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Remember Atita

By Jackee Budesta Batanda


copyright 2004 Jackee Budesta Batanda


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This story "Highly Commended" in the Caine Prize for African Writing Contest - April 2004


We’re five of the Ten Green Bottles in the nursery rhyme we sang way back in 1985. Five Green Bottles standing on the wall of life. Five bright smiling faces stare out of the old black and white photo. Our interlocked hands form a chain on our shoulders; we’re bent towards the camera, our eyes sparkling. We’re unaware of the torn clothes we wear. Laker, one of the bottles holds her dress at the hips. I know she’s holding it to stop the loose panty she’s wearing from falling down. Our legs are caked with brown soil. We smile through our mapengo-missing teeth. Our shiny faces glisten like a newly polished mirror.


2003. The photo of my past lies in my hands with the edges torn. It’s brown with age. It doesn’t shine under the fluorescent light above the fading ‘Divine Mercy’ shop signpost. We are quite a number seated on tattered mats along the shop veranda. Further down the veranda, music is blaring from a transistor radio. I pass the photo to Okema who sits cross-legged. I’m trying to explain to him the reason I’ve travelled back to Gulu town to search for the girls in the photo. We sit on the veranda because it’s safer to spend the night in the town. The LRA rebels don’t cross to Gulu town. They restrict their activities to the villages. The stinging night air is our blanket as we talk in hushed tones so as not to awaken the other sleeping children. Most of them, tired of counting the stars in the sky or singing the night away, have dozed off. Okema and I are kept awake by the fear of the night. We talk to deal with the figments of our minds, our voices cutting through the night above the sound coming from the transistor radio. In the distance we hear isolated gunshots.

The faces in the photo look like strangers. I’ve been away too long. I’m not sure they will recognise me when we meet. A hollow feeling develops within me. I feel like I might drop in an abyss. Tears fill my eyes. Slowly I lift my hand to my face. Okema holds it mid-way and whispers,

--It’s all right to cry.

Our eyes meet. I smile. My hand trembles as I pick out the faces. Laker stands close to me in the photo. Her head is tilted to her left, her eyes wide. Her dimpled face stares at me. We shared the same birth date. We were more like twins. We were always up to some mischief. She was always leading us onto expeditions and came up with the craziest ideas with her musical voice. She was leader of the group. I wonder what she looks like now. Perhaps she’s turned into a tall beauty. My forefinger rests on her face,

--She’s Laker, I say, a special friend. They are all special friends.

--Why did you leave? Okema asks as he hands me the photo. Taking it back, I hold it tightly to my chest.

I hesitate. I’m unsure of my answer. We leave places because we need to start a new life…because we need to get away.

I left because my mother’s cousin min Komakech- mother of Komakech took me away with her so that I could baby-sit her children.

I also left because my maternal grandfather Won Okech who had brought me up after my parents’ death was now dead and I was no one’s responsibility until min Komakech appeared like a rain cloud and took me away.

Looking Okema in the eye, I lie

--I don’t know.

--How many children are left? I change the subject.

--I’m the last of them, he says, that’s why mama makes sure I come to town every evening.

Okema leans against the roughcast wall, a half-eaten doughnut in his left hand. He wears a look of uncertainty. His eyes tell a story of his family’s disintegration and his mother’s suffering and the memory of the abducted siblings.

-- I’m the only one too, I say in consolation.

We are two lone stars.

Sometimes I think this search is hopeless. I’ve been away too long and so much has happened. We’ve led different lives. My childhood friends may have died or been abducted. No one knows anything. There’s this tugging feeling around my heart that won’t let me give up. I know I’ve to find Laker. I know that she needs me. All I have is this old photo, which no one recognises. I have spent my days under the sun, moving from place to place but getting no answers. Time has passed me by and everyone has moved; it’s impossible tracing my friends.

Okema is snoring. He’s probably tired of waiting for the morning. He pulls at the sisal sack he calls his blanket. I envy him. He can sleep through the cries that come from the other children as they toss and turn.

