Safe for years in their remote Ugandan village, thirteen-year-old Alinda and her family are suddenly faced with the terror of the self-proclaimed “Last King of Scotland” when troops of his use the local highway to escape anti-Amin Ugandan and Tanzanian allied forces.
With her pregnant mother on the verge of labor, her brother anxious to join the Liberators, and a house full of hungry siblings, neighbors, and refugees, Alinda learns what it takes to endure terrible hardship, and to hope for a better tomorrow . . .
Set in the seventies during Idi Amin’s last year of rule, Waiting evokes the fear and courage of a close-knit society in a novel “full of human interplay and pungent smaller events, told with a verbal chastity reflecting both tension and dawning adult consciousness” (Booklist).
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It was Saturday evening. Tendo was perched high up on one of the inner branches of the big mango tree, which threw hazy shadows over the large compound. Its leaves trembled despite the lack of wind, and one wafted slowly down from the branch and fell before us.
"It's announcing a visitor," Kaaka said, picking up the leaf and turning it slowly over in her hand. "A visitor who comes from far away, and has no intention of returning — like the leaf."
Suddenly, a whistle rang out from the mango tree. Startled, we all looked up expectantly.
"What is it, Tendo?" Father asked sharply, nervously.
"Nothing," Tendo answered with a light laugh. "Nothing," he repeated as if we had not heard him the first time.
We were all eating our evening meal in the yard between the main house and the kitchen. Mother pushed away her plate. Kaaka turned and looked at her.
"You must finish that food," she said tersely. "You'll need energy to push out that child ... or," she paused, "to run."
"I don't like it," Mother answered, with a sigh. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and she shifted constantly from side to side, trying to find a position in which she could be comfortable. "Potatoes give me such heartburn and beans make me break wind the whole night ... !" She pulled a face.
We all laughed, except Father, who looked at her as if she had given away what he would rather have kept secret.
"It's not the food," Kaaka said. "It's because the baby you are carrying has a lot of hair. That's what is causing the heartburn."
The sound of a plate hitting the ground made us all jump.
"Tendo!" Father shouted. "What is with you today? Did you have to throw that plate? Couldn't you have climbed down with it? Is that the way you thank the people who have worked hard to prepare a meal for us?"
"But you told me not to come down, Father!" Tendo answered, defensively. "I'm supposed to ..."
"I know bloody well what you're supposed to be doing! And will you stop scaring us unnecessarily?" Father looked as if he would have hit Tendo if he'd been within reach. Maya reached over and picked up the offending enamel plate. Tendo had wiped it clean with his tongue. Maya looked at me sideways and we giggled.
"At least he has eaten his food," Kaaka said in a placatory tone. "No one seems to be eating these days. I've told you again and again, if these men come, they'll kill you unless you have enough energy to run, and run fast."
"What about you, Kaaka?" Maya asked her. "Won't you run?"
"Me?" she answered, pointing at her chest with the thumb of her right hand. "Me, I am not going to run away again. I will stay right here. At my age, what I have seen, I have seen. What I have eaten, I have eaten."
The sky was beginning to darken with gloomy gray clouds, swelling, racing, and dissolving into each other. The sun had hidden its face in fear of the angry clouds. Wind whistled through the coffee and banana plantations, and the bushes were violently shaken.
Mother had stretched out on the mat and begun to doze. Her nostrils opened and closed like the gills of a fish. The hollow at the base of her throat rose and fell rhythmically. Father sat down on the low, round stool, a small square table before him. A plate and bowl contained his half- finished food.
"Maya," Kaaka said, "collect the plates and wash them. You must get ready to leave before it starts raining.
"... What!" she added, looking at Maya's plate. "You did not eat your food either. How many times ..."
"My stomach is full, Kaaka," Maya said, lifting the blouse to expose her midriff. "I've eaten many jackfruits today. And papaws. And mangoes. And avocados. And ..."
Kaaka waved her hand to silence her.
"Okay," she said, "that's enough. Now hurry up with the plates."
The clouds were moving at a more leisurely pace and seemed undecided whether to release their waters or not. Tendo climbed down from his tree. Mother rose slowly, sighing as she did so. "Maya, bring me my sleeping things," she said. "I think it is time to go."
Father returned from the house, a panga in one hand, a blanket and a long, heavy coat in the other. He stood looking at Mother for some time. Tendo, released from his cramped position in the tree, stretched his legs and flexed his hands, as if readying himself for a fight.
"Get the spear," Father told him. Tendo did not obey, but stretched himself again, luxuriously. "Bring the one at the foot of my bed," Father added impatiently. Tendo made a face, as if to say that he had already done enough for one day.
I started collecting the things that were lying about in the yard. I put the garden tools and other sharp implements in the store and locked it — just in case they came tonight. Earlier, Father had collected the goats from the bush, and they were safely locked in their pen. Maya was running back and forth, carrying the washed plates to the main house.
