"Banana Republic--Where Writing Is Treasonous": Chapter One

boldly poised between art and history
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Black Star News is serializing a new book Banana Republic, Where Writing Is Treasonous by Ugandan author and columnist for this publication Kakwenza Rukirabashaija. He was arrested on April 13 and tortured over a three-week period by Gen. Yoweri Museveni’s regime by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) for publishing a novel called “The Greedy Barbarian.” After his release on bail May 6, he was arrested again on Sept. 18 on yet-undisclosed charges by CMI. Banana Republic is Rukirabashaija’s account of his arrest and torture. 
 
Chapter One: 1990’s--Do Not Apologize for Being Creative
 
The year was 1995, in the month of November. It was a Friday. We were in class, around a hundred or more pupils, studying math. The teacher stood in front of us, writing on the blackboard with a piece of chalk, doing abacus calculations. Most of us, however, listened lackadaisically and waited for the bell for lunch to ring. That was when I saw my late father, through the open window, walking down the hill from home towards the school.
 
He was carrying my bedding. It was a small two-inch mattress without a cover, browned by many years of bed wetting. The cover had since got shredded and we had make a ball from it that we kicked around every evening after classes. My father had warned us against leaving wet mattresses in our bedroom instead of putting them out in the sun to dry.
 
That day, our herdsman, with whom I used to sleep, had overslept and forgotten to put the mattress out to dry when he woke up to take the cows out to graze in the morning. He had hurriedly got out of the house when my father lashed out at him for oversleeping and the animals had been making noise. After milking the cows, he had got back to bed to continue enjoying the morning sleep. My farther had warned us several times that if we again forgot to dry the mattress, he would carry it to school and shame us before the entire population of teachers and pupils. He had woken up to the stench of three days’ bedwetting that pervaded the whole house. The blatant disobedience of his rules had made him furious.
 
When I saw him briskly walking down the hill carrying the wet and dirty mattress in his right hand and a cane in the other, brandishing that arm in rage, I knew that here was an avalanche of disaster rolling towards me. I could not wait for him to reach the school, which was a hundred meters away. I was about nine years.  I understood very well that my father had lost his patience and was determined to make me bend over before the assembly of my fellow pupils and subject my rump to heavy whipping. As he got near the school fence, upon clearly seeing the sodden mattress he carried and the exasperation on his face, I jumped out of the classroom through a window and disappeared among the nearby trees. This was where I spent the rest of the day hiding.
 
Although my father was a tough man when it came to disciplining us, his anger always subsided pretty quickly, never lasting more than a day. He was very quick at forgiving. At my tender age, I knew that by the time I sneaked back home he would have already forgiven me. My father wasn’t aware that it was actually our herdsman who would wet the bed, though he was much older, and then threaten that he would beat us to pulp if we reported him. Sometimes I would be beaten, becoming the sacrificial lamb for his shameless vice, and he would afterwards give me some small coins as a token of appreciation for not reporting him. He was about eighteen years old or thereabouts. 
 
On the day he carried our mattress to the school, my father, after waiting for me to return home in vain, combed the village looking for me until he found me sleeping under the tree. He didn’t punish me. However, the following day the headmaster beat me until I couldn’t move. He was punishing me for escaping through the window when I saw my dad coming to school.
 
A few years later. It was Christmas Day and it was scorching-hot outside. Since it was a holiday, our herdsman had gone back to his home village and so I was the one responsible for looking after the animals until he returned. Owing to negligence and playfulness on my part, some of the cows wandered into our neighbors’ land and wreaked havoc in the banana plantation. For almost an hour, I had been so engrossed in playing hide-and-seek that I forgot that I had been looking after the cows. By the time I remembered and realized that some animals were missing, it was too late. Still, I ran around anyway looking for them. That was when I met the plantation owner driving the cows out of the banana plantation, shouting obscenities and hitting the cows on their backs and stomachs.
 
The damage that they had caused was humongous. I was very scared, thinking that my father would be made liable for the damage, in which case he would have to use the money he would have spent on stuff for us to compensate for the damage. Upon seeing me, the neighbor attempted to grab my hand but I was too swift to be caught. His strides were, however, longer than mine and soon he grabbed my shirt from behind and pulled me to him and forced me to the ground. He stepped on both my legs, pinning me to the ground so that I couldn’t run away, and started to beat me using his herd’s man stick without caring which body part the blows landed on. He hit my head, ankles and stomach mercilessly. Had it not been for my playfulness and negligence, I thought to myself, the cows wouldn’t have wandered into my torturer’s banana plantation and wreaked such havoc. I reproached myself for having joined my peers to play hide-and-seek.
 
