Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Betty Kaigo
The singing while ages course along… comes from the path leading to the buduuka. It is Grandpa. I wonder, as I usually do, whether he sings to feign bravery, express a genuine love for God or both. He stops singing as he enters the compound. He halts at the entrance to the kitchen. The lantern illuminates his features. He begins singing again Blest be with loudest song, The Sacred Heart of Jesus…. As he opens his mouth I see he has lost more teeth. Perhaps from falling when he overdrinks. He is bent this Christmas. The veins on his neck and arms are more prominent. By every heart and tongue. He finishes off the hymn in a high pitch. We run out of the kitchen to meet him.
“The king of Uganda is here!” he proclaims.
I am happy to hug him even if he reeks of waragi. We are back here for Christmas holiday. It is the routine our parents have adopted – to send us to our grandparents for Christmas every year.
Drunken Grandpa is the king of Uganda, governor, jaamaling, and a concoction of many other names. If you want money from him call him governor. If you want him to dance call him jaamaling. If you want to hear tales collected during his years as a teacher call him teacher. People in the village call him teacher. It has become his name though he is retired.
My young brother fetches a bench from the main house. There is a full moon and many stars spread across the sky. My brother places the bench down and sits. He asks Grandpa to sit besides him. Grandpa sits. Grandpa asks for food. I tell him the food is being prepared. He insists he wants food – his lunch. He insists he has not had lunch. He had lunch. We served him his favourite meal of millet bread and beef. He just pinched the millet and kept most of the beef covered on the table in the sitting room. It is what he has been doing since we came. We throw away most of the food when it goes bad. Grandma says it is normal but worry grips my heart.
Grandma is a born-again Christian. We always have our domestic versions of religious wars. This time Grandma tells Grandpa to stop drinking. Grandpa argues that drinking is in his blood. His father used to drink. All his brothers used to drink. “And where are they? Dead.” Says Grandma “You want to follow them?” He is quiet. He staggers off the bench to his bedroom.
He returns. A bottle of waragi in his hand. He sips and begins a story. It is a tale he has told almost every Christmas holiday.
“When I was a teacher at Kebuna Primary School, Amin took us to Kampala to perform gymnastics. Suddenly he stops the story and breaks off into thanks giving. “Oh God thank you for this blessed evening with my grandchildren. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”
“Grandpa, the story,” I probe.
“Oh. Where was I? Yes, we went Hotel Equatorial. It’s the biggest hotel. Do you even you what I am talking about? He pauses before continuing “I slept in room twenty six.”
“No, last time you said it was room twenty four.”
“No I didn’t say that. You are stupid.”
“Don’t call your grandchildren ‘stupid’” Grandma is glaring.
“People who went to school one evening…” turning to me “Mother, forgive me.” He calls me mother. I bear his mother’s name.
He continues to tell us they went to Nakivubo stadium with a group of young men from all over the country to perform gymnastics. He demonstrates how they stood on each others’ shoulders, somersaulted and jumped through rings.
Grandma tells him it is a dead story. He would never recognize the place now.
“I can’t get lost.” He vehemently protests. “My wife, why do you always question me?” He says it so tenderly that we laugh.
Grandpa attempts to dance namaddu. He stumps his feet on the ground, shrugs his shoulders to the beat of his stumping. We join in, imitating his strokes. We raise dust off the ground while chanting’
Obugele mpaku nyama”
When we stop, he sips his waragi. He explains the origin of the chant. It was composed by his father. His father had a friend called Nsenye. Nsenye had long toes with a thin layer of flesh. Since Grandpa’s father had no way of mocking his friend, he composed the chant saying people mock Nsenye for having no flesh on his toes.
At the end of it he declares he wants to go to bed.
“Won’t you eat?” asks brother.
“Is it meat?”
“No, we have cooked vegetables,” I reply.
“If it is not meat, I will not eat. I am hunger resistant. Besides, I am not a goat to feed on leaves all the time.” He staggers off to his room.
Grandma is seated on the veranda of the kitchen scrubbing a saucepan. We are only able to see her interest in our conversation through smiles and frowns on her face.
“Your parents are going to be like us when you get married.” Grandma says. It is half a loud thought, half directed at us.
“How Grandma?” I ask. “We always visit you in December. We will always visit them too.” I answer myself. She laughs.
“You are only saying that dear mother-in-law.” She stands up and enters the kitchen. “You will get busy with life.” She shouts from the kitchen. “Bring me the plates from the store.”
We sit down to eat. Beef and Millet bread. It is the meal we have through out every Christmas holiday to the epiphany. Changing to vegetables is our equivalent of bringing down the Christmas decoration. Anyway we sit down to eat and talk.
“Why won’t Grandpa take down the old clock in the sitting room?”
“I told him to do it. He refused. He did not say why. The clock no longer works. And yesterday I saw a clay mould inside its glass frame. Think an insect built it?”
“So why wouldn’t grandpa take down the old clock? You have the new one which works…”
“Let it be. It is the only thing he got from your late uncle.” Sadness leaks through her voice. I am tempted to ask if that is the reason for his heavy drinking. I don’t because she washes her hands in a bowl and goes out.
We follow her out. We all squeeze on the bench.
“Your father is soon coming for you. We are going to get lonely. I hope by the time you go that pension money he is spending on waragi is over. Otherwise he will drink heavier.” Heavier means he will pass out on the path and he will not make it home as he did today. It happened the day we came here this year. The villagers called us to carry him home. “You better ask the neighbour for the big mangoes you like. He will keep them for you. By the time you leave, they will be ripe. When you go back to Kampala make sure you study hard. Everyone in this village expects you to fail. Don’t.”
“We will not.”
“Grandma, can we play dodge-ball now?”
“No. Go to bed.”
We enter the house to sleep. It is a little darker. The moon is covered by a dark cloud.
I expect a repeat of today’s performance tomorrow. It is Christmas to me, to us.
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