Lowered guns, intermediate places, imaginal spaces, horsehair worms, dreamt French, polyglot screams, greener pastures, repetitive nightmares, spiking delphiniums, numinous skies & Senegal.
you don’t meet a rhizome and ask
where it’s coming from, where it’s going
it grows and grows and grows and goes on
shapeshifting concentric patterns
multiplying pushing in and out
sprawling of the placenta
Dancing with the coyote in the zone
W hen I was a child, I heard about a criminal who was pursued on foot from Uganda to Rwanda on Kabale-Katuna Road. When he arrived in eitaka ritayine nyakuritegyeka between Uganda and Rwanda’s border, not owned, inhabited or under either country’s jurisdiction, the pursuers lowered their guns and turned away from the thief. The thief sat down to catch his breath. It was widely known that no one could shoot a person in no-man’s-land, criminal or not. Neither could they drag him out of that space without his consent. I grew up with the understanding that no-man’s-land was the safest zone, a place of survival, operating on its own rules and principles. In high school, I took to running and became a competent athlete thinking that if ever I got in trouble, I’d need my legs to transport me to that intermediate place. Crooks, ordinary citizens, and upholders of the law respected it and kept it free from violation. Later, I learnt that one could pause like a comma in no-man’s-land but not stop there. The space’s protection was temporary, like the thief catching his breath. Perhaps not unlike the desert, which accommodates visitors but rules out permanent habitation, unless, of course, you’re a tumbleweed or a coyote. Then you can be free, alive, and once in a while cross beyond the borders. I have desired to be on the border of things, at the edge, in between, dancing with the coyote into another world.
This is not a pun
Refugees camp in a no-man’s-land because they have no territory.
Where home is
I efforted to learn French when I lived in Senegal. In good time, I hoped to chat and laugh with my new Senegalese friends, to get rid of the long punctuations of silence by trying to figure out the next word and the next. Aida spent hours teaching me. I felt at home but not in language. Aida would take me to meet her girlfriends, who embraced me and did their best to speak English for my sake, even apologized that it wasn’t good, while I struggled hopelessly to speak French. Then, one night after a year and nine months, it happened. I dreamt that I was writing a poem in French and when I woke up I knew the words. I had read somewhere that you know a language fluently if you can dream in it, if you can use it at a subconscious level. That’s how it was with Rukiga, my mother tongue. I made the discovery through terrifying dreams. No matter where I was in the dream scene, or whomever I was talking to, I’d be speaking English, but when it came to the scary part, the scream always came out in my mother tongue. Sometimes it would be a cry for mother—not mother, but Maama! Although I do not want to call Rukiga the language of my screams, it’s just that when other regional languages peeled off, Rukiga is what I stayed clothed in. Suppose I knew another language the same way, equally—would I scream in that language too, all at once, or would the two languages scream together like a couple in union? Could one scream in three languages or is it always one?
During the genocide in Rwanda, I would hear screams at night. I was in Kabale, where I grew up, about twenty kilometers from the border. Given the distance, there’s no way I could indeed have heard the screaming, but I did hear. Some of my good friends were Rwandese students and they always went back to their country during holidays. One particular night it was raining heavily, there was thunder in the storm, then machine guns. Ebikompora. I started counting, separating the gunshots from thunder, the echo in my ears bringing new terror: imagining my friends falling, blood and rain. My heart contracting in the thunder and blood. Lightning and rain. Fire and blood. Names slipped off my tongue, my eyes closed in prayer: Brenda, Kaitesi, Gatsinzi, Katabazi… Mukama abarinde. Firing off the only weapon I’d been taught never fails.
In Edmond Jabès’ The Book of Questions, the message at the center of the book is the scream:
“A book is shedding its leaves.”
“What is the story of the book?”
“Becoming aware of the scream.”
What can only the scream say?
Considering its persistence, how it is both home and exile, dream and nightmare, presence and absence, toneless and loud, oneness and loneliness, betrayal and hope, arrival and departure in the sense that when you scream, you wake up.
But like a nightmare that’s reproduced again and again, the scream lives on even as it leaves.
