In the morning, I went to the market, thinking that perhaps they might be selling fish. As I was driving down an empty street I spotted a green Land Rover behind me. It disappeared, but a minute later it was there again, and as it overtook me I caught a glimpse of Amin bent over the steering wheel. The Land Rover sped on ahead, passing a crossroads, where I lost sight of it. Even so, I swear I could actually hear him – could hear his laughter in fact, receding, just audible. Shortly after I came up behind a convoy of vehicles, moving slowly – open Jeeps and soldiers, all in helmets, aiming their rifles into the trees as they passed them. In the middle of the convoy I noticed Amin’s shiny Citroën-Maserati, and on the back seat there was the massive figure of an officer who I could tell had been shot – caught, no doubt, by a sniper.
In driving behind the convoy, I wanted to be very inconspicuous. In fact, from the moment I spotted Amin, I made a point of neither accelerating nor slowing down – no turning or stopping. It’s a well-known tactic: not to draw attention to yourself, to shrink to the size of a drop and sink into the ground. The eyes of these people are fixed, looking through the sights of their rifles, looking for a victim. In killing they seem to find an outlet, some kind of confirmation.
After some time – it seemed a frightfully long time – the convoy turned towards Naguru and I drove down to Kisenyi.
The reason I thought of buying fish was because it was Christmas Eve, and on Christmas Eve fish is the traditional supper in Poland. The idea was perhaps a little eccentric, but was one of a number of different tricks I kept trying to help me get by – to keep my mind intact. For that, you needed normality, a kind of ordinariness; you had to make yourself do the obvious things. As long as I can remember there had always been a golden brown, pungent fish on the table at supper on Christmas Eve. This alone accounted for my early morning expedition to the market in Kisenyi.
Kisenyi is the African heart of Kampala, an old crowded district, a city within a city. I used to walk around it dumbfounded by its improbably sharp colours and bewildering contrasts. I wandered, dazed, assaulted by a hundred strange, choking smells.
The district existed in a state of incessant excitement – restless, unaccustomed to sleep. In Kisenyi, people bustled round the clock, trading into the evenings, when the bars, decked out in crinkled paper, would fill up and the drinking would begin. There would be dancing and seduction; old scores between tribes would be paid and repaid relentlessly. In Kisenyi, you could buy anything at any time – in the small Indian shops or from the countless vendors circling around you. And then in the thousands of booths run by witch-doctors, soothsayers and magicians, you might lose everything. It was an exuberant world, magical and unique – a buzzing world whose orbit was somewhat crazy and unpredictable.
But now Kisenyi had lost its magic, its old deceitful charm, and had become gloomy, suspicious and aggressive. I came here apprehensive, unsure of what might happen. Walking down the street you might suddenly be hit in the face with a stone; you might be beaten, have your arms twisted violently behind your back; you might be robbed of everything. There were ferocious gangs: there were people trying to start a quarrel, looking for trouble.
Sometimes a few whites (only a few remained) came to Kisenyi, hoping to buy something to eat. I met Padre Eusebio, who came from the north where his mission had been burnt down and he had barely escaped with his life. I invited him to my Christmas Eve supper, gave him my address and directions. He took it all down and disappeared swiftly. Whites prefer not to talk in public places, not to gather in groups – a group arouses suspicions. Why are they standing here? What are they talking about? Who are they? Names. Addresses. Statements.
The market square: the heart of Kisenyi lost its colour a long time ago. Empty, broken-up stalls. Splintered boxes, torn sacks, bags. All over the enormous square there were bits of paper scattered by children and the wind. In the corner of the market, a few women had spread their wares on old sheets that were faded and worn – some tomatoes, bananas, nuts, eggs, which, a moment later, were all gone, stolen, grabbed up, amid people shouting and knocking each other on the head. Shortly, I would see the same people milling around the square, bored, aimless, waiting for a friend, or waiting to rob someone, or perhaps just waiting.
