Christmas in Bufumbira
Dec 20,1995 – The drive through the Mau Hills, past the Rift Valley and onwards to Kisumu is a drag. I haven’t been this way for ten years, but my aim is to be in Uganda. We arrive in Kampala at ten in the evening. We have been on the road for over eight hours.
This is my first visit to Uganda, a land of incredible mystery for me. I grew up with her myths and legends and her horrors — narrated with the intensity that only exiles can muster. It is my first visit to my mother’s ancestral home, the occasion is her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
It will be the first time that she and her ten surviving brothers and sisters have been together since the early ’60s. The first time that my grandparents will have all their children and most of their grandchildren at home together — more than a hundred people are expected.
My mother, and the many visitors who came to visit, always filled my imagination with incredible tales of Uganda. I heard how you had to wriggle on your stomach to see the Kabaka; how the Tutsi king in Rwanda (who was seven feet tall) was once given a bicycle as a present. Because he couldn’t walk on the ground (being a king and all), he was carried everywhere, on his bicycle, by his bearers.
Apparently, in the old kingdom in Rwanda, Tutsi women were not supposed to exert themselves or mar their beauty in any way. Some women had to be spoon-fed by their Hutu servants and wouldn’t leave their huts for fear of sunburn.
I was told about a trip my grandfather took when he was young, with an uncle, where he was mistaken for a Hutu servant and taken away to stay with the goats. A few days later his uncle asked about him and his hosts were embarrassed to confess that they didn’t know he was”one of us.”
This must really irritate people here — that we seem to be interested only in the schism between the Tutsi and the Hutu.
It has been a year of mixed blessings for Africa. This the year that I sat at Newlands Stadium during the Rugby World Cup in the Cape and watched South Africans reach out to each other before giving New Zealand a hiding. Mandela, wearing the Number six rugby jersey, managed to melt away for one incredible night and all the hostility that had gripped the country since he was released from jail. Black people, for long supporters of the All Blacks, embraced the Springboks with enthusiasm. For just one night most South Africans felt a common Nationhood.
It is the year that I returned to my home, Kenya, to find people so way beyond cynicism that they looked back on their cynical days with fondness.
Uganda is different: this is a country that has not only reached the bottom of the hole countries sometimes fall into, it has scratched through that bottom and free-fallen again and again, and now it has rebuilt itself and swept away the hate. This country gives me hope that this continent is not incontinent.
This is the country I used to associate with banana trees, old and elegant kingdoms, rot, Idi Amin, and hopelessness. It was an association I had made as a child, when the walls of our house would ooze and leak whispers of horror whenever a relative or friends of the family came home, fleeing from Amin’s literal and metaphoric crocodiles.
I am rather annoyed that the famous Seven Hills of Kampala are not as clearly defined as I had imagined they would be. I have always had a childish vision of a stately city filled with royal paraphernalia. I had expected to see elegant people dressed in flowing robes, carrying baskets on their heads and walking arrogantly down streets filled with the smell of roasting bananas; and Intellectuals from a ’60s dream, burning the streets with their Afrocentric rhetoric.
Images formed in childhood can be more than a little bit stubborn.
Reality is a better aesthetic. Kampala seems disorganised, full of potholes, bad management, and haphazardness. The African city that so horrifies the West. The truth is that it is a city being overwhelmed by enterprise. I see smiles, the shine of healthy skin, and teeth; no layabouts lounging and plotting at every street corner. People do not walk about with walls around themselves as they do in Nairobbery.
All over, there is a frenzy of building: a blanket of paint is slowly spreading over the city, so it looks rather like one of those Smirnoff adverts where inanimate things get breathed to Technicolor by the sacred burp of 30 percent or so of clear alcohol.
It is humid, and hot, and the banana trees flirt with you, swaying gently like fans offering a coolness that never materialises.
Everything smells musky, as if a thick, soft steam has risen like a Broth of Life: if the air was any thicker, it would be a gel. The plants are enormous. They flutter arrogantly about, like traditional dancers. Mum once told me that when travelling in Uganda in the ’40s and the ’50s, if you were hungry you could simply enter a banana plantation and eat as much as you wished — you didn’t have to ask anybody, but you were not allowed to carry so much as a single deformed banana out of the plantation.
We are booked in at the Catholic Guesthouse. As soon as I have dumped my stuff on the bed, I call up an old school friend, who promises to pick me up.
