The teller of this panoramic tale is Mugezi, a quick-witted, sharp-eyed man whose life encompasses the traditional and the modern, the peaceful and the insanely violent, the despotic and the democratic. Born in a rural community in the early 1960s, he is raised by his grandfather, a deposed clan chief, and his great-aunt, or "grandmother," after his parents immigrate to the capital city of Kampala. At age nine, he leaves behind his secure life in the village to join his parents and siblings in the city, where he is first exposed to the despotism and hardship that he will contend with in the years to come.
The nightmare reign of Idi Amin and its chaotic aftermath are the backdrop to Mugezi's troubled coming-of-age: his constant struggle with his harsh mother and austere father; his years spent as caregiver to his parents' ever-growing brood of children; his sojourn in a horrifically repressive Catholic seminary. He goes to work as a high school teacher, becomes enmeshed in a tragic romance, finds himself drawn into a dubious, potentially dangerous alliance with the military after Amin's fall and witnesses the widespread ravages of the AIDS virus. Finally, sickened by personal loss and national tragedy, he manages to immigrate to Amsterdam.
The details of Mugezi's life provide a foundation for Isegawa's brilliant and profoundly illuminating portrait of the contemporary, postcolonial African experience. Filled with extraordinary characters, animated by a wicked sense of humor and guided by an intense yet clear-eyed compassion, Abyssianian Chronicles is our introduction to a superlative new writer.
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1971: Village Days
Three final images flashed across Serenity's mind as he disappeared into the jaws of the colossal crocodile: a rotting buffalo with rivers of maggots and armies of flies emanating from its cavities; the aunt of his missing wife, who was also his longtime lover; and the mysterious woman who had cured his childhood obsession with tall women. The few survivors of my father's childhood years remembered that up until the age of seven, he would run up to every tall woman he saw passing by and, in a gentle voice trembling with unspeakable expectation, say, "Welcome home, Ma. You were gone so long I was afraid you would never return." Taken by surprise, the woman would smile, pat him on the head, and watch him wring his hands before letting him know that he had once again made a mistake. The women in his father's homestead, assisted by some of the villagers, tried to frighten him into quitting by saying that one day he would run into a ghost disguised as a tall woman, which would take him away and hide him in a very deep hole in the ground. They could have tried milking water from a stone with better results. Serenity, a wooden expression on his face, just carried on running up to tall women and getting disappointed by them.
Until one hot afternoon in 1940 when he ran up to a woman who neither smiled nor patted him on the head; without even looking at him, she took him by the shoulders and pushed him away. This mysterious curer of his obsession won herself an eternal place in his heart. He never ran up to tall women again, and he would not talk about it, not even when Grandma, his only paternal aunt, promised to buy him sweets. He coiled into his inner cocoon, from whose depths he rejected all efforts at consolation. A smooth, self-contained indifference descended on his face so totally that he won himself the name Serenity, shortened to "Sere."
Serenity's mother, the woman who in his mind had metamorphosed into all those strange tall women, had abandoned him when he was three, ostensibly to go to the distant shops beyond Mpande Hill where big purchases were made. She never returned. She also left behind two girls, both older than Serenity, who adjusted to her absence with great equanimity and could not bear his obsession with tall women.
In an ideal situation, Serenity should have come first--everyone wanted a son for the up-and-coming subcounty chief Grandpa was at the time--but girls kept arriving, two dying soon after birth in circumstances reeking of maternal desperation. By the time Serenity was born, his mother had decided to leave. Everyone expected her to have another son as a backup, for an only son was a candle in a storm. The pressure reached a new peak when it became known that she was pregnant again. Speculation was rife: Would it be a boy or a girl, would it live or die, was it Grandpa's or did it belong to the man she was deeply in love with? Before anybody could find out the truth, she left. But her luck did not hold--three months into her new life, her uterus burst, and she bled to death on the way to the hospital, her life emptying into the backseat of a rotten Morris Minor.
As time passed, Serenity crawled deeper into his cocoon, avoiding his aunts, his cousins, and his mother's replacements, who he felt hated him for being the heir apparent to his father's estate and the miles of fertile clan land it included. The birth of Uncle Kawayida, his half-brother by a Muslim woman his father was seeing on the side, did not lessen Serenity's estrangement. Kawayida, due to the circumstances of his birth, posed little threat to Serenity's position, and thus attitudes remained unchanged. To escape the phantoms which galloped in his head and the contaminated air in his father's compound, Serenity roamed the surrounding villages. He spent a lot of time at the home of the Fiddler, a man with large feet, a large laugh and sharp onion breath who serenaded Grandpa on the weekends when he was home.
