Written by Mauryn Okunga
I cornered Mr. Ssengonzi just before he started his English lesson. He was my favourite teacher because he had never punished me for missing class and I always passed his tests with top marks. Just as he was about to wave me back to my seat, I quietly announced my predicament: “My mother has silimu…em, excuse me teacher, what is silimu?”
Mr. Ssengonzi reached for my hand and walked me back to my seat while loudly announcing for the class’ benefit that I should see him at break time to explain why I had missed school in the past few days.
After what felt like a day of waiting, it was finally break time. Mr. Ssengonzi was outside the classroom waiting for me. As he walked me to the headmistress’ office, I began to wonder what punishment I would be given for missing school. I had never been to the headmistress’ office before.
Mrs. Kiwanuka was a soft spoken woman, well into her greying years. She always had a smile even when she was punishing you.
Mr. Ssengonzi and I were ushered into her office and she smiled us in and waved us to the chairs while she finished reading something before her. Once she was done, she beckoned me towards her desk. I could have died from nervousness. But as I got closer, she held my hand, as if noticing my unsteadiness and sat me on her laps.
“Teacher Ssengonzi told me that you had some questions. Would you like to ask them again? Don’t be afraid,” she said, smiling. I breathed a sign of relief, convinced the meeting was not about me missing school.
“My mother has silimu,” I said, as tears ran down my face. “I’m afraid I will die. People were saying she is going to kill me with AIDS.”
“Nooo! You won’t die,” Mrs. Kiwanuka said, wiping my tears. “AIDS is a disease like any other,” she continued. “It still has no medicine that can cure it, but people who have it do not kill others by living together with them. You can only get the disease by sleeping with other people suffering from it, or sharing sharp objects like razor blades and needles.”
She paused and looked at me, smiling, probably happy that tears were no longer rolling down my face. Deep inside, I wanted to ask if I should stop sleeping on the same bed with Grandma, just in case she also has AIDS. But I asked a different question.
“So I cannot get silimu by holding my mother’s hand or sharing a plate of food with her?”
“No my child,” Mrs. Kiwanuka said. “What your mother needs is a lot of care and help from everyone around her.”
“But our teachers said we should never play with children whose relatives have silimu.”
“Noooo. That was wrong. Listen, if anybody at school does not want to play with you, please come play with me,” the headmistress said, playfully pinching my cheeks.
Maybe I should go to Kampala and take care of Ma. Nobody seems to like her anymore but she always buys for me nice things and has never raised her voice at me. School can’t be more important than my Ma. But how would I get to her though? I have never been to Kampala.
I had drifted in thought before Mrs. Kiwanuka’s voice brought me back to the room.
“…most importantly, pray for her. And also…” she continued, after drawing me close so she could whisper in my ears, “never let a boy touch your private parts until you are as big as your teachers. Okay?”
I nodded and smiled, while Mr. Ssengozi raised his eyebrows at us, wondering what the two of us were talking about.
“One day, your teacher of Science will tell you more about these things, but for now, go back to class and remember to pray for your mother,” Mrs. Kiwanuka said, helping me off her laps.
My playmates ran to join me for evening games as soon as I arrived home from school. It’s like their parents had forgotten about the previous nights’ incident and I was ‘cleared’ of the silimu curse.
Even at school, my friends continued playing with me, which assured me that my teachers had not spilled the secret about my Ma’s disease to them. For that reason, I attended school more often, but also because I got to sit at the bus stop after class every day, waiting for Ma. But she never came off the bus however much I hoped and prayed.
I scanned through everything written I could lay my hands on, hoping I’d see the word AIDS or silimu and read more about it. I went to the school library more often, looking through different text books. On my way home, I picked newspaper pieces from the roadside, usually discarded after the eats they were wrapped in, were consumed. I didn’t find anything about AIDS.
I just took refuge in reading Grandma’s bible whenever she was away. And I prayed before I went to sleep.
But one night, I woke up crying after dreaming that Ma had died and was thrown in a deep hole. I shook Grandma awake and told her about my disturbing dream. She ordered me back to sleep but I couldn’t. Since I was in her bed, and turning uncomfortably, she couldn’t sleep either. To calm me down, she promised to take me to Kampala the next day to see Ma but only if I hadn’t wet my bed by morning.
Grandma had packed cold potatoes for me to eat on the journey but once I saw the niceties being sold by the roadside – gonja, roast chicken, mandazi, sweet bananas – I didn’t want Grandma’s cold potatoes. She threatened to take me back to Mukono if I kept demanding for the roadside eats. Since I knew I needed to see Ma, I ate my potatoes.
Ma lived in a small, one-roomed house in Ntinda, Kampala. She had a big box-shaped TV, photos of me and her and Grandma on the wall, jerrycans in one corner of the room, plus a cooking stove and utensils. On the other side of the room, separated by a curtain, was her bed. Her clothes hung from the wall, hooked onto nails. Her shoes were under the table that had lotion, a mirror, a comb and perfume. Under her bed was an extra mattress that Grandma and I would share later at night.
Ma cooked for us meat and rice, and brought for me soda. She carried me on her laps every time she was not up doing something. For the first time in a long time, I hugged her. I told her I wanted to take care of her. Despite the inaudible grunts from Grandma over my proposal, I was happy.
When Ma promised to take me to a new school, where everything I wanted would be catered for, I was even more excited. While Grandma was not very pleased that I’d be going to boarding school, Ma insisted it would be good for me and that I would even perform better than I was doing at my day school. But she made me promise to excel in the end of year exams.
We stayed with Ma for a few days before going back to Grandma’s place so that I could continue with school. I was happy that Ma didn’t look sick at all. I believed that praying to Grandma’s Yesu was working.
Boarding school was heaven! My metallic box had all sorts of roast grains, biscuits and bottles of juice to last me a whole term. Ma always sent me more eats before they ran out. My fellow students at Jinja Primary Boarding School envied me, and several of them hang around me just for my eats.
The urge to climb trees every morning had waned, and replaced by morning PE when we would run around the school field doing various exercises before we could bathe and start having lessons. I looked forward to break time when I would eat the yummy things in my box.
That was until the day the school secretary came looking for me just before break time. She said I had a visitor from home. I thought it was Grandma who had brought for me more eats that Ma had sent from Kampala. But the person I found waiting in front of the staffroom was different. I had seen him only once or twice at Grandma’s place. He was talking to the headmistress and had no package with him.
The headmistress and my visitor didn’t seem to be discussing a happy topic.
I slowed down, as my knees got weak.
Look out for Part III of the series next week on Friday.