The language of the scream is not something that’s fixed but borderless, migratory and always shifting. It is resonant in unexpected spaces and is always on the lookout for new persons to inhabit. The scream is a narrative that can be trusted like the truth and cannot be exhausted like a poem.
As a metaphor, it is replete with meaning, it is repetitive and, like the Word, God, it is never exhausted.
To hear the scream and feel the blood rushing in your ears is indeed to be alive, even if it might be seconds before your last breath is drawn, moments in flight from one last danger. This is what I take away from Jabès: the scream is its own language, speaking and silencing everything around it. As a metaphor, it is replete with meaning, it is repetitive and, like the Word, God, it is never exhausted.
Once the scream is released, it may enter a zone that’s both physical and spiritual, an imaginal space, a parallel territory or contact zone that allows the receiver to reconstruct, reinvent and propose an alternative way of being to show once more that nothing exists in isolation, that everything is connected to all other possibilities. This is a state we may not experience if it were not for the scream.
Once upon a time, my brother’s favorite book and verse was The Prayer of Jabez by Bruce Wilkinson. “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory!” Some versions had “expand my territory,” “enlarge my border,” “enlarge my coast,” “extend my border.” He read them all, he read until he knew them by heart, and when he wanted a television, he used the book and prayed the TV into his living room. When he wanted a fridge, he did the same. He prayed his wife into his bed the day that loneliness gathered around him and his soul cried, Aiee Mukama! He screamed the wife into his flesh and thus shattered the walls that had separated him from finding her. Shy of quoting Adam, “flesh of my flesh,” my brother screamed his desires and hungered for her as he fasted and prayed some more. Then, one day, his territory exploded.
The scream is a wound on our gray matter that still finds itself capable of recovery and rumination. It creates its own story, history, and values. It’s in the silences where words fail. It’s in the resonantia after the voices break open. Like a newborn, the scream takes on a life of its own as it enters the world and has to be received on its own terms.
The scream announces good lungs.
Basil fights for dear life, then succumbs
The horsehair worm is a grave danger to the house cricket. It leads the insect on a suicide mission, propels it to leave the safety of land and jump into the sea.
Invasion of the body is not enough. The worm enters and mind-controls the cricket, tricks it into thinking it’s an-other and drives it into water, which is natural for the worm but deadly to the host. Then the worm escapes by boring holes through the insect’s exoskeleton.
Later, I learnt that one could pause like a comma in no-man’s-land but not stop there.
I watch youths from the coast of Senegal jumping into pirogues bound for Europe through the Atlantic, precipitated by skyrocketing unemployment, hoping to become an-other in greener pastures abroad. Young men and women who don’t go by pirogue traverse a desert that teems with as many dangers as the sea. Those who make it to the electrified wall, Spain or France on their mind, Libya in the way, those who make it to the wall begin to climb, hope in their sweaty palms, each inhale and exhale comingling with peril and possibility until the guards start shooting.
I would like to believe that there’s a moment the whiff of freedom touches their nostrils like a baby’s finger. Before they fall, I like to imagine that they breathe the opposite of capture; as they dangle on that wall, they have a fierce image of themselves into which all their body cells and pounding hearts crystalize and transcend the sum of their fears. Raised above themselves, I would like to believe they die whole even as their bodies are blown apart, pieces of arms, fingers, feet and bones splintered and scattered. I hope they do not have a second to question or comprehend what worm has driven them to such despair. I hope they press their tongues across their lips and lick the blood like hunters do to fortify their palate. I hope they look up into the numinous sky and see the face of God calling them home, parting a cloud, saying, at last, Home, enter, and that’s how they die.
Jabès suggests that the people whose scream/survival depends on finding itself/themselves in the book are the same people traversing the desert. The book, like the desert’s interior space, is a textual site, capable of endless sameness and transformations, home and homelessness, intimacy and isolation, perhaps so that in the brief communion with it we might get away from ourselves in order to find ourselves.
The desert’s open spaces invite us to fill, erase, fill up some more. Lots of spaces and voices.
