I was once a child, growing up in Entebbe, spending most of my time with Rusi, the housegirl, especially during the holidays, while my older sisters were away at boarding school. I followed Rusi around the house in the mornings as she cleaned up. It was a fun way to idle away the time. Rusi talked incessantly to herself or to whoever was around. She spoke Luganda only. She complained that I disturbed her, didn't help at all, that I just followed her around like an irritating little dog. Couldn't I find something useful to do, she would moan. Oh, when would school start again so she could have her quiet house back. I spoiled everything. Don't touch that, or that, she yelled, as if the clothes or plates or pictures were hers. You'll break it, you little rat! She'd swipe at my bare feet with a broom or bedsheet, which I'd dodge, giggling, and continue to follow her through the house.
The room I loved most was my mother and father's bedroom, mostly because we were not allowed into it. The room was kept dim, its thick curtains patterned with blood-red roses closed to keep the heat out. This red glow added to its sacredness, as if it were a quiet, empty cathedral or mysterious fortune-teller's den.
At night in bed, sucking my thumb furiously, I went over imaginary fears; they were an irresistible itch I scratched again and again. What if I was caught sneaking around the forbidden room opening drawers, reading letters, sniffing the faint mysterious smells of Maama and Taata; cigarettes, polish, powder, perfume, sweat, and more? I imagined suddenly hearing Taata's heavy ringing footsteps. They got louder as he came down the corridor. I was trapped! I froze, then as I hastened to hide, tripped over a chair and fell. Down crashed the wooden chair right on top of me. Maama's bright jewelry flew out of my hands and colored the air like fat butterflies, before cascading down and shattering repeatedly, spreading tiny cutting shards all over the floor. Precious beads rolled under the wide bed, joining lost brushes, coins, and dust, never to be found again. The door creaked open . . . delicious terror. Why did I dread and dream about this? Why did I fear Taata?
When Rusi bustled in to clean my parents' room, however, with me trailing behind her, the room became ordinary. Rusi pushed the huge mound of her breasts like pillows ahead of her as she energetically marched in. She pulled back the thick curtains and flung open the windows to the startling sunshine outside, the squawk and trill of birds, the shouts and the escape of raggedy kids surprised to be seen stealing mangoes from the tree nearest my parents' bedroom. With Rusi there and the dark red glow gone, the solemn church became a rowdy marketplace. My parents' huge throne of a bed, still unmade, was just a bed, ruffled and somehow smaller. Sprinklings of dust floated in the sunlight as Rusi shook out the sheets and dusted the coffee-colored bedside tables and mirror. Her talk and laughter filled the air, offending me. Had she no sense of the room's sacredness? But when I lay down on my parents' bed, Rusi chased me off with a wild swing that was meant to miss. I couldn't help laughing at her flabby underarms flapping like wings.
Rusi was easy to laugh at. I teased her about the neighbor's shamba-boy
, Paulo, who bought her a hand mirror, gave her old calendar pictures, and even a pair of shoes. He used a mirror himself every morning, right outside his one-window boys' quarters. His daily ritual was to wet, oil, comb, and pat his hair into shape. He combed and patted, combed and patted, admired the round Afro shape from all sides, and then came to the kitchen door to ask Rusi for tea and her time. She didn't get angry when I teased her; rather, she called Paulo a fool and joked about his big head and floppy ears, then joined me in laughter.
Rusi's laugh was special, a spectacular performance. First a grunt, deep in her chest, ggrrumph
, as if she was mad about something, then a louder guffaw, once, paced out. More silence as she gathered her breath and energy, grimacing as though she had a bellyache, as if the joke was killing her, and then, just when you thought it wasn't going to happen this time, she really was mad, the volcano erupted, the tornado, the hurricane! There was nothing else to do but giggle as I watched her with awe and some apprehension. What if she choked? But no, she moved through louder, shriller laughing stages. She couldn't be stopped or helped. Any word would send her deeper into the vortex of sound and painful glee as she clutched her trembling breasts, bent over like an old woman, held her back for support, roaring, then bent backwards, her breasts reaching up into the air--you just had to laugh in applause. Finally, she would wipe tears off her face, sighing, eeh-eh, ahhhh, Katonda wange! My God!
to calm herself down. When she turned back to her broom, dust cloth, or washing, I felt I had been through a religious experience and had landed exhausted, but safe and sane, on the other side.
