When the September rains fall, the houses of Kinawataka get submerged in soil. River-like torrents sweep away layers of up-hill Kampala and dump them in Kinawataka like tippers, browning every white wall and making magnets of the existing excuse for roads. By and large, grass, like a timid once-beaten-twice-shy adolescent, has learnt not to grow in this place.
Nobody living outside Kinawataka would consider coming here during the rains. Yet here Adanna is, on a Wednesday afternoon, at the recession of a two-hour downpour, searching for the prophet's house like a blind man in Owino Market.
Adanna is desperate to see the prophet with the desperation of Suubi's mind: a borrowed thing making the impossible possible, like Adanna going to see a prophet about a husband - a fixture to fit into the space where her logical mind once perched in lofty monopoly; a monarch over her contented being, conceptualizing, scheming, and detailing abstract paintings of children playing along Kampala Road -their eyes gates into the world, writing rhythmic verses with tangled beats, or making glass with dancing women hidden in its soul.
"Blue tin amongst rusty tins," Suubi had instructed. She had coaxed and badgered Adanna into seeing the prophet to remedy what Suubi diagnosed as signs of severe, perpetual, spinsterhood, even vowing, po-faced, never to talk to Adanna again if she did not visit the prophet.
Suubi is Adanna's grasshopper friend. When Adanna was 10, she would sneak out of a bungalow, and Suubi out of a tin, to catch grasshoppers, Adanna carrying a glass jam-jar, and Suubi a ramshackle water kettle. Grasshopper catching is one ritual powerful enough to collect rich children from gated communities and poor children from the slums surrounding them like watchmen in thickets and squash them all into one basket like beans. It is a fête of many firsts; the first grasshopper caught, the first brown one, the first purple one, the first bite endured.
The two became grasshopper friends when they teamed up and decided to collect grasshoppers in Suubi's kettle because it saved them the torment of seeing pleading grasshopper eyes struggling in the glass walls of Adanna's jam-jar. Besides, the kettle had some holes for breathing, which spared them the guilt that would inevitably force them to set the insects free. It was then that their hearts were sewn together, and as they grew older, running stitch became whipstitch - decorative in every sense of the word. So, when Suubi po-faced-vowed never to talk to Adanna again, she didn't believe her but went to see the prophet anyway.
Adanna's Mini Cooper, like a lady in ballet flats, refuses to set foot in Kinawataka, so she abandons it uphill where the road ends, tucking her logical, painting, writing, glassmaking mind into the boot, and wearing Suubi's desperate mind. As she snakes through the crowded corridors of Kinawataka, the sticky mess down the muddy path stops Adanna in her tracks. She bends to fold up her jeans but they won't go up far enough. Her substantial legs stop them like road blocks. Adanna is like a Nyoro drinking pot. Black graphite and three rounds in increasing measure: oval head, elongated torso, and a gourd-type bottom that swells outward with untameable persistence. The over ambitious borrowed jeans can't contain her free-spirited curves, which is why they are hers but not hers. Her gypsy skirts, the ones she wore before becoming a woman, never harboured such futile ambitions.
Floored by her road-block legs, Adanna concedes defeat and straightens herself, dusts her blouse and pats her weave - short chic, as Suubi refers to it. She worries the weave might smell if it rains again, and digs into her bag for an umbrella. A woman with borrowed hair....Oh the bygone days of her bold bald head! No hair that might smell to fuss over....no shine...no borrowing...no masks...but too bold for a woman sculpted by Hakiza's scalpel, that self-ordained god with creature-naming abilities in whose hands soft clay sets into granite, breath drawn from and not given to it.
She finds the prophet's blue tin shrouded like a bat in blue corrugated iron sheets, walks in cautiously, stepping over a wooden-plank threshold into a darkness as thick as the inside of Suubi's grasshopper kettle. The prophet, thick and short, with piercing eyes, a balding head, and a severely stammering tongue, manages to spellbind Adanna the moment she walks into the darkness. Perched on a short stool facing the entrance, his words stagger out like ink from an oil-drenched pen nib.
"Foooooorrrryoooooou, meeenaarrre from hiiiya to here," he says, using his hand to cut off his neck and the air just above the top of his bald head. "Down iiiizzzzzdrrrrry!!"
Panic the size of two grown men from her past - Lukalu and Hakiza - men with heavy women-stomping feet, rises up in her breast. It takes Adanna many rushed heartbeats to fathom the dryness to which the prophet is referring. To save herself the excruciating pain of hearing the details, Adanna nods, agreeing to the shredding of a heart, the numbing of its senses, and the graniting of it.
A tear falls. She kneels down, jeans on wet earth. It had rained in the prophet's house as well.
"What do I do prophet?" she asks blinking. Sharp light rays have pierced through holes in the metallic roof and settled on the prophet's bald head, making it glow. He must have felt them because he lifts his head slowly and looks up into them. Now his substantial nose barrels are also ablaze.
