The Adventures of Idi Amin Dada
The 1960s were exciting years: colonialism was ending, Europe was rebooting, America was booming, and in a remote corner of Kenya, young Idi Amin was falling in love with a lonely middle-aged Indian housewife. In Binyavanga Wainaina’s inimitable fable of the making of a dictator, there are millions of ways in which love turns to hate.
Monday. The hot dry breeze is lazy. It glides languorously collecting odd bits of paper, they tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground. Every so often there is a gathering of force and a tiny tornado whips the paper into the air and swirls dust around. Dogs lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between their forelegs as the wind collapses, exhausted.
Children are in school, long lines of spittle reaching their desks as they try to keep awake. From the roof of the town, Menengai crater, the flamingoes look like a giant fabric, rising from the lake like a cloth on a hot shimmering line, revealing blue, falling, and turning the lake pink again.
Vishal is at the library. His brother, in school. Mr Shah, at work. Idi Amin Dada is hunched over Mrs Shah like a question mark, jabbing. She is chewing hard at a bit of blue, gold and red sari, trying to keep from screaming out loud; they have put on a movie at high volume to muffle the sounds.
On the screen, Idi can see a pouting maiden at the edge of a cliff. A man with a giant Afro and big sideburns sings in a shrill voice. The maiden leaps off the cliff and the Afro follows her in a flash. They lie draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their fingers touch and they die; then the music escalates in intensity, beyond drama, beyond melodrama, into Bombay Belodrama.
This morning, every weekday morning, Idi drops Mr Shah at Nakuru Grain Millers, the family business; then he drops the petulant Maharaja, Rajesh, at school. The Shah Pre-school Academy. The Maharaja’s mother begs him to get into the car. Mr Shah remains silent, fingers tapping the steering wheel. If Vishal was around, he would have something sarcastic to say. You going to cry now, Maharaja? The Maharaja starts crying.
As soon as the car leaves the factory gate in the industrial area, after the yes-sir/afende-sir Amin smilingly sends at Mr Shah, the Maharaja wriggles his way to the passenger seat of the Peugeot 504 Injection, eyes dry and now happy. Once or twice a week, if they have a few minutes, Idi stops at the kiosk near the General Hospital, where his Ugandan friend Simon sells sweets, and buys some goody-goody toffees for the boy.
Simon punches Idi on the shoulder and announces his fame as the crowds of sick look on, all waiting for some kind of attention at the hospital. As groups of young men wait for somebody to park a car and hire them, for a day of heaving things around, slapping cement, or digging a pit latrine, for ten shillings. It is a good place to have a kiosk. Somebody always needs a loaf of bread or some milk. There are schools nearby too. And a church. And nurses. And the railway. The path across the hospital leads past the cemetery and into town.
‘You see this man, you see this man, you know he was the Boxing Champion of Uganda, this man.’
They get back into the car, and the boy is flushed with excitement. Sometimes Idi puts his mouth on the boy’s stomach and makes little burping noises. Rajesh laughs and laughs until he starts to cry with joy.
Piles of freshly ironed clothes sit on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed, clothes Idi has ironed last night. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this room since he left for Oxford; the top row is full of Louis L’Amour thrillers and the bottom row has a copy of Heart of Darkness, A-level notes scribbled in the margins, biro doodles on the front cover. Next to it is V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Mrs Shah gives a low gnashing answer that sends a soft cardamom gale into Idi’s ear.
He loves ironing. Every afternoon he puts on a Bollywood film and turns the Shahs’ washing into a crisp battalion of soldiers. He loves shrugging shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching them stand at attention. The room was once a stable, but is now a servant’s quarter. At six p.m. exactly, he will take a shower, then smoke hashish mixed with loose tobacco.
Sometimes he dreams of the embrace of a Luganda prostitute, sucking at his nerve endings like a fish. Once he blew his whole salary on a woman he met at a bus station who told him she was a ssenga.
The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British administration screeched to a halt, those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab a hold of them were left stranded.
Everything changed for Idi. He had considered leaving Kenya and going back to Uganda, but he did not know what to do without a new commander. Sergeant Jones was dead. And Idi had enemies there. Jonas, his junior, was close to Obote at independence – and from the same village. He had hoped to get word of an opening from a friend in the right place. None had come.
By 1970, he was about to give up, was about to hitch-hike to Uganda and sell illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he had found a frail Gujarati man being beaten by a ten-year- old parking boy outside the wholesale market, with market women cheering the boy on.
