“There’s something ineffable about great cities,” Marcus says. “Not that Kampala is one,” he adds. “But yes, great cities have a personality they take on—a personality that’s disconnected from the collective personality of its inhabitants.”
I haven’t seen Marcus, my father, in twenty years, but he only wants to talk about this city that rejected him. Kampala, which he romanticizes, has never changed, despite its history, despite surviving all manner of erasure. I don’t recall his mouth being this thin, or his eyes this fiery, but he’s still the large god-figure I remember from childhood. He’s taller than I remember, almost as tall as Boris, my bald and hulking grandfather, despite his lopsided gait.
“Oh, the things I wish I could remember about this place,” Marcus says, then draws a deep breath filled with nostalgic relish. He glances at both me and a wavering Boris, hoping we say something, but neither of us shares his view about this city. He shrugs, then tells us how, like myths, great cities affect everyone differently.
Marcus nods to himself, his gaze fixed on the panoramic view of the city. The three of us are atop the Crested Towers. The view from Hotel Diplomat would’ve been better, but Marcus being Marcus—infallible, I mean—insisted we come to this old relic instead.
“I wish it wasn’t so under the surface, this personality,” Marcus continues. “I wish it could be gleamed from something as innocuous as a travel brochure or those Tourist Mzungu t-shirts you see at galleries. It shouldn’t be as tenuous as the subway system in London, the catacombs in Paris, Githurai in Nairobi, Bwejuu in Zanzibar.”
Boris offers a weary smile.
Marcus continues, “You look at any great city, and you can see the ruins, the ghosts on whose backs we razed our history, to erect our modern edifices,” he gestures emphatically. “Nothing is ever lost. That which we bury we can dig up and build as a pedestal upon which civic polarity sits.”
We’re on the hunt for this polarity, he tells us. That’s his explanation for having him, Boris and I, walking the forgotten parts of Kampala. The closed Subways at Parliament Avenue, Old Shimoni, the National Library behind Bombo Rd., the National Theatre. This hunt isn’t something he can do alone. He doesn’t know this city anymore, not like he used to. Plus, it’s his way of getting Boris out of the house, to cheer him up a little. Not that Boris is the easily cheered up kind, he’s no chirpy chap. Boris came only because he can’t stand being left alone with Margaret, my mother. She can be overbearing sometimes. Boris hates how she hovers over him, running to his aid every time he sighs or grunts. Her first job in London was as a caretaker at a nursing home. She hasn’t done that for years, but she’s never forgotten how not to be watchful. She has a lynx-like patience that sets Boris restless.
Though he hasn’t grumbled yet, I feel Boris would enjoy this if we had gone to a bar instead. Or sat home and listened to the BBC.
“Kampala has no hidden history for us to rediscover,” Boris says, coughing before he continues, “Kampala is less than a hundred years old. There is nothing to discover, nothing mythical to become part of.”
“What do you think?” Marcus asks me.
“I haven’t really paid attention to it before,” I admit.
I explain, rather derivatively, that Kampala seems disconnected from its living presence, if it ever had one. The reverence drawn from the uncanny significance of cultural objects like the Martyrs Shrine or the Independence Monument isn’t enough to build a pedestal on. In Kampala, the essential ‘metropolitan archetype’ is suppressed and inaccessible. People here aren’t hungry enough for sacredness, for collective revelry. For a cultural imperative.
“But where would they get it?” Marcus asks.
I follow his gaze over the city and I can’t single out one collective event which could empower and mythologize Kampala’s secular landscape.
“There’s the sex tape craze going around,” I say.
The look Marcus gives me makes me consider jumping off Crested Towers. But he nods after a beat, “Yeah, yeah, there’s that,” he says.
“What else?” Boris asks. This is after we fail to bestow on him the virtues of sex tapes as a collective pass-time.
Marcus and I shrug.
Boris then tells of this theory that all cities need a book. That one book you dig up if the city were ever destroyed. A book upon which the city can be rebuilt.
“Bigger mythologies have stemmed from smaller origins,” he assures us. He adds that Dublin has Ulysses, Accra has Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. New York has everything from E. L. Doctorow to Saul Bellow.
“The problem with Kampala,” Boris says, “is that we have no clichés. Our foundations aren’t made of familiar ideas.”
“We’re familiar enough,” Marcus says. Despite having migrated long ago, he feels himself expert on all things Kampala. This is because since he came back, he has been raiding the New Vision and Daily Monitor archives, and reading everything that’s happened since he was exiled.