"Youuuuuwiiiiiillbathe first," he stammers, "doooownthhhhere. Thhheennnyoooouuu pray."
Panic grips Adanna's heart, for the prophet and herself. Something has to be done to shorten the pain. She reaches into her bag for a pen and paper. All she finds is a Rotring clutch pencil and charcoal for drawing. Giving the former to the prophet might call for a curse once he attempts to use it. She settles for the latter, tears a page out of her dairy and places the items on the floor in-front of the prophet. He picks up the charcoal but then changes his mind,
Anxious to end this, Adanna reaches for the clutch pencil from her bag and as if on cue, the prophet spits out the prophecy.
"Oooowl. She currrrrsed you. To neeeever marry."
Adanna winces. "A curse? Me cursed? You must be kidding me." She says, at which the man scrutinizes her, growing impatient. She is desperate for answers.
"Prophet are you referring to my Godmother? She cursed me? How?" He nods but offers no further explanations.
"Youuuurrr friend. Shhhhee explain curse." Adanna thinks about Suubi and falls silent, sinking back onto her knees.
"Baaaathe down aaaand Pray liiiiiiike this." Now he reaches for the charcoal and writes down some prayers. His hand on paper moves like the words on his tongue. Adanna squints through the darkness to read the text...
The curse, it seemed, had come true in a tribe where it shouldn't have. A tribe where girls in their heads begin marrying as soon as their bodies begin to sculpt - where maiden names are as flighty as a winnower's rice husks, like soap in a bathing hand; hold it too tightly and it is gone, hold it too loose and it's gone.
Names in Buganda are the society's grinding stone; the means of processing, mixing, sifting and refining life. The giving of a name is too important to be left to impressionable new parents who, if given the chance, would go for movie star names with no known Luganda translations - the Ashleys and Wesleys of this world - so paternal grandparents do the honours instead. Grandparents are even known to post new names all the way from the village, and in the days when the only existing phone in the district was at the Post Office, baby names travelled across dusty country roads on buses, in an aunt or uncle's duffel bag. And yet these maiden names that came on a dusty country road country in an aunt's duffel bag are as flighty as a dragon fly.
Maybe grandparents do it on purpose to force marriage - this adorning of girls in long unflattering names with meanings so colourless the owners have no choice but to trim them when pubic hairs grow, and shed them altogether when husbands surface. Misery, however, is when the husband's name turns out to be even less glamorous, obliging further mutation in the few cases where the man wears his name loosely.
One girl in Adanna's secondary school, Mt. St. Mary's Namagunga, suffered this fate. Her name was Kula Zikulabenaku, you will see misery when you grow up, a name pregnant with damnation for who knows what trouble caused in her former life, considering that she was named only moments after birth. It was as if her grandparents were abandoning her to karma. In Senior Two, that troubled time when girls acquire egos, perhaps to fill up the gaping chasm of boylessness in an all-girls' school, Kula Zikulabenaku chiselled her name severely to Kula. And having twisted its pronunciation into something postmodern, she acquired a sway of hips to go with it.
Karma prevailed at Makerere University when she met, hardly dated, and married Malib, a tall, gorgeous doctor. The nuptials occurred the weekend after graduation, her head still unreeling from final-year medical school exams, with some of her luggage still in Galloway students' hostel.
It was at the introduction ceremony, that pre-nuptial ceremony among whose paraphernalia is the airing out of tribal names in their unglamorous grandiose, when Kula discovered that her soon-to-be surname was Malibundiga, toothless sheep, whose owner had chopped it to Malib way back in secondary school after realizing that like a scare-crow, his name was keeping girls from perching in his field regardless of its potential for fruitfulness. Kula then baptized herself Kula Malib, but Malib, with the new-found sense of identity that comes with marrying a Muganda girl from a good family, insisted on digging up his old name to the dismay of Kula's family. Even her brother remarked at the thoughtlessness of a man giving a woman such a name.
Adanna found her own name at Kololo Hospital where she was born. Her mother had died in labour and on one hand, it seemed like Death was the smelter's furnace burning her beautiful, benevolent, vivacious, and capricious spirit-ore into the miniature black gem the midwife folded into a white hospital blanket.
On the other hand, Death had dug an abyss into the widower's heart, shrouding him in its blackness, and for hours, before going to the nursery, he had wept over her corpse, feeling its fingers and toes until indeed even he confirmed that they were lifeless.
When he found the cot with his name scribbled on a card, he picked up the child with the clumsiness of a new father, and examined her as a vagrant would examine new shoes in a shop window. She could not belong to him. She was black - folded in white and he was brown, shrouded in black.
"Is she yours?" the gem-folding nurse had asked from behind.
At her question, a sense of ownership, even claim, had crept up from the terrazzo of the hospital floor and lodged itself in the widower's heart. Suddenly he had a right to his dregs and he sucked at them with gusto.
"She is mine. She belongs to me," he said too emphatically, conscious of the unapparent.
