On late nights when I couldn’t sleep, I convinced my roommates to play truth or dare as we sat or lay on our bunker beds. We all attended Makerere University, and our room was full of medical, business management, and law books. “What is your biggest fear?” I was asked. I stared at the cigarette smoke circulating in the room, and thought about the day my mother died. “Becoming my mother,” I replied. It was an answer that, in another setting, might have elicited the question: was she so terrible? Fortunately, truth or dare allowed only one question, saving me from having to explain my mother. My roommates averted their eyes from me, afraid I’d see their discomfort; after all, who said that about their own mother? The uneasiness lasted only a moment, replaced by nervous laughter and we went on with our game.
This fear of mine was a tight dress I wore every day and hugged me snugly. I had to tug at it several times during the day, and couldn’t wait to peel it off when I got to my room. It was a fear I couldn’t escape as my days at the university came to an end, and I started to think about life after school.
But what was it about Mother that scared me so much? I could hardly talk about it. When I confided in friends, I told them fragments of disjointed and selected memories that were never quite resolved, and remained questions nibbling away at me. And there were those things I couldn’t talk about except with my sister, Bintu, but she liked to talk about everything except Mother. I’d ask her if she remembered this or that, like the time mother struck her with a kettle that left the spiderweb scar on her forehead, and she’d consistently shake her head. I knew she was little at the time, but surely she remembered. Maybe she had chosen amnesia.
Mother didn’t go to school and was stuck in a loveless marriage, afraid of what would happen to me and my sister if she left. She said she wouldn’t have been able to feed us if Pa had let her have custody of us, which was a big if. But my auntie, her only sister, never went to school, and she chased her husband out of the house after he slapped her once. She raised her children, six of them, by selling vegetables and fruits at a town market. Auntie used to say that Mother’s problem was she could never sit long enough to make anything work, and seemed resigned to a life that didn’t make her happy. Even though Pa had a mistress, she used to say Pa was a good man, he provided for her, looked after us, and never once hit her.
I didn’t know how to be with her. “Mother, it’s three o’clock. Shall I cook rice for lunch?” I’d ask hidden behind the door to her bedroom.
“Stop nagging me with questions, figure things out on your own, act less stupid,” she’d say, her eyes large and alive in a face that was otherwise an outline of bones. I’d go and figure things out, cook rice for lunch. “Stupid child, acting all smart. Who told you to cook rice? Why didn’t you ask me?” she’d ask as soon as she came into the kitchen, before she hurried away.
“But I did Ma,” I said as I ran after her.
“Are you talking back, are you?”
I quickly shook my head. “No Ma, am not talking back.”
“You did ask. Did you really ask me?”
I nodded and looked at her as she sat still and straight on the overgrown grass in the backyard of our bungalow that sat up on one of the hills in Munyonyo. The Maasai blanket on her head shielded her from the sun, her eyes fixed on Lake Victoria. I wondered if the grass pinched her, if the insects bit her naked legs as they did mine.
“Yes, you did,” she said and turned her head toward me. She looked at me and narrowed her eyes. She had forgotten who I was, but then she widened them and her pupils lit up and I knew she had remembered. She opened the blanket so I could go to her, and she enfolded me into the blanket. “Sometimes I forget things. I just forget all the time. You know that,” she murmured, drops of her tears falling on my head like raindrops as she hugged me to her bosom, and I sucked her pain into me.
Mother used to lie in bed for days, leaving us children to fend for ourselves, the house in disarray, filled with dust and dirty dishes. Her bedroom engulfed in darkness with stale air that smelled of illness, a small lantern placed on her bedside table, giving her a half-dead look as she lay still in the center of her bed and stared at the dancing shadow of the lamplight on the ceiling. During those days, we were prisoners of her moods as she turned into someone we didn’t recognize. That wasn’t the worst of it. Pa would ask Auntie to come and look after us, but Auntie spent her days watching Nollywood movies, and made us do all the chores. When Mother came out looking for the bathroom and told her about the darkness that wouldn’t go away, Auntie shouted at her and told her to get out of bed, nothing was wrong with her, she was just a woman neglecting her children and husband.
We had days when Mother was a mother. I remembered those days being the same. The sun shone all day and we didn’t sleep, the wind tickled my skin and my dress twirled, the birds that lived in the large fading brown-silver-gray fig tree in our backyard chirped. She woke up with the first cock-a-doodle-doo of the roosters and lit the stove. It was the smell of burning charcoal and smoke filtering into our bedroom that woke me up, and I watched her for a few minutes through the glass window, her face, the color of fire, peaceful in concentration. Fully engrossed in lighting the stove, she didn’t hear me approach, and my gentle tap on her shoulder made her jump up in the air, arms stretched above her head, her skirt slashing the air.
