A TROPICAL CHILDHOOD.
Some of my earlier memories are hazy but I do remember the house I grew up in vividly. It is the only house I lived in before we moved to London. It was a colonial style bungalow in a bourgeois neighbourhood called Kololo. It had three bedrooms, a veranda, servants’quarters and a big lush garden and orchard where we run amok and climbed the fruit trees for juicy guavas and succulent mangoes. There was a big anthill that was great for sliding down and a long driveway for cycling. Even though there was a modern kitchen with a gas cooker most of the cooking involving traditional dishes was done outside using firewood.
One of the recipes I remember was for matooke. This is made by peeling a type of green banana, wrapping it in banana leaves and sitting the parcel in a saucepan with a little water. The bananas are steamed for a while then mashed by pressing the bundle with bare palms. I always marvelled at the maids’ ability to withstand high temperatures. This was often served with groundnut (peanut) sauce. Again, painstakingly prepared as one had to pound the nuts in a mortar and pestle before cooking them with tomatoes, onions, salt and water to make a thick paste. For the meat dishes, we had to go to the meat packers in an industrial area nearby where the raw, dripping carcasses of animals swung above one’s head and a consistent metallic sound rang as they were moved along the rails, brought down and the required pieces chopped off.
I was born in Kampala, Uganda, in 1976. The country was under yet another dictatorship. This time led by Idi Amin Dada who not only governed his fellow man but also appreciated him on his dinner plate. My father was a Boston-educated businessman and a member of parliament for an opposition party. My mother was one of the heads of the main hospital. My sisters were seven and eight years older than me and although I was aware of the presence of half siblings who did not reside with us but whom we saw when we visited my father’s village, I did not know them well. I remember being genuinely afraid of my sister Miriam who I came after. Any amount of time left with her alone meant I would be crying and rubbing my skinny, sore arms after yet another pinching. I must have been five or six when we went to church one Sunday and Mass was interrupted by the wailing of a toddler in the pew in front of ours. Miriam was making faces at the child who was held on his mother’s chest with his head to us.
I was so keen to go to school as I had no children to play with once my sisters were at school, that I was taken to kindergarten at the age of two. My mother was anxious about my starting so soon but put her fears aside when on the first day of school, I happily waved her off and took the hands of crying four and five year olds and led them through the school gates. When I was six, it was decided that I should go to the boarding school my sisters had attended. It was a girls only missionary school run by Irish nuns and the best in the country. It was a good drive from the capital where we lived and was set in big green grounds. There was a primary school and a secondary school across the road. The headmistress was Sister Genevieve. She was short and stout and always wore a white veil and habit. She wore glasses and was very strict. A call to her office sent shivers down one’s spine as it normally involved a canning. I mostly recall her giving instructions as we rehearsed yet another Nativity play. The first years of primary school were mostly spent reading and writing. Sister Christina, a younger and more buxom nun read us English story books which talked of experiences that we could only imagine and dream of. It was thus that years later, when I saw snow and ate apples I had already had those things a million
times in my mind. I had tried to envisage the texture, smell and taste. The stories were read
to us in the afternoons under one of the many mango trees. In the evening we would run
about and play and do sport.
A requirement was that all the children had to have their hair cut to no more than a centimetre as they could not look after long hair themselves. The only exceptions were the half-caste children whose hair was softer and finer and could be left long. At the end of each holiday we had our hair cut before returning to school and during the term, if it grew too long, the teachers cut it. This was done by placing a long-toothed comb in the hair and cutting the excess above it with a razor. One thing I did hate was the school food. It was mainly posho, a thick porridge of white corn flour served with kidney beans. At home, we
gave posho to our dogs and I refused to eat it. No pleading or threatening could convince me so that in the end my parents brought a note from the doctor saying I was allergic to it. A mix of my father being important and the school not wanting to lose my school fees, not to mention having a death on their hands meant that I had rice prepared for me instead. It could not have gone down well to be the only child in several hundred who ate something different and yet I think I convinced not only myself but everybody else that in fact my eating posho might bring out a severe allergic reaction.
