by Lillian A. Aujo
I am about to reach home. After a long day at work, I will finally be able to put my shoes off and my feet up. My eyes will finally take a rest from that overly bright PC at work which made my eyes tear and smart – Boss did not let me take a lunch break, which is why I spent the whole day with my eyes glued at the damn thing. Boss. No one ever calls him anything else; for the last two months since I have worked at ‘The Perspective’, Boss is all I’ve heard him being called.
Today at 1 o’clock, he lowered his thick rimmed glasses and scrunched up his nose when I rolled back my office chair to go for lunch. He looked like he had suddenly realised that he hadn’t solved the solution to a difficult calculation after all; he had missed something, and consequently had ended up with the wrong answer. “You are not going anywhere unless I have that article on my desk.”
That was it! I was mildly shocked, but more than the shock I was taken aback that he expected the blasted article in less than three hours. An article that would take anyone at least four days of research and writing to finish. Four days at least, that is if there were no glitches. But somehow I was expected to have it ready in exactly two hours and forty five minutes. That is how long it had been, two hours and forty five minutes since he had made the pronouncement that morning, ‘This is not acceptable. You have to give it another go. Tuesday issue goes to print at 7am tomorrow.’
I felt steam rise in my ears, but my wide empty eyes just looked at his bespectacled irritating face. In turn, he fixed me with his small eyes whose eyeballs took time to shift up and down my frame, as if trying to engrave the image of the lazy stupid girl on his brain.
He kept looking at me like that; the space between his eyebrows narrowing and folding more as the seconds painfully crawled on. It was as if he was waiting for me to say something. To talk back.
I remembered a silverback in Bwindi, silently challenging the other members of the troop to forage in an area other than the one he had pointed out. But I held my stance, rather my peace, and after what seemed like an eternal minute, he swivelled his chair back, in a sign between serious caution and, or dismissal to me.
I glared at the thick folds of skin in which his head seemed to roll into his back. His neck fat had never looked so ugly, and I was so angry I wanted to shout my anger at him. But he was Boss and ‘un-confrontable’, if I wanted to keep my job. My powerlessness at the whole situation came down upon me like grey clouds on a bright cheery afternoon, and with it, the previous three days’ fatigue of weaving through Kampala streets on treacherous boda bodas, in a desperate attempt to get to my sources and corroborate the story.
My eyes set on the story, I had endured baking in the Kampala heat, breathing in the dust, and manoeuvring the roads in our potholes. If I had known it would come to this, I would have done what George does- “Google! That is why it was invented! So that journalists like us can have two articles at our editors’ desks and still have time left to do our other businesses – kyeyo is the only way to go, with prices of everything increasing and my salary remaining constant, I need a side thingi to make ends meet! And I need to keep my job while am at it.”
George is my colleague. Since we started working here, he seems to have his assignments on time and have time to chase deals in his white My Car. I had stared at him, my eyes accusing, asking loud questions. “What? It is a weird case of inverse proportions. So what if I have to do shit to tip the scales my way? As long as no one is hurt, who cares?” He had replied with a shrug of his beefy shoulders.
In that moment, when the office was filled with the sound of chair wheels sliding on smooth tiles, and the air threatened to let out one synonymous humongous sigh, I fought to hear my own little deflated breath. I also had a moment of epiphany! George wasn’t so selfish and lazy after all, he was just a guy who knew what to do to keep his job. I should have been the one dashing out of there, the adrenaline for having written the scoop on ‘Government Contracts and Load Shedding’ pumping through my size 10 frame.
There and then, when tired eyes roused their focus from white monitors and lit onto colleagues they were crushing on – since they could now chat tangibly and not across airwaves – mine burned with tears of frustration, mourning the death of my story, as I inwardly called it, and the time and energy I had put in. When previously hushed voices let loose and carried across cubicles, mine was mangled somewhere in my throat, as I choked on the bitter pill of foregoing lunch and doing what Boss wanted.
I hesitated only a moment, before pulling back the chair nearer to my desk and sitting down with a heavy plop! Boss turned his head once as if to make sure his dog was paying attention and lapping contentedly at the soup he had thrown at it. Then he turned back to his workstation, and continued his Facebook chat. With a swift sideways glance I could tell what was on his P.C, since he sat at a 90 Degrees angle with his back to me. He would have had to swivel around to see the daggers shooting out of my eyes at him.
My breath came out of my nose in a hiss, like the Maersk trailers creeping through the jam on the Kampala Jinja highway. I jabbed at the power button on my monitor and began to rouse it from sleep mode.