As soon as she settled back, she asked me to fetch a large pot from the house, and I helped her measure the spoons of maize flour and the mugs of water and milk, which she mixed using a long wooden spoon and carefully placed the pot on the stove. She let me stir the porridge until it boiled, to make sure there were no lumps, as she went off to clean the house. By the time Bintu and Pa woke up, the dishes were sparkling, the compound swept of all the leaves and bird excreta. We drank porridge and ate roasted groundnuts and soya beans as the dark fog in the sky was pierced by the yellow balloon of the sun with its dark orange cracks, and then Mother and Bintu walked me to school. But I didn’t want to go. When Mother was happy like that I wanted to be around her, and sometimes I’d escape from school.
Upon my return, I’d find her in her sunshine dress smelling of soap and lemon, sitting under the canopy of a tree. Bintu, wearing a twin dress, played with her hair. A tray of fresh pineapples, papayas, and mangoes, chopped in tiny squares, was laid out on a sisal mat. Mother would cut my nails, wash my hair, and plait it into neat cornrows. “Look”—she’d hand me a mirror as soon as she was done—“you look just like me.” My heart would burst with love. I wanted to be her. We’d play dodgeball, hide and seek, and skip ropes. I’d wish the sun would shine forever, because when it stopped the volcano would erupt.
Pa was always bringing doctors home. First, the doctor in the long white coat with a stethoscope around his neck who walked on light feet, jumping out of his Corolla, running into the house, muddy water painting his white coat in brown dots, a whiff of jacaranda accompanying him.
“What do I have in my hands?” he’d ask as he walked towards Bintu and me.
“Sweets, sweets, sweets,” Bintu, then only three years old, squealed and jumped up and down and raised her hands up so he could scoop her into his arms and throw her up in the air. He carried her with him into the bedroom, leaving me outside the door watching as he opened the curtains, propped Mother up on the cushions, checked her temperature, listened to her chest, looked into her eyes, and examined her pink tongue and ears.
“What’s wrong with Ma?” I asked, following him out, and as he hesitated by the door, the rain entered the house. “It’s just malaria,” he said, his voice soothing. “Don’t worry, I’ve given her some medicines, she’ll be well soon.”
Other times, the old man, heavy on his feet, supported by a wooden cane, in a dirty-white long dress, which made me think of a priest, came. A traditional healer, he made small cuts on different parts of her head and rubbed dry herbs and roots into them. They were supposed to calm the demons gone wild in her brain. The razor blade scars from all the cuts over the years decorated her head. Sometimes, on her good days, Mother let me run my hands over the gentle bumps and I wondered if they hurt, if the herbs helped her, but I was too afraid to ask.
Eventually, the priest came, dressed in oversized black cotton garments. Convinced Mother was possessed by demons, he shouted words from the Bible, and forced us to pray all night for the demons to go back to where they came from, but he never said where that was. He submerged her in a basin of holy water over and over until she choked and gasped for breath, and just like that, sometimes, she’d come back to us, and we’d rejoice, thankful for the miracle.
After the miracle, the fear of disturbing Mother’s peace when she was recovering left Bintu and me immobilized in the house. The rain (in my memory it was always raining) was pounding on the iron roof of our bungalow, making us restless. We’d want to run in the rain, roll in the muddy puddles, remove our clothes, but we knew Mother would get mad. She’d say the last thing she needed when she was resting was us disturbing the peace. When she said this, she looked at me, so I knew it was me she didn’t need. Not Bintu. Never Bintu. She said Bintu, who resembled Pa, had given her another chance at doing something right. I was ten years old, but things were already off track with me. I stole candy, escaped from school, told lies, and constantly fought with the kids in our neighborhood for calling Mother a mad woman. But this wasn’t why she didn’t want to see me. She couldn’t escape from herself when she looked at me.
