Finding Something Like Certainty in the Crowds of Kampala
“I console myself regularly with the fact that the problem is not unique to me, that young people everywhere are trying to figure it out.”
Though I hate to draw a dichotomy between past and present in terms of self, it is undeniable that there is a zeal and clarity my younger self-possessed that this older self does not. And though I cannot pinpoint when and how it all disappeared, this uncertainty has been a hollowing experience, one that constantly plunges me into depression. I console myself regularly with the fact that the problem is not unique to me, that young people everywhere are trying to figure it out. But even with this consolation, I focus on whatever peculiarity I can draw out of my circumstances.
My skirt has the smell department stores in London have, shipped in bags to Nigeria, thanks to Aunty K. But here I am in Kampala, thinking, waiting. I fall into a short nap on rumpled white sheets in my wait. I dream of my shortlisted story coming to life and chasing me home, to my room with its purple and blue walls. I wonder if the dream is a metaphor for not winning. I wake up to a mosquito that tries to make love to my ears and decide I am done with the worry.
At the university for classes, Dami, a mentor, arrives from Nigeria while we play a game: two truths and a lie. I have a child named Zainab who is six years old. Joy catches me fast because my lie is too specific, too exact. And aren’t these also the problems with certainty? It is “too specific,” “too exact”, static; “it can do little but endlessly reassert itself.”
In the evening after classes, we take a walk from an art gallery—stopping at the Independence Monument for pictures—to a restaurant at the back of the Kampala National Theatre where we have dinner. The ambiance is a bit traditional, reminding me of Nigeria’s Terra Kulture. Kea, Tobi, and Dami are at my table, as are white cats who prefer to curl under our chairs. We talk about Akwaeke’s Freshwater while drinking straight from bottles of Tusker. Is the novel about their life, as in a memoir, or is it fiction? Does slapping the fiction label on it change what it is? From discussing western terminology for certain mental illnesses, specifically multiple personality disorder and its relationship with the concept of Ogbanje, we draw a straight line from sickle cell anemia to Abiku. It is here, in between these conversations, in a moment that seems like it was what I’d been waiting for all day, that I set my eyes on him for the first time. I stare at him with curious eyes. He stares right back at me.
Because pleasure sometimes comes when you least expect it, on the last night of the fellowship, I find myself leaning far back into a wall, giggling into his mouth and wrapping my thighs around his hips. Stares can culminate into bigger things. We have just left The Square, where Writivism had an after-party for the opening ceremony of the festival. Earlier I had to present my AMLA project—curating and publishing an anthology with art and literature—in a room full of scholars and Writivism guests. For the entire duration of my presentation, I felt like the self-assured teenager I used to be.
We, the man and I, are now at a club where our bodies melt into each other. Kea is somewhere dancing, but my sense only takes in his senses. He is a fine-boned man, intense, with beautiful eyes. The world splits and breaks under us. Green and blue colors like disco ball reflections fly around liquid eyes and moving legs. We have been drinking. I created these moments from my refusal to break a stare: point and kill, a staring contest. It was only right that my eyes found him after seeing him at the restaurant last night. At the after-party, I stared at the man and his many faces and pulled him out from a flock of women to be mine.
When we spoke, starting with a cliché pick up line, he followed my eyes; I followed his voice, mesmerized by their deliberate sweetness, the reluctance in his words. He said he liked the way I said Nigeria when he asked what country I came from. I told him I was an intellectual property lawyer, like my biography on the Writivism website says; not exactly a lie, but not completely the truth. It is one of the futures I now intend to explore. If I tell myself this long enough, I might get stuck with it.
Now we dance linking our fingers together. The night grows younger. When we leave the club, it seems like the moon is made for us and we dare it with loud laughter and moans of pleasure. I wake up the next morning with a smile on my sunny face and a kiss on my forehead.
Home as a place, a structure: a video call shows me the glittery cream wall of my parent’s house two hours behind, the dimly lit kitchen and the mahogany brown dining table filled with siblings and cousins. Aunty K is in the kitchen, predictably. She asks if I’m having a nice time. I ask if she’s having a nice time in Nigeria. We exchange gap-toothed smiles. Home is far, longingly waiting even though I no longer want it. I ascribe its familiarity to the uncertainty that no longer bothers me. Going back to it would be to drown. My lover was right, this trip was what I needed. This place, with the newness of its names and streets, the warmth of a stranger’s arms wrapped around my body, and eyes smiling at me: an acknowledgment of intimacy, the culture shock—walking to Esther at Cafe Javas in darkness on my first night and not getting mugged—feel just right. It could as well be home, where the boda-bodas stop for you without calling for them and where the traffic makes you wish you had stayed indoors.
