Scenes of Labor Day

Retired. Relaxing. Is he enjoying the labor of his youth?
A grandfather passes the time in Nakapinyi, Mukono district.

It’s the day when we remember workers of the world. I do not know what made me look through my scrap folder, but I found this poem, which I wrote in October of 2009, shortly before I went to Nepal. I cannot remember why I wrote it, what the ‘inspiration’ was, but it is clearly about a vegetable seller struggling to make ends meet, and failing to impress his wife. I dedicate it to all working men out there who are going through tough times, who cannot seem to fill their pockets with happiness, however much they try. I normally don’t publish poems, though I have written quiet a tidy pile of them, but I do hope you enjoy this one.

*

The cabbage
He collapses as he pushes the cart to the market
He lies burnt out on the pile of unsold cabbages
Though his weight and sweat ruin the stock.
 
she hates the necklaces I buy at clearance sales
so I wonder if I married a princess.
 
The hat rests on his nose
To shield his face from passing eyes
That shine like suns in hollow skulls.
 
she serves me bread without any butter
so I wonder if I married my mother
 
His battered body yearns for the balm in a smoke.
He takes a crumpled cigarette from his pocket
But his palms, wet with sweat, ruin the matches.
 
she makes love to me in autopilot
so I wonder if I married a harlot.
 
He smashes the hat onto the unsold cabbages
Then the cigarette that he failed to light.
Rage in his feet. He stomps it all into the dirt.
*
The poem is dated 4th October 2009. I cannot think of what I was doing on that day that I wrote this poem, but does it capture the mood of a frustrated worker?
A fruit seller waits for customers in Lainchor, Kathmandu, Nepal
Salute women for their ability to multi-task.
Here is a hair dresser, vegetable seller and baby sitter.
An egg hawker in Lazimpart, Kathmandu, Nepal
Unrecognized labor. A boy hawks firewood in Soroti, Uganda.
Fruits of labor. Sorghum harvest in Katakwi, Uganda.
 
I should be particularly on for this labor day. Normally, writers are not considered as laborers. People always think of a worker as someone who has a boss, and earns a regularly salary. But I think I am a worker too, though I mostly idle around the house farting and hoping for a big break — I think it is coming soon. Finally, after a long struggle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013, for a short story I wrote way back in 2002 but has never been published. You can read about it here. I do hope this short list opens doors for me, and puts me on the path to becoming a writer who earns a living from his fantasies 🙂
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The Troubled Children of Uganda

