Nandi stretched her legs out in front of her and sunk her naked feet into the sand. She closed her eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and concentrated on the sound of the waves on the lake as they mingled and crushed against the shore where she and her friends sat. It was her birthday-her 21st-but she wasn’t the slightest bit as excited as her friends were. They suggested going to the beach to party by Lake Victoria to celebrate her birthday. It was all about the party for most. All she had wanted to do was sit in her room and have some time to really think. Her life was crumbling again and she needed time before she sunk further into the hole she already lay in.
Auntie Peace was leaving. She had visited Nandi two days earlier and told her about the UN job she had finally got.
“We have been praying for this, Nandi, and God has been faithful,” Auntie Peace had said. Nandi had smiled. But she hadn’t been praying for that new job that would take her Auntie Peace away. She had refrained from even thinking about it lest fate take it as a sign of consent. She felt guilty and selfish for wanting her to stay but she couldn’t help it. Auntie Peace was her anchor.
She didn’t want to lose her Auntie Peace. Even though it had got much harder for her to tell her everything lately, she still looked forward to those moments when she sat with her and heard her say, “My dear girl, tell me, what’s going on?” These words often came with holding of hands and a comforting sigh, all of which seemed to say, “I am here now. Lay it all on me if even for a moment.”
But now she was leaving. She was going to America to take on an exciting new job. Nandi knew she would never have those unburdening moments with her ever again. Auntie Peace had promised that it would only be the distance between them that would change. Nandi knew better. The very same thing had happened with her father. His transfer to South Africa had put greater strain on their relationship. Over the years, he had become nothing more than a stranger that lived in the phone or whose face floated on her computer screen when they tried to Skype. She did not know who he was anymore. He had been away for too long during the times that she needed him the most. All he was now was a commanding voice that came from far away telling her what to do, what to be and how to act in her own space and time. He had offered to take her with him to South Africa. But she just couldn’t fathom what life would be like stuck with him; a man that become a stranger to her. And so she had turned down all his offers to have transferred. She felt it better to continue to live Auntie Peace. At least they had a connection that she relied on.
Whenever he came back to Kampala for his visits, Nandi always found a way to stay busy. The tension between them was always too palpable for her comfort. It didn’t help that he had remarried and had had another child. She had nothing against his new wife. She was a beauty and seemed genuinely nice. Nandi just couldn’t help but feel abandoned and replaced.
She still remembered her mother; the bodacious, beautiful, quirky, and talented Alana. She remembered how full of life she had always been, how she taught her how to play the guitar and the piano and sang sweet songs to her before she slept.
She also remembered the time it all started to crumble. Alana’s band, Solar, had started to go global. Everyone loved her. Nandi kept newspaper clippings that raved on about Solar and described their sound as “…eclectic, transcendent and yet charming, warm and poignant…” while larger audiences outside Uganda matched her to the greatness of Fela Kuti.
One day Alana and Nandi’s father were celebrating their new found success and the next, they were dealing with a horror that had struck their home. It started with Alana being too tired after a concert or from her travels to spend any time with her family. And then there was no time spent singing, playing or making music their own. That was replaced with hours on end that she spent cooped up in her bedroom. One day, Nandi crept in and found her mother at her dressing table still in her robe. When she got closer, she saw that her mother had a scarf tied tightly around her left upper arm and was holding a tiny syringe to her skin. Alana caught a glimpse of Nandi in her mirror and turned to look at her. Nandi noticed a kind of madness she had never seen before in her mother’s eyes as she shouted angrily, “Get out!” She was only 10-years-old then. Later that day, Alana went into Nandi’s room and apologised for shouting at her. But a cord between them had been already torn.
The fights in their home grew louder and harsher. There were nights when she could hear her parents screaming at each other outside her door. When she wasn’t away in some adventurous part of the world or at an extravagant party wining and dining with rich, influential personalities, she was at home shouting and screaming at the top of her lungs.
“You just don’t want me to be happy,” Nandi often heard her scream.
