Can I Show You Magic?
One of those rare red and green grasshoppers is perched on the curtain of his bedroom window when Lubwama opens his eyes. This is good luck. He will catch many today. It is a Saturday morning in May and grasshoppers are to fall upon Kampala’s hills for about a month. He jumps out of bed, stretches his arms and quickly shuts his mouth while yawning as though it will save him some time. The year before last, he saw the insects in April, but last year they flew late May. It rains in April, and in May it should rain even more. The rains are reducing, and he knows he can only hunt for a few weekends.
He does not need to get out of his pyjamas until he is to bathe after the hunt. The trousers of the SpongeBob pyjamas his taata bought the eight-year-old, two years ago reach the boy’s shins now. So, he thinks of how appropriate the gumboots leaning on the cracked skirting of his bedroom wall would be for his adventure but soon after, recounts how uncomfortably sweaty his toes had been in the footwear the last hunt. Like the swamp water reclaiming the walls of his room, his feet will know the fate of these walls if he puts on the gumboots. How water had found its way into the gumboots the last time, he does not know. He decides to make the choice on footwear after his breakfast.
Before Lubwama was born, his father and mother waited for him to be a boy. The doctor had told the mother-to-be that her heart would not allow her to have another child after she gave birth to this one. So, they waited for a boy, and a boy they got. If by the mere fact that one born with akashoro between one’s legs, is a boy. But it did not take very long for the father to start raising his eyebrows when he did not understand why his son held his waist and tilted his head to the side when he pulled out his phone to take a picture of him. “The boy is spending too much time by your side,” he would say to his wife. “That is how you hold yourself when they are going to take your picture.” He would slap the boy’s hands away from his hips.
The aroma of millet porridge steamed with milk fills the corridor when Lubwama leaves his bedroom. While he makes his way to the dining room, he closes his eyes and inhales the delicious simmering of his mother’s cooking. The cream curtains in the dining room have not yet been drawn open and they are alive with sunlight, sharpening the gaudy colours of an acrylic painting of fruits on the wall that hides the kitchen. He looks at the painting every morning to make out the fruit. He can only pinpoint a watermelon because it is cut in half, and he can see the black seeds dotted on the red flesh. He wonders what the purple-coloured one is, what its name could be in his mother tongue, but he does not ask his taata. The man hates stupid questions.
At the head of the dining table next to the wash sink, Lubwama’s taata picks black beads from one of the indents of a wooden board and distributes them among three other hollows. He plays the two-player omweso game by himself while having his cup of milk chai. It is one of the few occasions Lubwama gets to see his father the entire week; his father trying to have all the indents on his side of the board filled with more beads than that of his invisible friend. On weekends the man is dressed down, no suit and tie, just a maroon shirt which Lubwama is certain is tucked into his favourite khaki trousers. The boy sees the hems, the faded green of a sun dried mudarasini leaf under the table as he pulls out a chair.
Lubwama folds his right leg on the chair before sitting on it. Then, so fast, he withdraws his leg from under his buttocks; he remembers his father’s warning that that is not the way a proper man sits in a chair.
The bowl of bushera before him is his, he knows. Maama pours his into a bowl from the thermos flask so it cools before he arrives at the table.
“Oraire ota?” his taata asks.
“I slept well, Taata. Good morning,” he says this to the bowl. Lubwama takes the spoon dipped in his bowl and mouths the millet porridge.
“There is money for tomatoes and onions on the TV stand,” Maama says, walking in with a tray of deep-fried cassava and sets it on the table. Lubwama takes another spoon of bushera and places his elbow on the table. He then rests his cheek in his hand and stirs his porridge.
“Do not put your hand on the cheek like that,” Taata says. His father never takes his eyes off of him whenever they are together in a room. “Sit up straight and take your porridge properly.”
“Properly” was standing with his hands to his sides and looking straight into Taata’s camera phone when the man was taking the boy’s picture. Also, once when they were walking into church on a Sunday, Taata had cautioned the boy’s hands to his sides with a slap on his shoulder. By the age of five, Lubwama’s father was giving excuses to his wife as to why they should not be going to visit their friends with the boy. “Look at the way his neck bends when he is walking,” he would say, thinking the boy would not catch his angry Runyankore. “He cannot even sit in people’s chairs like a real man.”
