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Ruth Mukwana

Precious Pieces

Featured in Issue 03

Ruth Mukwana is a fiction writer from Uganda.  She is currently working for the United Nations on humanitarian affairs in New York.  She’s a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars (MFA) and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from Makerere University.  Her short stories have  appeared in Solstice Magazine, Black Warrior Review, and Consequence Magazine. 

A tiny village named Elgoni lies on a mountain in Eastern Uganda. One of several villages scattered on the slopes, it consists of small clay huts roofed with dry grass. The outer walls of the huts are painted with portraits of heroes and warriors that fighting has claimed over the years. Tall pine trees, their needle-shaped leaves shining in the sun, line the red streets that run through the village. On hot afternoons, large mango and tikka trees in the compounds provide shelter and bring in a breeze from the lake at the foot of the mountain. Cows, goats, and sheep meander in and out of the streets and rest under the trees or beside barns full of dried cassava, groundnuts, sorghum, or millet. 

Mimi, a nine-year-old girl, lives in one of these huts with her Jaaja. Theirs is a small hut with portraits of the girl’s mother, father, and grandfather on its wall. In one portrait, her mother has a white cloth coiled around her head like a snake. The girl isdrawn to her mother’s large white eyes with their faraway look. 

The hut is nearly naked except for a kerosene lantern that hangs low from a dirty sisal rope tied to a pole supporting the roof. A clay pot full of boiled water sits on a high, wooden stool, and a big trunk that age has turned brown stores their measly treasures and church clothes.

Mimi sits on a white stone at the edge of the lake. It’s midday on Saturday, the twelfth of May, 2005. The day is hot and the sun’s rays burn her bean-colored skin, but she doesn’t feel the heat. She’s filling her jerrycan with water. It’s her last chore for the day. Jaaja is at the roadside selling potatoes, vegetables, and fruits.

She watches naked children, their charcoal-colored skin smeared with ash to keep away mosquitoes, jump into the lake, build sand huts, and throw sand at each other. Mimi longs to play with them and to hear their voices. Mimi can tell they’re shouting–oh, ah, waaa–by the way their lips form circles and widen in quick succession. They start chasing each other, their hands turned into pistols, and she knows they are playing war. The children are waiting for their mothers and aunties, who are washing clothes in small groups. Every now and again, the women throw their heads back as they laugh loudly. The women act as if Mimi isn’t present, as if they’ve never seen her before. They don’t know how to communicate with her, and she knows even if they tried, they’d be afraid that by talking to her, they might catch whatever made her deaf.

This doesn’t bother Mimi anymore. She’s used to being invisible. She also knows she’s blessed because she has her Jaaja who knows how to talk to her and can read her mind. Jaaja insists that Mimi can’t hide from life, and forces her to play with other children, perfect children, even when they scorn her and laugh at her groans and gestures as she tries to speak with them. Mimi waits for the right moment to try and play with them and thinks about going home to get her hearing aids.

Mimi sees the deaf-blind girl, her neighbor’s daughter, and closes her eyes and thanks God. The deaf-blind girl is even more invisible and isn’t as lucky as Mimi. Her parents are embarrassed and call her retard. They lock her in their hut, only letting her out to collect firewood from the forest and water from the lake while her perfect brothers go to school. The deaf-blind girl’s face is lifeless and tears constantly leak from the glistening line that separates her closed eyelids. Mimi has never seen her smile or laugh.She wants to get her to smile but doesn’t know how, and sometimes when Mimi meets her, she walks with her and holds her hand to guide her. The deaf-blind girl’s mother often yells at her for not coming back quickly from the lake. Her mother knows she has to wait until she gets help, but she yells anyway. Even though the child can’t hear, she yells.

Jaaja allows Mimi to go to school even if she can’t comprehend the lessons. Sitting at the front of the classroom, Mimi focuses on the teachers’ lips to make out the words. Often, they give her books with pictures and numbers to look at or copy. It took her a long time to learn to write her name on the placard she wears around her neck, with the words MY NAME IS MIMI. I AM DEAF. PLEASE HELP ME. The placard was Jaaja’s idea. It’s supposed to let people know that Mimi needs help. Some people help, but most pretend they don’t see her. Ever since she got the hearing aids two months ago, the old head teacher with a head full of grey hair, whose hands are always covered in chalk, sometimes sits with her after class hours to tutor her. He’s helping her to learn some words. 