Who you were in the past doesn’t count; it can be submerged and replaced with a new optimism and perspective. In desert conditions, everyone can be somebody. Anybody can be someone. For instance, chameleons. I have seen the blue, red, yellow, black, green and brown blending into their surroundings. If there’s one thing that nature teaches us, it is this: the red rocks were once the ocean, twice the desert mountains. A million years from now they might become the ocean again. A million years from now, who shall we be as a people, a race, a classification of Homo sapiens? Will the reptile brain show us the way, our minds to conquer?
I started counting, separating the gunshots from thunder, the echo in my ears bringing new terror: imagining my friends falling, blood and rain.
In my father’s clan, we consider totems and taboos with serious playfulness/playful seriousness. The totem, especially, is what brings us luck. We belong with enyaruju, the Chameleon, via Latin chamaeleon, from Greek khamaileōn, a compound of khamai (“on the ground”) and leōn (“lion”). I happen to have the lion in my horoscope for my birth month, so I often console myself: if I do not go the way of chameleons, the lions will claim me. I have attended to keen eyesight with carrots and spinach, since survivance is dependent on it, how to detect sound frequencies with heart-ears. I think Beethoven was one with the chameleons, beholding symphonies in ultraviolet light. Chameleons may well be the first rock stars, given their habitation and sunbathing ways, their compositions unequalled, their non-musical keys songs in the desert. I have watched chameleons retain footing wherever they land, such a blessed thing!
While at a karaoke lounge, I watch a gecko perched on a couch in such a pose as if it’s listening. Some singers are so bad it’s like a cassette being chewed and then played backwards on run-down batteries. I shift my gaze from the singers to the gecko, back and forth, until the gecko’s face appears to frown. Neon lights shine the frown and I wonder, if given a chance at the microphone, would the gecko seize the moment?
What the Gecko might sing
You see me
Sometimes you won’t
I live here
I announce my comings and goings like the moon
I observe human life
For a living.
Come to think of it, the gecko’s group name is Lounge, which probably explains why and how it happens to be in this lounge. Now it’s watching my back, perhaps thinking of feeding on what will unsuspectingly crawl by.
Chameleon eyes have a 360-degree arc of vision and can look in two directions at once. I wish I could do that. It would unhinge my enemies. Did you know that the American chameleon is not a true chameleon but rather a small lizard of the iguana family? Even among chameleons there are those who pretend.
How to live in a desert: a manual
1. Invent a fiction
2. Create a goal that resembles a destination in mind
3. Be still, and again, be still
4. Believe you are the salt of the land that could as well be the desert
5. Keep moving
6. Ingest scriptures when you find them. Carvings too
7. Befriend words like promise, insect, water, rocks
8. Resist the urge to throw stones, to break
9. If you see deer, it’s a sign
10. Believe and don’t believe in numbers
11. Don’t ask, why are you here? What purpose do you bring to this place?
12. Hold onto a name that brings you hope
In the desert I have a sense of something started but not completed. Still developing. I see lights from the city, glamour, colors merging. I am a microcosm of what’s tantalizing, and the desert watches me with cunning interest. To be part of something new and new is a generous thing. To be invited, you, me, to add to it, take from it, give and receive. I hesitate but deep down I have seen the tribe I want to join.
On the cusp
I am in Ithaca, New York, talking with one of the poetry professors. I’ve never taken any of his classes, but for some mysterious reason he is my advisor. He tells me the German equivalent of liminal spaces, a term I cannot pronounce, and says I can use it in my work. He adds that I can bring in other languages and Weltanschauung. This is becoming fascinating. I like the idea very much. So I dive into memory sniffing for French, German, Swahili, Ancient Egyptian…whatever may be lodged there. Pictures, sounds and phrases pop up. Incomplete. I left Senegal on the cusp of knowing French. I was pleased when, visiting Ghana around that time, a friend told me that I spoke English with a French accent. I believe in signs and that was one confirming to me that my struggle with French would soon be over. Then I was called back to the territory of the English language. I often feel guilty for abandoning a language I was so close to grasping.
It was in Senegal, in the nine months I lived in Popenguine, that I fell in love with Egyptology. I had a mentor and was frustrated when I couldn’t draw the hieroglyphs well. But I enjoyed deciphering, or pretending to, writing my name with a lion, snake, walking stick and river in it. Nine months is too short to fully comprehend a form of writing as cryptic as hieroglyphics.