Straightening his back on the chair’s post, Lubwama says, “Tomorrow I will beat you at your own game Taata.” As though nothing has just happened. What weighs heavy in his heart is not his taata’s voice. Like a dying radio when you try to increase its volume, the man’s words always weigh light even when he angrily cautions his son. One time after picking him up from daycare, Lubwama watched the veins of his father’s neck form like little snakes slithering down into his shirt’s collar as he scolded Lubwama. From his school bag, the boy had pulled the blonde Barbie doll he took from the hall where the pre-primary girls slept in the afternoon. Before reducing the sound of Kanda Bongo Man on the radio, his father had strained his voice to a pulsing breath between words. What disturbs Lubwama is the way his taata heckles him every time he does something little. Does anyone ever think of their gestures before they do them? Lubwama believes his father thinks he carries himself like he does intentionally. It is not hard to see through his thoughts.
“Lubwama, behave yourself,” Taata says, smiling at his son’s enthusiasm to beat him at omweso.
Lubwama wants more words from his taata, but he has learned to calculate the man’s mood. Maama walks back into the kitchen. The moment of silence that creeps between father and son is broken by sharp clanking; Kente saves the boy from further awkwardness.
The young girl knocks on the metallic front door even after seeing Lubwama and his father are looking at her. “Are you ready we go?” she asks, bending forward, untying the shoelaces of her white sneakers. The faded blue of her old P.E. shorts looks like their original colour – the dull grey is not in patches but flows all through the fabric of the shorts. She walks into the front door, pulling at the hem of her shirt like it will straighten out the deep creases.
“Good morning Kente keitu,” Taata says. “Come and have some porridge first.” Lubwama’s father likes Kente for his little boy because she is a girl. She is the reason he still believes that his boy is a boy, and that he will grow and become a man. Lubwama wonders how a father can treat the child of other people better than his own. On days when Kente’s Auntie delays to pick up the girl from school, Taata allows the girl to sit in the front seat while he drives. The other day he did not ask Lubwama but asked Kente what she wanted to eat on their way back from school. “Ice cream or banana crisps?” he asked Kente. The girl turned to look at her friend in the back seat and read “ice cream” from the way Lubwama’s lips moved. Taata bought ice cream for them.
“My daughter-in-law,” says Taata as he gets up from his seat. “How are you?” he asks, collecting the beads in the indents. He bags them into a small cotton sack and folds the slats of the board.
“I am fine Taata Lubwama,” Kente says sitting in the chair opposite Lubwama. There is old porridge in a bowl before her. She takes a tablespoon from the utensil stand and pokes its wrinkled surface. The warm porridge underneath oozes onto the firm top. She will do anything to have her meals at Lubwama’s home. Auntie, back at her home, is a good cook but she will tell her how she will add on bad weight when Kente ladles extra groundnut stew from a dish to finish up her sweet potatoes; then after, picks a sweet potato from within folded banana leaves in a basket to finish up her groundnut stew.
“Eh Kente, welcome,” Maama says as she walks in from the kitchen. “Take that porridge.” She loosens her kitenge headwrap, recenters it around her head and then knots it twice. She had poured the porridge in the bowl to cool but had been too busy ferrying breakfast between the kitchen and the dining room to sit down and take it herself.
A centre table, TV stand and a striped coffee brown sofa set are the furniture of the living room. Taata walks to the table and places the board game and the bag of beads in one of its drawers. He grabs his car key on the table top. “Take care of our dear daughter on your expeditions,” the boy’s father says, pointing at Lubwama with the key and walking toward the garage door.
The boy only nods at his father and watches as he disappears into the garage. “That’s how you always just disappear,” Lubwama thinks. “When will you ever be there to see me be a boy?” He then looks at Kente who mixes her bushera with the spoon so that the hardened top warms up in the gruel underneath it.
“Hurry up and finish,” Kente says, then slurps the bushera on the spoon. “Don’t you want to get there before many people have reached?”
“He has to first get me vegetables,” Maama speaks loudly over the growling of the car engine. She squeezes behind Lubwama’s seat to where Taata sat. “You push him to the shop before you go.” Maama carries the plate and cup Taata left and walks back to the kitchen.
Lubwama watches Kente as she lifts the spoon, licks the bushera and places it on the table mat. She carries the bowl, positions her lips on its rim and guzzles the bushera. Lubwama follows suit.
