Kidogo was a hurricane; Sunshine, a pastor’s daughter. Both followed a strict diet of water, mandazies, Sunday School and each other’s secrets. They spoke, not with mouths, but with eyes. They were never alone with each other for more than 10 minutes at a time. They built a house out of clouds and would furnish it regularly.
Clouds were the only material capable of keeping them safe, Kidogo said. If they could make the sun absent for days on end, they could hide the two of them forever.
They always planned for eternity. Eternity did not come.
Sunshine had dark skin and the makings of a Good Wife. She always helped her mother in the kitchen. She was never late to bible study. She always smiled, even in pain. And she was good at noticing things.
For example, she knew how to wululu and throw herself around as if the spirit had caught her, because she noticed that every Sunday, those spirit catchers would be taken from the congregation to another room to calm down. And ‘calming down’ involved being in a room full of the fresh expensive fruit she wasn’t allowed to eat at home.
Or on the one occasion when she and Kidogo used mouths instead of eyes, the time when Sister Mary Margaret caught them, Sunshine noticed that she was expected to look at boys the way her eyes longed for Kidogo. And how, for a nun, Sister Mary Margaret kept her nails unusually long (about the length of the ‘harlot nails’ the Sunday School girls were never allowed to have) and those long nails left ugly crescent shaped scars in both of their arms when she pinched the two of them apart.
Or when she noticed she felt like a fresh bicycle tire, from the moment Kidogo’s mouth met hers. It was as if Kidogo’s lips pumped air into her chest, and she was full and new and ready to take on anything. She would feel this swollen for the rest of the week.
Sunshine lived in a house behind Namirembe Cathedral, at the bottom of the hill. It was a house that looked like it would one day grow into itself, but got tired and stopped. It was bare faced, a simple coat of what Sunshine believed used to be white paint, and a red corrugated steel roof. Two windows and the front door on one side, four windows at the back looking into the garden. The grass and the soil were always at war with each other. “It will bear fruit”, her mother swore, “if it is God’s will.” Sunshine wondered why God didn’t want them to enjoy flowers but never challenged her mother about it.
The house resembled Sunshine’s father, almost humble on the outside, full of almost useful things on the inside. There were plastic and wooden dining chairs around a glass dining table that nobody ever ate at; a spare bedroom for guests that her mother used more often than the room she shared with her father; kitchen cupboards stocked with old bread and no butter, and her older brother’s bedroom – which had been vacant since baserikale marched into the house to collect him two years ago. Her mother would still wait for them to bring him back.
Kidogo’s auntie’s wails could be heard in heaven and hell. She was a professional complainer. Everything was a problem and everything was her business.
“Go and get the good plates. Taata Matiya will be here any minute now,” she bellowed in English. She would only speak in English when she knew the neighbours were listening or when she had important guests. Kidogo’s grandfather left her auntie the house when he died and nobody could understand why. She barely had contact with the rest of the family and there were rumours that she fled to Kigali with a married man after she finished her O-level exams. She only reappeared around the time that Kidogo’s mother fell ill. The rumour then, was that the married man got fed up and sent her back. Kidogo knows the real reason was that her mother was dying, and Auntie Lydia wanted the gold pieces she owned. The gold pieces Kidogo’s father gave her mother; the fruit of his labour in the army. Little did she know that she would inherit Kidogo instead.
“Why does he need the good plates? He’s not God.”
Kidogo had a wicked tongue reserved for everyone but Sunshine.
“No, but he is a man of God.”
“So? Aren’t we all God’s children?”
“He was chosen to spread the word – he was given special insight into the inner workings of God’s world. Of God’s will!” Auntie Lydia increased her volume whenever she used excessive vocabulary.
“So, God has favourites? That still has nothing to do with our plates.”
“Ono omwana antamyee.” Kidogo knew that she’d worn Auntie Lydia down whenever she referred to Kidogo in third person. Who else could she be talking to? It was only the two of them in the house.
She actually didn’t have a problem with Pastor Matiya. After all, his visit meant that Sunshine would come too. He would come with biscuits as an ‘act of kindness’ which was really an act of badly shielded courtship between him and Auntie Lydia. And when they would go into Auntie Lydia’s room for ‘one-on-one fellowship’, Kidogo and Sunshine could have their ten minutes.
“Just get the plates. Musiru.”
