Barbara Oketta

Barbara Oketta is married with two children. She is an Educationist, writer and freelance editor. She sits on the FEMRITE’s executive board as an executive member where she is also a volunteer. She is a language translator; from English to Kiswahili. Holds a degree in Psychology, 2 diplomas: one in education and the other in Project Planning and Management. Recently, Barbara joined the FEMRITE e-journal editorial team. She is in the final stages of her first novel 

Leaving Home .

Barbara spent all her childhood in Kenya and only came to Uganda when she was 19 years old. She is currently living and working in Kampala-Uganda.

In 2010, Barbara was privileged to be a part of the Lancaster- Uganda Friendship Mentoring Project and has recently come back from the Ebedi International writer’s residency based in Nigeria.

Barbara is a strong believer that the future of the world lies in the hands of the youth and is currently involved in initiatives that seek to empower the youths in Uganda.

Some of her short story publications include: The Running Dream in the anthology Never Too Late, Kamara’s Choice  in the anthology The Butterfly Dance, Woman of Fate, The Silver Lining Against All Odds, in the anthology Today You Will Understand with audio versions, Search for Kato in the anthology Talking Tales,  72 Hours in the anthology Farming Ashes.

Barbara has also tried her hand in poetry some of which have been published in the anthology Beyond the Dance titled Pruning, and Just a Bit which was published in Painted Voices: Volume 1 and also at poetry.com

Barbara has had several poetry recitals in Kampala and moved around Uganda promoting poetry under the Poster Poetry Projects Project – Uganda.

 

Creative Work from the Sticking to my Footsteps anthology

REMEMBERING NIGERIA

When the plane lands at the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, I guess I should be thinking, finally Nigeria but instead I can’t stop worrying about my suitcase. I have been separated from it for thirteen hours and I can’t wait to be re-united. I am not even worried there would be no one waiting for me the moment I step out of the airport.  I have never been to Nigeria before.

After fifteen minutes of patiently watching and waiting as the conveyor belt at the airport slowly rotates luggage after luggage, I start fearing that maybe my suitcase remained in Kampala. I am also thinking of the man who is supposed to pick me up at the airport, he must impatient; I knew I would be if I was the one waiting for him. I have his name and phone number in my handbag, only the face is missing.

I see my bag rolling from the furthest end of the conveyor belt and pray no one touches it. Many people have formed a thick line along the conveyor belt, like me waiting for their luggage.

When I finally get to hug my suitcase, I can’t help but smile at me; one would think I was carrying diamonds in the suitcase. A part from my carefully selected clothes for the journey, I managed to slot in a few mangoes and apples to remind me of Uganda a few more days before I get swallowed in Nigeria. With my suitcase rolling beside me, I stride towards the exit door.

You probably own one of my suitcases, it is the common hard plastic type, the one that you double lock, first with a three coded number and then with a key. But the truth is, whatever code you put, the suitcase opens with or without the key. I step out of the airport.

I breathe Nigeria. The police lady in-front of me wants to confirm that my suitcase is mine, I give her my receipt and she compares it to the one attached to its the handle. When she is through with the cross-checking, she ushers me into wide Nigeria. I look to my right and see my name written on a placard, Barbara, misspelled, but I am not angry. Back in Uganda, I am always teaching people how to spell my name the English way, as my mother intended.

The face behind the placard is glued to the exit door at the airport. It keeps darting from one person to another as if expecting someone. I move past him and touch his shoulder, ‘Bode’ I call out. He turns back and stares at me, maybe trying to register where he last saw me. I introduce myself and he is glad to see me.

Bode is a nice guy, he asks about my trip and welcomes me to Nigeria. We immediately set off for Iseyin, my destination town, where the Ebedi writer’s residency is located. He warns me that it is a four-hour journey from the airport. I make a mental calculation of the journey. Back in Uganda, it takes me four hours to travel from Kampala to my village and that is why I go there once a year during Christmas.

