When the year begun, I was broke. I had spent much of last year finishing The Felistas Fable, and had not earned much during that time. I felt low, for it is not possible to quickly make a profit from selling a film. Sometimes you have to wait a whole year. I felt depressed in frustration. Then, out of the gloom, I got shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I had a reason to smile. I had waited for this kind of news for twenty years, since I became obsessed with writing at the age of fifteen. The frustration of not making it compelled me to branch out into film making in 2006. Shortly after that, I got nominated for the Million Writers Award, in 2008, which was a sign that I should stick to writing. But by that time, I already had one leg in both places. when the Commonwealth shortlist came, it was more than just a sign. It was a reminder that I should return to my roots, or rather that I should concentrate less on film and throw more energy onto writing. Winning the prize would be the best thing to happen to my career.
Everyday, I prayed to let me win. At least it would alleviate the brokenness (and maybe it’s because I was thinking more of the cash than the prize that God didn’t let me win 😮 ). I got the bad news last week, just before I set off for Nairobi. At first, when I saw the email from JB of the Commonwealth, I thought it would tell me I was a winner. But I had a bad feeling. I had not gone to church the previous Sunday. In my superstitious mind, I thought God would punish me for it. Indeed, it was a regrets email, but JB added an encouraging note that my story had been in contention right up to the very last minute (I guess s/he told every other contestant the same thing). The depression returned, and with it the lack of confidence, the fear that I will never make it.
But then, as I sat in the bus to Nairobi, I got a revelation, a sign that good things are to come.
This story that got shortlisted, A Killing in the Sun, is a ghost story. I wrote it in 2001 or 2002, I cannot remember, but it was shortly after I saw a photograph in the front pages of The New Vision. It was the picture of one of the two soldiers sentenced to death for killing a priest in Karamoja, taken a few moments before he was shot by firing squad. As I looked at that photo, at the expression on the man’s face, at his unzipped pants exposing a pair of clean white boxers, the story fell in.
Well, I had actually thought of the story for many years before that. You see, I had a nightmare when I was about twelve, or thirteen, and in the dream three cloaked hags with pockmarked faces and long bony fingers were grinning at me. Their yellow teeth looked more like shards of bones. They wanted to eat me.
Two works of art that I know influenced this story were the short story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, and the 1990 horror film by Adrian Lyne, Jacob’s Ladder.
After I wrote the story, I never tried to sell it. It sat in my computer for ten years, ignored, until I submitted it for discussion to a writer’s group, which is organized and run by Beatrice Lamwaka, who was shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize. The reaction of fellow writers to this story made me think that I was sitting on a masterpiece. They told me it’s the kind of story that will win international prizes. I was encouraged to send it to the Commonwealth competition, and was pleased when it got shortlisted. I was depressed when it did not win, just as I get depressed each time I get a rejection letter.
But last Thursday, as I sat in the bus heading to Nairobi, something happened that lifted my moods. Something that every writer needs every now and then to keep their spirits out. The seat next to me was empty. I did wonder about it, for this was Queens Coach, a popular bus that never fails to sell all its seats. But I did not give it much thought. I was too sleepy. I had not slept much for nearly a week. I dozed off shortly after the bus took off.
Suddenly, a woman woke me up with a very friendly “Hello.” I opened my eyes, and at once noticed we were in Jinja. Then I got angry. Couldn’t this woman see I was sleeping? Why did she have to wake me up? Being the gentleman my mother raised, I swallowed my irritation and replied with a smile and a hello. Turned out to be a bad idea. She was a chatter box. She at once started telling me the story of her life, as though we were old friends who had not seen each other for a very long time. Her openness shocked and amused me. Her determination to tell her story irritated me. I wanted her to shut up so I could get some sleep, but she just would not keep quiet. Finally, I told her I wanted to sleep, and she said, ‘Okay’, and I dozed off for a few seconds. But the moment I woke up, she plunged into her life story.
Out of politeness, I forced myself to keep awake and listen. Sometimes, I would fail, and would sleep off, but she would not notice and keep talking.She gave me a blow by blow account of how she developed some medical condition, how she was in an operation theater for twenty four hours, how the doctors removed her large intestines to save her life and so she could not poo like everyone else. She needed colostomy to help her pass out shit. She told me about a bunch of other conditions that threatened her life, and that if she was not a Scottish citizen with access to free, good quality medical treatment, she might have died. She is a Ugandan whose husband, a Ugandan as well, joined the British Navy and now they live in Scotland. I soon discovered the reason she was telling me all this. She simply wanted to warn me that in the event I heard a bad smell, I shouldn’t laugh, or make her feel uncomfortable, for because the lack of a large intestine makes her susceptible to passing out stool uncontrollably. Poor woman.
After talking about this for two hours, all the way from Jinja to Malaba, the topic somehow shifted to ghost tales. I did not hear of anything else but ghosts for the rest of the night, until we reached Nairobi. She is a university graduate, works with an international NGO as a consultant, and is a very strong Catholic, but I was not surprised by her belief in spirits. Anyone who has gone through a near-death-experience will believe in the supernatural. However, her endless encounters with creatures from the other world that made me raise an eyebrow.
The one I remember vividly is how an angel of death visited her. She said that she woke up one night and noticed there was a man in her room. She could not imagine how he got in. She was about to scream when he told her, ‘You are going to die tomorrow in a car accident.’ She replied, ‘No, I will not die.’ The man insisted, ‘You will die.’ So she said a prayer (or maybe she threw a bible at him, I was dozing and did not get this detail properly) and he vanished. She went to her mother’s bedroom, and told her mother about this strange man. But her mother simply said, ‘You had a bad dream, my dear. Go back to sleep.’ The next day, she avoided vehicles. She traveled in boda boda motorcycles, and at the end of the day, as she was heading back home, just when she thought she had eluded the prophecy, the man reappeared. She saw a motorcycle in the bush. She at once knew something was wrong about this bike, for it was in the middle of a bush. Not in the road! Then she saw the man straddling it, and her blood froze. It was the same man who visited her room in the night. He kicked started his motorcycle, and it out of the bush into the rode. It sped towards her, to crash into the motorcycle she was on. Luckily, her boda rider was an expert. He dodged it. They skidded and nearly crashed, but managed to stop without injury. People were screaming at the ghost rider, which means they could see him and he was not a figment of her imagination. He rode away and vanished as some people tried to intercept him. She fell on her knees and thanked God for sparing her life.
That was just one of the ghost tales she told me. There were about twelve others, some of which I remember, like the one about her cousin, a little girl who could not walk. A catholic exorcist told the mother, ‘A demon is sitting on her leg. But I cannot drive it out of the girl without injuring her. I have to send it into you. Do you agree?’ The mother nodded. She wanted her little girl to walk. So the exorcist, called Vincent, I think, drove the demon out of the girl into the mother. The girl begun to walk. The mother ran mad. A few days later the exorcist drove the demon out of the mother. Now the family is fine.
When I reached Nairobi, I no longer felt bad about losing out on the Commonwealth prize. It had to be a sign from the supernatural creator that I shared a seat with a woman who talked about nothing but ghosts on the day I received a rejection letter about my ghost story. Like another friend of mine, Beverly, said, ‘Coming second is as good as a win. Do not lose heart. A great door has been opened for you.’
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