Adeke gathered her faded purple nightgown tightly around her thin shoulders and moved to sit on the floor, near the lone candle mounted on the hollow tip of an empty coca-cola bottle in the middle of their small room. The candle flame barely lit up the whole room, making monstrous shadows of their few belongings on the unpainted walls. She heard the rusty zinc sheets on the roof creak as if they too were trying to shield themselves from the gushing wind. A sudden spark of lightning, followed by a rage of thunderclaps shook the room.
Adeke shivered. “When is Maama coming home?” She asked her older sister, Sara, who had been staring at the door eagerly like a dog awaiting its master. Sara moved to close the small wooden window that stood a few inches above the bed they shared, pausing a while to stare outside.
“Any time now,” she said as she closed the window and moved to sit on the lone two-sitter sofa propped against the wall, directly opposite the beds.
It was the only proper piece of furniture in their one-roomed house besides the two beds lying side by side on rickety metal bed frames that creaked a little too loudly, especially on those nights their mother had “visitors”. The sofa, which their mother always carefully dusted every morning like some kind of trophy, was a gift from one of the many ‘uncles’ who frequently visited. Adeke knew that Sara would be in big trouble if Edina found her sitting on the carefully fluffed cushions especially after she had thoroughly stressed that none of them was permitted to do so.
Sara had barely let her back rest on the sofa when they both heard their mother’s singsong laughter in the distance. Like a frightened cat, she sprang from the sofa and patted the depression of her small behind from the cushions before moving to sit next to Adeke on the bed.
Their mother’s voice grew louder. She was accompanied by someone else, they could tell, and much as Adeke strained to hear, she could not make out their conversation. Not long after, they heard the door knob turn and the door scraped open with a loud, grating sound. Edina stepped in and yet another monstrous shadow leapt on the wall, its head, touching the broken ceiling. The room suddenly felt so tiny with her in it. Their mother’s companion came in. They rubbed bodies as the tall, bulky figure squeezed past the small space left between Edina and the wall, to sit on the precious sofa.
“Welcome home, Maama, hello auntie,” Adeke and Sara broke out in unison the moment their mother and her guest were seated.
“Your daughters have grown up banange Edina,” the guest said, looking from Adeke to Sara.
“Ekitibwa kya Mukama,” their mother replied. ”To God be the glory,” she repeated as if her visitor had not understood what she had said the first time. She then pulled two packs of fried cassava and an avocado from her large black bag and handed them to Sara.
“Eat up quickly you two, and then blow out the candle and sleep.”
“Don’t rush them, Edina, do you want the girls to choke?” the visitor said, her eyes lingering a little on Edina’s face before they both burst into laughter and moved to sit on Edina’s bed.
Adeke and Sara stuffed the fried cassava into their mouth, both occasionally stealing glances at their mother who was laughing at almost everything her lady friend whispered into her ear.
“Thank you for the food, Maama. Good night.” They both spoke again in unison. Sara carried their plates to the large saucepan in the corner behind the door.
Adeke blew out the candle just as their mother pulled the lace curtain that closed the space between their bed and hers. She lay beside her sister and shut her eyes tight, wishing she wouldn’t be awake by the time her mother started to whimper and moan on the other side of the curtain as she did when one of the ‘uncles’ spent the night.
The rain began without prior warning but for the earlier random winds. It fell heavily; pounding on the roof like it was demanding retribution for committed sins. Cold swept into the room and not the thin cloth spread over their bodies could stop the sisters from shivering. Adeke began to hear her mother’s faint moans, rising and falling in unison with those of the lady who shared her bed. The sounds made by the two women seemed to drown the rain and the wind – it soon became the only thing she heard.
Sara held both her palms over Adeke’s ears, saving her little sister from the harsh, unpleasant and sinful sounds that pervaded their room. Adeke closed her eyes, grateful for the nights darkness, the temporary silence, the angel of sleep and most of all, grateful for her sister.
Adeke tried to open her eyes but the rays of the morning sun, pouring in from the open window, stung. A slow smile began to grow on her face as she heard the little children from the neighborhood happily splashing around in the puddles made by last night’s rain. A trench separated their house from a kibanda – a makeshift cinema. When it rained, the trench was almost always filled with plastic bags, bottles and matooke peelings as if everyone was waiting for that right moment to dump their trash so that the rain can erode it and take it somewhere making it someone else’s problem.
Sara was not lying in bed next to her. The sound of plates being thrown into a pan confirmed that she had been up for a while now, already washing the dishes from last night’s dinner. She turned. With the sun streaming in, she could see through the curtain that separated the beds – her mother was still asleep, snoring soundly. Her mother’s visitor wasn’t on the bed. She was most likely gone, like all those before her, sneaking out before dawn like thieves. Adeke swung her slim legs over the bed, flinching as cold from the cemented floor seeped into her feet. Once outside, she ran to her sister’s side and greeted.
