It was the very first thing that popped into Aguti’s mind the moment she woke. She was glad that the children were home for the holidays. Angel, her eldest child, would take care of her siblings. Aguti’s twin sons were a stubborn pair but they respected Angel enough to listen to her. Baby Acheng would not throw a tantrum for not being allowed to go to school. The child needed the rest.
Knowing that Amooti, her husband was working the evening shifts at the police station was a bit of a relief too. She did not have the energy or the patience for him, not today.
“Twenty three thousand five hundred!!! Twenty three thousand five hundred!!!” Aguti muttered this to herself as she quickly got ready for the day ahead. She had a quick shower and was dressed within minutes, securing her leso around her waist as she finished.
She didn’t want to wake her children, not even to say goodbye. It was far too early to be waking them. As she readied her things to leave for a hard day’s work, she was surprised to hear Angel and Baby Acheng voices from the children’s room. She peeked in to see what they were doing. Angel had a torch in her hand lighting a story book Amooti had recently bought for them.
Angel was reading to Baby Acheng. They heard the swishing sound of the curtain that separated the living room from the children’s room, looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back exposing her beautiful white teeth. She then made a silly face, crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out. Baby Acheng burst out and laughed. She let them be. The boys would not be woken by anything other than the sun or the smell of breakfast.
Aguti was glad when she found her usual companions, Mama Fiona and Mama Pato nearly ready to go when she went knocking on their doors. She was even more pleased that she had managed to convince them to buy fruit from the traders who often brought their produce late in the evening.
“Less time spent fighting with other women for good bananas early in the morning. Akiiki assured me that he would bring some good ones but you know the time he usually comes,” she had told them the evening before.
Mama Pato understood Aguti’s urgency. Mama Fiona knew if she didn’t go along with their new arrangements, she’d most likely have no one to accompany her on the sales.
They trekked through the barracks for a few minutes, selling to as many families as they could. Then it was time to begin their long walk to their usual sales stations; one that was a small ways by the university, close to the taxi stage, near a route many students used to get into their campus, at the Nakawa taxi park and then later in the afternoon they planned to walk to the Lugogo Bypass and then circle back home.
Throughout the day, even during their treks, Aguti was quiet. She had only one thing running through her mind.
She often smiled at the passers-by, prompting them to come and have a look-see at her bananas. She tried her best to keep her eye open for those who looked most hesitant, but interested and would smile generously, hoping that that would pull more customers to buy from her. It worked but only sometimes.
On most days, she would divide her attention between passers-by and Mama Fiona who would try to engross her with fresh gossip from the neighbourhood. She often shared all the news that she had watched on television the previous night.
Aguti had long forgotten what it was like to sit and stare at pictures on the metal box. Earlier that year, the family had to sell their television set in order to finish payments on the children’s school fees. The school had sent far too many letters calling her children “school fees defaulters”. That term alone weighed heavy on her heart. She didn’t want them to go through the shame of being chased from school for not paying what Aguti felt was a meagre sum of money even though she did not possess it readily. Her husband, wasn’t of much help, not presently, he hadn’t been paid since the year began.
“The ones with their plate numbers in red that start with the UG are for government cars,” Mama Fiona had told her proudly one day while they zoomed passed their station. The sight of the luxurious vehicles often felt like a terrible stab right in her heart. Those cars looked new. They always looked fresh from the workshop. She didn’t know much about vehicles but Mama Fiona, who seemed to know it all, had told her that the more important state leaders always had the newest models in expensive cars.
“Why not pay my husband first?” she often thought to herself as they hurried past her.
Today was different, she could not be bothered by Mama Fiona’s gossip and her long tales about another telenovela whose story she was following.
Today all she could think about was Baby Acheng, her third and hopefully last born. She would curse if those pills did not work. She had started taking them after having Baby Acheng. Health workers frequented the barracks around that time and talked to the women about their “options”.
