Uncle is dead but my eyes have remained dry like the August sun strolled into my tear glands and scorched them liquid-less.
Since the death announcement arrived at our door in the form of Mama crying for her brother, I have been dying to blame the sun for my tearlessness but I can’t. I know I can’t because, inside, I have become an evacuated grave. Empty of anger and sadness and tears for the man I loved so thoroughly in my childhood my own father couldn’t resist being envious.
It was the small things that bonded Uncle and I—sugarcane, sweet bananas, yams that he grew in a swamp a kilometre away from home. At Wang Oyaru Swamp, only uncle and the owner—Oyaru—farmed there. Everybody else went to Wang Oyaru mostly to fetch drinking water at the solitary well.
Nobody envied Uncle and Oyaru for daring the marshland all year round. Everybody knew that converting a swamp into regular farmable land required skill, energy and patience. Only Oyaru and Uncle seem to have the qualifications.
Everybody watched and waited for Uncle and Oyaru’s sweet red and white sugarcane, the fat yellow bananas and thick round mayuni yams that came out of the swamp even during dry season when the rest of the land in Gulu District and northern Uganda took a break from production.
As Uncle’s favourite little person, the sweet things from the swamp were at my disposal, unlike the more than 10 grandchildren in Grandma’s family home; unlike most people in Layibi; unlike the market women who bought and resold the sweet things in Layibi Trading Centre, or in Gulu Town, or along the railway line that snaked near home. My only currency was to do whatever Uncle told me to do.
Petita, go fetch for me drinking water. Don’t dip your hand all the way into the water pot, okay? Petita, go call for me so-and-so. Don’t play on the way, iwinyo?
I obeyed because I knew my payment was the sweet things from Wang Oyaru Swamp. I obeyed because I knew my bonus payment was a ride on Uncle’s bicycle back home from school whenever he was done selling sugarcane in town.
In the 90s, Wang Oyaru Swamp was thick with papyrus and home to snakes and frogs and palm trees and bright yellow-green-red abilim grasshoppers. Wang Oyaru was loudly green and intimidating, even during the day. The swamp was a gratified virgin; you couldn’t dig in any inch deeper, not too fast or too shrewdly, unless you were a land rapist. Uncle and Oyaru farmed along its edges.
In the 90s, Layibi Village trooped to Wang Oyaru to fetch water at the well whose fullness was not intimidated by the dry season sun. It was clear and clean and fresh. The white sand on the bed of the well was both toothpaste and toothbrush for those who visited. The white sand was steel wool for scrubbing burnt food scum off saucepans until the dishes became face mirrors.
In the 90s, we lined up by that small white stone at the well to scrub the soles of our feet or the edges of our Umoja sandals before we trekked to Gulu Town to buy maxi dresses and plastic shoes, or to Sunday School at Christ Church or for the Christmas dance party under the mango tree in Uncle’s small courtyard located on the edge of Grandma’s huge courtyard.
In the 90s, we children of Layibi came pouring downhill with little green, yellow and blue jerrycans to fetch Wang Oyaru’s clear water, or to stand on the hill and howl over the expanse of the papyrus to the unseen village next hill, wait for the echo of our childish melody to howl back at us (then we would laugh and repeat), or to climb palm trees and harvest its fruits, or to try and catch abilim grasshoppers while laughing and sometimes crying when the flamboyant insects sprayed us with their foul-smelling foamy liquid and hissed in our faces.
In the 90s, a few bold adults tiptoed inside Wang Oyaru Swamp to harvest the wild edible gwanya and odwonga vegetables that grew among papyrus. But nobody really held Wang Oyaru Swamp in their hands. Fables about a multi-eyed talking snake that resided in its green thick papyrus-y belly (which nobody ever saw) never died, so we approached Wang Oyaru Swamp with caution, with respect.
Wang Oyaru Swamp was healthy and bountiful and beautiful, like my bond with Uncle.
But it’s 2018 and Uncle is dead and I haven’t cried yet.
The August sun is breathing heat storm upon Grandma’s home and I’m dying to blame it for my dry eyes but I can’t. I know I can’t because, inside, I’m an evacuated grave. Empty of anger and sadness and tears for the man I loved so thoroughly in my childhood my own father couldn’t resist being envious.
