A Woman’s Confession

A womans confession - writer - Mary Ongwen

My next-door neighbors just had their first child.  It was a pleasant surprise to notice her huge bump a few weeks ago. Her tiny frame near toppled as her belly led the way. Critical information hidden under jackets and scarves in frigid temperatures.

Eight weeks prior, another neighbor bore a son. Except for the courteous “hellos” exchanged on the side-walk, we were strangers. With my daughter by my side the uncertainty of our new faces in the neighborhood smoothed over. We showed up at the door with a gift card. They were delighted. My daughter and I peered at the little bundle wrapped in swaddling cloth. Baby was cute, chubby and peaceful. The pregnant silences nudged, we left a few minutes later. And now the confession. Those cute fresh breathed little human beings have their codes wrapped tight round my heart. Commandment ten, “You shall not covet” has crashed to pieces on my floor. Is this a sin subscribed to women?

New born babies draw crowds constantly. My sisters and I competed for the honor when an aunt or uncle came home with their baby. When the news of a birth was announced, visitors looped like favorite mobile apps – Facebook, twitter, instagram, whatsapp, snapchat, back to facebook, on and on they came. Countless shoes lined the door as visitors came and left in series – some reluctant. The joy and promise of new life. Flowers, balloons, Johnson products. Tables and bookshelves were rearranged to spread greeting cards. The sleeping baby was passed around. The mother sat to tell the birth story while a matriarchal type supervised guest refreshments. The father sat dazed as he pondered his predicament – a little fragile human being was now in his care, what was he to do?! He’d been submerged into a woman’s world – wash, feed, carry, change, feed, change, feed, change, wash – what a helpless cycle.

It’s been two days since the neighbor’s baby came home. Two sets of foot prints led to their front door and only one set has been mobile since. The neighborhood is deathly quiet. With the sound proof houses, one doesn’t hear the baby cry. A huge contrast to an experience with the local council chairman near old Nakawa market who casually mentioned he knew I’d just had a baby. The midnight cries woke him too – at 11:30 pm, 2:00 am, 4:00am and 6:30 am.

A decision is made, I must visit. I cook chicken stew. Should I present a little Kente outfit to keep with the #Wakanda theme? Must I call and set an appointment? I ditch formalities and gently ring the door bell. Steam fogs the stew dish. Perplexed to the reason they are dragged along, my husband and daughter shuffle for the most discreet position behind the door. We are received warmly. I wait for an invitation to sit, it doesn’t come. We stand and coo at the cute little baby, soft as silk, eyes shut tight. Can I reach out and hold the baby? I wonder. I resist the urge to stretch out my hands. The dad holds the baby up at an angle. 10 minutes later we say goodbye “We are a few steps away if you need an extra hand” I say. “Thank you” comes the reply.

Here I am again 2 weeks later, looking at the window again yearning to hold that new life in my arms. Wondering how things are coming along, thinking how I’ve slowly turned into that weird neighbor – the nosy older woman. Is baby sleeping through the night? Has mom got a hang of breastfeeding? How does she juggle all aspects of her day  when dad’s off to work? When it’s just baby and her? I needed support from all the women in my  life – to hold the baby, burp the baby, put baby to sleep. Uninterrupted rest was gold, in the same sphere as winning the lottery.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Overcome, I peep through the window – nobody’s there. Dad’s gone off to work. I try the door handle, it unlocks. I walk into the sitting room and find the baby in her cradle. She stirs and opens her eyes. Before she lets out a deafening scream I pick her up and rock her. A bottle of milk stands on the counter in a warmer. I pick it up and feed the baby. I burp the baby, make funny faces. It’s enthralled by my features. I lay her down on her back, let her marvel at the colorful creatures twirling at the top of her crib. Then I walk out the door and shut it behind me, glad to support a new mother.

I had not acted at all, only wished it.

——————————————————————————————————————————

Woman. It’s that nurture instinct that draws on the heart strings. It cuts through the layers of race, tribe, culture, creed… Rooted at the core of her being. Created unique in purpose. To lead and to serve, to be the voice and the silent listener. The backbone and the womb – versatile. Woman!!

I end with an excerpt from “Things Fall Apart”.

Okonkwo’s uncle speaks to depressed Okonkwo who has been exiled to his mother’s village for seven years. He was exiled for killing a clans man by mistake.

