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Strange Fruit

By Monica Arac de Nyeko



copyright 2004 Monica Arac de Nyeko

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This story shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing - April 2004




Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Billie Holiday 1939


It’s evening in my dream. The Kitgum sun has disappeared behind the hills. Dry leaves crash under my bare feet as I race among the yaa trees at the foot of Kidi Guu hills, looking for Mwaka. Burnt tree stumps and thorn bushes let me through their sheltered trunks with a few scratches and cuts. The looming night falls upon the lush and short shrubs inch by inch. I am alone and frightened. I need to find my husband. I need to sniff that familiar fruity scent in his breath. I need to touch his unblemished face.

            Mwaka emerges from behind the anthill, standing amidst a thicket of overgrown spear grass. The enormous acacia trees on the breasts of the hills sway and crack like the hinges of a breaking door. Darkness shields his face. In his heavy footsteps is the same man who went with the liberation war two years ago and drifted like the August tide of Aringa River. His feet carry him with the poise of a mountain spirit. I stretch out my hands. I beckon him to come to me. Every step releases him like a blooming hibiscus. I have waited so long for this moment. Nothing can spoil it. My heart gains the momentum of an orak drumbeat. Just like that day he held me in his arms under the full moon and released himself inside me.

            Mwaka pulls closer. My head feels like a roaring flame of eucalyptus tree logs. I bury my face in my palms and close my eyes tight. His footsteps hasten away, over the dry leaves.   I open my eyes and scan the darkness. There is no sign of him.  

            “Mwaka!” I call out.

            His brisk strides fade faster than a sigh. He melts into the night. My cry spatters into the air.  

            “Maaadooooo! Mwaka!”

            Mwaka’s motion is steady like a straight-line. He descends into the wilderness. I am left with no husband. No petal of mirth to call my own. No wind to carry my weight. My risen hope evaporates. My frail arms hash forward. I crash to the ground. I start to sink. At the end of this tunnel, the glimmer of light becomes a pencil point, and blinks to black. It leaves me with nothing, except Piloya’s hand at my feet and her scared voice, “M-a, wa-ke up! Wake up!  Maaa, Maaaaaaaa…”

            Piloya’s voice plunges me into her world. I stretch my hands and legs. Piloya kneels at the foot of my bed. She has left hers at the other corner of the room. Her little hands pass rapidly over my feet and make their way upwards searching for my hands. I release my fingers into her open palms. She squeezes gently. I read the words buried in her motion. I bend over and bring her off her knees into my bed. We say nothing. I swallow hard and pass my fingers over my arms. The roughness of the goose pimples settling upon my skin teases my fingertips. Piloya curls her body. She searches for my hand again. She finds it and leans her head upon my elbow. Her soft breathing comes through the darkness, tender and pure like rainwater.

            I lie on my back and take heavy sighs to conjure calmness from the tip of every vein that runs through my body. The desperation as Mwaka disappeared has leapt into my consciousness. I feel a certain heaviness sit on my chest. I pull Piloya closer. I hold her tight. It’s a language she picks up quickly, and draws even closer to me. She places her hand upon my stomach to make sure I am by her side. It’s a habit she picked up when Mwaka was gone.

            Safe like a secret, Piloya lets sleep immerse her and take her to another universe. For me it’s blink after blink with no sleep. My eyes travel to the corrugated iron sheets and to the little hole in the roof. The moon shines bright. I can see the headstrong woman in the moon staring at the earth below. She brings to life the Acoli folktale of her journey there. Her story has been told for generations. She was cast into her sky prison for going to the forest to pick firewood when her husband had refused to let her go. She makes me think of Mwaka before he was the man whose face hides behind the darkness in my dreams.  

         Mwaka was the young man whose voice soared with the tempo of the orak dance that night I first met him. He stamped his feet to the ground, raising fumes of brown dust up the other dancers’ noses in the dance arena. They shoved him with their dancing gourds. The girls crashed him between their bosoms. He struggled to make his way through. When he got to me, his feet sprung him up and down like a rapid eye blink. This was the orak dance of the New Year. Young men and women came with keen eyes to search for potential partners.

            I had escaped from home to come and stare at village dating and courtship with city disdain. I was the nineteen-year-old city girl from Kampala, come with Ma and Pa to spend Christmas with the family. Mwaka was the village boy who enchanted all metropolitan care and class out of me. He had enormous strength in limbs and danced with the lightness of a feather. I stared at him, and then focused my eyes on the woman in the moon. As a child, Ma had told me the moon woman’s story. I gave her a name from the Acoli word for moon- dwe. Her name was Nyadwe: daughter of the moon.

            Nyadwe never aged. Puberty pimples spread upon my face like black beans. I kissed goodbye to my childhood. She was still as young. Nyadwe was as enchanting as she had been when I first saw her. Through the years, I stared up in the skies. I imagined she could hear me. I felt sorry for her as much as I did for myself. We developed an intimacy of deprived souls, in our nightly symposiums of morbid revelations. I whispered to her the contempt I felt for my parents whose concept of discipline was synonymous with whip lashing. Nyadwe knew those things about me I had never told to anyone. When the moon did not adorn the sky during some nights, I missed her dreadfully. I stared aimlessly at the heavens waiting for her to pop out of the clouds.

            As Mwaka’s eyes settled upon my waist beads, I looked up to her for an answer. Nyadwe was smiling right above my head. She was brighter than I had ever seen her before. I joined the dance and surrendered to the dance rhythm. I cast my hands in the air and laughed delightfully. Mwaka came so close to me. I could feel his breath upon my neck. It was a sweet and fruity scent, like ripe mango. He placed his palms upon my hips. I swayed and gyrated to the tempo of the drums. Our voices rose robustly with the rest of the dancers in this heated celebration of youth. The obscene lyrics slid out of our vocal codes with a carelessness that belonged to puberty only:

                                                eyo eyo eyo

                                                open your wrapper

                                                let the big mortar in!

                                                eyo eyo eyo

                                                shake it shake it

            The tune poured into the night. It was not just melody; it was ecstatic passion that sprung Mwaka and me to the long grass under the trees. The moon shone generously upon our naked bodies. We yielded ourselves to the night. We let it take us beyond the music and the darkness.

             I had met Kiden my loud-mouthed cousin at the dance. I did not find her when Mwaka and I got back. I came back home in the morning with a pot pretending that I had been at the river to collect water. The dance arena dust still clung to my feet. My hair was full of grass twigs. I had forgotten to pick them out in my haste to get home before anyone woke up.

Ma stood by the door to the main house. She had her hands at her waist. The morning splendour dissolved in an instant. My heart, which had danced with the morning dew on my way home, now thumped inside my chest like orak drums turned sour. Every muscle in Ma’s face busted with anger. Her hands shook. She grabbed me by my collar and took me inside the house. Ma pushed me to sit on the floor. She summoned Pa in the house, like she always did when she learned something bad I had done, before he did.

            “You are from Kampala. Kampala for God’s sake,” she shouted.

            That was Ma. Always going on and on about the city and how different people from the city should be when they come to the village. Pa looked at me fidgeting with my fingers and staring at the floor.

“Don’t do it again.” He said in his faint voice.

Pa’s voice had always been faint. He looked at me. My eyes trickled with humiliation. The floor felt hot. My teeth cluttered the way they do when it is too cold. 

“Don’t do it again.” Pa repeated sternly.

I nodded.

“She won’t do it again,” he said to Ma.

Pa got up slowly and went outside. I was shocked. So was Ma. She slapped the mahogany table, moving her head with so much force. Those dangling wooden earrings she never took off, swung like ripe fruits in the gusts of June. She swallowed hard. Ma stormed out of the house, banging the door behind her.  She snapped at everyone the whole day, including Pa.

I thought she had even forgotten all about it. In the night she came to me. I was already asleep. She shook hard at my feet. I woke up, sat up and rubbed my eyes. Ma spoke in a tone barely audible to herself.

            “Lakidi,” she started.

