Barbara Oketta

Barbara Oketta




Barbara Oketta is a married woman with two children. She was born in Mombasa –Kenya where she lived for eighteen years before relocating to Uganda. She studied in schools such as the Aga khan high school (Mombasa- Kenya), Bishop’s senior school Mukono (Uganda), and Kyambogo University (Uganda). She is an experienced secondary school teacher of English language and Literature in English, as well as a volunteer at FEMRITE (Uganda women writers’association) where she has been involved in projects such as interviewing, recording, and writing stories of marginalized women in Northern Uganda, Poetry Poster Project which involved traveling throughout Uganda promoting Ugandan poetry. Barbara is a freelance editor for Fountain Publications in Kiswahili works. She holds a diploma in Project Planning and Management, a diploma in education and is currently a finalist student for a degree course in Guidance and counseling where she hopes to specialize in adolescent counseling. She has 8 published works and two awaiting publication. She is available for any networking with regard to her areas of expertise.


Creative Work

The Family Reunion

As we travelled towards Mombasa, the journey seemed endless. Maybe it was because our hearts were heavy with thoughts and pain. No one dared to speak.  The pain was still alien. Mum kept looking out through the window.

At first, the scenery was dotted with a house here, a house there, one person here, a cluster there but nothing much of interest. Maybe it was because it was in the latter part of the evening and most people were either in their offices, the children were still at school, or the house wives were busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for their families. The few stalls that we came across were rather lopsided creating an impression that the owner did not care much about their business. There would be a few tomatoes carelessly arranged in pairs on the stall and a pile of sugarcane imposing itself on the lopsided stall. The owners of the stall would be nowhere to be seen maybe because the buyers were also not around. We were a few kilometers into Kenya and the journey was promising to be a long one.

The drizzle outside did not make the journey any more interesting.  One had to speak on top of their voices in order to be heard in the bus. So subsequently, most of the passengers ended up keeping quite after failing to compete with the rain.

The radio in the bus proved to be more of a bother than an entertainment machine since the driver had put it at top volume yet the conductor was the only person who was enjoying it.

As the journey went on, more and more shrub land came into view. One would move for miles on end without catching a glimpse of any sort of edible vegetation. Equally, no one seemed to live there. The roads were lonely black lines that led nowhere. I became impatient wishing that I wasn’t seated next to the window, maybe then I would have been able to focus my thoughts. 

I looked inside the bus; some passengers had started dosing off. A few others were talking about this and that. Some were speaking in Luganda. I found this interesting since we had left Uganda miles away but the Ugandans were still comfortable using their language.

My sister Titi was tightly locked in her own thoughts. Tears were streaming from her eyes and it was easy to guess that Tina was in her thoughts then.

As a first born, she had always felt responsible for us. Recently she had been talking of how she was planning to take Tina back to college for a diploma. She had hoped that later in the year, Tina would be enrolled in a college and continues with her studies. That would now never happen.

 When each of us was lost in their worlds I bet trying to imagine Tina, her life journey, her moments, and bitterly, if there was anything that could have been done to abet her death.

Being our last born, she had received a lot of attention and love from everyone. Everyone always carried a gift for Tina. Mum worship her. Tina never asked for anything twice, once was enough. Dad had always complained that this would eventually spoil Tina but nobody paid much attention to him. You see, Tina was our adopted sister. Her biological parents had died of a car accident and mum had since adopted her. We had all learnt to love and care for her. Her death had been the most unexpected thing.

All of us couldn’t help but wonder why Tina had to be the first one to die. We had lost a grandmother, several aunts, cousins, and even friends but losing Tina was different. It was as if it was the first time we were coming face to face with death.

Now we were on our way to Kenya. Dad was already there. He had flown there. The rest of us were using the bus. We knew well that this was a family time. We needed to be there for one another.

It had been long when we had been together as family. Perhaps eleven, perhaps twelve years. This death was joining us.

