“I dream of a world where chickens can cross the road without having to be questioned.”
IBRAHIM “SOULÓ” BALUNYWA
Chapter 1: Growing Up
“You were different, you always cared about others,” Uncle Richard.
Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.
Maybe I just knew how to put on a show… It’s something I can’t really honestly diagnose because I’ve since buried a portion of my childhood memories. Its a symptom of what I like to call the “middle child syndrome.”
Doesn’t mean Uncle Richard’s phrase didn’t stick though.
I come from a family of ten. it’s not as tough as you might think, being squashed right in the middle of such a crowd. Some people have bigger. I’d say we are okay. I’m the fifth born and I stand right in between two girls. Amina is the younger one, the one I can kick ass for and Maya is the elder that always looked out for me.
You’ll meet the rest along the way.
My earliest memory is of attending a kindergarten called Sunshine. One of the first, most vivid memories of all is the aroma of fresh bread, passion fruit and Blue Band spread that would smother my nostrils every time I opened my packed breakfast when at school. The scent of passion fruit is guaranteed even now to take me back to those days.
I also remember vividly this one girl I had crush on. Her name echoes in my mind like a whale’s sonar. She was a dark beauty and it’s no wonder I have a thing for dark skinned girls. Alas I enrolled into Aga Khan soon after that… her role in my life was brief if curiously everlasting.
Aga Khan Primary School was pretty much down the hill from Sunshine Kindergarten and our home. I remember crying all through the morning the day my mum left me alone in a class full of strangers. The teacher was female, an Indian. She must have been a good one because from my Aga Khan days, friends and teachers of Indian descent have been a large part of what has shaped me.
Being in a school like Aga Khan had its perks, we had chips for lunch (I love chips), and I got to study with the King of Toro himself. They even made us take those fancy colonial-sque photos with him seated in the middle like a chief while the rest of us crowded around. It was many years later, looking at those school photos that I realized the power of royalty. He had the worst hand writing though, there was nothing royal about the way he wrote. That I’ll never forget.
I was the shortest in class, and was always given oversize clothes. We call them “mwanaakula,” meaning growing child clothes. My shorts overlapped when I wore my belt. I never grew into them and so all my photos look odd and disturbing. The right hand of my sweater was always patched at the edge from me chewing on it. It was something that happened every time I felt bored, which was a lot. Perhaps I had some strange deficiency. Who goes around chewing sweaters, sponges and those green bathroom scrubs? I remember Mum walking up on me during a chewing session and barking,
“IWE! Olikulyaki? What are you eating!” Then she smacked it out of my mouth.
It was disturbing, the tingly sensation I’d get whenever I’d see a chewable sponge or piece of cloth. I used to rub my tongue over my teeth all the time to remind myself not to put anything inside my mouth. I only stopped many years later when I realized I had sort of injured my tongue.
We lived in a flat just opposite Makerere University. My father taught there. It was fun growing up in a flat environment and having multiple kids to play with; I believe it made for a good atmosphere for upbringing. We would play football in the field by the fence that enclosed the apartment complex. Smoke from burning rubbish often infiltrated the air. We played indoors as friends when we visited each others’ homes. They are all grown up now. I look back at our childhood photos and reminisce over us young and mischievous, like crooks with a few teeth missing, not a single care in the world.
Birthdays were fun; really fun. Rashid, my elder brother always reminds me of my comic dialogue on most of my birthdays, I don’t know if I’d be chest and chin up with a mean attitude whenever I insisted,
“Nze ndi musada, ndi musada, I’m a man!
I hated being teased and thrown around but I was so light they’d literally play catch with me. Naturally I cultivated this crazy obsession with manhood. It was only later in life that I realized manhood is not what it appears to be at first glance.
Having two actively working parents was hard. They were never home. Today when I see my niece cry as her mum leaves, it reminds me of how I used to stand on the stairway leading from our flat down to the parking lot and cry my heart out when Mum left.
I’ve grown up since then. It was a long time ago.
