Aisha’s father was always saying to her, ‘We don’t want any problems with the law. Remember, no one will defend your rights. You’re invisible, a refugee. Give thanks for what you have. Be on your guard and make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.’
He didn’t need to worry. People looked straight through her. Even when she stood directly in their path, they made no eye contact, but only mumbled ‘excuse me.’ Once, on a cold winter’s day, she had dropped her handbag on purpose, outside Sainsbury’s in Holborn, at the peak of the rush hour. All the contents were strewn on the pavement, but instead of stopping to help, everyone sidestepped her umbrella, wallet, scarf and lipstick, and carried on. When she was out walking in London, she would look around her, in case someone familiar might appear. She lived alone in a ground floor flat, and at times she would stand at the window watching the street outside, as though expecting a visitor. Or she would go down to the pub at the corner, and sit there with a drink, staring at strangers. No one gave her a second glance, or even a first one.
They moved into the house opposite ours. They arrived with a large rusty red boerboel called Hunter. In my brisk seven years, I’d never encountered a more vicious animal. He would run up-and-down the length of the rickety fence, eyes flaring and drool guzzling through his teeth like venom. He barked and snapped at anyone and everyone that walked by, especially black people. Hunter hated black people. In the few months they lived in that house he must’ve bitten at least eight black people; two maids, three gardeners, a painter and two random men who were unlucky that he managed to break through the fence on those specific days.
December 9, 1984;
The sun was hot enough to make a man go crazy. The sweltering heat made fat-bellied Nnaemeka drink more Coke than his body needed. He was driving the patients from the Yaba Psychiatric patients in Lagos to the Calabar Lunatic Asylum in Cross River State. At Onitsha, Nnaemeka stopped to take a leak. He alighted from the bus, walked a polite distance away, found a suitable spot, and released a long and warm fountain of nitrate to the poor, unsuspecting grasses, while letting out a reverberating fart. The erotic aroma of Egusi soup and stockfish strolled from a mile away, and began flirting with his nostrils; it whispered in his ears a song of a thousand voices. ‘Come,’ they chorused. Nnaemeka went.
We call it the celebration.
“He went for his graduation in heaven,” Mama said of Uncle Joseph’s death, commending him to God the same way she began entrusting my brothers and I to the divine. In the throes of her grief, she would tie a white scarf on her head and order us to our knees: “Father God, you know these are your children. Father God, help your children in school. Father God, give your children food. Father God, forgive me.”
Rekayi stands tall in his rented room and looks around. It is dusk and yet the watch on his wrist reads 3:17 am or pm. Silence. The scent of tomatoes and onions frying in Cartwright’s curry powder wafts in through the gap under the door. Darkness. The muted scraping of a metal spoon in a pan reaches his room. He fumbles around and curses at the only stump of candle left. He slides open the box of matches next to the candle and strikes one. The head cracks off in a spark and leaves the stick bare. He strikes another one and he’s lucky this time. The smell of the match hits his nostrils as he lights the stump and then walks over to the little radio. Rekayi grabs the radio in his left hand and winds the power lever. The little dynamo inside whirrs and the radio springs to life. Little blue and red lights glow and the tiny speaker crackles sharply. There is a live broadcast squawking through the speaker – The Minister of Water Affairs, Polished Shoes, and Button Colours is declaring Statutory Instrument 45 (2) of 2016, which bans the wearing of blue buttons and makes it mandatory for people from all walks of life to wear clothes with black buttons on Fridays. The Minister further states that this ban supersedes Statutory Instrument 45 (1), declared two days earlier, which allowed blue buttons but banned green buttons. “This Statutory Instrument shall stand for the foreseeable future,” he adds with the confidence of a giraffe on a skateboard.
“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.