A portrait of a girl who is certainly not Dead Prez, a wonderful playlist of soukous music, and 24 year olds who don’t really care about fitting in. The first of three parts.
Clare and I are the same age, born ten days apart. She has been living-slash-studying in Kuala Lumpur for the past four years.
If one were to draw a line from Kampala to Kuala Lumpur, it would run almost similar to the Equatorial line. That was one of my first observations of Uganda. So when we met face-to-face for the first and only time, I asked her to tell me about home.
“We came from a bloody kind of past, and it’s been 20 years since that past,” was Clare’s first response. This candid statement was promptly followed by a long sip of coffee, which gave me some time to digest. Few people introduce their home with ‘a bloody past’.
She continued: “Uganda is made up of over 50 tribes— who all have their differences— and average food, but meals were always in groups… in circles, like Chinese dinners. Each kid has a plate, or shares a plate. Even the local brew of my father’s tribe was drunk communally from two long tubes attached to a pot, like shisha.”
Her uncanny ability to relate something alien to someone alien was alien to me. It struck me how Clare drew connections between what was distinctly Ugandan and what she knew Malaysians would be more familiar with (Chinese dinners, shisha). As a university student myself, I noticed African student communities as somewhat insular, clustered in and around an ecosystem of African shops and businesses, symbiotic, but reluctantly so. These grocery stores and cafés didn’t ever really draw in Malaysian crowds. They were — like the student communities themselves — comfortable and isolating all at once, like a collective mystery no one else was curious enough about.
Admittedly, I also thought that I would be speaking to someone from this community. Clare’s living-slash-studying in Kuala Lumpur showed through in her short cropped hair, her penchant for malls, shoes, and Twitter. She was just as much a product of modern globalization as I was.
Here was this girl, with her melting pot of references and rojak vocabulary wrapped up neatly in rapid, gunfire English. She didn’t strike me as someone who participated much in the ecosystem of the African student community here. I later found out I was right: Clare chose not to stick with the pack — a decision that defined her stay in Malaysia. I thought about how our mutual friend Al introduced her, “She’s proud to be African, but she’s not in your face about it. She’s certainly no Dead Prez.”
Clare and I would only meet once in person, on a now-or-never basis; she was on a plane that very night, returning to Kampala as a fresh graduate. We had to settle for a modern friendship, using every networking service available to draw our own line across the Equator.
She was also the first person I talked to after I wrote this story. “Can I tell you about a girl I met the other day?” I asked her over a Skype call. “Her name is Clare, but if you think there are more similarities, I’d love to know.”
Usually bubbly, Clare kept quiet as I read her this piece. She was so quiet, I even had to check if the call was still active. “Are you there? I’m done. Is it fiction?”
“… No, no, it isn’t fiction at all. In fact I think I’m going to cry,” she said. “You have my story.”
A Bloody Past
Uganda has gone through six presidencies since their independence in 1962, each deposed of in wars and coup d’états— the most notorious ruler being Idi Amin, who clocked 300,000 deaths under his regime before they got to him. I was relatively unfamiliar with Uganda before meeting Clare. I only remembered watching The Last King Of Scotland a few years ago. Even from what little I knew, Clare was right; it was a bloody kind of past.
“True story: My mother’s life was threatened three times while pregnant with me. The worst was when my dad wasn’t around. Someone broke into the house and tried to steal from us. My mother, pregnant, hit him with a very sharp object. He bled and tried to strangle her but she hit him again. He leapt from the balcony, leaving a bloody handprint on the wall. Every time she tried to paint over it, the handprint would always show.”
Clare’s parents lived in a government-owned flat. Her mother was a civil servant and her father worked in the aviation industry. The building had three rooms to a flat, and three floors’ worth of flats, occupied by other private workers and civil servants.
However, the post-war area was undeveloped; people took advantage of the bushes to hide and attack others. There were police barracks right across — “the only saving grace,” Clare said — but it didn’t stop crime from happening. Once, someone even set their car on fire.
The five-year Resistance War ended in 1986 with the election of current Ugandan president Museveni, bringing some form of stability to the region. Clare was born a year after. She would grow up with the memory of military around schools, hospitals, learning institutions, and even in marketplaces. But there was also the good stuff. Really.
“Our parents tried very hard to give us a normal life, since it was just us daughters anyway. It wasn’t until recently that the girl child has been given priority towards development of the nation. So at the point when we were growing up, people didn’t expect much of girls.”
What did that translate to in her house? She paused to consider this. “It meant my parents didn’t want to limit our dreams or desires. We always had room for our talents. We could do anything.”
Clare continued, announcing that she was going to tell me “one funny thing!” This is what it was: When she was three years old, she decided she was keen on studying. So her parents placed her in a private kindergarten, and got a bicycle-for-hire man to take her there every day.
“But why is that funny?” I asked.
“Because I went to school on a bicycle!” she exclaimed. “Other kids would show up in big cars, and carry really cool bags, and my parents did their best to help me fit in. Since we didn’t have uniforms, my parents bought me a really good bag, and really nice shoes. But I always came to school on a bicycle.”
Clare’s father would also return from work trips with little gifts, such as a pair of “really cute” purple shoes from London. Clare wore them to kindergarten until the soles wore out, and tried wearing them even when they no longer fit.
When asked what made her childhood special, she immediately credits her parents. “They were a bit exposed. They both got to travel and see different things.” Her parents also knew how to throw a party, which would last for days sometimes. Clare calls them the “highlight of our lives”. She promises to show me more over Skype when she gets home.
Clare speaks with much nostalgia of the soukous music she grew up with. “We have every CD this legend [Madilu System] ever made. It’s a bit of Lingala and African jazz,” Clare said. Now, I’ve adopted soukous songs from Clare’s childhood. I shimmy along to them at home with friends, sambil sidai baju.
Then Clare turned twenty and her parents sent her to study in Malaysia. After a childhood and home filled with dancing, parties, and song, she slips into a much, much quieter life.
This series was commissioned as an exploration of music and migrant diaspora, first published in August 2011 by Poskod.my for Serambi, a capsule project for Malaysia’s 48th anniversary. In Projek Serambi, several young Malaysians imagine the country’s shifting landscapes in 2061. This piece was edited by Grace Chin.