This essay was first published in the Kalahari Review platform on 25th December 2019.
“Away in a manger;
No Crib for a bed.
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.
The cattle were lowing, the baby awakes
But little lord Jesus, no sound that he makes.
The little lord Jesus,
asleep in the hay.”
Reality is a woolly tablecloth of lumpy memories. Non-fiction comprises highly polished glimmers of dull fact gleaned from faulty memories. As we age, the reservoir of important events grows deeper, throwing the greater part of our childhood down a bottomless pit. Try as I may, this is all I remember of the Christmas hymn I learned in kindergarten, a song I hollered through the corridors that Christmas season until my family considered throwing me down a well.
Growing up, Christmas crept up on school-going children in October while we did our third terms, praying for a promotion to the next class. Philly Lutaaya’s Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-rias heated up the battery-powered radios mid-November alongside loud advertisements of Christmas bivvulu¹ long before our holidays. As December began, we skipped cheerfully to the market on our errands hoping to win the biggest balloon off the infamous balloon chart. To this day, I wonder how those shopkeepers rigged that raffle to dupe us into picking the tiniest ones.
As the festivity set in, so did the season of butchering Christmas songs on the radio. “Mary’s boyfriend…!” I sang along to Boney M, “Was born on Christmas daayyy! Emmanuel lives forevermore because of Christmas day!”
At ours, Christmas was all about the kakomera². I would watch my sisters scouring the neighborhood for a brawny person to snag a tree from the roadside. This only happened in cases where Daddy wormed his way out of chopping the tree for us himself.
Making its entrance on the back of a huffing man, the tree always dripped purple seeds all over the carpet. We would prop it in a bucket half-filled with water, injuring our arms on its rough and sappy bark. Eventually, it would comply, leaning sullenly against a stained white wall. We would then start scratching through the store for whichever decorations had survived Mum’s spring-cleaning. Upon completing the short exercise of draping battered pieces of tinsel, shiny strings of undulating shiny paper and toilet paper (in the poorer days), we would test the lights. If we were lucky, they would blink feebly to the silent tune of “We wish you a Merry Christmas”.More often than not, they were stone dead every time we flipped on the switch on 24th December. Standing back to admire our lopsided handiwork, I never noticed that it resembled a casualty patched up with glittery bandages and a stray eclair. To me, this was as good as snow. Over the years, Cypress trees in our neighborhood have gone extinct owing to deforestation and trespass laws.
Every Christmas as a child, I looked forward to sleigh bell infused jingles and the Coca-Cola advertisement on WBS television with Santa Claus’s face laughing at the back of a train as voices hummed:
It beats my understanding how any African daughter in this stubbornly patriarchal society could love Christmas after all the slogging my sisters and I did to cook the Christmas buffet. My mother saved all her energy for Christmas having resolved never to touch a stove on workdays after she bore four daughters. Every Christmas she cooked her specialty, groundnut luwombo³.
Mum made it our tradition to slave away in the smoky kitchen until Daddy returned from prayers. The moment he did, we would race to the bathroom to wash the ash from our bodies and hair before setting the table for Christmas lunch. Our Mum firmly believed that good girls sat on the floor, their legs neatly tucked under them (possibly in training for the homes of our prospective husbands who she must have imagined would have no chairs). In our petticoat government, what Mum mumbled in her sleep became as binding as an Act of Parliament and therefore we dutifully complied — most of the time.
However, on Christmas, she reluctantly allowed us to be mannerless wenches, sitting as comfortably as you please beside Daddy (the man) at the table.
On Christmas evening, after our parents retired to their room to converse about things we could never fathom, we four would turn on the video decoder which Daddy managed to borrow for us once a year. The most dangerous thing about childhood is the malleability of our minds. How easily children accept the most outlandish of realities! Daddy could have told me that he stole that gadget and I would still have loved him.
Our Christmas movies each year were Terminator 2, Home Alone 1 and an Indian movie about a man whose dog avenged his death. The last one starred a villain who we named Serekaani. Thinking back now, I believe his name might have been Sarkar, a Hindi word for master…but who knows?
We hated Serekaani for his murderous, kohl-lined eyes. From Serekaani, I realized that children need to recognize despicable traits in human beings, to know and despise evil, and to mark the depths to which they hope never to sink. As I wrote this, I googled him and discovered that his real name was Amrish Puri.