The sun was sinking behind the hills when I gathered myself up and began to limp back home, sobbing and very angry. I wondered what type of person would get hold of someone’s son, beat him mercilessly and leave him lying unconscious on the ground, without caring to help. My father would later run into the neighbor and me, as I limped along the path home and as the man attempted to whip my already very sore backside some more. When I saw my father, I let out a shriek. This scared him so much that he loudly scolded the merciless man for beating me so hard that my ankles had started to swell. A fierce argument ensued between my father and my tormentor. I watched my father talking fiercely and with authority and the other man cowering. My father took me on his bicycle that night on the bumpy murram road, through darkness, to a clinic, which was about ten kilometers away, where I was admitted for a number of days. When we reached the trading centre, the clinic attendant, who was a family friend, had closed shop but when she realized that it was us knocking and calling out, she re-opened and admitted me. Her clinic was a small building facing the road with two rooms; the front one had shelves with medicine and the back one she was using as her bedroom. Then there was the boys’ quarters, which had three rooms that she used to secretly admit patients.
 
“Has he been beaten by robbers or terrorists?” she asked while shaving off the hair around the bruises on my head. My father was not forthcoming with information. He was later, though, advised to report the incident to the police, for what had happened violated children’s rights. It was considered as mob justice and the offender would be answerable before the law. My father decided against the idea of reporting our neighbor to the police. I was livid that such a ruthless human could be allowed to get away with such brutality simply because my father had decided to forgive him on my behalf. My father had decided to shield a criminal on the basis of religion and the need for peace and I was against it. I had seen brutes of the kind being picked up by law enforcement agents and I wished he would, too, be picked up so that he could account for his brutal behavior before the law. However, I was very loyal to my father and always acquiesced to his decisions. A few years later, I would take my revenge against the man who had almost physically handicapped me. The evening was cool. It had rained heavily from morning up to the afternoon. I had been grazing our animals across the hill when I saw my former tormentor riding his bicycle downhill in my direction. On the bicycle carrier he had a huge hundred-liter stainless steel milk can and he was riding from the dairy. I knew that it was this the best time to revenge.
 
It was so gratifying to watch as a swarm of bees stung his face and arms as he panicked on that bicycle, as he let out deafening cries for help and he crashed, his arms flailing about and still on the bicycle, into the thorny shrubs on the side of the path. I was about twelve years old then and we had mastered the art of agitating the bees near the road upon seeing a drunkard staggering back home or, for that matter, any person we detested. We would poke enkoni into the beehive and run away or lay prostrate on the pasture. The angry bees would swirl out of their hive in big numbers and attack whoever would be walking by or standing around.
 
The man would in become my best friend when I grew up, and even gifted me with a cow when I school. I would also apologize for the bees that had stung him years earlier. He appreciated the equalizer though wondered why I had kept the secret for such a long time. It had not occurred to him that someone could actually have ‘sent’ him the bees to sting his face until it swelled and looked like a ball.
 
Whenever the two of us were working in the banana plantation or minding the cows, my father loved to tell me stories of how, while growing up, he would never allow a person to do him a wrong and go scot free. He would advise me to never revenge. I would ask him why I shouldn’t revenge when he himself used to revenge. He would tell me that when he abandoned the teaching profession and joined the army and later deserted to study theology, they taught him that revenge is for the cowards and not godly. It was then that I told him how I had revenged against our neighbor for beating me mercilessly, and he upbraided me for such a cowardly act. Then I looked into his face and told him that an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and promised him that when I grew up I would perhaps change and never be vengeful. His words sank deep in my head so that whenever a person does me wrong, I forgive them there and then. I can never be angry at a person for even a day. I just forgive and leave the matter of revenge to God. 
 
*****
When I was in secondary school, during an English lesson, one of the most boring teachers, whom we had nicknamed Maganya, gave us a quiz involving writing an essay about anything. He asked us to use our heads and the skills he had taught us to be creative. Because he hated me and would beat me every time I got the answers to his random questions wrong, I decided, in my essay, to describe his physical appearance and the way he inaudibly spoke to a full class in the hot afternoons, when we would be feeling lazy and sleepy after eating poor quality posho and beans infested with weevils.
 
