Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: Bakasherura

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

Bakasherura must have been a child of around ten at the commencement of the 20th century. In the 1980s, his hair was utterly white, a fact that couldn't escape the notice of those of us eagerly making our first impressions of life. “When people grow very old, their hair becomes all white – like Bakashurera's?” we would ask our parents, with rapt faces.

Over the years between when Bakashurera was a child and when I got to know him, the village adopted radically new forms of architecture, dress, food, commerce, industry, government, communication, entertainment, education and religion. I occasionally heard some villagers talking of ancestral spirits returning to the world of the living, but if the spirits of those that died in Bakashurera's childhood had attempted such a thing, they would have suffered such cultural shock – they would have so doubted their bearings – that they would have beaten a hasty retreat back to the world of the dead.

Matoke and coffee had been introduced into the area when Bakasherura was a middle-aged man, but their sprawling plantations now covered all the lower reaches of the hills. There was a radio/cassette player in just about every homestead; most houses were built of bricks and crowned with iron-sheets; everybody wore cotton clothes. There was a primary school that taught pupils literacy, numeracy, science and a foreign tongue. There was a church that fostered and nurtured a new faith. There was a tarmac highway cutting through the village. There was a busy trading centre; and most of the commodities on sale, such as plastics, bread, sugar, stationery and textiles were ones that, when Bakasherura's hair began to grey, had had neither demand nor supply.

There were some remnants of the ancient ways. Three or four families lived in round, grass huts; every family had a millet garden, a granary and a grinding stone. Scarecrows could be seen standing in the millet gardens. In every homestead was to be found clay pots and gourds and cooking stones; many families still took meals from the traditional platter, rusania, around which they all sat. Drunkards still took traditional brew in a circle around a huge gourd, in which each of them inserted a straw. Flutes were still played at major ceremonies, such as marriage festivals. Most of the brick houses had soil floors which were smeared with cow dung. My father had a spear that had been bequeathed to him by his father; conversations were peppered with ancient proverbs; mothers regaled their little ones on ancient fables, such as Ishe-Katabazi. Whenever a mysterious fire was sighted on a hill, it was generally said that the demigods, the Chwezi, were at work. We all spoke a language that had served the community for centuries, if not millennia; and, Kisana hill stoutly towered over the village as it had always done. But, on the balance, the place was unrecognizable from what it had been in Bakasherura's childhood or even when he was in his thirties.

The primary school, the church and the trading center had been amongst the principal agents of change: they had radiated powerful waves of cultural regeneration which had spread across the four hills of the village.
The trading center, which straddled the highway, was the place where the supply of the commodities of the new culture met the corresponding demand. It was the place to which farmers took their produce, including sacks of coffee beans and bunches of matoke, and, with the proceeds of the sales, purchased goods manufactured in Kampala city and other faraway places. It was also a major inlet of new money and new ideas, especially since the UTC bus plying the route at the time (if you missed it, you had to wait until the next day) always made 30-minute stop-overs at the center, during which periods, the passengers disembarked and patronized the eateries and tea shops, captivating the locals with their exotic aura and their talk of distant places and the current affairs and ideas.

The church, to which we were, Sunday after Sunday, summoned by three rounds of drumming, each round having a distinct rhythm, was a place of spiritual nourishment as well as social intercourse. The church hadn't really dealt a fatal blow to traditional religion: as I have already mentioned, for instance, people still talked of ancestral spirits returning to the world of the living. But it was generally understood that embracing Christianity was a mark of enlightenment; no wonder, the church was adjacent to the school. Holding onto traditional belief systems attracted social stigma; hardly anyone could publicly acknowledge that they consulted mediums or witchdoctors. Only about two men in the whole village didn't attend church services. These were derogatively referred to as pagans, and it was understood that when they died, the catechist wouldn't attend their burials.

School hadn't always been popular. The chiefs appointed by the colonial government had, at first, had to force parents to send their children to school. But when the pioneer pupils went on to become powerful people in government, the parents warmed up to education, and by the 1980s, nearly every child in the village went to school.

One afternoon, I saw Bakasherura on the road, which ran on the side of our compound, and, as usual, I stood at a safe distance and watched him. He was going to the trading center, had bypassed the school and the church, and was now joining a stretch of the road that had a banana plantation on one side and a coffee plantation on the other. He was a quiet old man, and it's impossible to know the thoughts that always ran through his mind as he walked amidst an environment that would have been inconceivable in his younger years. Later that evening, we got news of his death.

I was shocked that someone I had seen a few hours before should now be dead, but when I look back now, I am overtaken by neither grief nor shock at his death, but by the recognition that I had had the privilege of witnessing some of the final moments of a man who had had the privilege of witnessing more change than most human beings can ever witness.

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