Primary school was between the ages of six and twelve. As we got older, we had to attend Mass not only on Sunday but during the week as well. I guess it was assumed we sinned more. We also took on responsibilities such as taking the night pail to the latrines in the morning. At night we were locked into our dormitories and on not being able to go to the latrines, used pails that we put in a little end room. At the beginning of term, there was great commotion as we rushed to get a bed far from the night pail room. I learnt to sleep with my head under the covers to avoid being shaved by the bats that we shared the dormitory with and in fear of the supposed ghost of a girl who had died in the store room beneath the dorm. The task of emptying the night pail was done in rotation and involved using tissue to hold to your nose with one hand while carrying the pail with the other tissue-wrapped hand. Two girls carefully manoeuvred the overflowing bucket as it sloshed about, taking small steps up the steep hill to the latrines where it was emptied, sometimes spilling all over the floor. The bed-wetters had their own dormitory and a compound where they hang out their urine-soaked sheets each morning to dry, only to sleep on them yet again the following night, dry but laced with a sharp, pungent smell.
The school year was marked by events like the sports day, the Christmas play and Parents’ visiting days. The usual sporting events included racing in sacks, racing with an egg on a spoon and so on. The Christmas play was almost always a variation on the Nativity play as told by the shepherds one year, the wise men the next, the virgin Mary the following year and such. Occasionally we did something crazy like the Emperor’s New Clothes or Joseph and His Multi-coloured Coat. But the highlight of the parents’ day was the food they brought. The families laid out their mats under the tree shades and unpacked the varied, tasty dishes we had been dreaming of in the days up to the event. We gorged ourselves and quenched our thirsts on sickly sweet Fantas and Coca Colas while we exchanged stories. At the end, we packed the remainders and snacks which would see us through a few weeks if savoured little by little. These goodies were kept at a teacher’s house for a small fee and the most popular teachers were the ones who did not dip
into the treasure troves.
The school timetable was as follows. At 6.30am a prefect walked around the school grounds ringing a
bell. She was followed by a matron who opened the dorms to let us out. We grabbed our buckets of cold water from underneath our beds and went to have a mass wash outside in the open air. The older students went to mass and the younger ones did other activities such as singing. At 8am we all went to the big dining room and had porridge. After that we had an assembly which meant we lined up in our respective classes in front of the teachers and headmistress to have a roll call and to hear the news or instructions of the day. If anyone had misbehaved the day before; and this could be from not getting high enough marks in a test to talking in class, they got canned then. We filed off to class and came out again at lunch. After lunch, the little ones played and rested or got read to and the older students had music lessons or rehearsed plays. Dinner was served at 6pm, generally a repeat of the usual lunch menu with occasional variations like cassava or groundnut sauce. There was some free time to do as we pleased until 8pm when the older students went back to class to study for an hour and the younger ones went to bed. By 10pm, everyone was in bed and the bell was rang again to signal ‘lights out’. The matron locked the doors and another day was over.
Having a tropical climate meant that there was plenty of rainwater which was collected in tanks and used for drinking, cooking and washing. For the odd times when it did not rain for a while, we went down the hill to a swamp and came back up again balancing wobbly buckets on our heads. They were emptied into the tanks and reservoirs and only when these were full could we keep some for our personal use. The swamp itself was a mass of dark green foliage tucked away in a small valley and one had to gingerly step on rocks and dip one’s pail in. The surface was shiny, oily and sleek with the residues of runoffs from the hill above and whatever had found its way into the water basin. We drank the water without boiling it or treating it in anyway for lack of facilities. If one got ill, a couple of days in the school infirmary where penicillin was administered for everything seemed to do the trick.
The school food was mostly bought or provided by charitable means but we also had plots where some stables like cassava, tomatoes, greens were grown. There was a small swimming pool that had long been closed off and used as a food storage instead. In its basin lay piles of tubers, like drowned, incompetent swimmers. On its side, sacks of corn flour, like fat children waiting to dive in. As a treat on Sundays, we queued up for a couple of biscuits and ladles of jam to go with them. One always got the impression the jam was close to its expiry date as it was handed out in such out of proportion quantities, that for years afterwards, I could not bear to even look at it.
Our uniforms were knee length, sleeveless, cotton dresses with a square neck. They came in different colours depending on the class. For special occasions like visitors or parents’ days, we had dark blue uniforms with white collars. At the beginning of term we had a list of requirements that clearly specified the quantity of goods to discourage any inequality. It read thus: 4 rolls of toilet paper, 4 pieces of bathing
soap, 4 bars of washing soap, two towels, a nightdress, two pairs of white socks, a pair of black shoes, a pair of slippers, 6 knickers, 4 exercise books, 4 pens and 4 pencils, a rubber, a set of mathematical instruments for older students, a set of colours, Vaseline, a comb, a toothbrush and 4 small tubes of toothpaste. The magic number was clearly 4 and all the items were inspected before we were allocated a storage space for them.