Street children begging in Kampala.
Broken family values is largely responsible for this.
To continue the story of the pregnant girl and the monster teacher (read it here), I agreed to be her father. She wanted to make money out of a man who had impregnated her, and she wanted me to pretend being her father. She was only fourteen years old, and I battled with my conscience over what I was doing. But I was thinking of a documentary film about the troubled children of Uganda today, about parents who fail to handle rebellious teenagers, about the breakdown of family values, which has left children at the mercy of forces beyond their control. 
I thought being this girl’s father would give me an opportunity to use the cinéma vérité technique, I being part of the story, giving the audience a candid ‘insiders’ view of the happenings. It was a scoop. A pregnant teenager. A monster teacher who preys on his students. But before I could proceed, I had to verify the pregnancy, so I suggested a test.
 —
“What for?” the girl said. “He did me without a condom. I’m vomiting every morning. I have missed my periods. Why then should I take a test? If you don’t want to be part of the deal just tell us.”
 —
“Don’t talk like that,” Nalongo, who got me involved in this whole saga, and who would pretend to be her mother, said. “He is right. You need to take a test to be absolutely certain.”
 —
Tales are rife of women who pretend to be pregnant just to get the man to marry them. It had crossed my mind that this girl might just be putting up a show in order to grab money from this teacher. I did not want to be part of such a scheme. I had to be absolutely certain she was pregnant. The girl did not argue much. She agreed to take a test. I thought it would be nice to film her as she went to the pharmacy to get a testing kit, to capture the tests and her reaction to the results on video, so I ran back home and picked up my camera, but she was not impressed. 
 —
“Do you want to put me on agataliko nfuufu?” This is a news program that relies on community reporting. They do not use any professional journalists. Anyone anywhere with a camera, even if it is on a mobile phone, can shoot anything amusing and submit it. They thus feature very absurd but entertaining stories. It put a fear on the common people, for whenever they see a camera they at once think someone is trying to make news for agataliko nfuufu
 —
I tried to explain my purpose to this little girl  – child rights, broken family values, monster teachers, the great divide between parents and teenagers – but she could not comprehend anything. It struck me that the best place to tell her my purposes was not in the dusty street, with people casting us curious glances. I should have done it before we set off. So I shut down the camera and we walked to the pharmacy, hoping to get her to understand my purpose before she took the test.
 —
“Why do you want to take a test?” the lady behind the counter asked the young girl, who in reply gave her a big grin and a giggle. 
Forced child labor, one of the issues I will tackle in this film.
“Well,” the girl said, “You see, I have a little goat at home and I want to know if it is pregnant.”
— 
The pharmacist was not amused. She turned to me, her lips pursed in anger. “Did you pregnant her?”
 —
“NO!” I screamed. “I don’t sleep with goats!”
 —
The girl chuckled. There were several other people in the pharmacy. They overhead my protest and cast me a curious glance, as though to say ‘You protest too much!’  
— 
“You think you can fool me with your stupid goat story?” the lady barked at me. “Aren’t you ashamed to sleep with little girls? She’s young enough to be your daughter! Are there no old women for you to play with?” 
— 
The anger on her face indicated that she had not been laid for a really long time. She was the bulky type – extra big breasts, too big that they looked like she had stuffed herself with a lot of clothing to make them look that big. Her waist line indicated she had given birth ten times or more. She looked over forty, though with her size it was hard to tell. Since I have a perverted writer’s mind, I started to imagine what it would be like for a man to mount a trailer-like being like this one. Will he be able to find her hole, or will he poke the area around her thighs and think he has found it? Won’t she squash him if she went on top? Will the bed break because of too much vibration from this giant? She reminded me of a horror film I once saw, in which a band of youth found a monstrous, vampire animal in bed and it seduced them into banging her. Of course, every boy who had sex with her turned into a vampire. As I stood there looking at her, I did imagine that she could be a great character for a horror-erotic tale.
 —
“Are you jealous?” the girl asked her.
— 
“Me? Jealous? Of what?”
 —

“You are already old,” the girl said. “Why should you be jealous that I’m getting a lot of it while men ignore you?” I clamped my palm on her mouth, but she wriggled away and continued to taunt the woman. “You are old and shapeless! No man can enjoy you! Don’t be jealous of me! I’ll give you advice. Use bananas. They are better than men and they don’t make you pregnant!”

The pharmacy suddenly fell silent. Everyone turned to the girl. The woman was puffing up in anger and I was sure she would explode like a pricked balloon. As bad luck would have it, a policeman walked into the shop as that very moment, and the fat woman at once shouted at him.
— 
“Ah! You came at the right time officer! This man has defiled and impregnated this young girl!”
 —
Next thing I knew, I was in Seeta police post, facing a uniformed officer who had such a huge belly that he was not able to button his shirt. He left it hanging open, a dirty looking vest concealing his obscene tummy. An odor wafted from his armpits, but luckily, a ceiling fan blew it out of the window so I did not have to suffer like the characters in The Felistas Fable.  
 —
“You will go to jail for seven years,” the policeman said. “Defilement, or sex with a minor, is a capital offense. You might even be sentenced to death.” He had introduced himself as the OC, the officer in charge of the police post. All I saw was an officer in charge of corruption. “But it depends on how you want to handle it.”
Street children ‘bounce’ past uncaring adults in Kampala.
Their tale is one of parents failing to cope with teenagers.
 “I don’t even know the girl’s name,” I said.
 —
“Really? Then how did you seduce her? Is she a prostitute?”
 —
“I did not seduce her!”
 —
“So why do you want her to test for pregnancy?”
— 
They had seen my camera. They had heard my story already, but like many other Ugandans, they do not understand the concept of a creative documentary. They asked me, ‘Which NGO is funding it?’ ‘It is for TV news? Which TV? Show us your ID.’ When I could not prove that I was working for an NGO, or any TV station, it confirmed to them my guilt.
 —
To make matters worse, the girl had escaped. She fled the moment the cop pounced on me. I did not know her names, or where she came from. 
 —
“We are human beings,” the policeman said. “Talk to us, we shall understand. Just kitu kidogo will be able to clear your name.”
 —
I was so broke, having just finished making The Felistas Fable, that I could not afford the smallest of bribes, not even of ten thousand shillings for that would make me starve for two days. My only option seemed to be with Nalongo. She would testify on my behalf and save me.
— 
But when she heard I was in police hands, she refused to come. She switched off her phone, closed her shop and vanished. She has since migrated from the area. Her flight tended to confirm my earlier suspicions that this whole thing was a scam.
 —
So there I was, in the police station facing a fictitious crime, victim unknown. I haggled with the policemen for nearly six hours. Eventually, they let me go, but I was fifty thousand shillings poorer. I cursed all the way back home. I had lost enough money to feed me for five days. 
The street child rapper, Razor Blade, performing in a night club
Still, the incident sowed the seeds of a story. I then proceeded to find other characters, and so far I have a street child who wants to be a music star. He is a talented rapper who goes by the names Razor Blade. He ran away from home following a disagreement with his parents. I have not yet got the full story, but it surely fits the theme of broken families and parent-teenager disconnect in Uganda today. 
 —
And the time spent in the police post was not entirely wasted. I heard about two other pregnant girls (one also by her teacher, the other by a fellow teenager). If I play my cards well, one of them will end up in the film. I hope it is the girl who got defiled by her teacher.
 —
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Of gambling and taboos

