Slum Girl Best In PLE
That is the headline that made my father want me for the first time in my life. He and several private schools that wanted to give me bursaries to increase their chances of ever appearing among the top-performing schools in the country.
I was not exactly a slum girl as the headline screamed but I could see Gasiya, Kampala’s biggest slum, from the veranda of our house. On rainy days, we, the children that lived on Gasiya’s fringe, laid down our garbage in the gutters that separated our houses and watched it float and weave its way down through the slum. On hot days I watched the Gasiya children take off their clothes and run around playing in puddles of mud, their sweaty, unbothered mothers swathed in lesos and nothing else. On such days, a thick, dusty air steaming of faeces, fermented sorghum and despair rose up and spread to the rest of us on the slum’s fringe and convinced us that we were no different from the Gasiya children. I was seated on the veranda of our house, trying to endure the heat, when a man who said he was a journalist told me he was there to interview me. I was among the best in our primary national exams and mine was the story that would inspire many more. The headmaster of my school had led them to my home. Up until that moment I had no idea the headmaster knew me or where I stayed. He took charge of the photo-shoot that ensued, clutching my hand firmly and asking me to smile while he heartily said, “Congratulations!” for each photo angle over and over again.
My face was splashed on the front page the next morning and my father, who had ignored me all my life, summoned his sister and placed the photos that my mother had left him next to the one in the newspapers and asked her to tell him he was not imagining things. She confirmed that he was not imagining things and he ordered her to find me immediately and quietly.
In the days that followed I met my aunt Merab and I found out that I was indeed the daughter of the Minister of Health.
“There was no way he could have denied you forever,” she said as she examined my face, “You children that are born outside have a way of clutching onto looks in such a defiant manner! Look at Boaz’s nose right in the middle of your face! I could tell that nose anywhere!”
It was at that time that I saw a light in my mother’s eyes that I had never seen before. My mother, whose eyes had been dulled by alcohol and rejection and who took no interest in anything around her for more than a minute, suddenly became giddy and punctuated all her sentences with nervous laughs. The day we were fetched to go and meet my father, she ironed her dress seven times, telling herself each time that another press would make it look better. She checked herself in the mirror when she could spare some attention from her dress and fussed over her neck.
“My neck isn’t what it used to be. It gives away my age, doesn’t it?”
She threw another scarf around her neck and asked if it went well with her dress.
“It has been very hot of late. Maybe a scarf is not such a good idea?”
“Yii yii kale I wish I had bought that eye cream Maama Boy told me about last month. See these lines around my eyes. Do they show too much?”
“Maama, this man left the moment you said you were pregnant. I don’t even see why we should go see him. He thinks he can just summon us and our lives will stop?”
I finally had her attention.
“Don’t talk about your father like that, Grace!” she shouted. “I only said those things because I was angry but he is a good man. He has finally come to his senses!”
When Nightingale met Boaz at Makerere University in her third year in the early 80s, he was everything nobody would find attractive. Unless one was into fat, short, fidgety men whose Ls and Rs got mixed up as the words rolled off their tongues. Nightingale never understood why those people never practiced English often enough to get rid of all those mother tongue interferences.
One afternoon as she lay on her bed, reading a compilation of Shakespearean plays for one of her classes that semester, she heard a faint knock on the door. On opening, a fat, short, fidgety man greeted her. “Night, I don’t suppose you remember me but my friend introduced me to you after the debate in the main hall yesterday.” Nightingale tried to remember him but couldn’t. There had been many people to greet after what had turned out to be a heated debate. Most of their lecturers had fled when intellectuals were persecuted and killed and the few students that stayed at the university campus staged debates to keep themselves occupied and to feel like they were part of the bigger shift that was taking place in their country. At their last debate, Nightingale talked passionately about rights of the girl child. She was the only woman that spoke for the cause and was miserably assisted by two men. The other women in the audience were just grateful that their parents had let them see what relationship a chalk and blackboard had and hadn’t married them off in their teens. They knew better than to ask for more. What more could be given anyway? They sat at the back of the hall and watched Nightingale Katende, the Literature major, argue that women could do more than the secretarial jobs they were being given in offices.
Boaz Byamugisha, like most male students in the hall, watched Nightingale with keen interest. She came from a well-to-do family where no doubt, her free-spiritedness had been encouraged. She spoke eloquently and confidently. Boaz’s roommate in Northcote had played football with her brother while they were still young boys and when he voiced his interest in her, the roommate offered to do the introduction.
