Written by Mauryn Okunga

I eventually dropped out of school but Eric never stopped visiting me. He helped me get my first job, helped me raise rent when my uncles sold my father’s house to get school fees for my siblings. Eric held my hand when I was fired from that my first job. He helped me scan through newspaper adverts for another job.

Eric was the family I never had. He understood my tantrums and loved my laugh. So, when he announced to family and friends at his graduation party that he had found a woman to spend the rest of his life with, I was broken.

See, I secretly hoped that one day Eric would make a proposal, tell me he wants to spend the rest of his life with me. He never did, never even gave a hint that he viewed me “that way” but he was doing more than enough for me, and for that I was grateful. Even with that gratitude, I still couldn’t push back the envy and disappointment weighing me down, as he invited his wife-to-be to join him.

“Sweet heart, please come up,” he said, smiling his gaze fixed to the spot where I was. I looked behind me to see which girl had swept my Eric off the ground, but saw none. Instead, people were looking at me, clapping and nudging me off my seat.

“Dear Lord,” I prayed, “is he going to humiliate me? Am I supposed to hug his wife to be?”

I walked towards Eric like a zombie, the cheers of his family and friends propelling me forward. His mother (whom I had heard a lot about) walked up to us and hugged me. All this time, Eric watched me with an amused grin on his face. He laughed out loud when realization hit me that I had been the one he was referring to.

Eric wasn’t drop dead handsome but his imposing feature created a reassurance whenever you were with him. He had a penetrating stare but a softness to it too, that made you want to always look into his eyes.  He had been brought up by his mother having lost his father to AIDS. Interestingly, Eric’s mother never had HIV and for that her late husband’s family labelled her a witch and murderer. She turned a deaf ear to their insults.

She never re-married out of respect for her husband’s memory and fear of not being so lucky with the next person. She thanked God for discordancy and channelled all her energy and resources in raising Eric.

***

Our wedding ceremony was small and intimate. My step sister was my maid of honour. I wished Ma or my step mother had been around to fuss over my wedding dress. Eric’s mum did the best she could to mother both of us.

Our house was small and our friends were few but we were happy with each other.

Eric got a job at a local hospital where he had interned and I worked with an NGO that cared for people living with HIV/AIDS.

One Sunday morning, a year and half into our marriage, Eric casually told me that he could not have children.

“But everything works so well, when….y’know! Are you sure?”

Eric held my hand and apologised for not sharing that information much earlier. He first got sceptical about his ability to impregnate a woman when he broke up with his first girlfriend. They had dated for six months, during which they had had only unprotected sex but she never got pregnant. Two months after their breakup, she got pregnant. Eric’s ex-girlfriend looked for him and told him to check his fertility or the lack of it, adding she had found a real man to start a family with.

Much as starting a family was not in Eric’s plan in his first year at university, he started asking questions about his fertility. He talked to his mother who confessed to having had two brothers who were infertile. She had never told him about it because she never thought it would come up. Eric ran several tests while at medical school and his condition was found to be irreversible.

“I will understand if you want children and if you leave me for a man who can give them to you,” he said.

I couldn’t speak for a while, neither could I cry. This beautiful soul who loved me more than I loved myself was hurting.

“Do you want children?”

“I dreamed of having a dozen children. I see children on the street and wish I could take them home. I want to hear someone call me Daddy. I want you to be their mummy. Yes Daphine, I want to children.”

“Let’s adopt 12 children! One at a time though…”

I knew he loved me, but I didn’t know he loved me as much as his eyes showed at that moment. He made me feel like Grandma’s Yesu from the bible who gathered children around him and loved those who didn’t have anything. It didn’t matter that I was never going to carry Eric’s child in my womb, all that mattered was Eric and his dream of having twelve children.

I closed my eyes and heard the children scream in their playroom. I could see them fighting for the last piece of bread. I loved them already.

Eric was still looking at me when I opened my eyes. Tears ran down his face, happy tears.