'She belongs to me' sounded like an explanation for the baby's long everything, which contrasted with his shortness. Her birth had been an elongated affair, stretching out everything: her ringed neck, fingers, toes, and mother's life. It also sounded like an explanation for the gem's midnight-coloured skin.
"Adanna," the nurse whispered, no, breathed a name, her consonants heavy; not with foreignness, but a tangible indigenousness.
"Is that your daughter's name?" her father asked, making an effort to remember what the mother had wanted her called.
Remembering that the mother had postponed naming the child to what would fit her/his sex, face, and manner, refusing to "clip its wings before birth", he wiped a tear with his shoulder. His clumsy new-father hands were too inexperienced to carry and wipe at the same time.
"No, yours. It means 'her father's daughter' in Igbo."
Blinking, remembering the heavy voice, reluctant but sensing the mother's approval, even presence, "Igbo in Nigeria?" he asked. "Doesn't it come with voodoo?"
She smiled a full smile, not a tad offended. "None at all, it's a direct translation."
"Adanna," he whispered to the child. And as if he had been keeping the surname tucked away, waiting for the first to show up, he added, "Kitiibwa . . . Adanna Kitiibwa."
To hell with his parents, they had rejected his Rwandese wife and now they would accuse the child of killing her. He decided to take her naming into his own hands.
"Adanna Kitiibwa. You are your father's daughter, born with honour."
Like fingers in a fitting glove, the child slid into her name. She wore it like a crown. When introducing herself she would often save time by saying, "I am my father's daughter, with honour."
Neither easy to intimidate nor imitate, Adanna grew into her own woman: the kind who know that there are women, and there is her. She was a maverick. At times her tongue cut people like a knife.
At Namagunga, she looked at girls who chameleoned themselves at inter-school events with extreme pity; especially when St. Mary's College, Kisubi, was in attendance. It was one of the few boys' schools whose students wore trousers and blazers rather than shorts and sweaters, and at such events populated by boys, a commodity they had been starved of for weeks, Namagunga girls would be the bull's-eye of flirtations and sweet nothings whispered in the ear to compliment illegal ear-pins, amateurish makeup, and way-too-tight school uniforms reduced overnight in mindless disregard of the unfathomable task of expanding them to the right size afterwards. She could convince the world of her insulation from boys, but even then, she wasn't convinced of it. When the other girls giggled and 'O'd' over first time kisses, she wept into her journal:
Gentle Lover, quiet Breeze,
Distant Meadow, still Spring,
Lonely Trotter, glazed Eye,
Look on Me, rescue Me.
Have I known you? Need I try?
Ever seen you speak so true?
Share my hurt, rescue Me.
My back is heavy, I cannot scale.
Walls so high, were you nigh?
My quiet Wail can you hear?
Distant Meadow sing again.
Ray of Hope, I lost my dawn.
Unfold again, unheal my pain.
According to the Prophet, Aunt Kihuguru, a name meaning Owl in Runyankore - her husband's tribe - had placed a spell on Adanna to keep men from seeing her, no matter how sumptuous her curves were. To them they are dry. The spell blinds them from seeing beyond the midnight of Adanna's skin.
Had the spell come true? Adanna asks herself as the Prophet scribbles.
Lukalu, her first serious crush after university, a statistician she met at Suubi's wedding when they were 27, fled from Adanna after she told him about writing on the sky.
Little grasshoppers, Adanna and Suubi, would lie on the ground, close their eyes, and write on the sky what they would be when they grow up. Adanna wrote about helping poor people but Suubi had capricious phases: she was a nurse at first, when Adanna had told her how she got her name, then an engineer, and then a business woman. Adanna envied her friend's luxury of whimsicality because unlike Suubi, her dream had roots like a Mvule tree.
When they grew up, Suubi tried persuading Adanna to give up writing on the sky because it was for children, spinsters, and "those nakyeyombekeddes" - the husbandless mothers. But coaxing Adanna to undream her dreams would be like pushing a column of toothpaste back into its tube.
Adanna was Suubi's only bridesmaid, and Lukalu the only groomsman. Her purple tulle skirt and silver bodice matched his grey-suit-purple-tie attire, and as if it was all meant to be, they strolled with the ease of waltzing dancers into the territory of holding hands, pulling chairs, opening doors, and out-and-out flirtation.
At their first date that week, Adanna brought up her plan of using photography to teach poor people how to write on the sky and had to explain herself repeatedly, factually in fact, feet planted firmly on the ground, because Lukalu said he was not into building castles in the air. When they met again for coffee, Lukalu with callousness oozing out of a new accent whose country of origin she could not place, and rolling 'r' every time he said 'girlfriend', said that he was too busy with his brand-new girlfriend and brand new job at USAID to make time for reading the proposal he had suggested she write. Adanna wept.
I thought I heard You today,
Felt the feeling of You dancing
Breathed the breath of this...
That night Adanna told her father about Lukalu. He listened intently, straining for a rising drumbeat shrouded in his own abyss-deep memories of a love that once unfurled its wings only to fly away. That was when he told her the story of how eagles court.