When Mum fell sick, I could no longer wake up shrieking Joy to The World on Christmas morning. Suddenly, Christmas meant throwing ourselves into chores, skirting the topic of her pain. We still slogged in the kitchen until Daddy came home, pretending we did not see how much effort it took Mum to fold pleats in the banana leaves for the luwombo. How could I have comprehended as a child that there was such a thing as forced cheer?
One Christmas, too weak to get out of bed, she did not make the luwombo.
The next Christmas she bowed out of our family festivities finally retiring from her pain. Mum was the sort of woman who Death should have been terrified of and yet…
Watching Daddy mourning Mum, I learned that grief could make a person evaporate leaving his skin and clothes behind as evidence of his beating heart. The first Christmas without Mum, we tiptoed around a skeletal shadow of our father. He could not even get his buttons into the right holes. Slaving away in the kitchen just as we had done before, we even replicated Mum’s luwombo. Nevertheless, we failed to recreate her indomitable strength, her large engulfing aura and her traditional Christmas tantrum. How could we hope to fill the vast hole created in a domestic universe when the mother and wife leaves?
That December, instead of getting a kakomera, we bought an artificial tree and on New Year’s Day, we had only one parent to shake out of his bed to hear the fireworks exploding somewhere in the neighbourhood. Before 2013, we had burned our trees in our compound on New Year’s Eve. This odd ceremony had represented a purging of the previous year’s malignance. However, the law had forbidden that too therefore, New Year’s Day, 2014 came in unburned like a vacant-eyed stuffed animal.
When the New Year rolled around, hardly glimpsing at the racing clocks, we waded trance-like through life only taking the dusty synthetic tree from our sitting room table on the 1st day of May.
By the time Christmas jogged in in the year 2016, Mum had been gone for three years and Daddy, perfecting the ruse of being alive had gained most of his weight back. That day, we ate too much food and sat lethargically in the sitting room, on the ground as Mum had trained us to. Mum, by now, had crystallized into the Ghost of Christmas forevermore. Working in my first real job, I took a lot of pride in buying Daddy the first gift I had ever bought him with money that was solely mine. When he caught me red-handed wrapping it for him, I handed it over sheepishly and saw him valiantly battling the moisture in his eyes. Afterwards, the four of us sat outdoors in the ticklish grass playing with a cheap deck of cards, the house cat looking disdainfully at the pointless exercise.
That evening, the family went for a walk around the neighborhood. Strolling down the deserted suburban street, I handed Daddy my bubble-blower. He quickly got into the swing of how it worked and blew bubbles towards the sky. One large bubble flew so high that he gaped, bubble-blower mid-air, watching it rise over the treetops. I could see him hoping against all ludicrous hope that maybe his would be the first bubble to live past its prime.
When it burst, he was crushed.
Turning off the lights in the sitting room that night, we huddled around one DELL laptop in our faux leather beige sofa, watching The Gods Must Be Crazy parts one and two. Daddy laughed uncontrollably at the main character’s abominable flirting skills in part two. As we watched the movie, I drew a mental sketch in which I would stop my nuclear family as each one walked to their respective rooms. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself hugging them tightly and telling them that I loved them. I had recognized that human beings imagine that the people close to them are aware of their importance in their lives. We believe that our love for people close to us is as evident to them as their reflection in our eyes.
That night, as my family members moved off to their respective rooms, I hugged each one tightly and with a cowardly pause said, “Goodnight.”
The next year in August, Daddy joined our mother.
After he left us, I forgot how to take selfies. I lost the knack for smiling in photos and real life. Often, I would slip into bathrooms and stare at my reflection wondering where I had gone and how to get myself back. Growing up, I had taken pride in my ability to bottle my emotions, mastering the kind of secrecy, which involved hiding my darkest truths from my own diary. Sometimes, we believe that in keeping our hearts locked and bracing ourselves against emotion, there will be nothing to lose — no heartache. In 2017, everything I had spent decades hiding tore out of me. It felt as though instead of living, I swam nose-deep in a dark and sticky substance every day.
Each year, just as I tried to rebuild my faith in happiness, somebody who I had considered part of the fabric of my world would suddenly depart.
