“Taboo” immediately gives us a connection to the narrator: visceral and particular descriptions of a boy in a refugee camp. The story—the characters in their situation—never wavers in its assurance. The writer very economically sets up a series of very human conflicts—of age, culture, gender, privilege—without resorting to easy cliché. They leave the reader to ache with ten year-old Timothy and, alongside him, wonder what will happen. – 2017 Fiction Judge Nicola Griffith
2017 Contest: Fiction Runner-up
My father and I sit face to face on the hot sand. Our legs, the color of sand, which looks like maize porridge, are folded up to our chests. We’re making a football. Pa blows air into the empty bag of milk. Once it’s full, he holds it out and I tie a rubber band to stop the air from coming out. We wrap old newspapers, plastic bags, synthetic rubber, and dry banana fiber around it. He bounces it.
“It’s perfect,” I say.
He passes it to me. We play football for a few minutes before we race.
He chases me. I am using two bamboo sticks, water and sand to roll an old truck tyre through the maze of shacks made from United Nations plastic sheets that litter the dry brown landscape as far as the valley where the forest starts, where bad things happen to the refugees who venture there. The wind is strong. It caresses my face and blows my oversized shirt into the sky just like it blows the plastic sheets. I see shacks carried away but don’t think about the families that will be left homeless. I don’t feel the heat even as my face is swimming in sweat and the sand burns my bare feet.
At the trading centre he catches me. We sit down panting. His gun, which he carries with him everywhere, bulges from one of his trouser pockets. He ties his shirt on his shiny bald head to keep the heat away. I do the same. All I see of his face are his large out-of-focus eyes. The lower half is covered by his beard, dyed copper red, that goes down to his chest. People walking by us nod to acknowledge his presence. They don’t nod when I walk with Ma. This is how I know he’s important even though he doesn’t have a big stomach like the refugee leaders.
As soon as our breathing is regular we make our way back home. He sees me looking at a woman selling mandazi and asks her to give me a couple and hands her a coin. She doesn’t take it. It’s her contribution to the struggle. I point to the biggest mandazi in the pile. It tastes of sugar and oil as it crumbles in my mouth. I don’t think about the woman’s sweat, which drops on the pile of the cooked mandazi, or the fact that she rubs her nose with her hands before she picks out the mandazi. I don’t think about the old cooking oil that has been used over and over for months that trickles down my mouth, my right hand, and mingles with my sweat.
Pa says we should run again but I tell him I am tired. This isn’t true. I want this moment to melt into minutes and hours. I don’t see Pa often. Right now, he belongs to me, not to the struggle he talks about all the time to everyone except me. I want him to talk to me about the struggle, but he says I am only ten years old, too young to be engaged in political talk.
We walk through the trading centre, careful not to step on the small piles of agingoranges, avocado, papayas and mangoes laid out on the sand. The sun has turned them to a faded brown-yellow. A man haggles over the price of two tomatoes. There’s no agreement on the price and he throws them back on the sand. The seller, an old woman, waves him away. She has no energy to quarrel with him. Men and women sit behind half empty sacks of rice, beans and groundnuts. The laughter of women boiling tea and maize porridge is a happy melody. “Best carrots, best price,” a young boy with a basket on his head shouts as he munches on one. We pass mechanics hitting car parts back into shape with metal bars, and watch a group of boys take turns showing off their break-dance moves. They hold their shorts which would otherwise slip off their lean bodies.
Back at home, I hear Nana’s voice before I see her. “This camp is going to kill us!” She shouts this several times a day as she throws her long stick arms up and down, a cigarette in her oversized lips, lips the color of pink gum. Her arms seem to move on their own like an infant’s. She sits on an old brown sackscarred with black holes from cigarette burns, her legs stretched, her back against the wall of our small house, one of the few made of mud bricks. The sack, like everything else, was given to us by the United Nations. Once the sorghum it contained was finished, Ma asked me to wash it and we now use it as a mat. Ma recycles everything: plastic bags, empty tuna tins, newspapers. Our house is a museum of recycled items. Sometimes she sells them for a few shillings at the trading centre.