Chapter 2: “Hajji”
Before Mum met Dad, she’d had Fiona, our eldest sister. To me, Fiona is the perfect description of cool. I remember this time one day we were out hanging at a place called the Mad Hatters in Bugolobi. It was one of those nice days you never plan for that just end up being fun. That night I had been eyeing this girl with kinky natural hair that bounced off her head and made the golden highlights within look like they sparkled. She was beautiful, like she had been pulled out of all an Instagram filters and into real life. I was drawn to her but felt like she was out of my league. Fiona noticed me catching consistent glimpses and so just before she left, waited for the girl to come walking by us; Fiona suddenly went –
“Hi, I am Fiona. I hope you don’t mind my asking, but how old are you?”
The girl was struck by her boldness and had no other option but to come through with a response. I don’t remember what she said but after she spoke Fiona simply said;
“Meet my brother…”
And like that walked off and entered her car!
Nothing good transpired of that short lived fancy but there you have it. That is our Fiona for you. I easily forget she’s many years older than I am. Her and Mum are close friends. Mum insists that Fiona is more of dramatic than anything else. I don’t know about that.
Mum is cool too. They are quite similar actually. Mum is so cool it’s strange. Here’s one thing she would do that can illustrate this for you. She would apologize for waking you up after a long night out. Mum had always been very casual about us partying out late, and always preferred that we come back in the morning because it was safer. So say you’d gotten back and she maybe needed the keys to the car; she’d knock at your door and say something like,
“Sorry for waking you, I heard you come back around five. Don’t worry, I just want the keys.”
And every time she would do that, I would lay back and wonder. I knew she had every right to ask me whose house it was I thought I could walk into at that sort of hour. Or who I thought I was to be sleeping at 2p.m. Heck! She could have dragged me out the bed by the leg if she wanted to. She didn’t, which to me is absolutely amazing.
Unlike some parents who are always tough around their children, our mother was generally happy and light- hearted. She still is. It is a thing I admire about her. I believe that is what is going to keep her spot in Heaven reserved.
She’s not an Angel though. Those of us who know her will testify. She makes some of the off-est comments ever. I’ve heard her say things and thought to myself, ‘woman I do not know you anymore.’ But I am only painting for you who she is as a human being, what she is like takes nothing away from her good nature.
Mum got to working in her mid- twenties right after her first university degree; she got a good slot in the bank where she has Worked – Her – Whole – LIFE!! (smacks face!) I don’t know how she has managed to pull it off! She is now officially retired. Hopefully going to venture into something more adventurous.
Mum and Dad were acquaintances from Namasagali College. They run into each other on duty in the bank, things got rosy, and three kids later we sifted through life’s sieve and moved from “rags” to riches. We moved from staying in “the Makerere flats to living up town in upper Kololo. If grass is greener on the other side, we had finally made it to the other side.
Life happened and the two separated. Dad moved to many other places after that. Before I left his van, we were like trailer pack hippies except with designated destinations. Mum moved to Ntinda for a short while then transferred to her home in Bunga where we now stay. For the longest time, she had been taking care of three homes. The other two were in Jinja where she had been placed by the bank, and another in Kamuli where her father lives. That’s how her nickname “Hajji” came about. I am sure you can see why.
I have spent much more time with Mum on a personal level and she knows me better than my dad probably does. I remember when it was time for me to join high school, it was Dad that made the choice. That day comes back to me so vividly. We had just come back from a trip to the US and that afternoon, jet-lagged with my eyes looking like I had just lost a fight, he said to me,
“Get ready! We have to get a place for you in Kibuili.”
At that point in time I didn’t know that was going to be a momentary ride through hell, I casually threw my bones into some clothes and hopped into the roller-coaster. After all, my elder brothers were “anti-kabazi,” They had made it through the school from S.1 to S.6 without repeating a class. They had survived the axe.
So I dressed up, got into the car and we made our way. Once we got there, we went into the dean’s office. They traded pleasantries for a little while, then got down to brass tacks. Sure enough, I got the place. I started school the next day.
That was when all Hell broke loose.
That morning, my first day, I slept on top of a three decker bed. The dormitory was packed to the brim. Deep in sleep, the sound of a blasted speaker from the mosque in the middle of the dormitory quadrangle went off from just outside my window!
