There are puddles of safety and sorrow lapping at my Dockers when Hawa discovers me out back, filling rows of jerrycans by the rusty tap, sleeves rolled up, pants tucked into my socks to protect the cuffs from getting muddy. Who knows how long I’ve been out here; we were born in these hills, which means in some ways we never left.
I can feel her worried gaze lingering on my hunched over figure; Hawa, forever pointing North when I hunger for hope and the slightest hint of innate virtue amidst this wreckage. There’s a current of hushed urgency now that I’m around her again, as unchanged as our small little hamlet, where the heated nature of childhood rivalries once cocooned the earliest kindlings of a first love.
“Uh uh, keep your neck straight… no cheating,” Hawa finally speaks up; her sportive goading echoes memories of our beloved patriarch who’s brought us back here today, to the painfully eroded backyard of the house I grew up in. I thought I’d rather do this alone but I’m glad she’s here, glad she’s already kicking her heels off and unconsciously folding her purse onto the dusty ledge of the outdoor kitchen. “There better not be anything that can prick my dainty feet in this mud.”
I scoff loudly at the feigned vanity but my heart smiles at her in ways the rest of me no longer knows how to. “You sure you want do this right now, Katima? You’ll ruin your dress and I can’t imagine you have another one in the car.”
Even without glancing over, I can hear the storm cloud forming over her head as she rises to my challenge. This is how we’ve always given to each other, in layers and jabs, snide remarks that peel away the husk of impermanence separating who we were as kids from the solemnly draped grownups we are today.
“Just keep your eyes off my boobs, you,” she warns, steadying herself for the weight of the filled vessels beside her.
“What-” I start to protest.
“Don’t think I forgot!” she grins, neck stiffened, muscles tensed as she begins the splish-splashy lift. One never fully envisions how majestic a lioness can be but watching Hawa reconnect with this particular patch of earth beneath her feet, the muscles at her soles re-acquainting themselves with this old foe, her adult body ceding control to the teenage girl within whose focus and tenacity drove me to my limits years ago, I can hear her spirit roar in competition.
It’s not about the water.
The game is simple: it’s a 15 metre course from the rain-gathering water tank to the shed where these old 20-litre jerrycans are stored for usage, and everything in between is a virtual minefield, with each unseen muddy pool waiting anxiously to sink the blind fool. At least that’s how Taata Chali explained it to us as kids to get us all to fetch his water, and so that that shed was never so much as half-empty. It didn’t matter that we quickly figured his scheme out; the renown of that battleground carried across the hill and it became a rite of passage for any kid who hoped to fall in with Kabowa’s resident youth.
The challenge was to keep your feet dry without so much as a glance at the dangerous path before you, while you cautiously navigated that grotesquely uneven terrain. The stiffness in your neck had to face off against the weight of those slippery, heavy, unstable plastic containers as you ransomed your balance. Of course you could cheat and a few kids probably did at first but soon found there was just no fun in that. The victory had to be earned.
“Look at this one go,” I chide as Hawa shuffles past me, eyes to the sky, lips tightened around the involuntary chortle she’s holding back. “Eh- woah- careful-”
“Shut up!” she finally cracks, nearly tipping over and is only a few steps from the finish line when she dunks her left foot into a scummy pond of disappointment, and surrenders the challenge with a loud thud and enough curse words to awake sleeping ghosts.
Or at least one of them.
“Of course it’s you two!” J.J. Bwanika startles us from around the corner, wearing the same scowl he’d favoured every time he spotted Hawa and I slipping each other notes during those laborious (and ultimately inconsequential) confirmation classes we’d all attended together. Inconsequential because it turned out that Mzee Ssembatya, who’d volunteered to offer these classes to his neighbours’ kids for a nominal fee, was neither a licensed teacher nor technically Christian.
“Owf!” Hawa’s eyes bulge as she claps her own hand over her mouth in embarrassment. “Could they hear us?”
“I heard you,” Bwanika scolds, nevertheless rolling up his sleeves and pants, choosing to discard shoes and socks, before he looks up smiling, “Now, what’s the score?”
