Lillian Tindyebwa holds an MA in Literature from Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda. She is a published author and a founder member of FEMRITE Uganda Women Writers Association. Her novel Recipe for Disaster (1994), published by Fountain Publishers, is used in secondary schools in Uganda. She has written three children stories: A Day to Remember (2008), A will to Win (2008) and Maggie’s Friends (2008). They are all published by Macmillan Publishers. Her short story, Looking for my Mother is published in a FEMRITE anthology, A Woman’s Voice. Other short stories in FEMRITE anthologies are: Hard Truth in Words from a Granary, Endless Distance in World of their Own, Just a Note and Gift of a Letter, are published is Talking Tales. True life stories of women also published in FEMRITE anthologies include Betrayed by Fate, Beyond the Dance and the Music which are about FGM in Kapchorwa, Eastern Uganda, and Dance with a Wolf in I dare to Say. From 2009 she was a member of jury committee of the Burt Award for African Literature under by Children’s Book Project for Tanzania, sponsored by CODE Canada. She also assisted in training the participating writers in Creative writing skills. She is also the Director of Uganda Faith Writers Association, an organization that is trains and develops Christian writing and publishing.
She currently works as a Lecturer in Literature and Linguistics at Kabale University in South Western Uganda.
Creative Work from the Sticking to my Footsteps Anthology
WIND UNDER MY SAILS
My heartbeat rose and fell with the rhythm of the drums. I felt as if my ribs would burst with joy. The voice of the singer was fresh like the voice of the early morning birds that confirm that new dawn has come. This was not the first time I had heard this song but today it was different. Its words fell from high up above the dark clouds, like fresh rain signaling the end of a dry season.
My eyes swept across all the faces in the crowd. I wanted them to know that I had a message for each one of them. I wished it was possible to shake each one’s hand.
I was the flying crane. I was the dancing crane. The words of my nursery rhyme were coming to life again as I watched the dancers in the arena. Some of the people in the crowd were moving their heads to the music. The dancers formed a circle and the clapping heightened. I wanted to whisper something to my mum. That was it, I remember; yes, to share a little something amidst the thunderous music and gaiety of the day. I do not remember exactly. May be I wanted to tell her about the lead dancer. She was a daughter of someone we knew.
‘Look mum, that is Sheme, you remember?’ I must have said.
That was when I turned to face her. She too was smiling like everyone else, but it was clear that she was fighting back tears. The sound of the drums faded suddenly, receded; as if they were coming from far away across the surrounding hills. Another kind of rhythm replaced it, of tired feet walking along steep slopes, down valleys, of the sun rising upon dazed heads, of eyes reddened with dust and sleeplessness.
The three and half years that had passed since I entered Great Hills University seemed like they belonged to another era. Despite all that, memories of the difficulty of crossing the Rubicon came rushing back as if everything was happening all over again. In a bid to save some little money, my mum had requested my uncle, who was a taxi driver in town, to go to the university and see if I had been given a place and then pick the letter of admission, if possible. Uncle Tinka was always a life-saver for us. We lived about forty kilometers from town and it would have needed some money to get to town and then to the university. It was not much money, but money in our household was as rare as lightening in the middle of a draught.
We waited. Patience comes easy when you have no option. Then the letter came. Our joy was instant. We all jumped up and waltzed like the crested cranes that lived below our home in the wetlands. My cousins and I used to imitate their dance when we were much younger. It was our ‘break dance’ of those days.
Uncle Tinka just appeared that blessed afternoon, and he told us that a businessman, a member of our community, had hired him to bring his things to his village home. He came with the letter. I had been admitted at Great Hills University!
‘At last, oh, at last’ we cried as we danced.
‘Great….great…Great Hills’ I made up an instant tune.
‘We need to prepare! Quickly, because the time is short’
I was short of breath from the dancing.
‘Oh I have not even seen the dates, let me see,’ my mum said as she gently got the letter from my hands.
‘Oh, we have one month,’ she said and then the joy disappeared, suddenly, like a bead in a pool of muddy water; only to be replaced by anxiety. Her eyes narrowed in concentration as I had always seen them. We had, through the years walked through so many thorny paths.
‘Do not let that worry you now, there is a way’ said uncle Tinka, who was still around and was sipping the cold bushera drink my mum had handed him earlier. He was my late father’s youngest brother and he always did what he could in his humble way to be a father to me. I looked at both of them and my hand went to the rosary reverently tucked away under my tee shirt.