"When an egress espies a would-be suitor," he said, "she flies up into the tallest tree and throws a branch the size of a baby eagle. If the eagle's muscles are strong enough he will dive for the descending mass and catch it, and then with a shriek, the egress will invite him to woo her. Your phrases on the sky are like baby eagles."
Adanna pictured unfurling wings, the mother she never knew but carried inside her like a pulse, and her father diving for Adanna-sized branches, and then the shrieks and relentless wooing. O that a dream would call me mother. That children, motherless like she, would call her 'Mother'. That an eagle would father them. She wiped her tears and smiled.
White and Black.
'Maybe that is why I have to pray at midnight,' she whispers. 'A prayer so strategic will heal me.' But no matter how much she wonders, she is afraid to ask the prophet who placed a curse on all the men in Uganda - the one that keeps them from seeing when their eyes are open - that question would be sacrilegious. Moreover, she is over eager for tomorrow night's Suubi-orchestrated blind date with Ssali to produce a boyfriend. She has never had a real one to her name.
When the Prophet has finished writing, the charcoal is the size of a small stone. She reaches for the page of her diary, places it back in its original position and hands the prophet a sealed envelope with her offering - 20,000 shillings was what Suubi suggested. Outside, her car is waiting up the hill where she left it, gleaming red in the sun and when she enters it, dirtying its inside with the mud on her shoes and trousers, her mind steals in next to her and sits still in the passenger seat. The drive home is like a long journey alone on a bus full of foreigners from one family.
After Kinawataka, Adanna, with a shame that falls on her like a rich voluptuous curtain, bathes exactly as the prophet told her to; at midnight, washing her nether regions with a concoction of prayers meant to dispel the hovering gloom of Aunt Kihuguru's curse.
Before she was 12, Adanna believed that a godmother was the mother God gives a child when her real mother dies. Aunt Kihuguru, the one her father usually called Aunt Owl with a chuckle, probably musing over this regrettable outcome to his sister's marriage into another tribe, had become Adanna's godmother after her mother died. She was the one who stood next to her father in her baptism photographs. And as her father's only sister, she was also Adanna's Senga - the aunt who takes a girl to the bush to prepare her for her husband; so the day her skirt turned red her father had nobody to send her to except Aunt Owl.
It was the first time Adanna was seeing her Senga since the baptism, even though her home was in Kololo, just fifteen minutes' drive from Najjanankumbi where they lived. Adanna had twice overheard people whisper that her father blamed Aunt Owl for his wife's death because she had not come when he sent for her when the labour pains started. She suspected this was the real reason why he called her Aunt Owl.
They drove to Kololo in the middle of the night, his 1980s Peugeot spurting all the way like a child with whooping cough while she sat in the back, clutching at the bed sheet he had handed her before jumping behind the wheel. At the thought of her schoolmate Peace, and the way the big boys had laughed at her when she soiled her skirt, Adanna considered covering her head. But doing so would mean lifting a hip to unravel the cloth, a movement that could cause her father to peek at her in the rear-view mirror through his black rimmed spectacles. He would probably stop the car to find out if she was alright and that would be more humiliating than boys laughing at Peace.
Aunt Owl received them at the front door of her old colonial house and her father fled inside, as he usually did when he was late for Mass, with a crumpled handkerchief wiping his wet, bald head. Feeling like a stray chick beneath a descending kite, Adanna wailed loud enough for him to hear, and perhaps turn back, but by then he was probably already into penitence. Aunt Owl understood, and with a knowing, cascading, wrinkled but mildly smiling face, ushered Adanna to a backroom where she received a bath, a polythene bag packed with cotton rolled in toilet-paper-like sandwiches, sanitary pads, and a three-step orientation into womanhood. "Don't worry, you will be better, but stay away from boys because you are now a woman. And be clean always."
Mass ended and her father thanked Aunt Owl profusely for what she had done, albeit not explained to him, and for the fifteen minutes' drive back to Najjanankumbi, Adanna slept in the backseat - if closing one's eyes and hurling silent curses can be called sleeping.
The next time she saw her Senga was on her 30th birthday, when her father sent her to visit Aunt Owl who now lived in Pretoria with her husband.
Adanna had been on a plane a few times before: to Nairobi on a workshop, Thailand on holiday with her father, but never to South Africa. Looking down through the window as the plane descended, the land was like a giant carpeted floor with a pattern of neat triangles, circles, and squares. There were wounds everywhere, as if somebody had taken a knife and sliced off the tops of several mountains, turning them into tables and covering the pus-laden scars with cream-colored table-cloths.
Aunt Owl lived in Hartfield, a suburb ten minutes from the University of Pretoria, and to get there from the airport she had had to use the Gautrain. The streets in Pretoria were empty, but not in a public-holiday sort of way. Rather, they were deserted, as though abandoned decades ago by users who had fled behind their pickets and metal-bar fences. They were present and not present in a crocodile kind of way - lurking in the dense foliage just beneath the street, their eyes open and closed, their mouths open and closed, and ears open and closed. The houses were like the presidential lodge at Nakasero; open and closed too, with its big zigzag crocodile-teeth-roofs eternally open to the sky in the mid-motion of a once stray-bird swallowing stance, but unable to close again.
