Fiction

September 1, 2015 Fiction

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Musoke

 

By

Bongani Sibanda

 

As you are flown to the Hague, charged with the same crimes that were committed against you, you’d wonder about many things. A life and fate you could have had had you not been abducted. If ever, would there have been a difference? Or happiness?

You’d sometimes cry, and let the tears roll down your cheeks. Sometimes you’d just sit down and think, and imagine a second chance in life. You’d wonder if Musoke is really responsible for your misery? And if so, how is he able to command so much power from among the dead?

Musoke. He was a boy next door who lived with his family in a homestead with three yellow painted huts, fenced with slim, barked mtewa tree trucks. Like your family, they lived on ugali and okra picked near Namunye cemetery and cooked with a bicarbonate of soda picked at the back of Crocodile Dam. They too carted firewood from the Patrice ranch and queued three days for the government’s matata drought relief packages in front of Zhou grocery store at Matsilo. The only difference between the two of you is that Musoke was a bully that made your childhood unlivable.

He bullied you on your way to and back from school, forcing you to engage in fistfights, and sometimes making other boys gang up and fight you with logs and stones.

One day your father almost finished him off with a hammer as he walked past your homestead with his brother, searching for donkeys. You watched with glee as Musoke sprinted for his life, and disappeared in the dark bush of acacia trees.

“If this boy won’t stop terrorising my son I swear I will kill him and kill myself,” your father said.

“We should talk to his parents,” your mother replied.

“His parents, nonsense! They know what he does and are happy.”

The memory of this exchange has remained a relic of your childhood. Your parents loved you. It was later, on the evening of that day. Your father was seated on a small stool, after supper, a burning paraffin lamp before him. Your mother was seated on a goatskin rug, near the hearth, washing dishes.

The year was 1987.  You were eleven years old yet still in the fourth grade because on the previous year your mother had taken you out of school and fled with you to her parents in Magwe, after one of her scuffles with your father. They fought a lot, your mother and your father, and those fights had, like many other horrible things that happened in your childhood, remained a sour memory in your mind. It was also around this time your baby sister died, because you heard some congregants whisper at church that your father wouldn’t let your mother violate the strict no-hospital Christ’s Witness church rules which dictated your family life. She died from measles. You spent most of the time with your brother, a good-for-nothing simpleton who was, gripped by the dread of a whip, famous for having once told his fourth grade teacher that if she whips him he would die. He dropped out of school in grade five. You spent weekends playing with him, chasing one another in the sandy courtyard, around huts, through the maize field, and out in the dark bush of acacia trees.

There were many strange things happening in your village at that time. Dozens of shirtless boys were always chasing and hacking one another with axes and pangas over two swarthy sisters, whose source of appeal you never saw. There were also supposed child thieves called Mulimbas supposedly hiding in the bushes on your way to school. They will abduct you and kill you and take your heads to sell to shark fishers overseas, it was believed. A mysterious girl called Alice from a neighbouring village was rumoured to have disappeared that way. Her story was told by Mam’ Fatty, an old woman who lived alone on the other side of the Mwewu River. Yet the scariest stories were told by the inpouring new pupils at your school. Masked and armed evil men, they said, were mutilating and butchering residents, burning and looting their properties at the villages from which they had fled.

So your childhood was dominated by fear. Fear of these masked men, fear of the Mulimbas, and the fear of Musoke. Each day your hatred for him deepened. It grew thick, sour and fetid. You sometimes imagined him writhing and groaning and gnashing in the merciless fires of hell for the sins he had committed against you. Your parents were devout Christ’s Witness church members and you naturally grew up believing that all sinners will be cast into a massive hell fire. Sometimes you just wished him out of your life. You dreamed of a day on which you could walk to school laughing with the other kids.

And that day finally came, but in a way you had never imagined.

“I can’t believe Musoke is dead,” someone among your friends says as you roam the school grounds one sports Monday morning.