I thought of going home when the street that led to Lake Victoria suddenly resounded with the screams and shouts of children – lively, high-pitched voices that were at first distant and muffled, and then, as they approached, united into a rhythmic, joyful choir. I looked in its direction: a flock of barefoot, bedraggled children was running towards us, dancing, singing and clapping. In a second everyone woke up, became animated, interested. The procession, swinging back and forth in high spirits, marched into the square, chanting intently: ‘They’ve caught a fish! They’ve caught a fish!’
A lorry appeared, dripping with water as if it had just emerged from the bottom of the lake, and stopped amid the empty stalls that, now rusty, had once buckled under baskets of fish, shrimps, cephalopods and all manner of tangled and menacing heaps of frutti di mare. The fishy smell still lingered there. A few half-naked fishermen jumped down and, pushing back the gaping spectators, began to grapple with the gate at the back of the lorry. When they finally managed to unlock and let it down, we saw, on the bottom of the flatbed, a surprisingly large, fat fish. Its silver spine was covered by patches of seaweed and it had a white-grey, squabby stomach. It still had some signs of life, its mouth composing itself into a monstrous, inscrutable, moustached smile.
I thought that the crowd which immediately surrounded the lorry would burst out shouting and cheering and demand that the fish be cut up quickly, divided and sold (indeed, the fishermen started taking out axes and knives). But I was wrong – a deep silence fell over the square. I didn’t know what had happened; I glanced at the people standing around, at their black faces shining in the sun, composed, even tense. They stood, their eyes gazing intently at the fish, glittering, immobile, big as a mountain is big. They stood, staring at it, pondering how fat it was, how gigantic. Then someone in the crowd broke the silence. ‘Port Bell?’
One of the fishermen, straightening his back, replied: ‘Port Bell.’
They were terrible words, and a murmur passed over the square. Port Bell is one of the places where the torturers throw the bodies of those they’ve murdered; the lake where, after a night of terror, there is a floating cemetery, and where, afterwards, the fish feed.
In the silence that fell over the square everybody scrutinized the fish again as if, from its size, we might be able to deduce whether or not acts of repression were on the increase. We then heard the whine of an approaching lorry. An army squad was coming, attracted and made curious by the crowd that was filling and loitering around the square. Everybody was afraid of the soldiers, but there was nowhere to run; we could only stand and wait for whatever was going to happen. They arrived, jumped off their lorry and started towards the fishermen who, by now, were completely petrified.
The soldiers saw the fish. They liked it. They took a good look at it from all sides, nodded in approval and patted their bellies. They called over their driver, who then pulled up to the stall. We watched the fishermen who, prodded along by rifle butts, loaded the fish into the lorry. It kept slipping away, trying to fight, but was at last pushed deep into the back of the lorry. Then, suddenly, the people standing close to the lorry cried out. As the fish was pushed inside, the soldiers pulled out a corpse spattered with blood. We stared at it, wondering where the corpse was being taken – perhaps to be sold back to the family; trading in dead bodies was profitable –when it was dumped on the table that was still streaming with water.
They started to leave.
It was almost noon, already quite hot. The crowd stood dumbfounded and silent. Gradually it stirred. The square began to empty.
I drove back home the same way I had come. As I passed the road to Naguru, I met Amin’s convoy just as I had that morning, as if it had never moved, not knowing what to do next, or where to go.
Home was a flat on the first floor of a typical colonial villa. Nobody had lived on the ground floor since the Indians had been kicked out, although sometimes I would hear whispers, knocking, even loud voices. I did not know who was making himself heard.
The flat had four rooms: two unfurnished – I never looked in them. In the third room there was a large, rickety bed with a mosquito net that was pitched like a tent and full of holes. Whenever the mosquitoes or my burdensome tapeworm (I couldn’t get rid of it) allowed me, I slept there. The fourth room was the largest but also the emptiest. It had only one big table and two benches. The table was eight metres long, massive and heavy. It emanated a certain sense of solidity, durability, something that inspired trust. It often gave me support, physically and metaphysically. When I sat at that table I felt strong and safe. I was very attached to it; I had befriended it.
