As he ferried another bag of cement from the warehouse to the waiting truck, Mwine felt like his back would snap at any moment. He saw a reflection of himself in the truck’s rearview mirror. He was unrecognizable through the thick layer of cement that covered him like a second skin. It was in his hair, on his face, on his tattered work clothes. He could feel it in his mouth, his eyes, his nose, and his ears. He was sure there was a layer of it in his otherwise empty stomach. The sun was blazing down with a vengeance, and he felt like he was being roasted. This feeling made him think of roast chicken; and in particular of how long it had been since he had tasted some. Thinking of roast chicken made the hunger pangs hit harder.
He knew in his brain that all cement bags weighed the same, but the rest of his body had him persuaded that they were getting heavier as the day progressed. The sweat flowed freely down his back and forehead soaking his clothes through. He thought of, and then quickly dismissed the idea of taking a break. He couldn’t stop to eat or drink because eating and drinking cost money and he had so precious little of it. He couldn’t stop to just sit and rest because just sitting and resting led to thinking; and thinking was bad for him. Thinking made him sad and sadness made him consume copious amounts of alcohol and consuming copious amounts of alcohol made him broke and being broke made him sad and sadness made him consume copious amounts of alcohol and ……well, there was just no end to it.
Lately though, he didn’t have to be sitting and resting for thinking to occur. Thoughts hounded him irrespective of where he was or what he was doing. Mostly they were thoughts of home. His actual home in Kabale, not the hovel he now lived in. He often wondered what his life would be like now had he not been lured by the city. He would definitely have married his beautiful Nyakwera. It had been eight years since he had left and he didn’t expect her to still be waiting for him. And even if she was still waiting, he wouldn’t want her to see this diminished version of him- emaciated, hollow-eyed, and defeated. He had fled the ‘terrible’ situation at home with such corky self-assuredness. Oh, how he had thumped his chest and made grand pronouncements. He had promised to show them. He was going to Kampala and the next time they saw him, he would be a different Mwine. He was a different Mwine alright, but not in the way he had meant back then.
He also thought often of those first exciting years in Kampala, how his wide eyed fresh faced self had been overwhelmed by it all. He missed the dilapidated garage he had first lived in with four other young men from his tribe. Each day they’d set off early, having no idea what lay in store for them, but just delighted to be alive and actually here, in Kampala, surrounded by possibility. They’d worked as porters at construction sites, collected trash, cleaned arcades downtown, ferried bags of produce in Owino; anything however menial that came their way. And when at the end of the day Mwine had trudged back to the garage with his band of exhausted brothers and laid his weary bones down on a mat in that old garage, he had slept soundly and dreamed of better days to come. When the morning came too soon, and it always did, he’d flashed on the picture in his mind- his shiny new Land Cruiser Prado parked in his mother’s compound in front of her much improved house in Kabale, and sprung his tired and achy body off the mat for another day about town.
But as the years had continued to rush by without any discernible change in his position the picture in his mind had started to fade, while the discontent in his spirit flourished. His grand dream had slowly morphed from skyscrapers in the city with his name on them to may be one small building (single storied would be okay) perhaps not too close to the city (noise, traffic, dust-really one was much better off in the suburbs), to at least a plot of land of his own-not necessarily in Kampala proper- Wakiso or Mukono would be fine-(he could make bricks and put up a house of his own), to at least finding a job that had the semblance of permanence and wasn’t so menial (he had been to school up to S2 and he had been said to show excellent leadership skills-he saw himself in the role of supervisor or foreman issuing orders all day), to one day starting something of his own (breaking his back to be paid peanuts while other people prospered off his labor was getting old, and the heavy lifting was starting to take a toll on his health).
Eight years since hopping onto a Kampala-bound bus, he had settled into a kind of tense acceptance of his situation. He had moved out of the garage into his own 10ft by 10ft room in a corner of Bwaise that didn’t fare too badly in the rainy season. And although she was no Nyakwera and was a source of more distress than pleasure, a woman had moved in and entrenched herself first in his ten foot squared living space and then in his life by bearing him a son. He had been firmly on track towards achieving the latest version of his grand dream (save enough money to buy a bodaboda). He had been managing. At the very least, he had been a man with a woman and son to his name, and a concrete plan for future financial stability. With the help of a trip to the bar in between days of back breaking toil and nights in cramped quarters with a wailing child and a querulous woman, Mwine had seen his life as imperfect but bearable. But then this buffer had been pulled from under him and with it his not so bad after all outlook.