Although I do not want to call Rukiga the language of my screams, it’s just that when other regional languages peeled off, Rukiga is what I stayed clothed in.
My romance with languages took me to Germany. For three months in the year 2000 I was in Hamburg, immersing myself in German music. My mind tells me that it was six months. Memory is vague. I loved the sound of German. I found it lyrical, soft, much softer than French. Had I stayed longer, I think I would have enjoyed speaking it.
I come across Greek when I’m searching for roots. It’s the tree from which several languages and words branch out. Latin, too, is another type of tree. When I was little, I would go with my mother to a Catholic church on certain Sundays. The priest conducted Mass in Latin. I do not know why. None of us knew Latin. We lived in a small village with only a few folks who had been to school. I loved the singing part because it was in Rukiga, my parents’ tongue, and was accompanied by beautiful, rhythmic drumming. I loved the Latin, too, because it put me gently to sleep. I was a sleeper in those days. One day I even fell asleep on my father’s bicycle. He was riding from Kabale town, returning home. Someone shouted to stop him, pointing at me at the rear, fast asleep. I wasn’t strapped; I could have easily fallen off. My tiny arms barely made it around my father’s waist.
Daughter of sleep
Every other weekend, my friend Aida and I would leave our writing residence in Popenguine and go to her home in Dakar. The moment we’d arrive, we’d eat, talk a little bit with Aida’s parents, friends, then I’d go to Aida’s bedroom and fall asleep promptly as though I hadn’t slept that deeply in months. The pattern never changed for nine months. It didn’t seem strange to me because it wasn’t. I’m sure Aida’s mom was amused. She always had a sweet smile. Years later, I’m looking back, wondering why it was the most natural thing to do. I can only think that instinctively I must have felt home, a daughter arriving, finding food, a comfortable bed, kind friends and peace.
On Sundays, we’d all go out for brunch. The food was good. The coffee was very good. Later we’d have more coffee back at home. Aida’s mom made the best coffee. Aida always drank mint tea with a distinctive, aromatic fragrance. I think it was Moroccan mint. I would sit in the living room, spacious and warm, holding my cup of coffee, admiring each piece of furniture placed carefully in the most pleasing position that made the room inviting.
About six of us are coming from Suffolk, Dakar campus. We have lunch at the International House, then coffee. The visitor from Beirut is a coffee-cup fortune reader. He’s also a mathematician. He holds my cup in his left hand at an angle of ninety degrees, looks into it and says:
1. My world is big, dense, varied. It is rich and intense; out of my heart and mind are many, many words, many worlds.
2. He says my future is bright and better than my present.
3. He says a small bell is attached to a square table, signifying a celebration. Not a feast, but a delightful, quiet celebration.
4. He says there’s a stream by my door incessantly flowing into my house, assuaging my thirst, never to dry.
7. He says there’s no negative energy, no bad people around my world.
8. He says there are people trying to reach me, but they end up pulling at each other more out of competition than nastiness.
9. He says there’s a big presence watching over me, that this eye loves me, is powerful and inspiring.
10. He says there are great skies, valleys, mountains, rivers and oceans, distant places and people I belong to. When I go to the sea, it is to enrich my life.
At that particular point I happen to be watching the coastline, and there’s this “Southern Cross” song by Crosby, Stills & Nash playing in my head: “We got eighty feet of the waterline, nicely making way…”
I’m pleased to meet someone from Dakar at the University of Denver. I want to greet him in Wolof but for some reason no words come to my aid. This is shocking since Wolof greetings and As-salaam-alaikum is what I inhaled and exhaled while I lived in Senegal. How can I forget the basics? What’s happening to my ability to recall? I’ve always thought that memory could betray you when you’re busy relying on it, but knowledge is a different matter. Is it not?
So we talk about Anglophone literature in addition to Francophone, and I forgive myself for forgetting.
But what if one day I’m not able to remember my name. Would I beat myself up? Who would I be?
Names control us as much as they identify us.
I acknowledge I may not always remember the things I want to remember. Why not just chill?