We generally wore flip-flops everyday apart from Sunday Mass and when we received visitors, when the shoes and socks would come out. The regime was strict and military in its execution which left me
with an appreciation for order and hard work. I can only recall a couple of teachers apart from the nuns. One was the music and drama teacher; a tall, lean man who played various instruments and directed our plays. Another was a Geography teacher who was a chubby, easygoing man who unlike the other teachers never canned us. There was a school priest who belonged to the same Franciscan order who said Mass and took our confession. Mass was said in the same hall that we used for rehearsals and performing. A couple of the older students were chosen to set out the priest’s robes and all the other paraphernalia. Some had the task of playing the musical instruments and leading the hymns. The instruments were a drum, a harmonica, a flute, an accordion, symbols, a tambourine and a triangle. Once a week the older students had confession. I remember learning the introduction, ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned. It is one week since my last confession. My sins are…’ The problem was that there was never anything for children our age living the protected lives we lived to confess. It was mostly something like, ‘I refused to give Jane some biscuits. I looked at Sarah’s paper in the exam,’ and so on. However I thought it was so grown up and mysterious to enter one half of the wooden confession box, to look through the mesh, whisper your sins and come out clean with only a few Hail Marys to say.
The school year was divided into three terms, roughly three months long with a month’s holiday in between. They were planned so that the Christmas and Easter periods coincided with the breaks. For the duration of the holidays we enjoyed being spoilt at home. We slept more, ate home cooked food, played with the neighbours’ children, visited relatives. It always seemed to fly by so fast so that in no time at all we would be preparing to head back to school. I remember mostly visiting my father’s side of the family
who lived in a village some distance from the capital. The entire family had a huge compound with various houses dotted around the central one which my paternal grandparents used. The houses were basically bedrooms and a living space. The bathroom and latrines were smaller shacks standing some distance away. One had to collect water from the many taps and take the full bucket to the washroom which was a simple concrete room, no more than one square metre with a tin roof, to wash oneself. The kitchen was a traditional round mud hut with reeds for a roof. The food was cooked on a firewood hearth in the traditional steamed way using banana leaves. There always seemed to be clouds of fragrant smoke billowing out of the open doorway which could be tasted in the dishes themselves. My love of perfumed smoke began then and still has me entranced whenever I walk past an incensed place.
The rest of the grounds were acres of orchards and fields growing all sorts of food to feed the
extended family. My father had several brothers and sisters, some of whom lived there with their children and in some cases, multiple partners. At least some of our half brothers and sisters lived there. There was also a small area put aside as burial ground and a dirt road leading to the property and past it to elsewhere. We were aware that my mother had not been welcomed into the fold with open arms. One reason might have been that despite belonging to the same tribe, she was part of another clan. In ethnic obsessed Africa these details matter.
Back at home, I sometimes accompanied my mother to work. I would look out her office window at the passing patients and nurses. I would read and watch her work. If we did not return home for lunch, we would share a flask of sweet, milky tea and sandwiches. I hated going with her when she inspected the wards. The pungent smell of medicine and the sickly look of the patients always put me off. The sharp screams of a child receiving an injection or the wailing of a relative who had lost a loved one put fear in my heart. The queues would coil around the buildings as the sick waited patiently for their turn to see the men and women in crisp white coats. Many years later when my eldest sister Janet was studying medicine and would come home laden with bones and skulls to study, I recalled those hospital scenes.
At home I would spend many happy hours looking at and feeling the wispy chiffons of my mothers’
western evening dresses and the satiny fabric of her gomesis. The gomesi is the Baganda women’s
traditional dress with long layers which wrap around the body, puffy sleeves and a wide sash. On her dressing table she had half empty ornamental perfume bottles brought back from my father’s many trips abroad. On his return he gave us multicoloured ponchos from Chile, white muslin dresses with embroidered borders from Ethiopia and cotton kimonos from Japan. His wardrobe was filled with practical and functional cotton shirts and suits. I remember the pipe he had in a small drawer which I do not recall seeing him smoke, and the large ivory ring he always wore.