“ttuu, tuuu.” Feedback went off as the system stabilized. In Kibuli they call Adhan at four a.m. It felt like it was Judgment Day and I was being summoned to the sinners queue. I couldn’t believe it. I was the first to get up because I was not accustomed to the sound, having been among the last students to join senior one, everyone else had already settled in. I got up and made my way to the bathroom. Now the cold shower was bad enough, but it was not the biggest issue. The issue was the hygiene in the bathrooms. Our mother is a neat and orderly housekeeper and this was the sort of situation that I, to say the least, was not used to. I’d later come to cope but my mind would need to go through an initial phase of mental rape before I could adjust. So after I had gone through my day’s first (later to be regular) daily dose of mental abuse, I took the shower and started my day.
Before the clock had struck midday, our Arabic teacher passed our class, it was buzzing as loud as a taxi park. I was seated quietly looking all round like the newcomer I was, observing the rest of the forty plus students going at it. The man walked in and gave us each two swift strokes of his special cane. That was the first time I had ever been caned in my life, though there were many more strokes I was to receive in those two years I was there.
My brother Lukman later came to class and scared most of the potential bullies. I was short and small and I suspect he saved me from a lot of things that were surely bound to happen. Luckily, I met one of my good friends Big Bas from Aga Khan in the same class which kind of cheered things up for me.
My health started deteriorating; I was often let out on a medical gate pass but would heal once I got home (ahem!). Mum had started visiting every two weeks to check my notes because I had been snitched on for not taking notes in class. The warden loved breathing down my neck.
“You, Balunywa! Olina ekyejo.” which when loosely translated equates to me being a spoilt and pampered child.
Two years later, I was asked to repeat S.2, the kabazi (axe) had come my way. Mum wouldn’t let that happen. Greenhill, the neighboring school had just set up a boarding section, I pitched the idea of joining to her, she bought it and my life changed a whole lot soon after. I started performing better, my health picked up and I was generally in a better mental space. I learnt there that places can either make you or break you. Kibuli kept breaking me.
Greenhill… The thought of it puts a smile on my face. It had distinct individuals from very different places unlike Kibuli which didn’t have as much variety. I was from Aga Khan, so going from there to Kibuli was a strange transition. Greenhill felt a little relatable and I adjusted much faster.
Every environment we visit has the different impact of different people. Greenhill exposed me to peer pressure like any other school would at such a ripe adolescent age. This of course involved drugs and alcohol. We had day scholars that smuggled in these goodies for the boarding students at our time. It was good business. It also showed that you had friends who were willing to take that bullet for you. This involved bringing you a tot pack or two, maybe placing a bet for you at the sports betting centre, and buying you chewing gum to start your day. Aside from food, these were the things of highest demand to boarding students.
I would always get chewing gum. My friends would order and they’d never leave me with my jaws idle, I would be offered a pellet or two, unless I didn’t want. Then came the days when my hands got acquainted with liquor. That episode ended with tears in my Mum’s eyes…
My friend was either going through something, or hes was bored because these Greenhill students were not as adventurous as the kids from his old school. He was from Vienna. Let’s call him Randall. I don’t know when and how Randall made his order but as we laid back in dorm that evening after prep, he pulled them out and asked,
“Do you want some?”
It was a chilled polythene bag of Uganda Waragi. That was the first night I tasted its bitter sting. I squeezed the tot pack into my mouth and in that instant felt a burn, a rush as the liquor run through my veins and minutes later, I was in the attic where we had our prep dancing to the then famous song by Soulja Boy “Superman.” It played off those infamous hand-held radios we used to call scanners. They were illegal in most schools but ubiquitous because that was almost the only way high school kids everywhere could catch soccer games.
So the song played and as I danced I sang,
“Soulja boy up in this oooo, superman up in this b***, watch me crank it watch me do it. Now watch me…”
I loved that silly song sober or drunk, and that night I released my inhibitions. The next morning while everyone was focused and alert, we were hangover. It was bad. But that was not the end.
Day two and two tot packs down the road. There was radio but we had invisible cards this time. Randall this time round was playing spectator while me and another friend of ours played.
We were placing bets even.
“I’ve played A diamonds” I said. Our words were giving life to the cards, you must understand. “Okay…” My friend responded, rocking back and forth upon the metal suitcase on which he sat. “What are you asking for?”
“Give me hearts.” I said.