Her Baby Acheng had only started school the previous year. She was four years old. Most of the other mothers had sent their little ones to nursery school once they turned three. But money had always been a hitch in all of Aguti’s plans.
Baby Acheng had to start school a year later than most. But Aguti was proud of how fast she caught up. She was extremely enthusiastic about school and never missed a chance to show her mother all the new words she could read, how well she could write her name already, the new songs that she had learnt and the dances that she had created for them all.
Now Baby Acheng was sick, terribly sick. She had typhoid and the first round of treatment that Aguti had managed to fully pay for was all through.
Today was different, because as Mama Fiona went on and on about whose wife was thought to be sleeping with whose husband, Aguti was in the least bit bothered to pay her and her gossip any attention. Her own husband’s name could have been uttered and still she wouldn’t have been shaken. Her mind was far too preoccupied.
“23,500 the balance for Behbi’s medicine, 15,000 to get some good shoes for Angel, 10,000 for new school shorts for the boys…23,500 for Behbi’s medicine. Maybe I could buy some muchomo and cassava for them today. Behbi will like that.”
She thought about her husband, wondering whether he had some money to spare. She quickly dismissed the thought. She knew he had given her all that he possibly could even though he had not been paid for his services for the last five months. In that time he had become less and less of any great help, worse still, he had taken to drinking heavily.
“I’ll have to do some kind of business on the side to sustain us,” he had said to her when he saw that his salary would not be coming soon.
But that had been three months earlier, everything had gone south and his apparent partner in this side business, Officer Mukasa, had turned into his friend of the pot. He had always loved going to the malwa joint near the market, but his taste for it had grown over the last couple of months.
Her husband was slowly becoming a drunk. He often sat at Madam Annett’s kafunda, which happily transformed into a malwa joint after 5.30 p.m. He did not come back home in the evenings for her meals anymore and when he did, he would grumble the entire time. He would return home late in the night when the children were already in bed and go on and on about how the government was not taking care of its people and how everything they did felt like they were pillaging the masses of everything including the bare scraps. She knew all this but saw it senseless for him to look for his redemption at the bottom of the pot.
She often prayed that God would revive her Amooti, a man she knew had a good heart wrapped up and drowned in disappoints and losses. She was worried for him.
She had seen this kind of behaviour before in her own paternal uncle who had helped raise her after her father had passed on. When the crops failed, when the rains did not come when they were expected to, when the animals broke free even though it was because the bolting was weak and the wood had grown old, tired and worn out, her uncle would go out and returned home drunk, falling over himself, oozing liquor through his pores and would shout about how the government was to blame for all his troubles. She knew this to be partly true but also knew that he could never find his redemption at the bottom of a bottle.
It started slowly. But soon enough caught on. Shortly after, the animals were no more because they all had to be sold to pay off the debts that had been piling up at the drinking joint.
She saw the same mad glimmer grow in her husband’s eyes and it scared her.
“23,500 for Behbi’s medicine, 15,000 to get some good shoes for Angel, 10,000 for new school shorts for the boys…23,500 for Behbi’s medicine.”
Aguti and her companions crossed the road to scout for more clients, heading towards the petrol station where they knew they’d find hungry boda boda riders parked at their stage and some mechanics at the petrol station in need of a snack.
Aguti got a peculiar feeling as they crossed the road. It came as a series persistent palpitations followed by a slight pain in her chest. She wouldn’t have noticed it if she hadn’t stopped and stood still for while wondering just what it was.
“Not a heart attack,” she hoped. She had heard all kinds of stories of how they often started.
The pain moved down to her lower belly. A great discomfort enveloped her and she suddenly felt a great urge to call home and check on how the children were doing, whether they were behaving and not giving Angel any trouble, whether they were all alright.
This was before she remembered that she had sold her phone only two weeks before. Mama Pato often left hers at home. A home phone was she called it. Asking Mama Fiona was a trick. Aguti knew that there would be a great deal of back and forth bargaining about the lack of airtime and once she accepted, if she accepted, there would be another long period trying to find an available and most likely unwilling neighbour to go by her house to check on her children.