I completed my degree in business management at the top of my class. My father, whom I hardly saw as he had married his mistress, joined Bintu and me to celebrate. I set up a business importing and exporting tea. I even met a man, Agok, and we got married. I stopped thinking about Mother and, when I found out I was pregnant with triplets, I looked forward to becoming a mother, and my fears flew away like a bird. In fact, when my father suggested Agok and I move into the family home, I didn’t hesitate. It was the perfect solution to our stretched budget. We scrubbed; fixed broken pipes and sinks, tiled the floors, repainted the walls with colors of the sun, refurbished the bedroom Bintu and I shared into the triplets’ bedroom, complete with teddy bears, cribs, and pictures of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, and zebras on the walls. Mother was exorcised.
But then, the nausea continued into my second trimester, my body rejected all food, and I was bedridden. Lying on my back for days on end, unable to move, staring at the white roof, desperate to close my eyes even for just a second, I started to constantly tug at my nightdress, and think the triplets were out to kill me. The feeling of a knife on my throat wouldn’t go away. I waited for childbirth. After I gave birth, they cried non-stop. Breast feeding, changing diapers, or carrying them didn’t make them stop crying, and I started to blame them for ruining my life.
“Pick them up,” Agok said as I sat in front of the television in the living room, the volume high to drown out their wails.
“Am not going to pick them up,” I said. “They don’t appreciate anything I do for them.”
“You know they’re babies,” he said.
“Of course, I know. Still, they can show a little gratitude.”
“Doesn’t sound like you know they’re babies. Come, let’s comfort them. They probably just need cuddles.”
“What is it you want them to do? Thank you for changing their diapers, for feeding them? Babies cry, that’s what they do.”
“Whatever,” I said and increased the TV volume.
He wanted to shout, but he gritted his teeth. “You should have told me you didn’t want them,” he said and picked them up, singing and cooing. He lay on his back and asked me to put them on his body.
“You see, they like you. They’ve stopped crying. Maybe I shouldn’t go back to work.”
“It’s already been one and half years. We need the extra money.”
“If I’m with them all day, they might like me.”
“Will you stop? They like you, of course they do. In fact. they love you, you’re their mother.”
“Why, then, did they try to kill me when they were in my womb?”
He stopped playing with them. “You’re joking, right?”
I refused to go back to work, and saw less of the world outside our home. One day, I woke up and Bintu was sitting on my bed. It was near midday, the sun at its hottest. She found me buried under blankets. She drew the curtains and opened the windows. Air filtered in, blew dust off the dressing table. The cobwebs in the roof corners danced, and brought in the smell of jacaranda.
“Sis, what are you doing in bed?” she asked softly as she pulled off the layers of blankets. She tried to smile to hide the fear in her voice. With each blanket she removed, I felt the cold air enter my bones. I tried to remember the last time I had seen her.
“Am so sick,” I said as I shivered.
“I don’t know. My head, my joints, aches, aches everywhere, fever.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“No, I bought some medicine from the pharmacy.”
She studied me. “Agok is worried. He tells me you don’t get out of bed for days. Get out of bed, have a bath, I’ll make us some tea.” Her voice was smooth as butter. It reminded me of Mother’s voice on her sunny days.
I shook my head.
“C’mon. I’ve come all the way to see you. A bath and tea will make you feel better.”
“Where are the triplets?” I asked, and immediately sat straight up.
“In the backyard.”
“Bring them back into the house.”
“Now, I want them inside the house.”
She studied me. “Okay, okay. I’ll go and get them.”
I did bathe. I did put on clean clothes. We took our cups of tea and sat on a bench in the backyard under the fig tree. The triplets, now two years old, ran to their nanny as soon as they saw me, hid behind her clothes, and peeped at me.
“Do you remember when we used to be scared of Mother?” I asked.
Bintu looked at me and nodded. “You’ve grown so thin,” she said. A light wind blew in from the lake. Leaves dropped from the tree and fell on us. She opened her lips slightly, and finally asked softly, “Is it the triplets? Is it still very difficult?” She took a sip of her tea and waited. She reached out and touched my hand. “Your skin is scaling, your hair is falling out. Look at your cheeks, they’re hollow like Mother’s.”
“No, no, no, no,” I whispered. I stood up and walked around the backyard, shaking my head until she came to me, held my hands, and took me back to the bench.
“You remind me of her. Everything,” she said and sipped her tea. “I remember. I remember her lying in bed all day in the dark. I remember the kettle.” She touched her forehead and caressed the spider web. “Hmm. She said she asked me for a cup of tea. I said she hadn’t.”
“Do you think am losing my mind? I forget things, days of the week, people. The other day, I forgot one of the workers and was chasing him out of the house. Fortunately, Agok came home at that time and stopped me. Why aren’t you like her?”