I am kept awake by the thought that tonight could be the last time I breathe. Okema tosses and lets out a wail. He is haunted by a recurrent dream each night he has told me. Now I know that he dreams about the rebels attacking his home and pulling him out of his mother’s grip. And as he is tied and led away, he is followed by his mother’s haunting wail as she sees the last of her children being taken. He always wakes up then and finds me staring at him. I tell him he is safe in the town. The rebels are only a bad dream and can be swept away with a song. I pull him to me and rock him quietly humming, Ten Green Bottles standing on the wall /ten green bottles standing on the wall / if one green bottle should accidentally fall down / nine… I hum until his sobs subsidise and he dozes again.

I watch him sleep again. He’s curled up like a sickle moon. He has told me a little about himself. He has been coming to sleep on the verandas in town every night for close to one year now. It’s a game of alup he says. A kind of hide and seek with the marauding rebels that storm the villages. He’s also reading for his Primary Leaving Examinations. When twilight visits, he will wake up and run home to his mother, who will pack him off to school.

--I shall be President and end the war, he says on occasion when consumed by hope.

--I want to see my mother smile again, he says when he’s feeling low.

I guess that’s not asking for too much. We all need dreams.

I continue humming the Ten Green Bottles rhyme as I rock to and fro, squeezing the photo in my hands. We are five of the ten green bottles on the wall. And if one green bottle should accidentally fall down… Who of us fell first?



Gulu hospital. I’m shaking with excitement. Laker has been found. Now I’m glad I didn’t give up. We pass through prostrate forms on the cement floor, through moans and groans. The place buzzes with flies that feast on open sores. The air is a mélange of medicines, rotting flesh and sweat fuelled by the heat in the room.

I pass a bed where a little girl lays groaning. The stumps that were her legs are held up in slings. An older woman sits by the bedside fanning off the flies. Her palm covers the little girl’s hand. Her eyes are swollen and red. Her multicoloured headscarf is tightly tied around her head you can see the line it makes on her forehead.

--A landmine, my guide whispers.

I stare ahead and try to walk faster. The prostrate bodies on the floor slow my progress. It’s an endless ward.

Laker lies in the furthest corner of the ward. When we approach the metal bed, I see that she’s sleeping. The paint on the metal has faded; there are markings of green on the black to show it was once green. A tattered blue blanket covers her. We stand silently and wait. I’ll be happy just to watch the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest. She has changed from the naughty smiling child in the photo to this troubled young woman. Her unkempt hair stands in tufts. The face before me could belong to anyone else and not the Laker in the photo I carry around with me.

Her head lies on a thin pillow, which could easily pass for part of the mattress. The pillowcase is brown with dirt. I have been waiting for this moment since I started my search four weeks ago. I imagined we would meet and laugh in hysteria at being reunited after a long time. We would sit and recount the events in our lives since our separation. Perhaps we would start from where we stopped like nothing had happened. Like I had never left Gulu at all and time had stopped. I hadn’t imagined our meeting taking place in a hospital.

She tosses wildly. I hold out my hand to touch her. I want to make contact and break this ice block that surrounds me as I stare at her. My guide stops me.

--Let her be, he says in a sharp voice. I raise my eyebrows.

--She’s still sleeping, he explains.

His voice sounds authoritative like my grandfather Won Okech’s. I don’t question him but instead nod my head and wait.

As if she senses our presence, her eyes fly open. She stares at us blankly. I smile at her. She stares at me. Her sunken eyes go through me and settle on the grey wall. Her gaunt face scares me. Her forehead is oily and wet. The heat is unbearable. I wonder how she stands the blanket. Moving closer, I call her name.

--Laker, I whisper holding her frail hand in mine. It hangs limply. I don’t think she remembers me.

--It’s me Atita, I say.

Her dazed eyes return to my anxious face.

--Won Okech’s Atita, I add, lightly squeezing her hand.

I rub her hands. I’m close to her yet can’t reach her. She opens her mouth.

--Otoo. Won Okech otoo.

I nod. Won Okech died over ten years ago. I’m glad the name registers in her mind. No one could forget Won Okech. I remember a time after playing in the field I had gone back home and told him that we had spent the day playing ‘mummy and daddy’ with the older boys grazing goats. He had coughed and asked me what we exactly we played, and in my childhood innocence has uttered the fated words, ‘we played fucking game.’