“Thank you Daphine. You have raised me from a burnt out infertile corpse to a man.”

I hoped Ma and Grandma were listening, and smiling down at us that moment.

Written by Mauryn Okunga

Ma was buried two days after was picked from school by the strange visitor. With nothing more than a greeting, he took me home to face Ma’s dead body. I tried to cry but I couldn’t. I knew what death meant. I knew why she had died but I still hated her for it.

She should have waited for me, held on a little longer for me to return from school and take care of her. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone to boarding school. Damn this AIDS!

Grandma kept by my side all through, and when most of the mourners left, she took me to greet a man who was sitting by himself in one of the make shift tents.

“Hallo Daphine,” he said, as soon as I was before him. I offered a dry response, anxious for what more will follow.  

“I am your father,” he added, and when I didn’t say anything, he continued, “I am sorry about the death of your mother.”

I am ten years old, mister! Ten years old! Why are you here? Do you also have AIDS? Why didn’t you take care of my mother? You have never bought me anything. You have never visited me. Where do you come from?

My head span from anger and words I wished I could tell this man.  

“You are welcome to our home,” I finally said.

“I would like to take you back to school but first, you’ll come with me to my home in Kampala today. You will visit your grandmother during school holidays but most of the time, you will be staying with me.

Grandma, please don’t let him take me! I don’t know him. I don’t want his home! I want my Ma.

For the first time since being picked from school, I cried. Everything was happening too fast. It seemed like the decisions had already been made as Grandma hadn’t said anything contrary to what this man, my father, was saying.

We set off for Kampala that afternoon. My father’s house was bigger than what Ma stayed in and there were two children, the older of whom was barely up on his feet. They were introduced to me as my brother and sister. Their mother smiled warmly at me and offered me a seat on the mat. She picked the kaveera which had my school uniform and underwear and took it to one of the rooms.

This was to be my home for a long time.

***

School terms came and went. My father did his best to get me to school on time and teach me everything he did at his work place. By the time I sat my Primary Leaving Examinations, I could change a car tyre and fix a light bulb. I could dismantle and re-assemble a radio and bake cookies for my new mother’s church sale. I often overheard her brag to her friends, whenever she thought I was out playing, about how I was the best daughter anyone could ever have. Her only complaint to her friends and her husband was that she had never heard me call her “mummy” or my father, “daddy”.  She didn’t know how to address the issue but her friends always told her to let me be.

Grandma always visited me at school and she told me stories about my former playmates in Mukono. Some had dropped out of school. Mrs. Ssendegeya’s first born daughter was pregnant. A few of my favourite neighbours had died of silimu. Grandma’s gardens were doing fine and she wanted to plant this or the other for the next rainy season. She always brought me eats wrapped in kaveera – roasted potatoes, groundnuts, maize... I loved her for it and I missed my life in the village with her.

***

I missed Ma. I had read and learnt so much about HIV/AIDS that I wanted to finish school and work in a hospital that cared for people living with the disease. So when I completed secondary school and got admitted to study medicine at university, I was overjoyed.

But two years into university, my father and step mother were killed by thugs one night as they returned from overnight prayers. Death again! And this time, I had two dependants. My brother and sister were taken up by an uncle whose wife advised me to find a job and start looking after myself since I was now an adult!

One evening, I mastered enough courage to open up to my study group about my situation. They showed me with hugs and promised to help me get through school. At the end of our group discussion that day, Eric offered to escort me home. I couldn’t possibly take him home because there was no electricity (it had become a luxury), no food and I hadn’t cleaned the house in a long time. Besides, I always walked home.

He looked at the emotions fleeting through my eyes and calmly said he would pay the transport fare home. He insisted he just wanted to see where I stayed.

Eric became my pillar of strength.

End

Look out for Part IV of the series next week on Friday. 

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.

End

Look out for Part III of the series next week on Friday. 

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.

End

Part II of the diary will be published next week on Friday. Don't miss! 

 

 

 

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