She rarely called me Lakidi. I dreaded it when she did. Ma had given me the name herself.  Lakidi meant stone. Ma believed I could shoot up the sky one day and twinkle like a star. I hated that my name was a constant reminder of Ma’s hopes in me.  Ma’s eyes burnt like a flame when she spoke of me sometimes. Her words sounded almost magical at such moments. She said there was much more in me than I gave. That buried deep within me was subtle warmth that could blossom in the driest season and survive a long drought like a cassava stem. But, when I did something wrong, Ma’s magical voice grew harsh and sharp. It fell upon my body like thorns.

“If your father thinks men pulling at your breasts in those stupid dances is okay, I don’t.” Ma said, “Do it again and I will tie your feet to iron bars and lock you inside the house until it’s time to go back to the city.” 

“Maaaaa,” I said. 



            “What was that tone?”


            “Do you think I am stupid? You think I did not hear that tone, huh? Yesterday God knows what you did in that stupid dance. Today you don’t respect your parents. What will you do next, huh?”

            I shut my mouth. I held the blanket to my chest and pressed it closer. At such moments I regretted that when the temptation arose I had not poured hot water on her vegetable seedlings in her nursery beds in Kampala. 

            “Answer me, huh?”

            Ma’s voice rose sharper. She sounded like she was about to burst into tears. That is how Ma was. After raising her voice, she always cried. Ma cried if anything got her very mad. I hated listening to her outbursts. She slapped her hands upon her thighs and rocked her body to and fro crying, “Aii aii.”  Listening to her at such times was worse than any whiplash.  

            “Talk to me,” Ma repeated.

            I got out of the bed and tried to make my way outside amidst the darkness.

            “Where are you going, huh?”

            “I am just going outside to the toilet.”

            “Oh… toilet? I see. If I hadn’t woken you up, would you be thinking of a toilet, huh? Is that all you can think of when I am talking to you?”

            I walked past her, brushing her shoulder. Pa’s voice was right at the door.

            “What is going on in there?”

            Ma pulled me back by the shoulder. I staggered and almost fell.

            “Slut, slut!” she cried.

            “What is going on in here?” Pa asked again.

I heard several other voices outside.

            “Look at your daughter. Aiii aii aiii. Lutwaaa!” Ma wailed in Acoli.

“What is this, all about?” Pa asked.

Ma continued to wail loudly.

“Aaii aiii aii.”

“What is wrong in there?”

“She does not even respect me anymore. Slut, you think I did not hear what happened, with that stupid boy Mwaka. I sat the whole day today trying to tell myself you are smarter than that. Do you know how I felt the whole day, huh? Do you?”

             I stomped out of the house. Pa tried to hold me back. I busted through the door and almost knocked him down.

             “Why did you start all this now?” Pa said to Ma.

            My cousins were all outside, even Kiden. They all stared at me like I was covered in shit.  I ran in my petticoat. I did not know where my destination was. My feet just brushed the grasses along the way. I went with the flow of the night. Nyadwe was not there in the skies. She would have led me to a safe haven. She would have calmed me.

Then it hit me, Mwaka! 

            It took me a while to find his place. When I did, I banged on his door.  He took one look at me and held me into his arms for a while. He did not ask any questions. Gradually, he released me. He took my hand and led me to his bed. He got into the bed and put his hands around me, like a fragile object that should not get tarnished. His sweet mango breath was upon my neck, so fresh, so warm.  It calmed the tears, the shame, and the anger.   

            Pa came early the next morning. He stood by the door like a chicken beaten by hailstorms. He said nothing except, “Lakidi, everyone expects you home.”

            I insisted Mwaka take me home with Pa. Mwaka did not argue. I was so afraid that Pa would lose his calm and beat me up along the way. Ma refused to come out when we got home. She refused to talk to me for days. Everyone said very little. But it was Pa’s silence that worried me. I would have preferred that he snapped at me and his eyes burnt with anger. He did not. I felt guilty. It did not feel right. He caught me looking at him often trying to seek the words behind his silence. He smiled lightly and passed his hand upon his beard and looked at something else.

            The following days, Pa let Mwaka come home. He had learned that I met him at the church gardens. Mwaka loved bougainvillea with a passion I could not understand. The church gardens were full of well-pruned bougainvillea plants in different shapes and sizes. They stood and held up their green leaves and pink petals to the heavens. In some parts of the gardens, red and white roses bloomed. The thorns never let me pick a single rose bud, without a prick. Mwaka liked it. He took my bleeding finger into his mouth and licked. It was strange. But he said it was a pact.  That it meant we would always be together. The thought of Mwaka and me forever lighted my eyes. When he spoke like that, I felt like I was lying on a carpet of morning glory petals and floating over Lake Victoria.  

Mwaka’s passion for the flowers was replaced with the love of card games with Pa when he started to invite him over. Pa laughed softly. He did not say much. Sometimes he joked with Mwaka and they seemed at ease with each other. I did not see Ma anywhere in the compound when Mwaka was around.  One day as I passed by their room, later in the night, I heard Pa and Ma talk.

“She is not young. She got her teacher certificate you know.” Pa said.

Ma grunted and jeered.

“Anyone but not him.”  




The marriage did not come as a surprise to anybody. Not even Ma. But she did say it would not last.

            “Not even this planting season.” She said and laughed the way she does when she wants to get people angry.

            She came to see me often after the marriage. She coaxed me to reveal any problems I was having.

            “That’s what mothers are for dear,” she said sweetly and smiled. 

            Year after year, it was the same words from Ma. I hated the way Mwaka bought every useless thing that caught his whim, and our accounts suffered. I loathed his snoring in the night. We fought about so many things that seemed stupid. Sometimes I refused to talk to him when he got me so mad. One time I packed my things and threatened to leave with Piloya when he sold a cow after I told him it was not necessary. He came home that evening with a dress. I had seen it once before, at a shop window. I commented on how nice it looked. Mwaka bought it and handed it to me. I tried to look even angrier. I broke down and laughed. I took the dress from his hand and went to try it on.

“It won’t work next time!” I shouted from the bedroom.

“There won’t be a next time,” he said and laughed.

            When Ma came, she always seemed disappointed that we joked and laughed. She was astonished that Mwaka held my hand and stroked my face when she was around. Mwaka came home as soon as he had rounded off the accounts as the chief cashier at the Acoli Farmers Association.

            “Look at him,” Ma, said with contempt, “at home all the time, trying to impress me, isn’t he?”

            “Ma, that’s him, he comes home every day like that.”

             “Well I don’t buy any of it. He does not deserve you. Lakidi, you could have…”


            “Oh I see, I am not even allowed to say anything about him, am I?” she said and called Piloya. Ma started to tell her a tale of a time long ago, when elephant refused to listen to his mother and lost his long beautiful tail. 

             In the night Mwaka whispered in my ear the funny names she had called him. Her favourite one was obibi. Ma called him that even when I was there. She stopped when Piloya asked her, “Is that Pa’s name? Ogre?”



One day however, Ma came to see me without sending word.

It was one of those days when the sun fell upon the skin like red-hot charcoal. March had ripened the millet in the fields. Every inch of our compound was spread with sunflower, groundnuts, and sorghum, all ready to be stored away in the granary. Mwaka’s favourite mango tree stood in the front of the house, carrying drying leaves that poured to the ground with the slightest breeze. Piloya’s lips cracked. They even dripped blood sometimes. Her dark skin grew too pale and she was tired all the time. Ma cowered from the car that had brought her to our compound, hunched and sweating. Without sitting down, Ma walked towards me and clumped her hands on my shoulders.

“You have to come to the city, everyone says so, even your Pa.”

“Ma, not that again,” I frowned lightly and hugged her.

“No no, this is serious.”

“Maaaa, come on, we have talked about that before.”

“Yes, but…”

 Ma had come because of the rumours. Every one was talking about the rebels.  Strange stories had penetrated the market places and the churchyard on Sundays. After village meetings, people gathered in small circles. They whispered stories they had heard from other people.  At the river, women stayed longer and spoke of men who came and abducted men and young boys to force them to fight. The same kind of stories had infiltrated the radio stations and newspapers like a plague.

“Everyone is talking about it; this is serious,” Ma said.   

Mwaka spoke to her himself. Ma listened and did not grunt or pass foul comments.

