Nancy Oloro Robarts

Nancy Oloro Robarts was born in Teso, Eastern Uganda.  At a tender age she was introduced to the art of storytelling by her mother who loved to tell folk tales by the fireside.

Nancy first went to a village school, Akarukei Primary School in her home area. She was soon sent to a boarding school, Kisoko Girls in Tororo and later joined secondary school in Tororo Girls.  Nancy then joined Makerere University and pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree.  Soon after completing university, Nancy moved to Zambia and worked in Banani International School as a teacher and later as Vice Principal and Principal.  She continued to pursue her studies and writing career while in Zambia.

Nancy writes children’s stories, short stories and plays.  Some of her published works include:   The Golden Bangle and Mother Eats Her Son by Fountain Publishers Uganda; The Dancing Suitcase by Junior African Writer’s Series, Heinemann in UK; Witness by Umea University; Telephone Call by the British Council and Lancaster University; Proper Persons in the anthology The Mermaid of Msambweni and other stories by Oxford; and a short story in the anthology, In Our Own Words by A Generation Defining Itself Volume 8.

Nancy now lives in Uganda and together with her husband are in the process of establishing a Creative Life Learning Centre for youth.  When not writing, Nancy dedicates her time to growing organic food for her family as an attempt to assist her husband who was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, to eat healthily.

Creative Work from the Sticking to my Footsteps Anthology

RUNAWAY

Atai crept out of the undergrowth as the bus approached.  With one hand she clutched her possessions and with the other she flagged the bus down.  She was tiny even for her ten years.

Her heart pounded.  This was the last bus.  As the tail of the bus passed her, the brakes screeched.  Tyres ground on the dirt road.  Passengers were thrown off their seats.  Adults cursed and yelled.  Children screamed.  There was silence, then squeals of laughter.

The door jerked open.  A hand stretched out to hoist her up.

‘Where to?’  A man in blue overalls asked.

‘Kampala,’ Atai whimpered.

‘Do you have money?’

‘Very little.’

‘How much?’

She offered him all the coins, tied in a little rag.

‘A whole day’s journey?’

‘It’s all I got sir.’

‘Sit.’

Atai stood wide-eyed in the bus.  A woman beckoned her.  Swaying and swerving, she made her way and sat by the window.  The woman smiled at her and closed her eyes.  Atai smiled back, nervously clutching her possessions.

The conductor looked away and bit back tears.  A runaway!  Like his little sister.  She was the same age when she disappeared.  He would do anything to see her again.  Did she ever blame him, he wondered?

The bus slowed down.  The woman next to Atai suddenly awoke.  She glanced through the window.  Got up, pulled her bag from the rack and quickly opened it, fishing out a packet of biscuits.  These she passed over to Atai.  She rummaged through it, pulled out a bottle of juice and shoved it into Atai’s hands.

‘Thank you Mama.’ Atai whispered and made a sign of the cross.

The woman looked Atai squarely in the face.

‘You take care, it is a rough world out there.’

There was pain on her tiny face.  She had a story.  The engine was revving.  The woman reluctantly picked up her bag.  Patted the young girl on the head and got out of the bus.

Atai took note of her blue dress.  It was neat and tidy.  She looked through the window and got a glimpse of her again.  Their eyes locked.

‘Thank you.’ Atai raised the bottle of juice.

The woman started towards the window as the bus pulled away.  Atai smiled.  The woman too smiled and made a sign of the cross as the bus picked up speed.

There was another good woman.  Am I a bad omen?  First it was Mama, then Aunt Louise and now the woman in the blue dress.   New passengers hastily looked for seats elsewhere.  Atai was relieved.  She picked up courage to look around.  Everyone was smartly dressed.  Even youngsters of her age, none were in stained oversized dresses that once belonged to their mothers.

Atai added the biscuits and juice to her possessions.  Clutching her bundle, she closed her eyes.  No sooner had she closed her eyes than a young man sat next to her.  He was unkempt, in mid teens.

‘Young girl, where are you going to?’

‘To the city,’ Atai answered.

He studied her, shook his head and sneered.

‘The city?’  He laughed sarcastically.  ‘You are a runaway.’

‘No, I am not.’

He read fear.  She was an easy target. He had to act.  The luggage!  Money!  He needed some.

‘Listen to me carefully.  Give me money or I report you to the police.  Get it out now.’

‘I don’t have any.’ Atai responded tearfully.

She looked around beseechingly and her eyes met with the conductor’s.

‘If you scream…’  He pulled out a knife.

‘Ticket, please.’ The conductor intervened.

‘I don’t have.’ The young man retorted as he shoved the knife back into his pocket.

‘You can buy now.’

‘I’ve been robbed.  No money.’

‘Then you have no right to be on this bus.  You should be at the police station.’

‘Won’t change a thing, you know it.’