Boris, who reads nothing but the Bible these days, says, “Every city thrives on the concept of the insane and disenfranchised acting as society’s true seers—shamans, for lack of a better word. This city might have poor, insane and disenfranchised people, but what we don’t have is a liberalized, underground movement. Where is the wonder? Where is the mysticism, Where is the bruising, the heavy heart of this city’s cohesion? What is our essential arc?”
“Are you calling us selfish, self-absorbed?” Marcus asks.
Pretentious is what I’d say. Yes, pretentious and culturally bereft.
Boris says, “No we shun our heroes and break down our legends,”
Marcus tells Boris to stop. He says, “They didn’t fail you, they just betrayed you. They betrayed us with their exile.”
“It was never about me,” Boris says. “But thank you for that reminder.”
Marcus doesn’t push it. He and Boris share a look that resembles a cold handshake. This is how they talk to each other.
Boris wishes Kampala was more teeming—mills and factories crowded together in anticipation of violence, like, say, Jinja at its peak in the seventies. He wants to see Kampala’s populace expanded beyond the limits of sanitation. He wants a fever district, a ground informed by pestilence and slaughter. He wants to squeeze Kampala’s burdened, swollen heart till it spills over like the broken sewerage pipe that it is. He wants to spit on its dusty pavements, and piss in its potholes for what it did to him. What it did to our family. None of his five brothers were buried in the land they were born. Marcus’s sister, Aunt May, hasn’t spoken to him or Marcus since she flew to Belgium. His family is as broken, as disconnected as the Kampala myth.
“Sod this place. Sod it all to hell,” Boris pumps his palsied fist. He pauses to catch his breath. Boris breathes as though there’s no room inside him for air. He’s filled with too much regret.
Boris never talks about being exiled and Marcus never shuts up about his own patriotic radicalism, about the student protests he led against Uganda House in Trafalgar Square, about the failed attempts to deport him, about how rigged the asylum system is…
Seeing them after all these years, I get the feeling exile was the worst thing that could’ve happened to Boris and the best that happened to Marcus. They both flourished abroad, but they have never been free to be anything else but exiles. Especially Marcus, he could have just fled the country like everyone did. But no. Not Marcus. He couldn’t stand to be outdone by Boris’s treason. He had to be labeled an enemy of the state, a rogue.
Marcus rests a hand on Boris’s shoulder. Not in a patronizing gesture or empathy or anything, just, I suspect, insurance against the event that Boris’s vertigo gets the better of him. Thank you, Vertigo, for reminding me how long Marcus and Boris have been away. Vertigo seems so alien to me, for I can’t imagine anyone living in a city as low-horizoned as Kampala and getting vertigo. Not that there are no buildings to jump off of, but that there aren’t enough buildings to climb.
All the stories about Boris are legend, but I can’t reconcile that legend with the wispy, gnarled man I see in front of me. God-figures should never appear gawky, petulant, charmless. Seeing Boris hard of breathe, palsied, bereft, but sharpish in his beige suit and bowtie, I find it hard to stay unmoved by his overtures. Looking at him, I feel nostalgia for things I have no memory of. It doesn’t help knowing he’s terminal.
We’re probably the only family to ever feel relief at a dreadful cancer diagnosis. Boris’s was pivotal in having his exile rescinded. Him and Marcus, that is. Boris came to die in his homeland.
Despite Marcus’s hand on his shoulder, Boris doesn’t quite recover. He’s wheezing now, and hunched over the railing, my handkerchief wet with his blood and spit.
Marcus and I brace Boris on each of our arms and lead him into the rickety lift.
Inside the lift, the walls are rusted chrome. Its overhead bulb emits a faint ochre light that’s no better than a paraffin lamp’s. None of us attempt disdain. At least the bloody thing works. Not like last week when we had to climb ten floors up the old Office of the Prime Minister building to get to the Meteorology department to see Marcus’s old work place.
This trip back home has been about Marcus. It’s not really about bonding, but accompaniment in nostalgia.
Boris clutches onto us. Lifts freak him out. No, he’s not claustrophobic. This is Kampala; if lifts don’t freak you out; you’re not paying enough attention.
Standing beside them, with the static hum of the rambling lift filling the silence, I feel diminished. I’ve never been outside this country, but in their presence, I feel like I’m in exile. I feel like I’ve strayed, somehow wandered too far from some vital totem, that I’ve misplaced something more central to us than sins of the father shall be visited upon the son.
I shouldn’t subscribe to the delusions of persecution, of self-martyrdom, but I can’t help it. I, like them, can’t stop feeling judged. I can’t stop yearning to be judged.