As Boaz stood at her door, he knew she could not remember him and he wanted to kick himself for it. Surprisingly, she let him in and he told her the winding story about his roommate and her brother by way of introduction.
“I have been watching you for a while at the hall and you speak really well,” he said to redeem himself.
No one could explain why Nightingale did not ignore Boaz until he showed himself out the door, like she had done other men or why she never rolled her eyes at him for calling her Night or why she was seen shyly smiling at him and visiting him in Northcote three weeks later. The fat, short, engineering student was not that fidgety anymore and charmed Nightingale with how he never tired of listening to her arguments.
Six months later, a few weeks before the end of her last semester at University, she could not explain her excitement when she missed her period. Of course most girls would be devastated but she and Boaz were in love and if tribal differences would stand in the way of their marriage, a baby would do well to convince her parents.
After she got confirmation from the university doctor, she waited outside Boaz’s room to tell him the good news. He was beaming when he saw her and told her he had amazing news to share with her as well. She excitedly told him about their baby and his face fell.
“We can’t have a baby, Night. Not now. I have been granted a scholarship to the school of engineering in the UK and I leave in three months. I can’t have a child now,” he explained. He paced the room as he explained how his parents back in Kihihi would be disappointed if they learnt what she had just told him. He could not even bring himself to repeat what she had said. Night patiently told herself that he would get over the shock and they would be able to plan for the baby. She would give him time to absorb the news.
The night she left Boaz’s room after their big announcements was the last time she saw him. Until five years later, when she caught a glimpse of him in a Pajero double cabin with government number plates as she crossed the Kampala Road with their daughter.
When my mother’s sister told me about my mother’s past, it was hard for me to think of her that way; fierce, fighting and leading. She worked at some women’s NGO and even with that, I could never say that I had seen her fight for any one.
Then the man whose disappearance in her life had made her eyes dull with alcohol summoned us and my mother was giddy and conscious about her neck. He was no longer “that man” but “your father”.
She knew where his offices were of course. She had newspaper clippings of the man and she had followed his career with the keenness of a political rival. She had been to his office several times but he was always out of the country, or sick, or on leave or in a meeting or just unavailable but, “Could we please take a message for him?” The message was always the same, “Nightingale needs to talk” and she left him several photos of me. She had enough pride not to leave a desperate message but her hope for their failed relationship kept her going back. With each trip to his office she plunged further and further into despair awash in any alcohol she could get her hands on.
Thanks to a newspaper headline, my father was finally interested. Interested enough to give us a fully furnished house away from Gasiya, a monthly allowance to make sure we did not want for anything and a call to a friend that ensured I went to the best school in the country that I had never applied to in the first place.
He told us he had a family, his oldest daughter was a year younger than me and that we would be taken care of as long as we would stay invisible. That was easy for me to agree to but not so for my mother who took to the bottle with more zeal after yet more rejection from Boaz.
“He once told me I was the most brilliant person he had ever seen. Don’t get so used to his awe at your performance. When he gets over it, he will discard you the way he did me,” she warned me one drunken evening, livid that I had my father’s attention and she did not.
“Why do men always choose the stupid woman?” My mother asks me when I get home from work.
“Seriously what’s with that? Is it just the desire to have a woman who will never question any of their stupid decisions?”
I can tell from the way she is smiling that she has only been drinking for a short while. I can also tell that given a few more swigs, that smile will change to a snarl.
“Your father must be wishing he had married the one with brains.”
I glance at where she is seated and there on the table, is a half-full bottle of Bond 7 and next to it, a quarter-full glass of the stuff. She is not drinking from the bottle yet but I know I will be talking to the whiskey soon.
“Why would he?”
“Because, my dear child who lives under a rock, your father was arrested for mismanaging funds that were meant for some kids’ drugs.”
I reach for the newspaper next to her and there are six pages dedicated to his properties and pictures of his wife with her cars, bags, shoe racks, perfumes and all the things that make the insanely rich happy. Pictures of her and her friends at uptown bars and restaurants “spending tax payers’ money” as the caption puts it.
“Did that woman really have to gloat about their vacations and properties to everybody that could hear? Stupid woman. Serves them right!”
My mother throws her head back and laughs uncontrollably. The contents of her glass spill into her seat. I know her well enough to know that she will soon be sobbing uncontrollably while hurling all her seasoned insults at the man. This is my cue to leave.
