By Erin Jamieson
Lake Victoria, it is said, is what sustains life in Uganda. The second largest freshwater lake in the world, it breeds the White Nile and the Katonga River. Transport cargos and ferries carry goods and passengers. Water is harnessed for electricity. Fisheries are established along the edges.
And yet, we cannot call it our own. The lake seeps into both Kenya and Tanzania. As much as we’d like to think so, it belongs to us no more than it belongs to them.
* * *
“So you are concerned with intimacy.”
My wife sits in an armchair beside me, stiff as stone. Her eyes do not meet mine when she answers.
The doctor shifts in his chair. He is a balding man of maybe fifty or sixty, with narrow eyes the color of flint. “And what are your concerns, specifically? Is it frequency?”
My wife’s cheeks flush; we do not talk about such things, not in public or private. “We don’t at all anymore,” She whispers.
The doctor turns to me. “Has your wife expressed a reduced desire—“
“Not me,” She interrupts. He raises his eyebrows. It is rare for a woman to interrupt. She bends her head, humbled, “I mean, he does not want to. When I….he never…..”
“This is true?”
I stare at the doctor. On the wall behind him, a clock ticks like a heartbeat. I wish my wife would look at me, but I do not blame her. And the things I need to say I cannot.
“Yes. It’s true.”
* * *
Kampala is a haven in a world of chaos. Where once bombs shattered the earth, it is respite for the homeless. Day in and day out, Congolese refugees poor in like ants. We watch as tents rise across the outskirts of the capital. Desperate mothers and children with dirt stained cheeks and fathers whose eyes are clouded.
We came here because of my wife. She insists this is the only place we will be heard. Here, even though she is a woman, she can speak of such things. There a hospital instead of practices with thatched roofs. Here, there are therapists, they say, that can help more than traditional medicine.
What she doesn’t know is that I belong here. That even though we still have our home, I am every bit the refugee as the rest of them.
* * *
“Do you find yourself unsatisfied with your wife?”
I stare out the window, at the crystal blue sky. “My wife is beautiful,” I say.
The man clears his throat. “I understand you were in Congo.”
“I was studying there,” I say.
“I am a professor at Makerere,” I explain. “My wife and I live just south of here. “
“I see.” He studies me. “You were taken by the rebels?”
I twist my hands in my lap. “I was…mistaken for a spy.”
“Is it possible the experience as prisoner has made it more difficult to be a lover?”
I glance up at him and see someone else. I see men without faces, whose breath smells of dust and sweat. I feel hands made of leather, forcing me still.
But I am a man. A man is able to fight, when he needs to. When he feels weak, he never shows it. A man endures pain as a woman does when she bears a child.
“No,” I say, “I don’t see how.”
* * *
My wife is a magician; though we have not always had money, she can always find ways to fill our plate, to pay our dues. Today she cooks matoke on an open wood fire. The banana peels form cocoons around the bowls of shredded chicken, cabbage and tomatoes, which she will make into a stew.
“It smells wonderful.”
Silently, she starts a kettle of water to boil. The steam rises in the air like a phantom. I let he finish, and when I join her at the table, the smell and warmth of the food makes me feel as if I might vomit.
“Do you know what they are saying? The women I see in the markets, the streets? They are talking about me. How my own husband does not desire me.”
I swallow a spoonful of the stew. It scorches my tongue, and maybe that is best, because my words no longer have any power.
“You don’t spend time with me. You don’t eat my food. Am I a bad wife?”
Her eyes are glistening with tears, and I know she is picturing the same thing I am; the son we buried three years ago whose skin was tinged blue and his head the size of my palm.
Then, we’d been told that God had other plans. But it was a burden my wife carried, to have her femininity questioned. To feel the stares of women who’d been blessed with homes of seven, eight, nine children.
What I want to say is that I am much less a man than she is a woman. That, now, I know that probably was my fault, too.
And now. Now I do not know if we will have any children, ever.
It is the greatest shame, the greatest punishment anyone can imagine. And I have given it to the woman I love, the woman I labored for to produce a dowry of five handsome cows.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
Her eyes flash. “I wish that were enough.”
* * *
I change my pants three times before we leave for the appointment. The pain is almost unbearable today, but worse is what it reminds me of. The past three weeks I have hidden my soiled clothes, washed them by hand at night while my wife sleeps. That way, I can spare her from seeing the stains.
“We’re late,” My wife complains as we walk in. She strides beside me, self-consciously adjusting the collar on her dress. Since I became a professor, we have begun to dress the part, but I think we both miss the traditional dress. Western clothing is strange, stifling.
The doctor greets us and smiles. “So good to see you. Sit.” He folds his hands in his lap. “How has this week been?”
The room fills with silence. The air is suddenly too thick.
“I see.” He ruffles through the pages of a notepad. “If you don’t mind, I think it would be beneficial to talk to the two of you separately. “ He looks at me. “Is this comfortable for you?”
No good husband would leave his wife alone with another man—even if he is a doctor. A wife is sacred, treasured. Even more so for a man who only has one.
“Of course,” I say, when what I really mean is, I’m sorry.
* * *
“Now that we’re alone, is there anything you’d like to say?”
“It would help me to know everything. Is there anything you haven’t told your wife?”
I think of my wife, her wide chestnut eyes, the dimples on her cheeks. “There is something,” I say.
The doctor leans forward in his chair. “Another woman?”
I shake my head. “She is the only one for me. It has always been that way.”
“There’s no shame—“
“It was…something….that happened to me.”
He studies me. I can count the number of breaths I take. “Tell me,” He says.
And when I speak, I already know that I am falling. Already, it is too late.
* * *
We were told to march. We were not told where we were headed, and we did not dare ask. We started in the chill of the morning and continued past sunset. By the fifth day, most of the men’s’ feet were bloodied, the soles of their shoes peeling off.
When we finally stopped, we were ordered to help build fires. We gathered in groups warming our hands as the rebels roasted meat and ate stale crackers. We were offered none, even though our stomachs were empty and our heads light.
The rebels placed us in groups. Mine was taken over a group of trees nestling the camp.
A rebel walked around us in a circle, a rifle strapped over his back. “Bloody spies,” He spat. “Do you know what we do to spies? Show them the same courtesy they’d shown us.” He smiled and looked at us, one by one. I lowered my gaze. “Drop your clothes.”
It was unthinkable. Stripping a man of his clothes was taking his dignity. One man—the smallest of all of us, with squirrely eyes and breath that smelled of despair—dropped his britches quietly. The rest of us stilled.
“Do you need some convincing?” The barrel of the rifle, suddenly, was shoved into the side of my head. “Go on, take them off, or I shoot.”
Shaking, I dropped my pants. The others followed suit.
I looked up into the sky, where the dusk had fallen. The sun was the yolk of an egg, stretching across the horizon. My throat burned. What would I tell my wife, my friends, my coworkers?
I was thrust forward to the ground. I spat up dirt, craning my neck, but a hand held me down. I could hear laughter as my undergarments were torn away. A chill ran up and down my spine.
The rebels were singing witch doctor songs.
We lived on a diet of two bananas a day. Two bananas, and I don’t think any of us could have stomached anything more.
* * *
There is a beat of silence, and it is shocking to find myself back in the tiny room with the cozy armchair. The doctor studies me for a minute.
“How did you come home?”
“There was….a skirmish among the officers. They were arguing about who would get the last of their supply of coffee. One of us…took a chance, reached for one of the guns. Shots went off….some died, some escaped.”
“So you escaped.”
“I guess I was lucky,” I say, not believing my own words.
I shift my position in my seat. It feels as if I am sitting on thorns. I wait for him to ask how this has affected me, what it was like. How I survived. Instead he shakes his head.
“Have you told your wife?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Then I suggest you do.”
I swallow. “What do I tell her? That her husband is a weak man?”
The doctor doesn’t deny this. Instead he stands, and without looking at me, ushers me to the door. “Tell her the truth,” He says.
* * *
My wife is resting when I enter. She lifts her head, her dark hair a curtain around her face. “You’re home sooner that I expected,” She says, standing.
“Aye,” I say.
I meet her eyes. “Kabirinage. My love.”
“What is it?”
I step closer to her. Our faces are inches apart, and I can smell her scent: like sweet clover and freshly fallen rain. I curl my hands into fists at my sides, telling myself I must not touch her.
“I am sorry,” I begin. “I am so sorry.”
“You have decided to take another wife?”
I shake my head no. It is not in our religion to do this. I know many men do, but we were both raised Protestant. We do not believe in polygamy.
“You should know why,” I say. “Something happened to me.”
If she is surprised, she does not express it. She waits patiently.
“I was taken prisoner,” I begin.
“I know this.”
“But you don’t know everything,” I say.
“Tell me, then.”
And so I do the only thing I can; I do what the doctor proposed and have known all along I must do.
I speak, and plant the bitter seeds of truth.
* * *
When the police come, I only feel numb. It is a familiar numbness, the same numbness that came to me after nights of being compromised. It begins in my legs and arms and makes its way to the vital regions—my heart, my chest. It seeps into my body like a serpent, like venom. But it is that venom that I need. I need it, so I will not have to feel or think.
I let the officer guide me by the hands. He asks me to state my name and I do, feeling as if I am shedding my skin. I will never be able to use my name again. I am one of the despised; I am the roaches that lay eggs in dirt covered homes.
Before I am escorted, my wife casts one last glance at me. For a minute I stare into her eyes, but what I see I do not know. Hate. Fear. Maybe pity. But mostly hate.
And I know. She hates me because her name, too, has been shamed. She hates me because she will forever be the wife of a man who is not a man at all.
* * *
When a man is raped, he is presumed to be homosexual.
Engaging in relations with another man, in Uganda, is a crime.
A crime, if convicted, that can sentence a man to a sentence of fourteen years.
Fourteen years. In fourteen years you can build a home, a family, a career, a life. In fourteen years, the love of your life can forget you. In fourteen years, your skin can collect so much grime you cannot recall what it appeared before. In fourteen years, you can forget who you are.
And yet I know it will not be long enough. I know that every minute of those fourteen years, should they come, will be filled with nightmares. I know every minute I will relive the physical and emotional agony of those nights when I was stripped into something less than a human.
Worse yet, I know those fourteen years I will dream of her.
And I will fester in the shame I have brought upon both of us.
* * *
The day is cool and crisp, the sky an icy blue so piercing it hurts to look at. On our way to the holding cell, we drive past Lake Victoria. I can see it in the distance, eerily still, with a flock of birds swooping down to wet their beaks. These birds will rest and then fly somewhere else. But they will come back. Life has a way of working out this way.
The vehicle breaks down and I am told I must walk. I do not mind. I can breathe in the air one last time. I can look at the water and pretend I am swimming beneath the surface. I watch as a young man fishes at the shore. His line is silent and still as the lake, and he looks about ready to leave when suddenly the line jerks.
Letting out a cry, he winds it in, revealing a fat fish, gasping. I wait for him to set it on the shore and gut it, but what he does surprises me. He takes the fish in his hands, letting it flail until it goes still. And then, gently, he releases it back into the water.
With a sputter of motion, the fish leaps back in, under the water, knowing if it has been given a new lease on life, it has no choice but to continue swimming and without glancing back.
Erin Jamison holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her writing has been published in over fifty literary magazines, and her fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She currently teaches English Composition at the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash College and also works as a social media specialist.