Facebook! Everyone knew that wasting office resources on personal business was intolerable. But obviously this rule did not apply to Boss. At our junior editors’ induction he had made a self important speech that was heavily punctuated with references to his difficult position since he could not always print what everyone wanted him to. The speech had been wrapped up and toasted with a sombre declaration in Boss’ monotone. “I am in charge of this newspaper. We report real news, and whatever I say does not suffice as such, is not news.” His seniority buoyed him above us, above me, and dismally, above news.
The document I had been working on popped up. I changed the heading to “Power cuts to increase round the country”. A safe title, to steer clear of the ‘Why’. I had done everything he had asked. “. . . Call the power company. Talk to the manager. Or the PRO. Just make sure they can be quoted. I will publish nothing unless it can be corroborated. And stick to the facts.” Clearly, I had missed the memo on leaving out the ‘Why’.
Stick to the facts. He had repeated that to me that morning when I first handed him the article. “The country still exports power to neighbouring countries, government is still honouring tenders . . .”, he had read from my article, his voice gradually taking on a bored tone. “What is all this?” Then the bored tone had risen and become incredulous. Next he waved the printed article in his right hand, and held the other akimbo. His Anansi belly was threatening to escape the confines of his overstretched blue shirt. “I cannot publish this! It’s unacceptable! You want me to be shut down?”
I had lowered my eyes, thinking that there was no ‘check’ in this box on my probation form. But then I had found myself face to face with Boss’ curly coarse black umbilical hairs; one of the lower buttons on his shirt had popped open. If the prospect of being confronted with normally concealed body hair had not been so unsavoury, I would have laughed at his ridiculous appeal. But as it turned out I had been disgusted.
Just like I was then with the fact that I was forced to tell lies; delete anything that would incriminate the government. Or at least make it look like this whole power cut issue was unprecedented, and merely coincidental to ‘circumstances beyond anyone’s control’! No one was to blame. It was global warming . . . spinning the tale on that one made my head go along with it.
In so many words, Boss had told me there was a template to reporting news! “There is an in-house style, a certain way to do things, and if you want to work here, you have to do it The Perspective way.” My mind reeled. Truth was at the gallows, and Boss was the hangman. The last bell before the hangman let the rope loose rang ominous in my ears. I stood there, an ‘inside outsider’. Unable to do anything. Unable to stop the public execution.
I am about to reach home. Today is gone, and it is gone with the truth, I think to myself. Silently, it echoes in my head. Like the words to a prayer, I chant their incantation. ‘Today is gone, and it is gone with the truth. Today is gone and . . .’ It soon begins to sound like the heavy drone of bees at a tree enclave, at their hive’s entrance. At the entrance of my consciousness . . . and I tell myself to think about tomorrow . . .
Tomorrow, I will walk into The Perspective building and spend another day ‘working’ with Boss and learning what news is, and especially, how to report it – specially.
I walk through town and do not stop to buy anything because I am so tired and all I can think about is a warm bath and a cup of warm cocoa. So today, I will not stop to look at the second hand clothes strewn on the streets. As usual, several mounds of clothing jut from the tarmac pavement, like multicoloured termite hills strewn on an even landscape. Each is manned by a vendor or two, shouting indecently cheap prices,”Ba dizaina, 4,500!” They shout in raspy breathless tones, their voices sounding like they have been ran through a small stereo. You can actually get a really good dress cheaply. I remember last year when the government had put a ban on importing second hand clothing into the country.
Tindi, my outspoken anti government friend, always ready with a scathing comment on government policy, had commented, “Isn’t this nice! They should just have come up with a Legal Notice stipulating that all Ugandans should shop at Woolworths, Mr. Price, and that other store with obscenely priced clothes that are made here. . .” she had paused for dramatic effect, “. . .out of cotton grown here! And we all know that only the super rich can afford to shop in such places. Maybe the rest of us should walk around naked!” I had laughed at her exaggeration, yet my eyes had gleaned the grains of truth from Tindi’s dramatic delivery. ‘Whatever happened to subsidising local industries? So that we can also afford clothes made here?’ She had concluded.
Like most policies that had been screamed with gusto through the corridors of parliament, we knew that this one too would fade out in the high ceilings or get muffled in the wood panelled walls of the House. Indeed, the furthest it got was that taxes on all second hand clothes, accessories, and merchandise, had been increased. The result was getting these products at a slightly higher price, but at least they were still attainable to the average Ugandan.
As I pass through ‘bend down market’ I think of George and of Tindi and of the truth and of Boss. And I must be in there somewhere, a voice, almost not my own whispers; another un homogenous ingredient to the unusual cocktail. ‘The easy way’ and ‘the truth’ are the most evident ingredients in that cocktail, a voice I almost recognise as my own answers. I think I am with the truth but then that is all I am doing; thinking, and nothing more. Just thinking. About keeping my job, leaving the bad day at work there, and about getting home . . . to a warm bath and a cup of cocoa.