In Grandma’s compound, next to graves that bear names of aunts, uncles and Grandpa, four gravediggers spend the day striking the earth with pickaxes. Red sand and white stone hold onto each other with a dedication nobody has seen in recent years.
It’s August 24th alright, the sun still owns the sky but it was briefly dethroned the previous day when heavy rain arrived seven days earlier than the wet season month. At my friend’s wedding, we called the rain a blessing to the newlyweds, but returning home to news of Uncle’s death, we called the rain death’s victory cry.
The gravediggers had launched their tools on the earth with gusto, sure the rain had done half their job by softening soil. A thick lie. Balls of sweat now gather on the shirtless backs of Uncle’s gravediggers as the sun sits still, threatening to extend its term to September. The sun rains on bodies of the working men, dries up their throats, leaves their sulking faces sparkly with the last drops of sweat.
This sun, Digger One says. I don’t know how far it wants to go with all this heat.
Nobody responds because nobody has spoken to the sun yet.
The rain will resume properly soon, Digger Two says after a while, elbow on a spade, eyes up at the sky.
Because of yesterday’s rain? Forget it, that was just kot omayo moyo, Digger Three says, referencing the previous day’s rain that falls without warning, torrential, and stops as quickly as its arrival.
How long will the sun stay this time? Grave Digger Four asks no one in particular. Maybe we need to consult the rainmaker.
Nobody responds because nobody no longer knows which months belong to the sun, and which ones to the rain. Nobody knows why the sun is twice hotter, as though the sky moved inches closer to the earth while we slept.
Soon, children gather curiously around the grave that refuses to be dug. Grandma takes time in between mourning her son to shush her grandchildren away. Pickaxes continue to strike the rebellious earth into the afternoon. The grating sound is not music to anybody’s ears. But it draws the children closer until stones start shooting out from dug earth onto spectators. Nobody wants to bury anybody, let alone one more body besides Uncle. Nobody wants to see blindness or death caused by an angry stone taking refuge in infant bodies on a dark day. The children get herded away. Gravediggers flesh more muscle. The further down they go, the more the dry earth dissents.
It won’t be six feet until every pore on skin has spat out sweat.
It’s the Chinese. They have captured the rain since they started constructing that Juba Road, Digger One suddenly says. The rumour that the Chinese road constructors used magic to ‘capture’ rain so that it doesn’t interfere with road works on the Gulu-South Sudan road is widespread. Some farmers have sought the intervention of rainmakers, making hefty payments in animal currency—black goats and hens—to no success.
The gravediggers now laugh, because, sometimes, even death cannot stop laughter from escaping the throat of frustrated men. The gravediggers laugh because they, like many, don’t see the brick we have all been contributing to building this babel of environmental ruin. The gravediggers curse the earth for refusing to be dug, clueless about a pattern next door, and everywhere:
Four days later, when Uncle’s body is retrieved from the coolness of a fridge at Gulu Hospital, the sun continues to scold us; scolds us as the hot earth grudgingly accepts Uncle’s body, scolds us as we place the last wreath, as we return soil to soil.
On a 2019 walk down to Wang Oyaru Swamp, its distant allure is magical. The tamarind tree that marks the start of the slope down to the swamp is still on its feet, watching those who pass by its shade, and those who pick fruits it tosses down in calm nights or on windy days.
Further down, the mango tree that we once climbed to eat its fruit and competed to see who threw the seed furthest away has put on a bit of weight and height. Its branches lean shyly onto the narrow path. My chest tightens with recollections of the memory I left in this place and at how things have gotten slightly better.
I am right until I look keenly as I walk further down. The narrow grassy path to Wang Oyaru Swamp is not narrow anymore. The swelling population has come with more feet trekking down the path we once walked. On every side of the road, where we freaked out at the rustle of leaves and grass, thinking a snake was readying to strike our legs with poisonous fang, now stands cleared fields and permanent buildings. I catch myself freaking out at the intrusiveness of all that concrete.