She decided against it, thinking of the trouble and hassle it would be and considering that she would be home in the next hour or so anyway.
The rain came down just as Aguti and her gang were going through Naguru on their way back home. They took shelter under the nearest large tree they could find. Mama Fiona complained about the Kampala weather that was sometimes this or that within one afternoon. Mama Pato laughed at her saying she often got angry about ridiculous things like a child.
Aguti watched as the rain came down and looked on as more beautiful cars splashed the rainwater as they sped past. She remembered seeing a young mother and her little children, about the same age of her own precious children, run into a car that resembled one that had just passed by her after being caught in the rain.
She had seen that adorable little family a few days before as she and her friends passed by Shoprite Lugogo. She looked down at her feet, watched as they got drenched with rain and covered with tiny pellets of mud. She thought about how that family probably did not know what it felt like to get so much mud on their feet.
She tried to mirror them against her own family. Life isn’t fair, she thought. But she knew better than to dwell on it. She knew better than to keep thinking about something that she already for a fact. The most pressing needs always involved doing the very best for her children and thinking of how things could be and aiming for exactly that.
When the rain finally stopped, Aguti, Mama Pato and Mama Fiona continued on their way making sure to pass through routes that many people often used. They found a spot where they could set up their last station for the day. Aguti planned out her entire evening as they sat down. She calculated how much she had managed to earn and was pleased that was close to reaching her set target for the day.
Later that evening, she would return home to find a small crowd gathered around the near her veranda. Each face would turn and look at her with pity filled eyes. They would shake their heads and make that pity filled sound with their mouths as she passed by.
She would make her way through it and find her children all seated outside on the rough and weathered veranda and ask them what had gone wrong. She’d notice that Baby Acheng wasn’t with them, shivering from the cold of the late evening rain and she’s banish all evil thoughts that eclipsed her mind. She would look at Angel with questioning eyes. Angel would, amidst her tears, lead her mother by the hand to the small room the children shared. Aguti’s eyes would widen at the sight before her and stare at Baby Acheng’s motionless body, laid on a mat and fully covered with a light sheet. She would stand there as motionless as the body before her, scared and confused, on the very verge of madness.
Mama Fiona who would have followed her into the house and on seeing the body would wail out loud and pull at her hair like the child were her own. But Aguti would be far too scared to touch and carry her child’s body and press her against her chest like she wanted to because then she would have to accept that her child was truly gone.
She would stand there still and confused.
“Behbi,” she would say out loud surprised at the sound of her own voice, “I only needed shs. 23,500 more for your medicine and I went out and bought it, Behbi. It’s here.”
Her husband would come home shortly and after collapsing to the floor of the children’s room, swear to her as he wailed that he would not go out to the malwa joint near the market ever again, he would never touch the local brew ever again.
But she wouldn’t be able to hear him make these vows because she would still be confused.
“Behbi,” she would mutter, “Wake up!! I brought your medicine.”
After what would feel like a few fleeting seconds, Mama Pato would strike her hard across the face. She would scream and shout words that Aguti would not be able hear, still distraught.
Aguti would then notice that there was no more sunlight streaming into the room through the little window and realise how much time had passed. She would realise that this was not merely a nightmare that she had slipped into. Her daughter was truly dead and she had to hold her and whisper all the love she could compact into mere words before the earth took her.
She would wail. She would tear her leso and pull her hair and pick up her child and rock with her little body. Hating herself, hating everything and wanting her daughter.
Unable to think. Unable to speak.
But right now, at that very present moment, all she did, all she could do was calculate and recalculate how much money she needed for Angel’s new shoes, the boys’ new school shorts, some exercise books, pencils and pens but especially how much more she needed for her Behbi’s medicine; shs. 23,500.
This is the first of the many photo-inspired short stories that I will be working on. This is for an exciting collaboration I have with AnyiPhotography. For more information about the collaboration, click HERE.
I hope you enjoyed my little story.