A close encounter with death

Sarah Lagot Odwong mugshotThe not-so-secret love-hate relationship that I have with boda-boda folks can make for a very good telenovela.

Unsurprisingly, my dislike for boda-boda riders has only intensified following an incident recently.

A few days ago, I was swamped with work, trying to beat deadlines and so I stayed really late at the office. Time check: 9:00 p.m.

I packed up my laptop in my gray weather-beaten backpack and walked out of Nyonyi Gardens where I work, which was now steeped in a deathly silence. A few cars drove by the Kololo Airstrip stretch and my only means to Nakawa at the time would be by, you guessed it, boda-boda.

Since my regular boda-boda man was home already, I was left with no option but to trudge down the road towards Shoprite Lugogo. A few cars sped by as I walked on the uneven pavement.

My eyes were firmly fixed on the winding road and bogged down by the weight of the laptop in the rucksack on my back and a handbag firmly clasped in my right hand, I possibly looked like a pitiful hunchback making her way through the dark Kololo streets.

“Hoot hoot,” I turned my gaze to the road at the sound piercing through the silent night. A boda-boda had finally shown up.

“Nyabo , where are you going?” a boda-boda rider clad in a thick green leather jacket and a cracked helmet atop his head asked. The front lights of his bike blazed fiercely through the thick cloud of darkness, casting a yellow hue over the street.

“I am going to Kireka,” I replied.

A tough bargaining session over the fare then followed. He wanted Shs6,000; I wouldn’t budge. That amount was too much. I told him I would walk the rest of the journey to Shoprite. Defeated, he rode off in the opposite direction as I continued my laboured walk towards Nakawa.

I cannot tell for certain what happened next but in a split second a huge force was pushing against me from behind, threatening to overpower me and throw me off balance.

His engine roared as he tried to pull away my bag. He exerted so much energy pulling the bag that he dragged me into the road. I fell face forward onto the rough, unwelcoming tarmac.

The rough stones scraped against my face. A car that was driving in my direction screeched to a halt about two metres from my bruised body.

The driver had obviously noticed the chaos from afar. He switched off his engine and came out. The boda-boda rider, caught in the car headlights, rode off; afraid of getting caught, and in the process he thankfully dropped my bag on the tarmac.

“Are you okay? Are you okay? Madam, are you okay?” the driver of the parked car asked as he patted my forehead. Other cars had proceeded to park behind his; and a crowd of worried passersby was milling around me.

The adrenaline and nauseating fear must have made me pass out. The driver, very worried now, scooped me in his arms and placed me with my belongings in the passenger seat of his car and drove to Engen Petrol station.

That is when I came to. My heart started to race again as I realized I was locked up in an unfamiliar car. I looked around to see if I could raise an alarm. The pump attendants at the petrol station were engaged in light-hearted banter.

Their laughter rose through the air as they clapped their hands with glee. Then a middle aged man in a pin-striped suit walked back to the car and opened it. He climbed in and started the engine.

He passed me a bottle of cold Blue-Wave mineral water.

“Drink this!” he said in a fatherly tone.

“Who are you? Where are you taking me?” I asked on the verge of a panic attack.

“Calm down. My name is Benjamin. I picked you from near The Lawns. A boda-boda man was trying to rob you,” he replied.

The memory of the attack came rushing back like a gust of ice-cold wind chilling me to the marrow. I shuddered to think what would have happened if Benjamin had not come to my rescue. He could have easily run over me on the road too if he had not been sober and alert.

“Thank you Benjamin,” I muttered, very grateful to be alive.

Benjamin, whose second name I never got to know, dropped me off at Shell Nakawa. I then boarded a Namugongo-Kyaliwajjala bound taxi that dropped me right outside my mother’s house.

Like everybody else, I live with the knowledge that death will come but I never fathom how soon that will be. It seems like some far-off apparition that I occasionally glimpse at when I hear of somebody’s demise.

However, my boda-boda incident has sobered me up to the reality that I can go to meet my creator any time. I am making certain evaluations in my life, working on having a better relationship with people and my Creator, and trying to enjoy every minute of every day. Alas, last Thursday night, I could have breathed my last.

That day also promptly ended my business relationships with boda-bodas. A morbid fear of them has gripped my heart and soul. When I see a boda-boda rider my mind races back to the man in the thick green leather jacket with the cracked helmet, a sight that terrified my soul!

