Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: Territorial Integrity

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

I was born amidst war – the war that brought Saba Sabas to my village, and rid my country of a president whose name had become an international byword for brutality. Before the war, the phrase Saba Saba had never been uttered in my village – the sound of the Soviet BM Katyusha Rocket Launcher, which Google now tells me is the formal name of Saba Saba, had never been heard in the country – and to this day, the phrase, when mentioned, swings the minds of many of my compatriots back to the horrific war – a war that wrought so much grief and destruction but, ultimately, delivered a semblance of liberation.

The liberation was superficial, and the guns hadn't been silent for two years before Yoweri Museveni, one of the erstwhile saba-saba shooters, took off into the jungles of Luwero, promising to spring therefrom to deliver a truer liberation. Luwero was 400km from my village, and so, unlike the media, which quickly shifted its focus from the Saba Sabas to this triangle, the people of my village maintained, as the pet topic of informal discourse, the earlier war, which they had bitterly experienced. A Saba Saba had crushed into ashes a little cousin of mine as she innocently crawled into the verandah of their house – which neighbored ours – and there was no way you could shift my uncle's mind from the war which had claimed his precious child to one which he only heard about on Radio.

And so, Saba Saba was amongst the first phrases I picked out as I took my first halting steps into comprehension. Even the bravest men mentioned the phrase with something of a shudder. I heard about the grisly death of my cousin and the subsequent flight of my family to distant hills, with me strapped to my mother's back. Just a few weeks after arrival into this world, I had had to flee – I am sure my mother had understood then why I had cried upon arrival! As I grew up, I listened keenly to recollections of the war, especially as the adults made references to me or to my ill-fated cousin, who would have probably been my playmate.

When I came to the age at which one understands that events have causes, I asked about the cause of the Saba Saba war. And it turned out to be very accessible, because it was analogous to the causes of many local land wrangles. In these local conflicts, which sometimes turned violent, with the parties brandishing machetes and spears, determined to finish off those they perceived as encroachers on their territories, it was common, when mediators came in, for one party to accuse the other of stealthily shifting the emigorora trees that marked the boundary between their fields. I therefore easily understood why Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, had become furious and reached for Saba Sabas when our Idi Amin Dada had shifted the emigorora, as it were, between the two countries.

When we were about five, my cousin Dick and I converted our impressions of the Saba Saba war into drama: one of us would act as Nyerere and the other as Amin, as we attempted to bring to life the images that were swelling within us, demanding expression. Whoever acted Amin had to sing the Swahili martial song ‘Kibonge’, and whoever acted Nyerere had to feign throws of Saba sabas. I very much liked the Kibonge song, so I usually preferred to act the Amin role, although that meant that the drama had to end with my defeat.

The concept of territorial integrity, over which Nyerere went to war, was always used in the village fields and woods to prompt physical fights between any two children that got a misunderstanding. The peers would draw a line in the dust, with the two antagonists each on one side of the line. Whoever wanted to prove himself the pluckier, one had to simply cross the line. When your challenger stepped into your “territory”, you found yourself in the corner in which Nyerere had found himself several years before: you had no option but to fight. And so, the act of stepping over the line always marked the start of a fierce physical tussle.

One afternoon, I had such a tussle with a boy called Grace, and as I walked home with a bloody nose, I fully understood the war that had welcomed me into the world.

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