Jaaja stands up and scans the road. Traffic is slow today. She bends and arranges the onions, tomatoes, and potatoes into baskets. She swats at flies that have piled on the bananas. Although she doesn’t like leaving Mimi by herself for long periods, today, Mimi refused to come to the roadside, promising to clean the house, collect water and wash their clothes. Jaaja caved. Jaaja thinks the world of her granddaughter. Before she knew Mimi was deaf, she was perturbed by what she perceived as her insolence. Mimi didn’t respond when she was called. She just stared at Jaaja’s lips. Shouting at her didn’t bring any change. In confusion, the child’s large eyes would bulge like a chameleon’s, then quickly blink before tears flowed down her cheeks. Jaaja spoke to all her friends. They advised her to pray; Mimi was still young, so she could start hearing as she grew older. Others recommended herbs which she rubbed into Mimi’s ears.

One day, Mimi was up on a guava tree looking for ripe guavas when the child soldiers turned up. The child soldiers were pure terror, the kind of terror that made adults urinate on themselves. They dressed in army green trousers and shirts made from leaves, bandanas tied over dreadlocks. Their eyes were red like chilies—a color that came from chewing herbs, herbs that made them valiant. At night, they fought the government soldiers dispatched to Elgoni to keep peace. They frequently came down from the mountain to their families in order to eat or hide from government soldiers during ambushes or recruitment. The government soldiers also regularly turned up in the village in their smart army green uniforms and Jeeps, picked out a handful of villagers and tortured them to make them reveal where the child soldiers were. Writhing in pain, the villagers would say and do anything. And what kind of parent would give up his or her own flesh and blood? The things they told the soldiers were lies—lies to make the torture stop. The truth, though, was they didn’t know where their children were.

On stormy nights full of lightning and thunder, the soldiers–child soldiers or government soldiers–came down to the village and randomly shot people, or cut off their limbs, or tied and hanged them from the tikka trees. The sound of thunder drowned out the shrieks of the dying.  In the morning, the wet, cold bodies looked like clay statues, and babies crawled on the wet, red mud in search of their parents killed during the night. But that wasn’t the worst. It was the not knowing when they’d descend upon the village.  

Jaaja saw them before they reached their hut and started yelling at Mimi to come down. She hoped the child could hear her this one time. The child soldiers saw Mimi, and she saw them at the same time, and let go of the branch.

“Is she spying for the government?” Their leader, a boy not more than fourteen-years-old, asked. The rest of the boys scattered in all directions and ransacked the hut looking for water, food, clothes, shoes, anything useful.

Jaaja shook her head.  She had wrapped her body around Mimi, now standing beside her, and stared at the boy’s shining black boots, which were in contrast to his torn t-shirt and jeans.

“Are you lying?”

“No,” Jaaja said. 

“What was she doing in the tree?”

“Looking for guavas.”

“What were you doing in the tree?” he asked Mimi.

Mimi didn’t respond.

He looked at Jaaja and said, “She’d make a good fighter. What were you doing in the tree?” He shouted in Mimi’s ears.

Mimi started crying. Jaaja panicked and shouted helplessly, “She can’t hear you. She’s deaf.”

The search complete, they left with a threat to return if Jaaja had lied to them. The child soldiers turning up like that alarmed Jaaja; it could have been fatal. She grabbed Mimi and scrutinized her ears. She shouted and shouted, waiting for any sign of hearing. Mimi didn’t respond. Jaaja confirmed her fears.

Jaaja immediately took Mimi to the local clinic.They couldn’t tell how bad it was, or if it could be fixed, but they suggested she try getting hearing aids from the hospitals in town. Jaaja was miserable for a week. She didn’t sing or laugh as she ground the millet grain whose flour turned her eyelids, lashes, and brows white, or as she balanced the clay pot of water from the lake on her head. She regretted the times she had called Mimi pig-headed and thrown things at her. She cried as she realized that she should have taken the child to hospital as soon as she suspected she had hearing problems. Then, she pulled herself together, and devised ways for them to communicate. She’d walk with Mimi pointing at things and writing them for her in a book. They also started to develop a vocabulary of sign language to communicate. The first sign they created was linking their hands together and placing them on their hearts. That was Jaaja’s vow to help Mimi hear, and Mimi’s image of hope. Crossing index fingers meant agreement, rubbing their tummies, hunger, shaking the head sideways, no, nodding up and down, yes, and pinching their ears, repeat. Jaaja also started to decipher the grunts Mimi made.