Titi and I had long got married and left home. My father’s work required him to travel outside countries a lot and Tina being Tina was always on the move. Today she would be in Kampala,next week in Rwanda and when you would finally think that you were going to meet her, she would call saying that her visa is ready and will be going to London the following week.

The previous night, dad had called from Kenya, telling my sister of the sudden death of our beloved sister. Later on when Titi called me, death was the last thing in my mind.

“Barbara,” she started, “how are you?”

“Fine” I replied.

“How is your family” she continued

“Fine” I replied.

It was almost eleven p.m in the night but this didn’t bother me much. My husband and I were still awake. Him in the living room watching T.V, and I in the bedroom finishing a presentation I was working on in my laptop. I was not suspicious because the questions were almost routine. She always greeted me in that order. In my mind however I was wondering what could be the real reason for calling.

 But when she asked me whether I was in a comfortable position, I became curious. It had never happened before.

Since I was in my bedroom seated on the bed, I told her so. She paused for a moment that seemed to take eternity.  Maybe it was because I was impatient to know what it was that she wanted to say, or maybe it was the fact that she had to gather courage enough to give me the horrible news.  And then she said it. ”Dad had been calling me earlier today but couldn’t pick him because I was in a traffic; I have just finished speaking to him. The news is sad Tina, our sister has passed on.”

‘What!’ the moment overwhellemed me. My sister was saying something on the other side of the line but   I could vaguely make out what she was saying.

My husband came rushing into the bedroom to find out what had happened to me.  He took the phone from me and continued speaking to my Titi. I saw the look of disbelief on his face as he spoke to my sister and I knew that there was no mistaking what I had heard.

The previous day, we had been celebrating Titi’s graduation party, what a sharp contrast.  Now even as the hair do that I had made for the party still felt firm on my head and a chunk of her graduation cake still untouched in my fridge. Tina lay dead.

She had been in Mombasa and as such had not attended the party.

It was hard to imagine that only yesterday we had been all laughter’s and joy celebrating the first degree in our  my family. Things were moving very fast. My little sister had died in Kenya.  

It had been about ten years when I was last in Kenya.  On another day, going back there would have been the best thing for me. To be physically present with friends whom I now only met through internet and phone. I had always imagined that the next time I went to Kenya; I would have to visit all my friends. We would go to the beach, Butterfly Park, crocodile village and other fancy places we had gone to while I was there. But fate must have been laughing at me all along. I was going back to Kenya to bring my sisters body back home. Back to Uganda.

I sat next to mum in the bus. This was convenient since I was travelling with my four month old son. My major task was breast feeding after which mum took over the baby’s care taking. My sister was only a seat in front of us. We were lucky to have got the seats in this arrangement. We tried to create small conversations to distract ourselves from the reality that we were facing but eventually, we all drifted into our own thought preferring the silence within to competing with the voices of other passengers who were speaking on top of their voices.

However, from time to time, mum would say ‘Kenya must be experiencing drought. The land is so bare.”

 She did this ever so often to distract our minds. To distract us from thinking about Tina. But how could we. Tina had brought so much joy in our lives. In my mind I pictured her smiling. In real life she was always smiling. Anyone who had ever met Tina knew that she was a source of laughter. You could not be sad around her she had a way of lightening up ones day. She beamed with charisma which was highly infectious.

Safely in my minds I dared to think, how did Tina die?

On the phone call, Titi had mentioned that Tina had died in hospital.

She had not elaborated much and even now she still had no answer. What had happened, I kept wondering. Why couldn’t Dad have revealed more information? Was it something very bad that he could not communicate over the phone? Had she been mutilated, God forbid! I pushed away that thought. I wanted to remember Tina as the beautiful girl that I always knew. The one who could fret over a pimple on her fore head as if the world was coming to end!

I looked at my watch. It had only been four hours since the journey had started and my bottom was already itching from seating for too long.

