The air above the road ahead was a shimmering wall of melting glass, and Bigyemano flinched to think of the pulsing waves of heat he was going to force himself through; miles of it, up the burning iron gray road, over stubborn misshapen humps and through to the matooke market at Rutooma.
He bowed his head and pushed.
His matooke laden bicycle creaked, its tired old bones groaning with the agony of the weight of his livelihood. All around him, before him, behind him and beside him, a herd of iron beasts of burden creaked along in discordant rhythms — pushed by sweaty men, forearms and shoulders bulging with the pressure, veins on foreheads straining with the silent prayer of “pushers” who had no energy for anything else but the pushing.
A car whistled by at breakneck speed. Out of the corner of his eye Bigyemano caught a glimpse of a small battered kikumi with a line of tell-tale black squares running along the side. It was one of the “my-cars” that plied the taxi route between Mbarara and Rubindi. Bigyemano did not see all of it, he did not need to. They were a staple on the road.
No doubt there was a young nonchalant youth slouching in the driver’s seat with one arm hanging out the window and the other resting casually on the steering wheel, not caring that he was ripping along at a scandalous speed. Chicken and striped mattresses (it was school season) probably teetered precariously on the top, while the car bulged at the seams with eight or nine passengers in various attitudes of squeezed discomfort.
Taxi drivers were the aristocrats of Rutooma. Loungy, brash talking young men who went to work in slippers but could easily afford two cold beers at the end of a working day.
Bigyemano had once thought he would become a driver, if not of a taxi at least of a matooke truck, which was the next best deal. He hadn’t though. It was just one of those things.
He bowed his head and pushed.
Beneath his feet, his shadow kept time with him. He watched it as it slid gamely over the road and bobbed over the occasional rocks or twig. It was something to do. Especially here, where the road rose sharply as you neared Rutooma and punctured the creaking silence with low grunts — pushed out of tired muscles and heaving lungs as they pushed — up towards Rutooma.
It was where the money was, so they pushed.
He winced. It was Caroline. He looked up. As usual she was sitting outside her shop, massive breasts overflowing her old green vest.
“Why don’t you first pass here, I have a nice bunch I want to sell,” she wheedled, “I don’t want to go all the way to the market. It’s far. First pass here.”
“Caroline, you also see me.” He said, squeezing out a bleak grin, “let me first get there. We will talk when I come back.”
She shouted something but he didn’t bother to catch it. It must have been an insult of some sort, for he heard some of the men snigger softly and Mugisha, the pusher nearest him whispered quietly, “You man, what ditches have you been digging of late?” laughing quietly and without humour when a string of curses issued out of Bigyemano’s lips.
They bowed their heads and pushed. This was the last part, the hardest bit, the humps. You had to hit them just right, start strong, heave! And you’re over, start strong, heave! Over. The muscles in his back were twitching wildly by the time he hit the fifth and last hump. Like every time before, he wondered — for one frantic second — if he would make it. But he did.
Slowly, the slope eased and life flowed bit by bit into his arms and shoulders. Now he could afford to raise his head and look around the bustling trading centre. There wasn’t much though, better to just keep pushing.
He found Ssalongo pontificating (as was his way) to a motley crowd. They stood around him in various postures of fatigue. Most supporting themselves on their bicycles. Their clothes, just like Bigyemano’s, ripped and stained beyond recognition by matooke sap.
Ssalongo was standing in front of his truck, gums green with miira juice, jangling his keys.
“Do you think this is a joke?” he asked pointing around the market. Matooke bunches were piled in haphazard heaps as far as the eye could see. “You think these times are going to allow that easy life that you are used to? You people don’t know, in Tooro, people have planted hills and hills of matooke. In Kampala, matooke is rotting on the stands!”
Bigyemano nudged Mugisha, and Mugisha winked. It was a speech they had heard before.
“God help me with these children of mine!” Ssalongo said, eyeballs bulging with the tragedy of it all. “Okay come, come, bring your matooke. We shall see, somehow.”
The pushers swarmed forward, and the haggling and bargaining began.
Bigyemano was in no hurry. From his shirt pocket, he first pulled out a battered Sportsman and lit it, savouring the rush as the smoke hit his lungs and smiling tiredly as the sweat dried and tiny salt crystals stretched the skin on his forehead thin.
The market spread out on every side, a shouting, laughing weaving back and forth mass of cooks, airtime peddlers, collectors, traders, pushers, packers drivers and of course… matooke. Green lush bunches everywhere. In piles and on trucks and on the backs of the few pushers who were starting out and hadn’t yet raised money for their first bicycle. Matooke! Its sap was the life-blood of the town.
As he haggled with Ssalongo, who as usual screeched about how greedy they all were (though it was his belt that was curled over itself from trying to shore up his fat belly) Bigyemano wondered about Caroline’s bunch of matooke. A small smile wandered briefly over his lips.
After another cigarette, (which he shared with Mugisha) Bigyemano decided that Caroline would have to wait. He had heard that the plantations in Mabira behind the lake had some promising bunches. There were only so many hours in the day after all.
With one last goodbye to Mugisha, (who was heading to Kitookye instead) Bigyemano grabbed his bike, nudged the kickstand with his foot, placed the other on the pedal, and pushed.