Waiting on the Frangipani Treeby Jackee Budesta Batanda
My two sisters and I perched on the frangipani tree and watched the neighbours. Their compound bustled with activity. We observed, entranced, through the chain link fence that separated the two homes as the neighbors reached for the rose-champagne bougainvillea flowers that hung low above the daffodils planted by the fence. Their house was the largest on our street. It was a flat-roofed house painted white and blue. The windows all looked like doors. Someone was hanging strings of flowers above the windows in preparation of their father’s arrival. He was away fighting the rebels in Luweero district. We had heard many stories about the war, but they were like echoes that fade in the distance. We lived in Kampala, and the war had not come here yet. We watched as they swept the dry leaves and flowers from the concrete pavement with stick brooms.
Ogora, my best friend, swept the soil around the flowerbeds, leaving circles in the soil. We had had our first real disagreement yesterday, so I hesitated before shouting over the fence, “What’s going on? Are you going to have a party?” I was not sure he would respond. He shouted back, “My dad's coming home. We got a call last night. I actually talked to him.” Then he went back to sweeping. His sweeping made the cocoa brown dust rise in the air like smoke. On the porch, Nimaro, his older sister, was also hanging flowers above the doors. The doors were wide open, and music was blaring through them, making my heart jump to the beat.
This was the third time this month that they prepared for their father’s homecoming. Each visit had been announced with a late night phone call and later postponed. With each failed return, the compound had gone back to being a little neglected. So, as the children sang while they swept the compound, I wanted to ask them what would happen if their father did not come this time. The question lingered on my tongue. I guess it was the way they sang joyfully in their language, which I could not understand, that stopped me. I did not dare ask the question that would have damaged their happiness as they swept. Or perhaps it was the way their faces broke out in smiles exposing their white teeth.
I was both jealous and happy for them that their daddy was coming home. I did not have a dad and Ogora’s father was like a father to us when he was home. He was the hugest man I had ever seen, with the deepest voice and laugh. When he was home, there was always some kind of celebration and music played late into the night. He would invite us over and capture our attention with heroic stories of how he was saving the country. His stories made me want to be an army man too when I grew up. When he travelled abroad, he always returned with goodies- chocolates, sweets and apples and other hard-to-find luxuries like video tapes of the Muppet Show. He always insisted that Ogora give us some of the goodies because we were friends, and we would later watch the Muppet Show on the largest colour TV.
The laughter ringing out from all corners of the compound made me envious. I wanted to be a part of the excitement instead of watching from the fringes. I had always asked them where he was. He was an army man all right. The silver metallic uniport huts that dotted the compound said so in many words. His bodyguards, twenty in number, these days spent the hours lying in the grass because Ogora’s father was away. They were assigned to guard the family.
From many afternoons spent watching Rambo movies with Ogora, I had a fair idea of what happened in war. Some made it back home, and others did not. In my argument with Ogora, yesterday, I had spitefully told him that I hoped his father died in the war. I convinced myself that he would come back, even when I imagined him lying dead. Everyone believed he was coming back this time and that is what mattered.
It was lunchtime and already trails of relatives had started trickling in through the gate like safari ants carrying gifts with them. Each time a visitor appeared, there were ululations and shouts of joy as they hugged and danced from the gate to the house. The women would then head behind the house where they had set up saucepans to cook the rice, beef, goat meat, matooke, offals, posho, millet bread, and the rest of the feast. The men disappeared through the open doors and only came out once in a while. A few were in the corner of the compound supervising the slaughtering of goats to celebrate the homecoming. A pickup had arrived earlier on in the morning to deliver the four goats. My nose sniffed out the aroma and I wanted to go over the fence but knew better.
Mother would not allow me to go over there, ‘to mujasi’s home’ without her permission. She was suspicious of army men after father had been taken away in the night by a group of army men. She had passed on that fear to us. Her fear, however, was not strong enough to discourage us from playing with his children.
I wished I was part of the Ogora family so that I would take part in the festivities and get sucked into the same excitement. They were decorating the compound with balloons and flowers. In the house, the sounds of Yvonne Chaka Chaka seeped into the compound, adding to the spirit of joy that usually hung in their compound. It was not a party without music from Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube, and Chico. Soon Ogora’s father would be here, all dressed in an army uniform with a line of escorts to accompany him. We could not wait to see the lazing soldiers left behind, jump to their feet and busy themselves with chores they did not really want to do.