At one time my flat had been filled with hundreds of objects, but they were all stolen. It happened gradually, but the process was merciless. Each time I went on an assignment, my flat grew more spacious; on my return there would be fewer chairs (they were cheap but comfortable) or paintings (admittedly of little value) or clothes (in spite of the damp and mould, in good condition) or pots and pans. Everything disappeared: tables, cupboards, shelves and an Egyptian pouffe (very comfortable). Then the carpets, bedspreads, curtains and hangings went. There was now a space where once there had been the Hoover, the mixer and the fan. What pained me most was the loss of the record-player and records. Music disappeared. Half of my world disappeared. Everything that could be carried under the arm, on the head or the back was stolen. But still they treated me fairly and with kindness. They left me the table, the bed, the kitchen and the fridge. Others, returning from assignments, found they had nothing left, not even nails.
Sometimes, when they were evidently in a hurry, they didn’t wait for me to drive far away but burst into the flat as I was leaving, picking up whatever came into their hands. When I returned, I would find Huseini lying on the floor, stifled with a gag.
Huseini was my house boy. The only living being in the flat. There wasn’t much to say about him. He would come very early in the morning. I didn’t know where he used to come from; he never talked about it. He was small and very skinny, his biceps protruding from under his black skin like little restless knots. I think he had tuberculosis. Not long ago, I also had tuberculosis. I was thin, permanently sweaty with fever.
Huseini walked barefoot; he had short trousers with a hundred patches and a shirt that he had got from me. If he came half-naked, it meant that he had sold his last shirt (or that it had been stolen), and I would have to give him another one. It happened frequently. When it rained he came wrapped in a plastic sheet. It seemed to be the most expensive thing he owned. As soon as he arrived, he would climb to the top of the stairs and wait for the sun to rise above the hill called Mengo and then he would wake me up by knocking at the window. I would jump up from the bed and open the door for him. We would greet each other (in broken Swahili). Then he would go into the kitchen and make some tea. The tea was usually bitter because there was no sugar. He would put the cup on the table and without a word retreat into the kitchen.
With this he had exhausted his duties. He could then leave. In fact, he could stop coming altogether as I didn’t need him. But I couldn’t fire him because he would never get another job and he had a wife and many children to support. The point was that Huseini didn’t know that I couldn’t possibly throw him out into the street and so he tried to prove at all costs that he was indispensable. Immediately after making tea he would start tidying up. He swept, hoovered, polished the floor, scrubbed the bathroom and the stairs, washed the windows and the doors. He did all these things very noisily.
He wanted me, at all times, to hear how hard he was working. He would defrost the fridge every day. First he opened it and, with a gesture of helplessness, reproach and appeal, he showed me the inside of the fridge. I’d reply with exactly the same gesture – I know it’s empty but there is nothing to fill it with.
The only quiet days were when Huseini had an attack of malaria. Then he came weak, flabby, wet with sweat. He lay down in the kitchen and waited to feel better. I gave him aspirin. When I had an attack of malaria he behaved quietly. I got the impression that he was upset. Sometimes, when he had left I noticed a piece of paper discreetly left on the table: ‘Bwana Mkubwa, Kwa heshima nakuandikia barua nikiwa mtumi shi wako …’ I did not need to read further. These letters, written by a paid scribe, asked for the next, needless to say non-repayable, loan of money.
Huseini often brought various bits of news with him. They were tales of what happened yesterday in his neighbourhood, or of what he noticed on his way to my house. Frequently he told me that he had seen a dead body.
He didn’t know, he never asked.
Once he arrived dejected. Crushed. He sat down against the wall, stared ahead and fell silent. After many entreaties he finally told me what had happened. Yesterday, the soldiers had killed one of his children. It was a son. He was three, and his name was Obo.
Photograph © Nicole Hanusek