Jessie Namazzi looked at the cup of hot cocoa in her hands and let out a sigh.
She walked over to the window of her hotel room and drew the curtains reflecting on her noisy surroundings. She gulped. She glanced at her own reflection. She had always hated Kampala, with all the traffic, chaos, noise and pollution.
It was hard to believe that she had been born there. Her parents had relocated to Nairobi in 1986 after yet another coup d’état that made Yoweri Museveni president and had never looked back. Though life had been cruel at first, she could now say that she was in a better place. When they moved to Nairobi, she was just three months old, her parents had no jobs after escaping years of rebellions and poverty in Uganda and neither did they have relatives or friends in Nairobi and they had ended up settling in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Kenya and Africa.
Life was hard with raw sewage running just outside their shack. Most people who lived in Kibera had left better homes in the village for a taste of the life in the city. And in a few years the slum had become so congested that it was just a network of shacks clumped together, where disease and immorality spread like wildfire. Children played in tattered clothes in the sewage, while parents trecked for kilometeres daily to labour in the big city but nobody dared leave. For most of them, this was home and generations after generations were born here and the cycle of poverty continued.
Her mother was fortunate enough to find work at a nearby plastic bags manufacturing industry but with another baby on the way, her one hundred and fifty shillings a day salary was not enough to sustain the entire family. Most of the time, they found themselves going without food and being locked out of their own house when they couldn’t pay rent.
And it didn’t help that her father was a perpetual drunk who never did anything but gamble whatever little money he got for more drinks and then come home and beat her mother. She had grown so accustomed to seeing her mother’s bruised face to realize that she was living with an abusive father. Sometimes she would wish that her mother would just pack up and leave him. That way, life would be so much better for them and she wouldn’t hurt anymore or cry every night. And when it came time for her to start school, her father could not hear of it.
“You do what you want to do. It won’t make a difference you educating her. She will just end up in this life just like us,” her father had said in his usual drunken stupor.
“She will not end up like us Erastus. Education is the only way for her to get out of this slum. She will go to school and she will grow up to be an educated woman. At least let us give her that chance,” her mother had insisted. Jessie was seated outside the house listening to all that. She did not like it when they fought, especially over her.
“You do what you want woman. But I say it’s just a waste of time and I will not be part of any of it,” he had said before staggering out into the night to fill his belly with more cheap liquor.
And so amidst her father’s protests, her mother borrowed money and enrolled her at a nearby public school. She had always dreamt of this moment and school turned out to be easy for her. She did well in all her subjects and her teachers could not be more pleased. But little did she know that that would be the last time she would see her father.
By the time she came back from school, he had packed the few clothes he had and left the house. Her mother was seated on his old chair rocking her little brother to sleep as tears cascaded down her cheeks but she was too engulfed in her thoughts to wipe them off.
Rumors went around that he had relocated back to Kampala his hometown. Her mother spent days crying herself to sleep and as little as Jessie was, she could not help but feel sorry for her. She may have been young, but she knew that her mother was hurting. She stopped going to work and spent most of her days in bed, weeping for an estranged husband who would never come back. Her six month old brother suffered the most as he could not understand why a mother who had loved him so much had stopped doing the basics like breastfeeding or cleaning him.
Life became unbearable and at five years old, Jessie dropped out of school when the teachers could not be patient enough with her school fees having not being paid for over two terms. She resolved to be the mother of the house, taking care of her brother and her mother who had resulted to hard drugs to numb the pain of her husband leaving.
She started coming home with strange men and Jessie had to sleep outside most of the time trying to muffle the adult noises she could not understand while her brother cried all through the whole deal. And within a year of her mother traversing all the liquor joints with different men by her side, her younger sister was born. She was beautiful but because of being neglected, she did not even live to see her first birthday and died at just eight months old.
She had expected the death to hit her hard and make her start caring for her remaining kids but nothing changed. By this time, she had grown thin and there were rumors throughout that she had contracted AIDS. Jessie did not know what it was but to her it must have been something very terrible. She passed on three years later in her sleep, so worn out and unable to do anything for herself. Jessie was traumatized and was the only one who could understand what was going on. Her brother was just three year old and seemed oblivious to whatever was going on.
The city council came and picked her body to bury her in the public cemetery. There was no ceremony and no one attended except the two kids who were now orphans, with Isaac clinging to his sister all through the whole ordeal.
When they went back home, the house felt all deserted and Jessie could just picture her mother’s body lying on the bed, with her eyes staring into oblivion. She did not know what to do but just held her brother and cried all night. For days they went without food, except for once a week when one of the neighbors would bring them scraps from their left over meals. It was more than Jessie could have asked for and she let her brother eat first and fed off whatever was left. And every day when she slept, she dreamed of her father coming back. She could hear his knock on the door as if it was real and his embrace when he set eyes on her. But he did not come back.
At eleven, when an initiative called “Inua Slums” came into existence, Jessie and her brother found themselves one of the few lucky beneficiaries of education sponsorship from a foundation in Netherlands. And for the first time in almost nine years, Jessie and her brother went back to school. She was so much older than all her classmates but that did not quench her thirst to learn. She was doing so well that by the time she was getting to high school, her sponsors, fully paid her entire secondary school education and that is how life turned out better for the two children who were left to suffer the cruel hand of fate, of sins that were not theirs in the first place.
But no matter how great her life turned out to be, she could never forget her past. It still haunted her even when she had gotten her job. Her mother may have pulled the trigger on her life, through her reckless living but it was their estranged father who handed her the gun. In 2006, after a long meeting with her boss about her trip to Kampala, all the anger she had buried deep came flowing back. And at that moment she wanted nothing more than to get revenge on the man who had taken away her whole childhood and had driven the woman who had worked so hard to see her get to where she was now to an early grave.
To be continued…
Fiction By Lilian Gathoni