Before my Writivism podcast recording session with Two Girls and a Pod, I spend the morning interrogating these concepts of home in my head, so it is shocking when Kea, who moderates a panel between the Writivism shortlisted writers, asks us what our definition of home is. I wonder whether to tell her and the audience the version that has been running through my mind: Home is wherever and whatever you find solace and clarity in. But even the other version is true; home as in my body that is constantly remolding itself, constantly teaching me things. Referring to my personal essay on sexual assault titled “Home,” I tell her that home is my body and, though it can betray me, knowing it belongs to me alone is enough.
Home is my body and, though it can betray me, knowing it belongs to me alone is enough.
It is the last day of my vacation, the day the winner of the prize is announced. Pius takes Kea and I on a tour of the city that makes me forget because my legs hurt and the sun folds my eyes. He’d probably guessed this was the distraction I needed. We go to a bus park and climb up several stairs of an empty shopping complex to get an aerial view of the dusty white buses on red earth. We pass by men in the market who call us sweetheart and try to pull us into their stalls, but Pius is protective of us. It is Yaba Market all over again. Street sexual harassment is no longer as mind-boggling as it used to be.
Once I’m back at The Square, my hands quiver. I talk to Chisanga and Obinna Jones, both co-shortlisted writers; I ask them how they feel and if they’ve written award speeches. Chisanga shrugs. Jones laughs. I tell myself I’m in good company.
“Everyone’s a winner,” Dami tells me. He’s not the only one. There are others too who compliment my work, who end the conversation with, “No matter what happens, everyone’s a winner.” I can read what their eyes mean when they say this.
I pester Esther to buy me drinks, but she looks at me with bulgy eyes and bats her eyelids in a sly way. I hold meaningful conversations with my mind absent and my eyes fluttering. At night before the closing ceremony, I return to my hotel to wear a white dress and worry about being overdressed, of having too much red lipstick. It’s good for me to have other worries than winning or “losing,” or wondering what home and the rest of life holds after this trip. I do not put on my brown suede heels at the ceremony. Home texts to tell me they’re rooting for me. I feel myself sink into a cup of Tusker, already disappointing them.
In the Ethiopian airport, I stand in front of a mirror in a restroom full of people. Alone. I try to focus on the mundane: the smell of bleach that fills my nose at every breath and orange stains on white tiles. Faces and a plethora of languages fill the toilet stall.
Perhaps Yalom is right: “The search for meaning, much like the search for pleasure, must be conducted obliquely.” I did find him from doing a staring contest. More deeply related to my plight, I got shortlisted for a prize from just trying my hands at it on a friend’s recommendation. Perhaps I must continue to wear this uncertainty and embrace spontaneity.
My eyes are red. I have been lapsing in and out of sleep. I only have vague memories of the past six hours, of taking selfies, drinking, crying, hugging people, saying goodbye. I bury my face beneath the tap.
When I come to, there’s a small pang prodding the crevices of my back. Sadness. I always feel sad after trips. When I returned from the Aké Arts and Book Festival in 2016, I sat on my bed crying about nothing. Now, there is probably more than one reason why I should be: not winning the prize, saying goodbye to lovers, and a solace I cannot carry around. But I find myself transitioning from sad to happy, the pain in my back melting; I am light on my feet, almost elated. I am grateful for everything Kampala gave me and love, oh how I loved in Kampala: in white sheets and bar corners, on boda-bodas and a room full of strangers. My eyes, my body, my lips, they made love.
In the toilet stall, I change into my slacks and his shirt. I think of the many ways I have won and lost on this trip and listen to the inaudible voice call my flight to Lagos. This time, I follow the traffic. I float endlessly.
Ope Adedeji dreams about bridging the gender equality gap and destroying the patriarchy. She is a lawyer, writer and editor. Her work has appeared on Enkare Review, Afreada and the Kalahari Review. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and is a 2018 AMLA fellow. If you do not find her reading a book, you'll find her writing one.