Randall was having the time of his life laughing at us. This game went back and forth for some time. I remember it ended with us placing bets on who would get some two younger girls. That determined the winner. A drunk man’s actions are indeed a sober man’s thoughts. Those girls came up because we both liked them and the next day, we actually started our pursuits. That night ended with us in the showers singing at the top of our lungs,
“FATHER ABRAHAM HAD MANY SONS, MANY SONS, SONS, SONS, HAD FATHER ABRAHAM!I AM ONE OF THEM! AND SO ARE YOU, SO LET US…”
All of a sudden, I was the only one singing,
“left hand, right hand…
“How come you guys are quiet?” then
“WHAM!” I felt cold water smack on my back from out of nowhere. When I turned to look, it was the warden. He didn’t know we were high as eagles. For him that was the end of that. But I don’t remember feeling a thing. As soon as he walked out, we turned off the showers and walked out snickering like hyenas. I went to bed that night feeling like I was balancing atop my head with my feet in the air.
We took a break from the tot packs for a few days so day three came a while later. That night Randall suggested we escape from school and go to Garden City. There was a rooftop bar there that was trending. I had never been there, I had never even thought of jumping out of school to go anywhere. Of course I said yes.
Peer pressure is real.
That night while everyone was fast asleep, we put pillows in our beds and majestically walked out of the gate after cashing the guard. Once out of the gate, we hit the parking lot and waited for a few of our female friends. Some of them had rides waiting for them, the rest of us hopped onto bodas.
What can I say, we didn’t choose this life.
When we got there, Randall knew many people and so was having the time of his life. I got introduced to beer, and she became my friend for the night. Unlike tot packs that we got on the low and in quantity to get smashed, our beers would cost us many days’ worth of tot packs but we had to fit into the moment. I sipped some beer, danced to loud music and watched teenagers and campus students. I was bored, wondering and worrying if we were going to make it back to the dorms without getting caught. Then we got the call. Word had gotten out that there was a mass flee from school and the warden and Headmaster were out on patrol.
The decision was to either stay till the break of dawn and join in as the students went for mass or leave at that moment to hopefully get in before our rooms had been checked. We departed shortly after the red flag was waved hoping we would make it. When we got there, we walked back into the gates (majestically) took off our shoes so they wouldn’t make noise over the gravel stones that led to our building of residence and crept in. Our room was on the third floor and just as we had sneaked up the first few flights of stairs, we started to celebrate but we were cdelebrating too early. Round the corner leading to the last flight, the warden came walking down the stairs with the headmaster following behind him. We froze!
“Come here.” The warden said. He always sounded like he had a cold.
With shame dripping all over us, we walked up to them. They didn’t ask any questions, just walked us back to our rooms and said,
“Show us your beds…”
The pillows had done the dorm a good job up to that point in time. Then their search was re-done and many other kids got busted.
That morning, every person that came through from the outside found us in the guard’s office by the gate and had to join us in the cell. It was hilarious how they came waltzing in, only to find out that the guard had been converted and it was time to pay for their sins. When the rest of the school awoke to prepare for mass that Sunday morning, word had already spread. Kids lined the edge of the wall railings, watching us as we basked in shame.
My mum came to pick me with my sister Tasha, and she was disappointed. That was the first time I saw her shed a tear. It crushed me to watch her as she tried to take in the whole moment. For someone that had until then never thought of escaping or doing anything out of the ordinary. It was just my luck. The guard got fired. A lot of the other guys got expelled for stacked up cases; Randall and I got indefinitely suspended and we had to slash the school compound for two weeks. Yeish!
I regret going to that particular bar, I wished we had chosen another, ayeh; I don’t regret the act of escaping. It’s one of the first times in my life I did something adventurous and went out of my element.
Not necessarily a bad thing in itself.
from AYEE! – “Leave God’s Job to God ”
Cherry Group Publications, Kampala, 2019
To find out more about the author and the novel see the review in David Kangye’s blog https://davidkangye.com/ibrahim-balunywa-on-ayeh-leave-it-to-god/
and in the interview with the author conducted by Hamid Barole Abdu in the Interviews and Reviews section of this issue.
Cover image: Artwork by Irene De Matteis.