Kampala, the capital, seemed very big to me but in retrospect it was in fact much smaller. The city centre was the official business district with food and clothes markets, shops, businesses, hotels, restaurants, a busy bus station, the parliament, a national theatre and a couple of cinemas. Although both my parents drove, we often walked to Sunday Mass through the green valley that separated our neighbourhood and the centre. A Sunday treat was often lunch and the afternoon spent at the Imperial hotel. This was an old white building that had faded over the years but still had a modest but functioning swimming pool where we splashed the day away. I did not learn to swim until I was eight or nine years old. I was terrified of the depth of the water and it was only the patience of my uncle Harry, one of my
mom’s cousins that finally got me swimming. I would ride on his back while he did length after length until I overcame my fear.
Growing up in a civil war ridden country, I was aware of possible danger from as far back as I can
remember. There were curfews, armed robberies, road blocks where you had to pay bribes to the gun-toting young soldiers and coups and counter-coups. The area we lived in was reasonably safe which meant that you only got robbed a couple of times a year or so. Normally the thieves watched the house
and only acted in the brief time the house was empty. That is, while we were at school, our parents at work and the maid was out getting groceries. I was therefore five or six when we first had thieves enter the house when we were at home. At the time it was only the maid and I at home. She must have spotted them because she grabbed me and dragged me in from the garden where we had been sitting. We hid under one of the beds in the guest bedroom and she held her hand over my mouth to keep me quiet. It all happened so fast and I recall not being able to breath properly as her hand was half obscuring my nose. There was the sound of heavy-booted feet coming down the corridor, stopping at various rooms until they
reached the one we were in, pausing as they looked around and leaving. I do not remember if they took
anything on that occasion but I started being afraid of being in the house.
Our neighbour across the road was Doctor Park. She was a sweet Korean woman in her fifties who
also worked at the same hospital as my mother and lived with her ex-army Korean husband. She loved
playing golf and she loved having me visit. She would push me on her swing and let me get as many
ripe guavas as I could off her tree. She often had us over and introduced us to the exotic tastes of Korean food. Her children were already grown up and living in America and she and her husband had adapted so well they spoke the most important native language, Luganda. Our house occupied a corner plot and thus had two neighbouring houses to the west and south, a road to the east across which the Parks lived, and a small airstrip to the north that was used for governmental and army planes. The neighbourhood itself was affluent and all the houses were big and had expansive gardens, servants and middle-class occupants. We had various family friends in the area who mostly had children of my age to play with. My favourites
were a numerous family that lived on the other side of the airstrip. There were boys and girls from my age to my sisters’ age and beyond. The closest to me were Rose and Grace with whom I played endless Hide and Seek and climbed all the trees in their garden.
Sometimes cousins and various relatives stayed with us for brief periods. The most memorable being Ford who was one of my uncle William’s many children. This uncle was my mom’s brother and had a drinking problem so was incapable of taking care of his children. Not having received much guidance, Ford was therefore wayward and delinquent in behaviour. For a while my mother tried to put him in a local primary day school which he consistently did not attend and where he stole from kids until he was sent back to the village. Another set of playmates were family friends who did not live near us but visited us often. They were called the Lutes. The older children were boys and the younger ones were girls. The one closest to my age, a year younger, was Justine. She was much taller and being brash and loud got on better with my sister Miriam than I. I liked Helen who came next and was milder and sweeter. Then there was Joyce and Maisie and Lilly.
I was seven when I was called to the Headmistress’ office one morning. On seeing my godmother but neither of my parents I understood that something was amiss. I was told that I was being taken home but that I should not worry. We then went across to the secondary school where my eldest sister was studying and picked her up too and then drove home. My sister and godmother must have explained that my dad had passed away but I did not fully take it in until we reached the house. Lined up in the drive were several cars and through the living room doors I could hear cries, sobbing and wailing. There were people everywhere, many of whom I did not recognise. In the middle of the living room was an open coffin placed on a table in which my father lay. He was still and I recall a slight grey hue in his colouring. But what struck me the most was the cotton wool that had been placed in his nostrils and ears. I am not
sure how many days the wake lasted but there was a Church service and a long drive to the village for the burial.
When I returned to school I was partly orphaned and something fundamental had changed. The shape
of our family life, our comfort and in many ways our future were to be touched by this. The walls of the visitors’ bedroom had bullet holes in them from where shots had been fired on the night of my father’s death. In the dead of night, armed men had surrounded the house and broken in. My father had hidden my mother and the maid under the bed and in a closet and had insisted on speaking with the men, intending to give them anything of value in exchange for the lives of those in the house. However they shot him the moment they spotted him. On hearing the shots my mother came out and pleaded with them to stop but it seems they had come for my father’s life and left him dying in her arms.
