Excerpt #4 from Still Breathing
The sun sat low in the cloudy sky, and Lizzie heard the late chorus of amphibians warming up their throats. She swatted a mosquito against the side of her neck and worried about finding more malaria pills – that would be tomorrow’s task. Tonight would be their Owino celebration dinner, and she’d demanded to help.
Mrs. Birungi grunted as she lifted the large steaming pot of matoke off one of her charcoal stoves. This allowed Afiya space to toss in a few more handfuls of the lumpy charcoal. The inside of the open-top metal stove was lined by clay, with an array of holes across its surface to provide air to the glowing bed of briquettes. Nana set the pot back on top, sliding it onto the stove’s three metal lips to suspend it above the heat. She poured some additional water over the tied banana leaf sack which held the peeled matoke, and then she wedged an inverted pot over the top to make a steam dome. Waving her hand at swirling flies, she wiped an arm across the sweat droplets beading her forehead. “Another hour to go. How’s the soup?”
Lizzie stirred the thick stew in the pot on the second charcoal stove. She poked at the finely diced pieces of chicken. “Another hour would be just fine and dandy.”
Afiya, standing near Lizzie, casually observed the sky and played with the new phrase. “Fine and dandy. Just fine and dandy. So fine and dandy.”
Nana glanced with some concern at Afiya. “Child, what happened to the chai you were making?”
Afiya’s face fell. “Aiyeee! Nsonyiwa!” She immediately sprinted away, flying through the side door into the kitchen, still wailing.
Nana shook her head as she stepped up the small curb and onto the narrow concrete veranda. “I am sure the water and milk just boiled over onto my clean counter. It happens every time I let her make chai.” She sighed loudly as she lowered her heavy body into a white plastic chair. “Come, Lizzie, and sit down. If we are lucky, we may have some chai soon.”
Lizzie joined her. “With an escort?”
Nana nodded contentedly. “Yes, with an escort - or two.”
Lizzie learned that most cooking and clean up in Ugandan homes took place outside. The indoor kitchen was simply a storeroom with counters where they kept the pans, dishes, bags of charcoal, and staples like rice, beans, oil, tea and sugar, along with the ubiquitous jerry cans of safe water. Nearly every meal required fresh food purchases, which meant a walk to the local outdoor market.
Lizzie tagged along so she could experience the real thing, but now she wondered how smart that had been. Strolling to the market had been fine, with towering, flat-bottomed clouds floating majestically overhead, across the pale blue sky. The busy marketplace itself, squeezed between permanent buildings and tiny shops, was a haphazard arrangement of stands and tables in an open lot. Lizzie marveled again at Mrs. Birungi’s skills to drive a bargain. It wasn’t what the woman bought that mattered as much as the way she coaxed and wheedled and teased the grinning vendors. Shopping in a live market wasn’t just buying and selling, it was the subtle dance of words and gestures offered by one side and answered by the other. The investment of time and effort elevated simple commerce into something higher. After half-an-hour of negotiating, Birungi had proudly secured a clump of small green bananas, some huge banana leaves, a handful of Irish potatoes, a few onions and some ripe tomatoes.
They stopped at a different table, and Afiya took on a far livelier role in weighing options. Her decision-making processes included licking her lips, squinting seriously and making various throat noises. As far as Lizzie could determine, the young girl had narrowed her choices down to banana pancakes, cha′pati, or samosas. In the end, the samosas won the day. She selected nine of the small, triangular shaped, deep-fried, dough pillows. The burly female vendor showed off her quick fingers to the muzungu as she wrapped the delicacies, first in waxed paper and then newspaper. Maintaining a restrained smile, she carefully placed the neat package in Afiya’s hands with a little bow and a wink.
Afiya waved the package at Lizzie. “These are samosas. You will love them!”
Lizzie mimicked her pronunciation. “Sam-boo′-sahs? What’s in them?”
“Good things.” The young girl twirled in place. “So good! These are beef. It is an escort.”
“Yes. With chai. You know?”
“Oh.” Lizzie finally understood. “You mean it has to come out with the tea? It shares the plate with the tea cup?”
“Yes. If you have one, you must have other. We say, escort.”
Lizzie turned to look for Mrs. Birungi. She spied her on the opposite edge of the market, paying a vendor for a fat, brown-feathered, squawking chicken. She watched in shock as Birungi casually grabbed the bird by its tied legs and swung it, head down, next to her side like another bag. The chicken instantly ceased its noise and hung contentedly. Birungi threaded through the loose crowd walking toward them, swinging the clump of matoke and banana leaves in one hand and the semi-comatose chicken in the other.