“You think you are the greatest sufferer in the world? Do you know that men are sometimes banished for life? Do you know that men sometimes lose all their yams and even their children? I had six wives once. I have none now except that young girl who knows not her right from her left. Do you know how many children I have buried, children I begot in my youth and strength? Twenty-two. I did not hang myself, and I am still alive. If you think you are the greatest sufferer in the world ask my daughter, Akueni, how many twins she has borne and thrown away. Have you not heard the song they sing when a woman dies?

“For whom is it well, for whom is it well?

There is no one for whom it is well.’

 “I have no more to say to you.”

Sometimes the woman’s  lot is different, not laid out or executed as expected by self and society. Even then she remains strong, useful, empathetic and confident.

Advertisements

Nigerian Author Uzodinma Iweala

Uzo and Ian at Politics and Prose - Mary Ongwen

Uzodinma Iweala and Ian MacKenzie discuss their newest novels: Speak No Evil and Feast Days

As I surfed the net one fine evening I stumbled on a Nigerian author called Uzodinma Iweala. In the video clip he read an excerpt from his debut novel  “Beast of No Nation”. His impeccable writing swirled in my head for days. He wrote in the voice of a child soldier. I was convinced it was an autobiographical novel except a google search showed he was a Harvard and Columbia graduate. The son of a Neural Surgeon and Nigeria’s former Finance Minister. I was like “What the heck!!” Dude tortures my imagination nga he’s never experienced war? He has the extraordinary talent and moral intelligence to understand other people’s lives.

So when I got wind that he was doing a reading at a book store in town I thought an encounter in the flesh would settle my mind to his mortality. (Ok I’ve over praised but you know – exaggeration for emphasis – those things).

I found a front row seat and just as the event kicked off his mom walked in and sat next to me. Euphoria!!! In the presence of the mother, and the son and the whole congregation. It took quite the effort to sit still.

Her gaze was fixed on her boy. She followed his hands as they flipped pages. As he raised and lowered the mic. A mother’s love. We spoke a little afterwards.

I traced his quiet father somewhere at the back of the room. Not taken by the crowds that formed around his son and wife respectively. He was keen to find another book: “A Case Against Education: Why The Education System Is A Waste Of Time And Money.”I found it for him and wandered off but like an accordion we found ourselves in conversation again. He introduced me to his other son like we were long lost friends. His son gave a polite smile and enthusiastic handshake but the eye contact with his father said “Eh! But Daddy, who is this again?” Not having a Nigerian accent didn’t help. I was not an onti nor was I a cozin. I should have worn my wedding ring.

I spoke more with the author’s father than I did the author. 🙃

Anyway tips for writers:

Get a job: Keep writing as a thing you do for you.

Read widely: Build writing muscles.

Don’t be a tourist: Contemplate the full scope of subjects that you write about.

Write when ever where ever: Don’t be precious about it i.e perfect location , perfect pen … Be ready when the muse hits: phone notes , scraps of paper, napkins…

Writing is never just about writing i.e in seclusion. To be a writer you’ve got to be in the world.

Persevere.

Happy Writing!

Billy Graham Honored in the U.S Capitol

Billy Grahams Honor U.S Capitol

Condolence books were filled with praise and testimony to Billy Graham’s life and ministry

I stood among the throngs, my heart palpitated as I walked through the metal detectors and into the U.S Capitol. Billy Graham’s body lay in the rotunda. The viewing was open to the public – a perfect excuse for me to visit the Capitol.

Did you know Billy Graham is the first religious leader to lie in honor in the U.S capitol? He provided spiritual advice to U.S Presidents for over 60 years, from Harry S. Truman to Barack Obama. Back in Uganda, Billy Graham’s crusades and TV series graced living rooms for decades – the hymn “Just As I Am” familiar and apt for the alter call. The tall, handsome, articulate man of God and his slender wife Ruth Graham felt like spiritual family. They spoke with urgency about the destination of our souls and the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Billy Graham died on February 21st, 2018 at the age of 99. Ruth Graham died on June 14th, 2007 at the age of 87.

Billy Grahams Honor - Thomas Jefferson

Even “George Washington” came out.

By 11:00 am, lines snaked around the metal barricades for a 1:00 pm public viewing. I arrived just in time to watch the casket lifted up the U.S Capitol stairs. From where I stood, the men in uniform looked like tiny black ants lifting a piece of wood in unified effort.

“Selected Stories of Eudora Welty” kept me engaged on this pilgrimage until I overheard a conversation.

Mzungu: “So where are you from?”

Man: “Ethiopia. It is in the eastern part of Africa, neighboring Sudan, Somalia and Kenya”.