“No, Nana,” Ma says, “we’re not going to die here. The cigarettes will kill you before this place does.” Ma’s struggling to light a fire in the makeshift kitchen held together by four poles and partially covered by sacks. Three big stones hold the cooking pot. She has one matchstick left. She kicks the logs as though this will force them to light. Her hands are white-grey from the ash that leaves white specks in her thick dreadlocks cascading on her shoulders like twisted brown ropes.
“If the cigarettes were to kill me, I’d already be dead. It’s this prison.” Nana raises her voice and waves her hands in the air. “It sucks life out of me. I want to go home. When will we go back home?” She has asked this question many times but no one answers her. She looks over at Ma. “That fire will not catch. The wind is so strong,” she declares, her troubles momentarily forgotten.
“Perhaps you should light it since you’re an expert,” Ma says.
Pa offers to do it; he doesn’t want them to quarrel. Within seconds the fire is going. During the night Ma will tell me how she dislikes it when grandma and Pa make her feel worthless. She’ll tell me that she hates the feeling of inadequacy she can’t escape, that she used to be in control, managed a Shell station. She’s talking to herself, really, as she does before she falls asleep, her arms around me, convinced I am asleep. I will be pretending to be asleep, wanting to comfort her, to tell her it will be all right and that Nana and Pa only want to help. Instead I will turn around and do the only thing I can do, hug her.
“Tea?” Ma asks. She makes tea in this heat when what we need is cold water, but we have each had our cup of water for the day. Ma lies when she says tea quenches thirst. Pa offers to collect water from the borehole several miles away. I want to go with him, but he says it’s hot. He picks up his radio and leaves. I watch his retreating back, convinced he prefers his own company.
Nana knows I am disappointed and calls me to her to go over the alphabet. I collect the stick she has sharpened like a pencil and write the alphabet in the sand. I can’t make out what I’ve written but she says, “very good, keep the letters straight, like this.” She takes my hand, covers it with her bony hands, and we scribble in the sand. Nana has managed to make sure I can read, write, and count. She’s the one who tells me how we came to the camp ten years ago. She tells me that she doesn’t want to die in the refugee camp with its barren soil, the land so flat rain water floods our house and breeds mosquitoes, the heat so sharp it cuts everything.
“It’s not so bad,” I say.
“You don’t know any better, Timothy,” she says. “If you had seen the house we left behind, then you’d know this is very bad.”
The sound of children running after a white Toyota Land Cruiser that pulls up at our house in a swirl of dust interrupts us. They collapse on their knees to catch their breath. Ma curses the UN woman who jumps out, dressed in khaki pants and a sky-blue t-shirt with a big blue United Nations logo. Big dark sunglasses fill her small face. Ma has told me she doesn’t like her as she represents everything Ma has lost, but I think she is the most beautiful woman alive, and have told Pa I will marry her when I grow up. Pa laughs and shakes his head. She has come to our home a few times to interview Pa, but he refuses to talk to her. He says she’s too young and asks for a more senior officer.
“So, will he talk to me today?” the UN woman asks, as she smiles at me.
“Please take us home,” Nana says.
“You have to tell me your story,” she says removing her sunglasses. I look at her chocolate eyes and smile as she offers me a packet of cookies which I accept, even as I know Ma doesn’t like it when I accept things from her. Ma says it’s enough we depend on the United Nations for everything, and yet, Ma eats some of the cookies as soon as the UN woman leaves.
“But you never talk to us,” Nana says. Just then, Pa comes back with the wheelbarrow full of jerry cans of water. Ma breaks into a dance, the UN woman forgotten. We all get plastic cups and drink and drink and drink. We don’t have to think about rationing water for now. It’s a good moment until Pa sees the UN woman.
I watch Pa and the UN woman from a corner in the only spare room, which serves as a dining and living room, and kitchen when it rains, as I eat the cookies. They sit around the small old wooden table with its lame feet. Rusty suitcases are piled in one corner, along with Ma’s recycled items.They look at each other. She fishes a notebook out of her satchel, opens a blank page, and places it on the table. Pa removes dry coffee beans from his trouser pockets, rubs them between his thumb and index finger. Coffee husks fall on the table. He pops the coffee into his mouth.