Afiya clapped in glee at the night’s culinary prospects. Lizzie looked from one to the other. “A live chicken? For tonight? You must be kidding!”
Birungi gave her an innocent look. “You said you wanted to help, Lizzie.”
“I know, but I never thought…”
Mother and daughter giggled together as they ambled up the red dirt path between the buildings, heading home.
Lizzie stopped talking and fell in line behind them, feeling utterly useless. “Can you, at least, let me carry something?”
Without looking back, Nana lifted up the fluttering chicken and waggled it at her.
“Okay. I mean, besides the chicken?”
Excerpt #3 from Still Breathing
They sat on plastic chairs in an out-of-the-way corner and shared cups of chai from a dented thermos. Once she sat and had the cup in her hand, her confused body rebelled and she found she could barely keep her head up.
Barnabas had been a charming guide and she had marveled at how much had been accomplished in such a short time. All the bookcases, desks, tables and chairs were assembled and stained and only waited for the tile to be finished before they would be installed. Lizzie had been most adamant to see the bathrooms and to view the new copper pipes gleaming behind the unfinished walls. She knew Barnabas had regarded her queerly over this, but she didn’t care, and she couldn’t explain. She found that he had been equally guarded about the past lives of Pastor Kajumba. He only mentioned something about the pastor’s large hands and the scars on his knuckles, and how they spoke for themselves. Lizzie pondered that as her head nodded and she fought to stay awake.
“Is the chai to your liking?” Barnabas asked, trying to help prevent her from dozing.
She sipped and stretched her neck, rallying from the fatigue. “I like it very much. I love the tea here. But I’m surprised, Barnabas, that you offered no escort with it.” Her tired eyes said that she was joking.
Barnabas bowed slightly. “You are becoming Ugandan. You know about escorts.”
“I try to pay attention – especially when it involves eating.”
He smiled in a funny way. “Actually, I do have an escort, but I decided it was best not to offer it.”
“Why? What is it?”
“Nsenene. My wife prepared some last night, fresh. They were wonderful. I brought what we had left for the men.”
“Oh, that’s what we call, leftovers.”
“Leftovers. Yes, that is what they are.”
“No need to feel bad. I eat leftovers all the time. I’m sure they’re fine. What is en-sen′-nen-nee?”
“Nsenene. Yes.” He produced a clear plastic bag bulging with yellowish-brown, stubby, pencil shaped objects, glistening in the sunlight from the windows. “You can only get these in November and December, during our rainy season. You are lucky to be here now.”
“Oh.” Lizzie’s voice had lost a considerable amount of its animation. Was she imagining it, or did those small objects in the bag have eyes?
He lifted one out and bit it in half with a cheerful crunch. She could hear his teeth grinding. Definitely eyes, black, shiny eyes!
Smiling contentedly, he tossed the other half into his mouth. “So tasty! Would you try? My wife fries them with a little oil, some onions and pepper. Delicious!” He held the bag out, the top spread temptingly open, the inside of the plastic gleaming with a thin film of grease.
Lizzie looked and considered, but her hands remained safely locked around her cup. “I don’t think so.”
Barnabas realized her discomfort. “I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you.”
“No. You didn’t. Go ahead. Enjoy your escort. I’m just not…” She swallowed nervously. “I’m not hungry, is all.”
He nodded as he hurriedly stuffed the bag out of sight and grabbed his thermos. “Care for more tea?”
“Yes, please.” She extended her cup, a feeling of drowsiness tangling with her thoughts. “What is nsenene anyway?”
He filled her cup with the steaming brew. “I would rather not say, lady. I’m sure Mrs. Birungi can explain better than me.”
Lizzie took a sip of tea and realized the cup seemed too heavy to hold, so she set it down. She knew Barnabas was watching her, but he seemed content to sit and look attentive. She couldn’t think of any more questions. Her mind felt thick and slow, despite the caffeine in the tea. It was ridiculous that her body found the cheap plastic chair to be comfortable. She knew she was crossing into sleep and felt that she should be angry with herself, or at least embarrassed, but her last thought was mild surprise that she no longer cared.
