To get to the rows and rows of high-rise apartments that make up Bugolobi Estates where we live, you’ll have to climb a small hill up from a little market called Middle East. There are small shops and a few stalls, but it has all the trappings of an East African market. The array of brightly colored fresh fruits and vegetables are heaped up in sets of triangles, all priced but open to haggling. Some market vendors have stalls to put their goods on. Others lay gurney sacks on dirt floors and pile up their tomatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava, nduma root, spinach, ntula, oranges, yellow and red mangoes, papaya, pineapples, jackfruit, boo and four or five different types of banana.
It is January 1986. Mum is subletting this Bugolobi apartment from an uncle who has told her that she can live there as long as she doesn’t mind sharing the space with her second cousin, Kasongo, and making him one meal a day. Kasongo sleeps during the day, only waking up at night to go drinking in Middle East. He seems to have no money, no job, and doesn’t speak much to us. Mum thinks that he probably has a girlfriend who supports him, maybe a barmaid who lets him sweep up the bar after closing. Or maybe he’s a bouncer of sorts; one who watches the men who watch the girls who watch that the patrons pay up before they are too intoxicated to remember to pay for their drinks. Kasongo is a tall thin figure with unkempt hair and the shakes in his hands with faint smell of waragi, a local spirit, wafting about him. He makes us feel as though we have invaded his space. Mum says to ignore him. We won’t be living here forever.
But Mum is not here. We’re expecting her back from Nairobi shortly. She’s been making trips to there to see if she can get some money from the publishers of our father’s books to pay school fees for all five of us in high school, but they keep postponing the meetings. They keep putting her off. But Mum keeps going back. She is feisty and strong willed, and has yet to take no for an answer. This sun will fall and another will rise tomorrow, she says on days when things haven’t gone well. There’s always another day, she means.
When you are a teenager in Kampala, your needs are more immediate than school fees, housing, chores and grocery. You resent that Bugolobi is far out, away from the city center -- and nightclubs like Chez Jose where everyone and everything pulsates with the rhythms from the best of East Africa. Chez is the place to be and be seen. It’s almost the end of January. Christmas holidays are almost finished and you are looking forward to returning to boarding school. Your siblings bug you. If you have a squalling little brother and most of the time you are obligated to stay at home and baby-sit instead of being out there, strutting your stuff, checking things out.
Mum bursts in through the door. We are excited to see her. There are always Cadbury’s Fruits and Nuts Chocolate from Nairobi. Mum usually returns with tales from her journey. She’s an observant people watcher and an excellent storyteller. But toady, she’s not herself.
“Not now! Not now! Are you guys all here? Come here! Jane, write this down! We need charcoal, matches, rice, beans, potatoes and powder milk. Hurry up!”
Our mother does not bark orders. Whatever has happened?
“I’ll tell you when you come back. Go to Middle East. Buy a whole sack of charcoal and as much beans and rice as you can carry. Hurry up! Don’t forget matches!”
That is an odd shopping list. No laundry soap. No nyanya money. The emphasis on matches, charcoal and dry food -- it sounds odd. She hands me a wad of money.
“Can you start filling up the jerry cans with water?”
Something is going on. Mum sounds desperate. I set the jerry can in the bathtub to fill and we leave her and my baby brother in the house while we set out to market. It is a sunny day in Kampala, the sky is a light powder blue. There is a cacophony of birds in the trees. Chickens run about, pecking and scratching at the dirt. Things seem normal. It is the walk up, laden with shopping that we’ll have to contend with. We laugh. We chat. We wonder what’s going on with Mum. She’s never desperate.
In the Middle East, there’s a little more excitement than usual. We see soldiers milling about. Soldiers don’t usually mingle so freely with civilians. But these ones don’t seem threatening. They are happy. We hear greetings being bantered about. This is a new one. “Banyanya baaffe!” “Baaffe!”
The new greeting is everywhere. NRA Oyee! We hear it over and over, and prepare ourselves for it.
“Banyanya Baaffe!” Death to the anyanyas! “Baaffe!” Death to them!
Banyanya is the umbrella name that is given to people from northern Uganda.
“NRA Oyee!” Yeah! To NRA!
NRA is the National Resistance Army of the rebel group led by Museveni.
“Museveni atuuse!” He’s here.
It seems as though Middle East is celebrating a coup d’etat that has taken place seemingly without a shot.
“NRA Oyee!” We must respond. We must be seen to respond. We hold out both hands in a fist.
“NRA Oyee!” “Banyanya Baafe!”
To see us, you’d never know. We from northern Uganda are characteristically, very tall, very dark and very slender. We are too arrogant to learn to speak Luganda or any other local language, except Swahili, which, they say we speak with a characteristically bad accent. We northerners are the illiterate and red-hearted Sudanese killers who fought in support of Idi Amin when he overthrew Obote’s government in 1971.