He had given the five of us a severe beating with his cane cut from a guava branch and it did sting to the bone; we didn’t walk or sit for a week. It must have happened a day after the photo was taken. I’m not sure my friends ever forgave me for my big mouth. The only reminder of a life I had and lost- everyone who had mattered at the time.

--Yes. Won Okech otoo, I echo her words.

I want to know what happened to the others but Laker simply stares at me like a stranger. I want to tell her that I learnt the words of the song we used to sing while skipping with a sisal rope. We had sung dan, dan, missisi if you miss you go out... Now I know that the words are Down, Down the Mississippi... I learnt it from my little cousins who I had baby-sat.

My guide tells me it’s time to leave. I haven’t noticed the hours pass me by. I want to stay on at the hospital but he won’t let me. I rub Laker’s oily forehead. She turns away. Sighing, I bend over and whisper into her ear,

--Laker wiyi opo ikum Atita. Laker please remember Atita.


That evening at the shop veranda, Okema asks,

--Did you talk?


--She didn’t remember you?

I nod.

--Don’t worry, I remember you. See I kept a sleeping place for you.

--She said my Won Okech was dead.

--She remembers…

--No, I speak coolly, she doesn’t. I want her to remember me. I want her to remember Atita. My name didn’t make sense to her.

--I’m sorry, Okema sighs and pulls his sisal sack closer to him.

--Lets not talk about it.

Okema, slides against the roughcast wall. The silence is interrupted by intervals of coughs from the other children. Sometimes a lone figure passes by or a stray dog runs before us. But most of the time, the town square where we sit is isolated. The townspeople are locked up in their homes.

I stare ahead. Laker doesn’t remember me. Laker doesn’t remember Atita. Perhaps I have changed so much she cannot place the stranger who visits and mentions names that might have made sense at a certain time. The names I mention are just traces of her former self and so am I.

I am not the same Atita she played with years ago. Time and distance have moulded us into different people. We have had our price to pay in the game we call life and I don’t know how long we can hold out.

I haven’t found out why she’s in Gulu Hospital. Perhaps a serious illness has eaten away at her memory. I pull the photo out of my jacket and stare at it. It’s now creased because I crashed it. Lines mar our smiling faces making us slightly abstract. I rub it against my chest and sniff the air.

The soil releases its scent filling the air as little raindrops hit the earth. I always loved the scent of soil during rain. A strong wind blows our way and a flash of lightning slices across the sky. The rolling thunder sends Okema scuttling to me. I hold him close to me. For all his maturity he’s afraid of something. Now I see the child in him. ‘The rebels came when the thunder roared in the sky,’ he later tells me. Figures run to the veranda for cover. We are squashed as we listen to the drops on the metallic roof. It’s windy rain so within no time we’re soaked. The cold stings our noses and seeps through our bones.

--Min latin do, tedo i dye wor. My mother is cooking at of the children starts a melody. I enthusiastically join in the song. We used to sing it joyfully when we were young, Laker taking lead. Tonight we are in a different time. This time the voices that join are empty and haunting. Once in a while, a cough interrupts the song. We pause then carry on. Okema sniffs back tears. The song helps us endure the rain and the cold as we stand because the orange trees near the shops can’t serve as beddings for the other ‘night-commuters’. We also stand because the veranda is completely wet. We are wet but safe in town away from the rebels.


The morning brings with it a sigh of relief. As Okema and the others ran back home to prepare for school, I get set for Gulu hospital again. I cannot carry anything for Laker. There’s scarcity of food and my money has run out. At times like this, I dream of the mouth savouring malakwang and lakotokoto we feasted on as children. I reminisce the times we freely ran around the village. Things have changed. It is impossible to freely walk around asking questions without arousing suspicion. I am only fortunate that I got someone who helped find Laker. I long for the times we sat around the wang oo fireplace listening to folktales and riddles and laughing into the night then slept in the safety of a home. I long for the distant sounds of the drums of dingi-dingi and the larakaraka youth dances.

Today as I sit by Laker’s bedside I rub her hands and repeatedly tell her I’m Won Okech’s Atita.

--Otoo. Won Okech otoo.

----Yes. Won Okech otoo, I still echo her words.

