It was meant to be an ordinary day just like any other. All Katu had to do that day was go into town to run a few errands for her mother and return home before the late evening traffic morphed into its usual monstrous form.
It was 12.00 noon and the sun was at its highest, glaring and scorching everything in sight. Being in a taxi at that time had turned into a bit of a horror for her but she was thankful that she was nestled safely near a window that wasn’t jammed or sealed shut. The fresh air, warm as it may have been, was a great blessing and she could count on the gushing wind that came when the taxi picked up speed to help cool her off.
She dreaded the moments when the taxi had to stop to pick up more passengers. The stop at the Kamwokya stage was the longest. The conductor was determined to fill up the taxi even though there were only three empty seats, which could have easily been filled along the way.
The driver, frustrated by the wait, finally called out to the conductor ordering him to get in. A police officer stopped Katu’s taxi before it could leave the stage. She had watched him cross the road, his hand rested gently on an old man’s shoulder leading him across the road while he raised the other to slow down the traffic as they went along.
It was a miserable sight. From the window she could see how sadly and pathetically his clothes, faded and dirty, hung over his small body. She couldn’t see his face. His faded green cap was pulled down over his eyes. He seemed timid, looking down the entire time as the police officer led him across the road. She watched him limp and drag his left leg behind him as he crossed the road and she wondered what had possibly gone wrong with the old man.
The police officer spoke to the taxi conductor for a while. Katu only managed to hear the last few words he said, “…to Mulago…” The old man raised his frail hand to the nearest seat for support as he entered. It was clear in his breathing that he was using all the energy he had to get in. He crept in slowly, shaking as he lifted his body into the taxi. He raised one leg after another wincing in agony as he did. The whole time, the police officer was guiding him, watching over him as the conductor grew more and more impatient.
He was brought to sit right next to Katu and was visibly relieved once he finally was seated. With his relief came great dissatisfaction not only for Katu but all the other passengers in the taxi.
A great stench enveloped the entire taxi once the old man got into the taxi. It was thick and heavy.
He stunk of dirt, garbage and age, of rot and sickness. It was a horrid stink. Katu, who was closest to him, had to bear the stench the most. She tried her best not to show how her displeasure for the stink. Inside her entire body was shaking, on the verge of hauling itself forward and regurgitating all her breakfast.
The stink reminded Katu of those beetle bugs she had learnt to steer clear of. Those rare beetle bugs, who once you smashed them, your skin began to crawl like a thousand more little insects and bugs had been unleashed onto it. To steer clear of, because the discomfort always came with a great stench of old dirty mouldy unwashed rugs that filled the air. The old man smelt like these beetle bugs had been smashed and crushed all over his clothes and his body.
The other passengers weren’t as tolerant or kind. Some began to curse why they had to share the taxi with such filth. One man stopped the taxi to get out before getting his stage. One woman jeered out loudly and spat clear right out the open window that she was seated at. A few kept completely quiet and opened their windows a little more.
Katu held her breath in phases for as long as she could. But that stench. It had already sipped in through her nose and lodged itself somewhere within her tract. No matter how much she tried to open her window and how many breaths of fresh air she tried to deeply inhale, it was in there. Stuck!!
She felt too shy to look at him, to really look at him. She didn’t want him to catch her staring. She didn’t want to seem like the rest who were still whispering rude comments about him among themselves. But she could not help that she had caught the glimpse of his old, wrinkled and frail hand.
At the corner of her eye, she had seen it shake, starting off miserably slow and then pick up its pace to a rather tremendous vibrations. He would then hold it down with his left hand, at which point it would stop and then start all over again nearly every ten seconds.
His shaky, trembling right hand wasn’t all she noticed.
His trousers were visibly covered in layers and layers of dirt with brown mud caked in different patches all over the legs of the trousers and on the thick fleece sweater he was wearing.
Dirty thick brown nappy locks peeked from beneath his cap. She wondered how old the faded green cap was. She wondered how many washes it had seen for it to go so pale and worn. She wondered with fright what more filth lay under that cap.
Katu noticed some dry spots of blood under his fingernails. She noticed even more dried up blood on the palms of his hands. She watched him as he stealthily bend over, raised the right leg of his trouser and scratch his skin. His leg had been wrapped in a gauze that was now black from dirt. For a moment, she forgot about the stench and was overwhelmed with pity and a deep sorrow for the old man. She felt embarrassed watching his pitiful state and turned back to look out the window. There were tears in her eyes and an even heavier weight that clenched her chest.
The taxi finally stopped at the Mulago stage. The conductor helped the old man out. He slowly began to rummage through his pockets looking for his fare as the conductor called out for more passengers.
“Never mind the fare,” he told the old man just as a passenger pushed passed him to get into the taxi.
The old man then looked up at Katu and stared deeply into her eyes. It was an empty stare void of any emotion. It lingered on for too long. She felt ashamed for being caught staring at him and yet couldn’t with all her will and might look away.
He finally turned away to begin his long journey up the road to the hospital just as the conductor got back in and slid the door shut. A strange feeling had gripped Katu while the old man stared at her left right with him. It stayed with her even as he turned and walked away. She strained her neck trying to look out the window to watch him walk away but failed to catch one last glimpse of him.
The rest of her day went by in a blur as most of her days often did. The stench that seemed stuck in her nose slowly faded away. The deep sorrow and sympathy that had pulled at each and every one of her heart strings had loosened its grip. But Katu couldn’t quite forget the old man and the pain she felt he was going through.
Katu was back home before she knew it. Her appetite was completely lost and all she wanted to do was finally fall on her bed and get lost in her dreams.
It was not long before she found herself in a different world. It was dark and cold. She found herself standing by a fire. Right by the fire was a figure of a man wrapped up tightly in a thick blanket. Upon closer inspection she realised that it was the old man from the taxi.