Musoke comes at six and we go to find food. We drive past the famous Mulago Hospital and into town. He picks up a couple of friends and we go to a place called Yakubu’s.
We order a couple of beers, lots of roast pork brochettes and sit in the car. The brochettes are delicious. I like them so much, I order more. Nile beer is okay, but nowhere near Kenya’s Tusker.
The sun is drowned suddenly and it is dark.
We get onto the highway to Entebbe. On both sides of the road, people have built flimsy houses: bars, shops, and cafes line the road the whole way. What surprises me is how many people are out. Especially teenagers, flouncing about, weighed down by hormones. It is still hot outside and the fronts of all these premises are lit by paraffin lamps. It is just too tempting.
I turn to Musoke and ask,”Can we stop at one of those pubs and have a beer?”
“Ah! Wait till we get to where we are going, it’s much nicer than this dump!”
“I’m sure it is; but you know, I might never get a chance to drink in a real Entebbe pub, not those bourgeois places. Come on, I’ll buy a round.”
The place is charming. Ugandans seem to me to have a knack for making things elegant and comfortable, regardless of income. In Kenya, or South Africa, a place like this would be dirty, and buildings would be put together with a sort of haphazard self-loathing; sort of like saying”I won’t be here long, why bother?”
The inside of the place is decorated simply, mostly with reed mats. The walls are well finished, and the simple floor, simple cement, has no cracks or signs of misuse. We are served by women in the traditional Baganda getup. I find Baganda women much ***ier than the Shay women. They carry about with them a look of knowledge, a proud and na*** sen****ity — daring you to satisfy.
Also, they don’t seem to have that generic cuteness many city women have, that I have already begun to find irritating. Their features are strong; their skin is a deep, gleaming copper and their eyes have that oil-film-over-black pupils look common in the tropics (often referred to as sultry).
Baganda women traditionally wear a long, loose Victorian-style dress. It fulfils every literal aspect the Victorians desired, but manages despite itself to suggest ***. The dresses are usually in bold colours. To emphasize their size, many women tie a band just below their buttocks (which are often padded).
What makes the difference is the walk.
Many women visualise their hips as an unnecessary evil, an irritating accessory that needs to be whittled down. I guess, a while back, women looked upon their hips as a cradle for the depositing of desire, for the nurturing of childlings. Baganda women see their hips as great ball bearings, rolling, supple things moving in lubricated circles — so they make the best Tombolo dancers in the world. In those loose dresses, their hips brushing the sides of the dress as they move, they are a marvel to watch.
Most appealing about them is the sense of stature they carry about them. Baganda women seem to have found a way to be traditional and powerful at the same time — most I know grow more beautiful with age and many compete with men in industry, without seeming to compromise themselves as women.
I sleep on the drive from Kampala to Kisoro.
We leave Kisoro and begin the drive to St. Paul’s Mission, Kigezi, Uganda. My sister Ciru is sitting next to me. She is a year younger than me. Chiqy, my youngest sister, has been to Uganda before and is taking full advantage of her vast experience to play the adult tour guide. At her age, cool is a god.
I have the odd feeling we are puppets in some Christmas story. It is as if a basket weaver were writing this story in a language of weave; tightening the tension on the papyrus strings every few minutes, and superstitiously refusing to reveal the ending (even to herself) until she has tied the very last knot.
We are now in the mountains. The winding road and the dense papyrus in the valleys seem to entwine me, ever tighter, into my fictional weaver’s basket. Every so often, she jerks her weave to tighten it.
I look up to see the last half-hour of road winding along the mountain above us. We are in the Bufumbira range now, driving through Kigaland on our way to Kisoro, the nearest town to my mother’s home.
There is an alien quality to this place. It does not conform to any African topography that I am familiar with. The mountains are incredibly steep and resemble inverted ice-cream cones: a hoe has tamed every inch of them.It is incredibly green.
In Kenya,”green” is the ultimate accolade a person can give land: green is scarce, green is wealth, fertility.
Bufumbira green is not a tropical green, no warm musk, like in Buganda; it is not the harsh green of the Kenyan savannah, either: that two-month-long green that compresses all the elements of life — millions of wildebeest and zebra, great carnivores feasting during the rains, frenzied ploughing and planting, and dry riverbeds overwhelmed by soil and bloodstained water; and Nairobi underwater.
It is not the green of grand waste and grand bounty that my country knows.
This is a mountain green, cool and enduring. Rivers and lakes occupy the cleavage of the many mountains that surround us.