Aunt Owl met Adanna at the gate and she remembered to kneel in greeting, in keeping with her father's instructions, her gypsy skirt squashing the white pebbles.
"Is your father well?" asked Aunt Owl.
"Yes Papa is well. He sent his greetings and plenty of matooke and groundnuts like you asked."
"That is kind of him," she said, taking the bags with said items into the kitchen.
Inside, the entire house was covered with thick red carpet. Uncle Owl was in his study working and it seemed he did that a lot. He also towered over everything, like a mountain range, blocking out the sun no matter where you stood in the house. Adanna would soon realize that he spoke at people instead of to them - in chopped phrases that scalded everything: My keys. My food. My files. My shirt. Much to her befuddlement, Aunt knelt down while speaking to Uncle Owl, yet he never looked at Aunt Owl when speaking to her. Time, it seemed, had attuned her to his needs and like a worker bee, she moved back and forth about the hive, meeting them. That was her one chore in life. The maid saw to everything else.
Senga and adult niece were meeting for the first time and Aunt Owl would not waste an opportunity to do what she had been denied for so long: she would thoroughly prepare Adanna for marriage in a single day. It was on her third day at Aunt Owl's, while they were having Katogo for breakfast, a mixture of banana plantain and meat stew, when she began. Uncle Owl had left for work and finally the morning could find the time to sit down and stretch its legs for hours.
"Do you know how to cook?" Aunt Owl had asked; a headless sentence from which Adanna's name had been decapitated. It was becoming clear that husband and wife stepped around her name like a puddle in the road. That could only imply one thing - they thought it a lie.
"Of course, I do," she replied, name-chopping as well. She had her own reasons for around-her-name-stepping of course, chuckling in her heart her father's chuckle. "I can cook Chinese, Mexican, and some Indian."
A pregnant silence followed in which Aunt Owl examined the wrinkles on her blackened, cooking-hardened hands. The right hand gently flexed the left hand, as though checking to see if the bones could still bend.
"That is not food. Food that is food must be prepared our way. We Baganda women are taught how to cook real food from childhood."
Adanna felt the ferocity of a Samurai knife impaling the air. She knew that she must ignore the score but the words rushed out of her mouth like a pent-up flood, "But Senga, I am also a Muganda!"
A dormant volcano exploded, although telling from Aunt Owl's calm, its cap had remained intact. Aunt Owl oozed venom like a still cobra.
"Mama nyabo, with that name of yours? You don't even have a clan name! Moreover your mother was a Munyarwanda, didn't your father tell you?"
Adanna's throat felt parched.
"Rwandese women don't cook, that is why they are better off marrying their own. Me as your Senga I am advising you to forget your father's worldliness if you ever want to get married."
In that moment Adanna saw a full-colour picture rolling before her: it was midnight and her father was calling, his wife was in labour and Aunt Owl, sitting straight-backed beside the phone, was unflinching, hoping he would call again later in the night - that phone call she would pick because how else would she receive the news of the Rwandese wife's death?
"But Aunty, he is your brother!"
"It's true but I am speaking woman to woman. Men are men. To get married and keep your marriage you must have the good manners of a Muganda wife. You must learn to hold your tongue. A husband is not to be reasoned with. Forget about your father's learned ways."
"Even when he treats you like shit?"
Immediately she regretted her words. Aunt Owl's fetid wounds lay open between them like the victim of a fatal accident on a surgical table.
"A husband is a husband," she said, her voice ice-cold. Adanna felt an impending explosion in the pit of her stomach, not so much because of Aunt Owl's hogwash, but because of its evidence, and the woman's acclimatization to it. This she would never do. She could never gamble her ability to explode for the security of being called a married woman, and for that reason got up to leave.
"Have you been to the bush?" Aunt Owl asked abruptly. Adanna spun around with the exasperation of a buyer fed-up with bargaining for a lower price.
"Bush? What does that even mean?"
"It means pulling down there," she said, pointing with eyes and mouth.
Adanna shook her head in exasperation and stormed off murmuring, "Are there even bushes in Pretoria?"
That afternoon she wandered around Pretoria. Like Aunt Owl's living room, it felt like a covered wound she longed to wrench open and examine like a physician. She got onto the Gautrain to Johannesburg and sat next to a white man with half-open, half-closed, spectacled eyes that had the power to x-ray their way into a woman's heart with one glance, tow it out, and make it do cartwheels. Maybe because Adanna looked every bit the forlorn foreigner, he started a conversation with her, asking what she was doing in South Africa.
"Visiting relatives," she answered, "you?"
"Following my intoxicatingly brilliant wife around the world."
