COMING OF AGE
Davina Philomena Kawuma
The student teacher’s slap leaves me in a daze. Why me? I’m usually compliant. I’m always first in class. Why not Sienna, my desk-mate who has been at the bottom of the end-of-term reports for two years now, and who was responsible for 90 percent of the “noise-making” in the first place?
This is the first time a teacher, student or otherwise, has slapped me in front of the class. I’m enraged but what can I do except ask for permission to go to the toilet where I can cry in private?
Later at home, I duck my mother’s all-knowing eyes and lock myself in the bathroom. It takes a while for the mirror to convince me that the student teacher’s palm left no print on my cheek. I cry some more but this time from relief. Then I leave the bathroom and cross the corridor to enter my brother’s room. He is playing Mortal Kombat when I start to tell him about the slap. It doesn’t seem as if he’s listening until he says, “Sorry about that.” He switches to combat mode and hands me the second control pad. He says if I can beat him he’ll let me ride his bicycle. “By the way, if you didn’t know,” he says, while I’m choosing a player, “Student teachers are stupid.”
During break time the next morning, I ask who wants to switch desks with me. Several classmates raise their hands. Sienna’s father is Ugandan but her mother is “white.” In this school, people like Sienna are practically gods; who wouldn’t want to sit next to them and pet their endless hair? Eventually I choose Emma who immediately transfers her books to my desk. I can tell from the way Sienna looks at me that we will never speak to each other again.
The headmaster announces at assembly that we must cut our hair to within a centimetre of our scalps because we need to “concentrate” on our preparations for the PL exams due at the end of the year. It has come to his attention that we are spending too much time “making our hair” and too little time reading for the exams that will determine which high school we will attend; we can’t get into good universities and get good jobs and drive good cars and build good houses if we don’t go to a good high school. And admission into a good high school requires excellent grades. We have been the best-performing school in Kampala for the last ten years. How much more concentration do we need? – we wonder amongst ourselves – and how come the Indian girls and the girls with “white” mothers get to keep their hair?
I’m in my third year of high school. I’ve become quite good at subjects I dislike (Literature, Christian Religious Education, French, Home Economics) and even better at subjects I like (Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics), despite the consensus that “girls don’t have the brains for sciences.” I like Physics best, so much so that I’m doing a lot of ‘extra-curricular reading.’ My Physics teacher assumes my interest in blackbodies is related to concerns about what short answer questions will appear in the CE exams next year. “Blackbodies are not on the O’ Level syllabus,” he says. “In any case, blackbodies are hypothetical. Do you know what hypothetical means?”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
“Good girl,” he says.
I’m the rate-determining step. Teachers often turn to me and say, “Have you understood?” If I say that I’ve understood, they say, “You’ll explain to the rest” – before moving quickly on to the next topic because, in this school, the worst that can happen is for a teacher not to finish the syllabus. Sometimes, after I’ve caught a classmate’s pleading eyes, I say I’ve not understood, just so a teacher can run through everything again at a slower pace. Typically, I drag everything out until I feel that even the most confused classmate, who will have sent a note saying “I don’t click what this guy is saying!” has grasped the concept.
I’m a fresher at campus. I’m feeling so grown up that I’ve decided to treat my hair despite stern warnings from concerned family members that the chemicals in relaxers will fry my brains. Besides, they add, “God is not stupid.” If God had meant for the descendants of Ham to have hair so straight and long, he’d have created us with it in the first place.
I’m a few months into my post-graduate internship. I’ve tired of braids so I’m wearing wigs and weaves, if only to rest my hair. One morning, a workmate pulls me aside to say I shouldn’t wear wigs because they make me “look older,” which is apparently the last thing I want if I intend to find “a good African man.”
“A real African man wants a natural-looking African woman,” she says.
Our new boss, Noah Cohen, has come all the way from the US of A. In the toilets, days later, I discover just how unpopular he already is. Apparently, the staff are unimpressed that the board chose him over the current deputy director, the better educated Ugandan woman with several years’ experience in managing public-private partnerships in the health sector. “Why is a 26-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Modern Languages running a pharmaceutical company?” is what people want to know.
I learn from Noah that what I am is “a black woman,” which confuses and surprises me because to be honest, “black” is not a label that makes any sense to me. We don’t refer to ourselves as “black” around here but, hey, he’s the boss so what can I do but smile while he goes on about how “strong” we “black women” are?
I might be “a closet white.” This is according to my workmates, who are convinced that I “read too much,” which is a betrayal, because reading is many things but it’s definitely not an “authentically African” pastime. Ours is an oral culture. We don’t bury our heads in books: we talk to each other. I should stop being so anti-social, and what-have-you. “I’m not being anti-social,” I want to say. It’s just that 3:30 – 4:30, in the cafeteria, while eating a late lunch, is usually the only time I can catch up on my reading without anyone making a fuss.
“What is lateral thinking?” they ask.
It’s what this book is about.
“But what is it?”
“Why are you reading a book about lateral thinking?”
Because I can.
“You did sciences, right?”
“Why are you reading a book about arts? Won’t you confuse your brain?”
“I’ve heard that the way to hide things from blacks is to put them in books,” Noah says.
The meeting is going badly, as usual; and the “joke” about “black” people and books, clearly his idea of an icebreaker, worsens the mood. For the rest of the meeting, staff members keep their eyes glued to their smartphones.
As one of Noah’s new “terms of employment,” we are supposed to read and summarise one book a month. This month’s assigned book is ‘Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lessons from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts.’ Because I’m the only one that’s read the book, I’m exempted from working next weekend. If we are not careful, Noah says, salary increments will soon depend on whether or not we have read at least three books every month.
We are at a “working dinner” in a Thai restaurant in Nakasero when Noah admits that the “real reason” he’s in Uganda is to find “a black wife.” He has only ever dated “black women,” none from “the motherland” though. His mission, should he choose to accept it, is to “dilute his genes.” Said dilution will of course cost him dearly as the only way his children can be Jewish is if their mother is Jewish. I advise him to marry a Ugandan Jewish woman. I tell him about the Bayudaya in Mbale—the only community of Ugandans known to practise Judaism. I assure him that the Bayudaya celebrate all the important Jewish festivals. “A group of Jewish Americans helped build one of their synagogues,” I add, for effect, but he remains unimpressed.
I’m no longer just “a black woman”; I’m also, depending on Noah’s mood, a “Melanin Goddess” or an “African Queen.”
I’m liberal. I’m open-minded, though not so much that my brain is in any danger of falling out. Come to think of it, I might as well be “a white woman.” I was born on the wrong continent. I must find my way to Europe, my true motherland. (If I marry a “white man,” rather if a “white man” marries me, it’ll be easier for me to secure a visa.) In short, I am technically Noah’s “type.” I’m never going to have blonde hair, of course, but one can always wear Indian hair. By the way, did I know that you can tell how intelligent a woman is by how much fat she carries on her body? “Who said?” I ask. “Research. Several papers have been published,” Noah says. “I’m tired,” I say. “I would like to go home now.”
Shortly after I slap a random man for fondling my bum, I’m taught what will soon become a valuable lifelong lesson: I am not white and my body does not belong to me.