You do not know who said it because you entered a toilet while others walked past. There is a noise of singing cheerleaders from the netball pitch. Innumerable red and blue and pink clad kids from neighbouring schools, roam your school grounds. The atmosphere is jovial.

“Musoke is dead?” you ask when you come out of the toilet, traversing your eyes between your friends, several contradictory emotions already coursing through your small, child’s heart.

They all stop walking and look at you.

“He was not at assembly this morning,” Luywemoi, a boy with thick dark lips and two rows of lower teeth tells others. And then they remember. Then Dominic, a short, stout boy with an always upright shirt collar, explains to you, in lower tones, that Mr. Bemba, the headmaster, announced earlier at assembly that Musoke drowned the previous day while swimming with his buddies at the Crocodile dam. He had been caught by Museveni’s fishnet.

You begin to understand why your father and mother went there and stayed until late in the night last evening.

“Cook yourselves and eat. Don’t count us,” your mother had told your brother when they left.

That is how it happened. Musoke was no more in the world. But not to you.

What will always puzzle you though is why you felt the way you did when you heard the news of his death. You hated him; sometimes you even wished him dead, but why did you feel so pained?

Even later, as you walked back home from school, your knees were heavy and your mind was absent. Your school had won second place, and the other kids were talking loudly and cheerfully about the events of the day, praising the brilliance of Mashe primary school’s goalkeeper, and laughing at the ridiculous speed of Gole primary school’s striker, Alfonse, whom they said outran the ball and “scored himself”. But your mind was away, on Musoke. It kept playing back the moments he tortured you. The cruellest times wherein he ordered you to lie face down on the ground and then hit you in the buttocks with logs, shouting;

“Toyimusa mutwe bwa!”

Days later, Musoke starts appearing in your dreams; you walk hand in hand with him on your way to school. Sometimes he smiles, bearing his frightening yellow teeth, and offers you a handshake, saying,

“Truce”

You think about him day and night. While you’re chasing khwara, a small plastic ball you play at break and at lunch in the school grounds. While you are in bed next to your brother at night. Your parents finally send you to an exorcist at Silawa village, a man called Bigombe, who is a member of Christ’s Witness church. Bigombe gives you fetid roots and barks and leaves to chew. He prays for you at three-hour intervals, every day, for seven days. He tells you there will be no more Musoke once he is done with you. But what really happens is that when Bigombe is done with you, Musoke stops appearing in your dreams but starts appearing during the day, now no longer smiling but stern faced, his white eyes brown and sorrowful as if he had received confirmation you had a hand in his death.

And that was you in grade four.

The masked men new pupils at your school had told you about came to your village shortly after a boy called Aringo was brought to your father’s care by the village headman. You were then in grade seven.

“Everyone has had a share of this trouble, Achole,” the headman said, his gnarled hands resting on the shoulders of a scruffy looking boy about your age. “So I thought of you soon as this kid was brought to my house and told us his story. You’d make him your son.”

Your father agreed. He had no choice.

Aringo had a recurring headache. He had a screechy voice. He told you his story while you walked to school one windy morning. His family was awakened by screams one night, only to see the whole village ablaze, neighbours’ huts going up in flames, people screaming and running in the dark, and so he and his parents and siblings joined the masses, the fleeing, each to the best of his ability, and up until then he had no clue what happened with the other members of his family.

He was from Madala village, about four villages from your own.

“I think these people are very close. It’s a matter of time before they attack us here,” he said one cold weekend afternoon while you were roasting mwawa, seated on short wooden stools, around a large mtswiri fire, you, your father and him.

Your father was incensed.

“Sirisa guno omunwa omutono bwa gwe,” he screamed, showering the both of you with mwawa mingled spit, some of it dribbling out of his mouth and drooling down his bearded chin onto his stained black pants. He soon rose and left, leaving the two of you to take care of his roasted mwawa. From that day on, your father changed and became silent and mysterious. A crease formed on his forehead and remained there forever. He started spending most of the time roaming the courtyard and the many nearby paths, dressed in his grey pajamas, his hands clasped behind his back. Soon he began to talk to himself, gesturing and muttering, his red eyes wide open. One day he found you playing ntsoro alone near the hedge behind the back hut and shouted:

“Get out of my homestead, you son of Ntaganda!” mistaking you for Dominic, your next-door friend.