Indeed there was a way, but it was like walking up the steep hills that I and my cousins used to climb looking for pasture for our goats, way back when we had the duties of looking after the animals. Uncle Tinka promised to help me with transport from the village, and that raised our spirits a little. We worked hard on all the other things and soon we were as ready as possible under the circumstances. Then we got the message from Uncle Tinka. His boss had sent him to work in another town for some time and he was not available. As if to add fuel to a raging fire, I had also gotten an attack of malaria that same week. I had to go or lose my place. How were we to move? My mother had borrowed money to top up the university fees and we had nothing left. The only way left for us was to walk to the main road and see whether we could get a pick-up truck because the bus fare was beyond what we could manage.
I was too weak to carry my suitcase so my mum opted to carry it on her head. I told her that if it was a question of carrying luggage then I could do it myself. She refused. She said that if it was a question of reaching the university alive, there was no way, I would carry the suitcase for four kilometers to the main road. So she did just that! Yes my mum carried my suitcase and if there is any image that will always drive me on, it is that: My mum with my metallic suitcase on her head! I hated myself for succumbing to sickness at a time like this. How oh how dear God, could this happen? I whispered to the wind.
Finally we set off. Mum was going to spend the night at some friend’s house and so she insisted that we carry sorghum flour for them. She said that she would not go to other people’s homes empty handed! This was not a time to argue. So I carried the flour and the bag that had her clothes.
We trudged the four kilometers from home to the main road. We needed a car coming from Rwanda side, but all the cars that were coming from the direction for some unknown reasons, came full and were unable to take us. Time crawled like an ugly worm. I kept my spirits up by thinking about the place where I would soon be – the Great Hills University. My mother had told me some things about the hill and its connection with my grandfather. She had told me that it was a strange twist of fate that I was going to attend a university situated on a hill where my grandfather had once lived as one of the top administrators of the district. She said that, my grandfather had worked for the district during the period immediately after Independence. That had made me even more anxious to get to this great hill. Time had dragged then, and it was still dragging as we waited for the transport.
It was late in the afternoon when a Jaguar bus finally roared into sight and stopped before us. A bus? What were we to do? And what options did we have? We knew the money we had would take us for a few kilometres only, if we opted for the bus, but we could not risk remaining on the road at this late hour. My mum moved quickly and followed the conductor who had come out of the bus. Puzzled, I followed her. Mum! She was bargaining with him! He was a stocky young man who listened and then just walked away to open the boot in order to get out some luggage for someone who had disembarked.
What were to do? Suppose he refused to let us in? No, it was not possible to be left behind. I discarded the thought as soon as it formed in my mind. I decided to join the discussion because the man looked determined to ignore us. We talked to him as he bent down to open the boot and we kept talking till he closed it. He even commented that we talked like people who were being taken in a current and were about to drown! Indeed! If only he realized the truth of what he had just said!
What saved us was the fact that my mother recognized him and then asked him if he was not the son of Korukiiko. He was taken by surprise to encounter someone who knew his mother. He stood gazing at us unable to decide. A hyena from your neighbourhood will eat you with consideration, said my mother as she stood waiting for the verdict.
‘A hyena, what….?’ Then he smiled.
‘How much did you say you could pay?’
He was standing near the entrance of the bus.
‘Two thousand shillings’
Then he looked at us and shook his head. The driver of the bus was revving the engine and he was almost moving away.
‘Okay, and hurry up’ the conductor said above the din of the bus engine and some passengers who had started complaining about the delay. I rushed and helped mum with the suitcase as the conductor opened the boot again to fit it inside.
We practically tumbled into the bus. Luckily there were some empty seats so we did not have to stand all the way!
‘Thank you, all. I now call upon…’
The voice of the Master of Ceremonies brought me back to the present. The music and dancing had ended and I could see the dancers walking back to the tent to take their seats.The Master of Ceremonies called upon the Vice Chancellor to invite the Chancellor of Great Hills University, to address the gathering. In his speech, the Chancellor talked of the difficulties he faced as a child growing up in the 1950s. He said it was the colonial era and that he lived in a remote place. He used to walk long distances to school, and emphasized that we, who studied in this era, were lucky.
Uhmm, I wanted to tell him that he was out of touch, but alas, I was too far away from him. One day may be, just one lucky day, I will meet him and I will let him know, I promised myself.
