We raided a tree, Owelo and I. Hopped from one branch to another to sit atop the tallest and plucked yellow things. We thrust our teeth into them: juices trickled down our hands. We ate as though we were being pursued.
“Why are you throwing mango peels all over the place?” mother asked. The fruits fell from our hands in fright. We looked down. Mother and grandma were both standing there. We wondered how long they’d been watching us. Whether they’d seen how we raced the tree branches like monkeys. And how we counted aloud every fruit we ate and every seed we threw down.
“The children are hungry,” grandma said. “Let them eat.”
When we had stripped the tree of all ripe fruit, we climbed down and headed to the swamp for sugarcane. We were at the swamp in minutes, panting like lizards that had escaped the fangs of a cobra. We pulled one cane at a time from the marshy soil. We made a leaf mat and sat, eating until our lips and tongues hurt. Our cheeks were mapped with yellow and white lines as mango and sugarcane juices trickled down our faces. We didn’t care. We lay down for a while as we pondered how we would make it back home: our stomachs felt as though we had swallowed a sack of wet soil. We started the walk home, occasionally plucking blades of grass or leaves by the roadside and pelting birds with stones. Owelo kept up a conversation, mostly to himself.
“What do think our stomachs look like from inside?” he asked.
I kept quiet.
“After eating groundnuts, roasted maize, you added sugarcane and mangoes,” he continued.
“Why are you saying ‘you’, didn’t you also eat all that?” Owelo burst into laughter. He rolled on the ground, tears streamed down his face as he held his stomach.
“What is so funny?” Owelo laughed until he farted. Then I joined in.
“Why do you eat as though the world is coming to an end?” Owelo asked. He was still laughing when we resumed the walk home.
I woke with the sound of Owelo’s laughter fading with the dream. It was 7 a.m. Father and mother were seated looking outside our make-shift hut. Their eyes were fixed on something I couldn’t make out. They didn’t even blink. Occasionally, they gave each other a meaningful look but they never uttered a word.
“What is the problem?” Father asked when he heard mother sigh.
“I don’t know, but something is not right. I can feel it right here,” she said, pointing at her left upper chest.
“Let’s go home,” Father said and pulled the blanket off my body.
As we left the swamp for home, my mind went over the dream and I thought about that last day before the rebels came. The day Owelo and I ate too many mangoes and too much sugarcane. We left the sugarcane plantation limping with satisfaction. As we neared home, the scent of millet bread and pasted peas pricked our noses. From the entrance, we could see grandma in the kitchen arranging utensils for supper. We ran to the kraal to escape the incoming meal time. But grandma fished us out minutes later. We cursed her, silently. We cursed her some more when she insisted we must eat.
“In my home, nobody sleeps without eating,” grandma said. We picked at our food, chewed slowly deliberately so that those who were hungry could do the bigger part of the eating. Grandma watched us keenly and pinched our ears whenever she caught us playing with food.
“Do you have sores in your mouth?” she kept asking. We sighed with relief when the plate of food was cleared. Then it was time for folktales. We sat at the wangoo, watching the orange flames dance as we listened to Grandma’s ododo about how the tortoise ran faster than the cheetah and how the hyena outwitted the ogre. Our ears consumed each story with infant greed. We huddled closer to each other as the evening wind sprinkled warmth from the fire on us. But when the moon flashed its rays upon Layibi Village, our eyes closed beneath the weight of sleep. The sound of snores fled our throats and lingered inside the grass-thatched hut that was our sleeping haven. Our legs and hands were strewn across the shared papyrus mat in a careless, child-like fashion. On the dung-smeared floor, two heaps of blankets lay dejected. Outside, goats ran about the compound with speed as though they were chasing something unseen by the human eye. The chickens slept on the koro, chirping late into the night. The cocks stood at the door, watching over the hens nestled at the back of the storied shelter. The December moon took its time walking across the sky, bearing witness to activities within and outside Grandma’s home. The night was quiet, dotted with bleats, chirps and hisses.
Then guns were fired.
“Wake up now! Fast!” We woke up to see Grandma bending over us, shaking us awake. My legs were trembling, my palms were damp. I squatted behind the door, shaking like a chick that had just been picked out of a pool of water. Owelo peed on himself. What’s going on? Where are we going?
“Lukwena,” Grandma said, as though she had read our minds.
