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A Prayer to the God of Scent and Stench

The author reflects on her blessings as a citizen of a military state both before and after COVID-19.

Photo credit: ljubaphoto
13 min read

Dear God,

It’s your Ugandan daughter, with the 4C hair. As you know, I was born in Mengo Hospital between day and night. My mother grumbled often that I was a literal pain in her gut. I was yellow like custard as a newborn bun. Four years in the sun quickly remedied that. I have since then grown slightly taller than that. I have lost some baby fat and gained adult fears. I have not travelled the world. I am a homegrown girl. You gave me a restless mind and hence I write.

It’s been a minute since I reminded myself that you know I’m there. I got baptized under your omniscient stare. And yet they still christened me Teopista.

As though you couldn’t whisper, “Kelly! Alice! Rita! Or Claire!”

As though you don’t live in our hearts and the humming air.

I confessed my sins to a priest at nine years old and then I waited for your kind voice, but it never came. He gave me a couple of Hail Marys and sent me off. I promised you then that I would sin no more; weeks later I was licking NIDO behind an open door.

 

Dear God, my father was the best man in the world (and yes, I am aware that every daughter says that). I think in baking him you got every ingredient right. He listened when I asked questions like a faulty doll. I shadowed him and asked for the meaning behind words and stars. He was as silly as a little boy and made me laugh. And yet he let me in on secrets like I wasn’t just a child. He let me count his money and taught me all I know. I learned to free my body from the youngest age. For he never saw the need for a woman to dress like a corpse. He taught me how to polish shoes—with water, shoe polish, and a rag. I learned how to speak over him with the knowledge that I had the right. How to look honourable as you cheat at cards. How to wait impatiently for your daughter to return from a bar. How to hide evidence of shards when a precious plate slipped; how to look innocent whenever Mum asked who did it. How to love the mother. How to honour the wife. Because of him, I love to read and write. I love the smell of books as you crack them open. I especially loved the smell of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I know how to sit at the dinner table with my foot under my knee. I learned to ride a bike and to swim. How to laugh robustly with my head thrown back. I can talk down a man—though there’s rarely need. How reassuring it is to know I can.

 

Dear God, I thank you for my Mum. She was as imperfect a woman as I already am. She hid all her fears behind an ironclad scowl. She must have loved Daddy. I know it. I know it. She was simply not fluent in the language of love. She taught me to see the truths behind a practised smile. She told me to expect little from the embittered heart. I know better than to believe that I am entitled to love—I know that good hearts are in short supply.

She believed that life punched a woman harder when it saw her cry. I know that strong women are often sad. Because of her, I guard my heart. Because of her, I cherish the magic in smiles. She taught me to fight for what was right. How to spit out the truth without biting it in half. How to narrow my eyes and curdle blood. How to ball my fists and stand my ground.

She taught me how to wear a homemade sanitary pad, how to love a child and still hold back. How to sniff out honesty and weed out lies just with a mere glance at a stranger’s eyes. I learned how to wash clothes with a gigantic bar of Geisha soap. How to stand on stools to reach slippery cups. In her, I learned to recognize the embers of love. I vowed that if you let me, if you gave me a chance—if ever my turn came to fall in love, I would do all in my power to love out loud. I learned how to work hard, how not to cry. How not to torture the person you love.

In my mother’s house, there was no private sphere. I belong in the kitchen, in the street and on the stage. I belong on this earth, under this yellow sun. I am a woman. A man is a man. We are two imperfect humans roaming imperfect earth.

In father’s house, we were heirs and sons. We were the daughters who would inherit the earth.

I know that I am rambling. You know all that. Why am I writing? Are you curious now?

 

Dear God, in this pandemic, I’ve learned something. I’ve seen your crafty power and your subtle skill. You have airy fingers but a very firm grip. You are patient enough to wait for us to see your will. You throw us in circumstances that seem so grim but if we looked closely, we’d see one thing. Nothing is impossible unless it kills. If it does then that’s the end of it.