Once Rusi recovered and was back at work I had to stop giggling, or she would turn on me sternly. "Are you laughing at me? Who are you laughing with? Not me, for sure, get out, ggenda! Let me work, take your teeth somewhere else," she'd grumble, as she swept me furiously out of the room. Her mirth left her joyless, angry almost, as if she had exhausted all her resources of humor.
Much as I loved Rusi's company, after lunch was my time alone, in the heavy heat of the afternoon, when the only sound was the droning of a bumblebee caught in a window net somewhere. I was supposed to sleep off my lunch after Maama and Taata returned to work. Rusi cleared up the meal and left dishes sparkling with clean water in the kitchen, then she too went to her room in the boys' quarters at the back of our compound. I lay in bed rereading the adventure stories of Enid Blyton or the Narnia books until all was quiet, then crept off for my own adventure.
My parents' door always creaked open, as if there was someone calling me in, another naughty child like me, my invisible counterpart in the netherworld. Yet again, to my surprise, the glowing, mysterious room was real. The rosy air was thick with secrets. This forever twilight, hidden from the hard stare of the afternoon sun outside, was a presence I breathed in deeply. Ah, those silent, hazy afternoons, when even the birds took a siesta; it was too hot to flit around squealing and trilling. The silence became louder as another heavy, buzzing bluebottle fly knocked itself senseless behind the blood-red curtains, trapped blindly between glass and net.
I left the door slightly ajar to clearly see Maama's forbidden treasure. In the dim light two tall mahogany wardrobes looked like huge dark priests silently disapproving of me. Luckily, they were too fat to move, so I stuck out my tongue at them. There! Up on the wall above the bed was a photograph of my father's parents, but I wasn't scared of them either; they were much too old to count. Still, just in case, I greeted them silently in Runyankore: Agandi, basebo
. Taata's mother, Omukikuru, was still alive, but lived far away in the village, Rusozi, so she wouldn't know what I was up to. She never smiled, and when she visited, which was rare, thank God, she refused to eat Rusi's food because she is a Muganda. Maama had to leave work early and cook special dishes for her: black beans prepared with ghee, or steamed biringanya
. Despite Maama's efforts, Omukikuru's mouth got tighter and tighter with disapproval. I really didn't like it when she visited.
Taata's father died long before I was born. He had the fiercest face I had ever seen, possibly because of a life spent with my grandmother. In the photo, his face was wrinkled into a tight scrawl. He held his kanzu
firmly straight down with huge hands wound over and over with prominent veins. Was his kanzu about to spring open and show his legs? I covered my giggle with my hand because even I knew one shouldn't laugh at the dead, especially at your own relatives, who are looking out for you. But I did every time, and so far nothing had happened. Maama said such things are true only if you believed them, so I didn't. The same with juju
, which I did want to believe in sometimes, especially when a school friend dropped me for someone else, or a teacher mocked me before the whole class.
Even after my respectful greeting, my grandparents continued to stare down at me balefully, as if they already knew I would come to no good. I didn't dare stick out my tongue at them, so I saluted, then bowed deeply. I whispered, "Dear Taata's daddy, if you are in heaven, please pray for me. I know we aren't Catholics; I should only pray through Jesus, but all the same, don't let me get punished. I'm just looking at God's beautiful creations, okay? Amen." I felt much better. I always did. My grandfather felt closer to me in heaven than my grandmother in the village.
A huge oval mirror hung in between two columns of chocolate-brown drawers. The mirror turned on its axis, attached to the drawers, and I was always careful not to move it, not to leave any tracks. I dragged a chair up and climbed onto it. The tingliest moment was just before opening the top drawer. Oh, what if there was no brilliance of disorganized rainbow colors as smooth as beach stones, or as rough as sand, and in all shapes possible? But time after suspenseful time, there they were; a confirmation that beauty was magically real. As I slowly opened the drawer, color burst out like flashbulbs popping.
There lay heaps of gold and green, like a strange spicy Asian or Arab dish. The place the jewelry took me to was better than heaven. They were rainbow shells washed up on a fantasy shore. The bead necklaces with matching earrings and bracelets were from Kenya, Nigeria, India, and other countries only traced on maps. The teeny-tiny round colored ants wandered up and down long paths of string in designs of blue and white, or strong red, shiny black, burning yellow; colors of the Uganda flag. There were trembling, see-through, water-blue thick globs of glass. Shiny stones of black and purple that slithered through my fingers like thieves. Pearls of an ivory magnificence that spoke of something deeper than white, something older. Royalty. Angels' tears.