Trying to assuage your growing anxiety, Mr. Kiwanuka, your grade seven teacher, started giving you lessons about the role of the army and the government in protecting its citizenry. Every day after lunch you found him standing in your classroom, a metre rule in one hand, a chalk in the other, dressed in his big brown canvas shoes, red spotted black tie, unchanged grey trouser, scotched red shirt, a sharp fronted fedora jauntily seated on his square head, smiling with his numerous yellow teeth, his big malwa beer stomach protruding in front of him. He would go on and on about how you should forget what he termed “the nonsense that would soon end.”

The dread is pervasive. It is with you in the mornings as you walk to school with your friends down the dusty brown Albert Auma lane, edged with dark acacia thickets. It is with you also while you are at home in the evening seated on the cow dung polished mud floor before a fire, your mother cooking ugali, dishing up, washing dishes, or kneeling down on the floor serving your father in his lidded big blue bowls. It is also with you at sunsets as you walk with your brother past the tiny brook at the back of your father’s field to fetch the goats at the dark thickets interspersed with sorghum-coloured rocks near Namunye cemetery. It is also at Matsilo beerhall where the village men converge every day when the sun looks down and sit in brown benches in groups of threes and fours, sharing malwa inscribed calabashes of millet brewed beer.

On Wednesdays and Fridays at noon, an army truck drives through your village down the gravelly Matsilo road to Kampala; these people could never touch you as long as the army exists, Mr. Kiwanuka says.

It happens on a Thursday morning as you walk to school with your friends Aringo, Elvis, Luywemoi, Dominic, Lamunu and Enoch. You are late. The sun is a luminous white very far away from the eastern horizon. Totally oblivious to your imminent fate, you’re talking loudly and cheerfully about holidays with cattle at the Patrice ranch, about carts and donkeys and bad school teachers. Except for thin wisps of cirrus clouds that intermittently cross the sun, casting transient shadows over your heads, the sky is mostly a clear blue, the colour of sea at a distance. When you have passed the thick, scary Mulimbas’ forest, and you are about to cross a small brook and come to Nyakairu’s, the first homestead at Rubanza village, a squad of militants armed with machetes and rifles materialise from acacia thickets like ring-wraiths and accost you.

“Don’t run!” the tallest one with a long face says, his long barrelled rifle already trained on you. He is the commander, you reckon. He is wearing a khaki trouser, an oversized shirt, big black boots, walks with a springy gait and has a scar across his right cheek that looks like a piece of biltong

He is the only one with a gun. Others are all wielding machetes and heavily laden with brown rucksacks over their shoulders. And they are mostly young, some not much older than you. Blood shot eyes, oversized coarse green shirts and half-brick heads on which grow hairs like mounds of dead houseflies, their common features.

Aringo and Enoch and Dominic are shot dead as they try to run. Elvis and you and Lamunu and Luywemoi and two other girls are captured. And that is how it starts.

You spend your first few days with them in bed. You have a severe cold which you caught during the long truck ride from your village. When you convalesce, several days later, your eyes are painful; you have a terrible short sight, and a migraine.

You cannot determine your location. It is a land of tallish trees. There is a big river nearby. Mud hovels of different sizes, all roofed with sedge, are strewn across this strange forest. Days feel slower. Nightmarish dreams are the norm. It seems as if the sun rises from the north.

They do not wait for your health to improve. Still ailing, you are made to join other militants on truck rides to plunder nearby villages for food. It feels like an adventure: the sneaking in the dark bushes, the charging on unsuspecting villagers, the maiming and killing of the stubborn among them. The weed they give you to smoke makes it easy. New abductees use these trips to try and escape, but mostly end catastrophically, and you are deterred.