When Natabona, the house help, called us for lunch, I ignored her. My sisters, tired of the spectacle, went in to have lunch. I stayed alone on the tree because I did not want to miss the grand entrance of the army general, even though she threatened to tell Mother that I had refused to eat and was watching the neighbours. I put my fingers in my ears to block out her warnings. I would endure the beatings from Mother when she returned from work, but for now, I would watch. It was not everyday that you saw an army general return from the war. I wanted to smell the war on him and get a feeling of it. The smell would make the war stories real for us, which we would later act out. Ogora always played his father.
I don’t remember how long I sat watching the festivities. The preparations seemed to have taken all day. Natabona, tired of threatening me to have lunch and later to take the evening bath, had locked herself up in the house. I remained seated even as my shadow was getting longer as the evening set in. The persistent question lingered: what if, he does not come back. I was about to climb down when I heard a car at their gate; first I heard the impatient hooting and later the loud slamming of a door. I was afraid. Before anyone could open the gate, a lone army man burst through and ran up the driveway to the house.
Then the day’s question was answered. Wailing started from inside the house, before spilling out into the compound like a flood. For a moment, it seemed like time had frozen. I knew. He was not coming back. I knew I would not see Ogora’s father proudly enter the gate in his army uniform, a hero, the hero I wanted to be when I grew up. The sound of sorrow filled the compound as the news spread. Ogora’s mother ran out of the house, a head scarf wrapped around her face. She fell and picked herself up again. She was headed for the gate. Behind her, the man who had come running up the stairs, the man who had cut the air of happiness with his words, ran after her. Even the lazing soldiers sat up for a change. Ogora’s mother cried loudly, her hands tugging at her scarf. Someone held her back, before she reached the gate and dragged her back to the house.
We later learned that she was running to the car to see if the body was there. She had not believed the man who crushed her joy with his cold words. She had not believed that the body had not been brought to her so that she could wash it. The women who were behind the house cooking had started piling into the house, all wailing. They rallied around her, in a wall of solidarity. Their weeping converged in unison, like drops of rain that later cause a flood. My eyes searched for Ogora in all of this commotion. He seemed to have disappeared into the belly of the house. None of other siblings were out with their mother.
It was my fault. I held on tightly onto the branch I sat on. I was sorry that in a moment of anger, I had told Ogora that I wished his father died in the war. Now it had come to pass. I should not have wished his father dead like in the Rambo movies. I wanted to go over to their home, seek out Ogora and tell him that I was sorry. Then maybe the happiness would continue. Perhaps I would be watching him proudly emerging from the Land Rover, a man protecting our country instead of this emptiness. The man, who had carried the sad news, had jumped back into the car that was at the gate and driven off, leaving the family to deal with their loss. The loss now hung above me, like a question mark.
Mother did not scold or beat me when she returned.
Mother took us over the next day to pay our respects. She came with us just like the other women in the neighbourhood. Death always drew the neighbours in large numbers. When we got to the house, Ogora’s mother was seated on a papyrus reed mat surrounded by other women. She was doubled over, and a woman was supporting her. On the coffee table in the living room was a life-sized picture of Ogora’s father dressed in his military fatigues, staring solemnly at us. It was like he was warning us not to cry for him. His large picture was used because his body had not been returned. I stared back at his face. His eyes dared me to tell everyone the truth. I pressed hard into Mother’s hand and looked away.
I sought out Ogora. He sat in a corner whimpering. I walked over and sat next to him. I whispered, “I am sorry,” and held out my hand to him. He pushed it away. I leaned over and whispered a little louder this time, “I am sorry.” I was not sure the words came out. If he had not looked at me and nodded, I would have thought that the words had stuck on my tongue. He held out his hand to me and slowly opened it. In it lay a small crashed military helicopter.
“Papa died in the helicopter that was bringing him back to us.”
“He was to come back this time. He had promised to take me for a ride in that helicopter. That was going to be my birthday gift,” he spoke softly more to himself than to me.
Again I opened my mouth to say, ‘I am sorry. It is my fault your daddy has not come back home. In my anger, I wished he died in the war and now he is dead.’ Instead I put my hand over his and closed his fingers over the crashed helicopter and sat still. I don’t know how long I sat there. All I remember was Mother coming to take me back home. I did not want to leave my friend.