I took it all in as slowly as I could. First with my eyes only, closing them for a moment, then opening them again for the surprise of wild color. Then I passed my hands and arms through the cold stones, slowly turning over the careless heaps, watching them catch the dim light and throw it back in a conversation I understood but couldn't translate. The stones rattled like feisty tambourines, or gurgled low and heavy as they knocked against one another, good luck. I worshiped the color with both hands, rubbing each bead as one would a rosary, then lifted the necklaces up and watched them ripple through my hands like silvery water. My hands warmed them, and then I held them to my cheeks. The smooth stones caressed, the rough beads scratched and tickled. Was this what it was like to be kissed? I breathed in deeply. Ah, Maama's perfume.
That wasn't enough; I had to taste them. I placed one black bead necklace in my mouth and sucked, enjoying its texture and tastelessness. I could hear Maama say, far away in my head, Get that out of your mouth, you'll fall sick!
That made me suck even harder. What if I swallowed one and choked to death! I would be a princess dying for beauty.
Finally, I put on as many of the necklaces as I could, moving them over my head in worshipful dance movements, head bowed solemnly, then up with secret ritualistic pleasure. My chest grew heavier and heavier as the beads and stones and glass trailed down to my knees. Maama's ears were not pierced, so I could wear her clip-on earrings too. I put on two pairs, feeling them hold on to each earlobe with a sharp, sweet bite. Carefully, I climbed down the chair, necklaces and bracelets and earrings swaying, moved the chair away, and faced the mirror. I leaned forward slowly, sedately, and turned on the lamp covered in red brocade and fringe to match the curtains. I stared at the girl in the orange-reddish glow. Who was she? The rows of glittering color made her beautiful. She could be anyone: a queen, a bishop, a rich loved wife. I passed into blessed existence, where one lived to be beautiful, soft, and rounded out, with red lips, red nails, and glowing stones all over. I was decorated, celebrated, a Christmas tree, here to make the room shine, to turn the world to happiness. I lifted the jewelry and covered my face. I couldn't stay solemn; laughter bubbled up inside. I peeked through the shiny stones and stuck out my tongue. My twin did the same and we giggled. Then I practiced my poses; now a young shy princess, or Cinderella at the ball, up on one foot because of the lost glass slipper. A cardinal waving the sign of the cross through the air, then spraying incense all over. What about a multicolored starfish swirling deep through the azure water of Atlantis? Now, a Paris model posing for flashing cameras, smoking a long cigarette, sending out flying kisses. I could hear the crowd cheer. The jewelry jingled with delighted laughter.
The final act was the best one of all: being my mother. When I grew up, I would use lots of cool white cream like she did: Ponds, Venus de Milo, cocoa butter, perfumes called Lady, Chanel, Essence. I'd paint my fingernails and toenails with designs in glaring red, and fling my hands around dramatically like a conjurer. Wear lots of lacy panties, petticoats, bras, and stockings, all in frilly white and pink, with flowers and sequins, and become Maama. Women were nice and pleasant and sweet, like a bowl of fruit or fresh flowers. Men smelt of cigarettes and beer and wore dull dark colors. The choice was clear.
What would I do then, as a grown-up? I would become real. I definitely wouldn't go back to the village, oh no. An actress on TV, perhaps? I'd have to speak good Luganda, though. Or I'd untie my plaits and pile my long hair up into a glossy crown; it would have grown long, really long, by then. I practiced being a white actress in the mirror, my voice squeaking in a high, fake accent. No, not that; I'd be a president's wife, a good president, not an army man, of course! I'd give money to orphans with beriberi, advise them to eat beans and peas, not just posho
, which is corn starch and nothing else. In the mirror I ordered my maid, Bring me some sweets. Demanded sternly, Why didn't you wash my panties properly? I wouldn't go to work, like Maama did; instead, I'd spend the whole day preparing my body, and wait patiently and beautifully for my husband, the president. No, no husband; I'd go to bars every night, like Taata, or to parties!
Excerpted from Tropical Fish by Doreen Baingana. Copyright © 2006 by Doreen Baingana. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.