“Everyone is okay, like they have always been; radios are full of lies, and everyone knows that. The rebels are not fighting us. It’s the government they want. ” Mwaka said.

 “They say it’s different this time, it’s different, they changed tactics…”

 “Nothing will happen, give it time, you will see, we have heard rumours like this for years and nothing has happened.”

Later in the day, Ma smiled and said, “ He is not so bad, you know.”

Mwaka always spoke about the rebels with a lot of contempt. Sometimes he lost his temper and lamented about how stupid they must be to follow a guerrilla leader who had no formal education at all but wanted to form a new government. When he spoke to Ma, his voice was calm. He paused in between his sentences beautifully. I was so proud of him.




A month later, I was in the family cemetery weeding my uncle’s grave. I heard voices chanting "Harambe Harambe!"

            They drew closer and filled the air.  The chants echoed with a kind of intensity that made me very unsettled. It was one of the slogans the Mau Mau fighters in neighbouring Kenya had used, when fighting the British before independence. It was a pledge of togetherness, but something about this chant was different. The voices rose with the thumps of heavy gumboots. Then the bullets started. The wind held still as the air filled with skittering bullets that made my head pound and ears ring. When Mwaka heard the guns, he followed me to the cemetery. He found me darting through the massive undergrowth in the gardens making towards the house. He grabbed my hand. We all rushed inside. A few minutes later, men and young boys busted into the compound like hailstorms flung by lightening. The heaviness of their footsteps echoed their number. They were many.

            Toka nje, la sivyo tutaichoma nyumba yako.” Come out or we burn the house.


            Tunajua kwamba uko ndani.”  We know you are there.

            We remained silent, engulfed in a fear that could drill holes through the ground. Mwaka held my hand. Piloya, only eleven then, lay under our wooden bed without any movement. The voices outside rose sharper than Waragi Extra Strong Spirit as they started to chant:

            “Death to the traitors! Death to the traitors!” 

            People had spoken about such things. They said the rebels considered every male a traitor if he refused to join the liberation war. He was an enemy of the Acoli people, and the great rebellion to oust the government.  Mwaka held my hand and squeezed it till it hurt. He raised his feet where we lay and covered ourselves with blankets and other things. Mwaka never said anything more. He went to the door and opened it. Daylight rushed in.  Hands raised, he walked towards them and I knew it was real. These locusts, who had desecrated distant villages, swarmed several homes and seemed so alien to me, had come to take my husband. I held Piloya’s hand. It stuck in mine like glue. I tried to block the voices out of my ears, but they glided through too eagerly.

            "Je, kuna wanaume wengine ndani ya nyumba?” They asked. 

            “Only my daughter and wife.” Mwaka said.

            "Watowe nje."

            Mwaka did not come. A young boy who stunk like a he-goat came, stood before me, pointed his barrel at my head and stammered, “Ge ge ge ge geee-t out!”

            Piloya and I scampered out of the house. We stood near the door. Most of the young boys had new green army uniforms that were tacked into their gumboots at the ankles. The endless sight before me was of guns slung on shoulders, a knife on the waist, a few pistols here and there, and new gumboots whose black plastic was caked in dust that seemed to have risen to their hair and turned it brown.

I remember standing there and getting ready to find myself in the next life. If my daughter and I should die, I prayed that it should be quick and painless. A young man held his AK47 to our heads. Piloya soaked herself in urine. She held onto to my hand while her eyes flapped around like a duck about to be slaughtered. She had never seen so many men like that. The endless number of men overwhelmed her. She cast her eyes upon the earth. The number of young boys was greater than the adults. Some boys even seemed weighed down by the size of their guns. Their blood-shot eyes scared me. The air was heavy and stuffy. Everything smelt rotten.

           Some of the boys hit at dry mango leaves with their guns. Mwaka always said the tree had saved his grandfather from the Karamojong cattle rustlers. He climbed up on it and the leaves hid him. The Karomojong could not figure out where he was. Mwaka carried his grandfather’s name. He had a very strong attachment to the old man. He said, when the man died, he came to him in a dream and said the tree was special and he would be its guiding spirit. The rebels broke off branches and they dropped to the ground. Mwaka glared at them and tried to look away. That tree was as good as his grandfather.  

            The others walked around laughing in loud voices with several rounds of ammunition rolled around their waists. Except for the fear threatening to pound my heart out of my chest, everything remained calmer than I expected. I did not speak. Just in case I said the wrong thing, and they sliced my guts and I woke up in a pool of blood covered with flies and maggots.

            If there was someone in command, I did not put much effort in trying to notice.  A boy, who looked not more than eleven, searched our house. He came out, smiling at me and revealed teeth, which I imagined, smelled worse than our pit latrine. He said to me, “Harambe!” and offered his hand for me to shake. I shook it and quickly clasped my hands together. 

            An older man announced that they should be on their way. A good number had started to drift away, taking the route of the cattle kraal, towards sunset. Mwaka’s animals had filled the kraal enclosure before the notorious Karamojong rustlers who believed all cows in the world belonged to them raided it empty. The rebels did not bother with Piloya and I. One punch on his back and Mwaka started to walk slowly away. 

            I stayed with the feeling that Mwaka had gone to work and the evening sunset would bring him home to me. As he disappeared among the figures, Mwaka stole a glance at Piloya and me. Then he looked straight ahead, walking on, never wavering until there was no single figure I could pick out from the distance. I stood there and refused to acknowledge that although Mwaka was a strong man, he was not a fighter at all. He would not survive the forests. Mwaka was wearing his sapphire blue and red striped Acoli Farmers Cooperation uniform. That image of him stuck in my mind like a portrait. When I see him often in my dreams, the merge of blue and red seems calm and tranquil, but I cannot embrace its beauty and let it envelop me. It is always too remote for me to reach.

            We stood there and watched him march out of our lives. The men and boys chanted with vigilance. The earth moaned softly beneath. Only the luckiest of men escaped. The rebels descended back to the wilderness, which had released them, chanting. "Harambe! Harambe! Harambe!"

             Morning came without Mwaka. Piloya cried for her father. She hated that the schools had closed. She had to stay home every day. Words got lost in my mouth, like a child’s burble, uttered and gone. My heart started to soak in a maze of unspeakable gloom. I sought a smile behind the shadows of my grey clouds. I found one, in the vague memory of a meaningless childhood song:

                                                thunder thunder

                                                the king has sent me to fetch his son thunder

                                                oh you bigheaded one, give him back thunder

                                                or else this shall surely end  in jail


           Day after day, the song became remote like distant raa smoke. Weeks later the dreams started. Sometimes I was looking for Mwaka’s whisper in the bougainvillaea petals in the church gardens. Other times I was a ripple in the ocean growing bigger and bigger. Most times, I was at the foot of Kidi Guu hills, looking for him among the acacia. In the mornings, I woke up and stretched out my hands, searching for him. Any sign of him, his sweet mango breath, his laughter, anything. 

             Sondra and I used to teach together at Lacep Primary School, before it was closed down. Her husband was taken the day Mwaka was taken too. She came to me often. We sang folksongs under the mango tree until we fell asleep. As soon as her husband was taken, her face did not have any scars. He used to beat her up thoroughly.  When anyone on the staff asked about the scars on her face, she always said she had fallen down.

            In the days after Mwaka and her husband were taken, we went down to the river to wash clothes like many other women and girls often did. Like the rest, we sat by the bank waiting for our clothes to dry. Sometimes even when they had dried, we remained seated a little longer. We said very little. Most women came to the river too often. Some came even when they had almost no clothes to wash. Sometimes laughter came through, but it was dry and lifeless.

            The Aringa River was a seasonal tributary of the Nile. It passed through distant lands, filled with man-eating crocodiles and grouchy hippos that sliced people in two. Sometimes, the water brought with it blood sucking leeches that stuck to the skin. They did not fall off until they had siphoned enough blood. Very often when people swam, the leeches found their way into their noses. They lived there unnoticed for weeks sucking blood painlessly out of their unsuspecting host. Once found, people conquered their thirst for blood by sticking sharp thorns into their slippery black bodies. Then they sent them back to the water as dead beings to be cast away by the tide. 