Even though it was never admitted by the government at the time, it was understood by everybody that as the leader of the main opposition party, my father had been assassinated by Obote’s men. Obote was the dictator who had defeated Amin, and apart from not sharing his culinary tastes, he was just as bad. My father’s political party was called DP – Democratic Party. They wanted to put an end to the corruption, murder and dictatorship that had been the bane of Uganda since independence in 1962. I remember
waving white and green flags when we accompanied the rallies and the songs that were chanted to
motivate the crowds. I wonder what would have happened had we been at home that fateful night and thank God for saving my mother. My father died for his belief in a better country. If his party had survived and won, where would we be today? What would have been the course of my life?
From then on, we had one of our uncles staying with us so we had a man in the house. To try and
persuade the public that they had had no hand in the assassination, the government ordered the local police station to supply us with an armed policeman every night. The irony was that it had probably been the same men who had come in that night that were now sitting in our living room while we tried to sleep down the hallway. This went on for a few months and then stopped when the story had died down. We also fitted the windows with bars and got a couple more dogs for protection. These had to be replaced periodically because they were often hit or poisoned by thieves in the night to keep them from barking. We would find the dead dog lying next to a piece of meat that had appeared tempting but was laced with extra, deadly ingredients. As for my uncle Harry; he took a liking to the house girl and after
creeping stealthily down the corridor in the night on various occasions, managed to get her pregnant. He was very noble about it all and made her his wife and went on to have several children with her after they had set up their own home.
Life at school did not change in any significant way. I had missed the Holy Communion service while
I was at home for the burial so during the next holidays I received it at our local church, Christ the King. It must have been three years later that I received confirmation at school along with my class. We had to choose a Saint’s name out from a list and I chose Felicitus. I knew nothing about St. Felicitus but liked the fact that it sounded exotic and no one else had it. My sisters who had attended the same primary school had long left it as they were much older than I. Janet was at the secondary school across the road, St.Mary’s college and Miriam had moved about from one day secondary school to another. One of the reasons was that mom wanted her close to home as she suffered from asthma and was allergic to several
things including fish, animal hairs, flowers, to name but a few. The other reasons were that she was not very academic and had also got in with the wrong crowd, the fun but not too industrious students.
Around 1987, 1988 the Aids epidemic bubble burst upon Uganda. It was to sweep tens of thousands in its wake. It also coincided with my puberty. It meant that mine was probably the first generation to receive sex education. Being a convent school of course meant that the emphasis was on abstaining but the basic facts were put across to us. Amidst our girlish giggles, they explained the biological state of our sprouting bodies and stressed that the consequences of having unprotected sex could be unwanted pregnancy at best or Aids and death at worst. They talked about condoms and how to use them although I do not remember ever seeing any on sale anywhere. On the whole we were very innocent and did not need to be persuaded as being in a girls’ only boarding school hardly left any opportunities to meet or mix with boys. Soon, however, everyone knew of someone; a neighbour, relative or family friend
who had Aids.
I only saw two Aids patients up close and the experience left a deep mark on my psyche. One was a neighbour who lived some three or four houses down the road. There was a kind of wake for him except that he was still alive. Many people had come to his family home on the day we went. People were crying and looking mournful and talking about what a waste of his young life it was. He was laid out in the living room where the visitors could come up and have a look at him and say a few words of condolence to the parents. I think a lot of people had come along out of sheer curiosity, bringing their youngsters to warn them of the dangers. The other patient I saw was a distant relative, a young woman who had been working in Dubai as a prostitute, it was thought. On this occasion it was only our family visiting and she
must have been days away from death because she was really only skin and bones. In a country where
almost every family had half siblings and where almost all the men sensually but irresponsibly gave in to carnal desire and left litters of unplanned babies in various constituencies, Aids was the worst thing that could have happened. Soon faithful wives were dying at the altar of marriage to not so faithful husbands. The children of family friends of ours were left orphaned by both parents at the tender age of twelve and ten. And this was repeated again and again up and down the length and breadth of the country.
