Street entertainment from my childhood

I never knew how much we remember from childhood until I wrote this story, The Puppets of Maramudhu. One reviewer, when talking about it, said “Dilman’s story is unique, not that it is alien or experimental. It is neither of these. In fact, it is the kind of stories we love to tell, orally, but which we rarely ever write, unfortunately, perhaps because of our quest to remain realists.” I always wonder why we endeavor to remain realists, yet our socialization process conditions us to believe in the supernatural, to point at spirits and unknowable forces when explaining strange phenomenon. As children, the stories we loved to hear the most were those with magic in them. Why is it that as adults we shy away from them?
Razor Blade, a street child rapper, and his audience.

Even if we didn’t have such a socialization process, in the name of religion or science, it is hardwired in our systems to believe in a world that we cannot see, a world with powers we cannot explain, simply because we have never figured out what happens when we die. I became fascinated with this world at an early age, like every child, but I think I have not outgrown it. The characters I met back then still haunt my dreams, and every now and then they creep out into my stories. These characters were so weird that they furnished our childhood fancies with wild imaginations.

I think every child will come across a story of a real-life person who resurrected from the dead, long before they ever encounter Lazarus. It is the same with folk tales, for you will find narratives in an African society that are similar to those of a South American society that it has not had known contact with. These similarities often arise because all human beings share the same fears and emotions. If you look into your past, into your childhood, you will remember hearing about a person, maybe who lived down the street, or in the next village, or in another town, often someone you know, who will become a bogeyman of sorts, and you will remember that such a person once died and resurrected.
In my town, we had such a guy. They say he was buried for three days (why three days, like Jesus?), and one time a group of children were picking mangoes from a tree near the public graveyard when they heard something knocking under the ground. They fled. The knocking did not stop for several hours, until a few brave men dug up the grave and found the man alive. We called him Bubu (or was it Abubuna), which was not a polite word, for it mean deafmute. He could not speak, could not hear, for it is said what he saw in the world of the dead had to remain a secret. It’s probably because of him that I’m always fascinated with the living dead, like the jothokwo in The Terminal Move, and like Maramudhu in The Puppets of Maramudhu.
We would follow Bubu around the streets, trying to make him speak, and often he would ignore us. He was docile, non-violent, and I sometimes feel bad for pestering him. We used to follow ‘mad people’ around as well. I say ‘mad people’ in quotes because it is not the politically correct term to refer to people with mental disorders. I think most of these people were schizophrenic. They offered us a daily dose of entertainment, with their oddities. We followed them to eaves drop on the conversations they were having with the imaginary creatures bothering them, but often we followed them to provoke them into a fight.
A woman with a mental disability poops in the streets.
Banepa town, near Kathmandu, Nepal.

I especially remember one woman, I forget what we used to call her. She had made a home in the disused stands at the bus park. We loved to throw stones at her for she was particularly fierce, and would throw missiles at us in return. One day, she did not fight back. She ran, fleeing our missiles. But then, she stopped and, even as stones fell all around her, she dumped a huge pile of poop right in the middle of the road. Not a stone hit her. The moment we realised she was pooing, we stopped stoning her and watched in excitement. 

After she had eased, she resumed running away, though we were no longer chasing or stoning her. We crept to her poop. It had a variety of colors, almost like a rainbow. I had never seen such colourful poop, and never have. We were so enthralled by her poop that we kept watch over it for a whole day, until it decayed and lost its brilliance. For a moment, we thought the poop had magical powers. We wanted to scoop it up and keep it somewhere safe, where we would discover what powers it had and – well, I don’t remember what stopped us.

A Street Child Rapper Entertaining Women in Kampala
An Acrobat Entertaining in Kyaliwajala town, Namugongo, near Kampala.

While we tortured these poor fellows for our entertainment, every once in a while a real entertainer would drop into town. Being a small, almost ghost-like town, unlike a city, these street traders would not attract much money, or stay for long. Most would hang around for a day, or just a few hours. But some kept coming back, every few months or so, on their way through. There were dikulas, clowns who dressed like women and told silly jokes (dikulas have made it into another story, a novel, if it gets published, you will be reading a lot more about them, but they sure aren’t like the evil clown in Steven King’s IT), acrobats, musicians, dancers, and puppeteers. (I wonder how children these days entertain themselves. They seem to have a lot more (TVs, Internet, video games) competing for their attention.)

There was even once a man who came with a TV show. This was the 1980s, a time when the TV set was a mystery to many of us. Our family got its first TV set in 1990, because that is also the year the world cup was broadcast live to Uganda (I think), but we got the bonus of watching the Gulf War live as well. It was a black and white thing, and when the pictures when totally fuzzy, we sat and watched anyway for nobody knew how to get a clear signal. So when this guy came to town and said he had a TV show, a small crowd gathered. It turned out that he had only a set of still photos, which he hid inside a big black box, and he only allowed you to look at these photos through a pair of eye-holes. He did not make much money, once people figured out he was a big con. We thought we were going to see moving pictures, not a slideshow. His box show ended up in The Puppets of Maramudhu, as the cart the evil sorcerer dragged around.

What this documentary I made, about a family of street musicians

The puppeteer who stuck to my head, and who eventually become the title character in the story, Maramudhu, was Abe Mukibuga (I think that was his name). Or I might be confusing him with another one. Maybe there were two puppeteers, I cannot remember well, but I remember the song they used to sing, as they made their puppets to dance. It went ‘mayo ni mayo, mayo ni wempe’ (whatever those words mean) and then another line ‘sasa wewe kijana moses, shika bibi yako’, one of the puppets was called Moses, and he had a female partner with whom he danced. Well, this song ended up in the story as well, not the same lyrics though, but the same tune. I wish I could make a film out of it, to preserve this song that has never left my dreams. 

The stories behind Mukibuga (that should mean town-man, or an urbanised man) were weird, as well. Nobody knew where he came from, even though he used a show name from Buganda. Nobody knew his age. He seemed to be the same age for decades, from the seventies when he started to pass by the town, to the late eighties when I first saw him. They said he never traveled in vehicles, that he pulled his cart on foot, from Kinshansha to Mombasa, staging shows from town to town. This particular detail impressed me so much that I had to write a story about him.I feel guilty for making him an evil man, but I guess I was only trying to make the dreams go away.

I feel I have not exhausted the story, of a showman who walks across the continent entertaining people. I think he will come again, sometime in the future, and maybe this time he will not be evil.

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