Dependence by Muriel Baguma (1st runner-up of Femrite @50 Writing Competition)
“It was exciting reading fiction and nonfiction from the different writers about Uganda’s independence after fifty years. I saw Uganda in different perspective, culture and love for Uganda. The judging process gave me insight to huge talent we have in Uganda. The future is bright for Ugandan writers and we need opportunities to showcases our hidden talents. I am glad that many people took this seriously and came up with beautiful writing.” – Beatrice Lamwaka, judge.
A short story written by Muriel Baguma, the 1st runner-up of Femrite @50 writing competition 2012.
‘Dependence. That was how I first heard it mentioned by my grandmother. When I was nine and more aware of what was happening, I thought, “Hey! That should not be dependence, but independence,” and I consulted my teacher for confirmation. By the age of 16, I was comfortable in the knowledge that we had a good independence struggle, perhaps not as bloody as the Mau Mau Uprising, but credibly belligerent.
Imagine my surprise, when as a young twenty-something, I found out that not only had there not been an armed struggle, but it was inferred in some circles, that Uganda’s independence had been handed to her, on a silver plate!
I knew independence always came with a struggle; you had to fight to be free of something. That there had been no struggle was not convincing. Someone had wrongly written down our history, intentionally. There was no occasion for the colonial masters to grant independence. There was much incentive to throw off the colonial yoke.
For instance the entertaining conversation I’d had with the Old Veteran as he narrated his adventures as a member of the King’s African Rifles. [As a child, I thought these were actual guns, not people].
“And so we each shouldered our packs and set off once again,” he continued with the narrative.
“You mean, the packs of everybody else,” I countered.
“No! Everyone carried their packs,” insisted the Veteran.
“But,” I protested shifting on my seat, both ears up, “the history books said that the Africans did the carrying,” I said confidently.
“The whole battalion was made up of Africans; who was carrying whose pack?”
“That the blacks only went as porters and cooks.”
“What was that you said?” The Veteran was suddenly alert to this threat to his story. Several years he had told the story to people from all walks of life and no one had ever contradicted him; after all, who had been there in ‘43? He got up and went into an inner room and brought out his KAR Medal.
“King George of England gave this to me!” he announced proudly. I took the medal and studied it. The Old Veteran kept it in a disused chocolate tin, about two by one inches. The writing on the tin was still legible even after fifty years. It mentioned the company that manufactured those chocolates and its date of incorporation. It also mentioned that they were laxatives.
“Why did they give you this chocolate?”
“That was medicine, not sweets,” he replied shortly.
“We have always been told the Africans went to war to carry and to cook,” I said slowly, turning the medal around. My baby made a grab for it and I pulled my hand away. The Old Veteran told me to allow the baby take a look, but I did not think it was hygienic for my baby to handle the artefact.
“At the front we ate biscuits, water and that medicine. Every day the battalion commander made sure we took our medicine. Oh, and we were given a measure of opium when we were going to engage the enemy. Except in Italy, when they gave us opium and sent us to a village where they said Hitler was hiding.”
“Was he there?”
“No he was not,” said the Old veteran. “We found only the villagers and our commander told us to kill everyone.”
“Everyone? The unarmed villagers?” My indignation was aroused.
“We killed those Italians, each and every one of them. We were told to use our bayonets. Everyone; old men, women, the young children, babies, even the pregnant women!”
“Shwenkuru!” I thought perhaps the old man was getting carried away by his story.
“It was war. We were told they would kill us if we did not kill them. Anyway, after that we were taken to Burma, it was one hundred times worse. Many of my colleagues died on the battle field. The white officers were surprised to find that I had survived. I only got a graze from an enemy bullet on the top of my head,” he bent his head to show her.
She was speechless, not from the wonder of his experiences, but with the indignation of the history writers. She pictured them; those white officers, in their white uniforms and trimmed moustaches, speaking in crisp British accents. Barbarians, the lot of them. Barbarians who could order the massacre of an entire village of innocent, helpless people and then turn around and document such blatant lies about equally as innocent, men whom they had yanked from their hearths and homes to fight their bloody, senseless battles for them. The Old Veteran never had a quarrel with Hitler, yet they had managed to taint him for life; a butcher, just like Hitler.
His wife came in when he went out for a smoke and cleared away the cups.
“You know, you should not encourage him to talk about those old times. Now he wont sleep for many nights and he will smoke that pipe of his,” she said.
“What is in that pipe?”
“Opium. It helps him forget.”