He prayed his wife into his bed the day that loneliness gathered around him and his soul cried, Aiee Mukama!
Because words abound; they deceive us into thinking we’ll always have them.
I’m almost in tears thinking of the people I’ve met, friends I’ve made in different countries; what if I forget them? What do they look like now?
It occurs to me that I have already not kept up, in thought or action, with some comrades who at one point in my life were significantly dear. I want to carry them with me like a long chain, so if I’m threatened with forgetting I can rattle the links and bring them to mind.
Get on Skype? WhatsApp? I go to the mirror instead.
I take one long look at myself, reaching in and out.
A day or two later, I nap and I’m instantly ushered into the streets of Dakar. Busy as ever, bustling with venders and griots wearing beautiful prints. I’m in the bubble greeting strangers,
Na nga def,
Mangi fi rekk
Ça va bien, merci.
At night I’m in a country that’s not my country, although I’m with my older brother, Brian, and young sister, Nancy. She is traveling; I have her papers: passport, ticket and a yellow-fever card. Brian is driving. The airport is on a small green hill surrounded by numerous cute mosques packed close together. Their tall, slender spires give them a castle-like look. Nancy starts shifting restlessly, saying she’s forgotten important papers, in spite of my assurances that I’m carrying all the documents she needs. I open my bag to show her, but she keeps searching in her own bag. She’s getting late for her flight, and when we finally leave the car to enter the airport we realize we have to climb several stairs and then navigate a maze in a tunnel that has no lights and no signs to point us in the right direction. Eventually, we come to a tree on a muddy hill and finally see the entrance to the departure terminal. My sister has only a few minutes to board. I tell her to hurry. Brian says he would like to have a drink. There’s only one cafeteria serving food, hot beverages and alcoholic drinks. There’s a former workmate of mine, now with a baby. We worked together in Senegal. It occurs to me this could be Senegal, but it’s not. It only bears a resemblance to it. The mosques, yes, but mud and hills, minus an ocean, no. I do not remember how or when we leave.
The territory of dreams
At the holiday’s end, I’m back in Kabale at my parents’ house, visiting. I’m putting on earrings when my father grabs one and throws it down. My father, always gentle, would never do that, but in dreams the expected is not the norm. So I pick up the earring and wear it. I should clarify that my ears are not pierced, so it’s really clip-ons we’re talking about. I sort them by color and decide to give the broken ones to my mother so she can fix them. Most are long and lovely, radiant red, indigo blue, golden brown and sea green: Mom holds a pair of peacocks, and another in the shape of an umbrella.
Then she walks outside and starts planting delphiniums, which begin to spike immediately. Faster than Jack’s beanstalk, they sprawl and outreach the roof of our home. I start to climb, tentatively at first, testing their strength. Soon I’m up high. I want to gather the blue flowers. I put some in my hair and then descend. Reaching the ground, the flowers have turned yellow. I look up, see blue, look down, see yellow in my hands.
Mildred Kiconco Barya is a writer from Uganda and assistant professor of creative writing and world literature at UNC-Asheville. Her publications include four full-length poetry books, most recently The Animals of My Earth School, released by Terrapin Books, 2023. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, poems and hybrids have appeared in Joyland, The Cincinnati Review, The Georgia Review, African American Review, Shenandoah, Nowhere, Ruminate magazine, Tin House, Obsidian, poets.org, Poetry Quarterly, Asymptote, Matters of Feminist Practice Anthology, Prairie Schooner, New Daughters of Africa International Anthology, Per Contra and Northeast Review. She’s at work on a collection of nonfiction, and her essay “Being Here in This Body,” published in the North Carolina Literary Review, 2021, won the 2020 Linda Flowers Literary Award. A residency recipient of Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, Sylt Foundation and Varda Artists Residency Program, she was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and the John Burroughs Nature Essay Award. She coordinates the Poetrio Reading Events at Malaprop’s Independent Bookstore/Café in Asheville and is a board member of the African Writers Trust. This story was first published in Asymptote, July 2018 issue, and was a finalist for Nowhere’s Fall 2020 Travel Writing Prize.
Lead image: Ivars Krutainis