The leader of the organisation that kidnapped you is Bambanani. The first thing you learn of him is his ideology. He is the spokesperson of God, he claims, and that fascinates you. He says his organisation’s purpose is to return the rights of the Acholi people, stripped of them during Yoweri Museveni’s bloody Bush War. He is also fighting a divine war, he claims, to form a theocratic state that will ensure the presence of God in the lives of all Ugandans.

“Why are there so many diseases? Why are there so many deaths in Uganda?” shuffling and roving his glinting brown eyes about, heavy black arms folded on his chest, he asks during one of his briefings. “It has got to do with the reckless neglect of the Ten Commandments,”

“Our country would be a better place if the sacred laws were obeyed.” He quotes bible verses, likens you to the three bible martyrs — Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, says you’re Jehovah’s soldiers, and that emboldens you.

All new abductees are apportioned among existing households. You’ve been allotted to Obodo, Bambanani’s second in command. His shack is one of a few blessed with a solar panel, set on the thatch. Big and rectangular, the shack has a shining flagstone floor, though the outside is shabby and run down like a deserted cottage from the 19th century. His wife, a woman with limp, drooping breasts, frequently polishes the inside but has no time for the outside. A small radio sits on a mud platform at the back of the hut, and is used only by Obodo.

The only way to survive is to be bloodthirsty and active, you learn among other things. You watch many dying, attempting flight, and to live at any cost becomes your primary goal.

Obodo has brown eyes and hair wavy like a white person’s. But he is dark like coal. He has been with Bambanani’s organisation from inception. He likes you and believes in you, you note very quickly. He has a single wife, seven young children almost the same age; and despite his scruffy dressing — worn out boots and long shirts — his life is orderly. In his house he treats you like one of his sons. His wife too. And from time to time he sits with you and reiterates Bambanani’s message of an egalitarian, theocratic society when the imperialist serving regime is toppled. You feel fire in your heart when he says this.

His capabilities are not visible in his speech, manner of dressing or appearance. You would need to be told who masterminded the Barlonyo massacre in which three hundred people in IDP camps were killed to know who he really is. For one reason or another, some of his background is publicised. The fact that he was a shopkeeper in Kampala before joining Bambanani’s organisation is common knowledge.

For many years, your determination to survive continues to be successful. You rise through ranks. You become the commander of the Sinia Brigade.

You command the incineration of a village near Juba; you command the massacre in Makombo. The abduction of 139 female students in Aboke is attributed to you. So are the Christmas massacres in Congo, and the butchering of 17 South Sudanese soldiers near Malakal. You kidnap, you rape, you kill, you mutilate, you beat, and torture. The villagers of Faradje, Batande, Duru, Bangadi and Gurba will never forget you or your green clad men.

You become a murderer first to save yourself. Then you do it because you believe in Bambanani’s ideology. It brings fire in you. What he says make sense. Why is the government not rescuing you, if its role, like Mr. Kiwanuka told you back at school, is to protect you? Surely the government has other priorities than saving the victims of abduction.

Your name appears on newspapers; you find that the ICC has indicted you for crimes against humanity. That emboldens you.

Many things happen. You grow up. You survive strange diseases and intense battles. You become a poster boy for Bambanani’s organisation, a scourge of the nation on the other hand. With your swarthy, oblong face, dishevelled hair, rugged bead, red eyes, even a baby could recognise you. You get hurt repelling the government army from Bazha, a town you had captured many years ago. For a long time, the wound refuses to heal. But when it finally does, you return to the top of your game.

Life in the jungle becomes normal. Seated on a small platform at the backside of Obodo’s roomy hut, you have a conversation with him about the health of his daughter.

“Bersama leaves sometimes help,” you tell him. “My mother used to mash them for me.”

Obodo shakes his big head. “I always believe in natural recovering. No tree nor medicine used.”

He is seated on a short wooden stool, near the door, dressed in his worn out grey trouser and oversized grey shirt. His short dirty hair looks like a land of burnt grass. His wife is seated on a goat-skin rug, next to him. She keeps silently traversing her big eyes between the two of you.