It’s that time of the year, when you get a little down because you have no money to spend on a proper holiday. So a few weeks back, I tried my luck in online bingo and I won myself a few dollars to buy gifts and stuff for friends and family.
 —
And it got me thinking about how much gambling is frowned upon in our societies. I remember, as a teenager, we used to go to a disused stadium in our little town, and play cards for money under the crumbling pavilion. The most popular game was matatu, which I think is played only in Uganda. Recently, someone developed a software and you can play it online via Google, without having to worry that askaris will pounce on you and drag you off to jail. In those days, as the gang gambled away their pennies, a couple of boys would be on the lookout. Being a football stadium, it was easy to see anyone entering from a mile off, and we knew the faces of the askaris from the Municipal Council, so it was easy to see danger long before it arrived, and we would flee to the safety of the surrounding bushes.
 —
Parents used to warn us against cards. They would scream stuff like ‘Don’t play cards or else you will become a muyaye.’ Bayaye are brats, spoilt kids, petty thugs who roam the streets looking for a chance to pickpocket. But I loved the card game, and I especially loved the thrill of making and losing money by chance. I was often lucky, both in cards and other gambling activities. I remember playing the lottery game JADA Scratch for Cash a few times, and I often won something. Sadly, I’ve never hit the jackpot.
 —
Why is it that cards got such a bad image? There were many ways to gamble. We sometimes would use bottle tops (a game called ‘peke’, where you dig a hole in a ground and stood several feet away. The one who threw in the most tops won). The prize would not be money always. Sometimes we gambled for mangoes, or books, or pens. When adults found us playing these other games, they would never yell at us to stop. Today, I see youth gambling through pool, Ludo – both of which have become so popular you find a gang of idle youth playing them on every street – and mweso. No one will frown when they see you playing such games, but the moment you are caught with cards, it’s a police case.
Youth playing pool by the roadside in a Kampala suburb
In Nepal, gambling is deeply ingrained in the culture, and playing cards is so popular that you find a deck in every office, especially those in rural towns. During tea breaks, or when there is no electricity, or at the slightest excuse, they will play a game of cards. It has become something of a religious ritual during the famous festival, Tihar, when families reunite in ancestral homes and when friends gather – it’s like Christmas, only that it is nearly a whole month of Christmas. A whole month of idleness, of festivities, of drinking, and of gambling. It is hard to think of Tihar without cards, just as you cannot separate Carols from Christmas.
 —
They play the game anywhere. In offices, in living rooms, in temples, in dark rooms, on the rooftops, in the balconies. I always thought it made one of my favorite restaurants sexy, almost like a little illegal casino. This was Shalom, in Rato phul (red bridge), Danghadi town. It always had a haze of hookah smoke hanging above the tables like mist in a horror movie scene, and pretty Magar girls walking around like Chinese spies in a James Bond movie.
 —
When the Moaist rebellion cropped up, they assumed the role of moral guardians of the society. They banned gambling, and thus playing cards, among other thing. They once attacked a village of hereditary prostitutes, Munha, and beat up the girls whose only crime was to be born in the caste of entertainers. Badi. Not many Nepalis liked this, for the Maoists were attacking the very foundations of their cultures, beliefs that they had held valuable for centuries.
Kathmandu nightlife. You get a feeling sometimes
that Nepalis aren’t welcome in some places.
Maoists marching against something or the other.
Today, Nepalis are not allowed into Casinos. There are about half a dozen in Kathmandu, mostly based in five star hotels. I visited the Radisson, and was welcomed with pretty girls who made me feel like Sean Connery. I went with a Nepali friend, who loved to gamble, but who was afraid to go into the casinos alone. ‘If I’m with you,’ he told me, ‘they will think I’m a foreigner as well.’ He spoke heavily accented English, the kind Nepalis think are English yet is really Nepali English. So at the entrance, I did all the speaking. They let us in without trouble. However, Nepalis normally wouldn’t find it difficult to enter these casinos, for the casinos have to make money and will look away if a national walks in. But when the police raid the place, which they often do, they pounce on anyone who they think is a national and whisk him away to jail. But this friend knew if he was in the company of a foreigner, the police would not touch him. Indeed, in our night at the Radisson, he told the cops who interrogated him, ‘I’m merely his driver. He invited me in for a drink.’  The cops left him alone, and he won a tidy sum that night. 
 —
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Speechless