In my family we are not so tall. My sisters are a tawny shade brown. I’m the color of black coffee, but my body does not belong to the north. We speak the Luganda quite fluently. My sisters and I have the typical bodies of the southern women – big-bottomed and big-breasted. We are from northern Uganda. Baafe! Death to us, we respond. We are the ones to whom we send death.
Mum’s words echo back into our mind: a sack of charcoal, matches, rice, beans, potatoes and powder milk. She knew. A soldier approaches us. His AK47 hangs casually from his shoulder, but he hangs on to the leather strap. “Jaangu! Come!”
We give him the two fisted salute. “NRA Oyee!” Our faces are in a grimaced smile to reflect the joy in the air. “Jaangu wano!” Come here!
This soldier is unlike the government soldiers that we are used to. He does not appear to have been drinking or smoking miraa, or marijuana. The whites of his eyes glimmer with excitement.
“Oyagala kyi?” What do you want? “Tewali, Sseebo.” Nothing, Sir.
He takes me by the arm and takes me to a shop with my sisters following meekly. The hand on my arm is not rough or hard. This man is gentle. “Oli-otya, Sseebo. Good morning, Sir. My sisters here need to do a little shopping. Tell him what you want,” he says turning to me.
I rattle off my mother’s requests. The soldier calls a child and sends him deeper into the market. He sends the child for a sack of charcoal. The boy is about ten years old. He scampers off.
“How much?” My sister asks the shopkeeper.
“Nothing for you, my sister. We are in power now. NRA Oyee!”
My eye catches the eye of the shopkeeper and he lowers his eyes. He won’t say much. Perhaps he has heard us speaking in Acholi before. The Middle East is a hub of languages. Perhaps he is mistaken. Maybe we really are from the south. “Weebale, Sseebo. Weebale nyo. Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.”
He will never know from my accent. After all, my boarding school is in the heart of Buganda, and our parents have always insisted that we learn to speak the language of the locals everywhere we have lived. In our house, Swahili shares an equal space with English, Acholi, Luo, Luganda, and a smattering of Yoruba. Over time, all our languages have coalesced into a homegrown pidgin. But right now, our secret is in our blood and in our heritage. Our bodies lie, and our tongues support the death wish. Banyanya baafe! Death to the anyanya!
As our grocery materializes, we hear gunshots coming from the city center. They seem to be getting louder. We hasten our steps as we climb the hill back home. The idyllic path we walked down now seems like a façade that we imagined. Never mind the skies. Never mind the Jacaranda and Acacia trees. The red dust seems to have powdered everything in sight. The flowers are embarrassed. The chickens are gone, and the air is stealthily quiet. Everything is holding its breath.
As soon as we enter the house, Mum bolts the door behind us.
“Are you alright?”
She wears an anxiety on her face that is foreign to us.
“We are fine,” I answer.
“Did you get everything?”
My little sister jumps in: “Do you know what they are saying in Middle East? Banyanya baaffe! And you have to answer baaffe!”
Mum ignores her.
“Right at the border they kept saying that Museveni was on his way to Kampala. Everyone was saying that Kampala was about to fall. I knew there was trouble when I came. That’s why I rushed you guys to the market.”
That day, January 25, 1986 is the fifteenth anniversary of Idi Amin’s overthrow of Obote’s government. January 25th 1986 had begun as another nondescript day in the most boring neighborhood in our side of the tropics.
“I know it wasn’t on radio,” said Mum. “But everyone on the way knew. I had to rush back to you guys and make sure that we got enough things for the house. I don’t know how long this will last.”
The anxiety was back. In my teenage mind, if the government is overthrown, what is there to be anxious about? We are not politicians. We are not highly placed. Mum is a widow, working as a nurse in a government hospital. We are only kids. Then the gunshots begin in earnest.
The gunshots arrive like a symphony. At first, the popcorn of the machine guns is distant. They do not sound terribly threatening. Then the volume rises, and other guns enter into the foray. There are the sycophantic AK47s that have no rhythm or reason. The deadly the rocket-propelled grenades from the barracks behind our high-rise startle us. We are caught between with the guns from Kampala coming closer and closer and the bombs ones behind us.
A bullet comes in through an open window in the living room.
“Quick! Under the beds!”
We rush to our rooms with our hand covering our heads as if they are bullet proof. We hold our breaths as if our breaths could betray us. Our bodies haven’t yet. Not just yet. There are a few lulls, but never enough for any relief. The guns promise to be back in the next moment, and they do.