She reaches out to feel my face. I lean forward. I hope her hands will trace the years of childhood laughter in my anxious face. I hope that today she’ll remember me. She should remember Atita. Her rough palms move from my forehead to my eyes down to my cheeks and rest at the scar below my chin. Her fingers stroke the scar. Is she remembering? I got that scar when we played a game of seesaw and placed a rusted metallic pole between the mouth of a mango tree. It was Laker’s idea. I fell off the seesaw as it went high in the air. Being above the ground sucked the spirit out of me and I fell on my chin. The others fled in different directions as my scream pierced the air. They feared Won Okech’s wrath.

Now that her fingers rest on this scar my hand reaches out and cups hers. Then she looks into my eyes as if searching for something. Her eyes move from the scar and settle on my neck. She liked the rings that formed around it like exquisite jewellery. She always teased me that I didn’t need to wear a necklace. I had been blessed with a natural one. She never tired of looking at my neck often muttering,

--Atita, Atita, bangle-necked Atita. If she said it now, I would know that she had remembered me.

I can almost sniff that smile that I have longed for, curl around her lips. I watch her _expression and wait for it like a lost beaded bracelet. My eyes are almost too eager, but I am hungry for that sign that will announce that she has found a familiar face in the chambers of her memory. Suddenly she pulls away from me. On her face is the same blank look that has filled her eyes every single day I have come to see her.

The blank stare is a spiteful reminder that Laker doesn’t fill the emptiness within me. The risks I have taken in trying to find her are flung back into my face. The hollow feeling widens each time I see the vacant stare. I cannot rediscover myself in her. We were five of the ten green bottles in the rhyme. One of us is crashed. I am trying to patch the pieces together but I am helplessly failing.

I want to sit here until she remembers me. I’ve learnt, that she was found lying near the hospital. It’s said that she had walked a long way. No one knows her story but it’s bound to be the same story. I come because I hope that I will be the connection to her past. I hope she might remember the good times and fasten her healing. She hasn’t talked since she came to Gulu hospital.

--Laker, I call.

She doesn’t respond.

--Laker, I repeat.

She turns, not because she recognises the name but because my voice is a distraction, the blank look still in her eyes. That empty stare of hers meets my eyes. It crashes my hopes till I am left with an emptiness in my chest liked a balloon losing air. Hard as I try, I can’t trace that smile that erupted on her face like morning sunrise. The hunger that defined her eyes is gone. When our eyes meet, there is no fondness, no sunshine. The photo lies in my pocket. Five bright smiling faces staring out of the old black and white photo. Our interlocked hands form a chain on our shoulders; we are bent towards the camera, our sparkling eyes are captured in one moment, frozen in time. What happened to the five green bottles?

-- I have something to show you, I say.

I get the photo from my denim jacket and hold it before her eyes. I hold my breath, hoping and wishing that she would remember. She stares at it.

--Wiyi Po? Do you remember?

I eagerly point at her face,

--See, you’re there in the photo I am beside you. Atita.

There’s no recognition in her face. I continue unperturbed.

--See there’s Oyella, Adongping and Lamwaka, I point at the other faces in the photo, going slowly over the names so that she might remember. Her eyes follow the movement of my finger over the faces.

I’m getting restless. Perhaps this is a waste of time. Laker might never remember anything at all. Yet again I’m convinced that she might tell me where the others are. We were five green bottles on the wall. Who of us fell first?

I have been coming here faithfully for a while. I have to help Laker. Each time, I say Won Okech she utters the same line.

--Otoo. Won Okech otoo.

----Yes. Won Okech otoo, I echo her words in order to create a rapport between the two of us. There are many things I would like to tell her. I want to talk about a little friend I’ve met, Okema who wants to become president and end the war. Imagine not having to sleep on verandas in town to escape abduction. Imagine laughing and growing fat from sitting idle. Okema wants to bring us that.

I want to tell her about the night rain- of how I sleep standing on my feet, shielding Okema, who is afraid of thunder. Then on other nights when bullets ricochet through the night we fear it might be the last day we live. I also want to remind her of the folktale that said thunder and lightning were having a quarrel when it rained.


Another evening at the shop veranda. Okema asks about Laker.