“Let’s start with the identity cards,” she says. “Why don’t you just give them to me?”
“Because I’ve lost track of the number of UN officials that have looked at our identity cards without doing anything to help us,” Pa says.
“We’ve helped. This is why you’ve been temporarily registered in the refugee camp. Now I have to do a proper interview to determine whether you’re in need of asylum. To do this, I have to see your identity cards. You know this.”
“Ten years isn’t temporary,” he says.
He looks over at me and gives her the identity cards. He reassures her we’re who we say we are as her eyes scrutinize Ma’s identity card. She says the striking woman in the picture looks nothing like Ma. He tells her if she had been reduced to this life, she wouldn’t recognize herself either, and then laughs and she laughs. I don’t understand why they’re laughing, but I also laugh.
“Tell me about your departure from Uganda,” she says. He eats his coffee beans and studies her.
“Why did you leave Uganda?” she asks. “How did you leave?”
He looks at her, at me, and out the window at the children peeping inside and waves them away. A fly flutters into the room and settles on the UN woman’s face. She brushes it away. She starts to gather her bags, but Pa says something.
“I opposed the government.”
“What did you do?”
He tells her about criticizing the government, shows her newspaper articles exposing things government officials wanted kept secret, about street protests, and tear gas that almost choked him to death. The UN woman studies the newspaper articles. They aren’t signed with his name.
“I don’t believe you,” she says.
“If you wrote these articles, why isn’t your name in the byline?”
“I used a fictitious name. They were following me.”
“You’re lying,” she says. I see lines on Pa’s forehead twitching furiously. I know he’s getting angry.
“What makes you so sure I am lying?”
“You refugees are always telling lies so you can be resettled to America.”
Pa grabs her by the neck. His big eyes are even bigger. He looks frightening and I shudder. I’ve never seen him like this. He tells her never to call him a liar again, then he picks up his radio and walks out of the room.
“I don’t like the UN woman anymore,” I tell Nana. We’re sitting on the sack. We’ve just returned from the trading center to collect our monthly food ration: maize flour, rice, dry beans, and cooking oil. Ma has gone to exchange some of the beans for meat, vegetables, and eggs so we can have a feast for Christmas lunch. The sun is at its hottest. I’ve removed my shirt, exposing my skin freckled with mosquito bites. It has been several weeks since the UN woman’s visit and Pa hasn’t returned home.
“No?” Nana raises her eyebrows.
“And what you said about her isn’t true. She doesn’t want to help us.”
“How do you know this?”
“She doesn’t. She called Pa a liar. Pa was so angry he almost strangled her.”
“Really, what exactly happened?”
“She called him a liar, and he just got angry. Nana, why did we leave Uganda?”
Nana looks at me, rubs my head gently, and looks away towards the valley and the forest beyond it. She doesn’t smile. She closes her eyes and starts to smoke.
“Bad things happened,” she says after some time, her eyes still glued to the valley as though she’s watching something there.
“Bad things like what?” I ask.
“They killed your grandfather and wanted to kill your father.”
“Why would they want to kill him?”
“You know how it’s wrong to steal, kill and lie,” she says, “well, the government was stealing money and killing people who didn’t agree with some of its decisions. Your grandfather was among the people who were killed.” She stops and takes a deep breath. “He disappeared just like that,” Nana claps her hands. There are tears in her eyes. “Your father didn’t like this. He didn’t think it was right, and started writing about these things in the newspapers. They got very angry and decided to make his life impossible. Police started to follow him all the time. He was in and out of prison. They’d put him in prison for sneezing.”
This doesn’t make sense to me. I want to know more but Nana is crying.
“Nana,” I gently pat her back, “why does Pa carry a gun?” This is the hundredth time I am asking her this question.
“Ha.” Her eyes are now wide, alert.
“Pa, why does he carry a gun?”