Yes, despite everything, there’s a fire beneath their disenfranchisement, their weariness. There’s a fire even though it represents loss, alienation. A fire I can never tap because I don’t understand what it’s like to lose a home, a name, an identity. It’s not fair, but more and more, hanging in their presence, I hold only contempt for them. They shouldn’t have come back if all they meant was for it to be this damning, this prejudiced.
When we get to basement, an ambulance has to be called. Boris’s collapsed.
Boris died two days after checking into Nakasero Hospital. He died in his sleep. On his deathbed, he conceded that Marcus, who hasn’t written anything worth reading in ten years, should go ahead and write the quintessential book on Kampala. Our Ulysses, our The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. Of the two, Boris is the closest thing to a writer. I feel sorry for Kampala if Marcus ever writes that book.
We don’t make a twelve hour journey to Boris’ ancestral home in Agago, Northern Uganda, to bury him. Since he came back to Kampala to die, it’s only poetic that we bury him in the city that never accepted him.
His service is held at All Saints Cathedral. In his coffin, with his beard shaved, he looks like an Arch Vampire in sleep. His lips are upturned in a snarl, one eye is less shrunken than the other. Marcus promises to have a talk with the people at the Funeral Home.
Black makes Margaret look like royalty, especially with her black veil, black stockings.
Marcus looks ragtag, gloomy in his Cardin suit. He looks defeated in some fundamental way. He doesn’t allow any flowers at the funeral, the ushers at the gate ask people to leave their flowers in their cars. According to Marcus, flowers at funerals are more indicative of regret than gratitude, and he’ll be damned if anyone shows regret for Boris. Other than him, that is.
With Marcus, everything is about him. Everything!
It doesn’t help that Boris, in death, has been transformed into some kind of national hero. All of Boris’s old cronies pay solemn respect, and while eulogizing Boris, the Attorney-General. proposes a plaque of Boris be erected at the Constitutional Centre. “We as a generation cannot erase the misdeeds Boris Labong suffered at our own hands, but we can ensure no one else does, not at the expense of ideas,” the Attorney-General bows to rapturous applause.
Marcus’s eulogy doesn’t come close to the Attorney-General’s, but it moves enough people to tears.
One by one, Boris’ old cronies make their way to the casket, then past us, offering condolences, speaking grief in a language that sounds like Afrikaans to me. I nod along as though I follow. Mother won’t stop sniffling and Marcus just stares daggers at the cronies. He won’t speak to anyone who isn’t a Labong.
Of all the odd things he’s done since he came back, this I understand. When Leo, my older brother died, I didn’t speak for weeks. Somehow I couldn’t carry on a conversation with anyone who didn’t know him, even my own godparents. They knew him, but they never really knew him. I never really knew Boris. I feel a little shitty for finding relief in that. Somehow, I suspect Marcus won’t feel too obliged to talk to me for a while. Hopefully until he flies back to London. Back to exile.
Later, after Boris has been put in the ground, in the cemetery behind U.M.I, we go back my house, where Margaret and Marcus have been staying. Marcus is peeved all those ‘two-headed snakes showed up for Boris’ funeral.
“Where were they when our family needed them, hunh? Where were they?”
Neither Mother nor I indulge him so he raids the fridge and gets drunk and later calls Margaret a shallow cow and me a traitor and a bastard. All because I haven’t been exiled yet, that I’m a milk-livered conformist because I work for the government.
I miss Boris already. Yes, he was a miserable bastard. But he wasn’t the kind of miserable bastard to hand on misery to others. I leave Marcus to his invective, and drive to Ridgeway Drive in Kololo. To the former U.E.B. staff houses. Boris lived there and even after he was exiled, kept on paying for the house. His things were kept in storage after the U.E.B. staffers were relocated. I promised Boris I’d bring him here before he died, but that was before I knew Marcus would hijack their entire homecoming.
I’m trying to make good on a promise.
At the gate, I have to dig deep into my wallet for the kitu kidogo the askari requires to allow me access to the storage. I have Boris’ last name and his eyes, or so the hawk-eyed askari flatters me.
The askari’s only qualm is how late the hour is. He’s moody, but eager for the bribe. He lets me in, and leads me through the weedy courtyard into the mould-infested storage. It’s dark, the electricity was cut off shortly after the staffers were herded away. The askari, smiling, tells me his torch will cost extra. I pay and he leaves me with his torch.