--She’s fine, I say without looking at him, nearly fine.

At least she does remember Won Okech. In due time, she’ll remember the others and me. She’ll tell me what happened the day she collapsed on the way to Gulu hospital. She’ll remember the faces in the photo I carry with me everyday. Okema says I should leave and go back to the place I had been living before the madness overtook me and brought me to Gulu looking for friends that won’t remember me.

I spend the nights on the veranda to live the lives my friends have led while I slept in comfort. I stand the rain because it cleanses away the guilt that has crystallised in my heart and weighs over my head like a grinding stone. I tell Okema he can’t understand why I have to visit Laker everyday.

A cameraman walks past us clicking away. Okema spits at him.

--Why did you spit at him?

--He’s making money from our suffering, he replies curtly.

--Perhaps he’s from the newspapers.

--You are new to this business of homelessness.

Okema is right. I know nothing about this nightlife.

Tonight we hear heavy gunshots followed by a loud bang. The voices of the other children stop. We exchange startled looks fear lurking behind our pupils. The transistor radio is suddenly switched off. The lone voice that sings through it is silenced leaving us alone. Okema coughs and whispers it’s a mortar. I look at him surprised. He says he has learnt to differentiate the sounds of the gunshots. Before I respond to him, I am rocked in fits of cough.


Laker manages a smile today. She’s as bright as the sun that’s shining through the window today. She’s a little friendlier. Again her finger traces my face and rests on the scar under my chin. She rubs it in circles with her forefinger and closes her eyes. It’s like she’s concentrating on something intense. Perhaps the scar is communicating something to her. She opens her eyes and smiles through her black gums. Her teeth sparkle. Her emaciated face lights up. I reciprocate. I am careful not to touch her hand like I did the previous time and broke the contact.

--Atita? She whispers.

I forget the warnings and reach out to hold her hand. I fear she’ll pull it away.

-- Yes Atita, Won Okech’s Atita.

--Otoo. Won Okech otoo.

--I’m here, I whisper.

Laker pulls away her hand and starts rocking. I look in her eyes and find myself travelling down a winding murram-dirt road. I pass through gwana cassava gardens, and ripe bell millet gardens. Little stones enter my shoes; I bend to take them out, because they make the journey uncomfortable. When I look up, I’m at Won Okech’s homestead. I hear voices behind the ot lum grass thatched huts. I follow the voices and see a younger version of ourselves standing under a mango tree. Our laughing voices fill the wind around. Laker commands us to get the pole and place it between the mouth of the mango tree so that we can make a seesaw. We lift the pole lying behind the ot lum and carry it to the mango tree then insert it between the gap in the tree. I sit on the lower end of the pole since I’m the lightest then Laker jumps on the pole. It swings in the air, I see myself opening my mouth to shout, and my little eyes wide open they are like a ball. My hearts skips and I lose my balance and land on the ground, my voice piercing the air. My chin hits the ground, teeth crashing into each other.

Laker stops rocking. Her eyes regain their blank stare. The memory. It feels like I’ve been in the air, jumping off the pole. My heart is still racing. Laker closes her eyes exhausted.

I’m still shaken.


Okema sits under the fluorescent tube reading. There are other children scattered across various verandas reading. Their examinations are round the corner he has told me. I don’t talk to him this evening. I let him read. He has to excel and work on his dream of becoming president. Who knows he might bring us the peace he promises.


When I visit Laker in the morning, she scares me. An uncanny feeling overwhelms me. I feel like she’s able to read my soul. I don’t remember her having any powers in our childhood.

She acts like nothing happened yesterday. She’s withdrawn since then. It’s like the first day. The blank look shields her from the numerous questions I am bursting with. I help her sit up and feed her. She takes the black tea slowly like she’s trying to read messages in it. It stays in her mouth and goes down her throat leisurely. It takes her a while to complete the cup of tea and by this time, my hand is shaking from exhaustion. I want to ask her about the memory walk as I put the cup away but something stops me. Instead, I pull out the crumbled photo I’ve carried with me, everyday and point at the others.

--Laker, tell me about Oyella?

She looks at me for a while. A look of recognition flashes through her eyes briefly.

