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Goretti Kyomuhendo’s novella, Waiting, as the title suggests, is about waiting. A strange kind of waiting where, as the narrative unfolds, one does not experience the feeling that the characters or the community that are the novella’s focus are trapped or static. Rather, there is a lot of ‘movement,’ especially internal, as the characters adjust and go ahead to make lives that are both meaningful and normal in a war situation.

In the zone of waiting

Goretti Kyomuhendo’s novella, Waiting, as the title suggests, is about waiting. A strange kind of waiting where, as the narrative unfolds, one does not experience the feeling that the characters or the community that are the novella’s focus are trapped or static. Rather, there is a lot of ‘movement,’ especially internal, as the characters adjust and go ahead to make lives that are both meaningful and normal in a war situation.

The novella is set in 1979, the period when a combination of Ugandan exiles and the Tanzanian army, simply known as the liberators, march to oust Uganda’s dictatorial Idi Amin. Events are presented through the eyes of Alinda, a 13 year old girl who provides a knit, family portrait in the village of Hoima. Life is normal, calm and sane. Alinda’s mother is pregnant. Kaaka, Alinda’s grandmother, is some kind of sage. When wind wafts through the trees and a lone leaf falls, she picks it up and pronounces that the leaf is announcing “a visitor who comes from far away, and has no intentions of returning—like the leaf.”

Throughout the book, the narrative is very descriptive, almost to a fault. Alinda takes on the role of an educator and provides details of the moon rising, the birds morning conversation waking her up, how logs are chopped and split, meanings of the Swahili phrases used in the book, unnecessarily. One lets this negative pass because Alinda is a young girl whose sense of wonder makes her observe and embrace life in its totality.

In the first part of the book, a communal thread of togetherness, with the spirit of neighborliness easily unify the individuals who come from different regions, and belong to various ethnic groups, into the community.
News of war arrive in the village. Staying inside houses at night becomes unsafe. Alinda’s family and others move out of their homes every night to a secret hideout in the bush. There is Uncle Kembo who is Father’s young brother. Nyinabarongo, a neighbour, the old man (no name), and the Lendu woman, who comes from Congo.

Eventually, Kaaka gets tired of rolling up her blankets to go out and sleep in the cold. Mother too thinks it’s futile for her to be outside. Given how heavy she is, she wouldn’t be able to run if the rebels showed up. Mother gets weaker and Alinda assumes the running of household chores, dividing roles for herself, Maya, her sister, and Tendo, her brother.
Mother’s time draws near. Kaaka talks with Father about finding help and in her prejudice we notice the first seeds of suspicion along ethnic differences. Nyinabarongo was chased away from home by her in-laws so she cannot be relied on to help a woman in labour. The Lendu woman is said to be childless so what could she know about childbirth and ways of Kaaka’s ethnic group? Nyinabarongo and the Lendu woman become the outsiders.

Part one ends in a dramatic and symbolic way. Gunshots ring out on the night when Mother is giving birth. Kaaka ends up being killed. Alinda finds herself helping Mother alone, without sufficient knowledge of what she’s supposed to do. Mother says:
“Cut what?” Alinda asks.
“The umbilical cord.”
Alinda, trembling, cuts the “fleshy string coiling out of the bloody mess and winding its way to the baby’s stomach.”
It is as if by cutting the cord, Alinda has severed whatever tied her to childhood. She is forced to grow and enter the world of adulthood as Mother passes on to the world of ancestors.

In part two, Alinda is raising the baby who is sickly and cries a lot. The Lendu woman is accused of bewitching the baby. Father’s heart softens towards her when she visits and brings some sugar. She also knows herbs that restore the baby’s health and herbs that treat soldiers’ wounds. Privately, the Lendu woman reveals herself to Alinda and a bit of history. “When Patrice Lumumba was killed by the Americans in 1961, there was a lot of fighting in Zaire…There were no medicines, so we had to use herbs…That’s how I came to learn a lot about different plants…” She also puts up a defense for her husband who the people say is a bad man because he sells his fish expensively. “…he goes to a lot of trouble to get that fish from the river Congo, which is very deep and difficult to navigate.”