Maganya was a short, plump man who possessed only one short-sleeved shirt which he would put on every day from Monday to Wednesday and who, the rest of the days, would put on a grey long-sleeved T-shirt with black stripes. The shirt was small and it couldn’t encase his potbelly so whenever he was moving about in the classroom, we would hide our laughter and hysterical giggles by putting our hands to our mouths to escape his wrath. He would turn up in school on Monday in a clean, washed and ironed shirt but by end of Wednesday, because of what we called ‘recycling’, it would be very dirty and all splattered with unwashed days-old sweat on the collar and in the armpits.
 
He had one pair of shoes that needed re-heeling and the left shoe had a hole in the toe cap and was tattered at the throat line, so that a malodorous smell emanated from the shoes. His toe would keep peeping out and he would all the time fold it back to avoid embarrassment because he never put on socks. His right shoe was okay apart from the missing tongue. I imagined that maybe the tongue had been eaten by the rats in his house because whenever he took our books home for marking, we would often get them back when they had been nibbled by the ravenous rats.
 
His one pair of khaki trousers would go unwashed for five days and by Friday it would be very filthy and grubby on the knees and fly, around the buttocks and at the hems. He had poor quality hair and we would make fun of it, calling it steel wire, and most days he would turn up in class with his hair interspersed with thread from un-ironed bed sheets. When he had finished marking our essays, he came to class to give out the marked work but my essay was missing.
 
That afternoon he had turned up in a new, well-fitting sky-blue shirt, tucked tightly into ironed grey pants and with new brown polished shoes on his feet. His head was clean-shaven and his unkempt beard was missing. His face was youthful, and he appeared debonair and suave. The only anomaly was his potbelly, which needed many months of stretching in the gym. All the students gave him a standing ovation and wondered what had prompted him to change his style so suddenly. I was seated on a bench, sandwiched between two girls, one of whom remarked that “Teacher Maganya today has an appearance of a delicacy. He looks like a midnight snack.”
 
I knew that Teacher Maganya had read my descriptive essay, which I had written in the form of fiction, when everyone but me got back their marked essays. My heart skipped a beat when he instructed me to follow him outside after the lesson.
 
“Kakwenza, you wrote about me in your essay, not so?” he asked angrily, and this time his voice was audible.
“But sir, you asked us to be creative and write about anything,” I responded, fearfully.
 
I was terrified and wished that the ground could swallow me up. He had books and papers in his left hand and a cane in his right hand, so as I was expecting him to instruct me to lie down to receive my punishment. Instead he walked away and left me standing alone under the tree.
 
He turned around and mumbled, “Do not tell anyone about this, OK? And I will not give you back your essay.”
“Thank you, sir, for forgiving me. I am sorry,” I apologized.
 
He walked back to me and whispered into my ears, “Do not apologize for being creative. You scored highly, and more than your classmates, but next time avoid ridiculing your teachers, OK? I cannot punish a young boy who has used the knowledge I give to be creative. I would be killing your talent.” He then sauntered away to the office.
 
From then on, Maganya became my best friend and I began to enjoy his lessons despite the hate most of the students felt for him. I had thought that I had committed a heinous crime that would lead to my expulsion from school or attract a corporal punishment, but I had been wrong. The English teacher, despite the satire and ridicule I had penned in the essay, respected my freedom of expression; instead of reproaching me, he had encouraged me and continued to give me guidance the entire time I was at his school. He pulled me closer to him and I began to drink from his cup of knowledge.
 
I started to realize that my hate for him was kind of based on the twin shackles of bandwagonism and prejudice, which would have squandered the opportunity for me to be equipped with relevant knowledge that I would use after many years to be a published author of one of the bestselling books in Uganda, “The Greedy Barbarian,” a work of a political fiction.
 
A celebrated novelist, Nick Twinamatsiko, described the book as a powerful work of literary art, one that is likely to make even the average Ugandan realize that novels are relevant. He wrote that it is teasingly, hilariously and boldly poised between art and history. He emphasized that if the novel doesn’t cause a big stir in Uganda, no book would, and indeed his prophecy came to pass.
 
A few months after it had been on the bookshop shelves, the military arrested and locked me up in their torture chamber for a week, and for almost a month in prison.
 
© Kakwenza Rukirabashaija
 
Serialization of “Banana Republic” continues on Monday September 21. 
 

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