Crossing the Bramble Field (novel extract)
“Do not tell me to calm down. If I say I am going to kill my
daughter, it means I am going to kill her!”
jumped away from the door. Her heart was roasting with the heat of her father’s
words. She had been pressing her ear against the door, listening in to the
jumbled conversation from the next room. Her father’s raised voice came to her
like an erupting volcano shooting out blazing words that were now burning her
heart to ashes.
“Nafuddedda! I am already dead,” she muttered. She snuggled into the
pile of sacks containing dry coffee beans, wishing she could wrap herself up in
one of the empty sacks and join the pile. Today was the day for her arranged
wedding. But she had no regrets for confessing to her mother that she was
pregnant by another man. And she felt no remorse for getting pregnant before
marriage. She only dreaded what her father would do to her beloved man,
Katumwa. Would her father kill Katumwa? God forbid! She would never reveal her involvement with Katumwa to
Namuli wondered why her parents couldn’t let go. For four
months she had battled with them against the arranged marriage but despite her
continuous objections her parents had proceeded with the preparations. As she
pondered over it now, Namuli thought she did not understand her father anymore.
He had raised her and her siblings with a liberty to express their opinions.
This was unheard of in the Baganda culture where a girl child was groomed to
accede to the wishes of a man; obeying and respecting even her own brothers and
all the men in the village.
Her father had been exceptional. He always encouraged them
to make some of their choices because he believed it was an important aspect of
modernity. “Civilisation is inevitable because we are living in a changing
world,” he would say. He worked
hard to keep his children in school. As the eldest daughter in the family,
Namuli was given the privilege to decide when they bought meat in a month; she
decided on which new clothes to buy her siblings and she also took part in
choosing schools for them. Namuli had grown up loving her father with a
passion. But now, her father could not let her make what she considered the
most important decision of her life. He could not let her decide when to get
married and to whom. For this she hated him with the same passion with which
she had loved him.
She was educated, civilized! So her father always
reminded her. She loved it that her culture was now diluted. She was
glad the practice of stigmatizing a girl who got pregnant before marriage had
died out. Otherwise, she would be an absolute outcast now. Her brother would
build her a hut at the far end of the banana plantation or at the very end of
the coffee plantation. There she would be thrown to perish in solitary. She
would never share anything with anyone. No one would ever touch what she had
touched. She would be like a leper, a mould of shit that everyone spat at,
until she would give birth to a bastard who would then start the lineage of
Namuli looked up on the wall at the rays of the morning sun
that had broken through the brick ventilators and into the coffee store room.
The rays were half the size they had been when she had just been locked up in
the room. If she could guess right, that was the midday sun shortening the
rays. And that meant she had been imprisoned for five hours. Already she had
lost the fragrance of the crushed coffee flowers she had smeared all over her
face, neck and under her armpits; now she smelt like the decaying coffee husks
used for manure.
For a quick way
out of her prison, Namuli considered climbing up the pile of sacks, but that
option would lead her to a blind end on the upper wall. She scuttled towards a
ladder inclined against the wall opposite to the coffee sacks. Her father
rented out the ladder to the village latrine diggers for 50 simmoni. The
ladder had been used and returned the previous day. As Namuli tried to move it
against the wall; she mashed pieces of the crumbling loam soil stuck on the
wood. She struggled to move the ladder to the side of the wall from where she
could climb, jump over the edge, and fall into the next room. But this room was
the venue for her parents meeting!
In increasing desperation, Namuli climbed up the ladder and
peeked at her parents from over the wall. Her father had tucked the right side
of the kanzu into his trousers. The other side was hanging by his left
thigh, swaying as he paced the room. The muleera, collar button of the kanzu, was undone, revealing the thick hair on her father’s upper chest; hair that
made Namuli cringe with mortification. He was not wearing the round fiber hat;
instead he had it in his right hand and he kept flashing it into her mother’s
face with overt aggression every time he stamped by her.
“And why did
you wait until today to tell me?” he was saying.
“I learnt about it earlier today and I told you as soon as I
was sure she was saying the truth.” Her mother whimpered.
“Surely you should have noticed earlier. You are a woman and
you know these things!” Her father said. He suddenly halted in his steps,
turned and looked through the open window and then, as if stung by a gnat, he
started towards her mother. He dragged her to the window. “Look!” He pointed out to the newly
erected shade in the front courtyard. “That is where my daughter’s marriage is
scheduled to take place in a few hours. And here you are telling me she is
pregnant!” His tone was plaintive. The voice wobbled on and off as if he was
trying to stifle threatening tears.