Over the next few days, more and more mourners flocked to the home. I returned to my spot waiting on the frangipani tree. The burial could not proceed before he was returned, and the army had not returned his body. All this time I remembered the crashed military helicopter Ogora had held in his hands. I wished the waiting would stop. Mother, like the other neighbours, kept visiting each evening to sit in silence with Ogora’s mother. We overheard Mother say that the government wanted to carry out an investigation into the crash. The adults said someone in the army had shot down the helicopter and that it was not an accident. They said these were signs that the war was going to come to Kampala and many more people would die. Mother started telling me not to sit on the frangipani tree because it was no longer safe. In all this time, we did not see any one from the army come to the home to sit in silence with Ogora’s mother. Ogora did not come out of the house at all. Even when I called out for him, my voice rushing through the chain link fence and bouncing off their white walls, he ignored my calls. I saw the curtains in the living room part and someone duck. It was Ogora. It was like he blamed me for his father’s death and no longer wanted to play with me. I swallowed the rejection like a dose of quinine and felt its bitterness on my tongue.
One morning I sat on the frangipani tree and called out to Ogora again. I watched the windows. The curtains were drawn. Even the soldiers who normally lay in the grass were not there. Their uniports had been disbanded, and from where I sat, I could see circles of soil. I called out louder, and still there was no sign of movement even from the curtains in the living room. I remained on the tree, hoping that someone would come out of the house. I only climbed down when Natabona called me for lunch and in all that time no one had come into view. There was no string of mourners coming to the home. Natabona said they must have left hurriedly late at night. She added that they were running from the same omen that had claimed their father. Her words took away any hope that my friend was still around.
We realised the family had really left when the neighbours flocked to the home to loot the property. The government had fallen overnight. We had heard the announcement on Radio Uganda. Now I think Natabona was right in saying Ogora’s family had run away from the same spirit that killed their father. I sat on my branch of the frangipani tree and watched as people stormed out with whatever they could lay their hands on. I watched the possessions of Ogora’s family being torn like rags: the gramophone we listened to when we visited, the first colour TV in the neighbourhood where we had watched the Muppet Show, and many other things that were luxuries to most of us who lived here. It was like the people who had gone to mourn had instead been looking out for things to loot. My eyes clouded as more and more things were dragged out of the house. That is when I saw her. Mother was among the people taking things from the house. She carried an exotic tea set and a huge flask. I stayed up on the tree very quiet and did not come down until the place was calm. My mind was racing in confusion. I did not understand why Mother had done it.
Later when everyone had left, I sneaked over to the home. I was disappointed that Ogora had left without saying goodbye. I was also ashamed that Mother had taken things from their house. I was now responsible for two terrible things in Ogora’s life. His father’s death and now the loss of their property. I roamed through the different rooms I had spent hours playing in with Ogora. There was nothing left. I ran back and forth like I was possessed, like I thought Ogora would materialise from the walls and we would play again. I opened all the cupboards in the rooms, looking for him, for his laughter, for his smell, for anything I could hold on to. There was nothing. Unhappy, I walked back to the living room to the window where I had seen Ogora peep at me when I called out to him. I stood in the same place, trying to imagine what was going through his mind as he peaked through the curtains, ignoring my calls. Suddenly something stuck my foot. I stepped back and saw the crashed helicopter. The only memory I had of him that had survived the looters. Perhaps they had left in such a hurry that he had forgotten it. Perhaps he had known that I would come walking through the rooms of this house searching for memories of him, and he had left me one parting gift. Perhaps he had forgiven me. I grabbed it and ran home.
It has been four months and I still sit on the frangipani tree, Ogora’s crashed helicopter clutched in my hand, and I watch the house, waiting for them to return. I remember Ogora. I remember the tremor in his voice when he said his father meant to take him for a ride in the helicopter that killed him. I sit, waiting on the frangipani tree and think back to that day when we sat, watching the anticipation and excitement. I wish that moment had been frozen in time. Then perhaps I would still be waiting for Ogora’s father to return from the war with stories that would impress us. Then I would not sit feeling ashamed as I do now, drinking tea from the flask Mother took from their house. Then I would not sit here waiting on the frangipani tree.