“That is true,” you say. “But sometimes those things help.”

Obodo says that healing naturally reflects a good health. In the same way using additional substances for recovery reflects a failing health. You agree, but tell him that no one is a hundred percent healthy. You continue arguing, and soon the conversation is about how bad it is that the women would now have to walk a very long distance to fetch water since the nearby wells are drying up. That is how the talk goes throughout the afternoon, and even later in the evening when the sun has cooled and a light breeze is blowing from the Northeast and you take a stroll along the bed of the big river. It is still the same natter about trifles. Nothing about the government army’s advances, your names appearing on the ICC’s most wanted list, old machine guns having to be replaced with newer ones or the looting in the nearby villages having to take place sooner than later because the food supplies are diminishing. No. None of that talk. Mostly, the talk is about normal concerns for a normal people. That is because you are a normal people living in a normal world of abnormality.

It might be the execution of Obodo ordered by Bambanani which offended you, disillusioned you, it might be growing up, it might be the near death experience you underwent when the government bombed your camp during Operation Lightning Thunder, you do not know, but many years later, little by little, you begin to lose your blood thirstiness, you begin to lose interest in life, and start questioning how all that you do will help you or your people.

You begin to have dreams about your family and your former primary school. In these dreams you see your former grade seven teacher, Mr. Kiwanuka, with his big brown canvas shoes and unchanged grey trousers, standing in front of a blackboard, carrying a chalk and a metre rule, pointing and explaining things to your class. Sometimes you see your father hitting your mother with a fresh mtewa tree twig, the way he used to while you were still a kid. Sometimes you see yourself seated in class with your former primary school friends, Dominic, Luywemoi and Enoch, wearing khaki shorts and shirts, talking and laughing. These are things you think about. You sometimes wonder what could have become of you had you not been abducted? This, of course, exists entirely in your mind. The outside you is still staunch and bloodthirsty. Pretence.

You marry. You make a child. The baby dies from beriberi sixteen months old. Your wife, a girl kidnapped in Congo, tries to flee, and is macheted to death. Your second wife flees successfully. And your third and fourth. You quit ‘wives’, and only depend on brief flings with new, different abductees.

You continue to crumble within. On your swarthy oblong face, your big red eyes pop out like a marionette’s. Ruddy speckles dance in your irises, especially after you have a fill of malwa or marijuana, your secret fuels. Your ears stick out of your emaciated temples like two fresh leaves on a shrivelled twig. Your receding forehead becomes a network of green veins. From exertion and stress, you become thin and gaunt like the trunk of an oak tree. Prominent veins in your arms, at the back of your hands, in your forehead, complement the image of a soulless monster, devil’s right hand man, the world has of you. Sometimes you see your mother, and/or your father among the people you kill, and these illusions result in weeks of depression.

You meditate. You think about Bambanani and his theocratic ideology. You wonder if it is what still keeps him fighting. If he really cares about God? Or fighting has become a way of life — work. A skill like driving, farming, carving, painting, tailoring, cobbling – something he cannot live without.

Being with him for so long in the bush, you have come to know much of his past. He was born in a village near Gulu. He founded the organisation at twenty-five, two years after watching his father and mother beaten by the NRA, and then burned along with his brother and uncle in their farmhouse. His father was a lay Catholic and his mother an Anglican. He had been an altar boy until he turned fifteen, the same year he dropped out of school. His only living sibling is an older sister in Adek, who was married when the NRA attacked their family. He speaks with the voice of a woman. Fighter, he calls everyone when he is in the mood.

Musoke still doesn’t talk. Neither has he changed. He is still a stocky kid with heavy shoulders, big brown eyes, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. Now he appears at critical moments; the day you were shot in the shoulder you were distracted by him. You could have pulled the trigger first, but he flashed in the corner of your eye, then you hesitated – you couldn’t kill him twice.

