Fathers in flea markets

Lilly Mwezi

    A random evening found my mother and I in a taxi to Kitooro. I was dazed. "You said you wanted to see your father, well today is that day," she had said while buttoning my dress. Despite the fact that my mother had detached herself from the old circle of friends she had shared with my father, the serpentine gossip vine had come bearing news that my father was campaigning for a local council post in his town. It's why we were breathing hot air, with our legs hoisted over the kameeme in a mini-bus taxi bound for Entebbe.

    Up to that point, my father had existed in my life as a mere concept constructed from answers returned to my questions, eavesdropped conversations, other people's fathers, my mother's tears, gaping human shapes carved out of photos, and memories which were consistently told to me to a point where it wasn't clear whether they were my own.

    My mother had been staring out of the window. It was not like her to be that quiet on a journey anywhere; she usually went about showing me things she found interesting on the way or giving me long explanations about the 'whys' and 'hows' of everything. I tried talking to her in the taxi, and while she gave me attention, I could see that she was pensive and sad.

    Suddenly she shouted "maasawo," asking the conductor to stop the vehicle. He said this was not Kitooro - she had told him she was going to Kitooro when we boarded the taxi. "Just park," she snapped, "I know where I am going."

    I would later learn that it was difficult for her to come back to this place. The town had become too small for her after separating with my father; she could only go through it with a turban on her head and sunglasses to disguise her identity. She felt that everybody knew her story. It was like a war museum with every structure erected as a monument in honour of their turbulent relationship.

    We leaped off the mini-bus taxi at a place with mowed lawns and a building with rimless windows and exposed brick that looked like a school block. My mother was unusually quiet and I was afraid of asking questions after her exchange with the mini-bus conductor. I knew this was one of those silences that I was forbidden from breaking. I wondered whether my father was waiting for us in the school block, but after my mother paid the conductor, it wasn't in the direction of the school block that we walked. She took my hand and we crossed the road to the opposite direction.

    I concentrated on scouring the opposite direction for all the possible places my father could be. There were some shops in the far distance, and a house in whose windows I could see curtains. A skinny, bare-chested boy was running around in circles after an old car tyre propelled forward by a stick fixed in the space where the rim had once been. It looked like someone's home. That could be my father's house, I thought to myself. That boy could be my brother. The realisation that I was so close to meeting my father increased my pulse. My head became tense and I broke out in a sweat. There was no other house in sight so that had to be it.

    We had been going steadily along the big dusty road to the house when my mother took a detour into a patch of grass and halted at an electricity pole. She looked down at me, held my hand, and pointed at a poster on the pole. I followed her eyes, which rested on a fat face that had the word "LONDA" below it. The face was smiling at us.

    I wasn't sure if it was just the fat face that made him look kind or if he had what the books would call a kind face. He had the face of the dads I had seen: fat, with side burns hurrying down to meet a scraggly beard. We had come a long way to see my father and the memory I would take home would be of an immobile face glued onto a tree, smiling past me; but I was pleased with the face. Finally here was the jar into which I could pour my imagination.

    My mother, who must have been speaking more to herself than to me, woke me from my stupor when she said, "We should probably go to one of his rallies, take the microphone and ask his fans how they feel about being led by a man who abandoned his family." I took her literally but she spoke no further of it. After gazing at the poster for some time, she said that we should probably go home, and home we went.

    On that poster had been the face of a man who had affected our lives the same way; however, we had gone for different reasons and left with different feelings. My mother had gone to confront him, and I to meet him. She had gone to look at him one more time - to purge herself of him - and she left with a heart weighing heavier than the one she had before the trip. I was there to nail his face firmly into my memory. Of course if I'd had any say in the matter, I would have preferred to meet him in a sentient form but this was a beginning. I left lighter of the burden of mystery.

    I had heard stories about my father and they weren't the kind I was happy about. I empathised with my mother, and her sorrow was mine, but I compartmentalised my father. There was a place in my heart where I had kept him, immaculate, untainted by his history with my mom; and in that place he bore all the embellishments of my understanding of what fathers were.