She dreamed of an expanse of green and yellow grasses, some quite tall, swirling in patterns from a gusty wind. Warm raindrops pattered her head and shoulders. She watched black children jumping and laughing in a line, moving through the blades of grass, driving an undulating wave of winged grasshoppers ahead of them. The frightened insects leaped together in quick, buzzing flights to and fro, just above and between the tender blades. Men with fine meshed nets held high and taut between each other met the pencil shaped fugitives as they soared to escape the children. The black-eyed hoppers were quickly snared, rolled up in the netting, and dragged in bundles from the field. The hiss of the squirming nets rubbing against the trampled grass made a repetitive sound in Lizzie’s mind: nsenene, nsenene, nsenene.
Excerpt #2 from Still Breathing
Lizzie and Birungi walked a path beside the road near the school. The bright sun was high overhead and it was past time for lunch, even though Lizzie’s battered body remained unconvinced. The only thing her lagging mind seemed to crave right now was sleep. Oblivious, Birungi was focused on food and had assured Lizzie that she knew a safe place to eat nearby.
Walking steadily, they passed rows of tiny street shops with their wares spilling out next to the pathway. The smells of dust, diesel and vegetables teased their noses. Lizzie gave a wide berth to a lean bike mechanic crouched in the dirt and guiding a shrieking grinder across the metal edge of a frame. Cascading waves of dazzling sparks danced on the ground, bouncing in every direction. Out of habit, Lizzie’s mouth popped open in alarm and her mind provided angry safety complaints and judgments, but just as swiftly, she recalled where she was, and clamped her lips shut again. The open air bike shop displayed a crowd of rusty frames and mounds of old tires in front of a windowless shack. She noticed another worker casually holding a broken welder’s mask to his face while he tig-welded a plate to strengthen a used frame. Lizzie whipped her head away, fearing for her eyes. She caught a glimpse of Birungi’s back in the loose crowd, striding on ahead, without hesitation or concern. Lizzie increased her pace.
People were walking everywhere she looked. Mothers carried their slinged babies on their lower backs, leaning forward with their arms behind and hands under the infant. Men idly wandered around with their arms folded over their heads, like wings at rest. Young boys in shorts or worn jeans pushed each other and showed off their faded American sport shirts: LA Lakers, Denver Broncos, and the Yankees. Here and there appeared the sudden blare of women in bright colors: red, yellow, orange; and always children were underfoot, playing games in the dirt, hitting each other, laughing and crying – quick smiles, white teeth, big eyes.
“Here it is,” Birungi pointed ahead. Lizzie saw a shop with red and white vertical blinds across its opening. Two scratched plastic tables with mismatched chairs sat out in front under a floppy blue tarp.
Birungi ducked inside, flicking the blinds aside with a practiced wave of her hand. Before following, Lizzie paused long enough to study the fat fonts on the sign above: The Pork Palace.
Inside the dark and noisy room, Lizzie’s eyes took a moment to dilate. She slowly discerned many tables of people in a tight space. Most of their eyes were now brightly staring back at the only muzungu in the room. Embarrassed, Lizzie turned away, but the pleasant aroma of roasting pork had already caused her stomach to rethink its confusion on the time of day. Lunch was sounding more appealing by the second.
Mrs. Birungi stood talking Luganda in an open doorway at the back of the shop. When Lizzie came up, she saw that the door led outside where two large black women worked beside a pair of smoking charcoal stoves. A few young girls slid quickly in and out of the shop doorway, delivering paper plates of pork on slices of crusty bread. Birungi stepped through the opening to get out of the way and moved closer to the cooking women. Lizzie slipped through the door and stood beside her. Several children were playing games on the yellowed grass under everyone’s feet. It made Lizzie nervous to see how close the giggling youngsters were to the sizzling stoves, but no one else seemed to pay any mind. A sturdy table held a shoulder of steaming roasted pork. One of the women rapidly carved from it, wielding a wide, wickedly sharp knife, while talking and laughing with Birungi.
The conversation at an end, Birungi flipped open a nearby cooler and grabbed two plastic bottles of water. She called out an airy comment in Luganda to the cooks and they responded with nods and laughs before she waved at Lizzie. “Come. We will sit out front and talk. They will bring.” Nana immediately vanished back inside.
Lizzie started to follow her but was waylaid by a word from the lady at the carving table. “Wait.”
The woman flashed her knife in a swirl and a small cutting of pork appeared, balanced on the tip of her blade. Her damp black skin gleamed in the sun, her hair pulled tight with a dark cloth knotted at the top. She smiled with an open mouth, “Small eat.”