I was once hospitalized in the hospital after suffering from an appendix problem. The stomach upset had started as any other stomach problem only that this one was persistent and the rate of recurrences high. Slowly a small protruding started developing from the left hand side of my stomach. This was strange but still I did not take it seriously. Later on when I could no longer walk because of the problem, the swelling had protruded so much that no matter what clothe I wore, it was bound to show. That is when my mother took me to the hospital. I was then admitted and told that my problem was that my appendix was full and that it had to be cut in order to save my life.

The days at the hospital were miserable. The food smelled something between septic spirit and alcohol. Everyone was either dressed in white, green or sky blue. And the walls, every wall including the floors were white this was intensified when the lighting was put on. When I was finally discharged, I was long overdue. The three weeks I had spent there were the longest days of my life. Then I had been a teenager and anything that involved being locked up were totally not for me.

I wondered about Tina and shook my head to let the moment pass.

Outside it was becoming cold, and since I was carrying my four month old son, I started looking for his warm clothes and blanket so that I could cover him well. He was depending mainly on breast milk and juice since the solid food that we had packed for him was now finished. I breast fed him.

I felt sorry that he had had to be on this long journey but I was not worried much about it since the grandmother was always calling for him and covering him with loads of love and affection. His journey was made as comfortable as it could get.

‘Have you finished breast feeding?”, mum could ask after which she could take the baby and press him close to her bosom where  it was warmest after neatly rolling him into his cozy blanket.

Mum also tried engaging Titi and I. we talked about what to expect once we arrived there and wondered how we were going to make our way around Mombasa. So far, we had the consolation that at least dad who is already there would help us make our way around.

We finally reached Nairobi a few minutes past one a.m. At this rate, we would be in Mombasa at about nine a.m the following morning. The bus made a stopover at a restaurant. All the passengers were tired from the long journey. Others had slept long since and were just woken up by the bus conductor’s announcement that those who wanted to eat a meal could do so quickly since the bus’s next stop would be in Mombasa.

At the restaurant, we drunk hot tea with chapattis and toast bread. Mum was still holding her grandson close to her chest because outside the bus, the weather was even colder. We had been in contact with dad through phone and he had assured us that he had already been in contact with the doctor who had explained to him that for a comprehensive report, they would first have to conduct a post mortem.

I noticed too that dad was still avoiding giving out details of Tina’s death. My anxiety of finding out was also dying out. I believed that his silence was for our own good.

Soon the bus driver honked to alert us that the bus was about to leave. We quickly paid for the tea and boarded the bus. We sat in our former positions. I however noticed that a few other new faces had also boarded at our stopover in Nairobi. They were probably headed for Mombasa like the rest of us.

The later part of the journey was tenser. We were now getting closer and closer to our destination. From the almost fifteen hour long journey, we were now remaining with about six hours to reach Mombasa. I wondered how my father must have been managing. At least for us, we were three and could console each other.

Mum tried to be firm but it was easy to see that the death of a daughter had had its toll on her. On several occasions, I caught her in deep thought. Maybe she was thinking about her childhood, maybe about her youth, or maybe the moments she had shared with her. Who can tell a mother’s grief better? I sat next to her numbed.

My child was a great source of comfort to her. This showed in the way she clung on to him almost as if it soothed a pain in her heart, maybe soul.

My sister suggested that we pray for God’s intervention so that we could sail safely all through this situation. This we did individually. Later we would pray as a family when we reached in Mombasa.

 I had an uncomfortable feeling which must have been as a result of anxiety. The seats in the bus were very uncomfortable and the lady seated behind me did not make it any easier. She kept pushing my chair from behind me with her knees. My attempts of trying to ask her to stop were futile. I was careful not to shout at her lest it brought bad luck to our journey. And so I sat in my chair sandwiched on either sides of the chair, feeling like a tiny strip of blue band margarine between two huge slices of bread.