Half-open-half-closed-eyes spoke with the ease of somebody saying the obvious, like one of life's not-to-be-disputed laws. Adanna realized that under the x-ray she had missed the ring on his finger. She was also certain she had misheard his words.
"Your wife lives here?"
"She's at UCT on Geography research for a year, and I was lucky to get a post as visiting lecturer for the duration."
It felt like edited déjà vu.
"A husband is a husband huh?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"No, never mind," she said, adjusting herself in the seat. "That's good for you. My name is Adanna and your wife is a lucky woman."
"Adanna is a beautiful name."
He was about to ask for its meaning, and she to offer it, when a steel-voiced speaker announced, "Marlboro." Half-open-half-closed-eyes left in a hurry, probably to meet the intoxicatingly brilliant wife he was following around the world.
Adanna turned to the window and for the next half hour watched the rock and pale-green landscape waltz by and morph into the old, little-used, dirty boxes of Johannesburg. She had read warnings cautioning visitors to watch out for thieves in Jozi, as the tourists that loved Johannesburg fondly referred to it, so Adanna decided to record her memories of the city not in photographs, but in phrases, of sights, scents and sounds, souvenirs to carry home in her rucksack.
High Street in Hillbrow was like a castrated version of King's Way in Kampala. The important Kabaka anjagala trees were crowded either side by Owino-type bus boys, and youthful blood was spluttered everywhere. There was blood everywhere in Jozi - on the pavements, in the alleys, and in the gullies.
There was blood on a sidewalk in Maboneng, dark, once-oxygenated blood crawling up and down a yellow wall with spellbinding talelessness, proof, Adanna thought, of a youthful fight the previous night. It was trampled on, discarded, forgotten, yet alive with lifelessness, like a corpse with open eyes and mouth, forever staring at the world but dead to it.
Standing some blocks further, digesting the cockiness of a restaurant inside an old truck with a shipping container painted bright orange, with plants growing where the dashboard used to be, an etching on the pavement caught Adanna's eyes. I WILL TELL A GREAT STORY it said, beckoning Adanna to listen and see.
To look at this monument of ice-cold durable pain, to sit at the feet of the irredeemable, to listen to the re-telling of a story and perceive redemption's graffiti-hand... somebody lost inside Jozi was begging her to stay. Adanna felt intoxicated with Jozi possibly the same way Half-open-half-closed-eyes was intoxicated with his wife. Grudgingly, she walked away with 'I-will-be-back' notions gathering in her mind.
Her stay in Pretoria, on the other hand, would wind down like a funeral dirge. Aunt, uncle, and niece would walk non-intersecting circles within the Venn diagram of their red-carpeted Pretoria home, and she would leave their house for Uganda in an 'I-will-never-come-back' sort of way. At home in Kampala, she would go to work on Jozi by registering an NGO called Kundo, meaning love in Runyankore, then she would curate a paintings and poetry exhibition themed I Will Tell A Great Story, to raise funds and awareness for her project to teach Jozi's inner-city youth how to write on the sky. It was there she would meet Hakiza.
He walked in with the casual confidence of a man who can see the top of everybody's head, cocktail glass in hand, seeking out the curator. She feigned nonchalance. It seemed to perk up his interest. She did not have to explain her poetry, paintings, or cause. He understood them. He was an anthropologist, the kind who understands that cities have souls with stories that can be told. He talked of listening to Mombasa and Alexandria, and cities she couldn't remember. And like the right mix of Irish potatoes and soup, they mashed into each other, becoming a new dish all together. They played chess together, watched the same action movies, and it seemed they were fate's rubber puppets when they found out that they had a birthday in common, though he was two years older. He started calling her 'twin'. She was intoxicated with him like Half-open-half-closed-eyes had been with his wife. She would have packed up her bags and followed him around the world if he asked.
Every day she anticipated his proposal, and on the night before her 31st birthday she smiled into her journal.
My fingers are crossed, nails in shape. Nothing can possibly go wrong tomorrow.
But something did go wrong. They were having lunch at Dominoes' Pizza, their favourite spot, and Adanna had just handed him an aluminium and leather business card case, silver and black and fastened in black ribbon, when Hakiza became pensive the way he usually was when in deep thought - arms folded in chest. He told Adanna he was having trouble buying her a gift. She paused her munching and creased her face.
"Twin, I don't know," he said. "Should I get you....Uhmm....I don't know, a writing pad, a book?"
He left the question hanging, at which Adanna's heart coiled into knots in a way she did not like. She shrugged.
"I could get you shoes but you don't even wear heels. You need to be a bit more like other girls."
For fear that she might choke on her Margarita pizza, Adanna pushed it away. His words had come out like a fart: relief to the source but repellent to the receiver, and as people on a bus usually do with fart-fouled air, she breathed in. Hakiza interpreted this as an invitation to harangue on.
"Do you see that girl over there?" he said, pointing at a petite brown woman across the road. She was decked in a red dress, knee-length and body-squashing, had a jet-black weave-straight, glowing, and falling to her back - and her bag and shoes were patent leather. As though to pour concrete on his point, Hakiza gazed at her with longing.