“Protection from what?”
“Those people he ran away from are still looking for him.”
“Is this why he goes away during the night?”
“You ask too many questions, Timothy. You know curiosity killed the cat,” she says gently pulling my rabbit-shaped ears. She starts to correct the words I’ve misspelled in the sand: mohter, fathre, areoplain. I know I have to let the questions sleep for now. I want to go and play with my friends but Nana insists I lie down and rest instead of playing in the hot sun. Am not sure how long I’ve been asleep when loud voices wake me up. Nana and Pa are arguing.
“More blood?” Nana asks.
“There’s no need to shout, I am here right next to you. It was a fight,” Pa says.
“You can’t lie to me. The blood you’re spilling, what is it for?”
“It was a fight.”
“Who did you fight? Guns won’t win. Guns don’t bring change. Don’t be like the government you are fighting!”
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Pa says.
“Then tell me why you move around with a gun. Your son wants to know why you carry a gun. You even attacked the UN woman. What have you become?”
I wish I hadn’t said anything. On the radio, a reporter says the mayor of Kampala has been shot dead outside parliament.
“Did you have anything to do with this?” Nana asks.
He’s quiet. Instead, he walks away. I sit up and see him with a small jerry can of water by the makeshift kitchen. I run to him with my ball, I know he’s washing off the blood and I want to see the blood because I don’t understand why he has blood on his clothes, and I wish we could kick the ball so everything would be all right. I see fresh wounds on his shoulders, blood on his clothes, in his beard. I want to ask him about the blood, but I don’t know how, and then Ma comes back and says she has brought meat, eggs, simsim, and vegetables. She also found some Fanta orange. She doesn’t ask about the blood so I think that maybe there’s no blood. As soon as Pa finishes cleaning up, he’s off again.
Ma asks me to help her make supper. “You pound the simsim like this like this,” she shows me, holding the wooden bowl tight between her thighs and moving the pestle up and down. “Don’t use so much force so the simsim doesn’t end up in the sand. Pound it until it’s oily.” All I am thinking about is the meat and eggs and Fanta orange we’ll feast on tomorrow. I’II eat and eat and eat until I get a tummy ache.
Nana disappears from the camp.
We look everywhere and ask everyone. No one has seen Nana. Ma reports my grandmother’s disappearance to the camp police, who say they will investigate. Every day she walks to the police station but they have no news. Pa goes away more often and for longer periods even when Ma asks him not to leave us alone. She’s scared. When I ask Ma where he goes she says she doesn’t know. I tell her to ask him but she says some things are better left unknown. This is strange. Why is it better not to know where father goes? I don’t ask. If I do, Ma will tell me what she always tells me these days, to stop asking questions; I am not a philosopher.
I miss Nana. I miss her small frame leaning on the wall of our house, shouting at chickens to get out of our yard, sucking her cheeks as she chewed coffee beans. I miss our secrets and the stories she used to tell me about Uganda as we watched the sky turn from ocean blue to a white, pink, and orange canvas, the sun a big orange balloon before darkness engulfed the camp. I keep hoping that she’ll be there smoking her cigarettes when I come home after playing with my friends.
At the trading centre, people talk to Ma about the struggle and say Pa is brave to continue even after his mother’s disappearance. They talk about government officials gunned down as if it’s a good thing. I am confused, because gunning people can’t be a good thing. It’s the way they say these things and mention Pa that I think he has something to do with the gunning. Ma isn’t saying anything, not even during the night, but then, one day she wakes me up in the middle of the night and tells me we’re going to follow Pa.
The full moon and sparkling stars make it easy to trail him as we walk through the maze of shacks, our footsteps in sync. A few times I step on tins, plastic bags and fear he has heard us, but he doesn’t stop. As we cross the valley into the forest, he becomes one with the darkness. The voices from his radio interposed with music guide us for awhile before he switches it off and immediately disappears. My stomach grumbles and my heart pounds. I think the sound of my breathing is someone else’s, and imagine invisible eyes watching us.