But my rosy image of getting home is blocked out by Tindi. And her loudness. And her loud astounding forthright truthfulness about politics and policies . . . the rage last week was City council ridding Kampala streets of vendors. For years they had sprawled onto the pavements, such that it looked like the real shops had spilled into the roads. Compared to the usual dysfunctional beehive atmosphere, today the Kampala streets are sparse and safe. Yet already, makeshift wooden stalls with nails are once again being connected to steel shop doors . . . The vendors sell their wares with a third eye, expecting, always expecting City Council authorities or policemen to swoop upon them, the way marabou stalks do upon the mountains of uncollected garbage round the city.
I am about to reach home, and I can almost walk without squeezing my bag under my armpit for fear that someone will cut a hole in it without me feeling them since brushing up against me would not be strange in the crowded downtown Kampala. But the ‘vendors off the streets policy’ is still echoing, so this down town Kampala does not resemble a bee hive much. My bag is safe and I can feel air around me, instead of bodies pressed up against me. I stop myself from thinking about how long it will last . . . All that matters is that . . . I am about to reach home . . .
I zig zag on shop verandas, so that I do not step on shoes, sweaters, utensils, all which have been laid out on black polythene. My friend tells of this story, of how one ought to be prepared to pay a groundnut-lady in case one trips and sends her basket flying. Then one has to pay her, maybe 25K. So I take care not to step on any one’s wares in case I break or damage something. I am about to reach home.
I am turning the corner into the last street before I reach the taxi park. I turn into Prince Street. I am so shocked I feel like I have been flung into a solid concrete wall; people are packed there, like tomatoes in a wooden cart! They are shouting, yelling, ululating! Yellow, green, blue vuvuzelas above head level dot the crowd. It is like a sea of people, jumping up and down like one strong erratic wave is tossing them. Prince Street is where the stationary shops and printing presses are.
“Where is the electricity? Isn’t it shameful that we who boast of the Nile, and its source, suffer load shedding? Two weeks? And no power? My printer has been off for two weeks! Do they know how much business I have missed? We do not have salaries like those of you with office jobs.” A menaced man scoffs, “Fe we are self employed! We earn as much as we work!” A menaced voice spits out in anger. He is a dark man, well above 6 feet. He brandishes a computer making as if to fling it into the middle of the road. Another man holds the keyboard aloft.
“Our businesses are dying! We cannot get any work done! How do they expect us to survive?”Another angry one choruses.
Then a high pitched woman’s voice puts in, “And yet prices are increasing every day! We are making less money every day! Where will one get school fees?”
Everyone is shouting or saying something. I stand there. Petrified. All the while I envisioning a stone rushing through the air and heading straight for my face. In a flash, scenes from previous news bulletins roll like a film before my eyes; the riot police. They must be on the way. Batons. Rubber bullets. Tear gas. People sprayed with pink paint, smoked out of shopping arcades. People scampering like rats, running blindly, looking for safety from the asphyxiating gases, washing their smarting eyes with water. A man carrying a chocking baby to their Red Cross van, and its mother clamouring after him, “My child! My baby!” she laments as she goes, slapping her palm on her thighs. She is bleeding.
I am bleeding. Oh God! I was about to reach home, and now I am bleeding. The police are here. The wretched policeman shot me! The bullet hit me. My upper arm. So much blood. I have to do something. Run. But which way? Everyone is coming towards me, a sea of fish. A sea of human fish, big, angry scared, shouting, yelling fish. Noise; screams, sirens, ambulances, gunshots, gas canisters popping like bullets. Screams mingled with sirens. I start to run. But my legs do not run. I will them to start. But I needn’t have. Because the next moment I am mauled. “Get out of the way. Are you deaf?”
“Where? But where do I go? I don’t know where to go!”
“So you are not deaf!”
I realise now that I spoke out loud. And that there is a man gripping my shoulders. He is wearing a blue polo T-shirt. A ’V’ of sweat spreads from the neckline to his chest.
“Go! Move! Run!” He shouts as he turns me and pushes me through the crowd.
“Ouch!” I wince as his fingers dig into the wound on my upper arm.
“They shot you! Crazy Policemen! Stupid Policemen. You need to go to the hospital . . . .”
Blood. Bullets. Shot! My mind is reeling like the wheel of a merry go round. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I think I feel the pain now. Now I am scared. Shot! I have been shot! I am so tired.
And right before I close my eyes I think I hear him say, ‘What is your name?’ But it doesn’t matter . . . I am about to reach home . . .