At Wang Oyaru Swamp itself, time has left behind skeletons of what was once wet and green and thick and imposing. The well is wider now, thanks to run-offs from the hill that has been slicing its edges. Its water has retreated into itself like an opuk tortoise sensing danger. Back then, one person at a time, would kneel on the dry otit stump at the mouth of the well, dip a jerrycan into the water and retrieve it, full. Now, only half the jerrycan gets water at a dip. Besides jerrycans, water-fetchers now carry jugs too, to help fill up containers.
The white sand at the well is nobody’s toothbrush or toothpaste anymore. Little red worms dance in the water, scanty beads of frog eggs decorate it. Green tworo scum carpet small sections of the water that now carries the saltiness of cow and goat pee and the rustiness of brown soil washed down its throat.
The well is a shallow pot of untrusted water, harvested for drinking only by the seriously thirsty or the elderly who insist water from the well tastes sweeter, or when the white man’s tap water and borehole run dry or by those who can’t afford tap or piped water. Next to the well, up on the incline that leads to Oyaru’s farming area, a rusty borehole stands, its tiny mouth hesitantly drooling water; its handle creaking at every pull and push by water fetchers.
Wang Oyaru Swamp is an embarrassed shadow of itself. What was once papyrus is now fields of mayuni and sugarcane and boo vegetables. Oyaru, who has since bequeathed working the swamp to more abled-bodied men, has held onto a small pocket of papyrus.
Let’s keep this. The grandchildren will see it one day, he’d said, laying down his hoe.
No one has touched those few stems of papyrus, because everyone believes the swamp is Oyaru’s swamp. No one knows the lofty government in Kampala—300km away—still counting Wang Oyaru Swamp among its possessions. No one listens when the Ministry of Water and Environment says Uganda’s national wetland coverage declined by a whole 30% just between 1994 and 2008. No one cares about those numbers because government has never been seen around here. Everything it says is Greek to everyone’s ears.
Across the hill, voices rise from villages once shielded from Wang Oyaru by papyrus. I watch children wave to tiny hands this side. My mouth fights the urge to howl. I don’t howl. I’m too grown up for that. I particularly don’t howl because I’m afraid my voice will get lost in the maze of people and buildings that have vacuumed Wang Oyaru’s womb-one hoe at a time, year in, year out. I don’t howl because I’m afraid the echo of my voice will sound dirge-y and further defile the air at Wang Oyaru Swamp.
My five-hour bus ride back to Kampala races by because my mind is heavy with hearty images of Uncle and I in the swamp-me and my little body, ecstatic as I wrestled a sugarcane stem thrice my height off the marshy soil; me and my little body that made Daddy nickname me Petite at birth, a name Uncle gave his own lyrical tweak. I hear his voice now as he calls P-e-t-i-e-e-e-e.
My mind is heavy with sketches of Uncle’s six-feet body that had become a playground for an unbeatable disease and years of trying; a body that, at 51, had acquired wrinkles imposed by the fatigue of failing.
My mind is heavy at the recollection that every time I left Kampala, 334km away, for Layibi to visit family, Uncle’s body was kilos less; eyes a deep hollow and mouth releasing stories that were several paragraphs fewer. I should have dug out more words from his mouth more often.
My mind is heavy when I arrive at my apartment in Bunga-Kalungu, a posh Kampala neighbourhood that brags of ministers and judges and politicians and businessmen; a neighbourhood that has neat houses with CCTV cameras and imposing walls and paved sidewalks, neatly done roads patrolled by army and police and unsmiling private security guards; a neighbourhood that overlooks a rising rich neighbourhood; a neighbourhood sitting on what was majorly, once, a swamp.
Between the two neighbourhoods sit a swath of papyrus, and further behind it, a thread of Lake Victoria. It’s hard to tell that Bunga-Kalungu was and remains a wetland; the cool breeze as you approach will make you forget about the pollution-thick air in Kampala’s CBD; it’ll take your mind and eyes off the real sights and sounds until you spend a day or night in Bunga-Kalungu.
My first months in Bunga-Kalungu are spent in oblivion about the fact that my rented apartment sits on the lap of a wetland. Even the croak of frogs on the first nights doesn’t stoke my curiosity hard enough for me to go sightseeing the next day. I concentrate on settling into this too-expensive-for-my-purse neighbourhood until my sister visits and she can’t stop complaining about how cold it is. The next day, she sees the papyrus that my eyes have curiously avoided and she exclaims: You people live right inside a swamp. There is papyrus right there.
