KINTU cover pageExcerpt from Kintu

Chapter 1



Monday 5th January 2004

It was 6 pm and the cold breeze that heralds the night had arrived. Kamu Kintu, an unknown cousin, lay unclaimed in a morgue but for Suubi the day had passed as usual. Opolot, her boyfriend, had rung to say that he was spending the night at her house. Suubi was on her way to Balintuma Road to pick up smoked fish, Nile Perch, their favourite.

The taxi came to the top of Namirembe Road’s steep climb. Towering above, on the highest peak of the hill, was Namirembe Cathedral, a grand gothic shrine. The taxi turned to the left and Mmengo, set on a lower peak of the hill, crept into sight. Mmengo, the last capital of Buganda kingdom, was a demoralised sight. Despite the return of the kabaka from exile, the town had not shaken off the mournful look. The buildings were old – not in a proud ornamental way that the Kasubi tombs boasted of a heroic past, but in an embarrassed way as if a grand plan had gone horribly wrong. People, especially shopkeepers, looked like they were caught in relentless rain. Only the hospital had life.

As the hill started to slope, the Bulange, vast and plush, came into view. The building was ostentatiously British. It housed the kabaka’s offices and the Buganda Lukiiko, the parliament. Facing away from the town centre and enclosed in a fence, the Bulange seemed forcibly cordoned off its capital. Suubi tried not to think about the strife between the old kingdom of Buganda and the new republic of Uganda. Unlike most Ganda, she did not care for tradition or the history of Buganda. History and tradition tied her, inextricably, to the past and Suubi had a vague fear that the past was poised to swallow her. There was anonymity in being just Ugandan. Uganda did not have a past, just a future. Yet Suubi knew that being Ganda went as deep as the darkness in her bone-marrows while being Ugandan was oil rubbed on her skin.

The taxi stopped at the Balintuma Road junction and Suubi stood up to alight. As her foot touched the pavement, her heart flipped and then shattered into tiny fragments. She knew immediately – it was Ssanyu.

This was the second time. The first time was eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half awake in bed when a sensation of being ‘locked’ – she could not open her eyes or move or scream – came over her. Then she saw a young woman standing above her bed looking down at her. The woman looked exactly like her only that she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair, au natural, was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s blue dress. Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.

“Who are you?” Suubi had tried to ask.

“Who am I, who am I,” the woman was very angry. “I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye you chameleon! Stop telling lies.”

“What lies? I don’t know you,” Suubi tried to say.

“You’re my Nnakato: who am I indeed!”

Suubi tried to shake her head, to say that she was not a twin but could not. For a while she struggled to break free in vain. Ssanyu Babirye stood over her like a snarling guard dog. Then Suubi snapped out of it and sat up. There was no one in the room. She jumped out of bed and ran outside.

For weeks afterwards, every time Suubi remembered the face, she was gripped by panic shakes. But as months went by and it wore off, she started to doubt what she had seen: it must have been a bad dream.

Now Suubi ran.

Ssanyu Babirye was real and she was behind her. She hoped to get home before Ssanyu locked her.

She crossed Balintuma Road and dashed past Esso, between the shops, past Mohamood High, towards the Christian Medical Centre. At the short cut to Namirembe Cathedral, the road dipped and all she could see was the horizon. Then the high roof of the old colonial house near the school for the handicapped rose. Resolute not to look behind, Suubi chased the road ahead, but the road seemed to run further. The colonial roof so dominated the horizon that her house, dwarfed, did not materialise immediately. Suubi’s heart jolted, her legs wavered, she doubted she would make it and terror overwhelmed her. That was when she glanced behind and saw Ssanyu standing in the road. It was just a glance but in that moment, Ssanyu emptied her heart onto the road.

“The truth Suubi,” Ssanyu begged.

Though Ssanyu stood at a distance, Suubi heard her words clearly. She still wore Suubi’s old blue dress and looked like she would drop dead anytime.

“Tell who you really are, please.”

Somehow this begging Ssanyu hurt more than the angry one. For a moment, Suubi was overcome by darkness: she thought that she had died. Then the darkness lifted, but she was too weak to stand. She reached for the electricity pole nearby for support. The pole felt warm and smelt of oil. But then Suubi became too weak to stand and she slid down to the grass. She leaned against the pole and closed her eyes. This had to be death.

After a long while, when she had not died, Suubi opened her eyes and looked back again. Ssanyu was gone. She stood up and looked around but Ssanyu was nowhere. Buoyed, Suubi turned and marched past a woman who had come to ask if she was okay. She distantly heard the woman say, “She’s short-circuited,” to another but Suubi ignored them. She walked back to where she had seen Ssanyu standing and shouted,

“What truth?”

        After a short pause, when Ssanyu did not materialise, Suubi started to walk home. She looked around for the women who had seen her madness: they were gone. The youth across the road looked straight ahead, the man on a bicycle was in a hurry, the school girls might have seen something, they seemed nervous. Suubi waited for them to look back as they were wont to do: they did not. Relief washed over her.

As she turned into her driveway, she was overcome by sneezing. She sneezed so hard that her head felt like it had split. As she lifted the wicket to walk in, Suubi stuck a finger in her ear and shook it violently – the dreaded sinuses! She was still clearing her throat and sniffing as she opened the door.