    I did not understand why he had done the things he had done to my mom, but I thought it was an experience that would be exclusive to them. In her eyes he was guilty, but on my account he was innocent; so despite what I knew about him, I had no negative feelings about him. I was looking forward to experiencing him myself before I made a decision about him. I had a plan. I was going to make him love me. All I needed to do was meet him.

    I spent my early childhood oblivious to the significance of fathers. In instances where I saw families with fathers, I thought of them as one of those differences where some households have things that others don't; like one family having a television set and the other family having none. Even the father living with a mother and their children in storybooks was shelved in that part of my brain where elves and other fictional characters were kept, to be seen - perhaps even marvelled at - but not to be taken too seriously.

    It wasn't until a few months into starting school, after my sixth birthday, when I learned that every child was supposed to have someone they called "daddy". It was in one of my first English classes. Our teacher tasked each of us to go to the front of the class and mention the names of our fathers and mothers along with our own. As child after child walked up and confidently mentioned the names of their mothers and fathers, it dawned on me that I might be the only child without a response to the father's bit. Even the kids who rarely answered a question correctly knew this one.

    My hands began to perspire as the children in my row receded, and my turn drew nearer. I wondered why I was the only one who didn't have an answer. I tried reflecting hard on my answer. I looked at my neighbour for inspiration then thought that maybe it was best to listen to the other kids, that way I could figure what to say by observation. My neighbour walked up next and when it was my turn, I proceeded to the front of the class, burdened with the realisation that others knew something I didn't.

    I said my long name and then my mother's, then glanced at the teacher, hoping she would let me go. The look on her face was asking for more.  She wanted answers. "Yes, tell the class, what is your father's name?" She seemed to think I had been distracted from my train of thought. "My father's name is...." I stuttered and fell silent. The other students turned to each other, mumbling. A wave of muffled laughter rippled through the class.  "A big girl, and you don't know your father's name!" The teacher said in mock bewilderment. "A whole big girl! Shame on you!"  I felt ashamed and angry.

    That night I sidled up to my mother on her bed and asked, "Mommy, what is my father's name?" In that instant, all the embarrassment, all the fear of something worse, something unknown, came flooding back. I broke into a cry, and that my mother cried while trying to calm me down only aggravated my torment; I cried even harder for things with names and things without names.

    She picked up an exercise book and wrote down something in pencil, then handed me the book. "Read it," she said, then handed me the pencil. "Here, now write it down." From then onwards I never had to struggle mentioning my father's name, but it was a relief tinged with apprehension: I knew that my family had an anomaly.

    My father walked out on my mother when she conceived me. She had been in one of those unfortunate situations where a woman reads too much into a man's attention, and before I had got a good foot onto her uterine wall, my father had long drawn the curtains. There would be no encores. I was eager, desperate even, to learn about my dad, but my newfound knowledge has not liberated me to this day. It created a need that had never existed before, and a discontentment with what I had, until then, considered a perfect life. Learning of the existence of a father was in itself harmless. It was the cue, the idea that I had to find him and bring him back that would later haunt me and become a lifelong preoccupation.

    I envied families that were complete. I coveted the positions of children whose conversations were not one sided; the ones with sisters you couldn't count, and big brothers who were heroic, and the Daddy's little girls whose conversations begun with, "For us at our home... me and my daddy..." Back then, the idea of family for me seemed to fall out of the cookie cutter definitions of biology, and when as a child I held mine against it, it fell short. It would take me several years to understand that what I had was a family too: an ever-expanding family that kept recruiting single mothers whose ties were not of blood, but of pain, loss, and struggle.

    In 1997, when my mother taught in a missionary school, we lived in the female staff quarters alongside twenty or more teachers. Each of them was single - most with a child - and even stranger, most of their children were girls. We were a community of children tended by many mothers. I was their child and their children were my mother's. This matriarchal capsule of women whose clans and totems I was clueless about was the all family I had.