Darkness was gathering. Kaaka had already gone to her house, which was to the left of the main house. Maya came out carrying Mother's sleeping things: a mat and two blankets folded together and tied with a sisal string. Father walked ahead. He had tucked the heavy coat under his arm. Tendo held the spear while I carried the sleeping blanket that I would share with Maya.
Our sleeping place was a short distance from the house on the edge of the banana plantation where smaller trees had formed a dense little forest. It was in the midst of this thicket that we had cleared the grass for laying out the mats we slept on. The banana trees shielded the thicket from view.
The people we shared the hideout with had already arrived: Nyinabarongo, Uncle Kembo (Father's younger brother), the old man, and the Lendu woman, whose husband had gone to their home country, Zaire, to catch fish that he then sold in the market. Nyinabarongo had already spread out her two mats and her child sat on one of them, eating a roasted cassava. Mother greeted her and inquired after her child.
"She's fine, thank you," Nyinabarongo answered before asking where Kaaka was. "She's tired of packing up her blankets every day and sleeping here in the cold," Mother replied.
"But suppose they come tonight?" the Lendu woman asked, concerned. She was a woman of slight frame, but with a firm and compact body. When she walked, she seemed to bounce off the ground like a ball.
"I don't blame the old woman," Mother went on, shrugging her shoulders. "I don't see much use in my coming out here either. I can't run. They would still kill me if they found us here."
Nyinabarongo handed a cup of water to her child. The child shook her head. "The cassava will choke you," Nyinabarongo warned, but the child was adamant. She threw away the piece of cassava and started yawning. Nyinabarongo picked her up and held her on her lap, covering her with a blanket. The child was soon asleep.
Father opened the foldaway chair he had carried and leaned it against a tree trunk some distance from where we sat. He beckoned to Tendo to give him the spear and he plunged it into in the soft ground beside the chair. Then he folded his heavy coat and placed it on the back of the chair.
"Uncle Kembo and I are going to scout around first," he told us. "Tendo, whistle if you hear anything." But Tendo had already stretched out on the mat, his head covered with a blanket. He grumbled that he was exhausted from the sentry job he had to do every day.
Maya was massaging Mother's back with the strong balm Father had brought with him from the city. Its smell floated towards us and the child sneezed. I turned my head away, covering my nose and mouth with my palm.
"Is it helping?" Maya asked, pressing harder.
"Maybe," Mother answered. "Press harder. Use your fingertips, not your whole hand." Maya did as she was told, and Mother gave a soft moan.
"Ouch! Maya, be a bit gentle. What's wrong with you?"
Maya laughed lightly and continued massaging, adding more cream as she did so.
After some time, Uncle Kembo and Father returned. They continued talking in low tones, standing near their chairs. Uncle Kembo was wearing his heavy black coat, the belt firmly tied around his waist. He'd once been a night watchman at the sawmill, and I thought he looked like one right now.
The Lendu woman was lying on her mat, using a flattened banana stem to pillow her head. But she was not asleep. The old man had not carried a mat so he wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and leaned his back against a banana tree. Mother was breathing through her teeth, which made her sound like a saucepan sizzling on a fire. Nyinabarongo placed her child on the mat. The little girl stirred slightly but did not open her eyes.
Maya had rolled her entire body in the blanket and was lying near Mother. She had fallen fast asleep, and I had to shake her several times to wake her.
"Roll over," I whispered in her ear, not wanting to wake Mother. "What do you think I am going to use to cover myself? My bare hands?"
"But the ground is hard and wet!" She whimpered. I ignored her remark and pushed her to one side. Quickly, I pulled the blanket out from under her before she could roll over again.
The moon rose at eight. The child lying in her arms seemed larger as I gazed at her through the banana leaves. I could see only part of the child and her mother. She wanted to tease us, of course, unveiling her beautiful face shyly, slowly, as she did when wooing her husband, Sun.
"Is it true Sun made Moon pregnant and denied responsibility when the child was born?" I asked Nyinabarongo.
"Yes," she answered. "There are actually two children. If you look closely you will see the second one. Moon was very upset. That is why she runs away from Sun every time he tries to catch up with her to apologize. By the time he rises in the morning, Moon has already disappeared. At times she doesn't appear at all.
"I have a bad feeling about Kaaka," Nyinabarongo continued, changing the subject. "Suppose they come tonight. She should be here with us." She sounded tired. Her lower lip trembled as she spoke. She shivered in the cold air. "I wonder how long we will continue running." After a pause, she spoke again. "Look at your mother. Poor woman! She's heavy with child and should be sleeping comfortably."
I knew she wanted to talk, so I said, "She'll be all right. She's strong. It's your child I'm worried about."
"She will be fine. If only your father would allow us to make a small fire! But he insists that it will attract them here, which is nonsense! If they want to find us, they will find us."