He had been a little perplexed, but not terribly concerned the first time he had felt nauseated after taking a few sips of his usual waragi. His drinking buddies had claimed that their alcohol tasted as good as always. He had quarreled bitterly with the old lady who owned the establishment, but mostly as a matter of principle (he had a reputation to uphold for himself and his entire tribe). He had then stomped off to try the waragi at an adjacent bar. He had still felt nauseous while everybody else claimed their alcohol was fine. He must be ill then, he thought. So he went to a nearby clinic and explained his sole symptom- general nausea. He was given a few tablets which he thought must have worked because the food he ate later at home though terribly cooked had not made him nauseous.
But the next evening at the bar, it happened again. This time, one sip of his beloved brew and his stomach felt like it had been turned upside down and churned inside him. He realized with alarm that he must be seriously ill. And so the next morning, he set of bright and early for the national referral hospital where he miraculously managed to get tested for malaria, typhoid and cholera all in one day. He was given a clean bill of health and left the hospital with some panadol for his achy muscles and joints, and some blue tablets for the nausea. He decided to forego alcohol that evening to let the medication work unimpeded (also he was short on cash as he hadn’t worked that day and had had to bribe a nurse). The next day he had fled the warehouse after work like he was being chased and he made his way to the bar. He asked for the usual and when it was placed in front of him, lifted the glass to his lips excitedly.
To his dismay, even before the glass got to his lips he felt a great heave at the core of his body that threatened to force his innards up through his mouth. His bitter remonstrations with the old lady were tinged with real anger this time. His drinking companions sympathized greatly with his situation and an impromptu brainstorming session was held that analyzed Mwine’s predicament and zeroed in on a remedy (proof that six heads in varied stages of inebriation are better than one). Mwine slapped his forehead lightly. How had he not seen it? So obvious! And so the next morning at the crack of dawn, he had set off on a trip into the deepest recesses of Masaka to visit the witch doctor recommended by his advisors the previous night.
The witchdoctor nodded slowly in understanding as Mwine explained his problem. He saw them every day, he said, these stupid women trying to keep men under their thumbs. Did they not know that a man was meant to freely roam and soar and rule over the earth? With an amused little chuckle he declared Mwine’s problem an easy one to solve. Mwine’s head spun at the cost of the easy remedy, but after twenty minutes of vigorous bargaining, he managed to get the cost down to the exact amount he had been saving up to one day buy that motorcycle and that he carried on his person at all times. In exchange for his life’s savings, Mwine left the witchdoctor’s shack with a one liter glass bottle containing a greenish-brown liquid that would not only free him from the scheming woman’s shackles but also bring him prosperity and long life.
The liquid was bitter and smelled horrendous, but Mwine forced a tablespoonful of it down his throat at dawn and dusk every day for two weeks without fail and abstained from alcohol as the witchdoctor had instructed. And then finally one morning the bottle was empty. Mwine gave himself the day off work and headed to the bar to celebrate properly. He was in such good spirits that he hugged his woman and pinched his little son’s cheek as he left the house. He whistled a tune as he walked to the bar. He gave the old woman a warm hug and told her he had missed her so before sitting down and asking for the usual. The one sip he was able to swallow left a scorching trail from his mouth and down through his insides. The pain was so bad that he had to lie down on the floor of the bar for several hours and drink down five liters of water before getting back on his feet. But Mwine was no quitter. He tried again that evening and over the course of the week, trying different concoctions and different bars but he kept getting the same reaction. The murderous rage that seized him whenever he thought of his hard-earned money in the hands of the fraudulent little witchdoctor was as real as the cement bag that now threatened to snap his backbone.