On one of those days when we went to the river to wash a couple of clothes, Sondra started to hum a funeral song. Then she buried her face in her hands. She had never done that before. I moved over to her and held her in my arms. She lifted her head up. Her eyes were red. Tears flowed down her cheeks.

            “I don’t want to, but I miss him,” she said and sprung up.

Sondra went over to the mvule tree a distance from the river. I thought she wanted to be alone for a while. But, she started to hit at the trunk instead. Her braids swung upon her head. She shook like something was driving her to harm herself. I ran up to her and grabbed her by the blouse. Her hands were badly bruised and there was blood.

            “Sondra, Sondra,” I shouted.

            Her eyes stared at me blank. Piloya was scared.  I held Sondra and shook her. 

            “Sondra, Sondra.”

            She stared at me, even blanker. I slapped her hard across the face more than once. She dropped on the ground. I sat down beside her and lifted her head to my lap and stroked her head.

            When I lay on my bed that night, I thought of my own tears and I buried them even deeper. They begged to be let out. If I cried, it meant I had surrendered. That time had not yet come. Not yet. I looked at Mwaka’s metal case. If I could just get my hands to open it, I could sniff his presence. Maybe then the gathering tears would go away. But I could not bring myself to open his case. Everyone said luck lay there. Opening his case would scatter his luck away and expose it to the wind or bad spirits. They could snatch it away. If there was anything Mwaka needed so bad, it was his luck! The case would stay that way. 

             Grandma had long moved to the city. Ma promised to come to see me from Kampala. She said she was coming to take me home. She said the village was killing me. Mwaka was dead. I should get that straight, cry over him and move to the city where I belonged from the start. I agreed. The following day, I was going to lay four large stones in the cemetery to evoke Mwaka’s spirit back home to rest with his ancestors under the big kituba tree and leave for Kampala with Ma. Ma had not seen me for a while. When she finally came, she took one look at me and shrieked in Acoli, which rolled off her tongue like the edge of a sharp butcher knife.

            “If you had not married that village boy, you would be in the city where none of this stupid nonsense exists. Nothing would be driving you to the verge of a nervous breakdown! Look at you! Woi woi woi ma weee… Allah! Allah!”  

            She clapped her hands upon her mouth. Ma started to cry heaping curses upon the war, the village and anything else she could think of. She called the night I had met Mwaka, the impotent night, which should be flung into the river with shit, shit and shit! She sat on the ground and slapped at it with both her hands raising them to the heavens and shouting my name like I was dead. Piloya burst into tears and ran inside the house.

            That night, as Ma slept, there was a knock on the door. I knew the rebels did not knock. They barged in. But I opened it ready to expect anything. A young man stood in the darkness. He refused to come in or look at me. He stammered. There was a memory of such a stammer somewhere inside my head.

            “Me me me me sa-ge.”   

            He held out his hand. I picked out the little paper that sat in it. I held it up to the kerosene lamp inside the house. It was Mwaka’s handwriting. Meet me by the river, tonight, urgently.

            It was one year and two months since he had been taken from me. I put my hands upon my chest and swathed myself in the hope of seeing him again. After I had buried him, there was a promise of his resurrection, by the river. I was glory triumphing to glory. Each hope, which had faded, sprouted up like dying sunflower stems blessed with life after the long awaited rains finally come. I held out my hands to Nyadwe and spoke with her. The universe still granted wishes, smiles and fresh water springs after all. I saw Nyadwe that night in a new light. She was not the headstrong woman of Acoli folklore. Nyadwe was earthquake. Nyadwe was lightening. Nyadwe was time. Nyadwe was power. She had watched over my husband each night like I beseeched her. She had brought him back to me. Nyadwe had sat in the night sky defying wind and darkness to torch up memories such as mine. When I looked at her, Nyadwe promised me a future, she promised me new memoirs not stained with blood.

            Sitting by the river I waited for my husband. My hands were curved tight around my folded legs as I rested my chin upon my knees. I tapped my toes lightly upon the sand under my bare feet. The Aringa River reflected a glassy smoothness from the skies. Each ray of moonlight fell upon the water surface, sharp and fresh in a fuse of red, gold and white beams. When I listened carefully, I could hear the still and quiet water flow slowly by. It reminded me of a time before the war, when I came to the river and Piloya had barely started to crawl. I sat her by the waters and let her hit at it with infant excitement. Bare-chested woman dived into the river and emerged with small streams of water sliding down their naked bodies like gods performing a purification ritual. Children’s voices floated about. Aringa flowed; heading towards horizons whose end only the sky knew. A few women tried to catch fish in the full waters with their hand-woven baskets. They laughed with each catch and their voices could reach the sacred caves at Kilak. During those days before the war, the legend of the Aringa River Bridge as it is told now, did not house so many troubled spirits under it. The river was not filled with too many leeches like it is now. Lost souls did not cry in the night begging for rescue. Our dreams rolled us into tomorrow with promises of rainbows, seas, corals and mollusks.   

            I did not hear Mwaka come until I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to look. There was my husband before me; resurrected from the dead debris where I had buried him. His woolly hair stood like a crown of untamed fur. He had grown much thinner and looked ragged holding his rifle under his arm. He never kept his beard when I had known him. Now it was plaited into one lock of hair. It hung like a small rope. There was a huge burn scar just across his forehead. It sparkled like it had been massaged with simsim oil.

            “Min ot,” he said in Acoli the way he always referred to me: Mother of the house. 

Mwaka threw his rifle on the sand when I could not stop staring.

            “Are you okay?” I managed to say when he sat near me.

            “Are you okay?” he asked back.

            I nodded. I was at a loss of words. My heart raced like the first time I had just met him. He breathed softly. He had come along with other men who slouched around us like fallen angels. In hypnotic craze, I tried very hard to see only him and me under the clear night sky by the river in this reunion of two lost lovers.

            “Piloya,” he said.

            “She is a woman now.” I said.

            I studied him stealthily. In his soldier uniform, Mwaka looked like an image I had seen before but could not recognize anymore. The youthfulness that had glowed upon his face was gone. There was no sweet honey in his reckless bandit-like poise. I thought he smelt of gunpowder and decay.          He touched me lightly. His fingers did not burst with life. My hands clung to each other, unsure of what to do.  He was so distant, like he had been in my recurrent dream, impossible to reach among the acacia trees at the foot of Kidi Guu hills.   

            “What have they done to you?” I asked, my palms tracing his cheeks. I brought them back quickly and tucked them safely in my cardigan. He articulated every word. He sounded distinctly Mwaka, but I could not find him underneath his whisper. The valour of his voice had grown molds. He cleared his voice.

            “I came to let you know I am okay.”

            I looked at him and said nothing.

            “You don’t talk much these days,” he said.

            Mwaka had risen to the ranks and was now a commander. I was ashamed that I had thought a single day in the forests would crush him into pebbles that get washed away by a slight drizzle. He was far from that. Mwaka was rock. He saw his tomorrow bursting alive like an amplified electric guitar.  He saw himself as part of the ascension leading the country to a Promised Land. Canaan was so near.

“I smell it!' he said and spread his fingers before me. 

            “Our harvest is coming soon, very soon,” his breath came close, and I smelt something sour, something I couldn’t quite place, like the smell of rotting vegetation in forests perhaps.  I’d smelt it before, on another soldier.  The question formulated itself slowly through the dark and silence.

            “Have you taken the oath of allegiance?” 


            So that was the smell on his breath.  He’d tasted human blood, licked at it, and smeared it upon his body.

            “They made you?” I gasped.

            “No.  I chose it.  It will bring us a big harvest after the long struggles of the war.”

            I looked away, stretching my hand across my stomach.

            “Come back home with me Mwaka, you do not belong there. What have they done to you?”

            My voice was low and unsure like a baby’s first steps on cement. None of us said anything for a long while. Mwaka stood up, kicked at the sand and avoided looking my way. Our silence carried no single grain of seed to the panicles of my famished wishes. 

            “You have to wait for me. You have to wait for me. I will come to you when it’s over.”

            For a moment I thought he was going to break into tears. His voice bore a crack of emotion I had not felt until then. Without saying anything more to me, he turned away.    

