Waiting in the Frangipani Tree

Jackee Budesta Batanda

My two sisters and I sat perched on branches in the frangipani tree and watched the neighbors. Their compound bustled with activity. Through the chain-link fence that separated the two homes we observed, entranced, as the neighbors reached for the rose-champagne bougainvillea flowers that hung down over the daffodils planted by the fence. Their house was the largest on our street. It was a flat-roofed house, painted white and blue. The windows all looked like doors. Someone was hanging strings of flowers above the windows in preparation for the father’s arrival. He was away fighting rebels in Luweero district. We had heard many stories about the war, but they were like echoes that faded into the distance. We lived in Kampala, and the war had not come here yet. We watched as the neighbors swept the dry leaves and flowers from the concrete pavement with stick brooms.

Ogora, my best friend, swept the soil from around the flowerbeds, leaving circles in the sand. We’d had our first real disagreement yesterday, so I hesitated before shouting over the fence to him, “What’s going on? Are you going to have a party?” I was not sure he’d respond. He shouted back, “My dad is coming home. We got a call last night. I actually talked to him.” Then he went back to sweeping. His sweeping made the cocoa-brown dust rise in the air like smoke. On the porch, Nimaro, his older sister, was busy hanging flowers above the doors. The doors were wide open, and music was blaring through them, making my heart jump to the beat.

This was the third time in a month that they’d prepared for their father’s homecoming. Each visit had been announced with a late-night phone call, and later postponed. With each failed return, the compound had gone back to being its neglected self. As I listened to the children singing as they swept the compound, I wanted to ask them what would happen if their father did not come this time. The question lingered on my tongue. I guess it was the way they sang so joyfully in their language, that I could not understand, that stopped me. Or perhaps it was the way their faces broke out in smiles that exposed their white teeth which made me not dare to ask the question that would have damaged their happiness.

I was both jealous and happy for them that their daddy was finally coming home. I did not have a dad and Ogora’s father was like a father to us when he was home. He was the largest man I’d ever seen, with the deepest voice and the biggest laugh. When he was home there was always some kind of celebration, and music played late into the night. He would invite us over and capture our attention with heroic stories of how he was saving the country. His stories made me want to be an army man too when I grew up. When he travelled abroad, he always returned with goodies – chocolates, sweets, apples, and other hard-to-find luxuries, like videotapes of the Muppet Show. He would insist that Ogora give us some of the goodies too, because we were friends, and later we would watch the Muppet Show together on the big color TV.

The laughter now ringing out from all corners of the compound made me envious. I wanted to be a part of the excitement too, instead of watching it from the fringes. I had no doubt that their father’s army stories were true. You could tell this by the silver metallic uniport huts dotted around the compound. They housed his bodyguards, twenty in number. The bodyguards didn’t do much these days, mostly spent their time lying around in the grass. They were assigned to guard the family while the father was away.

From the many afternoons spent watching Rambo movies with Ogora, I had a fair idea of what happened in war. Some fighters made it back home, others did not. In my argument with Ogora yesterday, I had spitefully told him that I hoped his father died in the war. I regretted it afterwards but convinced myself that my words didn’t matter, that he would come back, even though I had imagined him lying dead. Everyone believed he was coming back this time and that’s what mattered.

It was lunchtime and already trails of relatives had started trickling in through the gate like safari ants, carrying gifts with them. Each time a visitor appeared, there were ululations and shouts of joy as they hugged and danced their way from the gate to the house. The women would then head to the back of the house where they had set up saucepans to cook the rice, beef, goat meat, matooke, offal, posho, millet bread and the rest of the feast. The men disappeared inside through the open doors and only came out occasionally. A few were grouped in the corner of the compound, supervising the slaughtering of goats to celebrate the homecoming. A pick-up had arrived earlier to deliver the four goats. My nose sniffed out
the aroma and I wanted to go over the fence, but I knew better.

Mother would not allow me to go over there, ‘to mujasi’s home’ without her permission. She was suspicious of army men after Father had been taken away in the night by a group of them. She’d passed that fear on to us. Her fear, however, was not strong enough to discourage us from playing with the army man’s children.

I really wanted to take part in the festivities and get sucked into the communal excitement. In the house, the sounds of Yvonne Chaka Chaka seeped into the compound, adding to the spirit of joy. It would not be a party without music from Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie, Lucky Dube and Chico. Soon Ogora’s father would be here, all dressed up in his army uniform with a line of escorts to accompany him. I could not wait to see the lazing bodyguards jump to their feet and busy themselves with chores they did not really want to do.

