She is Our Stupid by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi landed on the literary landscape with her ‘great Ugandan novel’, Kintu, which won the Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013—and was published in Kenya in 2014 (Kwani), the US in 2017 (Transit Books), and the UK/Commonwealth in 2018 (OneWorld). On Kintu, Lesley Nneka Arimah has said in the Guardian: ‘With a novel that is inventive in scope, masterful in execution, she does for Ugandan literature what Chinua Achebe did for Nigerian writing.’
In 2014 Makumbi won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize – of which she is a judge this year – for ‘Let’s Tell This Story Properly’. Her first full story collection, Manchester Happened, is out now in the UK (OneWorld), and will be republished by Transit in the US in July (as Let’s Tell this Story Properly).
This short story, ‘She is Our Stupid’, was specially commissioned by and broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 as ‘My Sister Biira’.
She is Our Stupid
My sister Biira is not: she’s my cousin. Ehuu!
Ever heard of King Midas’s barber, who saw the king’s donkey ears and carried the secret until it became too much to bear? I could not hold it in any longer. I stumbled across it five years ago at Biira’s wedding and I have been carrying it since. But unlike Midas’s barber – stupid sod dug a hole in the earth, whispered the secret in there and buried it – my family does not read fiction. A bush grew over the barber’s words and every time the wind blew, the bush whispered, King Midas has donkey ears. I have also changed the names. Of course, the barber was put to death. But for me, if this story gets back to my family, death will be too kind.
Back in 1961, Aunty Flower went to Britain on a sikaala to become a teacher – sikaala was scholarship or sikaalasip. Her name was Nnakimuli then. At the time, Ugandan scholars to Britain could not wait to come home, but not Aunty Flower;she did not write either. Instead, she translated Nnakimuli into Flower and was not heard from until 1972.
It was evening when a special hire from the airport parked in my grandfather’s courtyard. Who jumped out of the car? Nnakimuli. As if she had left that morning for the city. They did not recognise her because she was so skinny a rod is fat. And she moved like a rod too. Then the hair. It was so big you thought she carried a mugugu on her head. And the make-up? Loud. But you know parents, a child can do things to herself but a parent will not be deceived. It was Grandfather who said, ‘Isn’t this Nnakimuli?’
Family did not know whether to unlock their happiness because when her father reached to hug her, Nnakimuli planted kisses – on his right cheek and on his left – and her father did not know what to do. The rest of the family held onto their happiness and waited for her to guide them on how to be happy to see her. When she spoke English to them, they apologised: Had we known you were coming we would have bought a kilo of meat…haa, dry tea? Someone run to the shop and get a quarter of sugar…Remember to get milk from the mulaalo in the morning…Maybe you should sit up on a chair with Father; the ground is hard…The bedroom is in the dark…Will you manage our outside bathroom and toilet?…Let’s warm your bathwater – you won’t manage our cold water. And when Nnakimuli said her name was Flower, the disconnect was complete. Their rural tongues called her Fulawa. When she helped them, Fl, Fl, Flo-w-e-r, they said Fluew-eh. Nonetheless, she had brought a little something for everyone. People whispered There’s a little of Nnakimuli left in this Fulawa.
Not Fulawa, maalo, it’s Fl, Fl, Flueweh, and they collapsed in giggles.
The following morning, Flower woke up at five, chose a hoe and waited to go digging. She scoffed when family woke up at 6 a.m. Now she spoke Luganda like she never left. Still, family fussed over her bare feet, chewing their tongues speaking English: ‘You’ll knock your toes, you’re not used.’ But she said, ‘Forget Flower; I am Nnakimuli.’
She followed them to the garden where they were going to dig. When they divided up the part that needed weeding, they put her at the end in case she failed to complete her portion. She finished first and started harvesting the day’s food, collected firewood, tied her bunch and carried it on her head back home. She then fetched water from the well until the barrel in the kitchen was full. She even joined in peeling matooke. When the chores were done, she bathed and changed clothes. She asked Yeeko, her youngest sister, to walk her through the village greeting residents, asking about the departed, who got married – How many children do you have? – and the residents marvelled at how Nnakimuli had not changed. However, they whispered to her family Feed her; put some flesh on those bones before she goes back. Nnakimuli combed the village, remembering, eating wild fruit, catching up on gossip. For seven days, she carried on as if she were back for good and family relaxed. Then on the eighth day, after the chores, she got dressed, gave away her clothes and money to her father. She knelt down and said goodbye to him. ‘Which goodbye?’ The old man was alarmed. ‘We’re getting used to you: where are you going?’
‘To the airport.’
‘Yii-yii? Why didn’t you tell us? We’d have escorted you.’ Entebbe airport had a waving bay then. After your loved one checked in, you went to the top and waited. When they walked out on the tarmac, you called their name and waved. Then they climbed the steps to the plane, turned at the door and waved to you one last time and you jumped and screamed until the door closed. Then the engine whirred so loud it would burst your ears and it was both joyous and painful as the plane taxied out of sight and then it came back at a nvumulo’s speed and jumped in the air and the wheels tucked in and you waved until it disappeared. Then a sense of loss descended on you as you turned away.
‘Don’t worry, Dad’ – she spoke English now – ‘I’ll catch a bus to Kampala and then a taxi to the airport.’
Realising that Fulawa was back, her father summoned all the English the missionaries taught him and said, ‘Mankyesta, see it for us.’