Auntie Lydia had been receiving regular ‘prayer visits’ from Pastor Matiya ever since she went to church in a dress with a suspicious hemline. When she told Kidogo that she wore it because she was looking for a husband, Kidogo didn’t realise she meant somebody else’s. The rumours concerning the suspicious hemline floated through the congregation like incense; Lydia Ssanyu was cheap, Lydia Ssanyu was addicted to sex, Lydia Ssanyu was a malaaya. Then Lydia Ssanyu caught the spirit and Pastor Matiya escorted her out of the room…
Kidogo set the table with the good plates, another heirloom her grandfather mysteriously left to Auntie Lydia, and left the room. All the ugliness that led to her being called “musiru” almost distracted her from her excitement that Sunshine would be near her again.
Strong-willed as Kidogo was, there was nothing Sunshine could want that Kidogo wasn’t willing to give her. The other Sunday School girls nicknamed her Police. And Police was not a pole woman. She thought dresses were a waste of time. Her words cut the fat off meat. She never liked to share. Until one Sunday, the 11th of May 1980, at exactly twelve minutes past midday, she spotted a girl in a nice dress looking directly at her. Sister Mary Margaret was lamenting about how girls who wear trousers would never find good husbands. Normally, Kidogo would remark about how odd it was for a woman with no husband to concern herself with the future spouses of 14 year old girls. But that day, all she could focus on was the girl in the green floral dress; how her cheeks were full and smooth like ripe passionfruit and her bible was neatly covered in brown packing paper.
Kidogo’s eyes danced between at her own naked, neglected bible and the ripe cheeked girl and started to sweat. Why was she looking so much? What was she looking for? Kidogo attempted to listen to the rest of Sister Mary Margaret’s ‘lesson’ as a distraction. When they were dismissed, the girl in the nice dress introduced herself.
“My name. It’s Sunshine.”
“Oh.” Kidogo frantically reached into her pocket and pulled out the tissue-wrapped mandazi she’d been saving for her walk home.
“Here.” She handed the first bite to Sunshine.
She decided, there and then, that she would give Sunshine the first bite of everything for as long as she lived.
“Taata Matiya! Eh! Life in the glory of Katonda has really made you handsome.”
“Weebale Lydia, thank you for opening your…home to me again.”
Kidogo walked over to the door and watched Auntie Lydia smile with all of her teeth and gums. No suspicious hemline on this occasion but a neckline plunging low enough to greet her navel. And enjoying the view was Pastor Matiya, in his humble designer shirt and un-ironed trousers,
They say that Mama Tendo, Sunshine’s mother, stopped doing Pastor’s Matiya’s ironing – or any chore for him – after Tendo was taken. That the spirit of grief robbed her of the ability to properly run a home. That when baserikale took Tendo, they took her beauty also. There were even rumours that she refused to bathe. She did not want to wash her memory of him away. And she would come to church in a confused busuuti, with the sash untied, drooping, collecting Kampala’s dust. She was in church less and less and less – eventually she stopped going altogether. They say Mama Tendo had forgotten God. And how improper it was for a Pastor to have an ungodly woman! So Pastor Matiya found a godly woman in Lydia.
“Jude! Nice to see you again. How are the studies?”
Kidogo never responded whenever he called her by that name. Whenever anybody called her by that name. It did not belong in anyone’s mouth.
“You don’t know how to greet?” Auntie Lydia snipered.
“I didn’t think he was talking to me.” Before Auntie Lydia’s anger could boil over, Kidogo added “Welcome, Pastor. The studies are fine.”
“Habari gani! You know your father was Tanzanian?” as if Kidogo was unaware. “Honour thy father. Carry his language with you everywhere you go.”
Kidogo was burning. Sunshine stepped out from behind her Pastor Matiya to quench the fire. She was masterful with her interference; “yes, Taata. Very wise” and “Oli Otya, Auntie Lydia? You are looking well” and “I’ll make sure we finish all of our homework while both of you are in fellowship.” She reached into her bag and handed Auntie Lydia the packet of biscuits that her father customarily brought on each visit and led everyone into the living room.
That was Kidogo’s favourite thing about Sunshine, how easy it was for her to diffuse a bomb.
