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Accident
By Lino Leitao

 

(Accident first appeared in THE MASSACHUSETTS REVIEW in 1988, and was later republished in Short Story International, issue 86)

                                                                       

I was sitting opposite her in the bus that goes from Dorval to downtown. My head was buried in the Gazette, absorbing the editorial column on Free Trade. I lifted my head to ponder the points the editorial had made. If Free Trade were to become an issue in the coming election, how would I cast my vote?  As I was trying to make up my mind, I saw her staring at me. She smiled, as if she had known me before. She was glowing with a smile of recognition. There was no doubt in my mind now that she had known me somewhere. But where?  Free Trade was blown away from my mind. I racked my brains.  She gently tapped me on my knees and said:

"Don't you know me?"

 Her voice did it.  It swept the fog away from my mind. I saw her now as vividly as I had known her sixteen years ago in Uganda. How the years have gone by!

 "Nancy Price, aren't you?" I bubbled.

 Her face was wreathed in smiles. She nodded.

  "That's me, alright."

  "You've changed."

  "Who hasn't? Look at you! You've gone all grey."

  "Growing old."

  "We all are."

 The bus went on stopping at its usual stops. We talked of those old good days. We had a lot to talk about. The bus came to its terminal and we got down. I invited her to McDonald's for coffee and hamburger.

“Thanks," she said. "I'm in a hurry. I have to be in time for the interview. Looking for a job, you know!"

"I don't have a job, either."

"You too!"

"I'm on my way to see my counsellor at the Employment Centre."

 Nancy Price smiled cynically.

 "Here is my number," She said as she was going to catch the other bus. "Let us get together sometime."

I became nostalgic. Nancy Price triggered off memories of Uganda in me. As I watched her disappearing into the crowd, snow started coming down. It's going to be a storm, I thought. I had enough time on me and a few dollars in my pocket, more than enough to buy me a coffee and a hamburger. Coming in McDonald's, I brought my order and sat at the table looking at the brewing snowstorm. My thoughts went to sunny Uganda and Nancy Price.  Nancy Price had come to the Immaculate Conception College of Namirembe when Obote's  Government was overthrown in a coup d'etat  by Idi Amin.  Who doesn't know him? He had become internationally famous as an abhorrent dictator of Uganda. But in the very beginning of his regime the people of Uganda greeted him as their hero. Many Uganda intellectuals praised Amin's regime,  never dreaming that he would be a disaster to their country. Nancy Price was also an ardent admirer of Idi Amin, then.    

Immaculate Conception College was a boarding school. White nuns were in charge of this Catholic institution. It was a girls' college; the daughters of Uganda officials and daughters of other Uganda personages studied here. The teachers were nuns and lay women-teachers brought in from England. John Kiwanuka, a Muganda and I (I am from India) were the only males who taught in this college. Mother Veronica, the principal of the college, was Irish and had reputation as an able administrator. In the staff meetings, she discussed her administrative strategies and elicited fresh administrative ideas from her staff. Though there was no formal student body in the college at that time, she had Prefects, nominated through the counsel of her staff. 

Nancy Price,  a member of staff of Immaculate Conception College, voiced her opinion in one of the staff meetings. She argued that the nomination of Prefects was not yet all a democratic process. She was young at that time; she couldn't have been more than twenty-five. Tall, slender, raven black hair, not cut but held in a knot above the nape of her neck, in pony-tail fashion. She was very attractive. She was an American, a white girl, but her skin now had taken a brownish hue, enhancing her sex appeal. Her blue eyes flickered as she talked and she made a kind of impact on the assembly. From John Kiwanuka's looks, I knew she fascinated him. Other members of the staff, including myself, didn't say much but observed a kind of respectable silence for Mother Veronica. Mother Veronica considered herself a democrat; with a serene smile and her blue eyes twinkling, she rejected Nancy's arguments. She stated not to Nancy in particular but to the staff at large that to serve the people one must know the ins and outs of the people, know the mind and soul of the people. She knew the mind and soul of the Ugandans. She had served in Uganda for many years. She pointed out that she was training the best brains, the future ladies of Uganda, not riff-raff but girls with potential for leadership, chosen of course by her brilliant staff. According to her observation, the nomination of Prefects worked towards the smooth running of the institution. That was what was wanted, not any fanciful ideas, which in the end, served only to mess up things. Because she was in a hurry, she said, she had to bring the meeting to close. Nancy had no chance to refute her. As Mother Veronica was leaving, she gave a sharp look at Nancy and then a beatific smile.