When Natabona, the househelp, called us for lunch, I ignored her. My sisters, tired of the spectacle, went in to eat but I stayed on alone in the tree because I did not want to miss the grand entrance of the army general. Natabona threatened to tell Mother that I had refused to eat and was up the tree watching the neighbors, but I put my fingers in my ears to block out her warnings. I would endure the beatings from Mother when she returned from work, but for now I would continue watching. It was not every day that you saw an army general return from the war. I wanted to smell the war on him, to get a feeling of it. The smell would make the war stories real for all of us, which we would later act out. Ogora always played his

I don’t remember how long I sat watching the festivities. The preparations seemed to have taken all day. Natabona, tired of threatening me to eat my lunch and take my evening bath, had locked herself up in the house. I remained on my perch in the tree, my shadow growing longer as the evening set in. The persistent question lingered: what if Ogora’s father did not come back again? I was about to climb down when I heard a car at the next-door gate; first, impatient hooting, followed by the loud slamming of a car door. It made me afraid. Before anyone could get to the gate to open it, a lone army man burst through it and quickly ran up the driveway to the house.

At last, the day’s question was answered. Wailing started from inside the house, spilling out into the compound like a flood. For a moment it seemed as if time had frozen. He was not coming back, I knew it. I would not see Ogora’s father proudly enter the compound in his army uniform, a hero; the hero I wanted to be when I grew up. Sounds of sorrow filled the compound as the news spread. Ogora’s mother ran out of the house, a headscarf wrapped around her face as she stumbled to the gate. She fell and picked herself up again. Behind her was the man who had come running up the stairs with the news; the man whose message had crushed the mood of happiness. Even the lazy soldiers were on their feet for a change. Ogora’s mother continued to cry loudly, her hands tugging at her scarf. Someone caught hold of her before she reached the gate and dragged her back towards the house.

We learnt later that she was running to the car to see if her husband’s body was there. She did not believe the man who crushed her joy with his cold words. She could not believe that the body had not been brought to her so that she could wash it. The women who were busy cooking behind the house had started piling inside it, all wailing. They rallied around Ogora’s mother in a wall of solidarity. Their weeping converged in unison, like drops of rain that later cause a flood. My eyes searched for Ogora in all the commotion. He seemed to have disappeared into the belly of the house. None of his siblings were outside with their mother either.

It was my fault, I knew that. I held on tightly to the branch on which I sat. I was the one responsible for their father’s death. I had wished him dead in my moment of anger with Ogora; now it had come to pass. I wanted to go across to the house next door, seek out Ogora and tell him that I was sorry. Then maybe I could undo it, maybe the happiness would continue after all. We would watch his father proudly emerge from the Land Rover as he was meant to, a man protecting our country, instead of this emptiness.

The man who had carried the sad news to us had by now jumped back into the car that brought him and driven off, leaving the family to deal with their loss. The loss hung heavy above me, like a question mark. Mother did not scold or beat me when she returned. She took us over to the house the next day to pay our respects, along with the other neighborhood women. Death always drew the neighbors out in large numbers. When we got to the house, Ogora’s mother was seated on a papyrus-reed mat surrounded by other women. She was doubled over with grief, and one of the women was supporting her. On the coffee table in the living room was a life-sized picture of Ogora’s father dressed in his military fatigues, staring at us solemnly. It was like he was warning us not to cry for him. His enlarged picture was used because his body had not been returned. I stared back at his face. His eyes dared me to tell them the truth – that I had wished him dead. I pressed my hand hard into Mother’s hand and looked away. I could not bring myself to announce my culpability.

I sought out Ogora. He sat in a corner, whimpering. I walked over and sat down next to him. I whispered, “I am sorry,” and held out my hand to him. He pushed it away. He couldn’t forgive me for having willed his father’s death. I leaned over and whispered a little louder this time, “I am sorry, Ogora.” I was not sure the words came out and it is only when our eyes met and he nodded that I knew they had not stuck to my tongue. He held out his hand to me and slowly opened it. In it lay a small, shattered military helicopter.
“Papa died in the helicopter that was bringing him back to us.”

I nodded.

“He was really going to come back this time. He’d promised to take me for a ride in the helicopter. That was going to be my birthday gift.” He spoke the words softly, more to himself than to me. Again, I opened my mouth to speak: “I am sorry. It is my fault your daddy has not come back home. I imagined him dead and now he is dead.” That is what I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Instead, I put my hand over his and closed his fingers over the crashed helicopter and just sat there with him. I don’t know how long I sat there. All I remember is Mother coming to take me back home. I did not want to leave my friend.