Like clockwork, the four of them sat around the living room table pretending to pray while Auntie Lydia and Pastor Matiya used the moment as foreplay. Sunshine and Kidogo knew the routine: What are we praying for today, We’re praying for good health and longevity, Mmm longevity, And stamina, Mmm very important, We are also praying for our spiritual leaders and that they may help us reach the climax, Mmm, of our faith in God and help us stay there, Amiina. Then Auntie Lydia would bring up a vague unnamed concern, something she could not share with the children but was extremely imperative that it was dealt with immediately – all while trying to stop herself from panting. Pastor Matiya would then stand up, point in the direction of the bedroom while assuring Auntie Lydia not to be discouraged because there nothing that rigorous praise and worship could not help. Then they would burrow away like rabbits. Never any different.
“Shame and those two are complete strangers,” Sunshine chuckled. “So, Jude, why didn’t I see you at bible study last week?”
A smile erupted through Kidogo’s face. She was completely disarmed by Sunshine.
“Did you miss me?”
And they were in the clouds, their eyes finding no interest in anything but one another. Sunshine felt her chest swelling. Her time in the clouds with Kidogo always felt electric. There was no cluttered house or Sunday school or whimpering mother or ghost brother. There was only Kidogo.
And all the things about her that Sunshine liked to observe. Kidogo’s short jet-black hair and soft brown skin. How Kidogo was actually soft all over. Her face at rest was very delicate. She always smelled like Cussons Imperial Leather. And her hands, like water, took the shape of anything that held them. And her hands slipped easily into Sunshine’s. She remembered the softness of Kidogo’s lips, from the time their mouths met, and wanted to feel that softness again. For eternity. So she leaned in closer and Kidogo leaned in closer and mouths were reacquainted and it was soft and glorious but –
Eternity did not come.
“What do you think you are doing? Are you sick? Both of you, are you sick?”
Kidogo and Sunshine flew apart like shrapnel.
“You think this is right? You think doing that with her is right? Instead of bringing top exam marks into my house, you are bringing sin? Into my house? Your grandfather’s house? This is who you are becoming, a sinner in your grandfather’s house?”
Auntie Lydia charged into the living room, vibrating with disgust. She was too angry to notice that her skirt was on backwards. Pastor Matiya simmered behind her.
“She is a Pastor’s daughter, child of the chosen. This is what you do to the chosen? Ssetaani! I knew there was something wrong with you. I knew you were a curse. What kind of demon does a child have to be for both the parents to choose death over them? Taking care of you made your mother sick! You killed her. You’re a curse. I did not come back to raise a curse –
“Sunshine. Let’s go.” Pastor Matiya’s voice thundered so loudly, it bent the walls.
He was so militant, the way he bulldozed past Auntie Lydia, the way he extracted Sunshine from the room – from Kidogo, the way he took her and never looked back. Sunshine watched him transform in front of her eyes. Suddenly, he was the men who took Tendo. Those who take and take and take. Who settle for nothing less than a pound of flesh. Men who listened to battle-cries as lullabies.
“You think that just because you are named after a man, you should behave like one? Musiru.” By now, Auntie Lydia was so loud she could wake the dead. The neighbours gathered in droves, like ants to sugar. Rats to poison.
“That foolish muserikale. Foreign muserikale. I can guarantee you father’s people are witches. He named you after him so you can continue his legacy of omen. Ati Jude. I did not come back to raise a curse!”
The neighbours swarmed down on Kidogo, some praying, some whipping, some spitting, to expel her soul from her body.
She shrank and waited for the ground to cradle her.
Years later, Sunshine will marry a Forgettable Man. White rice and no stew. She will be a good wife. One who will work hard in the kitchen. Who will lead bible study. Smile, even in pain. And be good at pretending.
For example, she will pretend that she is not just like her mother, in the confused busuuti, searching for the God she lost.
And she will pretend not to feel punctured each time her mouth is burdened with meeting anyone else’s.
And she will pretend that she does not think of Kidogo every day, every night and every moment in between. And pretend not to miss her. And pretend that hearing the news that Kidogo joined her mother and father in the clouds did not completely flood her and leave her shipwrecked. She will smile, pretending that she does not wish she could also go to where Kidogo is.
She will not feel swollen, but oozing.
And she will ooze and ooze and ooze until she is a cloud herself.
Maxine Sibihwana (@maxinethepoet) is a Ugandan poet and writer based in London. She seeks to connect her historical heritage with her contemporary self by responding to African proverbs with a focus on relationships, the home, religious rituals, love, as well as exploring queerness. She recently started a Masters in creative writing at Cambridge University and has read her work at festivals such as Last Word at the Roundhouse, Erase Erase Erupt, Hay Festival, Brainchild, Latitude Festival and The London Literary Festival.
Related country: Uganda