The Market Vendor (novel extract)
I was born and raised in a family where it was important to
call everyone by their names. I called my mother, Rosa and my father, Zakeo
until he was old enough to be called Mzee. I was born at the beginning of the
year and my name automatically became Lamwaka, a girl born at the beginning of
the year. The Acholi name people according to the circumstance around their
birth example the name Aya is given a girl child among boys. Everyone called me
Lamwaka even when I was baptized in the Alokolum Church, Beatrice was a name I
used in school otherwise it remained on the baptism card. I never heard Rosa
call me Beatrice. She probably didn’t even know how to pronounce it or didn’t
even remember it. My elder sister who went to Sacred Heart School had imposed
it on me. Beatrice, a name that no one had heard in the whole
of Alokolum village. I have made efforts to know my siblings Christian names otherwise only the people who go to school with them know their
Christian names. I remember one time a girl came home and asked my mother for
Cecily and she didn’t know who the girl was talking
about. My elder sister had to remind her that it was her who gave her that
name. My mother probably didn’t even remember how my sister got that name. It
is only my sister Alice who was able to bully people into calling her with her
Christian name. She didn’t like her name Anywal so when she went to school she
registered herself as Laker which remained on her
report cards. My brother Rafa got his name Acholinized so Rafael became Rafa.
My family had enough food and many animals. My father was a
typical African man with more children than he could take care of. He made sure
that we went to school and that every Sunday we went to Alokolum Seminary
church. He would give us the young ones money for offertory
which sometimes I bought sweets with instead. My father was well known;
everyone in Alokolum Village called him Daktar when he was only a medical
assistant. He treated people who came from very far way, as far as Anaka. My
home was more like a health centre. We would wake up to queues of people
waiting for treatment. As much I could I kept away from the people so I would
avoid the endless greetings. Some came with chicken. I liked those who came
with chicken because sometimes my father would call my name and I would go get
the chicken and let it free from strings. That meant the chicken was mine.
Zakeo had love for trees and fruits. He planted every tree
or fruit he could lay his hand on. We had labolo (bananas) different kinds, avocado, fene, jack fruits and other fruits like pull munu, that
I didn’t know English names for. Our ten acre home was
energetic with loads of food and activities.
I don’t remember much about my childhood. I’m amazed when I
hear people talk about what they did as four year olds. For me, I began to
realize that I’m alive and could remember something about my life when I was
around nine years old, perhaps because that was an important mark in my life. I
remember clearly as Rosa sat my younger sister Akech and me down. She told us
that there was a war – the war turned out to be a coup de tat that saw
Yoweri Museveni as president of Uganda in 1986 - and all Acholi would be
killed. I didn’t know anything about wars. She explained there were men with
guns. I hadn’t even seen guns before, but I had seen soldiers because one of my
sisters was married to one. I couldn’t imagine who would want to kill me and my family. Before I could ask her questions she said
she would send the two of us to my aunt Aya’s village- aunt Aya’s fingers and
toes eaten by leprosy and lives in a designated Aleler Village where lepers
live. She said that aunt Aya was on medication and her disease wouldn’t affect
us. I wasn’t worried about that. I had eaten with aunt Aya in the same bowl and
she had not infected me with her disease. She had children who were not
infected either. Rosa said we would be safe there. She said the war was in
Kampala but in a few days it would reach Gulu District. I didn’t want Rosa to
be killed and I couldn’t tell her that so I just nodded my head.
At home it was more of a celebration; goats and chicken
were being slaughtered. My brother, Nyeko was excited he had found himself a
place in the bush where he would sleep in the night. He was happy about so much
of the meat. He roasted some meat which he shared with
me. I didn’t know why my father had allowed all these to happen. He was very
strict when it came to his goats, chicken and sheep. We only killed many during
Christmas and Independence Day. I
heard one of my brothers say that it would better to get killed when we had at
least eaten some of the animals we had been keeping. I was not even thinking
about death. I somehow knew that this would pass and we wouldn’t have so many
animals anymore. Rosa dug a hole in the maize garden where she buried her atabo Sudan (bowls from Sudan),
saucepans, yellow and green gomesis which she used to wear on special
Akech, who was six by then and I walked for a whole day to
Aleler village. I was tired. Akech
cried a lot. There were other children walking along the road with small bundle
on their heads. This made walking more interesting although I never spoke to
any of the children. I just wanted to keep up with them. We had carried roasted
sweet potatoes and water which we drank and ate when we felt angry. I had
already been to Aleler on foot before so I knew my way. Rosa had insisted we
keep going straight and should not branch on any road. She said my instincts
would let me know when I reached. Aya’s home was close to the main road and I
didn’t find much trouble finding it.
Aya’s home had already been filled with children of all
ages. Aya busied herself making sure that they got water when they wanted to.