Nyinabarongo had come back to live with her mother about two years ago after her husband's family had driven her away. The problem started with the birth of her first child, a boy, who had presented his legs first during a difficult childbirth. That is why he was given a twin name and various rituals were performed. When she bore her second child, a daughter, she was also given a twin name because the child's two upper teeth grew before the lower ones. That's how Nyinabarongo got her name, meaning "mother of twins," even though her children are not really twins.
As part of the rituals following the birth of twins, Nyinabarongo's husband's family invited her mother and two sisters for a meal. They were supposed to reciprocate, but her mother was ailing and poor. Then it was said that the twins were annoyed and had reacted by burning people in Nyinabarongo's husband's family. One of his brothers developed a pink smear on his nose and hands. So they chased her away, saying that she could return when her family was ready to invite them for a meal. But since then her mother had died and her two sisters had married and lived in other villages. So Nyinabarongo returned to her mother's house with the younger child, leaving her son behind. She always lamented about how much she missed her son, wondering if he was well, or if he had eaten.
I stretched out on the mat and tried to sleep. The stars were blinking down on us. It was very cold, and the blanket was not warm enough. I could hear Uncle Kembo and Father talking, but I could not see them. Everyone else seemed to be asleep, except the Lendu woman, who was tossing uncomfortably under her blanket.
The birds' morning conversation woke me up. Father, Uncle Kembo, and the Lendu woman had already gone. Nyinabarongo was tying the child to her back, her two mats already folded. Maya and Mother were walking towards the house. I jumped up and followed them. Father was already in the bathroom enclosure, and he shouted his greetings to us.
"You use so much water," Mother commented, looking down at the soapy water, forming rivulets as it ran out from the enclosure into the compound. "Don't you have any mercy on the people who fetch it?"
"The pipe must be blocked," Father shouted back, showing his head above the wooden railings. "It's not channeling the water into the hole, and that's why it appears to be a lot."
Kaaka made her way towards us, leaning her body on her walking stick. Her big stomach was visible through the long, loose dress she was wearing, and she seemed to be pushing it in front of her as she walked. She used her walking stick to hit a banana-fiber ball out of her way, and it rolled towards us before falling into the water streaming out of the bathroom enclosure.
Father came out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, and inquired about Kaaka's night.
"I slept well," Kaaka replied. "But why are you bathing so early in the morning?" she asked him.
"I'm going to the Center to try to get some news," he replied. "I want to know what's happening in the city."
"But so early in the morning!"
"It's not that early," Father protested. "Look, the sun is already up."
"But won't you eat first?"
"When I come back. I want to catch people before they go their separate ways."
"But what ways can they go? Today is Sunday, and the churches are not open. All the priests are in hiding."
"They go to the beer clubs," Father laughed briefly.CHAPTER 2
We had learned about the details of the war a month before, when Father returned from the city where he had worked at the Main Post Office as a clerk. He told us that President Idi Amin was about to be overthrown by a combined force of Ugandans who lived in exile and the Tanzanian soldiers who were assisting them. The soldiers were advancing quickly, heading for Kampala from the southwestern border that Uganda shared with Tanzania. The districts along that route were already in the hands of the Liberators.
Amin's soldiers were looting shops, hospitals, banks, and private homes in the city. They wanted to seize as much as they could before the Liberators arrived. Some were fleeing towards the West Nile and Northern Ugandan regions, their home areas. People had vacated the city in fear of both the advancing Liberators and the fleeing soldiers. No one knew what each group was likely to do to civilians.
Our district was situated on one of the highways that led, via Lake Albert, to the West Nile and northern regions, and so, Amin's soldiers were using it as their exit route. And they had come in large numbers, invading the town of Hoima, looting, and killing people at night. The bush and banana plantations were the safest places to sleep, and during the day most homes posted a sentry in a tree to watch out for the soldiers. All shops, churches, schools, banks, hospitals, and police stations were closed, and most people had retreated to the villages, which were much safer. The soldiers, who felt they had nothing more to lose as the Liberators approached, had taken over Hoima town and had set up roadblocks from which they attacked people trying to move from one location to another.
Riding his bicycle at breakneck speed, Father sped back from the Center.
"We must dig a pit immediately," he informed us. "Last night they invaded five homes near the Center and stole everything of value. Luckily, the families were sleeping in the bush, otherwise they could have killed them too. But everything was taken — everything. Now we must hide whatever we own that's of value."
He was speaking breathlessly and gesturing like an actor. He asked Tendo to fetch the spade and the pick, saying that they would dig the hole a little distance from the sleeping area where the trees and shrubs were thicker.
By midday, the red soil that Tendo had scooped out from the pit as Father dug had formed a large mound like an anthill. Kaaka lit a big fire to soften the banana leaves that would be used to line the pit.
By evening, we were ready to take our most valuable possessions to the pit: the bicycle — which Father had dismantled — our mattresses, the radio, the saucepans, and our best clothes. We covered them with mats and goatskins, then we placed two old corrugated iron sheets on top.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Waiting"
Copyright © 2007 Goretti Kyomuhendo.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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