Uncle Kembo too has a survival story in which he changed his name to Abdullah, was circumcised, converted to Islam and rewarded.
Part two ends on the same theme note as part one. There is another misfortune and a new life introduced. The old man steps on a landmine and his leg has to be amputated. Jungu, Alinda’s friend whose father is Indian and mother African, joins the household.

In part three, the liberators arrive. Alinda is psychologically troubled and Nyinabarongo takes over most of the household responsibilities, including Father. Jungu minds the baby. Tendo is excited about the liberators and joins them. There is celebration in the village; slaughtering animals, eating and being merry. Hope happens. And much love. Jungu falls in love with Bahati, one of the liberators, and he gives her gifts of kanga. Bahati teaches Jungu Kiswahili and she teaches him English. The Lendu woman is pregnant and moves into uncle Kembo’s house. Just like Nyinabarongo has moved into Father’s bedroom.

You’d think Kyomuhendo would be satisfied to let the story end on such a happy note. Instead, she has to make another loss. The liberators pack their bags and vanish one night without warning. Tendo too. Jungu is heartbroken and goes in search of Bahati. Apparently, Bahati appears and scratches at Alinda’s window. He is looking for Jungu. He had left a message for her, which she did not get, affirming his love and promise that he would never leave her.
In the end, there is an earthquake and continuous heavy rains that crack up some houses and wash away others. Another symbolic image of old lives going away and new lives coming in. Bahati moves into Tendo’s bedroom. Father goes back to his job in the city.

Kyomuhendo presents most of her characters unscathed. They feel what happens. They touch death. Yet, they do not brood or become desperate, helpless. They give each other support and keep re-inventing themselves and their community. They are solid and stable with a sense of purpose and dignity. When one character fades, another slips in naturally and becomes a part of the community. Human needs and desires continue to be fulfilled; companionship, complementarity and genuine support, given and returned.

Kyomuhendo’s novella is 108 pages. One can read it in one sitting like a long short story. The author uses myths and careful character-naming to imply further stories that could have come out in a longer narrative. The generation of the nameless—Mother, Kaaka, old man—seem to be passing away. Only Father remains. But namelessness spreads its hold on a new generation—baby.

The major strength of Waiting is Kyomuhendo’s portrayal of the family - nation ideology. We see many characters coming to live in Alinda’s household and being taken on as family, respected, appreciated and welcomed. There is the initial suspicion but it does not last. One feels a sense of perfect ease it is admirable how the characters manage to leave all their ‘baggage’ behind. Nyinabarongo, the Lendu woman, Bahati, the old man, and Jungu represent five different nationalities. They do not turn against one another in hatred. Some of them co-habit, and all of them co-exist, peacefully, supporting one another. The family achieves cohesion and integration that Africa seeks after today. This is the most relevant lesson the book tackles. It defies the current borders and shows how meaningless today’s citizenship and national identities are to a group of people determined to live in one accord. They know everyone’s inside story and go on to share not in a gossipy manner but in a way that says: ‘I know who you are.’ What results is not confrontation but revelation. The Lendu woman is able to explain who she really is and how she happens to know what she knows. Kaaka’s story too is revealed through Nyinabarongo, blending with myth and reality. Alinda’s ‘sickness’ comes from the fact that she has seen too much and taken on heavy responsibilities due to circumstances, without being prepared for them. This sheds light into individuals who fumble towards national leadership roles without the training and knowledge required for such roles. What happens then is a sick state.

With such a plot, one wonders why Kyomuhendo did not let the novella grow into a novel, especially since one feels a need for more and more as the story grows but that ‘more’ is truncated. Perhaps she wanted to show the promise for Uganda (the setting) and Africa generally, but then remembered that to be true, Uganda is still in a state of waiting, and so is Africa. Therefore, the way forward is not to be divisive and continue occupying confining boxes that magnify our ethnic grouping and current country borders, but rather, to seek a centering that connects with the simple dignity of the ordinary people.

Publisher: The Feminist Press, US
Year of publication: 2007
Author: Goretti Kyomuhendo