“Ma…” I tug at her clothes, “we’re walking in circles,” I whisper.
“Shut up,” she says and sits down.
An owl cries.
“Bad luck,” she whispers. “Maybe we should go back.”
“What’s that flickering red dot?”
“I think someone is smoking. Stay here,” she says as she gets up. I don’t. Much later, I will wish I had listened to her. I follow her as she walks like a lion hunting. I think she has done this before; she doesn’t make any sound. I smell cigarettes before I hear voices, before I see anyone. We’re now on our stomachs before a spot carved out in the forest under a large baobab tree. It’s concealed by the tree branches that kiss the soil. The gaps between the leaves and branches are stitched with leaves from other trees. A torch is lit every few minutes. I can’t tell how many people are squatting or sitting under the tree. I see children, men, women. I see Pa. He decides who speaks. I see a woman on her knees, her hands tied above her head, her mouth and eyes covered. They discuss. I want to hear what they’re talking about. I can’t.
The woman whimpers. Pa shouts at her to stop. She doesn’t. He pulls out his gun and grabs her head. “Father,” I shout as a shot is fired. Ma reaches out and covers my mouth but it’s too late. They’ve heard us. Torchlight shines in our faces. I think Pa is shouting at us but I am too scared to make out anything. I hear screaming. I am trembling like I have fever. Ma is also shuddering. There are tears. The forest is death. I don’t hear the birds fly away to somewhere safe. I don’t see the children vomit. I don’t see that they’ve covered their eyes. I don’t hear them cry. I hear a voice shout “run,” and we’re running and running and running and don’t stop, even when we stumble or collide into trees, until we’re inside our house.
“Did you see Ma?” I shout, as Ma secures the weak wooden door and window as though whoever she’s locking out can’t break them with asimplekick.
“Shhh…shhhh.” She listens. The only sound is our wheezing. She guides me to the bed, but doesn’t say anything until our breathing is normal.
“What did you see Timothy?” she asks.
“Pa. He shot the woman.”
It’s dark. I can’t see her face, but I know her eyes on me.
“Did you see Ma? He shot her.”
“I don’t think he meant to…”
“Ma, Pa, he shot her, the woman, he shot her, shot her.”
“He shot her…”
“Timothy, forget it. You didn’t see a thing, you hear me?” she raises her voice.
A torrent of tears in my eyes. I don’t think about why she’s not shocked, why she’s telling me to forget. I don’t hear the panic and fear in her voice.
She holds my shoulders and shake me. “Do you hear me Timothy? Forget about it. Do you hear me son?” Her voice is loud and she continues to shake me until I scream, “yes Ma, yes.”
“Am sorry Timothy,” she says immediately and stops shaking me, reaches out and puts my head in her lap. Oh God, am sorry. It’s ok Timothy, it is ok. It’s going to be ok. This is all my fault, my fault. I shouldn’t have taken you the forest. I just don’t want you to talk about this again. Erase it away. You didn’t see anything, ok?” She lifts my chest up and holds me tightly to her chest. She’s crying. I can’t breathe. After some time I ask her if this is what happened to Nana, and she says she doesn’t know.
A week has elapsed since we went to the forest, and I haven’t left Ma’s side, not to play football with my friends, not to go to the market to search for treasures from piles of garbage, beg for hot chapattis, fried salted cassava or mandanzis, run errands for shopkeepers in exchange for coins we gather for months until we have enough to buy plastic toys imported from China that break within minutes of playing with them, or sneak into the makeshift shed and crawl under wooden benches between the legs of adults to the front to watch Nollywood movies.
Ma has cajoled, begged and threatened, but I’ve refused to leave her side, and even follow her when she goes to use the pit latrine. I see and hear death in the shadows, the wind’s voice, the creaks when the door and windows are opened and shut, and the domestic sounds of our neighbors that sift through the thin walls of our house like sand. I can’t get the bang of the gunshot out of my head and wish Ma knew that talking about it would help me, and if I could talk to Ma I wouldn’t miss Nana so bad and I’d tell her about fearing Pa, and she’d tell me there is no need to be; Pa is still Pa. But the forest has become a taboo just like Nana’s disappearance.