Bintu looked at me. The wind whistled. More leaves fell down. “On Ma’s worst days, you became my mother. And you were pretty good at it, shielded me from her. Have you talked to Agok?”
I sighed. “He just wants me to be a good mother to the children. That’s all. I try. I just feel trapped. Sometimes, I just want them to go away. I want my life back.”
Bintu interlocked her hands into a fist and put them on her cheek. “I didn’t realize how sick you are. I don’t think Agok realizes it either. Medical school has been crazy.” She crossed her legs and uncrossed them. “I’ll come to see you more often.”
“It’s this house,” I said.
“No, it’s not the house. Ma was sick.”
“She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t.” I shook my head until I started to feel dizzy.
We finished our tea in silence.
I refused to go to hospital. I wasn’t losing my mind. It was the triplets. The home I had loved started to suffocate me and I needed to escape. I told Agok that we shouldn’t have moved back into this house. It was full of ghosts. Agok would tell me there were no ghosts. Some days, I saw Mother everywhere. He’d ask me what her ghost looked like. He wanted to see one. The day her ghost wouldn’t leave, I dragged him to look in the mirror.
“You see her, right?”
“No, I don’t. That’s you.”
“Look again, look, she’s there.” I touched the mirror. “You see her. Why can’t you see her? Why can’t you see her?”
He tried. He looked, even touched the mirror. “Because she isn’t there.” He removed the mirror from its hook and put it face down.
“Will you stop?” I screamed at the triplets who had gotten into another fight.
“Let them go outside and play.”
“No, someone will steal them.”
“Who, the ghost?”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
“Look, there’s a wall around the house. There are workers outside. I have hired a security guard as you asked. They’re safe.”
“I don’t want them out of my sight. I am the only one who can protect them.”
“Protect them from what? You’re being irrational again.”
“Things will be better when we leave this house.”
“Things will get better when you go to hospital, go back to work, see your friends, get out of the house instead of being cooped up in here.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Then help me understand.”
The triplets started fighting again.
“I need some fresh air,” he said.
I heard the garage door open, the security guard quickly open the gate, the tires of his Corona squeak as he hurriedly drove off. Suddenly the triplets’ giggles were unbearable.
“Stop shouting, stop, stop,” I shouted and started to slap them, and only stopped when I saw my mother’s ghost again, and remembered her beating me because I had a tummy ache.
When he came back, he gave me an ultimatum. He’d leave unless I let him take me to the hospital. I started to pick fights with him, nothing he did was right. He tried to calm me, oh how he tried, but the more he tried, the more vexed I became, and soon I grew scared of him, accusing him of conspiring with the police to take me to prison where they’d call me cracked, where they chained cracked people on beds with metal shackles that sliced their ankles.
One early afternoon he walked into the house, talking on his phone, and I sprang up from the bamboo rocking chair, grabbed the phone from him, and smashed it into the wall. To his shocked face, I said, “There, now you can’t call the police.” He gripped my shoulders, shook me as the triplets screamed in fear, and shouted, “I am not calling the police,” over and over, as I shouted, “You’re, you’re calling the police,” and when our crescendo subsided, I cried, “They took my mother, the police, they took her, I don’t want them to take me too, please,” my body shaking as the fear Mother must have felt lodged itself inside me. He hugged me, “No one is going to take you away. No one. No one.”
For a long time, Pa used to threaten Mother with taking her to prison if she didn’t stop screaming, talking to herself, hitting him, or pacing. “You belong in prison,” he’d say. “They’ll know what to do with you. I don’t know what to do anymore.” It’s possible he never meant it as a threat, but he must have seen the horrified look mapped on her face every time he made this declaration.
On the day she was taken away, she woke up talking about the voices rumbling in her head. She said the voices were running, unique voices spinning, mingling into a soup. She couldn’t decipher the voices, her head was exploding, she started to talk to herself, raising her voice in the hope it’d silence them. It didn’t work. Deciding to run away from them, she removed all her clothes, climbed over the gate, and took off. She ran through the suburb, passed the small kiosks selling sodas, beer, bread, vegetables and fruits, the roadside bar, people standing on the pavement deep in conversation, children throwing stones at cars. Her naked feet pounded the silver-blue tarmac road. She fell into a fissure that had started off as a tiny crack, but now cut down the road, deepened and widened by the rains. Before people noticed her, before they could point at her and call, “cracked woman,” she pulled herself out and ran on.