You hear about your government’s amnesty to those who surrender. You hear about the American government’s objection to this amnesty. You hear about the three million dollar bounty on your head. You hear about the combined efforts between your country and the US to capture you. You want to surrender, but for the ICC’s overhanging warrant, you can’t. News of the people living in IDP camps returning to their homes thrills you.

Sometimes nostalgic memories of your school days bring tears to your eyes. You remember times with Lamunu and Dominic and Enoch in class, Lamunu making silly jokes, Enoch as the butt, all of you laughing. You envision your former classmates: Boys and girls in khaki and blue uniforms running around and shouting happily between desks and benches.

Then one day, a fine hot morning, you set off.

You have been in Bambanani’s detention for more than a month when this happens. He had been holding you for helping the SPLA–IO.

“If you hand yourself over you will be forgiven,” Bambanani’s uncle had encouraged you.

Thirsty and hungry you travel, hoping to cross to CAR to hand yourself over to the US forces there. You travel through the dark forest of tall trees, come to the savannah veld of thin shrubs and tall yellow grass, resting briefly in gorges and thickets. And when you have travelled for two weeks, through the forest you know very well, avoiding the army and also Bambanani’s militants who could be on the hunt for you, and following your father’s childhood advice that when you think you’re lost, follow the sun, you reach the confluence of two small rivers, and there, you lie, ready to die from malnutrition. You have given up on life.

That is where the Omakado rebels find you. Two militants, hardly twenty, are the ones who spot you first and call their commander.

His name is Chris. He is a tall, narrow faced, beardless man.

“Who are you?” he asks. He has a gruff voice. You lift up your head, slowly, turn on your body, and rise. It’s late, shades have left you. There is a putrid smell about that you didn’t notice before you slept. Then you hear the shuf shuf of boots on the sand as more rebels emerge from thickets. All have rifles, you notice. Some militants in Bambanai’s organisation carried only machetes and clubs. Obodo was executed with a machete.

Later, while at their camp where they offer you food, Musoke appears and stands in front of you. And when they have realised, to your horror, that you are the most wanted Simon Odoki and are trucking you to the American soldiers in the Central African Republic – to claim their bounty — Musoke stands in front of you, quiet and stern as always. He is with you also as you participate in several media activities in which you give reasons for your surrender.

What happens is that even as you are flown to the Hague, Musoke does not remain behind. He comes with you, and now stays with you all the time. But that doesn’t surprise you. What surprises you, however, is that he does not leave you even when you are sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. You had thought he had come to you only for revenge, to see to it that you paid for killing him, but when this happens, when he remains with you even at this hour of darkness, still sad and sullen, it suddenly dawns to you that your initial opinion of him might have been misconceived. That Musoke had always been a friend. Someone who would always be there for you. Over time, you start talking to him, telling him your side of the story. That you had nothing to do with his death because you were at home with your family when he drowned at the Crocodile Dam. That even though you wanted him dead, his death pained you so much that you could have resurrected him had you been endowed with such powers.

He remains silent and sullen, his short, fat arms hanging by his sides. However, in this silence and sullenness, there is a secret, a secret only for you. You puzzle it out: In his innocent brown eyes, lines in the forehead, stout physique, wide thin-lipped mouth, and many other parts, are facts, symbolic facts about life and earth and the existence of men. You learn to decode these facts. And from them the first thing you learn is that even while you’re incarcerated, Bambanani’s organisation is still fully operational back home in Uganda. The villages are still attacked, robbed, burnt and the people mutilated and killed, and the children abducted, raped and enslaved. The cycle will never stop just because you’ve been jailed.

 

 

 

 

 

Bongani Sibanda 

Bongani Sibanda is a Zimbabwean writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Born in 1990 in a village in Mat South, he has been writing since he was a child in primary school.

Currently he has published two short stories with Weaver Press and has a forthcoming collection of short stories. He is also working on a young adult fiction novel that he aims to have finished by December 2015.

‘Musoke’ was longlisted for the ABR Elizabeth Jolley short story contest.

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