"That's what I am talking about," he said, making eye contact before delivering the deathblow. "Honestly we are so alike. I can't even imagine myself kissing you. It would be like kissing my brother."
Adanna shrunk. She felt herself roll into a tiny ball and fall through the hole in the table where umbrellas are supposed to sit, down to the ground beside Hakiza's leather shoes, too near maybe, because with a slight movement of his foot, this man had flattened her beneath his mass and any attempt to fight back only brought forth muffled words, at which he looked at her curiously and criticized on. By the time Hakiza was done she had made the decision to start practicing being the woman in the window of Domino's Pizza: shiny haired, red dressed, and wearing patent leather and high heels.
Aunt Owl's words had acquired arms, legs, horns, and a body. They had irrevocably taken a life of their own, playing 'catch me if you can' with the white elephant of her well-rounded age. That night, on her 31st birthday, she hid in her room like a mole on a mission to dig out the earth separating her from daylight, too singed and behind schedule to shed a tear. She surfed style blogs until she discovered Girl With Curves. She bought a copy of The Secrets of Fascinating Womanhood, the book Suubi had been cajoling her to read all their adult life, and the following Sunday gave away a large heap of blouses and gypsy skirts to Operation Blessing at Mt. Mariah Covenant Church. Then she went out shopping for body-squashing knee-length dresses, patent-leather high-heeled shoes and fitting jean trousers.
In the way her pastor often did in the taut moments before offertory, when the congregants brandished their gifts in the air, weighing and calculating as he preached about laying down one's Isaac at the altar of sacrifice, Adanna knew what else she had to do. She laid down Kundo at the altar of sacrifice - the business of becoming a woman was more serious than loving Jozi.
Suubi was ecstatic about the new Adanna, like a child receiving a brightly-coloured Christmas present. Together they started counting down the days to Hakiza's proposal, but it never came. She was wearing one of her new purchases when they next met for coffee, complete with a new hairstyle and a short weave - Suubi's idea - but Hakiza casually said, a cup of coffee half-way between the table and his mouth, "You look nice. Where to? Any new catch you haven't told me about?"
"You never know," Adanna said, bleeding inside but smiling stoically, like a pricked orange rotting internally while remaining intact on the outside.
That evening, in keeping with The Secrets of Fascinating Womanhood, she avoided talking about her work. Instead she cooed and aahed about Hakiza's projects, like the behavioural study of males in Namuwongo Slum. She agreed with whatever he said, swallowing her words so much that she feared she might choke by evening's end.
Weeks later she was adjusting well into her new feminine mystique but bleeding her camaraderie with Hakiza dry. She had ascended to dating-potential in his eyes but he did not choose her. Instead he courted Antonia, a fair-skinned Dominoes-pizza kind of woman, and married her after six months.
Half way between day light and earth crust, Adanna buried herself underground, moving out of her father's house into Suubi's guest room to mourn away from his prying eyes. They cried, talked, and cried about Hakiza, and the poetic tragedy of her almost-relationship. It was then that Suubi came up with the idea of Ssali and Adanna visiting the prophet.
The prophet's prescribed prayers are out of the way and Adanna is grooming for her date with Ssali. Tonight, she will be in middle management and not the on-sabbatical Managing Director of an NGO. Her dream to have babies will mean real stay-home motherhood. Ssali's ambitions will somehow morph into hers, for she will coo and aah at every non-intelligent nonsense he says. She will let him order and let him buy, let him win and let him pry, and finally she will linger in his car, fidgeting with her purse, to bid a kiss.
Armed and ready, Adanna steps into a turquoise, knee-length, peplum dress, and black high heels complete with black purse. Suubi waves her wand of delicate eye-popping make-up, steps back to examine her handiwork, and smiles a broad, satisfied smile.
"Knock 'em dead," she says, twirling around the room in a motion made comical by her rather extended belly.
Adanna is over-dressed for the date. Ssali has come out in jeans, a tucked-in chequered shirt his only shot at formality, and brown loafers. They are meeting at Pyramid Casino, an Egyptian-themed restaurant on Wampewo Avenue with giant bronze-sprayed timber doors, hieroglyphic motifs on the walls, and waitresses dressed like She-Pharaohs. It feels like stepping into a piece of history in bronze and timber.
Adanna abandons her Mini Cooper at Golf Course Hotel and takes a bodaboda the rest of the way. Men have in the past found her car too much for their not-to-be-argued-with egos which laid down what was too much for a woman to have in case she has plans of getting married that is.
Apart from not being able to fold her feet when she walks, like in ballet flats, she enjoys the extra elevation the black platform pumps lend her, but the turquoise peplum dress has a mind of its own. It won't stay down. Adanna has to adjust it every other step, and her thighs clatter against each other ceaselessly - that Girl With Curves blog had said nothing about thighs clattering in peplum dresses - and then there is the weave, Suubi had called it short chic but in it her head itches and drips long strands of unsightly sweat. Since she can't scratch her scalp as she did in the by-gone days of her nakedness, Adanna had to stash Suubi's small comb to push its tail into an opening and scratch when no one was looking. She whips it out of the bag now.