I rifle through chewed-out boxes of Boris’s things: books, journals, pictures, an antique Olympian typewriter—Nothing of any value to your usual Kampala burglar. Most importantly, I pray I find The Unfinished Manifesto, Boris’s infamous banned book. The one that got him exiled. The book that can still get you charged with treason for acknowledging its existence.
After going through three boxes of roach-eaten books, a box of encyclopedias and a carton of tingatinga paintings, I’m rewarded for my stubbornness. I find The Unfinished Manifesto swaddled in an untanned and shrunken hide.
The book hums of kitchen-corner juju. It takes me a moment to steel my nerves and unwrap the swaddling. It’s a light book, but my hands shake. Its power, its myth, is one I can never fathom.
This might very well be the last surviving copy. Yes, there’s a shamanism about the damn thing. A vertiginous energy that rashes my skin in goose-pimples.
What now? I ask myself.
I am Liam Labong. Son of anarchist and rebel, Marcus Labong. I used to know what that meant, but I’ve forgotten. The same way Marcus has forgotten what it means to be Boris Labong’s son. I have been a prisoner of their legacy all my life, trapped in their hate and the darkness of their apathy. This book I’m holding, this book that no one has read or spoken about in what feels like forever, is my birthright. I feel like one of those Coptic Priests in Ethiopia tasked with safeguarding the Ark of the Covenant.
I can’t get myself to open and read The Unfinished Manifesto. I pick what I can: books, journals, the desk lamp, close the storage and drive back home, to Naalya. I won’t read The Unfinished Manifesto before Marcus does. I feel like I owe him that. Marcus envies me already for being the last person to speak to Boris.
If you ask me, Boris didn’t die of natural causes. He chose death. He chose to die. The night he died was the only time him and I were together without Marcus hovering over us. Marcus was getting interviewed by some literary community outfit; he’d be away for most of the evening.
Boris asked me to sit with him, but wouldn’t discuss his book, nor exile. He wanted to talk about boxing, his first love. He was one of the founding patrons of the now defunct Uganda Boxing Federation.
“No one will confirm this,” Boris says, “But in 1974 I almost spurred with Ali, but they saw me and feared I might tune him up like George’s spurring partner—ah, wha’hisname, er, McMurray, yeah, see, Bill had cut George in the eye and pushed the fight back, so they couldn’t risk Ali. That’s how great I was,” Grinning, “But it was a blessing, you see, I never would’ve met Junelle, your grandma’. Like everyone else, I spent my nights at the music festival, listening to James Brown, Makeba, Manu Dibango, and one night ended up bumping into Junelle,” he closes his eyes, remembering her. He opens his eyes with much exaggeration and says, “I was ring-side though, I saw Ali knock out George.”
He told me about winning a few African titles and only retiring after losing an eye at an A.A.B.F. meet in Cairo. He popped out his glass-eye when I discredited it as a yarn.
Boris taught Marcus how to box. He told me how Marcus, at eight, was a fitful, endearing little fighter, “When he fought at junior championships in Cairo, Kinshasha, Harare, his face would become angelic, he would not look like an eight-year-old boy. He was very intense. He would practice jabs and combinations in his sleep and rise before five to shadowbox with Ali’s pin-up poster,” Boris smiling without revealing his teeth, continued, “When he fought boys older than him, he would conduct himself with a certainty even I didn’t have at my peak. He did not win all, but when he lost, I found it hard to embrace him. To acknowledge defeat. It was unspoken, but an extra distance developed between us with each loss, however far-spaced between his wins they were. One time he would not sit next to me in the bus ride back to our hotel; he sat in the next aisle. He was oversensitive, even for a Labong.”
“I taught him everything I could about winning, but not enough about losing. Eventually, he left boxing altogether.” Boris looked away, his eyes tear-hardened, “I think Marcus thinks he was never good enough for me. Boxing, like writing a few years later, became his salvation, but also his trap. You do not have children, Liam, but when you do, do not do what I did, or what he did—let them lose. Teach them defeat, the world could do with a few less winners… We all lose eventually… we all lose.”
I caressed his hand through the beddings. He nodded acknowledgment, then closed his eyes and squeezed out a tear. I walked out, lacking the guts to see a god-figure cry.
Marcus came an hour later. Boris had been dead forty minutes.
When I get back home, Margaret’s already asleep. Marcus is in the living room watching the telly, the sound off.
I sit and tell him about Boris’ last words as I hand him The Unfinished Manifesto.