The music stopped, no one was writing about the angelic Alana anymore. She was in and out rehab and turning more and more into a shell of her former self. Nandi noticed the anguish in her father and did the most a little girl could to please her father: made him tea, painted him portraits, gave him hugs, fried omelettes, the only food she could cook, did the best she could in school. She didn’t want to lose him too.
Nandi was 12 when she walked into her mother’s room and found her choking on her vomit with a syringe laying empty next to her convulsing body. The door had been left wide open and the eerie sense of it all had pulled Nandi to walk in. She stood by the door and watched as her mother’s body shook. It had brought her some satisfaction watching her die.
Nandi lit a cigarette, drew and blew. It helped calm her down when her thoughts ran wild and when her body stared to go cold. The sky got darker, the music louder and the tide higher. The sound of her friends’ voices had long since fallen behind her. She watched as the water got closer to her feet. She dug her feet deeper into the sand. She thought about what it would be like to be washed away and dispersed someplace else. She was afraid of her thoughts and yet still held onto them.
She drew from cigarette again and thought about school. She was failing law school. She hated law school. She remembered the conversation she had had with her father about it.
“I don’t think this is what I want to do, Papa” she said timidly the last time he called.
“So what do you want to do?” he had asked.
“I’m not sure,” she had lied, “I just know that it isn’t this.”
She was sure she wanted to sing and make music. She had poured her heart into a few of her own songs and joined a band that played at weddings and on Thursdays at a small cosy uptown bar. But her father wouldn’t hear of it.
“You want to go down the same path your mother did?” was all he had said about her dreams the one time she dared to mention it to him. Those words cut her. They stripped a freedom from her and she hated him for it.
Nandi was 15 when her mother passed away. But by then she had already died in her heart. She had abandoned her long before her breath left her body. She remembered the day she got the news and how she looked on as her father told everyone at the vigil and burial that Alana had developed a serious case of pneumonia that finally ended her life. No one questioned this. The few that knew the truth knew. The rest was told that Alana had always had these kinds of respiratory issues. She remembered how she did not cry when she was told about her mother’s death or when she saw her body being lowered into the ground.
Auntie Peace had been there for Nandi, doing everything Alana should have when the love for the needle took over her. She had mended bits of herself and filled that sacred place Alana had exited. And now even she was leaving, before Nandi could open up and tell her that she felt empty and low and how she had the urge to cry almost every night and did not understand why.
Nandi felt a sudden tap on her shoulder that shook her out of her thoughts. It was time. She got up and dusted herself off lazily and walked over to the mini-van where three of her friends were waiting for her. One of them pulled a tiny syringe out of a little pouch that was on his lap.
He drew some of the clear liquid into it and then turned to her and asked,
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” she answered. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears as she stretched her arm out for her hit.
She watched as the needle found its way into her arm through her swollen vein. She felt every bit of the cold liquid crawl through her arm and then she was gone. She was transported to a completely different place. She walked through a large door into an open airy room with high ceilings and white walls, large French windows and light silky curtains that danced about in the wind that blew them in. She was weightless and free. She floated through the room and danced about happily in the sunlight that flooded it. Then, came the sound of a piano playing. She moved towards it and behind the piano was her mother, Alana. She looked up at her and smiled. It was a mirror image of what she had been before all the chaos came and overshadowed her life.
When Nandi finally woke, she found herself sobbing uncontrollably. Her friends, the few that were still awake and not caught in their highs, rushed to her but she could not be consoled. Her phone rang. The tone, a song that only moments before was one of her favourites, suddenly annoyed her. She was handed her phone in haste. It was Auntie Peace.
“Hello” Nandi answered trying her best to hold herself together.
“My dear girl, what’s going on?” Auntie Peace calmly asked. And that was all she needed.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me anymore,” Nandi managed to say, her voice quivering, “I don’t know what to do.”
A girl is a fragile thing and as she forms into a woman, bits of her are likely to crack and bend and fold. She was 21 now. She didn’t want it; this thing, this term, this responsibility for herself as a woman. But she had no choice. It had been thrust on her.