I have no words. I once read this story in the New Vision, and I heard a call to make a social action documentary, about how the government of Uganda ignores certain diseases, and focuses on diseases that donors say it should focus on. They pour money into TB, AIDS, Malaria, and now on maternal health – and yet being pregnant is not even a disease! It’s 100% natural, but (okay, that’s for another story) – there are sicknesses that are killing Ugandans, and no one is doing anything about it. Like DMD, duchenne muscular dystrophy, a terrible killer.

It’s sad to see a young life wasted,
reduced to waiting for the grim reaper.

I visited this family in Wakiso district, and spent a day with them. I am hoping to convince a physiotherapist to visit the family and train them on how to care for their sick children, but this case makes me speechless. I do not know if I have the heart to make this film.

Three children have already died in the family. One boy is suffering from advanced stages of the disease. He may go any time soon. The other three boys are still young, but already showing signs of the killer.

What does the future hold for me? Julius seems to ask.

It is a very depressing story. Of little boys waiting to day. Of a family living in abject poverty. Of disease and hopelessness. Of a family that has been abandoned by neighbours, relatives and friends because they are thought to be carrying a curse.

I feel helpless.

And I feel gagged.

It doesn’t look good at all, Julius seems to say.

There is a very bad attitude going round in the media. It has corrupted artists, writers and film makers. They say you should avoid the kind of stories that BBC and CNN tell about Africa. Stories that stereotype Africa as a place of wars, poverty and disease. The Caine Prize was once heavily criticized for picking stories that some say depict Africa in a ‘negative’ way. Some call it ‘poverty porn’. It bowed to that pressure. Sadly.

But it makes me angry. And I want to ask these stupid people who want us not to tell stories of people like Paul Kayonga and is unfortunate family. I want to ask them one question; If we all keep silent, if we only write about the partying in Kampala, and crazy sex in night clubs like in Viva Riva, and how Africa has a lifestyle and atmosphere that is similar to the good life in Europe and America and Asia — if we do not speak about the poverty, the wars, the diseases like duchenne muscular dystrophy that attacks unfortunately families and pushes them deeper into poverty, is that not escapism?

Who will speak for such people? Who will tell the stories to inspire social action? Shall we not end up like the USA, a capitalist hell where only the rich have a voice? Where only those who have means can be heard?

I think those who do not want to ‘stereotype’ Africa, and want to only tell stories of the ‘good’ side of Africa, have lived in Europe and America, or grown up in cities, and are out of touch with reality.

I want to tell this story. I think that portraying people in a positive light does not mean avoiding ‘poverty porn’. Instead, it involves painting a picture of how brave such families are. Of how surviving against all odds.

I hope I will be able to tell this story. Please God, give me the strength to tell it.

All smiles upon getting beans from a good neighbour. Now supper is assured.
Mother and her children prepare beans for supper.
 —
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Starving Artists and Rejection Slips at Christmas

It’s the worst part of being an ‘artist’. For this reason they came up with the term, starving artist, to make the whole thing seem romantic. To make the artist think he has a right to starve, since he is the ‘creative’ type, the one who lives on dreams, who is too lazy to get a proper job and earn a decent salary. I must have got a thousand rejection slips by now, most of them computer generated, but every time I get one, I get that feeling deep down in my stomach that I’m wasting time. That I should be thinking of getting a job as a teacher in some village secondary school — though with the way things are today, it might be harder getting such a job than getting published! At least, thank God for the internet, I can blog and pretend to be famous writer because I have about a hundred followers, who don’t even read the blog.
Edgar A. Poe, very famous, but he was a poor church mouse.