The swamp is even closer than I’d imagined. I feel stupid. I feel guilty.
But I don’t do anything really. Instead, I take photos of a small bird that wakes me every 6.30am by pecking at my bedroom window. I take photos of crested cranes that have dates on the rooftops sunny mornings. We are uninvited guests in their home. I ignore the corner of my living room wall that becomes swollen blisters every time it gets colder. I only relocate-a block away-when the rains increase and the wall blisters become little mountains. My own skin is a field of goosebumps. My landlord who carries the law in his head asks why I’m moving. I’ve been a good tenant. I don’t say why.
The new landlord is jolly and yappy. I stand on the verandah and words flow from her mouth like the well at Wang Oyaru in in the 90s. My own mouth is stagnant water carrying nothing. My eyes rest on the papyrus that is now clearly visible from here. Seeing the concern, landlord assures me the house is sitting on legal land. Anything beyond ours is illegal, she adds. I don’t ask her about the metallic Land for Sale sign behind our wall fence.
I’m happy here. No walls blister and peel. No roofs leak. Friends visit and are awed by how put together Bunga-Kalungu is-tranquil and neat and posh and secure-until they approach my gate and exclaim: You are in the wetland! I feel a jab in my ribs, everytime. I consider relocating many times but my workplace is a 15 minutes’ walk and I’m unlikely to have my head struck by iron-bar hitmen on my way back from work because of the security here. I hold onto the assurance that we are living on licensed land. Even when the news sporadically gets dotted with appeals for the National Environment Management Authority to withdraw licenses issued to wetland settlers, all my body does is twitch, and then, back to normal.
Then one day, in the middle of the night, I wake to the sound of a roaring truck. The truck is heavy too because I can feel the house gently tremble as it stomps by. The truck makes many trips that night and my eyes remain open because I’m such a light sleeper even a breeze can tap me awake.
The next day, the Land for Sale sign is gone. Piles of red sand and gravel sit on the swathe of land and onto the papyrus. The tarmac path leading to our house is cracked and dented in many places from the weight of the truck. The neighbors and I hold our heads in our hands at sunrise, stare, mouths closed. We call the environment police. They don’t come.
Weeks later, the truck returns with more loads of red sand and gravel for the swamp. This goes on until the section is stuffed dry of its wetness, until a foundation is dug and a full-grown house is erected on that place that knew only papyrus and water and frogs and little birds and the two pairs of Uganda’s national bird-the crested crane.
The environment police show up when we have given up. I see their labelled white pickup as I return home one day. They stand in a small circle, making small talk, calmly. The builders, earlier putting up window panes and plastering the new house, are long gone. They got word that trouble was approaching.
We sigh because, here, even help delivered late, is worth a sigh of relief.
We are wrong. The next time we wake, the building, is being wired with electricity. The next time the echo of the crested crane calls me to the veranda, the new house—neat, complete, imposing—has claimed my view of the remnant swamp now sliced, choking, half green.
My journalist friend visits and takes stealthy shots of the house and promises an exposé. I look at him with a blank face and he understands why I don’t believe he will go far with his heroism. The paper, the Daily Monitor, has already done back-to-back series on the destruction of wetlands in the greater Kampala and across the country. The big people know the problem: population explosion, urbanization, industrial pollution, weak implementation of the law. The big people have the data: eight major wetlands in Kampala declined from 18% coverage to only 9% between 2002 and 2010. We all know the law: the Constitution and 1998 Land Act: it’s illegal to own land in a wetland. We’ve all read the report card: an ecological disaster awaits if we don’t stop and resurrect the land. We don’t, because, while the dogs in suits have been barking with every truckload of sand or waste or concrete or plastic dumped in a wetland, they’re yet to dig their teeth into flesh. We’ve become numb to the claw scratches and growls. We insist on pressing the self-destruct button, indifferent to the voice of trouble rising, louder, everywhere:
24 August 2019. A year after Uncle left us dealing with the furor of a pissed-off earth, I arrive in New York for an MFA Writing programme at Columbia. On the TV back home, a race against a relentless rain and its devastation begins shortly after. On several streets across Uganda, carrying people on shoulders across flooded streets is a new economic activity.
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