Mum looks almost foreign now; her Kinyarwanda accent is more pronounced, and her face is not as reserved as usual. Her beauty, so exotic and head-turning in Kenya, seems at home here. She does not stand out here, she belongs; the rest of us seem like tourists.
As the drive continues, I become imbued with the sense of where we are. We are no longer in the history of Buganda, of Idi Amin, of the Kabakas, or civil war, Museveni, and Hope.
We are now on the outskirts of the theatre where the Hutus and the Tutsis have been performing for the world’s media. My mother has always described herself as a Mufumbira, one who speaks Kinyarwanda. She has always said that too much is made of the differences between Tutsi and Hutu; and that they are really more alike than anything. She insists that she is Bufumbira – a MnyaRwanda. Forget the rest, she says
I am glad she hasn’t, because it saves me from trying to understand. I am not here about genocide or hate. Enough people have been here for that (try typing”Tutsi”on any search engine.
I am here to be with family.
I ask my mother where the border with Rwanda is. She points it out, and points out Zaire as well. They are both nearer than I thought. Maybe this is what makes this coming together so urgent. How amazing life seems when it stands around death. There is no grass as beautiful as the blades that stick out after the first rain.
As we move into the forested area I am enthralled by the smell and by the canopy of mountain vegetation. I join the conversation in the car. I have become self-conscious about displaying my dreaminess and absent-mindedness these days.
I used to spend hours gazing out of car windows, creating grand battles between battalions of clouds. I am aware of a conspiracy to get me back to Earth, to get me to be more practical. My parents are pursuing this cause with little subtlety, aware that my time with them is limited. It is necessary for me to believe that I am putting myself on a gritty road to personal success when I leave home. Cloud travel is well and good when you have mastered the landings. I never have. I must live, not dream about living.
We are in Kisoro, the main town of the district, weaving through roads between people’s houses. We are heading towards Uncle Kagame’s house.
The image of a dictatorial movie director manipulating our movements replaces that of the basket-weaver in my mind. I have a dizzy vision of a supernatural moviemaker slowing down the action before the climax by examining tiny details instead of grand scenes.
I see a Continuity Presenter in the fifth dimension saying:”And now our Christmas movie: a touching story about the reunion of a family torn apart by civil war and the genocide in Rwanda. This movie is sponsored by Sobbex, hankies for every occasion (repeated in Zulu, then a giggle and a description of the soapie that will follow).
My fantasy escalates and there is a motivational speaker/aerobics instructor shouting at Christmas TV viewers:”Jerk those tear glands, baby!”
I am still dreaming when we get to my uncle’s place.
I am at my worst, half in dream, clumsy, tripping and unable to focus. I have learnt to move my body resolutely at such times, but it generally makes things worse. Tea and every possible thing we could want will be available to us on demand (and so we must not demand).
My uncle Gerald Kagame and his wife both work at the mission hospital. I discover it is their formidable organisational skills that have made this celebration possible. There are already around 100 visitors speaking five or six languages.
Basically, the Binyavangas have taken over the Kisoro town and business is booming. During such an event, hotels are not an option. The church at St Paul’s is booked, the dorms are booked, homes have been hijacked, and so on.
We are soon driving through my grandfather’s land. In front of us is a saddle-shaped hill with a large, old, imposing church ruling the view. My mother tells us that my grandfather donated this land for the building of the church. The car squishes and slides up the muddy hills, progress impeded by a thick mat of grass.
I see Ankole cattle grazing, their enormous horns like regal crowns.
“Look, that’s the homestead. I know this place.”
It is a small brick house. I can see the surge of family coming towards the car. After the kissing and hugging, the crowd parts for my grandparents. They seem tall but aren’t, just lean and fit. Age and time has made them start to look alike.
My grandmother stretches a long-fingered hand to Ciru’s cheek and exclaims:”She still has a big forehead!”
How do you keep track of 60 grandchildren?
She embraces me. She is very slender and I feel she will break. Her elegance surrounds me and I can feel a strong pull to dig into her, burrow in her secrets, see with her eyes. She is a quiet woman, and unbending, even taciturn — and this gives her a powerful charisma. Things not said. Her resemblance to my mother astounds me.
My grandfather is crying and laughing, exclaiming when he hears that Chiqy and I are named after him and his wife (Kamanzi and Binyavanga). We drink rgwagwa (banana wine) laced with honey. It is delicious, smoky and sweet.