“Bulungi, Adeke,” Sara replied, wearing a tired smile. “We need water.” she said.
Adeke hated having to go fetch water all by herself. It was much easier whenever her sister came along. At 16, Sarah had learned how to politely smile at the older women who called them Abaana ba Malaya … children of a prostitute, and the teenage boys who made rude comments about how much it would cost to get a night with their mother. Unlike Sara, Adeke’s face was always flushed in embarrassment.
The borehole was close by; she could hear the loud chatter of lazy housewives who met around the big Jambula tree – where the water carriers rested their bicycles – for their daily dose of gossip. She could also hear the loud arguments about Arsenal and Manchester United that distracted the teenage boys for hours each day. She was so caught up in her thoughts that she didn’t hear Maama Amina call her name.
“Owaye Adeke, Towulila? ” Maama Amina asked, moving to stand in front of her and blocking the path.
Adeke politely smiled and shook her head. “I’m sorry auntie; I didn’t hear you call me.”
Maama Amina was the fat lady who owned the several single room houses in Adeke’s neighborhood. She always wore long brightly coloured dresses that strongly contrasted with her coal dark skin and even bigger and brighter veils to complete the look.
“Is your mother home? Tell her I want my money.” Maama Amina spoke, wagging her finger at Adeke like she would be the one to take the fall if her mother didn’t pay.
“Kale nyabo,” Adeke replied. She sidestepped the woman’s intimidating frame and moved down the steps to the borehole. She could feel the women’s stares boring holes into her back as she began to fill her jerry can.
“Where is her father?” She overheard one woman ask Maama Amina.
“Who knows? You can never know with Malayas; you might find nga each body part of that girl belongs to another man.” Maama Amina replied sending the other women into fits of laughter.
Adeke smiled as she moved past them and headed home. It’s what Sara would have done if she were here; she wouldn’t tell Maama Amina that the women she was laughing with, were last week, gossiping about how her husband had deserted her for a university girl.
Edina was up by the time Adeke got back home. She was seated on a small three legged stool with a lesu tied in a knot around her neck. Adeke stood watching her as she dipped a cloth into a mixture of sugar and honey then rubbed it all over her legs, arms and neck.
Her mother was not beautiful, in fact the only outstanding feature on her face were her eyes, for they were as white and perfectly shaped like those of a calf. Her nose was crooked, her lips were dark from smoking the pipe religiously and on the rare occasions when she smiled, one would notice the little uneven spaces in her teeth.
Her mother slowly raised her wrapper and proceeded to scrub her brown thighs with the sticky mixture. Adeke had always heard her mother brag to her friends about how her body was the sole attraction for her customers. She would often say that her ample behind and thick thighs were a hit among the ‘high class’ customers. Adeke instantly knew from the attention her mother was paying to each fold on her body that tonight’s uncle – as her mother forced them to address her male customers – was from the upper class.
“Are you going to stand there all day?” Her mother asked without lifting her eyes from her chore or breaking the circular scrubbing motion on her thighs
“Good morning.” Adeke knelt and greeted.
“Maama Amina said she will come collect her money today. I found her at the borehole this morning.” Adeke told their mother who had now come into the house and was examining the sweet potato Sara had served with black tea. Her special mixture made her body glisten in the bright morning light now awash in the room.
“Let her go collect her husband first,” Edina sneered. “I detest that woman, always acting like she is better than all of us. Don’t worry girls, today is going to be life changing.”
“Maama, what’s happening today?” Sara asked.
“After tonight, we won’t live here anymore. I’ll send you girls back to a proper school. The Lord has finally blessed us.”
“Oh! Really?” Adeke said in between sips of her tea. The metallic mug burnt her fingers but she was too anxious to hear exactly how the Lord had blessed them that she failed to feel the pain. In her excitement she forgot herself and sat on the sofa.
“Yes, everything good will come,” was all Edina said as she broke the large sweet potato in her hands into three small pieces.
Sara sat up; casting quick looks between Adeke and their mother.
She used her eyes in all the ways they had both learnt how, to communicate a warning to her sister. But Adeke had her gaze fixed on her mother. A stray glimpse at Sara had her leaping from the sofa, spilling some of her tea on the floor.
“Sara, I want you to pick out my best clothes for tonight. I must make an impression,” their mother continued. She hadn’t even noticed that her golden rule was broken.
Sara nodded. Her mouth was too dry and her senses, now numbed with relief, too slow to respond.