I see money vendors around the airport and exchange a few dollars. A few meters into Nigeria, small shops lean on an extended wall of the airport. I am hungry, but buy nothing. We race to where our car is packed, Bode in front carrying my suitcase; me behind following suit. More money vendors emerge from nowhere and block our path, ‘Excuse me madam, do you want some Naira? The exchange is 17.’ I move on; I do not need their services. On my right hand-side, there is a fleet of special-hire cars. The drivers are following Bode.’Excuse me sir, do you need a special-hire?’ Like the money vendors, we move past them, we do not need their services either.

We hold light conversation as the car cruises. ‘This is Lagos city,’ Bode tells me. I look out and see a lot of yellow vans; I do not need to ask to know that they are the equivalent of ‘Kamunyes’ in Uganda. I remove my camera and take a short video of traffic in Lagos. My family and friends will see this when I get back to Uganda. Nigerian roads are very wide. I look past the driver’s screen and smile. Back at home we have a saying that a good driver is one who drives like a drunkard, zigzagging your way through. I wonder what they would say about a good driver in Nigeria!

Industry after industry, factory after factory, trailer after trailer, tanker after tanker come into view on either side of the road for kilometers on end. They all spell out two words: oil and money. There is hardly any residential house in sight.

We hit a traffic light. It blinks red. Boys of school going age begin criss-crossing the road. They balance snacks and foodstuffs perfectly on their heads. They shout: ‘plantain’, ‘La casera’, ‘water’, ‘gala’.  I search through them to see if there is something I can buy. I call out to a boy selling boiled eggs and buy some, plus a bottle of water, and decide to eat from the car.

The car is heating up. I tell Bode, ’Nigeria is hot.’ He agrees with me. He is seated in the front seat where the windows are lowered but still fanning himself.

 

The further we move from Lagos, the more residential houses and people I see. The Nigerian movies had made me believe that all Nigerians live in bungalows; this belief is checked!

Finally we enter Iseyin. On the outskirts, Iseyin is dressed in green. To my right, beyond the green, I see hills over-lapping each other; they say, ‘you don’t have an idea of what we represent!’ It is about six o’clock and the sun is going to sleep, I am tired and sleepy and glad that the journey is coming to an end. As we take the last corner, Bode shows me the town that is going to be my town for the next six weeks. The town too is sleepy; its residents must be preparing to retire. I know we shall be meeting soon. The journey has taken us four and a half hours.

My new neighbors are happy to see us. They have been expecting us.  A young girl called Toyin comes to greet us.  She kneels and I feel uncomfortable. Inside the main gate, Bode leads us through another smaller gate into the residency. I take a mental note as we move from room to room. There is a fridge and a dining table in the dining room. I see an electric cooker, sink, and a fully installed kitchen unit. We move through a corridor and I find myself in the lounge, there is a T.V and a seven seat sofa-set. Comfortable, I conclude. It is a four bed-roomed house. That is where Bode stops. It is already late and he begs to leave.

Toyin is easy to relate to. She can be any of my senior six students in Uganda.

She recommends a room for me where I put my things. I am now thinking of bathing. I feel dirty and exhausted. She calls out from the lounge, ‘Mum, I am now living’. I think she must be joking. I get out of the bathroom and tell her that I can’t sleep alone in that big house. She tries to reassure me that the place is safe but I know it won’t work!

NEPA comes, electricity goes and now I am convinced I am not sleeping in the house alone. She uses her phone’s torch to provide light. She reads the seriousness in my face. She changes her mind. She asks to go to her home to request for permission to sleep with me, saying she will be back. She goes home and I go to the neighbor’s home, my suitcase behind me. Bathing is now secondary.

In less than twenty minutes, Toyin comes back. I am relieved. We go back to our house. NEPA comes, electricity comes and I am happy. I go to bathe. The fatigue wears off and hunger sits in its place. I ask Toyin what we were going to eat for supper, she is shocked that I am hungry. I am also shocked that she is shocked that I am hungry. There is no food in the house!

That evening we eat Nigerian chicken stew and steamed rice. I sleep sound.

The following day I learn that it was our neighbors who had sent us that sumptuous meal on my first day in Nigeria.