He had rescued the man, Mr Shah. And he was given a job. It wasn’t bad. Mr Shah was polite. And Mrs Shah was the same as Sergeant Jones: an insistent fanatic about time and a goddess of routine. Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of aimlessness. His mother sold liquor, was a camp follower, and ‘had’ several army officers. At the age of thirteen, he beat up a thirty-year-old Acholi private who slapped his mother.
At fifteen, he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones saw him walking in Arua, he offered him a place in the army at once. Jones would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills. He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe sweat off Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles. Always gruffly.
Idi loved to catch and beat up Mau Maus. One day, after winning a boxing match, he got drunk and came to the barracks with a prostitute. The sentry refused to let him in. Amin left him unconscious on the floor. Jones found him in the barracks the next morning. He slapped Idi twice. Hard.
Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after winning the Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back; Idi grinned widely and said, ‘Now I am the bull afande.’
‘You’re a good lad, Idi. A good lad.’
Mr Shah likes to spend the morning working on his novel, which is titled Conquerors of the British Empire.
He is already one thousand words into the preface.
… It is the only way to make a National Profit from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more we can dictate the cost of raw materials. The final profit will be manned by our rupees, our shillings and our guns. Mother India should be Lord of the Commonwealth. Why let the English carry us on their back? Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there? The Desais will keep the books, the Amins will manage the farms. We can take the skills the British brought, and add them to the world …
His firstborn, Vishal, is disdainful of the book. ‘V.S. says the Indian industrial revolution is petty and private. We are greedy. V.S. says we are a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society that has not learned rebellion. Maybe you need to read some real literature before writing this. The Russians …’
Since his return from England, Vishal treats his parents like they are colourful mantelpiece trinkets.
Last year, at a birthday party, Vishal composed a song that would scandalize everybody (except the Marxist Harbajan Singh, who liked his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a kookaburra.
Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree
Merry Merry King of da Street is he
Run Dukawallah run
Dukawallah hide your cash and flee
It started with small things. She would scrub her heel with a stone until it bled. It was better when they had the shop. Now, Ramesh does not come home any more for lunch. He eats fruit instead. Now, she wakes with a surging panic, as her days cannot fill up. The house extensions are finished. At night it seems, sometimes, like the earthworms are coming. They are shifting everything, turning up the earth, dark and whispering. Last month, four families on the street left. Ramesh will not hear of it. Start again where? Then Vishal left. They sit there, on her wall, her certificates. For hockey, for first place in biology and art, Duchess of Gloucester School, Panchgani.
When she was twelve, she wrestled her bigger brother to the ground. Her mother found her scratching his face. She was confined to her room for days, and dreamed of becoming Sally, an air hostess. Or Jane, a trauma nurse.
Sitting for tea at the Nakuru Sweet Mart with friends, some days, she pinches herself under the table, harder and harder, and a satisfying tingle runs up her back; she dabs the tears and says they are so strong, these onions, fresh – as they talk about ways to hide gold.
Between two and four in the afternoon you will find Idi Amin at Nakuru Boxing Club. For years he has been the Nakuru Boxing Champion. Now, he is older and the young bucks are challenging him. Modesty Blaise Wekesa is short. Very short. It is said he once lifted a plough over his head while working as a casual in the wheat fields of Masailand. He is copper to Idi’s black. It is his speed – the unbelievable speed of those bowed legs and thighs the size of a grown man’s waist.
When Amin first exploded into the Nakuru boxing scene people saw a future world champion, ‘Aii Alikuwa kama myama!’ – he is like an animal! The discipline of the army added to his natural ferocity to make him unbeatable. He had no wife. Many lovers: mostly market women looking for a man with some skills, who complained that their men were disdainful of frills. These women had heard all the legends about tap-tap and other Ugandan bedroom abilities he never acquired.
He has a son, in Ronda. Twin daughters in Naivasha. In 1957, in Gilgil, a woman once came to the barracks, screaming. She unknotted her baby-kanga and put the baby on the ground. She stood at the gates, tearing her clothes off, and screaming in Gikuyu, as the men laughed. One of the guards tried to stop her, and she slapped him. ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ Idi was away, at the Police Lines, drinking. The woman walked off, leaving the baby there. She got to the fence of the village, was just about to walk through the ditch that surrounded it – a ditch dug by her and other women – when she turned and ran back. She picked the baby up and walked away, past the village, probably, they speculated, all the way to Nairobi, where the orphans, the rejected, the divorced and the accused go to disappear.