“Bye Maama!” Lubwama’s voice is the sharp deedeedee call of a diederick cuckoo. He is louder when Taata is out of the house. Lubwama and Kente are exiting the front door when Maama walks back.
“Hurry!” she calls behind them seeing the children run toward the gate. Her son swings his arms like they do not have bones in them, like they are about to break off. “Won’t this world break them off before he does himself?”
The forest to the left is a dark-green screen hiding the stream and papyrus swamp. The heat wafting down into the valley from the houses clumped along the Naguru hill slope is the kind that burdens Lubwama’s eyelids; he wants to close his eyes but only squints in the bright sunshine. He can hear the whisper of the forest’s song of birds, crickets and frogs. Because the past three days have been rainy, the murram on the road to the shop is still wet. Lubwama’s slippers are heavy with mud and resist the rise and fall of his feet. The gumboots were maybe not a bad idea after all.
“You walk like a pussycat,” Kente says, cackling.
“Can’t you see why?” Lubwama stops and slides the soles of his slippers on a chiselled stone by the roadside to get clods of mud off.
“I tell you because if you walk upright even when your father is not around,” she says, kicking the air to stretch out her legs, “you will get used to it.” Lubwama knows that she is right but does not know what they mean by upright.
He walks silently before he tells her she is his friend and that she should not be Taata. “I beg you, don’t.” His voice reverberates in the valley, louder than he had anticipated.
Kente watches her friend and shakes her head with a, kdto click of her tongue. “It is no wonder you don’t have friends.”
The boy keeps quiet.
Before the boy turned seven, those days when his taata used to speak to him more often, he once told Lubwama that if he ever wanted to send him a message in the office in the rainy months of April and November, he did not need to ask his maama for the landline telephone. All he needed to do was to go outside the gate and shout what he wanted to say to him and the air in the valley would carry the message to him. The boy is glad that that is only a story old people tell to comfort their children.
The last time Lubwama was at the shop, the shopkeeper Blackita yelled at him. He had been fingering the heap of rice in a sack stationed in front of the cupboard that houses plastic tins of sweets and chewing gums. Lubwama believes that there is no one in the world who could be blacker than this shopkeeper; it is why he nicknamed him Blackita. The man loves watching Nikita on the TV shelved above the toilet papers and toothpastes. At the rough cement-plastered wall before the veranda of the shop, Lubwama halts in his tracks.
“Here, have the money,” he says as he takes Kente’s hand and places the five thousand shillings note on her palm. He asks her to buy the tomatoes and onions. “Add sweet pepsi if there is a balance,” he grins, one of his incisors on the lower jaw is catching up with the other.
Kente drops her hand fisted with the note to her thighs and stomps her feet. “Stop fearing even where there is nothing to fear.”
“He does not like me,” Lubwama slumps against the wall fence, his hands akimbo. Kente scurries to the shopkeeper.
“Ako ka friend ko, you are not with him today?” It is Blackita’s boisterous voice. Lubwama hears him asking Kente about her ka friend. “He wants to be a girl like you? He does not want to find friends who are boys? Do not spend too much time with him; you are going to spoil him.”
When Lubwama hands the bags of tomatoes and onions to his maama, she asks him what is in his other hand. He loosens his grip on the piece of newspaper and it is blotted with something green. The newspaper clings onto his sweaty palms. Maama unfurls the piece of paper in her boy’s hands, exposing round green tablets of sweet pepsi sweets.
“When someone sends you for something, you buy just that,” Maama bursts, taking the vegetables from Lubwama’s hand. “If you wanted sweet pepsi, you should have asked before I sent you.”
“Kaale Maama,” Lubwama says. The boy tightens his grip engulfing the sweets and runs through the corridor to the shoe rack by the wall beside the bathroom door. He withdraws his turquoise sneakers from the rack and sets them on the ground. He pockets the paper with the sweets in the breast pouch of his pyjama’s shirt and puts on his shoes.
When maama bumps into the boy in the corridor, she hands him the empty plastic bags and tells him to catch as many grasshoppers as possible. Lubwama takes the bags from her and follows Kente out the front door. “Stay around the bushes near the fence,” Maama cautions them.
The sun’s heat that collects in the pockets of Kampala’s hills has already dried the muddy steps of the slope down to the old trees,but the earth gets soggier as Lubwama and Kente walk deeper into the forest.