Ciru and Chiqy are sitting next to my grandmother. I see why my grandfather was such a legendary schoolteacher: his gentleness and love of life are palpable.
At night, we split into our various age groups and start to bond with one another. Of the cousins, Manwelli, the eldest, is our unofficial leader. He works for the World Bank.
Aunt Rosaria and her family are the coup of the ceremony. They were feared dead during the war in Rwanda and hid for months in their basement, helped by a friend who provided food. They all survived; they walk around carrying expressions that are more common in children — delight, sheer delight at life.
Her three sons spend ever minute bouncing about with the high of being alive. They dance at all hours, sometimes even when there is no music. In the evenings, we squash into the veranda, looking out as far as the Congo, and they entertain us with their stand-up routines in French and Kinyarwanda; the force of their humour carries us all to laughter. Manwelli translates one skit for me: they imitate a vain Tutsi woman who is pregnant and is kneeling to make a confession to the shocked priest:
“Oh please God, let my child have long fingers, and a gap between the teeth; let her have a straight nose and be ta-a-all. Oh lord, let her not have (gesticulations of a gorilla prowling) a mashed banana nose like a Hutu. Oh please, I shall be your grateful servant!”
The biggest disappointment so far, is that my Aunt Christine has not yet arrived. She has lived with her family in New York since the early ’70s. We all feel her loss keenly as it was she who urged us all years ago to gather for this occasion at any cost.
She and my Aunt Rosaria are the senior aunts, and they were very close when they were younger. They speak frequently on the phone and did so especially during the many months that Aunt Rosaria and her family were living in fear in their basement. They are, for me, the summary of the pain the family has been through over the years. Although they are very close, they haven’t met since 1961. Visas, wars, closed borders and a thousand triumphs of chaos have kept them apart. We are all looking forward to their reunion.
As is normal in traditional occasions, people stick with their peers; so I have hardly spoken to my mother the past few days. I find her in my grandmother’s room, trying, without much success, to get my grandmother to relax and let her many daughters and granddaughters do the work.
I have been watching Mum from a distance for the past few days. At first, she seemed a bit aloof from it all; but now she’s found fluency with everything and she seems far away from the Kenyan Mother we know. I can’t get over the sight of her cringing and blushing as my grandmother machine-guns instructions to her. How alike they are. I want to talk with her more, but decide not to be selfish, that I am trying establish possession of her. We’ll have enough time on the way back.
I’ve been trying to pin down my grandfather, to ask him about our family’s history. He keeps giving me this bewildered look when I corner him, as if he is asking, Can’t you just relax and party?
Last night, he toasted us all and cried again before dancing to some very hip gospel rap music from Kampala. He tried to get Grandmother to join him but she beat a hasty retreat.
Gerald is getting quite concerned that when we are all gone, they will find it too quiet.
We hurtle on towards Christmas. Booze flows, we pray, chat and bond under the night rustle of banana leaves. I feel as if I am filled with magic and I succumb to the masses. In two days, we feel a family. In French, Swahili, English, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.
At dawn on December 24 I stand smoking in the banana plantation at the edge of my grandfather’s hill and watch the mists disappear. Uncle Chris saunters up to join me. I ask:”Any news about Aunt Christine?”
“It looks like she might not make it. Manwelli has tried to get in contact with her and failed. Maybe she couldn’t get a flight out of New York. Apparently the weather is terrible there.”
The day is filled with hard work. My uncles have convinced my grandfather that we need to slaughter another bull as meat is running out. The old man adores his cattle but reluctantly agrees. He cries when the bull is killed.
There is to be a church service in the sitting room of my grandfather’s house later in the day.
The service begins and I bolt from the living room, volunteering to peel potatoes outside.
About halfway through the service, I see somebody staggering up the hill, suitcase in hand and muddied up to her ankles. It takes me an instant to guess. I run to her and mumble something. We hug. Aunt Christine is here.The plot has taken me over now. Resolution is upon me. The poor woman is given no time to freshen up or collect her bearings. In a minute we have ushered her into the living room. She sits by the door, facing everybody’s back. Only my grandparents are facing her. My grandmother starts to cry.
Nothing is said, the service motors on. Everybody stands up to sing. Somebody whispers to my Aunt Rosaria. She turns and gasps soundlessly. Others turn. We all sit down. Aunt Rosaria and Aunt Christine start to cry. Aunt Rosaria’s mouth opens and closes in disbelief. My mother joins them, and soon everybody is crying.
The Priest motors on, fluently. Unaware.