone, but it is also still here. I look outside, thinking how my life has completely changed, and how no matter what I do to relieve my most carefully cherished memories, they can never be as they were then. Different smells, different sounds, you know?
I think all this while sucking on a Cool Cool bar. If you grew up in Uganda in the 90s, you know what I’m talking about. Someone got the bright idea to freeze sweetened water in different flavors and colours and package them in plastic and it was the most delicious thing that our young tongues had tasted, if you didn’t count your mother’s cooking at Christmas. It was like heaven, that colorful block of ice.
We’d wait until the bell rang at 4 o’clock after watching the time painfully crawl by in Mr. Dralega’s lesson, our young bodies twitching and restless from sitting on the hard benches listening to linear equations that didn’t make sense. They didn’t then, and certainly wouldn’t in the future, but I didn’t know that yet, of course. In the future, I’d end up as a housewife whose immediate problems were which child couldn’t find their other sock in the morning, why my son was wearing a school sweater with the name Sharon on it and whether my husband had remembered to leave “kameza” money. But I digress.
Back then, when the bell finally rang, you would stuff your books in your tattered bag and race your friends to the canteen. You would then sweat your way through the crowd of kids, and join in waving your note in the canteen man’s face to get noticed, shouting, “Mr. Canteen, Mr. Canteen, one yellow, one orange!”
And when you finally made eye contact and Mr. Canteen took your money, you’d grasp your prize in your sticky palm, holding it high above your head and triumphantly extricate yourself from the throng, back to safety. Then heaven. You would suck on one, biting along its length to extract the juice while listening to your friend Muheru re-telling the Keanu Reeves movie he’d seen last night. You knew that Muheru embellished the film scenes heavily because he was a sucker for crowds but you didn’t mind because he was your eyes and ears to the delights of Hollywood. Besides, you didn’t have a television at home so you really had no right to complain. So along with the other kids, you formed a circle around him and listened, rapt. And as the sweet liquid glided down your throat, you would recreate that Keanu Reeves round-kick in your mind’s eye.
The Cool Cool bar got you pretty much through everything. Standing in the sun waiting for the rickety minibus taxis in the Car-park to take you back home, your bag weighing heavily on your back, your thoughts weighing even heavier because of not trying to think about that bully Caesar who once again had taken your brother’s transport money so that even today, you would have to sit on the Kameme between somebody’s legs if they were kind enough to let you. If they weren’t, you’d just get in, and pretend not to hear the taxi conductors call for all the passengers to pay. One by one, everyone would hand over their money and when he got to you, you would widen your eyes innocently as much as possible, and say in your best little girl’s voice that please, would he mind if you paid a little later as your money was so far inside your shoes that you couldn’t possibly remove it at that moment?
But of course, once outside, you would sprint into an alley, right across Mama Kigere’s stall, barely missing her hot cauldron in which fatty cow hooves were boiling deliciously and disappear into the road leading to the thick canopy of shanty homes of which one was yours.
Cool Cool bar made you forget that once you got home, your father might ask you to recite the 7s time table and if you failed, your buttocks would reunite with the big guava stick he kept beside the cupboard in the seating room. Cool Cool Bar made you forget all that. In that moment, what did it matter that your tongue was blue or yellow, or whatever had taken your fancy that day? Or that Ceaser might write more disgusting things about you in the boys’ toilet. You knew this because Muheru had told you, but then again, being Muheru, who knew how true that story was? Anyway, it didn’t matter at that moment. What mattered was that if you really thought about it, life wasn’t half bad with a nice Cola Cool Cool in your hand.
And now here I am all grown up, eating a Cool Cool bar, loving the way it takes me back to my childhood, reminding me of things long forgotten but being acutely aware that it does not feel quite the same. It’s hot outside and the ice is providing respite from the heat, but nothing more. No sense of wonder, no “all’s right with the world” feeling. For a moment, I want to be young once more, so Cool Cool Bar can make life simple again.
And yet, I’m glad because I can still picture myself the way I was then. I remember how my school socks that had long lost their elastic which as I ran, I would bend down occasionally to pull over my thin legs. I can still see my brother Jacob’s torn badge flapping in the wind, still proclaiming the school motto,” To fly on your own.” He’s chasing after a mangled plastic bottle in the road, laughing gleefully, perhaps at that moment thinking that he’s Ronaldo. The look on his face is priceless.
So this is for you Cool Cool bar. Thanks for the memories.