            “Harambe,” he shouted.

            His few companions echoed it back and they started to move. Mwaka walked away from the river, onto the upward stretch that leads to the main road busting out of Kitgum town. They disappeared just above the bridge. I watched him and the men till I started to see faint ghostly figures coming and going over and over again. I made my way home almost invisible to myself. I had no tears in my eyes. They had just been buried under silt and shadows had cast a spell upon them. I told Ma about the meeting when I got back. Her surprise gave way to a loss of words, then to anger.

            “Obibi!” she shouted. “Are you going to stay?”

            “He is my husband,” I said, nodding my head up and down and carefully avoiding her eyes.

            “If I ever set my eyes on him, I will toss him in the river with shit, shit and shit. That’s where he belongs!” She said and soaked herself in tears the whole night.

            Ma left the following morning. I thought I saw something in her eyes. A certain fear, that she had lost me and would never find me. She did not see my point, but staying in my marital home was a battle I had chosen to fight even with no promise of a victory. 



Days, weeks, months passed by.

            Then tonight I put off the cooking fire in the kitchen and got ready to go to the main house, where Piloya was already asleep.  A voice suggested itself from the darkness under the mango tree as I passed. A voice which swished with the leaves in the night breeze.  A voice such as his.

            “Don’t cry,” he said as I rushed at him, the bulge of his white eyes finally betraying where he stood in the shadow of the tree. My hands went up to his face, feeling for the scar. Was this the old Mwaka returned? But he smelled of gunfire, decay and something else I could not figure out. That smell of blood in his breath again. I lowered my hands from his face and neck.

            “Just hide me in the old house with a jar full of water, don’t come there, I will be okay,” he said.

            He refused to look my way like he always did. He kept insisting I should hide him away and go to sleep immediately. I stood there, an eerie presence hanging suspended in the air. My knees were weak. My ears rung and my head spun like someone was pulling at the nerves on my neck and forehead.

            He had run from a battle at Kilak. He said they had a mole in his commanding camp. Someone had been feeding government troops with intelligence information. Someone in his battalion. Soldiers had penetrated their camp at the foot of the Kilak hills and caves. Many of his fighters were dead. As the commander, he did not trust anyone. He had to hide. The army was after him. He said he would hide with me for a few days. No one would think of looking for him here.

            “You have to bathe first, and you need clean clothes.” I said.

            “No no no,” a heated protest from him.

            “This is my house. You do as I say.” I said in a tone of a woman weighed down by heaps and heaps of broken hopes and wishes. This woman had surrendered and submerged herself in shallow pools of water that could not sink her. 

            I did not wait for Mwaka to say anything more. I held my wrapper and tied it around my stomach tight till I felt my guts knot like a Girl Scout’s rope. I went into the kitchen. He remained outside. I promised myself to try, just to try and see what I could do. He was my husband, to have and to hold, till...            

            What if they had followed him here? I sought in my heart and I found that the fear did not weaken my spirit. Not yet.

            I sat on my small curved wooden stool by the fire, boiling water, poking at the wood, confused. The kerosene lamp lacked paraffin. Its glow was weak and died. The darkness of my kitchen offered nothing but a mustiness of a kind that lingers in a place such as an Acoli woman’s kitchen only.  Sharp flames with scarlet billows bit into my skin.  I carried the hot aluminium saucepan with my bare hands. I felt the blood in my fingers heat up and I thought my nails would fall off. I poured the water into a big metal galaya. I poured some more cold water in. I dipped a finger to gauge the temperature. It was okay. As I carried it out, I noticed that shadows from the trees surrounding our home fell clockwise to the center of the compound to congregate there as the silent and brief visitors to the earth in the night. Something about them reminded me of my dead uncle. Unknown people had stabbed him to death on his way home one day. His coffin was placed at the center of grandma’s compound. Everyone congregated around it, humming sad melody, shocked, angry. 

          I carried the water to the bath-shade Mwaka had built himself, a little distance from the house. My slippers slapped at the earth below and made soft sounds. I called him. He came closer. I sniffed out the smell I could not make out before. It was stale sweat that smelled like decaying mango. Mwaka was limping, but he did not look terribly in pain. He refused to let me look at his leg. I put him on the big stone that I sit on when taking a bath. He held out his hands. He let me take off his filthy uniform. I tossed it over the bath shade. It fell outside. He had no gun. I did not bother asking why. I took his trousers off and tossed them outside as well. I got the sponge I had cut out of an old Vitafoam mattress, and started to scrub his body. He relaxed, raised his head. I lifted my head up as I worked. It felt like someone had stuck something powerful up my nostrils and my nose, eyes and mouth were inhaling the pressure without resistance. My eyeballs heated up. The way they do when I am about to cry. It was not the tears. It was the invisible chains that tied a noose around my neck and tried to choke me. Heat rose to my head. A throbbing headache started. It felt like a stone had been planted right in the middle of my skull. I handed Mwaka a towel to dry himself and a dress to wear. He held it before him, shook it then gave it back to me. 

            “I can’t wear this.”

            “Then you will have to be naked.” 

            “Why can’t you bring me some of my old clothes?”

            I poured the remaining water out of the galaya. Anger consumed me like lightening. A force drove itself inside my hands. I struggled very hard to hold myself from falling upon him and pounding at him till my hands bled and blood trickled upon the bath-shade stones under our feet.

            “Why can’t you bring me some of my old clothes?”

            “Mwaka, you came here after two years, you do not know how we have been living.”

            “Why can’t you bring me some of my old clothes?” 

            “Look Mwaka, your metal case, um… I have never opened it, since they took you away.” 

            “Well, now I am back.”

            “You wear that dress or you walk naked!”

            “Let me go get it myself, or I want my uniform back.”

            “You wear that dress or you walk naked!”

            I started to collect the galaya and sponge. He fitted the dress on without any more protest. I walked him to the old house where we kept things we did not use. It was an old house that could collapse at any moment. Everyone expected it not to last into the next year. It lived on, weak, daring everyone, bravely. Mwaka fitted himself amidst the piles of old boxes and old furniture with difficulty. The dust choked me. The boxes were many. Inside was dark. It had been untenured for a long while. Mwaka covered himself with a blanket and fell onto the mattress I brought him. 

            “I will be okay, lock the door and go away. Don’t come here. It will look suspicious.”

            I went to the house, brought a flask of hot water with a jar of cold water, some cassava and potatoes and peanut butter. Then I closed the door behind the dark room and fastened the padlock. I went back to the bathroom. I collected his clothes, stuffed more wood into the fireplace and threw them upon the flames. The fire devoured the green uniform reluctantly. I shivered a little. I tried to remember a tune to sing. I wanted to lure my spirit to calm. No tune or calm came. I waited patiently for the foul smelling cloth to burn up, then left the kitchen. I came to the main house and into the bedroom. Piloya was asleep. I stayed with no single lure of sleep in my eyes for a long time. When sleep finally came; it whisked me off to a dream and sent me to search for Mwaka’s sweet breath among the acacia. I had to find his unblemished face. In my dream, I had spoken to the large bougainvillea tree that stood like the queen of the night in the darkness next to my house. I asked her for that first petal she had bloomed with the start of the new season. When she gave it to me, I placed it in my pocket and went off to find my husband.  I wanted to place in his palm, that single and freshest pink petal from the flower tree. He had planted it the day Piloya was born, to celebrate her birth. One day he had told her jokingly when she asked him about the flower.

“ It’s a powerful plant with special powers, “ he said. “ If you can find that petal which blooms first when a new season comes, if you place it in my palms, I will hear you whenever I am and come to you wherever you call my name.”   




Blink after blink. I have no sleep again. My memory has chosen to take me back to the day they took Mwaka. He wanted to go drinking with his friends in the trading center. I sulked till my long face weakened his feet. The simmering midday sun brought the rebels. They found Mwaka at home like a good husband and wheeled him to the end of a mirage. My hands beat into my laps resonating the wail of an Acoli woman who widowed herself.

            “Atim ango?” What shall I do?