And yesterday, I got another rejection slip! It came in the form of a nicely wrapped Christmas present. It went something like, “We have seen your potential and encourage you to submit again next year.” For the first time, I lost it. I did something they warn artists never to do. When you get a rejection letter, you simply stomach it and try elsewhere, but this time, I could not contain it anymore. I wrote back to the bloody fools, saying; “You dimwits! It’s the fourth time you are sending me that computer-generated rejection slip! But guess what, I am sending you one of my own — at least it’s not computer generated — because I am tired of sending you work! I will never, ever, ever, submit to you again! Got it! Hahahaha! And I’m going to organize a writers strike, I’ll ask everyone to boycott your stupid magazine, and then who will you send those computer generated rejection slips to? Bastards.”

Of course, my email wasn’t so strongly worded, and it wasn’t to a magazine, but well, I’m trying to protect the identity of the idiots. Just don’t know why I bothered to contact them after they sent three bloody rejection slips!

Here is a site I keep visiting to read rejection slips. http://www.literaryrejectionsondisplay.blogspot.com/

Well, Kafka’s life story is some kind of consolation. His life was full of rejection slips. He only got famous after his death. His novellas, letters, and essays never saw publication in his lifetime – in fact, he ordered his contemporary Max Brod, the executor of his estate, to burn every manuscript without reading them. But what use is fame if you are dead? :-)) 

Franza Kafka’s grave in Prague
Steven Crane. I loved his stories, but he too died broke.

Qn: “How did you go bankrupt?”

Ans: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

~ Hemingway:

This incident reminded me of a blog I wrote, a long time ago, in scriptologist.com I’ve pasted it 
below, unedited. :-)) And I love the anonymous response it got :-))

New hope or New year?

Amazing how Editors can appear out of the blue gloom to lift up your spirits.

I’ve just had another terrible xmas, like all my xmases are. It’s the time when people hang out with their loved ones and family. Its the time also that reminds me how much I lack all these. No family (well, there is one, brothers, father, a mother, but each time I see any of them, I get nightmares. Bad nightmares like those on Elm Street) No loved one either. It’s been a long and sorrowful life for me (you call 29 long?) and this xmas brought out my forlonity in with such graphic clarity that I found myself looking back at the events that made my life what it is. It goes way back to my earliest memory, sex with a neighbours daughter. she was 3, i was 4. it was traumatizing: there was the gal who died (hit by a car as I crossed the road with her) when I was about 5. I think those two made my life what it is. pathetic. those two sparked off a series of a lot of other incidents that make me forever a loner. And this christmas made me see all these in a new light, made me feel my ambitions to be a writer were contemptous. Made me feel my life wasn’t worth living. Made me feel so many things that I swore to end this miserable life before I’m 30, if I haven’t broken into the ranks of pros.

Well, and then this morning, I get an email. At first I think it’s junk. I’ve forgotten all about this story, and this magazine, and I read the letter three times to remember both. It’s an acceptance. 25$. And I’m like ‘Oh shit, I aint that bad.” Of course it isn’t the only thing I’ve ever published, but its the only acceptance in over a year and it was begining to get to my throat.

It’s such small favours from the Editors (who live in Olympus, is that the correct spelling of that mountain?) that keeps miserables like us going.

Maybe this year will be a different one for me.

[ 01:52 ] [ 2007-Jan-9 ] [ Post Comment ]

Melancholy Breakfast

I’m always upbeat and happy because I need to suppress my childhood memories with fake, happy thoughts, when people are around.

After reading your sad, yet truthful article, I mean blog, I’ve decided to stay sad and that will make me a better writer. I ‘m going to tell my loved ones to not talk to me for week and see if I could write better scripts.

Maybe I should send my son to Iraq and then I will definetly NOT be faking my sadness.

Or better yet, maybe I should watch Bush’s speech tonight at nine and then I will truly fall under despair.

[ Anonymous ] [ 11:58 ] [ 2007-Jan-10 ] [ Link ]

PS: The story mentioned above went on to get nominated for the Million Writers Award: Notable Online Stories of 2007. You can read it here http://www.gowanusbooks.com/Dila_Homecoming.html

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Anybody reading?

The internet joke
Another rejection
One of those gloomy days
I’m no superwoman