Mzungu: (Almost ignoring the Ethiopian’s effort to place his country like a jigsaw piece in the puzzle of his mind)

“Ah! I have never been to Ethiopia but I have been to Uganda”.

I jumped in as though my name had been mentioned.

Me: (beaming) “I am from Uganda”

Mzungu: “I was in Entebbe and Kampala for a few hours before we made our journey to Kisoro.”

The Ethiopian stood aside as we hurried to wrap up the conversation. Later, Mzungu came back.

Mzungu: “I just wanted to let you know I love your country.”

Me: “Why, thank you! I love it too.”

Even at his death Billy Graham had the loyal East African’s in whose countries he had planted God’s word.

The Capitol rotunda was reverent. The casket made of rich brown wood lay smirk in the center of the room. Three wreaths representing branches of the U.S Government: The Executive Branch, The U.S Senate, House of Representatives graced the casket.

The Graham families stood to greet the procession. I thought because of huge numbers I wouldn’t get a hand shake. Franklin Graham smiled and held brief conversations. Just as I got half way there, he was whisked away. “I knew it!” I said to myself. He was replaced by his sister – Anne Graham Lotz “Not bad! Not bad at all” I said. I walked with renewed energy. Her towering slender figure could be seen from across the room. Her silver-white hair contrasted her black shimmery dress.

As I got close I wondered what to say – “Nga kitalo” would not work.

She looked me straight in the eye.

I said, “It’s an honor to meet you”

With a gentle smile she replied, “Thank you!”

I could have lingered. Her fingers wrapped around my hand like a soft cashmere glove. I willed my feet to move before the man behind me had a chance to breath down my neck.

Billy Grahams Honor - Condolence book

“With great honor”

There was one more ceremony to crown the occasion – signing the condolence book. We stood in line. A man took the pen, bent down and would not come up for the longest time, was he writing an essay? People begun to shuffle, he wasn’t deterred. He wrote with ferocity.

One day someone will read the firsthand account of a life touched through William Franklin Graham Jr’s ministry.

“Thank you for giving to the Lord, I am a life that was changed.” – Know that song? Yeah!

May His Soul Rest In Eternal Celebration even as he is laid to rest today- March 2, 2018.

Black Panther Written with Ugandan-American Son in Mind

 

Wakanda forever - Mary Ongwen

“Baba tell me a story”

“Which one?”

“The story of home”

Ryan Coogler’s script had me at “Baba”.

An adventure story loomed in the air, framed not by a fire place but cinema surround sound. Like magic I escaped the building and travelled on a journey far far away from Washington D.C to Teso and Kigezi via Kampala.

First off, I’m not familiar with anything “Marvel” – Justice League, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy – clueless! I endured the winding line of excited theater goers determined to break the box office because of hype. The Black Panther movie had just been released. The 40 minutes I stood in line eased on like a breeze thanks to Zadie Smith’s novel “White Teeth”. What was this #WakandaForever business? I had to find out.

Now, back to the story. T’Challa’s (Black Panther) eager pre-teen voice makes a request – simple yet profound and multifaceted – “The Story of home”. It took me back in time to an evening two years ago when seated at the family dining table in an obscure corner of Maryland my 12-year-old son asked “Daddy, where did we come from?” My quick, short answer would have been “Uganda!” but my son in his wisdom knew the source of satisfactory answers, answers that quenched his thirst for belonging, for identity – his father.  As he is wont to do, his father with undivided attention begun at the beginning – the Luo migration into East Africa. The journey of Nilotic ethnic groups along the Nile river from lower Egypt, Sudan, Congo to the places they settled in East Africa. While he explained his linage up to his father and mother who originated from Tororo and Kisoro respectively, I spoke of my parent’s linage from Usuk and Kumi finally settling in Serere. My son listened with eager attention, he sat up and pushed his chest forward.

The building blocks for this discussion rested on our faith. His father explained that more than people and places his identity should be rooted in Jesus Christ. Our personal relationship under the Lordship of Jesus informs our value systems.

Black Panther alludes to historic events; the bronze artifacts looted in 1897 from the kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria) exhibited in a London museum and current issues; the Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. But at its core the movie settles around personal identity, family and exile, politics and power struggles.

Personal identity – the purpose of one’s existence in relation to their surroundings. An issue my father handled with deliberate effort; the dusty road trips up to Usuk and Agaria, visiting home after home, the chicken slaughtered, the millet bread mingled, now make sense. While the elders sat around a pot of ajono, we were left to stare at children who were introduced as relatives. The barriers of discomfort soon melted and we became life-long friends. Now, tracing actual bloodlines is like splitting hairs – we are siblings to all intents and purposes and we have a sense of belonging.