Lizzie opened her hand and held it out. With a sudden flick of the knife, the woman dropped the succulent morsel of pork onto her palm. Lizzie popped it into her mouth. Her tongue reveled in the moist, spicy meat and, without even thinking, she groaned in pleasure. The cook beamed.
The other woman joined her and carefully studied Lizzie. “Like?”
Lizzie looked at their round, sweaty faces and nodded.
Birungi suddenly reappeared in the doorway from the shop and feigned irritation. She waggled her finger at the laughing cooks, shouting and pretending to rebuke them. As she gathered Lizzie by the arm and urged her to the door, she explained. “I told them to stop bewitching you with their sneaky tastings or you will never leave.”
“Thank you for saving me.”
Birungi grinned at her as they passed back into the shop. “And what do you think of the pork?”
Lizzie licked her fingers and grinned back. “We can live another day.”
Excerpt #1 from Still Breathing
Exiting the terminal doors, Lizzie was immediately confronted by smiling and waving Ugandans. They called out in English, or Luganda, or one of their other dialects, and there was much pointing and hugging as they greeted their arriving friends and relatives. Despite the early hour, many members of the crowd were dressed up in their cultural finery. Older women wore their Gomesi, floor-length, brightly colored dresses with a square neckline and short, puffed sleeves. The dresses were tied with wide sashes placed below the waist and over the hips. Lizzie was pleasantly surprised by the generous size of most of those hips, and immediately felt better about her own appearance. Some of the men wore suitcoats over long flowing garments. The rest of the members of the excited crowd were dressed in a hodge-podge of clothing types and levels of quality. American T-shirts seemed to be one of the staples with the boys, along with jeans and flip-flops. Many of the young women wore stylish European outfits and braids with vivid color accents. The public lighting outdoors was sparse but the locals came prepared with flashlights and kerosene lanterns.
Lizzie’s eyes swept futilely over the noisy crowd. She prayed for the tall presence of Pastor Kajumba. Many of the Ugandans held signs with hand-written names and they continually waved their lights across them. She checked each one just to be sure, but her name wasn’t there. Lizzie’s exhaustion was rapidly sliding into panic. What should she do?
Eventually, she cleared the crowd of greeters and now faced a collection of Ugandan cab drivers, hawking their services. The taxis consisted of two types: white vans with a row of blue squares painted around their middles, suitable for taking multiple people to various destinations; and small private cars, mostly white, which were called special hires and took one person to one destination. Some of the vans were doing a brisk business loading up newly arrived Ugandans and their hosts. Fat suitcases and boxes were muscled onto the worn cargo racks on top. Full vehicles were pulling out in a blare of horns, and the happy crowd was rapidly thinning. The arrival of Lizzie, however, with her bags in tow, and a lost look painted across her face, brought new hope to the collection of disgruntled drivers still waiting for a fare.
Calls of “Muzungu! Muzungu!” could be heard as they rushed toward her, jockeying with each other for her attention. Since all the taxis faced the terminal and most of their headlights were on, Lizzie only saw silhouettes of the men calling and gesturing at her. The headlights glared in and out of her eyes as the men passed back and forth in front of them.
“Muzungu, over here!”
“Cheap taxi, lady!”
“Mumerika, over here! Look!”
One suddenly blocked her way. “Hey muzungu, where to? Let’s go!”
She turned and angled around him.
Another pulled on the handle of her bag. “Best taxi, yes?”
“Ogenda wa, nnyabo?” shouted another as he grabbed the other side of her bag and tugged against his rival.
Lizzie jerked back control of her luggage with an audible grunt. She turned away from them all, but the drivers pursued her.
“Where you need ride to, lady?”
“We help. Come with us.”
“No problems, lady.”
Lizzie finally glared at them and shouted. “Stop it! Stop talking and listen!”
Shocked at the outburst, the drivers stood still.
“I need to go to Kampala. Wobulezi School. Do you hear?”
There was a lull. At first no one responded. Then a few called out, “Kampala, okay!”
Lizzie persisted. “No! Not just Kampala. I said the Wobulezi School in Kampala. Who knows?”
A few voices echoed back, sounding puzzled. “Wobulezi? Wobulezi?”
A nearby driver stepped up. “No problem, get in, we ask.” He pointed to his van and bowed lavishly like a hotel doorman.
A few of the others started up again, not to be outdone. “No! We can ask. Lady! Over here!”
Soon they were all once again shouting and struggling to regain Lizzie’s attention.