Never trust a White Man, he always said. Perhaps so, although Ugandans too could be cruel as I found out at the funeral of my cousin several years later. I’ll never forget what my grandmother told me that evening, as I walked to where she was seated, greeting the mourners. She appeared younger, it was hard to guess her proper age. Most of the people were leaving that day, and they gathered around her, offering their condolences and pressing small amounts of money into her hand. After all, her son had died in his prime. She had finished crying now he was buried and smiled at the people as they came.
And yet, Grandmother was not the chief mourner at that funeral. The deceased had left two wives, but Grandmother had been the only mother he had known. Forcefully separated from his birth mother at a very young age when his father chased her away, the deceased had been severely neglected. According to reports, he often missed meals as the only adult, a labourer sometimes forgot there was a child in the home. Grandmother undertook the perilous task of removing the young boy from under the care of his drunken, machete-brandishing father.
She waited three days for his father to return from a drinking spree, but it was worth the wait. The father handed over his son; for good. And that was how my cousin came to live with Grandmother who took care of him like a mother. He grew, got an education, married two women, had several children and had now died.
Grandmother had a look of satisfaction. She would have preferred to be buried by her son and not the other way round, but the eulogies had commended her. The whole occasion had been a celebration of her goodness of heart. As the last car zoomed off to the town, she sighed. I sat closer to her and took her hand and smiled comfortingly.
“In the old days, people would stay for at least two days, commiserating with the family. Now everyone rushes off to their families.”
“The old days? That must have been when the white man still ruled Uganda,” I said, giving the gnarled hand a squeeze.
Then she turned to me and said: “I was sorry to hear of the loss of your child; these old legs could not make it to the funeral.” There was a pause and she carried on:
“People were better off during the colonial times,” she said quietly, pulling her hand gently from me and folding them in her lap.
“Don’t say that,” I told her. I was thinking of the Old Veteran who had died without receiving his money for service in the KAR, firmly believing the government would pay it to him.
“You must make them give you a share,” he had said. He had been very ill at the end there; his strong body finally broken down, unable to sleep, unable to forget, unable to take any more opium.
“Surely getting independence from the colonialists was a good thing in many ways,” I offered.
“It was good in that we could now go to the town without fear and the Indian traders were not allowed to shout at us as we passed. From then on, if an Indian mistreated you, you could go straight to the police and report him and action would be taken.” she said.
“Why would they shout at you?”
“Those Indians were rude; the town was theirs. You had to be careful they did not spit on you from their flats. When Amin finally threw them out, they pleaded with us to take their children, while they jumped into the Nile.”
“Well, why didn’t you take them in?”
“And look after them how? And feed them on what? There was also a danger of being imprisoned by Amin.”
“On the Day we got Independence,” she continued, “your grandfather got invited to the celebrations because he was a teacher, and of course I accompanied him.”
My face lit up. “How was it?”
“Your grandfather explained the speech to me. The main events were in Kampala, of course. Later, for the first time, we went unhindered to the Source of the Nile. The gardens were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, like the Garden of Eden.”
“Oh Grandmother! How then could you say life was better under colonialism?”
“You know, when the White Man ruled, and you needed medical attention you just went to hospital and were treated. Your grandfather never missed his salary and he was highly respected in the district. When your mother was doing the nursing course, they dressed her smartly, treated well and above all, appreciated. But after independence, you had to be somebody’s son or daughter to even train for a career. If you were sick you had to be of a certain tribe else they treated you like trash. Under the White Man’s rule, we were just black people and they wanted to be seen to be doing a good job.” She paused to cough. When Grandmother talked for long, her throat became dry and she needed to cough. I gave her the cup of water I had with me but she declined it and went on brokenly:
“I … I hate the tribalism.”
“I know, when Amin took over it was chaos.”
“This disunity happened soon after Independence, but it was more marked after Amin took over.”
Still, Ugandans needed to be liberated, the record had to be set straight if only to do justice to us, the victims of colonialists. There had been a Liberation War, in another era, it was another world, then. I had been a witness as a fresh student at Makerere College School as the rebel leader skirmished into Kampala by way of Nakulabye, taking a short cut through that august institution; and the government troops in decline and in desperation carelessly, futilely tossed bombs at the rebels. Mary Stuart Hall was a front.
In the Uganda of today, war is on many fronts. We are still fighting our biggest battle yet. Latest estimates put the HIV/AIDS prevalence at 6.5% of the total population; and counting. Other adversaries are both physical and non-physical, all of them seeking to enslave and impede our journey towards nationhood and total independence.
Muriel Baguma (nee Muwayi) who lives and works in Jinja is an enthusiastic writer whose humourous submission to the BBC short fiction competition: My Compound won her a BBC Book of African Proverbs and recently, was runner up in the Women Writers Association competition – My Uganda @ 50.