            My hands still beat into my thighs. I yearn them to reach out and feel his affectionate recognition in the curves of my memory. When I release myself and reach for his reflection, I find none. Everything is marred with the squeal of defeat. Mwaka is a memory of shackles that have hoarded layer upon layer of guilt in my heart.  

            “Atim ango?” What shall I do?

             Piloya sleeps on, unaware that the father she longed to see so bad, now lies in the old house.

            “Atim ango?”

            My knees quiver. My feet carry me off the bed. I let them do as they will. They lead me to the corner of the room. I grope and find Mwaka’s metal suitcase. Two years it has lain cold and alone, holding his luck securely. I pass my palms over the metal. The power in my arms goes lukewarm, but my hands proceed to press it open. It cracks and falls into the silence of the room, like a whisper. The crickets outside jumble the night calm with chitchat whose meaning is buried in the mysteries of a diviner’s cowries. My hands fumble and grope for the contents in the metal case. I land on the polyester on top. Chills spread through my body faster than a rumor. The colors of the fabric play in my mind as clear as the day Mwaka fitted it on for the first time. It is the yellow suit I bought him, to celebrate our Aluminium Anniversary. Our ten years of union as man and wife was going to be a special occasion. The time had come to watch my mother swallow her words and get smacked right in her face for predicting that my marriage would not last longer than a planting season. I chose yellow. Yellow was a happy color. It was a bright and uplifting celebration of our coming sunny days. Mwaka did not get to wear his suit beyond a single fit. That scent of the one fit lingers faintly in the yellow. Maybe it’s all in my head, like the voice that springs out of nowhere and sounds exactly like mine.

            “Oui. Oui. Maadoooo, Mwaka!”

            It is faint, but it never goes away. It echoes an abyss of loss and losing on and on, till it gets me dizzy and zonked. With Mwaka’s suit now in my hand, it gains momentum. I try to ignore it. All I want is to feel Mwaka. The way I knew him. I bring the fabric to my nose. A fire starts to burn through me. I crack louder than old wood and cry like the day he asked me to marry him. I shriek as every laughter, touch and sunshine comes to surface. The room gathers my wail into an embrace. Piloya’s voice comes through the darkness. 

            “Ma, Ma...”     

            The tears can’t stop. They flow ceaselessly, adorned with the kind of innocence only present in the reverberation of a baby’s first laugh. What am I going to do with him? What am I going to do with myself? Thoughts chill me, like syncopations of slave jazz. They do not scare off the chanting voice in my head. It goes on through out the night. Sure, undeterred and resilient, like Father Lagoro reciting mass…  

            “Oui. Oui. Maadoooo, Mwaka!”

            “Oui. Oui. Maadoooo, Mwaka!”

            “Oui. Oui. Maadoooo, Mwaka!”




The cock sounds its rapturous morning crow. I am a plant groping for sunlight. Mist floats over the hills. Day has come. I turn the radio on. The airwaves bring a haunting song by Oryema Geoffrey the Acoli musician based in Paris. His melody floats for a while in the air before it settles on the ground like a fluff of feather. The news main points start soon after. They carry messages that wear my ears with their bulk. 

            “The rebels have crossed the Aswa River into Kitgum district after a battle at Kilak. Twenty rebels and seven government soldiers are dead. A landmine hit a double cabin and killed four people along Kitgum road…”

             Sounds of morning bring the long squawk of dawn bird song. It is beautiful and blissful to the last dot. Daylight breathes life into the yellow ripened June mangoes. Tens and tens of half eaten fruit are spread under the trees. That always got Mwaka very angry. He got out of the main house; looked at the alima mangoes spread under the tree, and lamented about the bats, that wasted his best fruit in the late hours of the night. In the afternoons he sat and gazed up the tree completely engrossed. Piloya was sure her father counted the mangoes up the tree.  

            Time limps and drags itself along like a wounded antelope. My eyes keep going to the old house with the lock on the door.  My nerves are tense. I sweep the leaves from under the trees. My hands are reluctant. My limbs carry me sluggishly.

            “I will be okay.” I repeat what Mwaka said last night, until it starts to sound true. 

            A few hours into the morning, find me under the mango tree. Sitting here, I can see Kidi Guu just before me, lying very peaceful and calm. Under this mango tree, the pale layers of rolling grasslands, which remain almost cheerless and scanty regardless of the season, inspire a hidden beauty whose color dazes do not pour any excitement into my heart. The ragged tree barks, dry acacia, moist thickets, shrubs and bamboo are all blooming with the freshness and change of season that comes with June. The leaves and trees also cheer each other brightly. 

            Piloya joins me in casting an eye at nature from this distance. A big basin full of water and ripe yellow mangoes sits between us. I keep thinking that Mwaka could do with a few mangoes. I remind myself, I can’t take them to him. 

            My legs are too long for the papyrus mat on which we sit, so I rest my ankles on my red slippers. Piloya’s eyes are like the newest leaf on a plant. She flaps them beautifully, reminding me of Mwaka’s two pigeons.  He sold and resold them to different people. They always came back. Her eyes are so bright today, like a shaft of light hatched a new beauty in them suddenly. When she laughs, they look like beads. Piloya’s laugh gets me envious sometimes. It carries an attitude which makes everything stop to listen to her. She sits and faces me, picks a mango from the basin and cuts into it. She casts me quick glances. My fingers work nervously at my hair. Sometimes we love to talk. Sometimes we just sit and sleep under the mango tree. 

Today we do not talk much. In the distance Father Lagoro beats his drum reminding us of the Sunday mass tomorrow. After Piloya’s mock pounces that send the chicken scattering away, she gets on the tree and shakes at the mango tree. The door to the main house is slightly open, letting in daylight. It falls upon my scattered books at the foot of my bed. I bite my lower lips between my teeth and pass my palms over my face and sigh. I catch myself holding my two fingers in my face moving them fro and back, and talking to myself. Embarrassed I fold them back in my hands. They drop upon my laps making a very light pwah sound. Mwaka always made me hold my fingers like that and move them back and forth touching on his nose and mine in turns saying somwa. He coined that word using my first name and his Acoli name: Sophi and Mwaka.

            Without fighting the confusion going on in my head, I pick a mango and start to cut at it putting each succulent piece in my mouth. Piloya shouts from the mango tree.

            “Do you want some more mangoes, Ma?”

            “Get off that tree before you fall down and break your hips,” I say.

            “I will not fall down.”

            On other days I would have yelled at her till she got down. Now I just stare, as if seeking a truth buried in mud. I catch myself raising my two fingers to my face saying somwa again. I laugh. Ma spoke to herself a lot. She scattered her hands in the air and quarrelled with the wind. Sometimes she stared at one spot for minutes. Her mind took her somewhere unknown. Her strange engrossments always made me laugh. I laugh now, not because it is so funny. I laugh to send the tears away.

            I am thinking of evening, when the dreams come. I could maybe check on Mwaka as well. Piloya climbs down the mango tree. She kicks the dust under her feet as she gathers the mangoes that have fallen on the ground and are spread around. She carries them in her t-shirt. They look like they could tear through and fall out any moment. She bends over the plastic basin before her and lets the mangoes fall in. The water splashes upon me. She laughs at her own clumsiness, fixing her eyes upon me. Then she sits next to me.

            “Is something wrong Ma?”         

            I am thinking. Mwaka could do with a few mangoes. How is he doing? What if the search for him brings his pursuers to my doorstep? What would I do? It can’t happen, I tell myself. Then I think of Sondra, my friend, who comes in the afternoons sometimes to sit, laugh and cry. I pray she does not pass by today. 

            Piloya’s elbows rest upon my lap. She stares at my long dark hair, which I normally plait in two neat rows. Toilet flies are trying to get to the little bits of mango sap stuck accidentally in her hair. She starts to yawn. Suddenly she springs up. The fat toilet flies buzz shamelessly. She grabs a tree branch lying from the earth and waves it frantically. Thoughts pound at my head. I feel them blind me. I open my eyes wide and pretend I can see something flying just before me. When I am wrapped in darkness, I always imagine I can see a butterfly gathering wind under her wings and passing the redeeming feel to me. Today my mind refuses to see any butterflies.  