One of the men from the special hire cars pushed through the noisy van drivers and placed himself in front of them. He was middle-aged and had his hair cut high and tight. His eyes were large and he was better dressed than the rest of the men. He wore a grey baseball cap and doffed it before addressing her in a polite tone. “Madam, did you say Wobulezi School? The one in Makindye District?”
Lizzie looked at him with unabashed relief. His English pronunciation was excellent. “Yes, that’s right.” Her voice was failing and her throat was dry. “Do you know it?”
“Of course. I have a young cousin who went there.”
Lizzie beamed with sudden hope. “Really? Do you know Pastor Kajumba or Mrs. Birungi?”
The man shook his head gently. “No. I am sorry.”
Lizzie let out a frustrated breath. “But you could take me to the school?”
“How far is it?”
“About forty-five minutes.”
Lizzie was momentarily shocked but shook it off. She had no idea that the school was that distant.
The other drivers saw their fare slipping away and made some last appeals. “This is special hire driver – not taxi!”
“Too expensive, lady.”
“Don’t believe him.”
The special hire driver’s eyes flared and he took a threatening step toward the van drivers. “Vva mu kino! Osise ekira! Genda!”
Shocked at the anger, Lizzie looked confused. “What are they saying? Aren’t you a taxi?”
“Yes, lady. I am for hire, same as them.” The other drivers had backed off but their expressions were foul. “They have van taxis and they pile in riders, each one paying part of the fare. That’s why they say they’re cheaper. But it’s crowded and makes many stops. I am a special hire car. You are my only passenger and I take you directly to your destination. I am more expensive but also safer, more private and faster.”
“I see. How much will you cost?”
“From the airport to the school…maybe, 100,000 shillings.”
One of the nearby drivers called out, “Too much, lady. We do for 70,000.”
Another shouted, “No trust him, lady.”
The special hire driver glared back at them. “Kitte, Mbwamwe! Wange! Zikira bwoba omanyi kyoyagala!” The muscles in his jaw pulsed in anger and then relaxed.
He turned back to Lizzie and calmly motioned for her to walk with him away from the other taxis. “Perhaps we could go to a quieter place to talk. You look so tired.”
Lizzie was worried about the verbal exchange but nodded. She was fed up with the pushy cabbies. The sound of their language grated on her ears. Her weariness was overtaking her. She remembered again just how thirsty she was and figured that she must look a fright. Pushing a few wayward clumps of hair out of her eyes, she followed along behind the driver. He smoothly transferred control of her bags to himself and guided her to his car.
When he opened the back door for her, Lizzie balked. “Wait. I haven’t decided that I’m going with you yet.”
“I understand, madam,” he replied smoothly. “I’m just offering you a place to sit and some quiet, as I said. Nothing else, yet. Trust me.”
She sank into the soft seat and sighed. “Okay. Thank you. Just so you know, I don’t have any shillings. So, how much is 100,000 in U.S. money?”
“About 30 of your dollars. And you won’t have to convert it, I can take American cash.”
Lizzie thought for a short time. It didn’t seem that expensive compared to taxis at home, even Uber. If she was going to ride for 45 minutes in any city in the U.S. she’d expect to pay a lot more than that.
“Are there any other charges? Or extras I don’t know about?”
The driver smiled serenely as he leaned an arm on the roof of the cab. “No, lady. Of course not. No hidden fees. Not like those other taxis.”
Lizzie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, even more aware of the comfort of the seat and the pleasant receding of her earlier panic. She opened her eyes and looked up at the patient driver. “I’m sorry I’m so slow to decide what to do.”
The driver gently tapped the top of his car and stepped back to give her space. “Take your time. Rest. I am in no hurry.”
“You understand that my flight was unexpectedly changed. I mean, my people would have met me here, for sure, but I was unable to call them.”
The driver nodded slowly.
Much to her embarrassment, Lizzie began to cry. “That’s the only reason I’m in this situation!”
The driver came back close enough to softly squeeze the top cushion on her seat. “You will be fine. If you wish, you can stay at the airport until the sun comes back. Their chairs are uncomfortable, but you will be safe. Your friends should find you by then, yes?”
Lizzie nodded and turned away to rub at her stupid tears. She faced him again and put on a brave front. “The Wobulezi School has boarding students, so I’m sure someone will be there to help me.”
“It is up to you, lady. I can walk you back to the airport or just put your bags in the trunk and be on our way? What do you want?”