After his sparring session with a nervous young man with even larger limbs than his – a young man so scared he could probably kill in fear – Idi has a soda with an old friend.
Godwin, the only fellow Kakwa in Nakuru. Godwin Pojulu is a tailor for an Indian family, the Khans. Idi speaks his language badly; he speaks Luo and Acholi and Kiswahili better – army languages.
But when he was six or seven his mother took him to Yei town in Sudan – and he fell in love with the mango-lined avenues. Children were generally a nuisance in colonial Arua, but his maternal grandfather’s home, just off Maridi Road, five miles from Yei, was heaven. He was free to run and play as far as he wanted. Adults would swell to accommodate him and he would eat in the homes of strangers.
Godwin speaks to him about Sudan. About Inyanya – the war. About old heroic days; about rumour and gossip coming from Yei town. They drink soda and eat mandazi and talk till the people leave their offices, until the surge of workers coming in from factories sets Godwin to work.
At five thirty, before the last sun, Idi heads to Eunice’s for supper. He loves that walk – the railway, with its long straight one-roomed homes, reminds him of his childhood in various labour lines near various railway stations.
One roomed homes – with kei-apple-green doors looking across from each other. He arrives at Eunice’s. Clothes flap on the line directly above him.
The buildings are very old, some of the oldest in the country, as old as the railway – the origin and spine of what we now call Kenya. Green fungi on the open pipes; green tears streaming down peeling walls. A toy car leans by a wall streaked with the scribbles of children. Railway children make the best wire cars – crouched and snarling, with steering that makes the wheels turn; with paper mudguards, number plates, and springy aerials thrusting out from the back.
In between the ceilings, under the old corrugated iron roof, young men keep carrier pigeons – the feathers cluster in roof drains.
Eunice is sprawled on the grass, elbow crossed over her eyes, sleeping; her whole body receiving the sun. The smell of cooked fish and boiling, bitter, green vegetables is everywhere. Two women are getting their hair plaited on the sparse patch of grass between the parallel single-room buildings. Both their heads are held at the knee by their hairdressers, legs wide open. There is a pile of discarded pea pods, sukuma-wiki stems and potato peels next to the tap, covered with a large web of slime. Brackish, soapy water glides out into an open drain where ducklings swim. Ducks with mossy muddy bellies wander about. The women are talking and don’t stop when they see him standing awkwardly near the tap. Eunice. She is not young. In her fifties probably. Straight and lean with sharp buttocks and very short grey hair, cut like a boy’s. Her head is a pot gently placed on a long straight neck where it rocks gently from side to side; gold-coloured loop earrings wobble on her ears; her hips and buttocks are a pendulum of tight flesh. Her back is perfectly straight.
She catches Idi’s eye, and slips past the open door where four quarters are carefully divided, by old sarongs, into four rooms.
The only person in the household who threatens Idi’s job is Vishal, back from England and full of black-power talk.
That night, Mrs Shah surprises her husband by defending Vishal. She is bent over, head between her thighs, hair over her face, brushing the back of it, metres long, as Ramesh rails on. ‘Are we sending him to Oxford to become a black man?’
Idi has been with the family for fifteen years now. Two years ago he cornered some thugs, beat them all up, and received a knife wound in his belly.
He is afraid of only one thing. The market. Those women. Whenever he is shopping for the Shahs, he can see their eyes measuring him, he can hear whispers surging when he turns to leave. One day he hears ‘Thief! Thief!’ and starts to run. The whole market, until a moment ago a puddle of fast-moving ants, is now an arrow chasing to kill, an arrow surrounded by cheering crowds. Later, he wonders whether they were chasing somebody else. In any case, he decides to send Godwin to the market on the days Memsahib is too preoccupied to go and buy the vegetables herself.
It only started recently with Memsahib.
Idi walked in from the kitchen with a big mug of sweet tea and caught her wailing in the living room, a day after Vishal had left for Oxford. He tried to slide backwards, slowly edging his way out, but she leaped up and grabbed him and wept on his shoulder, leaving long trails of snot on his khaki shirt. Then her mood changed abruptly and she attacked him, teeth and nails, her body incoherent.
This change, this new erratic thing to deal with, troubles him. Most times, he does not mind being a houseboy.
This story first appeared in Chimurenga 14, Everyone Has Their Indian, and subsequently in Civil Lines 6.