            “Lets go inside,” I say to Piloya.

            I pick up the mats. She gathers the mango peels spread all around. She throws them in a nearby bush. As she is coming back, she stops mid way.

“Ma look,” she says.

            I cast my eyes her way. She holds her hands on her waist then points them about in the air, and says, “One two three, kamata!”

             She places a leg front and one back, shakes her waist and sways here and there. Her lilac skirt sways with her, slapping its hem against her tiny legs. The lilac is so steady, so pure against her dark skin. Hands in the air with soft dance movements, very gentle, very graceful my little girl charms me. She barely raises her feet off the ground. Piloya smiles making her beady eyes glow like a polished conch. Her hands go up and down, sometimes almost up to her face. Then she sways slowly like a river wave. Her shoulders rock her body and swing her to a Lingala dance. I feel the desire to throw the mat down on the ground, join her and together swing to soft Lingala. But I just stand and watch Piloya sing and dance:

                                                excellent Sofia,

                                                I lovuyou ela mama,

                                                excellent Sofia,

                                                I lovuyou ela mama…

            Her voice settles a calm aura around me. It’s a song addressed to a Sofia. That is my first name. Piloya insists it was for me, because it says mama somewhere and I am her Ma. Piloya dances with infant innocence. She laughs and tries to cheer me. A fire threatens to burn my throat. It dries my chest. I feel the heat rise up to my eyeballs. My daughter continues to dance for the mango leaves and the bougainvillea plant that celebrated her birth. The petals stand out ecstatically pink just near the verandah of the main house. The grasses shake lightly as Piloya sings. She dances on, completely absorbed like no one is watching.

             I move and sit on the verandah, resting my back to the mud walls. Piloya moves over and sits beside me. We stare at nothing and everything. The skies are so blue. The clouds glide about carrying a certain kind of order and logic beneath their elegance. There is silence for a long while. It is broken when Piloya starts to hum another song. I close my eyes, gradually picking up the tune. Together we hum the melody of the folksong that tells of a world a long long time ago, when Atunya the lion could talk, when there was no drought and famine in the world.

The music stops. I open my eyes. Piloya’s eyes are still closed. Her head is raised up towards the skies. Tears have escaped through. They flow down her cheeks.

              What could possibly drive my thirteen-year-old goddess to tears? I grab her into my arms; place her head upon my shoulder and rock her back and forth, back and forth. She clasps me tight to her chest and presses against my shoulder. When she lifts her head, she holds her hands before her. She speaks amidst a threatening sob.

            “Pa, will be okay, won’t he?”

I draw away from her, a sudden fear.

            “I saw you last night.” 

            I am at a loss for words. I sniff softly and clean the tears off my eyes with my cotton skirt. We hold together again and rock to and fro. Our cries crush us into one hope. But the feeling that madness is down the hill waiting for me does not go away. After a while, we release ourselves and look at each other. Piloya is still crying. I tap her twice on the shoulder, put my hands on my knees and slowly pull myself up. I am thirsty. I have to go to the house to drink some water.  

            The sun, what heat! It is too bright. My shadow is lost in the sand. I turn to make my way to the house with slow steps. Crash! I turn sharply around. Like gunfire on steel, a Land Rover crushes into the village. The lone vehicle tears through the overgrown grasses. They fall flat to the earth and lie still under the alloyed wheels of this metallic monster. Piloya and I look at each other. We never see four wheels here. Our eyes rush to the path that comes out of grandma’s deserted home near the family graveyard, and leads to my house.

            The army Land Rover makes its way to my compound and brakes hard in the middle, where the night tree shadows love to congregate. It spins its wheels and spits gravel at Piloya and I. Its shape and colour fade behind a huge cloud of dust that spreads across the compound. Then the engine is silenced.

            I try to keep calm. It is nothing, I say to myself. Piloya stands close beside me pulling nervously at her hair and her dress alternately. Eyes on the vehicle, she blinks rapidly and looks up at me occasionally. When she stands next to me, Piloya reaches my shoulder.

The sun falls upon the vehicle windscreen. It deepens the brown tint. I can’t see a thing inside. We used to call these kinds of vehicles IFA. We thought they were Imported for Accidents. They caused so many.

            The vehicle faces me. The headlights look straight at me like a buffalo getting ready to charge. The docile headlights of this rough terrain giant drive me to tremble. Heart pounding, my head goes dizzy. A dull shade hashes in for a second or two. Then it’s suddenly bright again. The door opens. A loud crack and a black army leather boot slips onto the earth, glinting.  A body follows through, pulling itself slowly until a man, probably six foot, stands much taller than the vehicle itself. The man has a neat moustache, chocolate skin, and a slight smile that slits across his face like a small razor cut in heavy fabric. It is not enough to reassure and calm the tension bubbling inside me. He starts to walk towards me. His is the walk of an over-confident man.

            Men, probably five or six seated at the back, get off the Land Rover. They are all clad in army uniforms. They seem all clean apart from the dust. The road here can be dusty. Sometimes dust sticks and dyes the eyebrows brown. The man comes before me. I am a mess. I look like a depreciating widow who has not stopped mourning her loss for years. The man offers his hand.

“Lieutenant Kanyehamba,” he says.

            I shake his hand quick and hold my hands to my chest. My conscience accuses me as if I have just stolen a little child’s wish. The man whose name I have already forgotten reverses two large steps backwards, with the same overwhelming confidence. He holds his hand behind his back. I don’t like it. It is the way the soldiers who trained us during muchaka-muchaka, stood and ordered us to fall on our stomachs, rise up immediately and run a hundred meters forward to assemble a weapon. I did not complete the course. That compulsory basic military training for everyone could go hang itself. 

            The man has a pistol at his waist, sitting slanted towards his right arm in a leather pouch. It’s a beautiful thing with silver lining and looks like a trophy. He has tied his army trousers and his brown leather belt right above his big stomach holding the trousers up and straight. He wears a red cap, but I can tell that his whole head is shaven off like most high ranked government soldiers.

            The driver gets out of the vehicle and leans against it looking my way first then elsewhere. He is a young man, with shyness in his eyes. He looks around at the scanty green that surrounds my house. His eyes settle on the orchard a little distance from the house. The others, probably lower ranked soldiers, hold huge AK47 guns under their arms. They stand behind their boss. They never look away. Their unrivalled attention on me gets me more uncomfortable. I tell myself, keep calm. It’s not what you think. They can’t possibly...

The lieutenant takes a red sportsman’s cigarette packet from his pocket. He tears the silver lining off, takes out one cigarette, parts his mouth lightly and fixes a cigarette in. He turns his head around as if to study the place and starts the lighter with his thumb. A fire springs up from his lighter, burns briefly and coils shyly back inside. The man smokes his cigarette, raises his head up and puffs the smoke up in the air. When he speaks, his Swahili is almost as good as the kind spoken in Tanzania.   

“We come in good faith,” he says and smokes his cigarette again.

His voice is deep and sounds trained, sort of like those lads who go to Catholic boarding schools. His words fall one after the other. I can imagine him standing in the army barracks, pulling hairs off new recruits in the barracks, still sounding terribly cultured. 

            “We mean no trouble.”

            I nod once. My body tingles, but its one tingle I can’t scratch even if I tried to. I hold my hands together and squeeze them, reminding myself it is nothing.

            “You know, some funny characters have been causing quite a bit of trouble, don’t you think?”

            I nod twice and fix my eyes on his boots. They scare me with their bright shine. I look at my own hands. My heart promises to pop out of my chest. It pumps so loud that I cover one hand upon my heart and try to control it. My hand trembles over my blouse. It begs to be brought down. I bring it down quickly and hold a fist to keep calm.

            “Where is your husband?” He blinks rapidly. The cultured tone is gone.


            “Where is your husband?”

            My initial surprise wads off a little. I hurry to respond before he even finishes his sentence again.

            “I don’t know,” I say.

            “Oh, oh, not like that, not that tone, we mean NO harm,” he says like a conman.