When she saw us she muttered ‘Mama you have arrived’ I nodded. Aya and Rosa are
very light skinned compared to most Acholi. I heard a neighbor say one time
that when Zakeo married Rosa he told whoever cared to listen that he had the
most beautiful woman. Aya is Rosa’s elder sister. Besides the missing fingers
and toes she is a beautiful woman. She was the only relative to Rosa that I
knew so I made sure that I did whatever she asked me to do.
Aya’s compound was buzzing with children. Some sat under
the mango tree that stood at the end of the compound. Some around four years
were crying for their mothers. It took me a long time to realize that aunt Aya
wasn’t my aunt alone but also to a bunch of children. Her two huts had been
occupied by children I heard about but not seen. Later in the night, Aya asked
me to sleep with her outside in the compound. I guess she didn’t want to tell
me that there was no space in the house for the two of us. I was at first
afraid thinking that somebody would sneak and kill us. Other older children
came out saying it was hot inside I was happy that at least many of us would be
killed and many parents would be affected. I stayed awake most of time
wondering whether Rosa was fine. The moon was bright I could see the shape of
aunt Aya sleeping.
I worried every now and then what had become of Rosa, Zakeo
and my siblings. We waited for news for days but nothing arrived – there
were no phone calls or letters but word of mouth to wait for. I thought Rosa
would send Nyeko to tell us they were alright but no one came. I always scanned
the path leading to Aya’s home but no one came. Soon we run out of salt, odii (peanut butter), cooking oil, soap
and sugar. We had to eat salt-less lapena.
Lapena itself is tasteless and without odii and salt, it was almost inedible
but that all we could have. We all ate in one bowl and the amount of food one
could eat depended on how fast they could get the food to their mouth. Every
child bolted as much food as they could and afterwards we would drink water to
feel fuller. Akec didn’t complain about the little food she ate. Perhaps she had learnt that there was no
way to have enough.
Eventually we heard the sound of the train; we knew that
all was well. Aya had saved some money for our journey by train to Alokolum.
The journey was fast, although the train stop was two kilometers from Alokolum
the walk back home was exciting but what I found made my heart sink –
Lugul, the village mad man had been killed by the new government soldiers
because they thought he was a spy. He had gone to town and as usual was
sweeping compounds and writing things he alone understood on the ground. He was
the only one that I knew was dead and everyone else was happy as it seemed like
business as usual. Orere had killed most chicken. Nyeko never missed an
opportunity to tell me how he was now tired of eating chicken and meat. I
couldn’t bring myself to tell him of the salt-less lapena.
I was so sad about Lugul’s death that I refused to speak to
people for a while. Nyeko however kept saying that I was sad because my chicken
was killed. Yes, I was sad about that too, but Lugul’s death hurt me so much.
He was this guy who never spoke much. He would sweep our compound when he found
dry leaves. The men in my family swept the compound in the morning but by the
time that Lugul came in the afternoon avocado leaves would have littered the
compound. He even waited for rubbish as Rosa peeled sweet potatoes. Unlike
other mad people I knew he wasn’t violent. He was a present that everybody
loved to have a round. It was nice watching him as he wrote on the ground. It
seemed like he was always solving some mathematical equation which he would rub
afterwards. I did not know where he came from but everyone knew he always
walked from Bwobo Manam about three kilometers from our home.
I went back to school, the new government didn’t kill us,
Zakeo went back to work and the train kept moving in the morning and by five it
would pass. I would always run to see it pass and wave to the people I didn’t
know existed. Most people in my village knew that the train never causes an
accident it people who knock it and die. I always kept away from it track
because I knew wanted to knock it. There was a rumor that if you placed a
needle in the track, the train could slide off the track. I could never
understand how such a powerful machine could be weakened by such a small thing.
I never wanted to cause such an accident but sometimes I wished to prove that
One day, in the evening strange men with guns slung on
their shoulders came home asking Rosa for goats and chicken. I had never seen
Rosa or Zakeo give out chicken or goats to whoever wanted. You could see that
they were trying really hard to be so nice to Rosa. And then they warned ci lil – go tell them. I later
learnt that the them they referred to
were government soldiers. Soon the villagers referred to the men with guns as
ci lil. I didn’t know then, that was the beginning of a war that would see the
death of about 200,000 people, abduction of thousands of children and that our
home would eventually become an Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) Camp.
One time, a relative of my step mother also arrived with
his group. My family gave him a warm welcome. We gave them food to eat and
goats that they went with. My father was always asked for medication he gave
them willingly since he would always get some more when he went back to work.
We hardly had any goat’s feces to smear with our odero, granary. The neighbors were going through the same although
I never heard anyone complain. You could hear people talk but when you get near
them silence met you perhaps nobody trusted each other anymore.
I don’t know how Rosa reacted to all this because she kept
everything intact. She always handed chicken or goats to the ci lil with a smile. I heard her
complain how expensive the ropes they used to tie the goats cost in the market.
My father, however, received some more goats and chicken from his patients who
couldn’t pay him in monetary terms. They complained that it was now harder to
get money from the new government. Some of them promised to pay Zakeo when they
got some money.