When she finally walks in, Ssali stands up and extends a hand with a slight bow. Adanna thinks him polite, with an undertone of something she will later write of as shyness, returns the handshake as gently as she can, remembering from Suubi's demonstrations, and he pulls out a chair for her. When she is comfortably seated, he leans toward her, hands clasped on the table, and for a moment, Adanna forgets about Aunt Owl's admonition to speak only when spoken to and asks him how he knows Suubi.
"She's a friend of a friend," he says, then asks about her name.
"Adanna is a Nigerian name," she replies. She is about to elucidate when Hakiza flashes before her, shaking his head in disapproval, at which she immediately swallows her words. "I'm not sure what it means."
"I see," says Ssali.
A silence falls between them and lingers like the sensation in the mouth after vomiting. Adanna fumbles to wipe it up.
"What about you, three names and none of them English?"
He chuckles and sits back, and for the first time Adanna espies an endearing dimpled smile.
"Pan-Africanise. My dad was consumed by its ideals when he named me. English names were taboo."
Questions burn in her throat: about the Pan-Africanist father and the unembellished man in front of her. His tongue is unbragging, that is new, but Adanna presses them down like hyenas in a jar. They will probably be too much for him to handle after all. She is doubtless already too much for him, telling from the way he just sits there as if waiting for the silence to swallow itself up. No wonder he is still unmarried. No girl in her right mind- not Suubi's mind that is, would sit through this. How could Suubi have put her to this?
She will later tell her friend, over the phone, that the date was too underwhelming for her to journal about, regardless of the man's impeccable manners and excellent command of the English language. At the moment, God comes to her rescue when Ssali receives a phone call from, who knows, his Pan-Africanist father. He apologises profusely but does not remember to ask for her number, offers to give her a lift which she turns down, and then flees the restaurant. Knowing that Suubi will flood her with a barrage of post-mortem queries whose answers she does not have, Adanna tells her friend she will head home instead and hangs up the phone. Her father is in the living room when she arrives.
"Papa!" she calls out as she abandons her shoes in the hallway outside the living room, having walked barefoot all the way from the car. "It's a wonder how you manage to multi-task between BBC, sleeping, and the newspaper."
"Good evening beautiful," he replies, sitting up and adjusting the glasses and newspaper into their original position, before sleep had knocked them out. "How was your date?"
Adanna spins around. She was heading to her room.
"How did you know about that? I will kill Suubi for telling you."
He smiles but does not look up. "Your dress...it is very nice. Too brief for a meeting, don't you think?"
Adanna tags at the turquoise peplum and stands there without saying a word, cornered. She takes a deep sigh and sinks into the couch opposite her father.
"Well it wasn't what I expected."
At that her father shuts his paper, carefully folds his spectacles, and places them on the mahogany television stand next to his couch.
"Well, tell me about it. What is his name?"
"Ssali Kwame Katumba," she says, creasing her face. "He said his father is a Pan-Africanist. I wasn't sure what to make of that Papa."
Adanna's father grows pensive.
"I think I know him," he says, frowning, "although I don't understand why it wasn't what you expected."
"You know him?"
"Yes, his father was Baale Katumba, one of Museveni's top Pan Africanist Generals shot in Luwero.
"Ah Papa, Ssali lost his father!?"
"Uh-hum." he says, mystified by the novelty of his revelation. "I read about it in the papers the other day. That boy was Katumba's only son, still a toddler when his father died. They said he practically saw himself through school doing odd jobs and eventually got a scholarship from Mengo to study at Witwatersrand."
"It's true honey. I am telling you what I read in The Observer. It was a captivating story indeed. If I'm not mistaken, that boy recently started a project mentoring inner-city youth in Sub-Saharan Africa for which he received a large fellowship. Eh, I forget its name... it has to do with sound."
By now Adanna's mouth is hanging wide open.
Her father's face lights up. "Yes, that is the one. You know it?"
"Of course, I do Papa! I was eyeing it for Kundo next year before Hakiza happened to me."
"Hakiza? Who is Hakiza?"
Adanna rolls her eyes and lets out a beautiful long jeer. Something about the jeer unclips her wings and she waves her hand, as though shooing off a fly, "Ah, forget about that one Papa!"
"So, Princess, I hope you threw this young man a branch well suited to his muscles," he says with a wink.
Under different circumstances Adanna would have squealed at the phenomenon of her father winking at her. Now she holds her head in her hands in thick silence.
"Papa, you will not believe what I did," she finally says, large teardrops rolling down her face, gathering and towing foundation, "the whole evening Ssali lingered at the foot of the tree waiting for a branch that never came. All I threw him were feathers until he got bored and left.
She slides down to the carpet.
"I spoiled everything Papa!"
For the first time Adanna sees Aunt Owl's words for what they are, a dark curse.