The year 2017 was a year of false starts, of desperately trying to believe in love and capsizing under disillusionment. I had swallowed too much — grief, unemployment, loss, and the most deep-seated heartache. Burning my tongue on their acrid taste, I became a shadow of myself. I recognized that like my father, I tended to place too much hope in the longevity of bubbles.
When the precious bubbles I blew into the sky burst into nothingness in 2017, I was crushed.
In June 2017, I had asked my father, “Daddy, why does God throw more pain at you when you show Him that you are strong enough to take it? Is it so wrong to be strong?”
All I remember is his sad, knowing smile. The rest of his answer is buried too far in my own memory for me to retrieve it.
On the last day of that grueling year, without Daddy to talk me back from my bouts of self-pity, justified and otherwise, I felt life crushing my shoulders. Living in a household that is in mourning, you are hesitant to load your woes upon people whose experience resembles yours. Therefore, silently, my sisters and I sat beside each other bearing our prisons like the women Mum had raised us to be, breaking down guiltily when nobody was watching at the crushing weight of the word ‘orphan’.
By the time December knocked on our doorstep in 2017, we had run out of holiday spirit. That Christmas, breaking our kitchen tradition, we locked the house and left the ghosts of Christmases past to dance where we could not see them.
Watching night fall on the 31st day of December, 2017, I recalled how hard I’d strived not to buckle under the weight of my grief. Guiltily, I remembered Daddy’s childish enthusiasm, how he had lived four more decades than I had still believing that happiness hid in the smallest blade of grass.
On that December night in 2017, I thought of my parents who had lived through wars, how they narrated to us the fear of fireworks for the first years of peace in Uganda — how the fireworks in India nearly gave some people cardiac arrests. They had lost countless loved ones to the Reaper and had still dared to pursue happiness.
Without letting myself overthink my decision, I hopped onto a motorcycle and headed to a supermarket. Standing in its parking lot, I heard the frothing mass of revelers angered by the delay of the artists, Mowzey Radio and Weasel who were supposed to perform there that night. Sitting at the entrance was a man hunched over an organ, playing Christmas carols. Nobody stopped by to give him any money for his art. Not even me. Walking past him, I bought a bottle of Fanta and one of Mirinda Fruity.
I hesitated before crossing the road that night, worried that a car would hit me in an anticlimactic turn of events. Loss hurts so much that all through 2017, I had started to believe it would kill me in the street — that one of those days my heart would give in to the burning, kneading, tearing pressure as I sat in a taxi to work.
However, Grief, I came to learn, is merely Love painted black. True, it pushes you to the brink and swings your feet over the ledge. It shows you great views of hell. In some crazy instances, it drives you to seek pain and punishment just to prove to yourself that you can still feel or to chastise yourself for having been susceptible to Life’s lies. Grief will take you to the gun shop but it will not buy you that gun and it will not pull that trigger because Grief is just love with its claws unsheathed.
Two years ago, I learned that human beings are made of stronger stuff than they believe and that a heart containing the smallest shred of Love can withstand more darkness than any shadow Grief casts over it. With time and encouragement, especially the kind that comes from deep within us, Love emerges out of Grief’s shade. Remembering that its true essence is light, Love inevitably illuminates the deepest crevices of every shredded heart.
On the last day of 2017, I placed the bottle of Mirinda Fruity on the dining room table with two long-stemmed glasses. The house was too quiet and only my sister S and I had resisted the urge to wander into the feverish night looking for a distraction. We had decided to face the silence, our greatest tormentor — to celebrate our exhausting journey through the marshes of grief.
Sitting at the dining table with rusty smiles, we looked uncertainly into the front camera of my TECNO phone and posed for a selfie. The resulting photograph showed only our teeth glowing through the darkness.
We did not take another.
As we filled the glasses with soda, the fireworks began outside. With no parents to shake out of their beds — to warn them that a New Year was upon us — we unbolted the door and ran outside.
Because a new hotel had sprung up in the neighborhood, we did not just hear the exploding lights this time. We saw them.
Barefoot in our father’s compound, we raised the glasses Mum kept only for visitors to the noisy sky and ushered 2018 in.
1. Music shows
2. Cypress Tree
3. The word luwombo is derived from a local language in Uganda (Luganda) meaning food steamed in banana leaves. Luwombo dish can be for chicken, beef, groundnuts or vegetables that is wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed.