Memorial Garden

From “Blue Lake, Small Island,” snippets of an un-noted experience. 


It was 11 a.m. when we gathered in the backyard and left for the Village, Ali leading the way, her right hand gripping leashes to her four dogs. As we walked, we talked, in groups of threes and fours. Soon we arrived at a junction, where a wide path went left. “Would you like to see the police station?” Ali said. We would. So we walked down it, under masses of leaves strung together and suspended in the air by cobwebs, until we reached a wide clearing opening up to the lake, where two men could be spotted walking about, one looking at us approaching. The clearing housed around eight mud buildings and iron container-turned-apartments, each small and unbecoming, an unlikely police station. In their centre stood a short, circular hall with low walls, its thatched roof an overlookable cone—the typical traditional meeting hall. In my Igbo language, we call them obi, living place, living room, a setting utilized by Chinua Achebe for some of the most memorable conversations in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. I make a note to ask what Bulago locals called theirs. To the left of the obi was what seemed, from the smoke on its wall, to be a kitchen. In front of it, wrappers draped on her body, stood a tall woman who looked bald. One of the men—lighter-skinned than the Ugandans I’d seen so far on the island—had been circled around by our group. I turned towards the other man, towards his tall, big smile. Giles was moving towards him also.

“Meet my friend, Obi,” he said. We shook hands.

“I’m from Nigeria,” I told him.

The expression on his face when I told him this is something that I have, strangely, forgotten.

After I followed Giles onto a strip of grass-softened stones snaking into the lake, after we’d taken selfies there, as we left, the tall, big man said to me, “You’re from Nigeria?” I asked if he had ever been outside Uganda. He hadn’t.

Returning to our path to the Village, Ali stopped at a clearing to our right beneath trees, at the edge of which sat a stone pew littered with leaves. She walked to the pew, cleared the leaves with her foot, and stood in the centre of the clearing, her army of dogs around her. She looked up. She looked solemn. “This is a memorial garden,” she said.


Photo credit: Nkiacha Atemnkeng.

A Language Problem

From “Blue Lake, Small Island,” snippets of an un-noted experience.


Four or so minutes after we touched down in Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, right after we climbed the steps to the long passage in Terminal 1, a small crowd of about twenty—women, men, bags on their backs, boxes in their hands—stood blocking the way, shouting. We stopped. “Are these our people?” a woman said in Igbo. The scene was unmistakably Nigerian: it seemed like a fight but turned out to be an intense struggle: two or three men trying to retrieve something from a quite ferocious Airport Official, who it seemed, from the chatter around, had seized their passports. “You must explain to us—why!” A few other Airport Officials were rushing to the scene, wielding batons. It could have been taken from a news report on TV, this scene of lighter-skinned, weapon-wielding security men angry and terrified at these bold black men who must be contained with force. “You think you can intimidate us? You are racist! Racists!” I walked past the rowdiness, wondering how many people’s first times in Addis Ababa are marked by such drama as this, such drama as I’d been warned about.

The next ten minutes was quick: I joined a very wrong queue, I stood there for minutes, I asked an official for clarification, I rushed up the staircase, I stood watching a board with ticketing locations, I joined another long queue tucked into a zig zag, I pulled off my shoes, my belt, my phone—it was hectic.

I’d been in Terminal 2’s Gate 4 for an hour before I spotted Nkiacha Atemnkeng. Nkiacha is Cameroonian, works in Duala Airport, writes for Bakwa magazine, and is headed to Entebbe as well. I walked up to draw his attention, and then we made our way to the last row of seats, to where I’d been sitting between a young man who looked Eastern European, who’d asked me “Kigali?,” and a young woman I hadn’t spoken to but whose blue ankara, the familiar white-flowery design imprinted on it, suggested she wasn’t just Nigerian but also Igbo. Nkiacha sat in the row ahead of ours. We’d last seen at last November’s Ake Arts and Book Festival in Abeokuta—so, catching up.

The hall was long and full, people cluttered on the passage, streaming up and down it, looking Ghanaian or Nigerian and Ethiopian or Sudanese and Lebanese and South African and Eastern European. A dark-skinned young man with wavy hair came up to me and spoke words.

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand you. I understand only English,” I said.

He was smiling, defiant. He repeated his words.

“He’s speaking English,” Nkiacha said in laughter. “He’s asking where those going to South Africa are.” Nkiacha turned to him: “What time is your flight?” In the next four or so minutes, after he had asked where we were from and said he was Somali, the young man stood near the Eastern European, engaged in a language Nkiacha said was only English in their accent. Minutes later, we got up and headed for Gate 4.