Bits of the reality of her afternoon seemed to have been breached and combined with her dreams. He wore everything he had had on earlier in the taxi. The blanket was new addition. The faded green hat standing out the most.
He was rubbing his hands furiously. Katu wondered whether it was to warm them or to stop them from shaking any longer. He looked up at her. His eyes unchanged from the last time she saw him, empty and unreadable.
“Please, sit,” he beckoned in a clear but slightly quivery voice. His voice came as a shock to her. His dialect was clear, unhindered by a mother tongue. He sounded like a man that had been fortunate enough to have received a great deal of education. It alarmed Katu greatly.
She sat down on a mat that she had not earlier seen when her eyes were first set on him. He urged her closer but she was afraid to get any closer than she already was.
He continued to rub his hands. He’d put them over the fire, his palms open and his fingers spread over it. Katu could clearly see from where she was seated the spots of blood under his nails. The shake she had noticed in his hands earlier in the day was still there in his right hand.
“There’s a story behind it. There’s a story behind all of it,” he spoke calmly.
“They stole everything from me. Everything…” his voice trailed off shaky and mumbled about something under his breath.
Before she could find the words and the voice to speak up, he added,
“My name is Apollo Yuria Biddawo Tebyenkanankana IV. My great-grandfather was the great Yuria Biddawo Tebyenkanankana I. He was an extremely wealthy man. God blessed us with far, far more than we could ever ask for. Everything he ever owned, everything he ever built remained in the family and was passed on from one generation to the next. The one thing we were greatly blessed with was land, great fertile land. More than we knew what to do with”
He stopped and chuckled.
“Well that’s not true entirely true. We always structured great plans for our property. We had a large farm. My father set up lucrative investments right in the heart of town. There was nothing we lacked, ever.”
His smile was weak. He was caught deep in thought of memories of better days.
“But those men. They were persistent. Those men were persistent. At first they offered large sums of money to my grandfather to buy all our land. But my grandfather knew better. At that time, the land and the farm was all we had. Our farm was thriving immensely. We had crops and animals and everything run smoothly, we had no need to sell our land. ”
He paused again, looked down at his hands and smiled to himself,
“I learnt everything I knew about the earth from there. I could tell just by touching it and feeling it between my fingers what to grow and how to grow it. My grandfather taught me all that.
It was my father’s idea to expand our properties by buying and setting up a few investments in town. To supplement our income, is what I heard him tell my grandfather. But we didn’t need any supplementary income. We were doing just fine. More than fine. It was just a good idea to diversify a little.
But those men were persistent. They kept coming back. Then their sons took over and their sons took over and they still came offering even much more than their fathers did to buy our land.
Around the time I took over, they became more aggressive. They offered more and more but that was my great-grandfather’s land. He had grown up there and so had my father and even though I had grown up within the city, it was my home too. That land had been in our family for years.
Then one day, I woke up and I had nothing.
I literally woke up and found that everything around me had changed.”
The old man paused. He looked away from the fire and into the distance, into the dark. Katu could see tears welling up in his eyes.
“I woke up and found myself seated by a rubbish heap. I woke up and found myself looking through garbage to find food. It happens quite often. Over and over again. I find myself waking up from a trance by the very same garbage heap. I pass by road side newspaper vendors to check the date and notice that months have gone by. It usually happens when I try to go back to my land. Whenever I’m a few kilometres from it, I get lost and wake up at the same garbage heap. Most times with bruises and wounds I cannot explain. They purposed to get rid of every single one of the Yuria Biddawo Tebyenkanankana lineage and they succeeded.”
His words trailed off again.
“I hadn’t yet had a family of my own.There was a girl though. A girl I adored. The loveliest and most precious thing I had ever seen”
The old man looked up at Katu and smiled.
“You look a lot like her. You have her big eyes. I could never forget those eyes. Everything, every feature on your face looks just like her. My sweet Jill. ”
Katu felt her heart leap when she heard this.
“My grandmother’s name is Jill.”
“I figured as much. She passed that beautiful face right down to you,” he replied.
“Everyone tells me that” Katu said, still stunned at what he had just revealed to her.
The old man smiled and said, “I guess seeing you was all I needed.” He had a bright smile and Katu felt a deep warmth from it, “I think I’ll be just fine.”
I must acknowledge that the photograph that inspired this story is not set in Uganda. But the old man in the picture did more than inspire this story. He reminded me of so much. I cannot say that this story is a complete work of fiction because the picture the photo reminded me of another old man I happened to share a taxi with. He seemed to have been less fortunate in life and I thought about him for a long time and an even much longer period wondering how he was and what catastrophe had led him to the sad point in life he had reached when I encountered him.
A friend of mine did have a dream as strange as the one in the tale. In her dream, a mad man, who sat by a specific spot that she passed by on her way to her home, gave her a sad account of how he was bewitched and had his property stolen from him.
I do hope that the old men that inspired this story; the one in the picture, the one I shared a taxi with years ago and the one that appeared in my friend’s dream, are all well, wherever they are.
The name Biddawo Tebyenkanankana was a suggestion by my dear friend Allenicia Komujuni. I am extremely grateful that she helped me find this name because I was going quite crazy not having those tiny details sorted out. Thank you, Allen!! What made the name perfect for this tale is its meaning; if you lose something, what you replace it with is never the same. A principle the old man from the story and his family held onto when they refused to sell their land.
Another translation that I got for the name was, “Events that happened in the past can never happen in the present.”
And Jill is a name of another dear friend of mine. She is a lovely and precious lil thing. (See, Jill I did use your name) 🙂
I do hope you all enjoyed my short story.