For the next two years, Jaaja couldn’t find hearing aids for her granddaughter. She asked everyone who would stop to listen to her. Each time someone mentioned an organization, a clinic, a church that perhaps could help, she went there immediately. Her feet were swollen and cracked from all the walking she did, visiting the hospitals with audiologists. But they wanted money, a lot of money she didn’t have. Often she took Mimi with her, garbed in her oversized floral Sunday dress, her hair combed and tied in the center of her head. The sight of Mimi with her pleading eyes, and of Jaaja, sometimes with a walking stick, evoked pity, but not help, until the priests’ visit to the village. The priests told Jaaja about the Catholic missionaries in northern Uganda who assessed hearing problems and provided hearing aids to children with severe hearing impairment. 

That evening, Jaaja and Mimi got on abus. Mimi was lucky; her hearing impairment was severe. 

The jerrycan is full of water. As Mimi gets ready to leave, the children come charging into the lake, and she decides to get her hearing aids and run back to the lake and play with them before Jaaja returns home. She hoists the jerrycan on her head and hurries home. She puts the jerrycan on the veranda, dries her hands on her dress, runs into the hut, and opens the small window to let in sunlight. She opens the trunk and carefully fishes out the plastic bag with the hearing aids. Gently, she unwraps them from the layers of plastic bags and papers, and takes a deep breath before inserting them. Lying on the bed,she savors the instantaneous miracle of hearing, and tries to discern the echoes of animals, birds, wind, children and adults. She shouts some of the words she knows in different accents–Jaaja, hello, cows, Elgoni, lake–and bursts into laughter. She shouts her name, jumps off the bed, opens the trunk again, removes the mirror and watches herself laugh.

She closes her eyes and tries to visualize the day her parents died, and her ear canals were destroyed. She cannot. She concentrates very hard so her memory can come back. It doesn’t. After a few minutes, she picks up the mirror again and studies her face for traces of her mother memorized from the portrait on the hut: the gap between her front teeth, the long forehead, deep dimples in her cheeks, and large white eyes with the faraway look. She remembers she has to go back to the lake before Jaaja returns home and puts the mirror back in the trunk. 

An old Toyota pickup parking opposite of Jaaja wakes her up, and she runs to it, glad there aren’t many women at the roadside today. The engine is still running when Jaaja leans in through the driver’s window. The woman in the passenger seat says she’d like to buy potatoes.

“Fifteen thousand shillings for a bucket,” Jaaja says.

“Eh, Mama, are you selling gold? Five thousand,” the woman says.

“These are very good potatoes. The best. Thirteen thousand.”

“Seven thousand.”

“Twelve thousand is my last price.”

“Eight thousand.” The driver steps on the accelerator.

“Ten thousand is my very last price,” Jaaja says and steps away from the car.

“Fine, give us two buckets.”

Jaaja carries the buckets of potatoes and puts them into the trunk. It’s her first sale of the day and probably the last. She checks the time. It’s only one o’clock in the afternoon, but she’s already exhausted. Gone are the days when she’d wake up with the sunrise to go to the fields before coming to the roadside at midday where she remained till dusk selling vegetables and fruits. She stands under a tikka tree and savors the respite from the blaring sun. She thinks about Mimi, who depends on her for her life, and wonders how much longer she has on this earth. She remembers the day the sound of guns destroyed Mimi’s hearing, although she didn’t know it then; Mimi was only two years old. Her ears were still sprouting like African violets and couldn’t survive the bang bang bang of the gunshots so close. Jaaja cannot forget the sound or the smell of her daughter’s and son-in-law’s blood that soaked their compound for days until the rains washed it away or the yellow flames that turned her hands pink as she tried to save something, anything, from the hut, which was consumed within seconds.