    These women were alike in many ways; they possessed fragility, poverty, and heartache. Their kind, gentle, faces were gullied with worry but their eyes were filled with pride. After work, night was the shrink beneath whose gaze they bared their woes. It always seemed to start in the same way - two women quietly marking exercise books would be sitting over steaming mugs of tea and, one by one, more women would join. Before long it would take the form of a convocation and along the way our missing fathers would be exhumed from the cemetery of the past, filling the air with the stench of betrayal, cruelty, and melancholy. We, their children, were never far from these tired faces hovering over steaming mugs of tea. We listened to anecdotes that often started with "Her father", and each time I heard my mom say "Her father," I felt like an accomplice in an unspoken crime.

    But these women loved us with a sort of fierce possessiveness that can only be cultivated by loss. They were always there for one another. It is from them that my mother borrowed money. It is from them that I got bits of grub to take to boarding school. And they stood beside my mom when she buried her father.

    Children of broken-hearted women quickly become therapists. They sit through gut wrenching tales and soon realise that adults also cry. In my case, my mom told me everything I could digest; and through it we developed a relationship that swapped roles from time to time, blurring the mother-daughter lines into peer-like closeness. Whenever my mom was transferred to other schools, we adapted this design to our new friendships and over the years, I tended to gravitate towards fatherless daughters in the same way she gravitated towards single mothers. But no matter which school we went to, the other children's questions persisted, "Is your daddy dead?" "Why doesn't your daddy live with you at the teacher's house?" Then there were comments like, "This one only talks about her mother." And the teachers with their nagging registers, "What does your father do?" Or, "Where does your father live?"

    To cope with the pressure, I developed a habit of constructing my father in my mind, as a child would a rag doll: a figure sewn together from scraps of other children whose daddy stories I admired, but distorted enough for those children not to recognise the appropriation. It was this image that I presented at the lunchtime bragging convention in the schoolyard. He was so real to me that I would forget he was fictional. When asked for evidence, a cock and bull story about him being a soldier fighting a war in a faraway country was on standby to placate their curiosity.

    But feeding children's curiosity at school was the easy part. The hard part was starving for a real father. When I accompanied my mom to the Tuesday flea markets, I would browse through the stalls wishing they had one where I could buy a daddy.

    My first conscious encounter with my father was on the day of my first Holy Communion. My mother had thrown a big party for my Holy Communion and invited my father so I was excited. It was as grand a party as any seven year old in similar circumstances could fathom. My mom had thought this a good time to integrate me into my 'other' family and had invited aunties and grandmothers from her side and my father's too. It was the first time I was seeing most of them.

    My father's invitation had been sent via his sister, and despite mom's scepticism about his coming, I prepared to be at my best behaviour. I would finish the food on my plate. I wouldn't smudge food on my dress. I would answer cleverly when spoken to, especially when his relatives were watching.

    I asked myself what I would call him when I finish saying "afternoon", oba is it "Good afternoon"? Should I call him Daddy? It had been easy saying it in my school fiction but now that I was going to meet him, it felt unfamiliar.

    When he came, I knelt down to give him my hand and mumbled a barely audible greeting and he replied, "How are you girl?" He didn't say my name. Maybe he doesn't know my name...But it is written on the cake. There is even a gigantic placard on the wall with the words, "Congratulations on your First Holy Communion Lilly! Perhaps we hadn't yet gotten to first name basis and I had to earn the right to be called by name.

    It seemed apparent that I had to work hard to earn acceptance as my father's child. And though I was still very young, I understood what my mom's friend meant when she said in one of their convocations; "They will want to own them and know them when they have become something, but now, while they are snot, measles, and costs, these children are ours and ours alone."

    Childhood is a time when one is in molten state - flowing through paths that liquids would take and going round obstacles, or carrying them along. When adulthood, the time for character to solidify comes along, this person's psyche concretises with all the dents and bumps that they gathered from childhood's obstacles. With fatherless children, one can come out of a dismembered family alive and seemingly well, but somewhere inside them lies the damage, waiting to surface one day. These first impressions of life as a child started out as events but became a blue print of how I later handled social interactions.