He almost fools me into a reassuring moment that is as slim as a sesame pod. He nods his head up, down and signals his men something. I don’t know what it means. He laughs as the men dash into my house. He starts to whistle a tune. His lips pull forward. He nods his head to the beat of his whistle. I turn to look where the men have gone. Things are being flung outside. Saucepans drop. A few cloths drop lightly. Something falls even louder. It’s my radio. It cracks revealing an interior of ugly red and green wires. The men in the house are busy. Things heap up one upon the other outside my doorstep. The lieutenant comes to me.

            “You see, cooperation, cooperation,” he says.

            I nod.

            “Now, where is your husband?”

            My voice threatens to break into a sob. I look helplessly at Piloya whose face spills with utter terror.

            “Where is your husband?” he spits again. His eyes protrude like a frog’s. I coil and draw back as he comes forward. I almost fall to the ground in my hasty retreat. Father Lagoro’s drum beats again reminding us of mass tomorrow. A dog barks from a distance. The sun burns upon my skin like a flame. Sweat forms around my mouth. I clean it off and gesture to Piloya that she is to sit on the verandah. She resists. I push her too hard. She falls down and bruises her knees. My anger shocks me.

            “Hey, what has the little girl done?”

Mwaka’s clothes are flung out of the suitcase and scattered around. My eyes pick out the yellow suit that I buried my face into as I wept last night. One man gets into the kitchen. I avoid looking at the old house where Mwaka is hidden. It’s falling down, it will not catch their attention surely. Don’t you think?

            A man comes back. He shouts something. I look. He holds on the tip of a short stick, a blackened remnant of Mwaka’s uniform from my fireplace. The lieutenant motions with his head, a tight smile presses on his face. One of the men grabs Piloya. They take her to the lieutenant. Piloya struggles to break loose. She starts to cry softly.

            “Ma, Ma...”

            “Now,” the lieutenant says, “where is your husband?”

            I stand and look on. It’s all I can do. 

            “Where is your husband?”

            “Umm… they took him, two years ago…” I struggle to say. I stop. I start again and   stammer. The words are lost.

            “What is it?”

He draws closer and grabs my chin up. He fixes his hand just under it. The old house attracts the other men. They approach it and kick at the door. The weak hinges give way. The wooden door falls flat on the ground. They crash inside. Piloya rushes to me and clings to my hand. I look to the old house.  Sounds of a struggle come through.

            “Atim ango?” I shout out. 

            Mwaka is hunted from the boxes and dragged towards the center to the compound. He looks ridiculous in the dress. The army boss says something about hiding himself pretending to be a woman. Two men hold Mwaka’s hands. They pull the rest of his body on the soil. He winches his face with pain. I feel dizzy. I cover my palms upon my eyes till I can’t conjure any flickers of light. The kicks start. Kicks, kicks and kicks. The smell of fresh blood rises to my nose. The kicking does not stop.  Mwaka says nothing. Just moans softly, sometimes loudly.

I try to gather strength. I want to run and do something. My feet refuse to move. I fall to the ground. I chant to the Virgin Mary. My chant is not loud. It spits inside my head, trying to rise beyond the sounds of kicks.

            “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus…”

            They ask Mwaka questions. Where are the rest of them? Where is the stock of ammunition? Where is the next planned attack?

“Go FUCK whoever sent you!” Mwaka shouts.

            They kick him more. Mwaka’s cries get higher and sharper. My daughter clings harder to my hands.  Father Lagoro’s worship drum beats its melancholic refrain reminding us again we should not miss mass tomorrow. Piloya springs from my grips. She rushes forward.

            “Pa, pa, where are you taking pa? Leave my Pa alone!”

            One kick. She falls down. Piloya moans softly. The earth welcomes her silenced cries and lets her lie still. Her large lilac skirt spreads upon the earth around her, so pure, so calm.

            The kicks stop after a while. I hear a faint sound from Mwaka, then everything goes dead. Terrible chills sit upon me.

            I start to crawl towards Piloya. I take a quick glance towards the mango tree. I notice something. Two hands knotted behind a back and a frozen stare, curled over a rock plate of bulged eyes. The figure is almost too peaceful to touch. It hangs on the mango tree. It is the new branch grafted to the tree with a sisal rope around its neck like an offering to the sun, to scorch, to ripen and to rot. Mwaka does not swing with the powerful afternoon wind draft. Thirty-three. That is his age. All he is. A number scribbled on a page, a vocal parting of lips, as light as a hair strand. I watch him. My defeated warrior hangs like strange fruit, waiting to be plucked. 

I resume my crawl towards Piloya. Two hands pull me back by my legs. I bruise my kneels badly, but I struggle still to crawl on towards my daughter.

I am grabbed again. I dig my nails into the soil.  I scratch at the earth till blood soaks underneath my broken fingernails. The veins in my head strain. It feels like I can explode anytime. My breath heats up into a pant. I fight to let some air in my lungs. The lieutenant leans upon the Land Rover smoking his cigarette with a disinterested stare like a lioness leaving a carcass for her cubs after a kill. About six men surround me. They shout things I can’t hear. I have to get to my daughter. Where she is, lies the melody whose tune I can hum. 

One man holds me down. His hands look weak, but he puts my hands together and holds my two wrists in one grip. His other hand separates my thighs. I kick about trying to fight. My hands turn me into a tiger. I scratch. I don’t get anywhere. I am scratching air.

His zip goes down. His pants let go of his body. The power in me starts to fade. His grip is as strong as a waterfall. My back is planted to the ground. Gashes of current shifts rush through my head. The world spins. I spin with it, like a whirlwind. My cotton fabric is ripped off. My nakedness is revealed. The man lies on top of me. I close my eyes. The action starts and gradually heightens. It eats away at me bit by bit like snake venom. I take my lower lip between my teeth. I bite till I taste blood and feel it flood my mouth. In the background there are cheers. “Go go go…”

            The world is empty. The sounds of the birds and the barking of the dogs seem muffled. Anguish. My cry is too weak to travel beyond any brick wall. It is too frail to hustle its way through the mud houses in the distance, whose pale corrugated iron sheets reflect the fading sun with mild interest.  My muted voice hangs loose like a funeral tune. It holds in a fragile moment. The action is untouched. Like a bush fire, it burns without hesitation. My eyes open and look up the mango tree where Mwaka hangs. I can’t bear the sight of him. I shift my eyes to the leaves.  The green overwhelms me with its enormous stretch. I start to drift away like a canoe. I am powerless against the waves sailing me.

“ Aii aiii aiii.”

I am an end giving birth to another end. I don’t realize it when the weight above me is lifted. It does not matter. I am already too heavy to fight the stormy seas. I am sinking. There is a kick to my thigh and a command, “Lets get lost”. 

I hear laughter. It mounts the great Kilimanjaro and withers its grandeur. Movement around me becomes faint. Sounds of gumboots thudding upon the earth draw away. Sounds of feet jumping and stepping onto the back of the Land Rover come through. There is a long ring of laughter again as the vehicle starts. It spits gravel and raises dust, which floods the compound. It is quiet for a while.Then the cry of a lone openo bird pierces through.

            “Cu cu cu.”

            Piloya’s voice also comes through.

            “Ma, Ma...”

The lingering filth in my depth is stronger than death. I struggle to keep my eyes open. I seal layer upon layer of restraint over my emotions, till they are tighter than a hymen. I am sprawled over this very earth Piloya took her first footsteps upon. The red earth has blended with my naked thighs. My breasts point up to the heavens like two small anthills. The sun sheds a gloomy light. It is dull and shifts the hours slowly. I hang to the hem of sanity like an antelope in a snare. I remind myself; my name is Lakidi Sofia. I am stone.  I am warmth. I am sky.






Born in 1979, Monica Arac de Nyeko comes from Kitgum district in Northern Uganda. She is a member of The Uganda Women Writers Association (FEMRITE) and the chief Editor of T:AP Voices. She taught literature and English at St Mary’s College Kisubi before proceeding to pursue a Master in Humanitarian Assistance at the University of Groningen. Her personal essay In the Stars won a first prize in the Women’s World, Women in War Zones essay writing competition. She has been published in Memories of Sun, The Nation, IS magazine and Poetry International and several other publications.  Her novella The Last Dance is forthcoming with Fountain Publishers.


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