My own awakening was slow. I was petite and had a flat chest for what seemed like forever.However, when I was about eleven, I started noticing my areola getting bigger and small hairs pushing out of my armpits and pubic area. One night, when the electricity had gone again and we were in our dorms gossiping and reading by candle light, I left the fingers of the girl who slept next to me
touching my thigh. I was not quite sure what was going on and for some reason, froze and did not say or do anything. Her fingers crept up to the crease in my crotch and a moment later were exploring my private parts. It was the first time that I was aware of the feeling of pleasure from touching. I felt her adjust her position on the bed as she opened up my thighs and was shocked to find her head lodged where her fingers had been and her tongue attacking me. I do not remember how long this lasted but in the end she moved back to her bed and without exchanging any words we went to sleep.
I woke up perturbed and unsure as to what to make of the events of the night before. I remember
avoiding her the next few days and going to chat to friends whose beds were on the other side of the dorm until ‘lights out’ for the rest of the term. Apart from innocent viewing and touching while we played doctors and nurses I had had no idea of what really went on down under. I somehow got the feeling that it was illicit and did not mention it to anyone until years later.
Amidst all the fear and misery, a worrying phenomenon was growing. This was the fanatical and
delusional belief in seers and apparitions that was sweeping Christians, specifically Catholics, into a frenzy. They were now trading in their belief in Juju (local sorcery and witchcraft) which they had always practised alongside Christianity for a passion for the supernatural. I had once accompanied my mother to a village witch doctor and was not impressed with the herbs hanging all over his hut and the bones and headless chickens being waved about. I remember him emphasising that the bigger the bank notes the
better the results. I do not know what the consultation was about but I do recall thinking that he and his family were going to eat chicken that night. Well now I was being taken along to various prayer meetings where the rosary was said again and again on bended knee until the skin on the knees grew dark and leathery. On one occasion a convoy of families and friends set off for a church in the countryside where everyone set about staring at the sky as the sun set. They believed that they could see the Virgin Mary in the beautiful jewel like colours of the setting sun. On my insisting that in fact I saw nothing, I was told I had to pray harder but I was already feeling sceptical.
When I was twelve, I sat the end of primary school exams and then had a long holiday before the beginning of secondary school. I spent a good part of it in Nairobi which was then seen to be
cosmopolitan and modern in comparison and did not have the nickname Nairobbery yet. The journey
there consisted of taking a bus to the border where everyone got off the bus, queued up in the midday heat to have their passports stamped, then got on another bus which set off in the afternoon and arrived in Nairobi at dawn. I cannot remember the bumpy journey or scenery but the bus unloaded at the central bus station where chaos reigned. There were endless buses coming and going, ticket touts shouting and vendors calling out to passengers. There were also friends and relatives either seeing off or picking up people and different radio stations blaring out tunes from a myriad of stations.
This was the first of many holidays there. I was staying with my mother’s cousin Jess and her family. She was a nurse and her husband Joseph was a scientist. The children at the time were Pete who was the same age as me, Paulo who was a year younger and Jon two years younger than me. They lived in a two storey house in an affluent area where we cycled and climbed the building and gates. The boys were coached in tennis and swimming but only Jon took both seriously and would have tantrums if he lost a tennis match. It was a couple of years later that Marie, the only girl, was born. She was a tough baby for she got rolled down the stairs and was yanked from one pair of arms into another by the boys. I recall a
trip to a safari park, maybe near lake Naivasha, where we saw various wild animals and ate fried chicken out of baskets. We would drive to a farm out of town where Joseph picked up fresh milk every few days and watched movies at night while the grownups entertained in the living room.
At the end of the long vacation, I started at the secondary school across the road from our primary school. Some of the classmates were known to me and some had come from other schools. We all felt very adult and were excited by the new schedule and order. The uniforms this time were knee length skirts in different colours according to the year and white, short sleeved shirts. We were groomed to behave like young ladies and as such did not run about the place even when it rained. I started playing tennis and badminton and grew fond of my French lessons. The teacher who taught French was from Congo. He was a very tall, thin, dark man whose language ability and different looks made him seem very exotic. By then there had been yet another coup and a new president, Museveni was in power. His daughter was at the same school. I went about with a girl called Dora, who was sweet and funny and with whom I took long walks in the evening, hand in hand around the school grounds. I had a bit of a crush on her and yet years later, I cannot recall her surname.