This also seems like a great moment to call Chris even though we agreed that I would never call on evenings he spent with his wife. We spent last weekend out of town together and to allay his guilt, he has spent most of the week’s evenings with his wife.
I fish for my phone out of my bag when I get to my car and crossing my fingers, I send a text.
I am pleasantly surprised.
“Hotel Bougainvillea. Will be there in 30.”
“Race you there? Will be there in 20.”
Chris says he cannot stand his wife’s friends who she always invites over to their home for one thing or another.
“It’s movie night today. I was actually wishing we had made plans when your text came.” He steals a kiss. “I must have done something right today. Shouldn’t you be at home?”
He has not met my mother even if he has asked. I have refused because I actually like this thing we have. My mother has met some of my boyfriends. All the ones I wanted to get rid of anyway. One foot into our house and she made them never want to call me again. But I like Chris and I still want him to call me.
“No. I stayed in office to finish some stuff.”
A bottle of wine later, after he has laughed long and hard about some “thug minister” that was arrested that day, Chris delves into his favourite topic.
“I am not that drunk, Chris. I am not having children with you whether you ask me when I am sober, half drunk, sloshed or horny.”
A year ago, Chris and his wife, after four miscarriages, were told that they could not have children. That’s the time I met Chris; angry and grieving. Six months into our thing he asked me to have children with him. He chose every opportunity to convince me he loved me enough to want physical proof of our love; while we cuddled, while we had sex, in late night texts and he whispered his pleas while we were out in bars.
“You never tell me why? You don’t want your children to have my big head? Or do you fear that I wouldn’t take care of them?”
“My head isn’t that big.”
God! He is so infuriating when he is drunk and baby-struck.
He reaches into his pockets and pulls out a crumpled newspaper page.
“Read this article. You will see why having these children now does not only benefit me but you as well.”
Common Mistakes Women Make is the headline of the article he obviously hopes is going to win the one fight that we have had in this thing.
Most women prefer focusing on their career at the expense of starting a family early. Health experts say the ideal age for a woman to have her first child is between the ages of 24 and 28 years.
“Ha ha ha. You are out of luck, man. According to this article, my good eggs got finished two years ago.”
“Two years late isn’t so bad. But it gets worse the longer you wait.”
“I am not waiting. Waiting assumes it is something I want in future.”
“But how can you not? Every woman wants a child.”
“I guess this makes me less of a woman, doesn’t it?”
I am now getting angry at this ambush. If I had known that my booty call would end up in a more scientific take on this baby conversation, I would have endured my mother’s drunken slurs.
“Banange that is not what I said. You are every inch a woman but children would give us more purpose, they would give some meaning to why we work so hard and our love would be more concrete.”
“Our love? What love? This thing…what we have does not seem like love to me. The way I see it you are a man shopping for babies and I am sorry to say but this supermarket, the one you are in right now, does not stock the item you are looking for.”
“A supermarket that is not child friendly?” He tries to lighten the mood because I am now standing up and speaking on top of my voice.
“You really want to know why I don’t want children?”
“I am not fooled by babies.”
“I am not fooled by babies. I am not fooled by their soft, pink, wrinkly skin. Nor their tiny, chubby hands that flail like they are under the control of a puppet master. I am not fooled by their blank stares and random smiles like they have remembered something hilarious from their days in the womb. I am not fooled.”
“They are cute. But there is more to them than that,” he says, amused.
“Unlike men like you and all my girlfriends who are dying to be fulfilled by a bundle of clean clothes, Dettol and talc in their arms, their little wails never clutch at my heart and make me want to have them. Babies should never be an answer to an emotion. A solution to our inadequacy or our loss of purpose. They should never be the thing you use to make a relationship last or firmer or more meaningful and certainly someone should never be forced to have them.”
“Grace, I am not forcing you.”
“They never measure up. They are just babies. Just children. They never fill that hole that your lover did not fill the day he decided that you were not enough. Then, poor babies fail to measure up to your expectations and they are left at the fringes of that place could be capable of loving them and they have to scrape for whatever attention you can spare when you are not obsessing over your failed relationship. Why should they scrape? They never asked for it. God forbid if they look like the man you now loathe for your unrequited love. The poor things will never hear the end of the painful reminder that they are of the person that broke your heart. I am sorry Chris, but babies do not fool me.”
“Wow! Is this what they call daddy issues in the movies?” He attempts to lighten the mood again.
“Oh please! You asked why I don’t want to have children. That is why.”
Fringes was first Published on The Storymoja blog.