I pat our old friend heartily on the back, welcoming him to the field, as I make my way over to where Hawa is still frozen to the spot, and carefully measure how many feet she had yet to cover before crossing the line into the shed. “I count 7.”
“Eeeeh, eeeeh, seven?” Bwanika presses.
“Our feet are bigger now, J.J.,” I rationalise.
“Not that big,” Hawa volleys as she rinses off her soiled foot.
“What do you know about my feet?” I whisper to Hawa on the sidelines.
“I’ve heard enough,” she teases.
“Okay, but silence guys,” Bwanika readies himself. “I need to concentrate.”
We mime our compliance and watch him line up his take-off. Over time, each kid seemed to develop their own sporting rituals; little rhythms and superstitions that became almost religious to the individual as you relied on those rituals to carry you safely though the obstacle course. Bwanika takes in a quick succession of short, stiff breaths before one long inhalation, a quick glance over at us to reinforce his need for silence which we wordlessly confirm, then knees bent and he’s off.
“EH J.J. YOU’VE DROPPED YOUR KEYS-”
“GWE, J.J., YOUR HAIRCUT IS FALLING-”
We break our promise of silence pretty quickly; Bwanika only makes it a few feet before he feels that dreaded splash of failure at his ankles!
“Ah ah, you guys, no,” he pleads, resting the jerrycans. “At least let me go once more. I hadn’t even stretched properly!”
But we’re both steadfastly shaking our heads at him as I prod Hawa forward. “Katima, go count.”
“Stop calling me that,” she shoots over her shoulder. “And stop bossing me around.”
“Gwe, Katima, measure properly,” Bwanika hunches over her, hawk-eyed, and yells over at me. “Is it even fair? Her feet are smaller than yours.”
Hawa slaps Bwanika’s objecting hand away. “J.J. stop trying to cheat.”
“J.J. let the official do her job unimpeded.”
“Who’s impeding? Who?” Bwanika throws his hands up, flustered. “Cross-checking is not impeding!”
The side gate to the main house behind us creaks open and three more ghosts of our childhood saunter through; Enoth Kakeeto, who went from threatening local wildlife with his rubber catapult to being plastered on election posters for Sub County Chairperson; Gladys Nabatanzi, now Mrs Gladys Kasigazi, with a few little Kasigazi’s running around somewhere; and Bushy, who we called Bushy because he couldn’t go a single meal without insisting on a cup of busheera to go with it.
“I told you I heard people back here,” Enoth affirms, greeting me in familiar embrace.
“Neera it had to be these ones,” Gladys points accusingly, “forever ‘Katima and Kasayi’.”
“Don’t call us that!” Hawa and I shoot back in unison, then can’t help but laugh at our own predictability. It was a nickname Taata Chali had teased us with that spread to every little pair of grubby feet that vied for dominance filling that water shed. I suppose all of Kabowa assumed Hawa and I would wind up together and even though we never talked about it, I don’t think I ever loved anyone as honestly and effortlessly as I loved her, a lifetime ago.
“I’m on 12. I think Katima miscounted,” Bwanika informs the new arrivals who are now prepping for their rounds.
“She’s on-… Bushy wait!.. Katima’s on seven… Bushy WAIT!… Katima’s on seven and Kasayi… gwe, Kasayi, have you lifted yet?”
I can’t believe we’re all back in these hills, gathered around this same soggy yard, a few decades older but standing in the same spots, chucking most of the same insults we exchanged as kids, mud and sweat mixed into clothes clinging heroically to the skin. Enoth ambitiously charges to the finish line and surprises no one with an early exit; Gladys, seemingly able to tap back into the visual layout of the course she memorised as a teen, comes closest to crossing the finish line fully dry; Bushy haphazardly tears up the course with Bwanika vehemently insisting he stick to protocol.
And I pull back to witness this nearly miraculous reunion from the dry sanctuary of high ground in the surrounding bushes.
Rich Wagaba is a self-published writer who’s dabbled in short story writing here heretus.blogspot.com, a sort of novella here thebeautifulscars.blogspot.com and a picture book for adults here htlawf.blogspot.com