Mimi breezes back to the lake, a grin across her face. She’s yet to get used to sound but knows the swoosh she hears is the wind. She sees two cows and stops, looks at their open mouths, and hears moo-moo. She echoes it and giggles. Meh-meh, she hears and sees goats, slowly walks over to them, and picks up a kid and cuddles it. The lake. She puts it down and runs. Once there, she stops a few meters away from the women and children. Shrieks pierce her ears–po-po-po-boom-boom, the children shout. The noise is overpowering. She covers her ears, her face radiant. Excitement propels her, and she plunges into the lake to join the children, pointing at her ears. The children, caught up in the game of splashing water at each other, don’t notice her. She starts jumping up and down splashing water. Suddenly it’s eerily quiet. Mimi can see the children’s lips moving, but she can’t hear anything. She touches her ears, and her heart almost tumbles out as she realizes the hearing aids have fallen out.

She falls on her knees and frantically searches in the brown water. Nothing. The water stings her eyes. “God. God.” Her heart pounds faster, and her large eyes flood with tears; mucus flows from her nose. She cleans it off with the back of her hand. She knows Jaaja is going to kill her. Soon, her chest is tight, her lips dry. She dips her hands into the lake and scrapes the floor. Her fingers come back full of muck.

Mimi sits at the edge of the lake. She wishes she could casther fears deep into the lake the way a fisherman casts a net, so they could swim to the end where it touches the horizon, never to return. The lake doesn’t hear her wish. She wills it to take her fear, but instead the fear lodges in her and chokes her the waya python squeezes life out of its prey. Sucking her thumb brings her no comfort. She watches the ring of brown opaque water around her feet.“Wu yi wu yi wu yi!” Her wails are drowned out by the children’s squeals as they jump into the lake.She curses herself for being so clumsy, for her desire to play with the children, for the hearing aids that haven’t helped her to learn to talk. This elicits another bout of tears as she realizes she’ll never hear again or learn to talk.

Mimi walks back home and changes into dry clothes. The sun is starting to disappear off into the lake, and she knows Jaaja is on her way home; she has to boil her chai. She finds the stove, puts it outside, fills it with charcoal, sprinkles paraffin on the coals, and lights it with a matchstick. Once the charcoal is red, she puts on the kettle of water, wishing more than anything that she had gone with Jaaja to the roadside.

A fresh wave of tears rushes from her eyes. She dries them, leaving black patches on her face from the charcoal that covers her hands. The wariness she used to feel towards her grandmother has returned. She has worked so hard to absorb, anticipate, and guess Jaaja’s needs. As soon as Mimi breathes in the smoke from the other homesteads, she puts fresh, crisp, dry tobacco in Jaaja’s pipe. When Jaaja covers her mouth, and her body shakes violently, Mimi brings her cough concoction: a mixture of ginger, hibiscus flowers, and guava stems. As the sun disappears into the lake, and the tiny yellow flames from kerosene lanterns wake up in the huts, Jaaja wants ash to keep away mosquitoes. Mimi fetches it for her.

Jaaja warned her a thousand times never to touch the precious pieces. Even though the missionaries said she had to wear the hearing aids all the time, Jaaja only let her wear them at school and during Sunday mass, so Mimi heard only some of the time. Jaaja put them in for her before she left for school and removed them as soon as she returned home, wrapped and put them into the trunk.Some days, when they were both at home, she’d let her wear them inside the hut and make her repeat words after her. Those were special days, hearing Jaaja’s croaky voice; she talked through the nose. Even Jaaja’s sneezes were a lullaby.

Mimi stops crying. The deaf-blind girl has just tipped over with her jerrycan of water. Mimi runs over, helps her to her feet, holds her hand, and guides her to their hut. She then picks up the jerrycan, which is almost empty, and carries it to their veranda. Before she leaves, she sees the deaf-blind’s mother shouting at her daughter.

Mimi sees Jaaja’s stick frame slowly making her way up the mountain balancing a basket full of food on her head. A herd of cows walks majestically uphill, leaving a cloud of dust. Two boys keep the cows away from people’s sorghum, millet, and rice, and Jaaja stops to talk to them. Before Jaaja sets down the basket, Mimi is on her knees. She covers her head in Jaaja’s gomesi, breathing in the smells of dust, lemon, and sweat.