Over the next few days, more and more mourners flocked to the home. I returned to my spot in the frangipani tree, waiting. The burial could not proceed before Ogora’s father arrived and the army had not yet returned his body. I wished the waiting would stop. I kept seeing the little shattered military helicopter Ogora had held in his hands. Mother, like the other neighbors, visited the house each evening to sit in silence with Ogora’s mother. We overheard Mother say to someone that the government wanted to carry out an investigation into the crash. The adults said that someone in the army had shot the helicopter down and that it was not an accident. They said these were signs that the war was going to come to Kampala and many more people would die.

Mother started telling me not to sit in the frangipani tree because it was no longer safe. In all this time, we did not see anyone from the army come to the home to sit in silence with Ogora’s mother. Ogora did not come out of the house at all; even when I called for him, my voice rushing through the chain-link fence and bouncing off the white house walls, he ignored my calls. I knew he was there because I saw the curtains in the living room part, as if someone had ducked down to look through them. It was like he too held me responsible for his father’s death, and no longer wanted to be my friend. I swallowed the rejection like a dose of quinine and felt its bitterness on my tongue.

One morning I sat in the frangipani tree as usual and called out to Ogora again. I watched the windows but there was no movement there. The curtains were drawn, the house very still. Even the soldiers who normally lay about in the grass weren’t there any longer. Their movable metallic huts had been disbanded and from where I sat, I could see the exposed circles of soil where they used to be. I called out more loudly to Ogora. But still there was no response. I saw not even a hint of movement from behind the living-room curtains. I stayed in the tree all morning, hoping that someone would come out of the house eventually. But no one did. I only climbed down when Natabona called me in for lunch and still, in all that time, no one had appeared. The usual strings of mourners coming to the home were absent too. Natabona said the family must have left hurriedly late at night. She said they were running from the same omen that had claimed their father. Her words took away any hope that my friend was still around.

We realized the family had really left when the neighbors started flocking to the home to loot the property. The government had fallen overnight. We heard the announcement on Radio Uganda. I think Natabona was right in saying Ogora’s family had run away from the same bad spirit that killed their father. I sat on my frangipani branch and watched as people hurried out the house with whatever they could lay their hands on, the possessions of Ogora’s family: the gramophone we listened to when we visited; the first color TV in the neighborhood where we had watched the Muppet Show; and many other things that were
luxuries to most of us who lived here. It was like the people who had gone to mourn there had instead been looking out for things to loot. My eyes clouded as more and more things were dragged out of the house. That is when I saw her … Mother was among the people taking things from the house. She carried off an exotic tea set and a huge flask. I stayed up in the tree, very quiet, and did not come down till the place was calm again. My mind was racing in confusion. I did not understand why Mother had joined the looters.

Later, when everyone had left, I sneaked over to Ogora’s home. I was disappointed that he’d left without saying goodbye at least. I was also ashamed that Mother was among those who had taken things from their house. I was now responsible for two terrible things in Ogora’s life: his father’s death, and now the loss of their property. I roamed through the empty rooms that I had spent hours playing in with Ogora. There was nothing left. I ran back and forth like I was possessed, as if I imagined he would materialize from the walls and we would play again. I opened all the cupboards in the rooms, looking for him, for his laughter, for his smell, for anything I could hold onto. There was nothing. Unhappy, I walked back to
the living room, to the window where I had seen Ogora peeping at me when I called out to him. I stood in the same place, trying to imagine what was going through his mind as he peeked out through the curtains, ignoring my calls. Suddenly something pierced my foot. I stepped back and saw the crashed helicopter. The only memory I had of him that had survived the looters. Perhaps the family had left in such a hurry that he had forgotten it. Or perhaps he had known I would come walking through the rooms of this house searching for memories of him and had left it for me – one parting gift. A sign that he had forgiven me, even if I did not deserve it. I grabbed it up and ran home.

It has been four months since they left. I still sit in my old spot on the frangipani branch, Ogora’s smashed helicopter stuck to my palm, and I watch the house, waiting for them to return. I remember Ogora, the tremor in his voice when he told me his father meant to take him for a ride in the helicopter that killed him. I think back to that day when we sat waiting, watching the anticipation and excitement in the compound next door. I wish that moment had been frozen in time. Then perhaps the happiness would still be here. I would be waiting for Ogora’s father to return from the war with stories that would impress us. I would not be sitting here feeling ashamed, drinking tea from the flask that Mother took from their house.

Waiting in the Frangipani Tree’ was first published by the online journal Per Contra in April 2012.

Cover image: The Large Tree, Paul Gauguin, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.