15 November 2011

A Story

I met him yesterday, this mzee.

His face was etched and ripped with wrinkles, like a mask carved from wood, or a piece of charcoal.

He greeted me with a handshake, his --spider-webbed with age, strong with years of hard work-- swallowing mine completely, and with a booming voice that made the leaves on the branches above him sway like in a warm breeze, and with a wide smile full of perfect white teeth that reflected the golden light, the late afternoon sun.

The day-old stubble on his chin sparkled silver.

If I had to guess, I'd say he was at least 65 years old.

I sat down with the other men there, four or five of them, wooden folding chairs in a loose, three-quarters circle around a clay pot of ajon.

He sat just off to the side, his own chair backed up right next to the trunk of a mango tree, his own long straw dipped into his own grapefruit-sized pot of the warm millet beer.

The swept dirt of the compound was dappled with pools of sunlight, circles and ovals of warmth that swayed with the leaves in the warm breeze.

He was stabbed in the throat with a spear.

Rebel soldiers came and stabbed him in the throat with a spear.
They left him for dead.

He lay on the ground at St Aloysius, the Catholic Parish, not three kilometres from mango tree under which he now sat.

Rebel soldiers came and stabbed him in the throat with a spear and left him for dead, lying on the ground at the Parish, the blood pouring from his throat, bright red, and mixing with the dirt, rust red, and making mud, dark brown.

The blood poured from his throat and between his fingers as he tried to hold it in and it turned the dirt into mud, bright red and rust red into dark brown.

Or maybe it was in the grass.
Maybe he lay in the grass and droplets of blood hung from the tips of the blades of grass like dew, reflecting the golden light, the late afternoon sun shining through them, turning blood into rubies.

This was in 1987.

The rebels were part of Alice Lakwena's army. Ostensibly, they were fighting to overthrow Museveni's government. In reality, they were just killing. Killing, and also raiding homes, stealing livestock, torching huts, stabbing with spears the throats of innocent men who just happened to be in the way.

He lay on the ground, in mud or jeweled grass, and they left him for dead, or to die.

Then they were gone.
They were gone and the Parish priest was there, picking him up and taking him to the hospital.

This was in 1987.

The loose three-quarters circle of men, the ones I was sharing the pot of ajon with, told me this in between sips from the long straws in the pot, after the mzee had left.

They debated, then, briefly, when it was that peace had returned.
One said it was five years later, in 1992. One said no, it was in 1990. One said no, people were still in the IDP camps in 1990.

So they settled on 1993.

And then, eighteen years after that, I met the mzee and we sat in mango tree shade and he greeted me with strong hands and a booming voice and a wide smile full of white teeth and golden light, as if the world had never been more complicated or brutal or tragic than warm sunlight seeping between mango tree leaves to pool in swaying circles and ovals on the rust red dirt around our feet, as if there was nothing more to worry about than slow conversation and your own pot of ajon and the setting sun.

(Two notes -- 1: Mzee is a respectful term of address for old men. 2: Alice Lakwena was an aunt of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. Her army was, essentially, the precursor to the LRA. She had begun her insurgency with aims of overthrowing the government, like I said, and she would often bless her soldiers with 'holy water' and tell them they were impervious to bullets. They would then walk upright into oncoming fire and were, obviously, wiped out rather quickly.)

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