All Jaaja hears is mumbling mixed with incomprehensible words. She puts down the basket, reaches down, pulls her up, and looks into Mimi’s large, swollen, red eyes. Mimi panics. She tries to explain with gestures intermingled with grunts and a few words, but she doesn’t make sense. Her arms are wings over her head in the air. Mimi runs into the hut, retrieves[LV1]  the plastic bag where the hearing aids were kept, and gives Jaaja the empty bag.

Jaaja registers what has happened and wants to lash out at her. She removes her slipper and raises her arm, but she drops it midway. She remembers how she struggled to get the hearing aids, and she recalls how Mimi ran around like a puppy, unable to contain her excitement the first time she heard her voice, and she knows Mimi’s suffering has no end. Jaaja touches her heart twice to say it’s ok and squeezes Mimi in a tight embrace. She looks up at the dark mountain and is relieved it wasn’t the soldiers.

Jaaja rummages through the basket for maize and sits down next to the charcoal stove. She peels off the maize husks and puts them on the charcoal to roast. Mimi goes into the house and returns with two mugs in which Jaaja pours the chai. Jaaja beckons Mimi to sit next to her. As they roast the maize on the embers, she asks her why she defied her.

Mimi looks at Jaaja, sees her soft face, and can tell from her inert eyes that she’s hurt. This look in Jaaja’s eyes is new, and Mimi doesn’t want to see it again; she wishes she could tell her that. She places her right palm on her heart.

“But why disobey me?” Jaaja asks with her eyebrows raised, forgetting as she does when she’s angry, that Mimi can’t hear.

Mimi grabs both her ears, moves her hands, stands up, and hops to mimic games. She tugsat her ears. “I want to play with the children,” she’s saying. 

“I refused you to touch the hearing aids,” Jaaja shouts.

Mimi’s eyes fill with tears as she touches her ears and nods quickly. She’s still struggling to say that she wants to hear all the time. She clasps her hands and squeezes. She runs back into the hut and finds a pencil. She sits down to write sorri.

Jaaja is frustrated again with their struggle to communicate. Before she can decide whether to admonish or comfort Mimi, she hears the sound. It’s very soft, and if her ears weren’t tuned to the way they walk, stealthily, she could have missed it.

Jaaja waits for themto come out of the dark. She prays that Mimi remains silent and remembers the last time soldiers came[LV2] . She knows this time it isn’t the child soldiers. The government soldiers are worse. She wants to run. How far would her old bones take her? And Mimi?

They’re in front of her. Five men. “You’re gonna tell us where the children are,” one of them says, his voice menacing. He doesn’t call them soldiers. Jaaja can’t tell which one is talking. She could be shot for looking at them, for looking. She hears the door to the hut kicked and doesn’t think about how she’ll fix it, only Mimi and how she frightened she must be. She sees the flashlights and considers running into the hut. She remembers the woman whose ribs were broken by one kick. A second is all it takes them to ransack the hut.

“Where are the children?” A different voice. Cajoling.

One of them comes out of the hut carrying Mimi. Jaaja sees her feet dangling in the air. He’s asking Mimi. She freezes.

“C’mon on. You can tell me,” the cajoling voice.

“Where are they?” the menacing voice. “Has she been trained to keep secrets?”

Jaaja shakes her head.

“We shall fish them out of her. This is what we are going to do to this old woman. You see that charcoal stove? Look at the coals. Very hot. Yes. We’re going to empty them onto her head. I hate the smell of burning humans. So, you better speak now.” He drops Mimi, and she falls on Jaaja who embraces her.

“It’s no use,” Jaaja whispers.

“Speak up.”

“It’s no use. You can burn me, skin me, shoot me, and she won’t tell you. She’s deaf.”

He steps away from the charcoal stove and kneels before them. He flashes his torch at Mimi and studies her ears as though by looking he can detect deafness. He looks at Jaaja. She waits.

“Let’s go,” he tells the others, “she’ll be a burden.”

Jaaja hugs her granddaughter and rocks her back and forth until she stops crying. She’s frustrated again with their struggle to communicate. Jaaja remembers how Mimi ran around like a puppy, unable to contain her excitement when she heard her voice the first time, and what the audiologist said. She knows they have to get another pair of hearing aids, but she also knows they’re insufficient, just like she knows she has to let Mimi hear all day long, even though Mimi will break them again, even though she can never afford to buy them for her. Jaaja links her hands and places them on her heart.