He takes the book, holds it for a full three minutes before chucking the book on the rug beneath his feet. “He told you that?” He rises, paces the room. “What? I’m supposed to feel like I was somehow deprived of my childhood?” he scoffs again, but it sounds wetter, like the opening note of a whimper. He sits with a jeer.
“I don’t feel like I had a childhood to lose, nor a self,” he pauses. “Sometimes,”—relaxing, slouching—,“ writing and idolatry are stronger than any sense of childhood or selfhood,” he says.
Looking at him, still trying to impress his father even after death by attempting another novel long after having abandoned the form, I feel like, yes, idolatry might not have de facto taken his childhood, but it is no doubt hanging onto his adulthood, his self-hood. Especially seeing as the new novel is an attempt to debunk The Unfinished Manifesto.
I am glad that Marcus is back, after twenty years in exile, but I’m a little disheartened also. I’ve learned that loved ones don’t have to die to be absent.
Marcus talks about Boris by alluding to his absence. The theme of exile, emigration, a man without family, without society, prevails. I can’t underestimate its bluntness enough. He speaks with playful alienation. Their escape from despair, fear and betrayal is a journey of silent travel that doesn’t end. There’s no magic bus at the station, no golden street to walk on, no pearly gate to go through. There’s only this book, The Unfinished Manifesto, and what remains of our failed attempt at family, at homecoming.
“You resent me, you resent us, don’t you?” Marcus asks.
I say nothing.
“What, I’ve been away too long so you harbour no feelings whatsoever?”
“What I feel doesn’t, it’s not what’s important right now.”
He scoffs, “Mr. Government Expert, tell me, what’s important?”
“Nothing. Nothing is important. Nothing is as mythical as you make it.”
“Look who’s talking. How would you know what anything is? You’ve never left the safe cocoon that is this stupid, broken city. You don’t even know where you’re from. You’re no Labong.” He spits at my feet.
“I may not have lived up to the Labong myth, but at least I have a home, I’m grounded, I’m not lost,” I say.
“Who says I’ve no home.”
“I meant London.”
“That doesn’t count,” I shrug. “Not really.”
He narrows a crushing gaze at me, “I’m not lost,” he says.
“You’re lost without him. Without this,” I point to Boris’ book.
Marcus picks up the book. “This isn’t why I came back.”
“I know. But it’s what’s going to keep you.”
“I owe him nothing, I don’t have to live up to anything he expects me to.”
I take the book from his hands and sit down. I’m itching to open it, to commit treason. To become father, and his father before him. But it’s enough just bearing the Labong name. I don’t need to extend the myth anymore. I don’t have to be exiled to be in exile. But, God, how good it would feel to be a dutiful son, like Marcus was to Boris. Instead, I hand the book back to Marcus. Exile wouldn’t suit me. Not if the cost is this broken city.
Marcus takes the book with mild apprehension. He says, “He told me if we ever came back home we’d never leave.” He turns the book in his hand, weighing it, appraising its shamanism like I did earlier. He tosses it back to me. “I think that’s the only time in his life he’s ever been wrong. I can’t die here.”
“I don’t think that’s what he meant,” I say.
“Of course not, but I can’t reconcile all my resentment for him with my resentment for what this place stands for.”
“What does it stand for?” I ask.
“It’s all a fragile, flaky tatter, a lost map I can’t restore with my faint tracings of nostalgia. All my memories of this place are thin, as tentative as leaf-veins. Every clear memory feels like a crumpled postcard from some vanished nightmare I can’t escape. I never wanted to come back. I feared there was nothing for me to find here, nothing but myself. And I’ve seen what I could’ve become if I hadn’t gone away, and it scares me, like how your reflection in a dank, dingy hovel scares you.”
I rise and pat his shoulder, “It doesn’t have to.”
“I know, but even if I stayed, I’ve lost too much. All I’d be leaving behind is a failed dream. And what is a failed dream to a man who can’t call anywhere home?”
I pick up the book, “Something unfinished—unfinishable—like hope. There’s no abandonment here, father, but if you’re looking for somewhere to call home, this is a good starting place.”
He takes the book. I leave him reading by the lamplight, with the muted TV silhouetting his figure. If he leaves tomorrow, this is how I’ll remember him. Unfinished, prodigal, hopeful.
About the Writer:
Derek Lubangakene is a fiction writer and screenwriter based in Kampala, Uganda. He is an editor at Deyuafrican.com, an online repository for contemporary African writing. His work has appeared in River River Literary Journal, Prairie Schooner, The Missing Slate, The Kalahari Review, Lawino Magazine, and the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, among others. He is currently working on his first novel.