Shortly after the forest, the rains come bringing the camp to a standstill. It has been raining for three days now, alternating between heavy pours, hail storms and drizzles. Every year, I count the months to July when the rains visit and celebrate the fresh water, which I happily harvest in cups, buckets, pots and jerry cans, overwhelming the house with containers brimming with water lined against the wall. After a few days, the rains become a burden as I hate being trapped inside the house like a mouse in a cage, and I dislike running back and forth to the pit latrine, a trip that leaves me soaked. There’s nothing to keep me busy; if I skip my rope, it knocks over things in the house forcing Ma to give me the eye. And I hate the smell of burning wood as Ma has to shift the kitchen into the house. But now, I wish it could rain for forever for Ma has stopped urging me to get out of the house.
I pick up my rocks and sticks and make shapes – rectangles, squares, triangles, but quickly tire of this, and have a go at constructing the large house with several rooms and windows that I dream about owning when I grow up, but realise I have nothing to construct the roof with and abandon the headless house. With charcoal, I sketch pictures of the house on creased paper bags, and am almost done when the door opens, and Pa saunters in. I instantaneously walk to Ma who is up on the bed mending clothes.
“Aren’t you going to greet your father?” he asks.
“Good evening Pa.”
“What’s with you that you can’t leave your mother alone?”
“Let him be,” Ma says.
“He’s not a child anymore.”
“Oh he is. Ten years old in case you’ve forgotten!”
“He needs to man up,” Pa says as he shakes his head and makes to sit on the bed, but Ma holds her hand out, “not with your wet clothes,” she says. His beard, hair and clothes are dripping with water, which leave a path wherever he walks. He finds a bed sheet, covers himself and changes into dry clothes without revealing his nakedness. Once he has changed, he gets a stool and sits next to Ma who has gone to the spare room. Pa’s arrival has made the house even smaller, and I don’t know where to go or how to exist, so I lie on the bed, and soon, am asleep.
Loud voices wake me up in the night. These days Ma and Pa have taken to whispering in my presence, and only raise their voices when they’re certain am asleep. This time they’re quarrelling.
“We can’t go on like this,” Ma says, “Timothy is scared of his own shadow.”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
“Then do something about it.”
‘I am. Am trying to get both of you out of here. I’ve written to the UN woman asking for another interview. I am going to tell her everything. And now with my mother’s disappearance, who knows, whoever took her could come back for you or Timothy. Once I explain all of this, am sure she’ll have you resettled to America.”
“You should have been upfront from the beginning, but no, you have to do everything on your terms. Now, we’re stranded here.”
“This isn’t helping.”
“And shooting a woman helps?”
“Are you sure he’s asleep?”
“I just wanted to scare her, but the gun went off.”
“Did you think about your son when you decided to scare this woman?”
“I said I just wanted to scare her.”
“You shouldn’t have kidnapped her in the first place!”
“I know that now. They abducted her without my permission to gather intel on government operations.”
“Now you have blood on your hands!”
“Make no mistake. That woman was a government informer. An enemy.”
Ma doesn’t say anything for some time. I think she has gone back to sleep but then she asks, “are you still looking for your mother?”
And she came. The UN woman. Two days after the rains had disappeared into the sky, and the sun had returned with an intensity that made me think it was revenging the rain for taking over the skies. This time, I didn’t follow her and Pa into the house, but I knew she held the key to our safety. I was helping Ma wash clothes in a plastic bucket, and Pa sat outside listening to the news on the radio when she arrived. Pa had started spending more time at home waiting for the UN woman to come. I should have been ecstatic as this is what I had wanted for so long, but each time he was home, the small space we shared shrunk into molecules, and my eyes only saw his gun.
RUTH MUKWANA is a fiction writer from Uganda. She is currently working for the United Nations on humanitarian affairs in Sudan. She’s a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA) and holds a Bachelors degree in Law from Makerere University. Her short stories have appeared in Solstice Magazine and Consequence Magazine.