By Gloria Kembabazi, Uganda:
“A man without an identity does not belong”, were the words I had heard. They had been said by the grey haired man with a wrinkled face who lived a few meters from home. I was trespassing on his patch of land, slinking past his straw thatched hut to the nearest shop.
I was clad in tight blue cotton shorts, a flaccid yellow blouse and blue slippers. His words struck like a spear in my chest. Yes, I was in the wrong, but needed to use the shortcut. A part of me was dribbling; it caused inordinate agony in my lower tummy.
I loathed strangers who felt they had a say in other people's lives. At times they chose words so carefully that if you chose to ignore them, they would feast on your mind. I was once warned that people who had lived long were wise and that their words should never be ignored.
I was eight years old when I first encountered the old man. The garden behind his hut was my favourite hide-out while playing hide and seek. It was surrounded by gigantic yellow and green pumpkins and towering stalks of maize and sugarcane. Also, you could take your time easing yourself, unlike on the sides of the road where you could be seen. I pulled down my peeled off my tight blue shorts, lowered my panties and eased myself.
I felt a tight grip on my arm as soon as I finished. The shock was equivalent to that of electricity. His hand felt as rough as sandpaper. He let me go.
'Kanawe, ronda eitaka oshweke ebiwakola.' He ordered, (instructing me to cover my mess with soil).
'Tindabishweke,' I objected. I could not understand why he wanted me to do it. Was it I who had to do the messy stuff?
'Do it yourself, after all it's your garden,' I said, and ran.
The next thing I was conscious of was a man in a white robe holding medicines standing next to father. Mother sat on my bed and bottles of Lucozade and Ribena were on a stool staring at me invitingly. I smiled. I only had the chance to sip those when I was sick. Mother said I had missed a step and had had a terrible fall. I vowed never to cross the old man's path again.
Two years after the second encounter, I was doing my laundry when the gatekeeper approached me, startled.
'Iwe, nomanya what's happened?' I signalled him to go on with a raise of my eyebrows.
'Omuzeyi wa ahife yafa!' The old man had passed away. I felt partially sorry, though since that fall I had attributed all my bad luck to him.
Garret, a big client who had given me my first break in PR, asked me out to a work related dinner. We met at Riaaz's Bistro, Nakasero. The restaurant was remarkably hushed. Like an eating exam, only fork, knife and plate utilized their ultimate right to make sound. The waitress directed us to a free table. We ordered milkshakes; mint and vanilla.
'Tell me something new about you,' Garret asked abruptly.
I could feel there was something specific he wanted me to talk about, although I could not figure it out.
'Well, I can't think of anything I haven't mentioned before.'
'Uhm okay. By the way I checked out your writings.'
'Oh great, thanks!'
'Sure. I wasn't amused much though.'
That caught me by surprise. I was accustomed to the response that it was entertaining. Milkshakes arrived. I was frustrated by his words and shifted my attention to my milkshake. It had spume on top, typical of anything shaken.
'Damn, this milkshake looks so disgusting,' I complained.
'You always make such bad choices?' he mocked.
'So you weren't amused much? Tell me about it.' Was he also not amused with the work I was doing for his company? Was the man I was grateful to for my job yet to get me fired?
'Yeah sure,' he said, staring into my eyes, without affection. The same way he had at the interview when it did not cross my mind that he was noticing them. Was he noticing them now too? He still looked attractive even without affection. 'Well, the thing is young people are evading culture. You have a skill; nevertheless, you write about the wrong stuff.' He sipped his drink as if trying to swallow the awkwardness that had come with his statement.
'It depends on what you mean by wrong stuff,' I defended. 'Don't all bloggers write about their observations, thoughts and things that appeal to them?' I managed to say with a puckered brow.
'True, but if you wrote about things that appeal to your culture as well, that would help pass it on rather than taking on the American liberal way of doing things. You must know Byamugisha of New Vision, an incredibly great writer. Writing about his culture has made him so famous and rich.'
'In other words, it is because of fame and money that you criticise my not writing about my culture?'
'No, not precisely, it's about what defines you. Your identity; who you are and where you belong.'
And, 'A man without identity does not belong.'
I looked at Garret warily for any clues of his body being inhabited by a ghost. The words of the old man had been exactly the same.
Had the old man meant I had no respect for my culture? I thought. Was it the skimpy garments and sharp pointing stilettos that I always donned? Or my lack of mannerisms, not saying 'hello' to everyone I met on the road? Was I to blame or was it society?
'Aren't we are all shaped by society? Aren't the differences between our values and norms present because you were brought up in a conservative community while I was raised in a liberal one?' I asked rhetorically.
'But that should not be an excuse not to know who you are,' he insisted, leaning back in his seat with a wry smile.
I nodded in disbelief. 'Just because I do not wear a t-shirt with the words I love my culture scribbled on it doesn't suppose otherwise,' I assured him. 'People are individually defined by their inner self and what they love to do, isn't that so?'
He was silent.
'I know who I am and I belong!' I said, looking him straight in the eye with my voice raised brusquely at him, but directing the words to the old man.
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