In the dorm I slept next to Berna, short for Bernadette. She was a family friend I had known
throughout primary school and was the youngest of a large family of ten children. They were possibly the only family I knew of that had no half siblings. At night, after lights out, we would reach across the small aisle between our beds and explore each other’s bodies. I’m not sure there was any great pleasure from it other than a desire to discover and learn about our budding nymph like forms. In the morning, when the first bell would ring, we would all run out to shower in the few shower cubicles as well as the courtyard in front of them. Some of the girls, at thirteen and fourteen already had small busts but I still did not wear a bra.
My eldest sister had left this school to go to university the year before I joined but had left me in the care of a classmate who was repeating a year. She was called Maxi. Although I did not know at the time, she was the equivalent of an afro Dolly Parton. She was voluptuous and frivolous and a promise of womanhood. The younger students could visit the private or shared rooms of the older students in the evening but for the rest of the time, I contented myself with leaning on the outside ledge of her window while she played her latest cassette tape or tried on a new outfit. She often prepared a snack for me or simply talked about her everyday life which somehow got all my attention and awe although the details escape me now. We could finally grow our hair and a good part of the evening was spent plaiting and oiling our hair which however had to be undone and won open or in a bun during class hours. Apart from the usual parents days and sports days we now also had days when a respected boys’ school came over to visit. This was to encourage interaction with the opposite sex but of course we were closely
monitored and chaperoned.
One class at a time received their corresponding class and spent the day having debates, sports activities, maybe watched a film, all under the supervision and beady eyes of the teachers who did
not want anything more substantial than good memories left behind by the boys. In the early evening, we would have an improvised disco where the latest hits were heard and when one got to know which boy was interested in who by their choice of partner when the slow songs came on. After they were packed off at the end of the day, en mass, on a truck, back to their school, we girls then spent the evening gossiping and dreaming up all sorts. In between the visits, we exchanged letters and sometimes even declarations of love which were never acted upon.
Monday was mail day and there was always a flurry of excitement and expectation. We received
mail from family and friends and would be boyfriends. Each letter was read and reread and shown to close friends if there was anything juicy in it. Tuesday was market day, meaning that some basic items like local pancakes, bread, soft drinks and such were sold. There was a limit as to how much each person bought to allow for everyone to buy something. These goods as well as the snacks helped as the school meals were not a big improvement on the primary school menu. Again at breakfast we always had maize porridge but on some days it was white corn flour used and on other days it was yellow. Lunch and dinner were again mainly posho but we regularly had cassava or sweet potato. All of these were accompanied by beans or groundnut sauce. There was a roster for the washing up which we did in turn and took some time but was part of the domestic duties we undertook. We also cleaned our dorms and did our own laundry; needless to say, by hand. We were not locked in the dorms at night but could walk to the latrines which were quite far away, quite close to the sports fields. Normally one woke up the person next to her to accompany them but sometimes maybe out of fear or laziness, a quick squat in the bushes on the way sufficed.
I was not there long, for at the end of my second year, when I was fourteen, I was sent for to join my mother and one of my sisters, Miriam, who were now settled and working in London. My sister Janet was to stay behind as she was in the middle of her medicine course at Makerere university. Apart from the excitement of the prospect of living in London, I was glad to leave our house in which I was afraid at night. I had started moving my bedding to the corridor at night as this was the only part of the house that did not have windows to the exterior. I guess the still present bullet holes wedged in the walls from many years before were taunting me and reminding me of possible and mortal danger.
I flew for the first time with my cousin Frank who was also going to London. Shortly before we
landed, there was an announcement from the pilot about it being zero degrees in London this cold
December day. I thought that the message, as well as my mother’s warnings, were exaggerated until
we landed. It was December 1990 and the first few days went by in a haze as I tried to take in everything. The lay out of the streets, our neighbourhood, the television programs and so on. I also went with my mother to various schools to check them out and to compare their standard, distance from home and other criteria. I desperately wanted to go to a mixed school and campaigned long and hard but nothing would persuade my mother who was hell bent on giving me a similar, Catholic and single sexed education as I had previously enjoyed. The first house we lived in was a terraced house in Tottenham and was shared with other Ugandans, mostly in their twenties. It was a typical terraced house on two floors. We had the two rooms downstairs while the other three rooms upstairs, which were two singles and a double room were occupied by the other tenants. Even though they were from other tribes, being united abroad meant that everyone used Luganda as a common tongue. The male half of the couple was a handsome young man called Pat whom I caught looking at me no sooner had I arrived. His girlfriend Hannah took me under her wing while my mother and sister worked at a nursing home at night. She would let me sit in their room to watch films and when she went downstairs to prepare a cup of tea or a snack, Pat would run his hand over my now long and straightened hair or rest it on my shoulder. Innocent as these acts were there was a charge of tension building up, fired by my childlike infatuation and his Lolita taste.