‘Don’t waste my time.  Come with me.’

The conductor ignored the young man’s pleas as he pulled him up.  The bus stopped and he was pushed out.

A priest boarded the bus.  He looked around.  Saw the empty seat next to Atai.  Atai was disappointed.  She had hoped to plan her trip in silence.  But she was relieved it was a priest.

The conductor stealthily continued to watch Atai.  She was in trouble.  Should he give her the coins back?  At least next to the priest she was safe.

‘Hello my daughter, how are you?’

‘I am well, Papa.  Thank you.’

Atai answered apprehensively.

‘Where are you going?’

‘To the city, Papa.’

‘Alone?  Are you not scared to travel such a long way?’

‘I am, but I have to.’

‘Been to the city before?’

‘No.’

‘You are very brave, little one.  Will someone be waiting for you?’

‘Yes,’ Atai responded quickly, ‘My brother.’

‘Good.  If you ever need help, look around for a policeman.  There is always one around to help.’

‘Thank you, Papa.  I will remember that.’

They sat in silence.  Soon they arrived at a trading centre.  The bus stopped.  Atai looked out the window.  The lush green was no more.  Heat smouldered outside.  Many people crowded around.  Some were trying to get in.  Others were trying to sell.  The priest looked closely at the place.

‘My child, may the Heavenly Father bless you.’ He pushed coins into her hands.

‘Thank you!’ Atai smiled and made a sign of the cross.

Atai’s stomach rumbled as a vendor came to her window, holding roasted chicken in spits.  Her mouth watered.  She looked away in embarrassment.  She dared not spend lavishly.

The conductor saw how Atai looked longingly at the food.  She must have given me all the money she had, he thought to himself.  Shall I give it back to her?  Or shall I get her something to eat?  His thoughts were interrupted by a stream of passengers boarding the bus.  He had to sell tickets.

The vendors continued streaming to the bus windows.  On spits they carried roast chicken, roast meat, liver, gizzards and kidney.  In baskets they carried roast cassava, potatoes and bananas.  In cases they carried cold water, juice and soft drinks.  It was a hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Atai retrieved the packet of biscuits and the bottle of juice from her possessions.  The face of the woman in the blue dress flashed through her mind.  She bit back tears as she munched a few biscuits, taking in the aroma of the chicken.   Then she washed them down with juice and smiled at the vendors.  She saved the rest for when the next pangs of hunger struck.

The revving of the bus got louder as a heavy woman boarded.  Atai’s seat being the nearest, she slumped into it.  Atai found herself squashed to the wall.  The woman dumped her bags on the floor.  She peered through the window at the vendors who were now pushing and shoving their goods at her.

“How much?” she bellowed.

As the vendors shouted back, the bus drove away.

Her countenance changed.  She hoisted herself up.  In no time she was at the driver.

“You fool.  I try to buy some food and you drive off?  You expect me to travel without eating?  Stop the bus or…”

The bus suddenly stopped and reversed.  The woman lost balance.  Passengers cheered and hollered.  The driver smiled with satisfaction.  The woman gathered herself up, cursed and headed back to her seat.  The vendors were once again shoving and pushing.  The woman grabbed a couple of spits, roast maize, bananas and cassava.  She added several bottles of juice and water and settled back to stash it all away in her bags.  Some naughty young people peered at the woman and started giggling when they saw her purchases.

‘Never seen food before?  There.  Go ahead and ogle,’ she shouted.

There was silence.  Then everyone burst into laughter.  The boys shrunk back to their seats.  After the driver’s episode, one had to be careful.

‘Ma’am, are you ready to leave now?’ The conductor asked.

‘Mam Ajeni is my name.  I am ready.  I don’t know about the rest.’

The passengers burst into laughter as the bus pulled away.

The heap next to Atai unpacked her purchases.  She offered Atai some spits.

‘Thank you Mama.’ Atai whispered.

‘Have you eaten?’  She bellowed in a husky voice as she chewed away.

Atai nodded, showing her the packet of biscuits and bottle of juice.

‘That is not food, this is food.’  She rolled her eyes.

‘No wonder you are skinny and scruffy.  Is that what your mother feeds you?  Show me that woman.  I will teach her a lesson or two.  Eat.  And here are bananas and cassava.’

She rummaged through her bag.

‘And cold juice to wash it down.’

‘Thank you Mama.  Thank you.’

‘If you must go for a pee or the real thing, let me know.  Look at me!  I eat. People fear me.  Look at you.  You can’t even scare away a fly.  To survive in this world, you must look huge.  Eat.  Not just eat.  Eat a lot.  That is my secret.’

There were several empty spits.  Mam Ajeni gorged herself.  Atai joined in the game of gorging.  As Mam Ajeni was busy rummaging through her bag, Atai shoved the remaining spits into her luggage.  The woman offered her more spits.