As I am learning to be more cautious, I am also making the deliberate decision to put my life, safety and health above all the material things I am working for. I have let my boss know that I will not be working late any more. He can always find a replacement in case I pass away. My mother however, would never recover from the grief of my demise. Like Toby Mac said: “You don’t want to gain the whole world and lose your soul.

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What if you were your brother’s keeper?

Sarah Lagot Odwong mugshot

A few years ago when I was still a junior in the trenches of undergraduate academia, I used to reside in a hostel on the lower side of Kauga. I moved there from very noisy environs in Bugujju in the hope that I would have peace of mind and serenity in a smaller, less crowded establishment. Alas, how wrong I was! This place was a whole other level worse than my previous residence. The noise from my neighbours’ rooms, the loud cackles of their endless streams of visitors, the blaring of sad kadongo-kamu songs from the askari’s radio all day and night, the quacking of the neighbour’s ducks, the deafening music that shook my bed in uneven vibrations and roused me from deep sleep were all a migraine-inducing nightmare.

Just behind the hostel were a line of wooden shacks that were expanding into a fully fledged slum; the inhabitants- about six women and ten children, and a man who seemed to be the head of the homestead. Most often than not, he was skunk drunk. Every night, he came back tittering to his wooden shack, yelling at the top of his voice in his inebriated state. His stupors caused him to sing, wail and laugh all at the same time. And I was right at the frontline of this action.

How? You may ask. Well, my room was poorly ventilated. Most times, I kept my window open all night to ensure a stream of fresh air got in. My moments of solace usually came on weekend nights. The night prowlers would be out partying, the homesick residents would be visiting relatives. On those nights, there was hardly any music playing and the solitude was refreshing. I would get my laptop, notebook and pencil and start to write. The deafening silence was good for my soul.

At such moments is when I experienced marvelous spurts of writing creativity. And so it was on a humid, moon-lit Saturday night when I sat huddled on my bed typing a blog post on the computer that I was awakened from my reverie.

A loud noise tore through the night. It was evidently coming from outside my window.

“Eish , that sounds like a slap,” I thought.

Curious, I lay the laptop down on the bed, stood up and slid open the window to peek out. There was a female form hunched on the veranda of the neighbour’s shack. I could tell it was a woman because her long braids spread out onto the dusty, cracked cement. Frightened, I called out and asked if everything was okay.

A gaunt male figure with drooping shoulders was hidden in the shadows of the neighbour’s house. He walked forward at the sound of my voice and answered in the local Luganda dialect, “Fa ku mudaala gwo.”

The visibly shaken woman started to scream loudly. Wailing, her sobs rocked her frail body as she asked the man, “Charles, lwaki onkuba? Lwaki onkuba banange?”

I now understood what was going on. It was a family squabble. An altercation. The man grabbed fistfuls of her braids and dragged her on the ground. She raised up her head and I saw her face. It was the neighbour lady. The jolly 30- something year-old young woman with two little children. She turned her face to my window as her husband dragged her in the dirt. Her eyes were puffy from all the crying and red with fear; her only plea; “Munyambe!” (help me!), whispered in a faint voice. The man slapped her across the face and hurled obscenities at her saying that nobody was going to come out of their house to help a stupid goat like her. Hearing and seeing this fracas left me shell-shocked. I was enraged that this man had turned his wife into a punching bag.

It was almost 11 p.m and I was dressed in my pajamas. I got my sweater and slippers on and walked out of my room. Nobody else in the neighbourhood was responding to the chaos. The woman’s screams were getting louder and louder as her husband thumped her with blow after blow. I would not watch this woman get beaten to death. I picked my flashlight and went to find the LC1 Chairman. I came back with him to the neighbour’s home. On hearing his voice, a few elderly people in the neighbourhood came out of their houses. A small crowd started to gather. I took it as my cue to leave and I walked back to my hostel room leaving the Chairman and other concerned residents to reason with the warring couple.

In my dimly lit room, I sat atop my bed to make sense of what had just happened. I was livid that this man had the audacity to beat his wife. I was incensed that the neighbours remained comfortably hidden within the confines of their homes as a woman was being pummeled to near death. I wondered why my neighbours were double-faced; smiling with this lady during the day and refusing to come to her aid in her time of need.

