Written by Mauryn Okunga
Grandma: Take the child to her rightful home.
Ma: Let me be…she is my child.
Grandma: If you won’t take her, I will.
Ma: Which home will you take her to? Do you know what that man did to me?
‘Stop it!’ I screamed in my head at both of them. But my silent rebuke remained in the confines of my head. They continued yelling at each other.
Adult conversations were never of interest to me. What mattered to me most was tree climbing and sleeping. Well, up until I watched the two people I loved most tear each other apart over a man I’d never met. It hit me that I could have a real father somewhere. A father who probably disliked me or didn’t even know I exist.
My life was simple before the ‘father talk’ started. I would spend most mornings perched on a tree, while Grandma is in the garden. Every once in a while, I would make it to school where my teachers always welcomed me with canes for missing school. But even then, I was always the best in class, so Grandma had no reason to suspect that I never made it to school for all five days a week.
She rarely punished me. She would let me sleep in her bed with my cat. In her eyes, I was the brightest child in the village and therefore had to be given anything I desired. Ma on the other hand, always brought me new clothes, shoes and soda whenever she came from Kampala to check on me. I was a happy eight-year-old.
Until this day.
Grandma and Ma continued with their argument about my mysterious father until they got physical. I feared fights. My playmates knew that too. Whenever a disagreement ensued, I would flee. As my two beloved persons fought, I sneaked out of the house to the banana plantation behind the house.
When I heard several voices moments later, I moved closer to listen and watch, but made sure none of them saw me. Grandma and Ma were now in the compound, surrounded by a curious crowd.
Male voice: You are a very disrespectful woman! How can you fight with your mother?
Ma: I didn’t fight her. She slapped me and I held her hand, then she slapped me again.
Grandma: She wanted to beat me and give me her silimu.
Voices: What! She even has silimu? Why do you let her come to your house? Hasn’t she given the disease to the child already?
Male voice: You should have let your mother slap some sense into you. As the area LC chairman, I am going to give you seven strokes of the cane and you will leave our village and take your curse back to Kampala. We shall take care of the child like we have always done.
I had heard about this silimu disease and how terrible it was. Our teachers had always cautioned us against playing with children whose homes had a silimu person. Now that Ma had it, I wondered if that meant keeping away from her.
The thought of losing my Ma to silimu, and the shame she was enduring from the crowd, weakened my knees. I felt something roll in my stomach like a stone and before I knew it, I had soiled my pants. In the compound, Ma’s voice rose in protest.
Ma: I want to leave with my child. I don’t care what you say. I want my child!
I panicked! If Ma leaves with me to Kampala, won’t she give me silimu? But if these people stop Ma from seeing me, won’t I become an orphan for real? My father was as good as dead to me and Grandma is old. Who will buy for me new clothes, shoes and all the nice things Ma brings from Kampala?
I needed to leave my hideout but I had faeces on me! I cleaned up as best I could and, as quietly as the leaves around me could allow, walked to Mrs Ssendegeya’s garden and eventually to her house.
Thankfully, she was in the house. Her husband was the chairman passing a sentence on Ma in our compound. She welcomed me, cleaned me up and offered to take me back home. I requested her to let me spend the night at her place. And that was to be the first night of many where I would sleep at a stranger’s house.
After the excitement had died down and I was sure her children were asleep, I asked her what silimu really was and why everybody with it was considered a curse.
Mrs Ssendegeya: My daughter, when you go to school tomorrow, ask your teacher about it. It is called AIDS in English. It is a very bad disease. If you sit near a person who has it, you will get it from the air they breathe out, and there is no medicine for it! Please sleep. Tomorrow I will take you back home.
She offered me a tattered papyrus mat and a filthy blanket. I accepted the beddings hesitantly. It was the thought of my cat and I cuddling in Grandma’s bed that lured me to sleep, but before that, I silently prayed to the Yesu of my Grandma to return my life to normal by the time I woke up.
I was taken back home before the sun had fully risen. I hoped Ma was home and just getting ready to go back to Kampala. But when we arrived home, it was only Grandma around.
“Where did you sleep, you insolent child? Do you also want to die like your mother?” she yelled.
Did my mother die? Did they bury her without telling me? The last time auntie died, we all watched as she was lowered into a hole in the ground. Why was my mother taken without waiting for me?
I felt hot tears form in my eyes but I blinked rapidly to keep them from rolling down my cheeks. Grandma disliked seeing anyone cry. If you cried in her presence, she would beat you. I didn’t want to taste her cane now, not in the morning.
‘Daphne came to my house last night because she was scared by what you two were doing,’ Ms Ssendegeya said. ‘Please go get ready for school while I talk to your grandmother.’
In the house, I overheard Grandma tell our neighbour that Ma had spent the night at a friend’s house after her search for me proved futile. She had left for Kampala with the first bus.
For the first time, I wanted to go to school. I was itching to find out more about silimu.
Part II of the diary will be published next week on Friday. Don't miss!