    It would take more than a few physical encounters with my father to snap the stilts of fantasy upon which I had elevated him. The times we met, it was a one-woman carnival for me: I dressed the part of a lovable child, tried to speak intelligently, showed him my grades, the stories I wrote and the paintings I made. I participated in school shows even though I hated the stage - all in the hope that he would hear about it and be proud. Once, when he visited me at school, I introduced every kid I recognised on the school grounds to him, calling them my best friend. Into my teenage years, I was worn out from trying, but I might have hung on some more had it not been for this one time.

    My father and I in the same space are like bombs waiting to detonate. He was always the blood moon rising into our lives, causing a great stir and leaving ash in its wake. A clumsy move, a phrase wrongly put, an unapproved impulse, would earn me a lengthy lecture. He would ask how I would make it in society with this kind of behaviour and accuse my mom of doing too little to make something of me.

    One holiday, my father came home unexpected. My mother and I were over our heads with fret and I, indefatigable as ever, fell to entertaining him. My mom went quietly about her chores. He remained quiet while I yammered on, afraid that the moment I stopped he would leave. I thought the day had gone well until mom sat me down for a talk that would change the way I related with him.

    "You need to be more mindful of what you say and how it reflects on your dignity," My mom said. I had talked too much.

    That day I understood that no amount of theatrics would influence his decision to love me, and after much deliberation on how to address him, I settled for "Sir". My father was a mountain, and I a flower on its leeward side. As fate would have it, I resigned trying to please him and I think he noticed it. I had grown up and grown hard. My answers to his questions were now monosyllabic and to this he responded with coldness and agitation. I began to flee from him every chance I got.

    Weary of feeling like a gatecrasher, I began making excuses to avoid family functions. People would greet my half-sisters and ask him; "What about this one?" he would respond, "Oh well, thankfully she is here, she should speak for herself." If my mom called when I was with my sisters, he would say "some people have called inquiring about you."

    On the days when I went on village trips with him, my father could not drop me at my mom's home with my stepsiblings in the car. He would leave me at the trading centre. Because my mom knew I would be afraid to walk home alone, she had begun waiting for me in the shadows of kiosks where I would find her and we would walk back to our home together. On such nights, I felt the cold stiff arms of the word 'bastard' around my shoulders.

    I once overheard my father joke with a friend that he had left my mom because she was just a primary teacher; with her kind of salary he would be fated to a bleak future.

    Among my people, homes are made and sustained by women. It doesn't matter what portion of responsibility a man has in breaking the home, a woman is expected to salvage it. If she wasn't a part of the problem in the first place, patience is what is expected of her; and furthest down the spectrum, martyrdom. So being the daughter of a woman who failed to keep her man, I sometimes feel like a marked woman. I used to fear that people would think my mother belonged to that breed of bad women because my father left us. 

The poet Warsan Shire reminds me of my mother and her friends when she writes:

Our men do not belong to us.

Even my father who left one afternoon is not mine...

In her lines I hear the ceaseless soundtrack of their lamentations over the men who left. She also reminds me of myself and others like me; daughters with missing fathers whose names are not on death certificates yet.

    I have learned through conversations with male friends that one of their worst fears is to bear financial responsibility for a family. To be honest, I empathise with them. It must be terrifying to be a man. If banks and countries have a hard time keeping their finances on a leash, why would we expect one man to have a breeze at it? We shouldn't be surprised if in the face of failure, he'd rather make his exit than watch his ego bleed at the knife's edge.

    But men have their uses. I was to realise it soon enough when I woke up in the dead of the night last year to the sight of two kinetic silhouettes. One turned out to be a burglar's. It couldn't tell which the burglar's silhouette was until tins of hair oil and deodorant bottles began flying across the room. I was convinced my mom was struggling for her life but I was too frightened to move. I was naked. My mother always said that in the absence of a man in the house, to sit around and be women is suicide. That night it became concrete.

    The burglar got away with money from my my mother's business and all I could do was tearfully yell, "Maama! Maama!"

    "Stop crying," she replied, "I am fine. Just shout for help." She was stern but calm. Later she would say that the burglar probably broke into our house because all he had to confront was an old woman and a young girl.

