How do you know when you know a place?
She had grown up in Kampala, every day of her nineteen years unfolding within the city’s web of tin-roof houses, posh gated communities and miniature “skyscrapers”. Everyday, she took the same routes to school, to the markets, to church, to her friends’ houses – all now as familiar to her as the map of veins underneath her skin.
And yet, every bus, taxi, and boda ride was distinct, the locales always slightly evolved from the time before. Her pupils greedily absorbed the microcosms of tiny farms, the short, brightly painted buildings, the markets which mushroomed along the roadside. She sometimes thought that if she just looked hard enough, she could penetrate the mystery of all those lives, all of those worlds within the same city.
But when her mother enrolled her for after-school tutoring in a neighbourhood which she had never visited before, her right hand immediately reached into the curls of her hair, compulsively twisting the captive strands in a nervous habit left over from childhood. The novelty of discovering a neighbourhood paled in comparison to the threat of being caught in one of Kampala’s notorious traffic jams, at times painfully unmoving, just a frozen landscape of smog and vehicles.
Ten thousand shillings and a long, nerve-frying matatu ride later, she finally got off at the Old Taxi Park, impulsively deciding to walk the rest of the way to the tutor’s office rather than continuing to sweat through her cotton blouse, her back plastered to the van’s plastic seat covers. As she squeezed her way out of the small van, she was thronged immediately by sellers of sodas, groundnuts and those small sweet bananas which would have tempted her in calmer circumstances. Fighting her way through the hawkers, skirting the matatus and coach buses which honked and revved their engines endlessly to convince customers that they were about to leave now-now, she finally escaped the large dirt field and started walking up.
She walked up, up, and through – through throngs of men and women, through crowds of old, adolescents and newborns secured to their mother’s backs with wide colourful bands of kitenge; through the Asian neighbourhood where fragrances of cumin and turmeric permeated the hot afternoon air; down past the spotlessly white Parliament house; up again through the vegetable markets; shouts of “sister, we go?” from boda drivers trailing after her.
The air changed as she walked, becoming heavy and cool as storm clouds gathered threateningly above. A rumble of thunder and barely a breath later, the rain overwhelmed its cloud casing, hitting the earth in heavy, almost-violent streams. People and bodas and chickens took shelter where they could – the awning of a kiosk or a gas station – as the water pelted down.
And then, as quickly as it had started, it was over. The sun reappeared; people and bodas and chickens continued their journeys where they had left off. It was almost as if nothing had happened, except that the air and ground now seemed cleansed, purified at least temporarily of the dust and smog which they wore incessantly.
She wanted to lie down on the road, place her cool cheek to the rough gravel, absorb the city into her pores before it was too late, before this feeling dissipated like the evidence of the rain under the now-sweltering sun.
Raksha Vasudevan works in the international development sector and is currently based in Uganda. Her nonfiction writing has been featured on such blogs as Africa is a Country, Rabble, Open Democracy, Groundviews and the Global Journal. “Home-Grown” is her first published piece of fiction.