--Oyella, what happened to her? I push.

Her face contorts in pain. She starts rocking. I try to calm her down but she rocks faster. Our eyes lock. Her eyes take on a dreamy look and she speaks incoherently like she is out of her body.

They were taken the same day... The men came to the village and rounded them. They tied them with ropes. They carried the things they had stolen and followed them. They were exhausted from the long walk. It was dark... The moon had hidden her face from them. She couldn’t make out the faces. We walked at a slow pace. Some of the armed men shouted hitting them with gun butts and sticks. Someone fell and brought a few down with her. The others quickly got to their feet she stayed on the ground. She turned her face. OYELLA. Our Oyella. One of the armed men shouted at her to get up. She didn’t move instead curled herself up. He shouted again and still she ignored him. Her eyes glistened; terror flashed through then was quickly replaced by nothingness. She stilled like she has seen death ahead of her and didn’t care what happened after this.

--Do you want to rest? The man asked.

She nodded with the little strength left.

--Your wish is granted, he snorted as he fired between her eyes.

She didn’t shout. The other girl later ran away and came to Gulu hospital.

Laker stops rocking. She’s breathing fast like she has been jogging. She starts laughing hysterically. I hastily leave her bedside for the compound. One of the smiles in the photo has faded, the other lies in hospital haunting me with stories. I know nothing about the other two friends. We were five of us.

I cry. I sneeze into my handkerchief and pull out the photo from my jacket. Oyella’s smile in the photo has faded and so has her face. A patch of grey replaces her. I slump down leaning against the tree and stare at the sky. It’s still blue. The grass around me is still green and the hospital still stands where it is.


--Oyella is dead, I tell Okema that evening.

--I’m sorry, he says and clasps my hand stroking it. We sit huddled on the veranda. It is another chilly starlit night. The gods sitting up above may look down on us and see two dots on a veranda. Perhaps the gods smile at our misery as we huddle together recounting our loss. They toss coins and wait for another victim. Perhaps they gamble and we are the helpless pieces involved in their game. With their hearts cold, they exchange our fates and interfere with our destinies.

I look up in the sky and see a full moon. I expect to see the smiling gods seated in the moon round their gambling stool. The moon is empty.

--One day, Okema breaks through my thoughts, this will end.

I nod and say, yes.

Sighing, I wonder whether if I hadn’t been taken away, I could now be like Laker lying in hospital or nothing like Adongpin and Lamwaka. Nothing has been heard of them. It’s like they disappeared into the skies or turned into dust and were blown away.


Today Laker smiles brightly when she sees me. She looks different with her hair now cut and clean. The wild look is gone. As I sit beside her, she lifts her hand to caress the scar on my chin. I hold her hand and smile back. Seventeen years have passed since the day we took the photo as smiling children bent towards the camera-the memory of which I carry around like my dreams.

I hold her hand and help her off the bed. She gets up with great difficulty and leans against me. I have to half support her weight. We walk slowly till we reach the door and limp into the compound. We walk and sit under the large mango tree in the middle of the hospital compound. She loves sitting under the shade. Each time, I go to see her, we move into the compound.

Laker raises her hand to cover her eyes, shielding them from the sun. She lies with her head on my laps. We ignore the cries of babies and women talking around us. I don’t know how long we sit under the tree. We watch the sun disappear and see the shadows get longer as they fall upon the windows. Laker lifts her head and rests it on the trunk of the mango tree. She fixes her eyes on me.

--What’s that song we used to sing? She asks

I smile.

-- Min latin do, tedo i dye wor? I ask and start to hum the tune. I expect her to join in. She closes her eyes and listens to me sing. She nods her head. Then she turns to me and opens her eyes. I feel her eyes boring through the scar, then at my neck. She laughs lightly.

--Atita, Atita, bangle-necked Atita, she whispers.

A smile curls round her lips, very slowly, it lights up, and burns brightly like a flame. She remembered!


Author Notes

Jackee Budesta Batanda lives in Kampala. An undergraduate student at Makerere University, she is General Secretary Uganda Women Writers’ Association. She was 2003 Africa Regional Winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and was shortlisted for the 2004 Macmillan Writers Prize for Africa.


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