 

***

In the time of COVID-19, the world seems to be on fire. In that landmass called America, the home of democracy, I see the numbers of the dead grow. Amidst the carnage, I see people raising dust over a flimsy mask. They raise their fists in the air and shout about the right to something or other. This something or other is their humble opinion, endangered under the breathable material of a draconian mask. Dear God, if you ever get the time, ask them this for me: what is a human and what is right when you’re trying to stay alive?

One morning, in the first week of relaxing lockdown measures, I sat in the taxi heading to post-lockdown Kampala. Taxis, as you know, should be fourteen-seater vans but due to the social distancing guidelines, they carry seven passengers these days. I was the lucky occupant of one of the rare and obscenely expensive seats on this day. Driving through traffic, a man in white stopped the passenger service van. He was a traffic officer with a face as hard as metal bars. He ordered me to get out without so much as a word. I fingered my face to affirm that I still wore my mask. As I stepped out, my heart beat as loudly as a fire alarm. Without batting an eyelid, he took my seat. The seven other passengers in the blue and white van looked warily on. With a crook of his bony finger, he ordered the driver to drive on.

I should have been indignant, after all, I know about human rights. They are inherent and inalienable and supposedly mine. I believe they are located somewhere in Chapter Four of the Constitution of this land. I know that Daddy would have ranted about the incident and advised me to write a vitriolic column in The Daily Monitor. “Report him!” he would have declared, “What was his name again?”

I know that my Mum might have silently given this officer the death glare. But like me, she would have known the danger in talking back to a man with a baton.

In this military state, dear God, where the sirens whizz past every evening chauffeuring a big man somewhere, where we know too many types of uniformed men and have learned to ridicule some, I thank you for the sense of humour you gave me to see comedy at all times. In this country, traffic officers are as lowly as stagehands, and yet preposterously, outrageously, I was bullied by one.

I know that to the mask activists in America, I have taken the cowardly stance and given up on my right to self-determination. After all, I had such a progressive upbringing and am much older than Greta Thunberg who frequently stands on podiums staring down the sun.

Whenever I see Greta’s fierce determination, the song that comes to mind is, “Oh, Darling don’t you ever grow up!”

Don’t you ever lose the conviction that a woman’s glare can send the Universe whimpering into the naughty corner! A woman’s glare can patch up the ozone layer, and threaten the future of airlines…She can save the polar bears if only she can tune out the sneering world.

Greta makes me wonder if I’ve ever had that fire. If so, then why did I resign myself so docilely to the status quo? Why, instead of giving the officer a piece of my apoplectic mind, did I take out my dusty mental calculator and count my blessings?

At what age does a military state break its nation, and its women’s spirit? At what age do we grow grateful for receiving what should freely be ours? Reading Doreen Baingana’s anthology called “Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe”, her protagonist Christine Mugisha explains the phenomenon of docile acceptance to horror thus;

‘The change was gradual and the result normal, like many other things about Amin’s time including the everyday fear in the air…Everyone adjusted to the upside-down week, the upside-down life including other unbelievable ugly things she didn’t want to think about. The bad smell became familiar.’

Doreen wrote about a Uganda under Idi Amin Dada (of the cringe-worthy Forrest Whittaker interpretation in “The Last King of Scotland”), a president who remains our only claim to fame on Western television.

I did not live in that Uganda and yet her words still ring true because when the traffic officer bullied me, I, an educated Black woman, confronted by a police officer, laughed hollowly as the taxi drive off. How beautiful it was that the idea of race did not for a moment cross his mind as he dismissed me from my seat.

Yes, he saw me as an irksome fly but he saw me for what I was— a human being.

Like a true citizen of chaos, when I saw George Floyd reduced to a mammal under the white knee of Derek Chavin, I thanked you, Oh Lord, for this dystopian miracle of an equal opportunities military state. I thanked Black Jesus that our injustice is spread evenly thin like melted butter.