Her guardian angel seemed to have had enough.  She settled back and was soon fast asleep and snoring.  This rocked the bus into laughter.  She awoke only to fall asleep again.

As the bus cruised on the bumpy road, the volume next to Atai shook ceaselessly in undulating waves.  The sun streamed through the window and fell on the vulnerable body, drenched in sweat.  A fly buzzed by.  Atai was tempted to shoo it away, but feared lest she woke her angel up.  She observed her closely.  Who was this kind ugly woman?  She smiled as the spectacle replayed itself.  She hadn’t smiled nor laughed in a long time.  Mam Ajeni suddenly woke up startling Atai.

‘Where did you say you were going?’

‘To the city, ma’am.’

‘And what is your name?’

‘Atai.’

‘Umm… Nice name.  Are you alone?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

‘Which part of the city?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘My brother will be waiting for me.’

‘I see, clever girl.  What does he do?’

‘I really don’t know.’

‘Going for the first time?’

‘Yes ma’am.’

Atai stared out of the window.  The woman tapped her on the shoulder.

‘Are you scared?’

Atai looked her straight in the face.  She hated telling lies.  She remembered how her mother raised her voice whenever she lied to her.

‘I am.’

‘It is hard to believe anything these days.’

The bus slowed down.  Atai wondered what not to tell.  Passengers got out and the bus pulled away.  There were lights already lit up.  Atai had heard so many stories of the city at night.

Mam Ajeni was deep in thought.  She glanced at Atai.  More questions would only compel her to lie.  The bus stopped.

‘I hope your brother will be there.  If he is not, wait for him.  Here is a bottle of water.’

‘Thank you.’  Atai murmured tearfully.

She would not have a home tonight.  She looked away as Mam Ajeni gathered all her bags.  As she passed by the conductor, she told him to make sure the little girl was met by her brother.

There were few passengers left.  The conductor kept glancing at Atai.  He was thinking of his sister.  Their parents were killed in the war.  They had moved in with their uncle.  He was unkind.  He ran away, promising he would come for her.  Life was rough.  When he finally got back, she too had run away.  Ever since then he has been looking for her. One day they will be a family again, he hoped.

Atai wondered when to alight as the bus pulled into the bus park.

‘Mam Ajeni asked me to make sure that your brother is here.’

‘He is outside waving.’ Atai lied.

She made her way outside.  The conductor watched for a moment.  His friends interrupted.  When he looked back, she had vanished.

Atai ducked under the shadows of a nearby bus.  She knew the conductor was watching her.  She had to look confident.  There were lights everywhere.  Sellers were calling for customers to buy their things.  Just like the market in her village.  Except this one was at night.  She wandered around.  Finally she found a spot.  She retrieved her juice and a piece of chicken and munched quickly.

Around midnight, the city began to empty. They were going to their homes.  She too had to sleep.  There was an old truck.  She crawled under.

‘Who is that?’ A voice startled Atai.

‘Who is there?’

Atai kept silent.

‘Okello?  Playing games again?’

There were whispers.  Atai crept out.  She wasn’t lucky.  A chase followed.  Atai ran as fast as her little feet could carry her.  She turned a corner.  Saw several alleys and bushes nearby.  She ducked into the bushes.  The chasers arrived.  They spread out and searched.  Soon they decided to go back to their hideout.  Atai spent the night in the bushes.

Tears gushed down her face.  She dared not sleep.  She saw young girls.  Chased by men and boys!  Towards dawn; a gang of young men caught a little girl.  They took turns doing to her what her uncle used to do to her.  Atai was paralysed with fear.

The town began to get busy.  Atai looked at her new home.  It was a swamp.  Did cities have swamps?  She had to eat before it got busy.  She had a biscuit, chicken, a banana and a sip of juice.  Her best breakfast in a long time.

Atai crept out of the swamp holding her possessions to her tiny chest.  She turned a corner and saw children seated.  She walked passed them.  Saw what they were doing.  She too found a comfy spot a few feet away and sat stretching out her hands ready to work.

‘Who the hell are you?’ A voice called.

‘This is our place.  Not your village where you do as you please.’

Atai scooped up her belongings and ran.  The children pursued.  The street was empty.  She was an easy prey.  She felt them closing up on her.  There was a side street.  She squeezed into it and bumped into a huge woman.  She surrendered to fate as she fell down at the woman’s feet.

Her attackers too stopped.  Atai could hear them panting.

‘If you take one step, I will shoot,’ the woman shouted.

‘She is a thief.  She snatched from us,’ a child shouted pointing.

‘Run back or I shoot.’

‘But…’

‘Quiet!  I will count to three.  One… two…’

The children made away in a flash.

‘And you.  Up.  Look at me.’

Atai was weeping.

‘I said look at me.’

Atai looked up slowly.

‘We got to talk. What did you say your name was?’