Serenity could not get over the way the Fiddler walked with legs wide apart. It would have been very impolite to ask the man why he walked that way, and Serenity feared that if he asked his children, they would tell their father, who in turn would report him to his father for punishment. Consequently, he turned to his aunt with the question "Why does the Fiddler have breasts between his legs?"
"Who said the Fiddler had breasts between his legs?"
"Have you never noticed the way he walks?"
"How does he walk?"
"With legs spread wide apart as if he were carrying two jackfruits under his tunic." He then gave a demonstration, very exaggerated, of the way the man walked.
"It is very funny, but I have never noticed it," Grandma said, humoring him the way adults did to get out of a sticky situation.
"How could you not have noticed? He has large breasts between his legs."
"The Fiddler has no breasts between his legs. He is ill. He has got mpanama."
Serenity's sisters somehow got wind of the duckwalk and could not resist telling their village peers and schoolmates about the Fiddler, his breasts, and the little clown who portrayed him in silly mimicries. As a result, Serenity got the nickname Mpanama, a ghastly sounding word used out of adult hearing that dropped from gleeful lips with the wet slap of dung hitting hard ground from the rear of a half-constipated cow. Once again he was cured of an obsession, though he continued with his visits to the poor man's home, faintly hoping to catch him pissing or, better still, squatting on the latrine, for he really wanted to see if the Fiddler's breasts were as large and smooth as those of the women in his father's homestead.
Apart from his secret fantasy, Serenity also wanted to learn how to play the fiddle. He could not get over the one-stringed moans, groans, sighs, screams, grunts and other peculiar sounds the Fiddler conjured, squeezed and rubbed out of the little instrument. The Fiddler's visits formed the high point of his week, and the music was the only thing he listened to with pleasure uncoerced or influenced by adults or peers. He wanted to learn how to hold the instrument proudly against his shoulder and tune the string with a knot of wax. His aim was to charm strange women into his magic circle and keep them rooted there for as long as he wanted. In school he was known for his beautiful pencil drawings of fiddles. His wish never came true.
Grandpa, a Catholic, was unseated and replaced by a Protestant rival in a contest marred by religious sectarianism. As the fifties ended, his power gone and the heart taken out of his life, Grandpa's homestead shrivelled as relatives, friends and hangers-on left one by one or in little groups. The women dropped out of his life, and the Fiddler took his talent elsewhere. By the time I was the age Serenity was when he ran up to strange tall women, Grandpa was living alone, sharing his house with the occasional visitor, relative or woman, a few rats, spiders and the odd snake that sloughed behind his heaps of coffee sacks.
Grandma, his only surviving sister, was also living alone, three football fields away. Serenity's bachelor house, a trim little thing standing on land donated by both Grandpa and Grandma, separated the two homesteads. It was a sleepy little house, now and then kicked from the slumber of disintegration, swept and cleaned to accommodate a visitor, or just to limit the damage wreaked by termites and other destroyers. It only came alive when Serenity's sisters or Uncle Kawayida visited and hurricane lamps washed it with golden beams. The voices and laughter made the rafters quiver, and the smoke from the open fire wound long spectacular threads round the roof and touched off distant memories.
The exodus of wives, relatives, friends and hangers-on had left a big howling lacuna which wrapped the homestead in webs of glorious nostalgia. The fifties and sixties were spanned by that nostalgia and provided us with stories pickled, polished and garnished by memory. Every migrant soul was now a compact little ghost captured in words, invoked from the lacuna by the oracle of Grandpa and Grandma and made to inject doses of old life into our present truncated existence. The hegemony of lacuna'd ghosts in their stories was broken only when the characters, like resurrected souls, braved the dangerous slopes of Mpande Hill and the treacherous papyrus swamps to come and state their case in person. The Fiddler never returned, but was most prevalent because he was immortalized by the poor rendition of his songs Grandpa showered on his homestead as he shaved, as he toured his coffee plantation--the shamba--to supervise work, as he reminisced in the shade and as he wondered how to get a young girl with an old soul to see him through his last days.