Edina looked up at her girls, handing them a plate containing their share of the potato. Sara hurriedly grabbed it and began to wolf down hers.
“Remind me to get you new sandals, Adeke. If we’re to move to a new life then I want us to leave all signs of this hell-hole behind us,” Edina said, waving her hand around the small house and then looking at the sandals on the doorstep with disgust.
“Yes, Maama,” she said, silently smiling into her cup of tea.
Adeke had heard stories of how some men from the rich class sometimes ended up marrying women like her mother. In those stories, the woman would then leave the slums with her children and in a few months, would be seen driving around the streets of Kampala in those big intimidating cars that rarely passed through their neighborhood. The children would go back to school and start speaking English. No one would ever call their mother Malaya again.
She wouldn’t miss this neighborhood at all; she barely had any friends. She would however miss the afternoons when Sara helped their mother get ready for the night. They would both be so distracted by the task of matching shoes to dresses that Adeke would sneak off to the kibanda just in time to watch movies.
Edina was leaving for work by the time Adeke got back home from her little trip around the village. The sun was almost kissing the hill tops in a distance and normally Edina would have shouted at her for staying out late but instead she smiled and waved her hand at Adeke signaling her to come closer. Edina hugged her against her bosom and Adeke shyly wrapped her arms around her. She was not an emotional mother, so the hug caught Adeke off guard.
“I hope you said your goodbyes,” she said, gently pulling back to stare at Adeke’s face. “This innocence I see in your eyes must not be tampered with, that’s why I must do anything to get us out of here.” Edina said, gently squeezing Adeke against her before letting her arms fall to her sides.
Adeke craned her head, searching her mother’s face. She was glowing today. The skin around her neck looked much lighter and she smelled like the flowers along the path to the bore hole. Adeke silently pulled away, taking some of the glitter on her mother’s dress with her.
“You look really beautiful today, Maama.” She said with a big smile on her face.
“As beautiful as Maama Fina?” Edina asked, reaching out to clean the glitter off Adeke’s face.
“Sha! Even better,” Adeke replied, bidding her mother farewell.
Sara was dishing out spoons of rice onto the two plates laid out in the middle of the room, by the time Adeke finished taking her bath. Adeke felt her stomach growl in excitement; she kept her gaze on her sister, even as she pulled her loose grey night shirt over her head and moved to sit near Sara on the floor.
“Where are we moving to, Sara?” Adeke asked.
“Maama said she has been meeting up with a Muzungu – a white man from some place called the Netherlands,” Sara replied, her face beaming with pride.
Adeke scooted close to her sister, who was now lighting a candle, “Is he the one who is going to marry Maama?” she asked again, barely able to contain the excitement in her voice.
“Yes, his wife has been sick, but finally she died and now he is free to marry Maama,” replied Sara between mouthfuls of food.
“I can finally have my own room, Sara.”
“That and much more,” Sara said. They both ate in silence, each lost in thoughts of what the world held for them if their mother actually married that muzungu man. Their excitement could still be felt even after Sara blew out the candle and they went to sleep.
Adeke sat up, gasping, frightened. Her sister was not by her side.
The room was still dark, but she quickly made out Sara’s form at the door, talking to someone hidden by her frame as she leaned into the small opening. Adeke came down from the bed and moved to stand behind her sister.
Sara turned to face Adeke. “It’s the police,” she said, her face revealing a worried frown. “They want us to come with them. It’s something to do with Maama.”
Adeke nodded, her sole thought, to see her mother at once.
Adeke wore her sandals and together they followed the two policemen into the oppressive silence of the silvery night. Adeke noted that the sky bore the milky shades of breaking dawn. This side of Kampala however was still very much asleep, only the sighing wind and the occasional creek of the sleepy houses and their tortured heartbeats could be heard. Adeke held on to Sara’s hand and tugged gently, once then twice but Sara never looked her way. They walked in silence until they came to a building that looked old and in need of repairs.
“New London motel”, read the rusty sign post mounted at the top of the shabby building.
Another policeman stood waiting at the entrance of the motel. He looked older than the others and his big stomach seemed like it would burst out of his shirt if he sneezed. Without a word, he turned on his heels and marched inside a narrow, poorly lit hallway.
Sara and Adeke followed. He stopped in front of an open door, ushered the girls into the dimly lit room with the overwhelming smell of fresh blood and flipped a light switch.
“Is this your mother?” The policeman asked Sara.
Sara spun around, wrapping her arms tightly around Adeke and buried her face in her chest so she wouldn’t see the horror, the naked lady lying lifeless in a river of crimson.
But Adeke had already seen. She felt her legs buckle beneath her. Her throat constricted. She couldn’t breathe. Her eyes rolled to the back of her head, sending her to the floor in a heap.