“Yamawe!” Lubwama clasps between his fingers, the hind limbs and wings of a bright green grasshopper perched on the moss of a deeply wrinkled tree bark. He then releases the hind limbs carefully maintaining his fingers’ grip on the wings. He plucks off the hind legs and releases the grasshopper into the polythene bag.
“Why don’t you remove the wings also?” Kente watches the grasshopper flip its wings in the bag.
“That is why,” Lubwama says, holding the bag high above his head. He gazes at the grasshopper as it flaps its wings and stops, flaps a wing and stops. He wants to watch it get tired.
“Just wait,” Kente says as she moves, stepping on the sheaths of long grasses to make a way through the thicket. “Just wait for us to reach the swamp, there are more grasshoppers there.”
“I’d rather get as many as I can out here,” he says, a hand plucking the leaves of bushes off their stalks and throwing them onto the ground. “By the time we get there, my bag is half full and I have little to pick.” He comes to a standstill when he sees sprawling and wandering dark, needle-like compound leaves on thin creeping stems, carpeting the red earth. He loves running his fingers on their tiny leaflets. His lips curl into a smile when he turns and asks Kente, “Can I show you magic?”
They were in his village in Mbarara district when Taata first showed Lubwama magic. Taata had been taking the boy on a walk, showing off his son to the men and women he grew up with in the Kaso Kembwa neighbourhood. You will always find villagers seated at their verandas looking at the pathway waiting for someone to greet and then gossip about. If you want to display your beautiful son from Kampala, this is how you do it. They had been ascending from Rwebishengye’s house when Taata squatted by the side of the road and asked that same question.
Kente walks on ahead, paying no attention to him because she is tired of the trick. Lubwama squats in the moist grasses and touches the leaves of the creeping mimosa pudica. He watches as the leaflets retract. “Magic,” he says, facing the canopy of the trees above him before getting up and running after Kente.
A stream of children’s chatter increases as Lubwama and Kente draw closer to the edge of the forest. The trees are sparse and shortening. They take a narrow path and fidget through a thicket of lush green vegetation. Lubwama counts the grasshoppers in his bag as he saunters quietly behind Kente. He then looks ahead. A few tufts of papyrus sedge manage to thrive at the swampy hollows, while a couple of grey-crowned cranes strut with grace. A flock of Marabou storks, the pink sacks hanging from their necks, pick at the matooke peelings, soiled diapers and sanitary pads dumped at the corner of the path toward the borehole by the residents of the neighbourhood who cannot afford to pay for garbage collection services. The birds are oblivious to the scruffy Nsimbiziwome neighbourhood children running about and squabbling in the mucky waters at the edge of the swamp with bags of captured grasshoppers in their hands.
Isakwa, the bowlegged boy, strikes a papyrus bush with a eucalyptus tree branch. Lubwama has learned to take his eyes away from him very quickly after he has noticed he is present. He does not know yet why a boy who cannot put on t-shirts without holes, a boy with legs that cannot stand straight, makes him feel like grasshoppers are flying inside him. So Lubwama looks up and watches the confetti of grasshoppers spreading across the sky. Children shriek with laughter and excitement running across the muddy ground, barefooted.
“Your friend is there,” Kente mocks Lubwama pointing to Isakwa with a crooked lip. “This time I am not collecting anything for you. It’s all on you,” she says before yelling Isakwa’s name.
“Don’t go where he is!” Lubwama begs her, standing at once when he notices that she is moving toward Isakwa.
Turning east to face the Nsimbiziwome borehole, Lubwama picks a dark brown grasshopper with a bulging abdomen from a slim stalk of red natal grass bent backwards under the weight. “It is pregnant,” he thinks. “Two in one,” he grins. “Oba, have you eaten too much?” he asks the grasshopper, watching its yellow mandibles close and open in anticipation, as if expecting an answer. He bags the grasshopper and looks at his chest; his pyjamas marred by the spikey seed of blackjack. He picks at them as he saunters east. The stretch of red earth before him is dotted with bits of polythene. Many of them are halfway stuck into the ground. Lubwama holds onto a green one, and hauls it upwards, but the ground does not let go of the polythene as if it has grown teeth and sunk them into the bag. “Stop it!” It is Kente’s shriek that brings him to turn back to the swamp.
“Give them to me,” Isakwa shouts at Kente as he holds her down by her shoulders. She squirms and holds her bag of four grasshoppers up in the air.