It was Pa who called the police. He wanted them to bring her back home. The police found her. Her skin was coated with red dust and bits of dry blood. Her face glistened with sweat. The police squad in charge of removing mentally ill people from the public found her. The police who drove around the suburbs looking for mentally ill people found her. The police who took them away to prison “for their safety,” they said. The police kept her in prison for a week before Pa was allowed to bring her home. But why did the police take her away, I used to wonder, because she was many things: angry, happy, moody, violent, lazy, cruel. She was many things, but not a criminal.
Three months after I returned from hospital, the hours I spent out of bed became longer. I started to play with the triplets and stopped asking where they were. I started to shower every day, to eat and to think about going back to work. I remembered the sunny days when Mother was Mother, and my dresses no longer felt tight. In the beginning, Bintu, Agok, and my father gave me the white tablets, and took turns to hover until they were convinced I had swallowed them. Sometimes, Agok would insist I open my mouth, to make sure I hadn’t buried them beneath my tongue to spit them out as soon as he left the room. I’d watch him search under our bed and sofas to make sure there were no pills, andI resented him for controlling my life, especially my treatment. When he was away, he instructed one of the maids to give me the tablets and stand guard until I swallowed them. I shouldn’t have begrudged him, but because I was doing so well, I did. He relented. I stopped taking them.
It was at that time that my father paid me one of his rare visits. “You’ve really recovered?” he said, scrutinizing me as I made him a cup of tea.
“I have, but Agok doesn’t think so,” I said.
“He treats me like a child, panics when I raise my voice or don’t comb my hair. It’s like I cannot be me anymore. If I don’t bath, am sick again. And then all the questions. He asks me over and over if I’ve taken my medicine. Why can’t he trust me?”
My father was quiet as I spoke. He continued to look at me, his chin placed on his right hand, which was supported by the dining table. I transferred the tea into a teapot, carried it to the table, sat down, and poured it into a mug. He watched the steam from the tea float until it meshed with the air in the room.
“How I wish I had done half of what Agok is doing for you, for your mother,” he finally said. “If I had, things might have turned out differently. I think if I had known, she wouldn’t have died. Certainly not the way she did.”
After the prison, even the mother I knew disappeared as she shrunk into a shell, her skin falling off her bones. I never saw her smile or laugh again. Every day she woke up, and sat on the edge of the bed, her hands on her lap, whispering to herself, “You sent me to prison, prison, prison, you, prison, to kill me, the chains, oh chains, prison, I can’t go back, you want me dead, police, prison, death, prison equals death.” The noise Bintu and I made so she could come out of her bedroom and scream or hit us was to no avail. She refused to eat, and not even Bintu begging her to made her budge.The doctors only shook their heads. They couldn’t do anything for a woman who had chosen death. Bintu and I would crawl to her bedroom, softly push the door, and tiptoe inside until we were in front of her. If she saw us she never showed it, and the only time she did, she stopped whispering, reached out slowly, held our hands, and said, “Am sick children, you know am very sick.” We nodded. That night she tied a rope around her throat.
My father didn’t touch the cup of tea, and its steam soaked in the gravity of his words. As soon as he left, I went to my room, picked up the tablets, spread them on my palm, and looked at them for a long time, before I put them on my tongue and let them dissolve. There was something about taking these pills, the validation that I had become my mother, and yet every day that I swallowed them, the tight dress that hugged me snugly loosened, and I could wear it all day without tugging at it.
Please also visit the links below to listen to Ruth Mukwana’s podcast.
In Episode 9 of my podcast series, I spoke to Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King and Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. Maaza says, “The stories that we tell ourselves, the stories that families pass down to each other about the people who have been lost or the indignities they have suffered as a result of conflict, those stories can help shape a reality that says we know what can be lost, let’s try to do everything that we can to avoid war.”
Spotify – bit.ly/ruthpods9
Website – bit.ly/ruthpodw9
Apple Podcasts – bit.ly/ruthpoda9
Ruth Mukwana is a fiction writer from Uganda. She is also an aid worker working for the United Nations in New York. She’s a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA) and a 2020 Center for Fiction 2020 Emerging Fellows. Her short stories have appeared in Solstice Magazine, Black Warriors Review, Consequence Magazine, The Compassion Anthology, Speak the Magazine, The Wrath Bearing Tree, and Water~Stone Review. She lives with her daughter in New York and co-produces a podcast and blog called Stories and Humanitarian Action that investigates how storytelling can raise awareness and galvanize action to address the causes and consequences of humanitarian crises.