When the bus conductor finally called out that we had reached Mtito adei, a very common stop over before entering Mombasa, I realized that we had eventually reached. It was in the wee hours of the morning, and here we had a quick breakfast. Time had passed so fast. Maybe it was because, on the second part of the night, I had actually managed to catch a nap. My mother and sister too had had a nap. My son had not disturbed much on the most part of the night. It was as if he understood everything. Understood that that the journey we were on was a sad one, and that silence and tranquil were most valued.

Everyone in the bus seemed happy as the long journey was finally coming to an end. Mum encouraged Titi and I to be strong about what lay ahead of us. Maybe that was her way of affirming to herself that everything was going to be fine.

As we started entering the outskirts of Mombasa, it was strange how things had changed. Nothing had been there ten years ago. Magnificent buildings were everywhere. Happy plump people filled the streets of Mombasa. The laughter from the streets sailed into the bus and made the passengers stretch their necks out to see what was happening. The warmth spilled by the morning sun was also welcoming and refreshing. More and more passengers opened their windows to let it in. The vibrancy was infectious and even as we sat in the bus, people were becoming restless to get out.

To me, being in Mombasa was received with several feelings. I was happy that the journey had finally come to an end but I could not hide the fear that I felt within.  A certain cold had folded itself in the lower part of my stomach and even as I tried to breathe it out hard, I could not manage to get it out of my system.

Mum and Titi were already planning to go to the mortuary where they would meet dad so as to view the body. I was to join them later after making sure that my son was full and comfortable after the long journey. The money that we had on us was little and we thus wondered how we were going to cover the expenses that we were yet to meet. We did not even know how long we were going to take in this land that had now become foreign to us.

All these questions were hard to answer but being there as a family and holding onto each other for support softly told us that all was going to be fine.

The bus then stopped for us to alight, I was ready to brave what lay ahead of us. I looked through the window searching for my father’s face but couldn’t see it. My sister was already removing our suitcases from the bus and since my mother was carrying my son, I joined her.

The bus drove off. My sister and I were standing in front of our luggage and my mum stood next to me, all of us searching in the crowd that had gathered around the bus park trying to see if we could see a familiar face. My father’s face. 



Having been born and raised in Kenya, I cannot detach myself from it. 

I have very fond memories of the place and as such I often find myself referring to it in speech as well as writing. Most of writing has a simplicity that is characteristic of Africans. What I have gone through gives me inspiration to write.

My story 'The Family Reunion' was inspired by a recent death in my family. The experience was overwhelming and maybe as a way of going through it, I chose to write. At first I did not want to write about death but whenever I started typing, everything else froze. The death was everywhere. Any other themes would not go further than a few sentences, and then I decided to let my spirit free and wrote this piece. In some ways, it seemed as the inevitable route to moving on, in other ways, to settle a debt.

The story is largely fictitious though some of the places are real. The journey from Uganda to Kenya is one that I have taken so many times and so it was relatively easy to write this piece. Though from time to time the journey is the physical one, my focus was largely on the mental journey.  I choose to enter the minds of my mother, father and sisters and live their lives on the journey to Mombasa. It is a largely sad journey, though from moment to moment, my mother tries to be in control of the situation but of course with little success.



Short Stories

The Silver Lining, Today You Will Understand, FEMRITE Publications, 2008
Woman of Fate, Today You Will Understand, FEMRITE Publications, 2008
Against All Odds
, Today You Will Understand, FEMRITE Publications, 2008
Audio Version, Today You Will Understand, FEMRITE Publications, 2008
72 Hours, Farming Ashes, FEMRITE Publications, 2009
Search For Kato, Talking Tales, FEMRITE Publications, 2009
Kamara's Choice, The Butterfly Dance, FEMRITE Publications, 2010
The Running Dream, Not Confirmed, November 2010


Just A Bit, Painted Voices 2, FEMRITE Publications, 2009
Prunning, Beyond the Dance,FEMRITE Publications, 2009

Writer Index