Nancy Price wasn't a fool. Through that sharp look and the beatific smile, Nancy claimed that she had a good look at the mental makeup of Mother Veronica, as if they were two wide windows. Mother Veronica was nothing but an outright Colonial, she said, who didn't want to change a thing through education but to subjugate the brain of the collegiate through paternalism, or, in this case, maternalism. She blamed British colonialism in Uganda and elsewhere for creating colonial moral structures like gas chambers and putting the colonized therein to be exterminated. Knowing what Mother Veronica was, she left her alone, but brought the debates at tea breaks in the staff-room. She was a solitary American, the others were from the British Isles, and of course, John Kiwanuka and I were neither Americans nor British. So we were passive observers. She had a flair for debating and brought in much varied analysis that she had picked up in her readings to show the devastating effects on the colonized. Giving various examples, she demonstrated that the elevated status of the Colonials, in this case the British, was created by exploiting the colonized and thereby bestowing upon them an inferior status. The expatriate British teachers refuted Nancy's hostile attacks on the British Empire. They pointed out that the Britons weren't wholesale exploiters, but human nature being what it is, they weren't perfect, "Who is? No man is perfect. No government is perfect," They said.  They told  her that she was blind and didn't see the benefits the British Empire had brought not only to Uganda but also to her other colonies.

“Like what?" Nancy demanded.

"Schools, hospitals, roads, economic development, administrative system, above all law and order and host of other improvements."

 "Hogwash!"

“Of course, you wouldn't understand. They need us; they want our know-how and our technology. And so we are here. Without Western aid these nations have no chance to modernize."

    But Nancy, giving statistical facts, would make her point that the Western aid, the aid of the former Colonial Powers, was not helping Africa a bit. The Western nations developed industrially by exploiting the colonized nations and she argued that they were still perpetuating the same system, except now, they had a better grip on them than before, thus making a farce of "independence". She also pointed out that the mechanism of the international economics was still in the hands of the exploiter nations, keeping the former colonies under their thumb. The British teachers weren't dumb, though. Miss Allison Web, with gusto, would argue that the British imperialism was now like a decrepit old man, almost in the grave, and what one should be afraid of now, she would say, was Yankee Imperialism, economic domination of the World. And she would cite the USA's role in Vietnam and Latin America. Thus, Uncle Sam and John Bull, like two ponderous elephants, tusks locked, wrestled to establish the benevolence of their respective imperialism. Both Miss Allison Web and Nancy Price would cast glances at John Kiwanuka to solicit his support. Neither sought my opinion. I was like a nonentity, but a passive listener.  

    John Kiwanuka hardly said anything. But one day, he remarked to the warring debaters, "Exploiters have no moral guilt, no shame. The exploited are uncivilized, brutes and savages to the exploiters. But the exploited isn't an idiot! They know who is the uncivilized and barbarian. Africa is the womb that gave birth to man, and the West is the tomb of man, a destructive force, creator of weapons of doom. It is Africa who knows the pangs of human birth. It is Africa in the end, who will restore the moral conscience of man."

They all listened to him, as though his statement was like a revelation that would unfold in the future.

The British teachers set a rumour in motion that Nancy Price was an agent. When asked in whispers whom did she represent, they said she was CIA agent or she was a double agent spying both for Uncle Sam and Idi Amin. It produced results; Nancy Price was boycotted by the staff and the students. Mother Veronica really believed that Nancy Price was implanted by Idi Amin in the institution to keep a watch on the staff and herself.

In the meantime, political conditions worsened. God had appeared to His Excellency Idi Amin in a dream and instructed him to throw away the Asians from Uganda because they were living on the fat of the Africans. The Whites, too, were in trouble. The whole country was in chaos. It was no longer safe both for the Whites and Asians to stay in Uganda (and later on, it wasn't safe for the natives of the country, either). Whites left the country and the Asian Exodus started from Uganda to the different parts of the world. I landed in Canada. I was in a different world now and Uganda was hardly on my mind, until I happened to meet Nancy Price.

I phoned Nancy Price the following Sunday. She invited me to her apartment that evening. She lived in Lachine, at 32 Ave, not far from Dorval. At about six, I arrived at her apartment building. I looked for her name on the Occupants Board but her name wasn't listed. The occupant of her apartment number was " J.  Kiwanuka."  Did I make a mistake? Hesitantly, I pressed the button. No voice asked me who I was. The main entrance door buzzed, I opened it and went for the elevator. The apartment was 305. The door was ajar. Standing in front of it was a woman dressed in traditional Baganda dress - the Gomisi. She was white.

"I'm sorry," I said rather loudly and apologetically.

  "Sorry for what?"

  Once again, I recognized Nancy Price through her voice.  

  "It's you then!"

 "Of course, it's me! Who did you except?"

 I looked at her spellbound, surprised at seeing her in that attire. She could have passed for a Muganda woman if she were black and if she had cushioned buttocks.