    I have been raised in a lot of love, yet it doesn't matter how many embraces I am invited into- I never feel that I belong. It's an endless search for approval and the paralysing fear of being 'found out', like Shire writes:

Then the men we try to love say

we carry too much loss, wear too much black,

are too heavy to be around, much too sad to love.

Then they leave, and we mourn them too.

 

    Of course there are people who have grown up in broken households and gone on to be worthy individuals. Even then there are always less endearing tales that reveal a hunger for human intimacy only matched with a crippling fear of it. When we fatherless daughters sit down and speak, like my mom and her single-mother friends at the teacher's house many years ago, beyond the pleasantries and the weather, our past soon clambers unbidden out of our tear glands; the paradox of me looking for my father in every man I meet, and fleeing him when I find him.

    My mother sees me as her reincarnation and prays desperately that I will wear the wedding gown she never did. She believes in her heart that she will heal through me.

    This hasn't helped my anxiety at the prospect of relationships with boys. Once a boy expressed interest in me; after much thought I decided to take a friend's advice - the trick was not to speculate on the ending. When I thought I was ready I let him know in a poem which I sent by text. He invited me to his home to talk.

    When I told my little sister on the phone she giggled, "Oh my gosh... what? Okay... don't wear jeans, you should wear the other water-fallish dress with the black stripes... and pleeaaase don't be panicky or moody. And oh, send me pics and text me in between." I went.

    After the pleasantries he told me was sorry. He had given it some thought and did not think he could do it. "You are an Alpha female and the problem with your kind is that you are too demanding." I asked him what he meant by "demanding". I had no memory of asking him for anything. I asked him whether I had taken too long in my speculations and worn him out with waiting. He said it had nothing to do with that.

    It wasn't one of my best days but I took his response with all the grace my "water-fallish" dress inspired. I walked to the taxi park with the poise of someone taking care not to spill champagne. Nothing made sense to me until a mad man trudging by the road with a huge sack of rubbish on his head and a huge grin decorating his face caught my eye. I hurried home to cry because I thought I saw myself in that man.

    Two years ago I lived with my father for a few months because his home was closer to the place where I had been posted as an intern. It was the longest time I had been with him in my life and the only place I felt relaxed was in the kitchen.

    One day he came to the kitchen and leaned on the cabinets with his arms folded and his head bowed. I had already greeted him and served his evening tea in the living room, so I wondered why he was hovering around the kitchen. He said nothing, so I busied myself with peeling garlic and watched him discreetly out the corner of my eye. After a few drawn out seconds, it dawned on me that my father had grown old. My icy heart thawed. In an effort to overpower the loud musings in my head I decided to fill the silence. "So how was your day daddy?"

    His reaction took me by surprise. He sprung to life and begun narrating everything that lay between putting the first foot out the door to the point when he was standing in front of me. It wasn't his narrative that got me. It was the gusto with which he spoke...it seemed like he had been waiting to talk for a while.

    One time my youngest sister served half-cooked rice and out of absent-mindedness poured sugar in the fish soup instead of salt. While my diabetic father could excuse the half-cooked rice, the sweet fish he could not. He came into the kitchen demanding to know who the day's chef was. What he said when my little sister came forward took me by surprise: "Ever since I started eating your sister's food it has been such a trial eating any other food in this house. I've had two months of happy suppers and tea with ginger every morning. Watch your sister and learn how to cook before she goes back."

    Lately my father calls me about twice a month to see how I am doing. He even moves around with my graduation photo in his car, and if you asked me what I think about it, I would tell you that after years of forgiving him over and over for apologies I will never receive, and finding the pain hasn't budged an inch, I am confused as to what constitutes forgiveness, or if I am capable of it. I don't know at what point I will feel that I have forgiven him; but for now, when I go home, I put a lot of care into making his supper and never serve his tea without ginger.

    I still don't say much when we speak. After years of saying little, it's a hard habit to kick, but when he comes from work, I bring myself to say, "How was your day dad?" I like to think that these are the atoms that form forgiveness - the small gestures that will help me find my father.