Ever since the lockdown measures against the Coronavirus relaxed, I wake up each morning and brush my teeth with fluoride-free toothpaste. After thirty days of compulsory sleep and hiding, I have clearer and organically lighter skin. I laugh more, flirt more and take better care of my teeth. I have grown more comfortable in my body though I fail often to keep fit. If I so desired, I would jog a million times past any store, any apartment building, any police station without fear of being shot. In this country only the state, the army and police are truly entitled to bear firearms.

In this third-world military state, unlike America, the land of the Second-Amendment rights— the Land of Gossamer Dreams—I have never looked over my shoulder as I walk through streets, afraid of the censure my melanin might invite. No. When I look over my shoulder after dark, it is for fear of the same thing women all over the world do—the shadowy, nameless, faceless man.

In my country, when we see a Caucasian individual, we do not bow our heads or spit at him or her. Instead, we smile, throw curious glances or tease, whatever the mood may dictate. We do not go out of our way to be cruel to people of a different race. If anything, we are too self-deprecating and underestimate ourselves.

Perhaps that is the Black (wo)man’s failing, the inability to bear a concrete grudge, the recognition of personhood in all races, which sometimes invites condescension from those that have for millennia believed their complexions superior.

Watching that taxi drive away (without having paid any fare) I thanked you, my Lord, for the blessing of a fully Black world and all its attendant injustices.

The next day, I thanked you for another little blessing; the luxury of walking into a supermarket on a spendthrift whim. At the entrance, the security guard retreated a pace away and ordered me to adjust my mask over my nose. I complied without the encumbering knowledge of the rights that cower in Chapter Four of our Constitution. I did not raise any dust because, well, a mask is just a mask and prison is just prison. A true citizen of chaos, I had more pressing concerns and a narrower concept of what it means to be inconvenienced by the state. I knew what it meant to get caught after curfew. That I could be stopped by the new COVID-induced breed of plain-clothes law enforcers and told to kneel on some colonially-named street at dusk waiting for the police pickup to take me to some dingy detention centre where my only lawyer would be the Almighty God.

Of course, this would not happen if I had some money in my pocket because a poor police officer (the only kind there is) is like the vending machines we see on American Television. Liberty like a cool can of Pepsi cola slips out from his pocket as soon as you insert a crumpled shilling note.

However, the price of liberty has grown steep during the era of COVID-19 and so I adjusted my mask and let him do his work. He measured my temperature and presented me with a cheap brand of ethanol labelled hand sanitizer. I accepted it graciously and he let me by. Yes, I said it. He let me by because if you live in a military state, you have no problem using words like “let” and “allow”.

I bought a Coconut and Jasmine Petals scented shower gel and left the building without a bullet in any part of my body. It is surprisingly commonplace in a third-world military state.

I did not smell the stench of corruption, dictatorship and fear lingering in the air anymore. My nostrils have grown accustomed to it, another dark blessing. More so, since on the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve learned that in some countries, this stench has been pungent in their air for centuries.

Unsuspectingly, their governments chastise the third-world nations whose air is foggy with it not realizing that in their own, the pollution goes undetected, a colourless gas. They traverse the world exterminating dead rats from their neighbours’ houses while the maggots fall from their ceilings and creep away unbidden.

I get home from the supermarket before the curfew hour of seven o’clock and run a bath with my new shower gel.

When the heavenly scent of stolen blessings hits my nostrils, I murmur, “Amen… Amen.”

 

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Justin Teopista Nagundi

Justin Teopista Nagundi is a Ugandan writer using this pseudonym to enable her acquaintances read her work objectively. She intends to reveal her real name upon publishing her first book. Her work has been published on the Kalahari Review Platform for African Writers, Writers Space Africa, 101Word Short Stories and midnight & indigo. She has a blog titled "Smoke & Leaves" on WordPress. She's also a stage actress with the Footlights Playhouse in Uganda.