Lubwama runs toward them and slaps Isakwa’s back. Boys with bony fingers never know that they can mangle human skin very easily. Isakwa lets go of Kente and turns to face what hit him. Kente scuttles to the side with her grasshoppers and Isakwa snatches Lubwama’s bag.
“Give me back my grasshoppers,” Lubwama cries.
But Isakwa only mimics him in mockery. He dangles his head from side to side and stretches his lips so his fabrication of Lubwama’s high vocal note is squeakier, “Give me back my grasshoppers.” The words are not clear but you can tell what he is saying. He holds the plastic bags in one hand and grabs the neck of Lubwama’s shirt with another.
“I have sweet pepsies,” Lubwama says but it does not save him. Isakwa tugs him to the side and hurls him into the marshlands, between a cluster of papyrus reeds. Lubwama’s body lies one side dipped in the mud. This is when the air in Kampala’s hills should carry not just words but images of brave sons into their fathers’ offices.
“Leave him alone,” Kente yells too late. She rushes toward Lubwama but does not get close. She stops at the point where her sneakers sink only halfway into the wetland. Auntie back home will not have it with muddied clothing, and Kente does not want to have aching arms in class on Monday from a weekend spent washing clothes.
Did Isakwa just hold his pyjama’s shirt tightly against his chest and throw him into the swamp? The grasshoppers in his gut flutter their wings excitedly like those attracted by the light of street lamps reflected on silver iron sheets in the darkness of night. Lubwama lifts himself off the ground; the SpongeBobs of his pyjamas are disfigured with dark brown mud. “It’s okay. Ndi bulungi,” he assures Kente he is fine. He walks a couple of steps farther into the papyrus sedge, jumping at the flutterings, twitchings, the scramblings and the rustlings of the swamp with a myriad of living things always close by but never seen. He emerges where a stream of water flows clear and pours handfuls of water onto his face, neck, arms, then his entire body and rubs himself of the mud. The rubbing only smudges the pyjamas with more mud, but it comforts the boy that he is doing something about the mess. He is wet all over; his pyjamas stick to his body and Kente can see all of him like he is naked.
Now in the swamp, Lubwama can collect as many grasshoppers as he wishes to with ease. He walks closer to Kente and asks her for her bag; she gives it to him. He wends his way through the reeds and flora. The moist mud and particles in the boy’s sneakers are uncomfortable and his toes cringe as he plods his feet in the thick mud and clay of the wetland. Gumboots or no gumboots, like the walls of their house, the swamp’s water reclaims his feet. Shame is what he would have felt under the children’s mocking gazes, but pride is what Lubwama carries for facing Isakwa. This keeps him grounded in the soggy earth collecting as many grasshoppers as he can.
It is well over an hour since they left Lubwama’s home. Most of the neighbourhood children have gone back to their houses for lunch and only a couple still fill their bags with grasshoppers; some winding back into the forest, others following the route north of the swamp to the Kampala Northern by-pass. Lubwama climbs out of the swamp with the bag half green with grasshoppers and walks to Kente. She sits all by herself on a stack of clay bricks the unemployed teenagers looking for jobs in their vacations bake and sell to make pocket money for night parties.
“You take half and I take half,” he says, handing the bag to Kente.
“Lubwa it’s your catch,” she says, her hands pocketed between her thighs.
Still holding out the bag to Kente, Lubwama says, “It’s fine. Besides, Taata will come back home with about two bags of grasshoppers from the women who sell them by the roadside.”
“Wash up, then we go,” she says and grabs the bag.
On a boulder partially hidden by grass along the side of the path is a red and green grasshopper; the first he has seen since the one on the curtain in his bedroom. Lubwama whispers to Kente to wait a little. He draws closer to the boulder, landing his feet on the toes of his sneakers first so he does not startle his prey. He switches the bag of grasshoppers to his left hand and meticulously extends the fingers of his right closer to the grasshopper. The grasshopper shifts a hind limb forward and when the boy makes the move to grab it, it jumps and flies away.
Jedidiah Mugarura is a writer from Kampala, Uganda currently based in Toronto, Canada where he is a candidate of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Guelph. His poems appear in Contemporary Verse 2, Brittle Paper and Humber Literary Review. His short story, ‘Special Boy’ is forthcoming in Transition. He tells stories of his home country Uganda and the African continent.