Growing up in the American culture my son’s concerns are complex. As his parents, born and bred in Uganda, our reference points differ and he struggles to understand our views. His dark skin connects him with a racial history with which he doesn’t necessarily identify.

As teenagers on a quest for self, a discussion brewed among friends at school – where was he from if he wasn’t Black American? There were so many layers. As a result, their growing minds begun to question the differences and similarities between black with American roots and black with African roots. He needed to curve out his niche with the knowledge that one thread run deep – he was a young black male in America.

As memories of his experience in Uganda and his life in America were juxtaposed: feeding goats in grandpa’s back yard, being chased by a rooster in Serere’s afternoon sun. His numerous uncles and aunts who send him birthday wishes every year. Playing video games, attending school with friends who look as different as they come, the claustrophobic space he occupies with his sister and Ugandan parents, an awareness of his skin color – all inform his identity. As he grows up in a different time and place he is reminded that all these experiences shape his unique but centered definition of self.

The question at the end of the Black Panther movie is “WHO ARE YOU?” I should hope my son will embrace and define his unique identity as a Christian, born in Uganda and bred in America.  When asked his favorite character in Black Panther he said the villain – Killmonger. A partial reflection of himself perhaps?

Good movie – thought provoking. #WakandaForever

One Writers Beginnings: Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Story Rooted in Africa

Chimanda Lecture - Lincoln Theatre - Mary Ongwen

Chimamanda gives at second annual Eudora Welty Lecture

I stood a little downcast in front of the Lincoln theatre, the air chill nibbling at my extremities. With hands tucked deep into my jacket, I waited with anticipation for a kind stranger to come along. See, I’d hoped to purchase a ticket to the Second Annual EudoraWelty Lecture but they were sold out. The lady at the ticket booth apologized. I held on to the prospect that someone would show up with an extra ticket. People begun to trickle in. Girlfriends who’d planned an evening out spoke in excited tones and took selfies in front of the lecture poster. They showed their tickets and stood in line, while I a little envious thought about heading home to my family and getting in from the chilly outdoors. Then it happened.  A lady walked up to me and mentioned that her friend had bought an extra ticket and just like that I had a close to front row seat to listen to female African writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s lecture on “One Writer’s Beginnings”.

Her lecture centered around four values that informed her writing; home, family, church and school. Her articulate narrative and funny anecdotes sprinkled with a good dose of self-awareness held us captive. Standing in radiant red, in the center of the spotlight, she serenaded the audience with her clear calm voice that peaked and dipped at alternate junctures. She shared stories of her childhood, of life on the University of Nigeria campus. Her reading passion rooted in her father’s study, and watered by books such as Pacesetters, Mills and Boon and James Hadley Chase. These books wonderful but foreign informed her imagination growing up.

Her description of life in a middle-income family in Nigeria left the audience a tad jealous. She, a privileged African living in a close-knit family without the need to question her origin. With parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, she developed a sense of belonging by simply living in community. I was reminded of Africa’s dynamism. I nodded in agreement occasionally mumbling to myself for she told the African story like I couldn’t and yet I identified as though we grew up together. She painted a picture of a rich and industrious continent. The juicy mangoes picked from a tree in the compound. The luxury of slaughtering one of the chickens for Sunday lunch. The outdoor markets, steaming with life and color and stories with no end. She owned her story and told it well, no one could contend her experience as she talked about the Africa she knew and grew up in. An Africa she loved and was proud of. The audience was dead silent as we each secretly reached back into our past to compare and contrast our origins – some in envy, some in amazement, some in agreement. She weaved in themes from her famous lecture – The Danger of A Single Story. Africa is not all starving, malnourished children or potbellied corrupt government officials, it has educated hardworking, fun loving people too.

Her lecture and in her writing, she shows the power of authentic human truths curved out of experience and conviction. She also shows how being rooted to a physical place  informs narrative and self-awareness. Motivated and inspired at the close of the lecture, I joined the procession of energized ladies and a few gentlemen as we walked out of the theater to parked cars, cabs and Uber drivers. As the crowds thinned, I crossed the road, slopped down into the U Street Metro station. I tucked into a corner train seat for an hour of contemplation thank full for my physical heritage that springs from Usuk, Serere, Kampala, Kigezi, Kisoro, Tororo, America but more my spiritual heritage rooted in the cross of Christ.

Happy Sunday!