After my parents died, I moved in with my aunt and two cousins, who promised to provide me with a warm home and education. Indeed, I did receive these two promises, but they came at a cost.
I had to share the meager resources, such as the bed, food and school requirements with my cousins. Joey, my elder cousin, was in a boarding school and only returned home for about a month during school break. Jacinta, my younger cousin, was still a child and so she was always home with me.
My aunt frequently grumble and complain that she had to deprive her children of food and education because I was also sharing in them. Her grievances usually began after I had failed to complete my duties in time, or if my class results were not as she expected.
As a young and naïve child, I never expected to be in constant competition for attention and appreciation from my aunt. But day I came to understand that I’d never receive these affirmations from her, I made a conscious choice to live cautiously, following all instructions to the dot while praying for the day I could escape this situation and find freedom.
I attended a day school about five kilometers away from home which required me to wake up early to clean the compound and get ready for school. Having never been accustomed to so much work before, I struggled with the daily chores. I was a willowy eight-year-old girl with a shy demeanor so I was slow going through my tasks.
Every day after school, I had to fill a fifty-liter tank with water before I could shower and do my home-work. It took almost a year to adjust my body to a new system of constant work and little rest.
Perhaps this doesn’t seem that bad; after all, it’s not the end of the world for a child to do chores. Yet it was surely tiresome, finishing all the duties at that age and having to race to school in the wee hours of the morning. On days I did not make it before the school’s big iron gates closed, I earned a thorough beating or had to clean the school rest rooms as punishment. This would spiral into me returning home late, therefore the water routine, shower, homework and bedtime were late too.
Yes, sometimes I skipped evening meals because I’d fall asleep during homework. My aunt always asked Night, the maid, not to wake me up for food. It was best if I slept early and rested enough for the following morning, she reasoned. This meant I’d wake up having to face my duties and school hungry, without time for a hurried cup of tea.
My elder cousin was always away in boarding school so we never really had the chance to meet up and bond. Even during holidays, she always assumed the supervisory duties and left me the hard work as she flashed the age card in my face. My younger cousin was not just a baby in age but actions too, so yes, there was no help there. She threw tantrums all the time loved everyone’s attention to the extent that she would do unimaginable things. Being my aunt’s last born, she was always right.
One night, Night preparing to serve us food. She had arranged for a small basin to wash her hands as she picked the hot potatoes from the cooking pans to the plate. Jacinta, my young cousin, picked up the basin and poured all the water into the plates of food. She laughed and clapped as if she had done such a noble thing. Night immediately slapped her across her tiny mounds of buttocks and ordered her to leave the kitchen. I fought my tears as I watched the drama knowing that this was another night of sleep on an empty stomach. Jacinta rushed off in a fuss, tears streaming down her chubby cheeks. Aunt called Night in a stern voice and reprimanded her without knowing what exactly had transpired.
We removed the good potatoes from the ones that had soaked in water, and Night presented supper to my aunt and uncle. Since we never really shared a meal together, aunt never knew that we had no food left for the rest of us. In the morning, Night gave me their remains to nibble on my way to school. Such was my new family and I had to be okay with what I got. Fairness and justice were not known to me anymore and I did miss my parents then. Instead of wallowing in pain and self-pity, I strived to do all that was required of me in a fearful way to avoid the lush outs Night so often got.
I didn’t have to go to school on Saturdays and Sundays. You’d think these were my best days, but I dreaded these so much. This was largely because my chore list kept increasing as I got older. By the time I was twelve, I knew how to clean the two-bedroom house, make breakfast, I could ably lift a twenty-liter jerrycan between my short legs, and because of my work, the compound was always neat.
Our avocado tree always shed its leaves at night and at around midday. To manage this while also finding to read a book, I devised a plan. My day would start at six-thirty, just like a normal school day. After showering, I’d build a fire for breakfast and sweep the compound quickly while the kettle came to a boil.
By the time my aunt and the rest of the family woke up, tea would already be in the flask. Then I’d quickly dust the house with a broom to make mopping easier. All these chores where always done before ten o’clock, allowing me to have breakfast, clean up the utensils, and settle into my favorite reading spot by eleven. Reading had become a refuge, a safe place where I could immerse into my books.
I drifted more towards my elder cousin, Joey, probably because she let me borrow her novels from school. But still, this came at a cost. Joey would trade her turn cleaning the utensils with me, allowing me to read the next chapter of John Ruganda’s Black Mamba or Julius Ocwinyo’s Banished. At the time, I didn’t see this as a problem. All that mattered to me was the chance to read my books. Looking back, my grumpy state was misguided, because I hadn’t fully understood how important these household chores were in life.
I also bonded with Night, the maid. She always guided me, showing me how to do most of the work. She gave me my first cooking lesson on my primary vacation. I had to learn how to prepare matooke. This is a staple food in Central and Eastern parts of Uganda. Normally, a meal without the matooke is not considered a proper meal. To begin, you peel the matooke depending on the number of people partaking in the meal, wash it thoroughly in clean water and then set it aside. Then you line the saucepan with banana leaves on which the matooke will rest. Place another clean banana leaf over the matooke, cover the saucepan and place the pan on a ready fire. The dish will be ready in about an hour and a half or less.
My aunt loved matooke but not me. I preferred corn bread or rice instead. I was never good at eating, always taking tiny portions, so when matooke became a regular meal at my aunt’s house, my already small portions diminished even further. I was always hungry. When my aunt realized how little matooke I ate, she asked Night to add some rice for the evening meal or corn bread for lunch. From that point on, I was never hungry. This change in the menu brought me to the kitchen, where I helped sorting rice or peeling the matooke.
One day however, dinner preparations went bad. Jacinta, two years my junior, often turned her tantrums into dare sessions, and that day had been one of such. She wouldn’t give me the kitchen knife and ended up throwing it at my face. It scratched my left cheek, just below my eye. My aunt wasn’t home so I wailed, fearing I’d lose my eye. Night’s first impulse was to beat Jacinta. She threatened the girl, saying I who took care of her feedings and baths and therefore cutting me was a lowly way of showing appreciation. By the time I noticed it was just a tiny graze, my head was hurting from bawling.
It felt as if Jacinta didn’t want me to be accepted by people, she sought support from. Night drifting more to me than her had not settled well with her. Engaging in any kind of confrontation with her was out of the question, knowing the repercussions I’d face from aunt. I constantly had to remind myself that I was the outsider here, and that I’d never be as warmly welcomed as I had hoped. Jacinta kept singing that song to me whenever my aunt seemed to appreciate some work I had done.
Night however, was my anchor. She always encouraged me to ignore Jacinta and Joey’s verbal battles and gave me work away from the two cousins. I piqued my interest in the food cooking sessions and this made me a better cook and it has surely paid off. Twenty-one years down the road, and I’m a well-equipped house manager and the best cook my family of three has ever seen.
6 August, 2023