‘Yes, all of it,’ her siblings chimed as if Manchester were Wobulenzi Township, which you could take in in a glance.
‘Take a little stone,’ Yeeko sobbed, ‘and throw it into Mankyesta. Then it’ll treat you well.’
That was the last time the family saw her sane. She did not write, not even after the wars – the Idi Amin one or the Museveni one – to see who had died and who had survived. Now family believes that when she visited, madness was setting in.
Don’t ask how I know all of this. I hear things, I watch, I put things together to get to the truth. Like when I heard my five grandmothers, sisters to my real grandmother who died giving birth to Aunty Yeeko, whisper that Aunty Zawedde should have had Biira. Me being young, I thought it was because Biira is a bit too beautiful. Aunty Zawedde is childless.
In 1981, a Ugandan from Britain arrives looking for the family. He says that Flower is in a mental asylum. Family asks, ‘How?’ Apparently she started falling mad, on and off, in the 1970s. ‘How is she mad?’ The messenger didn’t know. ‘Who’s looking after her?’ You don’t need family to look after you in a mental asylum. ‘You mean our child is all alone like that?’ She’s with other sick people and medical people. ‘Who put her there?’ Her husband. ‘Husband, which husband?’ She was married. ‘Don’t tell me she had children as well.’ No. ‘Ehuu! But what kind of husband dumps our child in an asylum without telling us? How did he marry her without telling us?’ Also, ask yourselves, the messenger said, how Flower married him without telling you. The silence was awkward. However, love is stubborn. Family insisted, ‘Us, we still love our person’; Nnakimuli might have been stupid to cut herself off from the family, but she was their stupid. ‘Is her husband one of us or of those places?’ Of those places. ‘Kdto!’ They had suspected as much. The messenger gave them the address and left. Family began to look for people who knew people in Britain. Calls were made; letters were written: We have our person in this place; can you check on her and give us advice? In the end, family decided to bring Aunty Flower back home: ‘Let her be mad here with us.’ The British were wonderful; they gave Aunty Flower a nurse to escort her on the flight.
Aunt Flower had got big. A bigness that extended over there. She smoked worse than wet firewood. Had a stash of Marlboros. ‘Yii, but this Britain,’ family lamented, ‘she even learnt to smoke?’ With the medicine from Britain, Aunt Flower was neither mad nor sane. She was slow and silent. Then the medicine ran out and real madness started. People fall mad in different ways. Aunty Flower was agitated, would not sit still, as if caged. ‘I am Flower Down, Down with an e.’ ‘Who?’ family asked. ‘Mrs Down with an e.’ Family accepted. ‘I want to go.’ ‘Go where?’ ‘Let me go.’ ‘But where?’ ‘I could be Negro, I could be West Indian – how do you know?’ They let her go. Obviously, England was still in her head. But someone kept an eye on her. All she did was roam and remind people that she was Down with an e. But by 6 p.m., she was home. After a month, the family stopped worrying. Soon the bigness disappeared, but not the smoking. Through the years, Flower Downe roamed the villages laughing, arguing, smoking. She is always smart, takes interest in what she wears. However, if you want to see Aunty Flower’s madness properly, touch her cigarettes.
Then in 1989 someone remarked, ‘Isn’t that pregnancy I see on Flower?’ The shock. ‘Yii, but men have no mercy – a madwoman?’ An urgent meeting of her siblings, their uncles and aunts was called: ‘What do we do, what do we do?’ There were threats: ‘If we ever catch him!’ They tried to coax her: ‘Flower, who touched you there?’ But when she smiled dreamily, they changed tactics: ‘Tell us about your friend, Mrs Downe.’ She skipped out of the room. A man was hired again to tail her. Nothing.
A few months later, Aunt Flower disappeared. When I came home for the holidays, she was not pregnant. I imagined they had removed it. Meanwhile, Mum had had Biira but I don’t remember seeing her pregnant. I was young and stupid and did not think twice about it.
There is nothing to tell about Biira. I mean, what do I know? I am the eldest – she is the youngest. She came late, a welcome mistake, we presumed. Like late children, she was indulged. She is the loving, protective, fiercely loyal but spoilt sister with a wild sense of fashion. We grew up without spectacle, close-knit. However, we do not have a strong family resemblance – everyone looks like themselves. So there is nothing about Biira to single her out apart from being beautiful. But all families have that selfish sibling who takes all the family looks – what can you do? However, if you want to see Biira’s anger, say she resembles Aunty Flower.
Then Biira found a man. We did the usual rites families do when a girl gets engaged. Then on the wedding day, Aunty Flower came to church. No one informed her, no one gave her transport, no one told her what to wear, yet she turned up at church decked out in a magnificent busuuti like the mother of the bride. Okay, her jewellery and make-up were over the top, but she sat quiet – no smoking, no agitating, just smiling – as Biira took her vows. And why were Dad and his sibling restless throughout the service? Later they said, ‘Flower came because Biira resembles her.’ I thought, Lie to yourselves. Aunty Flower never came to any of my cousins’ weddings.
The day of Biira’s wedding, I looked at Aunt Flower properly and I am telling you the way Biira resembles her is not innocent – I mean gestures, gait, fingers, and even facial expressions. How? I have been watching Aunt Flower since. There is no doubt that her mind is absent – deaths, births, marriages in the family do not register. However, mention Biira and you will see moments of lucidity in Aunt Flower’s eyes.
Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was awarded the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction in 2018 and will launch Manchester Happened at Africa Writes, London this weekend