We don’t think about lunch, tea or dinner. Our only bother is that we stay alive. No cooking, no cleaning, no eating, no Kasongo, no chatting, no toilet. There is the occasional squeal and my mother’s desperate shhh, when my brother fusses, but the five-month old baby knows to be quiet when the big bombs whistle in the air then shake the ground right outside the window.
When the NRA soldiers consequently run the former government soldiers north of the country and ultimately to their death, surrender, or exile into Sudan, they will sin songs of victory, naming the sound and power of their guns after the towns the focused on taking. Gulu, gulu, gulu, gulu, gulu!
The alliteration of my hometown, is the sound of the rapid machine guns. KITGUM! The other major Acholi town, names the big bombs. That night, the guns shots rain over us; guns named after our towns; guns intended for us. We mouth Hail Mary’s. We mouth Our Father, Glory be, and the Serenity Prayer. At nightfall, Mum had crawls over to our room and we all lay on the floor together.
“We die together,” she says.
The radio’s volume is very low as we try to listen to what the BBC was reporting about the situation. Our own radio station has a soldier calling for calm, asking that there be no looting. Looters will be shot on sight. There is nothing to be afraid of, Radio Uganda says. Yoweri Museveni is in charge now. He has liberated the country from corruption. This is a new era. Radio Uganda appeals for calm, but the gunshots over the skies do not inspire peace in us.
“We shall find them!”
“We shall kill them!”
“They are all biological substances who deserve to die!”
“And even if it means we kill all of them until there are only three, we shall find them all.”
We were the ‘they,’ we were the ‘them.’ We hear top political leaders make these declarations on radio against us, the Acholi people. But for now, we are not yet biological substances. We have not been identified as the anyanya, who deserve to die. Screams come from the slums in the night. That sun sets.
The next day the sun comes out like a pretend day. Our building that shook all night is still standing. Some windows are broken, but the birds refuse to sing, the chickens stay indoors, and the colours about are all muted. It seems like if you actually go back to sleep you might wake up and find out that it was all a bad dream. Mum is in the kitchen trying to light the charcoal stove. Mum knew to fill jerry-cans with water, to stock up on food that will not require refrigeration. She knew that matches will soon be in short supply, as shopkeepers keep their stores closed, in celebration, for safety from the looters, in order to artificially raise all prices when things go bad. In the meantime, she blows into the stove, stoking the fire to burn the charcoal, so that we can have a breakfast of boiled sweet potatoes and tea.
There’s a knock at the door. A key turns the lock. Mum goes to the door and asks softly, in Swahili: “Ni Nani?” Who is it?
She unlocks the latch. Kasongo slips in and nods before joining on the kitchen floor. Gunshots are a constant backdrop. No-one dares sit on chairs or walk up straight. Not even in the house.
“They are neck-lacing us in the slum.”
The Acholi have lived amongst their fellow Ugandans in the slum for as far back as we can remember. Now they are being singled out and neck laced. Car tires are thrown over a person and set to fire. Neck-lacing, like they do in South Africa. The rubber from car tires burn fiercely and completely into a pile of ash. Ugandans are warm people with easy smiles. They are also fast learners.
Kasongo survives the same way we do but it isn’t his height or the tone of his skin that saves him. Kasongo is a harmless alcoholic, a chameleon who speaks all languages and looks like every one’s slow uncle. He fits everywhere.
“We were worried about you.”
“I’m alright, but you people have to leave. You have to leave as soon as you can. You can’t stay here much longer.” This is the longest sentence Kasongo ever utters to us. His warnings are reiterated by the warfare outside. A bomb sounds like KITGUM and falls in two distinct syllables: KIT then GUM!!! GUM!!!! It comes with a stillness that holds on to your heart. After, adrenaline seizes your whole body into a series or heartbeats like tremors that has us shaking like the tremors in Kasongo’s hands. Our nerves are shot.
We stay at home all day January 26th. On radio, the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in America.
On the 27th, we venture out for the first time. We greet those few people who’ve dared out as we have. “Ogamba chi?”
The language is now Kinyankole, the language of Mr. Museveni.
“How are you?” “Burungi.” Fine.
How else can you present yourself? We are alive, we are fine. We walk.
At one place we came across a pile of ash. The dark ash blackens the asphalt on the sidewalk. People ahead of us are walking over it with confidence. We walk, as they do. What does it matter? What does it matter that the pile of ashes might have been one of us, just last night?
Behind us, two women are talking.
“Look at how they walk. Look at them. They shake their asses as if they are not killers.”
The two women behind us are speaking softly in Acholi. They do not know that we are one of them. We hold our tongues as the women deride our walks and our looks. Our bodies keep their secret. We walk home in silence. We walk back home. Truly we have been liberated.