Namuli turned to look outside through the brick ventilators
in the upper wall. The courtyards were crowded with women and men, boys and
girls from the neighbourhood. Namuli knew everyone in the front courtyard, and
even though she could not see the people in the back, she knew the regulars who
never missed out on helping with marriage preparations: Mukyala Kikonge, Maama Seki and Namwandu Kiberu were the specialists when it came to preparing the Mpombo for the Bako. Hajji Kiwa and Hajji Serunjoji were known for
preparing Pilawo, and Jjajja Zefania was always available to
advise the women who prepared Matooke. Zakaria, the village drunkard was
the most reliable person who split firewood.
Namuli could hear the mixed noises from the back courtyard;
log fires crackling in the hearths, water gushing from pots into the steel
water-drums, breaking sticks as axe split firewood, splintering bones as the
machetes cut into the slaughtered bull her father had proudly reserved for this
particular occasion. For a moment Namuli felt concerned that she had
disappointed each one of these good people who had enthusiastically taken
charge of the preparations. But then, what did they know? And would they agree
with her if she told them she had a say in her future? This was a modern era,
and they all knew it. Some of them sent their children to school. Even the girl
children. Couldn’t they support a decision a girl could make for herself?
Namuli looked away. She was in time to see her father shove
the hat in her mother’s face, and
he was saying, “Now go. Tell them to undo everything. No, wait. Go to the
kitchen first. Tell the men and women to share the meat among themselves.
Tell the girls and boys to stop
fetching water. Tell the whole village that the marriage will not take place!”
pulled back. She knelt down in front of him and said, “The marriage… may not
take place. But surely, a marriage will take place—”
“Sure! A marriage will take place. I will marry off a
daughter who is already pregnant by another man! And yes, I will let my family
become the disgrace of the village!”
Namuli's mother was tugging at her gomesi as she
said, “Nankya will be the bride instead.”
Up from where she was peeking, Namuli barely caught an
escaping gasp, opening her mouth and dilating her eyes. She cowered, lowering
her head out of view. Slowly, she climbed down the ladder, taking care to avoid
slipping on the clusters of soil on the ladder. She resumed her position next
to the coffee sacks and squatted, hugging her knees. Nankya, her younger sister,
would be taking her place beneath the wedding shade. It was a relief to learn
that she could no longer be the bride. But it was also disturbing.
Nankya was only
fourteen. She had not yet visited their Senga and therefore had not yet
gone through the long litany of the dos and don’ts of a married woman. Why
couldn’t her parents call off the wedding? Why wouldn’t they ignore the cows,
the goat, the kanzus, the gomesis, the money and the famous Mutwalo that the so-called suitor was obliged to bring? Why would they marry off Nankya
before her time? Or perhaps Nankya would rejoice in her expediential position.
Namuli found solace in the fact that Nankya had on many occasions said she
looked forward to the day she would be a bride. And Nankya never stopped
envying Namuli because Namuli’s wedding day was near. If only Nankya had known
that she was cursing the ripening day!
But whether her sister Nankya would be the bride or not, one
thing was clear to Namuli; she would not stay and abide as if she was a bull on
its way to the slaughter house.
The celebrations began. First, the Namunjoloba gave
off a beat that tore through all the mud-and wattle huts, mud-and –brick
houses, maize plantations, coffee gardens, kisubi, musa, gonja, and matooke plantations; through the elephant grass, through kawunyira shrubs, and
sending news to all the neighbouring villages that the bride was making her
first official appearance to the groom. The Bakisimba and the Mugalabi joined in with a unified beat that set the pitch for an explosion of hand
claps. Buligi traders’ choir set the ceremony ablaze with a song, “ye wuuyo
omulindwa…” the same chorus that was sung on every marriage ceremony. The
guests joined in, their chorused voices in synchrony with the rhythmic throb of
the mpunyi. Ululations exploded in the room from where the bride was
coming out. The bride followed a line of ten girls who were walking the bakisimba dance. The girls were dressed in white nylon dresses with bikoyi wrappers and goat skins fastened on strings around their waists. The goat skins
exaggerated the gyrations as the girls swung their hips.
Namuli tucked the lower ends of the gomesi into her
knickers. She had been waiting for this particular moment. The moment when all
necks would strain, when all eyes would make blinking movements to clear any
fog off the pupils; this moment when all faces would be stark with eager smiles
exposing either yellow teeth or toothless gums or missing teeth. This moment
when Namuli, the eldest daughter in Kimuli’s compound, would be expected to
take delicate steps down the fibre mats, slightly kicking the front of her gomesi to avoid stepping into it, left hand clutching the side of the gomesi to
prevent the laces from sweeping the floor, face arranged into a shy smile and
eyes cast down lest the groom thought she had already seen half of the world…
But Namuli would be racing through the coffee trees to
Katumwa’ s house.