We headed for the bushes as gunfire between the LRA rebels and government soldiers tattooed the night. We ran, stumbled, fell, got up and ran again. We maneuvered through potato gardens, swamps and fields. We didn’t feel thorn pricks, the hurt from a fall or the thrust of a toe against stone. There was no time for pain. It was only until we took shelter under the Odugu tree, that pain bedeviled our skins. We huddled together to keep away the cold, and waved in the air, to chase away mosquitoes. We had invaded their territory.
“We’ll be safe here,” grandma had said.We believed her. When we returned home the next day, Owelo’s father declared that his son would not sleep in the bushes again.
“He will stay right here, sleep right here in my house,” he had said. “If God wants us alive, he will protect us from lukwena, whether we sleep home, in the bush or in a camp,” he had said, when Father insisted his family joins us in the swamp that night.
“Let God do his work. He knows that an old man like me gets tired of running up and down every night. I’m sure he knows that.” He also refused to go to the IDP camp like most of the villagers. Owelo’s father told the soldiers who came to herd people into the camp that he was not an insect.
“Why should I squeeze myself in an IDP camp like locusts in a bottle?” he asked the soldiers. “I’m not homeless, not yet.”
My recollections were cut short when Simba, father’s dog, came running towards us. He didn’t jump or bark like he usually did whenever he saw us returning from the swamp. Instead, he wiggled his tail vigorously as he panted and tagged near father. We looked at each other, then back at Simba. Heavy silence lurked over our home. The tree branches were still against the mild morning wind. The goats stood in a group in the compound, not nibbling at the grass. There were no chickens in sight or pigeons perched on the kitchen roof basking in the sun. Simba started running towards Owelo’s home. We followed him. Grandma, Grandpa and the rest of the family had just arrived from the swamp. They followed us. As we drew closer, we could see smoke rising from the kitchen. The smoke was mild, and dying with the receding inferno. But we could still feel the heat from a distance, and the smell of something which had no name. The roofs of the two other huts were gone, only a few bamboo poles could be seen, battling the teeth of fire that was slowly eating them away. The walls were black like soot, the wooden doors and windows, gone. A few saucepans lay in the compound upside down. What was once the water pot were broken pieces of dry clay. Plastic cups and plates had all melted under the heat, a few lay scattered around, deformed. We watched in silence and felt energy flee our bodies. The mats and blankets we had carried from the swamp fell from our hands. We rubbed our eyes to be sure we were not dreaming. Mother held her head, then she slumped down under the Odugu tree. Government soldiers stood around the home, each holding an AK47. Father approached one of them.
“What happened here my son, what happened?” he asked.
“Are you blind?” the soldier asked.
“We told you to leave for the camps. Why are you asking stupid questions now?” “This is a tragedy my son, no need for finger-pointing.”
“You villagers think the rebels are saints. It’s good you have seen what they are capable of,” the soldier continued, before walking away. Father walked over to where mother was, whistling and shaking his head.
“We have started dying one by one. It’s a tragedy, but it’s not news either. The rebels do this every day,” he said, attracting a long, reprimanding stare from mother.
“How can you start dancing on the graves of the dead before they are even buried?” Mother asked.
“Nobody has said anybody is dead…no one.” Mother said nothing.
“But you know I’m right. This happens every day, everywhere in Acholi, Lango, Teso, Congo, Sudan…” Father continued.
“Were you not with me that day when Akello read news on Mega FM?”
“Akello reads news on Mega every day,” mother said, her voice reeking with disgust.
“Yes, yes. But that day was different. That day, Akello said rebels hit children on tree trunks in Lokodi. Pregnant women were taken into early labour. Their stomachs were slit open and when their husbands tried to resist, their heads were offered to machetes…”
“Stop! Isn’t it enough that I’m staring at hell right now?” Mother asked, her eyes filled with tears, but no drop was bold enough to roll down her face.
“It’s ok, woman. It’s ok. But tell me, how different is this from what happened in Lokodi? Tell me,” Father insisted.
“It’s not the same. This is about a neighbour we have known since long ago. This is about Owelo, your son’s best friend,” Mother said. Her shoulders started shaking, slowly then vigorously. She lowered her head, and covered her face with both hands. I didn’t hear her cry, but I knew she was crying. I wanted to walk over to mother and console her, but my legs were glued to the ground I wasn’t sure I would stop her.