The Chancellor finished his speech and the MC took the microphone once again. He elegantly tried to comment on what the Chancellor had said, but he could not match the oratory of the older man. He called for another group of dancers. The sun was hot but everybody was too happy to care. Those who could not find anywhere to sit in the tents arranged around the arena simply sat in the sun. The MC called upon professors and heads of faculties to come forward and present the various graduands for their awards. I thought my ribs would burst if I did not manage to relax.
The first PhD student was coming forward. It was a lady. She had drummers leading her, as was the custom. They were playing a religious song. It was accompanied by traditional dancers. She wore a cream dress; part of it could be seen, below the coveted PhD gown with strips of green and red running down its front borders.
She knelt in front of the Chancellor so that he could perform the ritual of putting his hat upon her head. The honey-like words to confer upon her the Doctor of Philosophy degree slithered out of his mouth. Her specialization attracted me most. It was in Poverty Eradication! My ears shot up as I heard for the first time the kind of PhD she had studied. I wanted to hear more, but that would have to wait perhaps, for another day.
She had made an excellent choice, if anyone asked me to judge. Without hesitation I made up my mind that I, too, would one day, follow the same path! Why were there not more students like her? I wondered. I would look her up and get some guidance from her.
She was escorted back to her place. The dancers were now chanting praise poetry, with percussion. Her parents stood up to welcome her and joined in the dance. Then I thought of my father. I never met him. There was only one photograph, which my mother always kept. When I was younger I would ask her for it. I would stare at it. This would be followed by many questions until she would promise me that she would make a copy for me out of it, one day. That day never came. She had met my father when his family still lived on this hill; she told me back then were the days of plenty. Everyone had all that was needed. She said that they were days of hope. Nobody could have foreseen the hopelessness that was to follow in the subsequent years.
It started with my grandfather’s fall from grace with the then District administration. This was back in the mid-sixties. The excitement of Independence was wearing off and the thin glue of friendship had lost its strength. The cracks in patchwork of tribes were beginning to widen. The Kingdoms that had formed a federal monarchy system had just been removed. Bloody battles in the capital Kampala left the ancient palaces empty, doors barred, and the laughter of elegantly clad princes and princesses silenced forever. The shakeup that followed spread to all districts in the nation. It favoured those who had good instincts for survival. Alas my grandfather failed the test. He did not enter into the era of Move to the Left politics that followed.
Those that knew which ropes to pull to get what they wanted did it with such expert ease that my grandfather simply fell from the sky, like a kite that is shot down with catapult. From then, it seemed that the family had been falling and falling, without ever hitting the bottom. Was the falling coming to an end at last? I, being the first graduate in the family in many, many years!
O God let it be! I prayed out loud. I thought my uncle had heard me. But he was shouting and for a second I was lost. I realized it was my uncle’s voice rather than mine that had startled me. If he had not shouted or if my mother had not started ululating I would have remained lost in my thoughts, perhaps, for a longer time. But, thank God, both were there.
‘They have asked the graduands of Economics to draw near. They are to go next after this group, haven’t you heard?’ Uncle Tinka said with the biggest smile in all the hills around the town of Kantare.
‘Hey, get up, son, before we miss seeing you graduate!’ my mother urged me.
I put on a big smile and joined my colleagues. We stood a modest distance from the group of graduands in Swahili and Literature who were still on the dais. The group before us seemed to take forever, but soon it was our turn. I stood like a soldier and tried not to lose my concentration once again.
‘Ullllllaillaillaiii” up went the ululations from my mother, my uncle and friends.
Everyone seemed to have broken into some kind of noise. It rose and fell, rose and fell. My colleagues and I, graduates in Economics, were standing on the dais now! My mother and my uncle left their seats and were coming towards me. She had a bright pink garland that she put around my neck. We danced all the dances she knew in those few minutes: kitaguriro, bakisimba, waltz – name it. She danced it there and then! Then, we finally went back to take our seats. I fingered my rosary. It was there tucked away neatly under my shirt. I had not forgotten it in all these years.
I will walk up the hill and take a look at the place where my grandfather once lived. I will take a photograph right in front of the old house. And grandfather, I know you will smile wherever you are and you will love the way I look in my navy blue second hand suit and my graduation gown.
The sound of the drums ended my reverie. The dancers were leading the procession out of the arena. My mother straightened the pink garland around my neck that sharply clashed with my suit. We got up and joined the rest of the crowd as they danced following the procession. We did not dance. We soared. We flew higher than the hills around us and touched the blue and white clouds.