Short Story: The Kintu saga

Thursday August 1 2013

The word “thief” incensed the loafers so much that someone struck the first blow. Illustration/John Nyagah

The word “thief” incensed the loafers so much that someone struck the first blow. Illustration/John Nyagah Nation Media Group

By JENNIFER NANSUBUGA MAKUMBI

There was a knock. Kamu’s woman woke up and climbed over him to get the door. She wrapped a kanga around her naked body with the irritation of a proper wife. When she unbolted the door, night was beginning to depart, leaving the sky dawn grey.

The woman considered herself Kamu’s wife because she had moved in with him two years earlier and he had not thrown her out yet. Every night, after work, he came home to her, brought shopping, ate her cooking and he was always ravenous.

When she visited her parents, Kamu gave her money so she wouldn’t go empty-handed. That was more than what many certified wives got. Besides, she had not heard rumours of another woman.

Maybe Kamu banged some girl once in a while — sometimes sex is a punch bag — but at least he did not flaunt it in her face. The only glitch in her quest to become Kamu’s full wife was that he still wore a condom with her. With his seed locked away, she had not grown roots deep enough to secure her against future storms.

A child was far more secure than waddling down the aisle with a wedding ring and piece of paper. Nonetheless, she would bide her time — condoms have been known to rip. Besides, sex with a condom is like sucking a sweet in its wrap: Kamu would one day give it up.

Hence, when the woman pulled back the door that morning she wore the stern wearing the look of a disturbed wife whose husband was at home.

Below the veranda stood four men, their breath steaming into the morning. Their greeting was clipped and their eyes avoided hers. This thawed the woman’s irritation and she moistened her lips. The men asked for Kamu and she turned to go back to the inner room. By this time, the sky was faintly streaked by white clouds.

The woman and Kamu lived in a two roomed terraced hovel in Bwaise, a swamp beneath Kampala’s backside. Kampala perches, precariously, on numerous hills. Bwaise and other wetlands are nature’s floodplains below the hills. But because of urban migrants like Kamu and his woman, the swamps are slums.

In colonial times, educated Ugandans lived on the floodplains while Europeans lived up in the hills. When the Europeans left, educated Ugandan climbed out of the swamps, shook off the mud and took the hills while raw Ugandans flooded the swamps. Up in the hills, educated Ugandans assumed the same contempt as Europeans had for them: All swamp dwellers were thieves.

On her way to the inner room, the woman stumbled on some rolled mats that had slid to the floor. She picked them up and saw, to her dismay, that the bright greens, reds and purples had melted into messy patches obliterating the intricate patterns her mother had weaved.

In spite of tons and tons of soil compacted to choke the swamp, Bwaise carried on as if its residents were still fish, frogs and yams of pre-colonial times. In the dry season, the floor wept and the damp ate everything lying on it. In the rainy season, the woman carried everything of value on her head. Sometimes, however, it rained both from the sky and from the ground: then Kamu and his woman swam. From the look of her mats, it had rained in the night.

As the woman laid the discoloured mats on top of a skinny Johnson sofa, she felt a film of dust on her smart white chair-backs. The culprit was the gleaming 5 CD Sonny stereo (fake Sony made in Taiwan), squeezed into a corner. She glanced at it and pride flooded her heart. Since its arrival just before Christmas, Kamu played it at top volume to the torment of their neighbours. Unfortunately, the booming shook the fragile walls, sprinkling dust on her chair backs.

The woman stretched to touch the wooden box on which a tiny Pansonic TV (fake Panasonic made in Taiwan) sat. The box was damp. If the moisture got into the TV, there would be sparks. She thought of shifting the TV, but there was no space for its detached screen. This screen, striped in blue, amber and green, turned the black & white pictures into colour, almost.

Unfortunately, the TV and stereo had arrived after a spate of armed robberies in the suburban homes up in Makerere hill. Two educated family men had been murdered. Naturally, suspicion from up in the hills fell on the slums in the swamps.

The woman squeezed between the sofas and went into the inner room. Kamu was still asleep. She shook him gently,
“Kamu, Kamu? Some men at the door want you.”

Kamu got up. He looked irritated but the woman did not know how to apologise for the men.

He pulled on a T-shirt and a mean cross-eyed steer unfolded on the front while the words “Chicago Bulls” appeared on his back. The T-shirt hung loose and wide on him. He retrieved a pair of grey trousers off a nail in the wall and slipped his legs through. Then, with a cup of water, he washed the night out of his eyes and rinsed his mouth.

When he stepped out, the four men turned to leave. Kamu recognised them and whispered to his woman, “Local councillors.”

Each councillor bade him good morning, but avoided looking at him. “Come with us, Mr Kintu,” one of the men said.

As Kamu slipped on a pair of sandals, he was seized by a bout of sneezes. “Maybe you need a jacket,” the woman suggested.
“Morning sinuses, I’ll soon stabilise.”         

Still sneezing, Kamu followed the men. He suspected that a debtor had taken matters too far and sought the help of the local officials. They had ambushed him at dawn before the day swallowed him. It was envy of his new stereo and TV no doubt.

They walked down a small path, across a rubbish-choked stream, past an elevated latrine with a flight of stairs. The grass was soaked: it squished to his steps. To protect his trousers, Kamu held them up until they came to a wider road. The road had a steady flow of walkers, cyclists, and cars. As he mused over the rain he had not heard in the night, three councillors surrounded him and his hands were swiftly tied behind his back.

“Let’s not rush…” the fourth councillor cautioned, but by then, they had attracted the attention of early loafers. Taken by surprise, Kamu asked, “What are you tying me like a thief for?”

In those words Kamu sentenced himself. The word “thief” incensed the loafers so much that someone struck the first blow. A councillor cried out, “Stop it, people, stop it now,” but his words only fanned their fury. The crowd swelled, joined by the jobless and insomniacs. Homeless children leapt out of the swamp like frogs. Angry men asked, “Is it a thief?”

The councillors lost control.

The word “thief” summed up the common enemy. Why there was no supper the previous night, why their children were not on their way to school. Thief was the president who arrived two and a half decades ago waving “democracy” at them, who recently had laughed, “Did I actually say democracy? I was sooo naïve then.” Thief was tax collectors taking their money to redistribute it to the rich. Thief was God poised with a can of Africide aerosol, his finger pressing on the button.

The crowd swore they were sick of the police arresting thieves only to see them walk free the following day. No one asked what this thief had stolen. All they knew was that they were fed up. Only the councillors knew that Kamu had been on his way to explain where he got the money to buy a gleaming 5 CD player and TV with a detached screen.

As blows fell on his back, Kamu saw the sun rise. It was bold: it reminded him of a red egg yolk, the one of a fertilised egg. He had to be dreaming. He was Kamu Kintu, human; it was them, bantu, humans – he would wake up any minute. Then he would visit his father Misirayimu Kintu: nightmares like this come from neglecting his old man.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is an associate lecturer at Lancaster University where she completed a PhD in creative writing. She was born in Uganda and moved to the UK in 2001 to study for an MA. She lives in Manchester with her husband Damian and son Jordan. Her work has been published by African Writing Online and Commonword. She also runs the African reading group, ARG!, in Manchester which focuses on obscure African writers. She is currently working on her second novel.