“It’s the same my dear, it is all the same. Death is death. It has only one name. Every killing is evil. It doesn’t matter who is killed,” Father said and walked away towards the soldiers again. I slowly went to sit near mother, afraid to reawaken her anger when it seemed to be receding. I rubbed my body slightly on her arm so she would look at me. Her head remained bowed for a long time. When she finally looked at me, her eyes were bloodshot.
“The attack on Lokodi was different, son. It was,” she said. I kept quiet.
“Kill anything that breathes.” That’s what Commander Lanek told the rebels in Lokodi,” Mother continued.
“And they did just that. Killed everything that breathed,” she said, holding her chin in both hands.
“But Mother, are you sure not even a single person survived?”
“Some did. They were abducted, made to carry sacks of food through Kitgum and Pader to Sudan.”
“When they reached Ayugi River, Lanek asked if any of the abductees wanted to take a rest or go home.”
“Really? Then Lanek is not that bad after all, right?”
“It’s not that simple, son, not at all.”
“What do you mean, Mother?
“Those who raised their hands up, to say they were tired and wanted to go home were taken home.”
“Then that was good, wasn’t it?”
“No. They were taken home. Lanek – the killer – lived to the meaning of his name,” Mother said, uttering the words with care as though they were thorns.
“And from that day onwards, no abductee got tired, and no one wanted to go home.”
At that moment, I wanted Owelo to emerge from somewhere. I wanted him to be with us, alive.
“They must have survived,” Mother said, looking at me closely.
I wanted to believe her. I wanted to hold the hands of hope, look it in the eyes and trust it with Owelo’s life. I wanted to believe that we would still continue going to Gulu Public Primary School together. I wanted us to sit on that desk in Primary Five together. Eat the packed lunch of Mutere together. Run in the rain on our way home or bear the mild heat of the setting sun together. Most of our plans were still unfulfilled. We were supposed to go bird hunting and learn how to milk the cows. We were supposed to tether goats and count chicken eggs for Grandma. I wanted to give God a deadline so that Owelo would show up but the more I thought about Owelo, my memory of him became a ball of fear and hopelessness that rolled under my skin. I wanted to strip my mind nude of all things we’d done in moments never cherished but meant everything now. I failed and rage set my body on fire. Words remained stuck beneath my tongue. My eyes became misty but I didn’t want to cry because I knew I wouldn’t stop. I walked away from Mother. I stood under a mango tree and looked around, opening my eyes wide so that the tears could retreat. Then across the compound, I saw Simba and five other dogs running around in excitement. They were fighting for something. Simba came running towards me with a shirt in his mouth. It was the shirt Owelo had worn the previous day. Simba dropped it at my feet and ran back to join the others. I went over to where the dogs were. Owelo was there. He looked at me. He smiled, that smile he always wears whenever Grandma says we can go play. I moved closer, held his hand and tried to help him up, but a hand pulled me back. It was father.
“He’s gone, son.”
I knelt down and grabbed Owelo’s shirt, held it tightly to my chest. My body shook with all tribes of emotion that existed. But no tears left my eyes. They flowed from within. Suddenly, Father turned away from me and hurried towards the main hut where Owelo’s parents slept. When he came out a few minutes later, I knew by the look on his face what the smell was. The soldiers watched us in silence as though they were waiting for divine instructions. I wondered where they were when all this happened. Were they patrolling another village? Did they know the rebels were coming that night? Did they come to battle the men-turned-beasts and were overpowered? Or were they as clueless as we were? It was Grandma who broke the stillness.
“My son,” she addressed the soldier who seemed to be in charge, “Can we carry away the bodies? As you can see…” she pointed at the dogs feasting on what remained of Owelo. The soldier tightened a grip on his gun then stared at Grandma.
“The dogs are hungry,” he said, “Let them eat.”
Harriet Anena wrote her first poem in 2003. It won her a bursary to high school and a license to ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ words at poetic pleasure. She has done that and more – recently venturing into the wordier world of fiction story writing.
Her story, Watchdog Games, was published in the Caine Prize 2013 Anthology, The Axe on Bookslive, while her poems have been featured by African Sun Press, Ghana Poetry Foundation, African Writers Trust and on her blog, Jotspot
The Dogs Are Hungry was written in 2010 but it was reworked under the 2014 Writivism Mentorship programme, with the keen guidance of Rachel Zadok of Short Story Day Africa.