I was fourteen going on fifteen and keen to be treated as one of the adults. One day when I was home from school and everyone was out except Pat, he kissed me as he passed me in the corridor. He
touched me and put my hand on his groin which took me by surprise and left me quite excited but
frightened. He laid me on the carpet in the room I shared with my mother as he did not want to do
anything on the bed I shared with my mother. It was quite painful and involved no foreplay but I was now hooked to those few minutes with him. For the next six months or so, he would come downstairs every few days under the pretext of getting milk or tea in the night and would creep into my room for a brief and furtive coupling.
During our stay at this flat, Aunt Sarah came to live with us for a while before she looked for her own place. She was a busty, voluptuous lady who was also a national icon as the lead singer of one of the most popular bands in Uganda. She might have been my mother’s cousin or not as the title of aunt or uncle is bestowed to show affection and not necessarily blood ties. She slept in my sister’s room as my sister worked at night in the nursing home. From the moment she arrived the house rang with peels of laughter and gay abandon as she amused us all and broke into song at the slightest provocation. The other flatmates soon had male friends who wanted to visit all the time to enjoy her company. The climax came when one day my sister returned early to find her in her bed with one of the young men. Shortly after that we moved to our own terraced house. I missed having so many people around for company and started
reading avidly and listening to Capital radio when I was on my own at night.
The affair with Pat did not die out however but was made more complicated. He made up excuses to go out at night, presumably to pick up cigarettes and such and would drive over to where we lived
which was not far. If my mother or sister were not working that night I would sneak out in the middle of the night at a prearranged time and we would quickly have sex in his car, a nearby park and once, in the cemetery next to the local church. On some days, again by previous arrangement, I stopped at his flat on my way home from school. He and his girlfriend Hannah had since moved to a flat of their own in Barry Grove. It was on one of these occasions that she walked in on us. Despite being caught red-handed, he tried to lie his way out of it and I was rushed out in a matter of seconds. It was a Thursday or Friday and all that weekend I waited for the storm to hit. On Sunday morning I went on a school trip to the Science
Museum and when I got back I could see Hannah, my mother and Miriam in deep talk.
From now on, I would be watched in an even more hawk like manner and had to be home for ten o’clock. Given that by now I was sixteen and my peers could go out to teenage discos and parties, it made it very awkward for me to hang out with my school friends. I had also got attached to Pat after more than a year and was clearly substituting family belonging and love. Even for a teenager like myself who never played truant, neither drank nor smoked, there was still conflict at home. This was because I had come of age and growing up in a different culture, wanted to express my opinions. I had stopped going to Mass on Sunday and clearly did not enjoy long weekend afternoons with older and thus boring family friends. I wanted to be like the other kids. I wanted to belong. In the summer holidays and a couple of mornings or evenings, I worked like all the other school kids. I worked at Gregg’s bakery chain, I delivered newspapers for a corner store, I packed fruit and vegetables at plants in Essex. By the end of the summer of my sixteenth year I had enough money to buy myself some clothes and my school books. I had passed my GCSEs with flying colours and now was in six form doing A levels.
However a few months before I turned eighteen, I could not take the arguments and fights between myself and my carers and I decided to leave. Looking back it was all so desperate and could have gone so terribly wrong. I had met a young Nigerian medical student who was kind and friendly. He happened to have a small room available in his flat-share as someone had moved out and for the minute sum of twenty pounds I could have it. I simply packed my few possessions and left one Sunday morning while my mother and sister were at Mass. I went to school as normal on Monday and by Tuesday I was called aside by the head teacher who had received a visit from my mother enquiring about my whereabouts. I had to
give the school my address which was duly passed on to my mother who turned up the next evening
unannounced, with Miriam in tow. I do not remember them really trying to convince to return. It seemed more like an exercise to satisfy their curiosity as to where I was and with whom. It was thus that the family bond was both broken and eventually re-established. By having space to breathe and grow, and make my own mistakes while I struggled to attend school while working part time, we were able to gradually heal the rift that had sprung between us.