19 Jun 2018

 

Lugala At Large: Mangoes For Supper In Juba

"The man looks miserable. He cups his heavy head between his palms. He is thinking hard but he draws blanks. When he was a dandy about town he had deep pockets from kickbacks and other underhanded deals."

By Victor Lugala

 
The man wakes up with difficulty. His legs are weak. His mind is a dark cloud of uncertainty. He has become afraid of daybreak, for he knows not what each day will bring or take.
 
He is a stressed family man with a few mouths to feed every day in times of scarcity, aridity and what have you.
It is eight o’clock and the morning sun is already frowning on the city of many troubles.
 
He drags himself out of the bedroom and sits on a wonky stool in the compound. A few years ago the same stool would have crumbled under his weight. He had a beer belly and arms of a weight-lifter. All that is now left of him is a distant memory of the good old days. Sometimes he is forced to avoid some routes in town.
 
Nowadays he avoids the street that passes through his favourite bar where he used to call the shots. Once in a while he goes to the bakery to buy a few miserable-looking loaves of bread in the name of putting food on the table.
 
Ironically, it seems hard times are keeping families together. Husbands and wives are bonding. Love is being rekindled where it had grown cold. These days the man goes home early because he can’t afford to hang out anymore with his buddies who are also with their families before six pm.
 
In the good old days of chicken & chips, beer & pork at the Jupiter, the man’s morning activity was predictable. When he awoke he would offload in the latrine before taking a cold bath from a plastic pale. Nowadays the flies in his latrine are either starving or have migrated to the public pay latrines.
 
This weekend is dull. His wife and children are basking in the morning sun, fighting annoying flies with their paws. He stares at his wife as if she is a stranger. She has lost her beauty. At 35 she looks like a granny. The man himself is afraid of looking himself in the mirror for fear of seeing a pangolin staring back at him.
When he married his wife ten years ago she was truly a flower, a beautiful lady who made him burn with passion and jealousy at the same time. As he absent-mindedly continues to stare at her, tears in his eyes seem to say, Give way.
 
His wife sees the tears and comes to his rescue with a kanga wrapper to wipe his face so the children don’t start poking fun by saying, Surprise, surprise, see daddy is crying.
 
The distance between him and his wife stirs some passion in him. But can he afford to make love now without suffering ketuk in the aftermath? He will have lost his consciousness even before a nurse could come to his rescue with oral rehydration solution to pump lost energy into his sorry frame.    
 
He is the only breadwinner, a once-upon-a-time proud civil servant who used go home with a polythene bag of fried chicken and chips and fruits and happiness.
 
His innocent children are busy playing in the compound, oblivious to the battle in their dad’s head. His seven-year-old boy climbs a rock and with his clenched fist imitating a mike, close to his mouth, starts to sing like a pop star:
 
“Keli isim ta Yesu Shukuru..
Aleeela! Aleeela! Aleela!”
 
The boy continues entertaining his parents, but he notices that they are indifferent. The man and his wife put their heads together to find a solution to the dilemma of their daily bread.
 
The man looks miserable. He cups his heavy head between his palms. He is thinking hard but he draws blanks. When he was a dandy about town he had deep pockets from kickbacks and other underhanded deals.
 
The cash in his pockets was a command and a blank cheque to places of choice in town like expensive restaurants, bars, the riverfront, name it. He even had a ‘side dish’ or girlfriend to boast about to his buddies.
 
These days he ducks when he sees his former mistresses. He has returned to zero grazing: ‘don’t uproot the pumpkin in the old homestead,’ said the poet.
 
“Daddy, how do we feed these kids?” says his wife. She addresses him daddy out of courtesy. And it makes him feel adored.
 
But now the man feels impotent, the moniker daddy means nothing. He thinks loudly: If Pope Francis comes to Juba one day I’ll ask him if he wants to adopt my children.
 
It is his wife’s turn to shed tears. The man consoles his wife, but in the final analysis he knows that as the head of the family it is his responsibility to find a solution.
 
“Daddy, why don’t you take a walk? Go and meet with your friends to avoid thinking too much about our predicament. Maybe...but I don’t know...God will provide.”
 
The man takes a chewing stick and walks out of the gate while cleaning his teeth. He heads to the Arab kiosk to sweet-talk the Arab owner to give him some credit.
 
The Arab keeps an exercise book with names of people in the neighbourhood who take stuff on credit: sugar, salt, beans, lentils, flour, matchbox, tea, candles. Some of the people have defaulted and the Arab is not willing to give more credit. The shelves in the kiosk are almost empty and he tells people he wants to return to his ancestral village in Medani to start farming.
 
The Arab kiosk owner is like Father Christmas to families in the man’s neighborhood.
 
After a while the man returns home and asks his wife for a conference in the bedroom. These days he consults his wife on how to run the affairs of their home.
 
In the good old days he was a domestic autocrat who decided on everything for his family, he even dictated the colour of scarf his wife tied on her head like a barakole convert. 
 
“Sit down,” the man said, almost commanding. She sits near him. He digs his hand into his breast pocket and fishes out three stiff one hundred pound notes with the portrait of John Garang printed on them. He holds the money like some treasure that could fly away if mishandled.
 
“The Arab has been kind to us again. He has given me this. What food will this money buy?”
 
“Daddy,” she begins. “May be we start by buying water. A drum of water is 200 pounds. But maybe we can buy a few jerry cans from the wewe chaps. Charcoal is ....I don’t know the price today, honestly. Peanut butter is also expensive...”
 
“Stop it. Stop it. Let’s talk about real food. Solid food, not charcoal or carbon,” shouts the man.
 
“But we need water and charcoal to cook food,” protests the man’s wife.
 
“But we only have three hundred pounds,” the man shouts.
 
“Daddy, we have three hundred pounds in a bare house,” his wife argues.
 
“Woman, stop it. I’ll personally go to the market,” the man declares.
 
At sunset the man returns home with a polythene bag of mangoes for supper.  
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