And then just as he hoisted the last bag of cement on the truck, Mwine decided that he had enough. He quickly got out of his filthy work clothes and went to take a shower. A young workmate that Mwine had taken under his wing asked him if he was okay. It was only two pm, why was he heading to the showers? Mwine answered that he was just tired. That young man was Mwine eight years ago- excited and bursting with hopeful vigor. He considered giving the boy one last bit of advice, but decided against it just as he opened his mouth to speak and clamped it shut again. The supervisor frowned when a freshly scrubbed and changed Mwine showed up in his office asking for his wages. The super looked at his watch and asked Mwine if everything was okay. As if the little weasel cared. Mwine replied that everything was fine, he was merely tired. The supervisor looked through his chart and counted out a few notes and coins and handed them to Mwine.
Mwine walked with purposeful strides to his next destination. He took a deep breath and felt the saliva collect in his mouth when he beheld the long line of chickens turning slowly in the glass boxes. His stomach growled with anticipation. He meticulously scrutinized all the birds on offer and angrily waved away the eager swarm of salesmen who tried to rush him into a quick decision. After he had made his choice, he sat down at one of the plastic tables in the open air restaurant. He asked for a soda- mirinda fruity, his mother’s favorite. He smiled as the cold sweet liquid made its way down his throat. The 300ml bottle was empty in a few big gulps. His thirst was still a long way from being quenched, so he leaned back in his chair and snapped his fingers like a man of consequence. Another one, he said and let out a loud contented belch.
His chicken was finally put before him after he had gone through four sodas. He waved away the proffered dish and small jerry can with water for washing his hands. For about a minute, he just studied the chicken pieces in front of him. He inhaled deeply as if to capture the smell before picking up a drumstick with the tips of his fingers, bringing it slowly to his mouth and taking a bite. As he chewed slowly on the soft spicy bit of chicken, he was as close to ecstasy as he had been in a really long time. He smiled the triumphant smile of one who had finally managed a victory after a very long spell of defeats. This was his fuck-you to misery and hardship and tiredness.
It was threatening to rain by the time Mwine was done with his chicken. The melamine plate and its accompanying neatly stacked pile of bones looked like they had been wiped clean. He paid for the chicken and soda with money he had been saving for rent. To his delight, he had a whole two thousand three hundred shillings left over. Hmmmm, he chuckled to himself, and I thought I was poor. He looked up at the quickly darkening sky as he got up to leave. His mother had always said that it was a good omen if it rained before an important event. He crossed his fingers and hoped she was right.
He had barely gone one hundred meters from the open air restaurant when big drops of rain started to fall lazily from the sky. He watched with a bemused little smile as people all around him scurried for shelter. Really, it was just a little rain. As he turned to cross the road and find his final destination, he stumbled over a cardboard covered figure. The woman held out her hand and asked for some money to buy something to eat. As if on cue, the surprisingly healthy looking child in her lap started to cry. Mwine reached into his pocket for his last two thousand three hundred shillings and tossed the money at the woman. She started to thank him, but he turned away and walked on without a backward glance. He continued his trek city ward as the rain got heavier. As usual, the traffic jam formed rapidly in the rain. Cars stretched as far as Mwine could see. He looked at all the rich people sheltered in their expensive cars stuck in traffic. Get out and walk! he yelled at one lady who kept honking her horn impatiently. Then he laughed, threw his head back and roared with laughter till there were tears running down his face with the rain water.
He walked the rest of the way quietly, if a little aimlessly. He did not know what exactly he was looking for, only that he would know it when he saw it. Not too long, and he wouldn’t be tired any more. The thought energized him and he walked on with more purpose. He hardly felt the raindrops that were now pelting him like little stones from the sky. It was starting to get dark when Mwine entered the city center. The traffic was gridlocked on all the main roads and Mwine went in search of a side street with free flowing traffic, stopping every now and then to marvel at the beauty of the buildings that he would now never enter- the parliament, Serena hotel (he had dreamed of having his wedding reception there when he finally married Nyakwera), the garden city mall the mother of his child was always prattling on about.
And then he saw it.
The huge truck was hurtling towards him at a very high speed. The driver wouldn’t see him in the rain and darkness; and the slippery road would make it impossible to come to a halt in time even if he did. But he had to time this just right. There was no room for error or he would end up a cripple on top of everything else.
And then the perfect moment was here.
He willed his limbs to move, but he was frozen to the spot. The only motion his body seemed capable of was the chattering of his teeth in the cold. In the momentary stillness, the only sounds he heard were the thud thud of his heart and the click click of his teeth.
And then the swish of tires of wet gravel as the truck rushed by him.