"Stop admiring me!" she said. "Come in."

I sat on a sofa. As I was looking at a few Baganda crafts displayed on a wall-unit, I heard someone greeting me, a greeting once familiar.

"Sorotiano Sebu."

"Burungi," I said automatically. And before me I saw, a black man in kanzu.

“You?" I exclaimed.

“Yes, me, John Kiwanuka."

He came closer and clasped me in his embrace, as if he had found his long-lost brother. I saw the beaming face of Nancy Price, while I was still held by Kiwanuka. After enough hugging, we all sat. John and Nancy sat on a love seat and exchanged loving glances. I sat on a chair opposite them, dying of curiosity. Nancy's sparkling eyes told me she was eager to tell me their story. I alone, perhaps, would understand and appreciate what they had to tell me. But Nancy excused herself, went into the kitchen and brought in a tray loaded with hot cassava fries. And unto my nostrils came the aroma of the steaming matoke. I knew I was in for a treat.

"Well, let us have some beer now." Kiwanuka said and disappeared, coming back with Molsons and mugs.

 "John, you forgot the salt and chilli-powder shakers," said Nancy.

 John brought the salt and chilli-powder shakers. He opened the beers and we filled our mugs. There were coffee-coloured bark cloth coasters on the table. I took a handful of cassava fries on a paper napkin and sprinkled them with a little salt and splurged the chilli-powder on them. I had a sip of beer.  All expectant, I looked at Nancy and John. Though Nancy was a good debater, she had no knack at story telling. She rambled a lot and John came to her rescue, as if to put the story on the right track.

  "You both married?"

   "Of course!" said Nancy.

  John Kiwanuka beamed.

 "How did all this come about?" I asked.

 "I wasn't a coward," said Nancy. "I approved the way His Excellency Idi Amin got rid of the Asians and the White men. They atrophied Uganda morally, intellectually, economically and so on. They were big Bana Kubas who did no physical labour. And the Ugandans who worked for them were looked upon as stupid, lazy, untrustworthy and all that kind of crap. And your race - "

"What about my race?" I asked.

"The kill was made by the Britons and your race was like hyenas gorging on decaying caresses. That's how your race built their economic securities and empires. What did your race contribute to Uganda? Nothing."

"Hold it a minute there," I said." You may be right about the Asian presence in Uganda. They might have been parasites as you say. But my race did contribute something."

"And what's that?"

"The national dress that you are wearing," I said. "This dress was introduced by a Goan tailor, called Gomes, hence the name Gomisi. Ask John."

 John told her so.    

Her mood changed. Both persuaded me to have more cassava fries and more beer. But still her story wasn't coming out. I was really dying to know how Nancy came to get married to John. And in the meantime, the main course was served- matoke with peanut sauce topping it. John excused himself for a while came in with a bottle and placed it on the table in front of me.

"Waragi!" I exclaimed. " Where on earth did you get it?"

“That's the only thing that I came with from Uganda," he said, "and saved it for many years. But today is an especial day and we will have it."

 Waragi was on the point of becoming a national drink of Uganda. It was distilled and bottled by the Government. It was a very potent drink, resembling gin. Nancy Price had taken away beer glasses and brought huge goblets for waragi.  John poured the waragi into the goblets. I would have preferred mine with a mix, but my host didn't want to dilute the taste of waragi. I sipped mine. My body was on fire. Nancy and John drained theirs in a single gulp and they refilled their goblets. This time, they savored it. We started attacking the matoke. Waragi must have loosened Nancy's soul and tongue. The story poured out.

Uganda cities like that of Kampala, Jinja and others weren't African as such: they were little Bombays. But now, though they were African, they had become ghost towns, dim and dismal. Nancy Price didn't mind. Asians in Uganda were parasites; they deserved to be thrown out. And those snobbish Britons who lived a leisurely life even after Uganda's independence as though they were still masters and indispensable deserved to be thrown out as well. Nancy had no sympathy for them. Though the British teachers were given kipandes by His Excellency Idi Amin to stay, they had left. Good riddance! Nancy was the only White who taught at Immaculate Conception College. She was unlike other Whites; she was neither a coward nor an imperialist. She rather enjoyed it when His Excellency Idi Amin made the British residents of Kampala to kneel down before him. Didn't the Africans always prostrate before the White Colonials? Tit for tat. And on another occasion, His Excellency Idi Amin sat on a chair and made the British residents in Uganda  carry him to the OAU summit conference at Kampala. Nancy loved the way the Britons were humiliated. Those bastards deserved every bit of it. They were getting back what they did to Africans. The common people of Uganda loved it, too. He was their hero. Nancy Price admired Idi Amin.