That night, I slept with a clear conscience because even though I was too afraid to physically stop the fight between a husband and wife embroiled in a bitter battle, I went and got somebody who could. I have no idea why this couple fought. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said: “I have no right to say or do anything that diminishes a man in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him but what he thinks of himself. Hurting a man in his dignity is a crime.”

All lives matter. You will be held accountable for how you treat people; sooner or later, the consequences will catch up with you.

I pray by the mercies of God that we will never engage in abuse or demean anyone. It is such a cruel thing to tear down a man’s spirit. If you’re in an abusive relationship, get help from your family, friends, church, mosque, work place or wherever you can get it from. Your life is important. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Behind the veiled faces of “our people”

Sarah Lagot Odwong mugshot

 BY SARAH LAGOT ODWONG 

I sat in the passenger seat waiting for my mother to come back from her fresh vegetable hunt. The place? Nakawa Market. I’ve come here every week since I was a child and I’ve forged relationships with many of the vendors.

My mother made sure to always tag my sister and I along on her shopping sprees. This evening was no exception. I observed the haggling outside my window.

Our regular sukuma wiki vendor had her back turned to the roadside. I got my phone to take a picture of the busy evening roadside market scene.

However, I was confronted with dark, heavy stares. People here are very suspicious of cameras. I took the photo hurriedly and hid the phone from sight.

“Bitano bitano, enyanya bitano bitano,” a vegetable vendor yelled. (“Shs500.. tomatoes Shs500”).

However, her voice was drowned out by the hive of activity.

A metal fabricator here, a second- hand clothes dealer there, the cries of vendors calling out to customers rose and fell like an all-too-familiar song, one whose lyrics I have heard since childhood.

Customers bend over to take their pick and haggle over goods. The vegetable lady sighs loudly in desperation. A customer wants to buy two heaps of tomatoes at Shs600.

The Shs1000 she is charging for the two huge mounds of tomatoes is already too fair a price, especially in this Ugandan economy where prices are rising by the minute. She resigns herself to the customer’s haggling and painfully parts with her tomatoes for Shs700.

The customer’s tomatoes are packed in a black polythene bag and she walks off with a victorious gait knowing she has got a great bargain.

The vendor throws the coins she has received into the money purse tied-up on the edge of her lesu wrapper. She pulls up the lesu so it can be firm around her waist.

She resumes her shouting, this time, calling out customers with promises of “tomatoes fresh, tomatoes fresh.” Ten minutes later, no customer has yet shown up. She’s agitated.

Because I am so close behind her and her colleagues, I overhear their conversation. Her two children did not report to school for third term. She’s broken that she can’t raise their tuition.

I remember all too well times when we lacked. Sometimes, I heard my mother pray in the middle of the night, asking God to open the floodgates so she could provide for us.

This woman could be my mother in another life.

I went over and bought tomatoes for Shs2000. I did not need them but I thought to myself, “Nobody ever died from eating too many tomatoes anyway!”

I thought of her children going hungry because she had only made sales of Shs700 in the time I was there. Shs700 can’t even pay taxi fare to Kireka.

She happily packed my tomatoes in a green plastic bag and gave me “nyongeza” (two extra tomatoes). I thanked her and walked back to the car with my load of succulent red tomatoes.

My mother came back and we joined the heavy evening traffic heading out of the city centre towards Bweyogerere.

On the way home, my mind wandered off to the people we encounter daily. Like most Ugandan families, we have “our people.”

The hairdresser called Rita that my mother, sister and I go to in Wandegeya, the mechanic Kayinja who fixes my mother’s and my sister’s cars (and frankly every other relative’s), Otim the special hire guy, Elly our birthday cake baker, my boda-boda guy David and all “our people.”

I am sure my brother probably also has a rolex and a T-shirt guy somewhere in this dusty city.

Many times we take them for granted. We interact with these people daily and we don’t really know their stories. We act like just because we give them business all the time, they should be obligated to us.

I didn’t know our Nakawa vegetable lady was having all these financial woes. I would never have haggled so wildly over tomato prices with her like I’ve been doing in the past (sometimes way too enthusiastically for tomatoes that are already very cheaply-priced by Kampala standards).

Tonight, I sit and reflect on the relationships I have with these people. Just because they don’t talk/blubber about their lives, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a story.

I will think twice, thrice and even four times the next time I go to the market before haggling ferociously with the vegetable lady.

You just never know why that vendor is refusing to give you a discount. Know their story. Be part of their story.