I am drowning again. I am a swamp yam squelch-squelching in the marsh, searching desperately for some life out of the filth. I am swelling and sinking and my thrashing around in panic does not help. My skin is tight and hard and I am about to burst. I gasp for air and suck in the filth and I am choking. I am sucked further into the mud. My thoughts are sinking with me. This is it. This is the day I die. I am calm as I prepare myself, but just as I am about to give up, Bena’s sweet voice stops me.
“Don’t give up Clever. Keep swimming. You have to keep swimming.”
I hold my breath and heave my body upward. I choke, cough, open my eyes and sit up to find my mattress soaked. I jump and reach for my blue work uniform that I threw at the foot of the mattress. Both T-shirt and trousers are dripping. Damn! Last night, as I collapsed onto the mattress on the floor, I convinced myself that the night rains would not come.
I snatch the small black suitcase from the top of the cupboard and stare at the clothes in there. There are brown shorts, two pairs of trousers, two T. Shirts, and a long sleeved white shirt. I pick out the black trousers and the white shirt because the other trousers have patches sewn at the knees and both the T-shirts are torn at the armpits. I cannot wear the blue work uniform today. I hang it on a corner of the open door of the cupboard, and push my feet into black wet shoes. I lock up and zigzag through the leaning houses of Kalerwe, taking care to dodge black puddles of sewage and ant hills of rubbish.
As I head to United Commercial Bank in town, I think of Bena and how she keeps saving me from the drowning dream. I know the day she doesn’t, I will die in my sleep. I shut the taxi window and watch the mist cloud it. I wipe a portion of it and stare out at the clean new morning. I wish I felt new. I wish I felt clean. I need to leave Kalerwe before her muddy waters take me to an early grave. The dreams too will stop once I move to one of those houses on Mulago hill. The ones that look like they are pouring shame at the overflowing gutters and latrines of Kalerwe, the ones that look like they have beams of sunshine coming out of them. But cleaning a glassy building all day doesn’t get you enough money to live in a house of sunshine.
There had been more work to do because the first two floors of the building got flooded when a sewage pipe in the building burst. There was no way those thick carpets would clean and dry themselves if we didn’t spend the whole day at it, as my supervisor had shouted. There had been no breaks either and not enough pairs of gloves for all of us. With bare hands, I had had to remove the carpets drenched in black water, scrub and air them in the washing area, and lay them back on the tiled floors. I had suggested that maybe we could work in turns and share the gloves, but the supervisor had laughed like a dog that suddenly found something funny to laugh about.
“So now you’re high high, eh? Go away! Most of you live in Kalerwe and I hear you’re always swimming in your latrines when it rains! At least here you’ll be touching rich people piss and shit which don’t stink as much the poor’s! If you don’t want to work, there are the doors.”
None of us had dared to walk through them. We had all waited for six o’clock, after cleaning every inch of tile in the building.
That day, the doors of the last red bus had closed just as I reached the stage. I had watched in despair as it pulled out of the stage like a fat red caterpillar. The fare is one thousand shillings and if you don’t get in early you have to stand in the human- jammed corridor all the way. Still it’s better than paying two thousand shillings in a taxi. The way those taxi drivers hike prices you would think none of them lives deep in Kalerwe or Kamwokya. I walked past the taxis as if they were not there and began my two hour walk home.
Today the City Clock reads 06:20 when I get into town. The street to the building where I work is almost empty except for the lame beggar who sits at the corner farthest from the main entrance of the building. He is staring at the blue plastic saucer in front of him. I head for the side entrance and find the other cleaners waiting for the glass doors to open. The two askaris on the inside punch in things on the computer and the two doors come apart. Bagala looks at me, laughs, and shakes his head,
“In which choir is this guy? Has he come to work or what?”
About twenty eyes turn to look at me. I also turn and look behind like I am trying to see who he is talking about. I don’t like Bagala. He thinks he’s better than the rest of us because the Marketing Manager of United Commercial Bank is a cousin of his cousin. He stays in his boys’ quarters in Muyenga. The other reason he has airs is because of his two hundred and fifty thousand shillings Huawei smart phone on which he plays music videos to impress girls. We don’t even earn that amount in a month. People say his ‘O’ Level Certificate belongs to Michael Bagala yet he is Chris Bagala.
I pass through the metal detector without saying a thing to him. Later, I am scrubbing the toilets on the third floor when my supervisor bursts through the swinging doors. She peers at me, and her thick round glasses almost slide off her tiny nose.
“Why are you not in uniform, Clever?” Bagala comes in after her.
“It got wet. The rain …”
“You mean you washed it and left it out on the lines? So what did you think you would wear today?”
“I didn’t wash it, or leave it outside … I … the water …”
Bagala snorts, “Don’t you know these Kalerwe chaps! Every time it rains, their houses become swimming pools!”
“Is that what happened, Clever?”
“Eh! So is this how I should explain your shabbiness when the Bank Manager asks me?”
I know I look smart but I don’t tell her that. Instead I tell her that I am sorry and that it will not happen again. I can see that Bagala is chocking with laughter. When they leave I pour more Vim in the sink and scrub vigorously. My reflection gleams back at me through the silver taps. When I open them the clear stream washes away the milky Vim. I let the clean water run over my hands long after the sink is clean. I feel calm. This is the kind of water I like; I can control its coming and going with a flick of my wrist. I lock the door from inside and enter one of the toilets. I sit, sigh, and go about my morning ritual. I have been doing it since I came to work here because I couldn’t bring myself to enter those shallow latrines around home. There are no maggots here. There’s no urine or shit on the floor. I wish this was my toilet.
When lunch time comes I rush to the first floor to get people’s food orders. They are usually too busy typing things into their computers. They tell me what they want and I go to different restaurants to buy it. They give me five hundred shillings or more as my transport. Sometimes I make up to ten thousand shillings from transport.
I go to Bena’s desk first. Her smile switches my heart to a run and her figure makes me wonder at God’s perfection. She never talks down to me like her workmates. She is kind and always tells me to keep the change. Maybe today is the day I will tell her how I feel. She is sliding things on her smart phone when I get there. She looks up but there’s no smile on her face.
“Hi Clever, I don’t think I will have lunch today.”
“Why Bena? Are you making a figure?” I don’t add that she already has a perfect one.
“But Clever! Not that! I am fasting! We need to pray for Uganda. I hear the first Ebola case has been reported in Kalerwe.”
“What! I thought it was still in Nigeria!”
“Well it has spread here. Maybe you should fast too, and pray for the poor souls of Kalerwe.”
I don’t tell her that I fast most days since I only eat lunch every other day to save money for a diploma in catering. I don’t tell her that I am one of the poor souls of Kalerwe.
This will not be the day I tell her that I love her. This will not be the day that I tell her of the dreams I have for her and me. The dreams that bring happy tears to my eyes, the other kind of water that I like, the kind that makes my heart float like a balloon.
Lillian Akampurira Aujo is a Ugandan writer. She is a winner of the inaugural BNPA Award and this year, won the inaugural Jalada Award for her story: Where Pumpkin Leaves Dwell.
Aujo is currently undergoing mentorship under the Writvism mentorship programme where this story was submitted.
For more on the 2015 Writivism Festival: http://writivism.com/
I don’t know enough adjectives to describe this piece. All I know is, for the few minutes I was reading this I lived in Kalerwe and I was living Clever’s life. Great work Lillian.
10 minutes well spent here.