People were murdered in large numbers, thrown in the Nile. Amin was cruel and unpredictable; none knew how his mind worked. Everyone was  frightened but not Nancy Price.  She taught at the Immaculate Conception College and at her free time, she traveled in her car to any place in Uganda that she fancied.  No Amin soldiers seemed to be bothered with her. She felt no less secure. The bestial behavior of Amin and his regime was just an exaggeration of the Western Press. But one thing she noticed was that the staff and the students at the Immaculate Conception College were frightened of her and that bothered her a lot.

One Sunday morning, she was driving in her car, going to Jinja from Kampala.  Near Mabira Forest, she was stopped by four army men. They were young, dressed in smart uniforms. They had guns and they were ferocious and arrogant-looking. She didn't panic; she brought the car to a stop by the roadside. They looked into the car; they asked her to open the trunk. They spoke in Swahili.  She didn't understand the language. They got angry with her. They asked her again to open the trunk. They were angry, very angry. They were shouting at her, perhaps obscene words in Swahili. But she managed to keep her cool, she wasn't easily frightened. She was not a coward. But when one of the soldiers pointed the gun at her, close to her temple, fear grabbed her, shaking her body, and her teeth chattered. These guys mean business - they would shoot her and dump her somewhere in the forest. Nobody would know. The solider stood pointing his gun at her, trigger-happy. Anytime now. Her eyes were glazed, begging for mercy. She wanted to plead to be spared. She could not. Fear was choking her. They were gloating over seeing her fear-stricken. They tormented her further. One of the soldiers fired in the air.  Poor Nancy thought that she was finished. No more Nancy Price. She slumped on her seat. The intensity of the fear unlocked her bladder. Her urine cascaded, wetting her pantyhose and the driver seat, creating a small puddle under it. The soldiers went hysterical, laughing and thumping on the ground like a bunch of enthusiastic kids, exclaiming loudly in Swahili. A few passersby were courageous enough to see what the fuss was all about. They too laughed loudly. Nancy Price heard them. Never before in her life had she felt so humiliated. These were indeed savages, brutes and barbarians.

             In the end, having their fun, without molesting her, they let her go. Nancy drove back to the Immaculate Conception Collage. She was seething with anger. "Those fucking bastards!" she ranted as she drove. What could she do?  Cooling down, she realized how lonely she was.  She wasn't safe. Africa was not her home. She wanted to be with people, not any people, white people. But no white people were around. She thought of Mother Veronica and of Allison Web. She needed to talk to someone. Whom?  She couldn't talk to the African staff in the College; she had already sensed that they disliked her. If she told them, they would not sympathize with her. They might laugh in her face. She couldn't face another humiliation.  She did not know the mental makeup of the Africans, even of the Western-educated ones. She couldn't hold it in any longer. She took a chance and one day, she told it to John Kiwanuka, how the four army men humiliated her. He listened, said not a word and she wasn't sure what was going in his mind.  When she was almost finished telling him, she blurted out with anger, "Those Africans soldiers are barbarians, brutes, like a troupe of frenzied chimpanzees in the wild. Shouting and calling everyone from the road to see me in that state as if they had discovered something unusual."

"They had," John had said.   

She darted a hostile look at him and demanded to know what he meant. He told her very calmly that those African soldiers had discovered that the White could be cowed down by the African and that was a discovery for them. Another discovery was seeing her urinating.

"That was a discovery too?" Nancy Price asked.

"Of course."

"Didn't they know that the Whites urinate, shit and do all such biological things like rest of the animals?"

"In Colonial Africa the Whites weren't animals, they were divinities. Having divine status, they had separate toilets, separate resident areas, they had everything exclusive for themselves, living a leisurely and luxurious life. Nothing has changed much even now. When I was young, I often wondered if the Whites did really shit, urinate and have sex.  When the students got pregnant here, Mother Veronica and the White staff look down upon them as if they were rubbish, as if the Whites did not do such things. And when the nobilities and royalties came from England on official visits to Uganda, they indeed appeared before our eyes like Gods and Goddesses from heaven. How could such people urinate, shit and have sex? But now, we know better."

Nancy Price was a sensitive woman. For the first time, she saw the colour of her skin was equated with injustice. Her conscience stirred. She was overcome with emotion. Was it guilt? Was it compassion? Or was it love?  She didn't know, but on the spur of the moment, she asked John Kiwanuka to marry her. She almost begged him; and in the end, he consented to take Nancy as his wife.

Our plates were empty; there were no more matoke portions to go around, nor waragi. We had coffee, not from Uganda but from Tanzania. In the end, I took their leave and went home through the snow to put the story on the paper while it was still fresh.

© Lino Leitao

 

 

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