Regional Programs > Africa > Next Story


End of a Journey
Waltraud Ndagitjimana

Everything was still at rest when the faint morning light turned grey over the distant bare Ntungamo hills. Only here and there an early bird stirred and a hesitant chirping could be heard. It would not be long before the first rays of the sun pushed away the darkness that had lain over the land, covering all its misery and poverty like a heavy dark blanket. The land lay still, silent and enduring. It waited for the end of fear and torment, torture and death.

The woman pulled the threadbare blanket up to her thin shoulders for more warmth. She was shivering again. "I must get up," she said loudly. Her weakened body felt every mound of the mud floor through the thin mattress. Slowly, wearily, she turned herself, mindful not to disturb the little boy sleeping peacefully beside her. The boy moved just a little, turning his head on the flat pillow, his curly dark hair dump from sleep. Today he would not go to school—today they would leave home.

She looked around the small house. It was not much of a home, anyway, only a shaky table and two rough chairs. Her mattress was placed behind an old curtain in a corner next to the Blue Band carton where she kept her clothes. Yet these four walls had given her shelter and a little comfort for many years. Through the cracks in the shutter of the small window, she had watched the heavy army trucks of the different regimes roar past on the road below. Here, she had barricaded herself behind the door, when a gang of uniformed men had approached her house. Maybe they had been put off by her all too humble hut, only to kill her neighbour and his wife, leaving the children screaming in horror at the sight of the mutilated bodies of their parents. The woman's fingers tensed and the hollow feeling in her stomach returned whenever she remembered the scene of desolation. Insecurity was all round them, death had become a major part of their life.

At the final rooster call, she slowly turned the key in the door, picked up her bundle of clothes and took her son's hand. She breathed heavily. She had little strength left in her and every little movement seemed to cost her so much effort, so much will and energy. The boy hopped along the narrow path, his bare feet hardly touching the ground and paying little attention to his mother. The grass was still wet from the
morning dew and it left small cool droplets on the boy's legs. He seemed to have no worry in the world as he rushed in excited anticipation towards the asphalt road. When he stopped suddenly, he heard his mother's laboured breath and saw her coming unsteadily down the hill. Her eyes looked bright and seemed to have lost the dullness of the previous months. Sometimes he could not understand her painful twists and little moans that seemed to have taken her over completely. She did not smile so often any more. He jumped down the last metres of the path and sat by the roadside, his foot drawing irregular circles in the sand.

"Where are we going? I am hungry," he said in a matter-of-fact-voice that was not going to betray the excitement he felt. He had never been anywhere far from home.

"I shall buy you some cakes on the way," the woman said, ignoring the first question. The boy seemed satisfied with the answer, the prospect of some succulent cakes making him hum a tune. Behind him, his mother sat down heavily on a mound of earth. She had tied a colourful scarf around her head. Her eyes seemed too large in her thin drawn face. She was looking at her hands, then rubbing the palms together as if to give them some comforting warmth.

From the distance, the boy heard the rumbling of the bus. As he jumped up excitedly, he saw it crawling up the hill like a huge caterpillar. First he only caught a glimpse of mattresses and other odd pieces of furniture tied onto its top, and swaying precariously as it rounded a bend. The noise increased as the old vehicle drew nearer. With screeching brakes and a loud puff, it stopped right next to its prospective passengers.

"Kabale - Kisoro" said the small wooden board behind the screen. The boy looked at his mother who hesitantly picked up her bundle, then halted a moment, drew in a sharp breath and gazed at the soft green hills around them. She seemed to be memorising this picture of early morning peace and tranquillity. Her eyes blinked as the top of her hand briskly rubbed over them as if to erase what she had seen. Then she straightened her back and followed her son who was already waving and calling animatedly inside. The conductor looked at her and asked where she was going. The woman mumbled her destination and slowly placed the fare in his outstretched hand and secured her ticket.

The bus started with a jerk and wound its way along the mountains, climbing each approaching hill with more and more effort. The windows were mud-splattered and the boy could hardly see anything outside. His eyes wandered around the bus, inspecting the passengers who seemed drowsy and exhausted. Some youths on the seat behind him were making crude jokes, repeatedly bursting into laughter. The boy strained his ears but he only caught the odd word in a language that was strange to him.

After what seemed only a short time, the bus stopped at the roadside. Fruit and cake sellers swarmed around noisily, advertising their goods. One of them came right up to the woman and she bought the cakes that the boy had been longing for. He closed his eyes when his teeth bit into the soft texture. This was a rare treat and he made small bites, letting them linger in his mouth, enjoying the sweetness. He counted the remaining cakes in the polythene bag, which he held tightly—only four! These he would eat later, the journey was still long, his mother had said.

As the bus pulled out of the little trading centre, the murram road became hard and bumpy. Innumerable potholes were filled with muddy water and every time the bus sank its tyres into one of them, it sent splutters up to the windows. Thousands of water drops formed small rivulets, which made their way to the ground again. The boy looked at their dancing and dazzling performance fascinated. But eventually, his eyes grew heavy and he fell asleep, his head lolling between the fringe of the cushioned chair and the window glass. The voices of the other passengers grew faint and distant, and their laughter to no more than a giggle. The woman dozed off, too, her head leaning towards her son.

Suddenly, the bus came to an abrupt stop. Lake Bunyonyi lay still and unruffled but from outside came the noise of agitated angry voices. Something hard hit the door and the passengers were suddenly roused from their sleep and looked up apprehensively. The boy's eyes searched for his mother's, who at that time was seized with a violent bout of coughing. Her eyes widened in terror as she fought to regain her breath. Her chest heaved, expanded, collapsed again only to be seized by a greater panic. In her agony, she pulled the scarf from her head and held it to her mouth, but not quickly enough. Her son gazed in terror at the bright red spot that coloured the scarf. As she slowly pulled in the life-giving air, tears of exhaustion streamed down her face. But she wiped them away fearfully, at the same time trying to give the boy next to her some confidence. She was only betrayed by the anguish in her eyes.

The other passengers had tried to divide their attention between the angry voice outside and the woman fighting for breath. Now they anxiously turned their heads towards the door again, which was roughly thrown open. The muzzle of a gun appeared first, slowly and menacingly. Then, as if he feared something from the passengers inside, a tall figure in a ragged uniform slowly came into view. The woman's heart stopped a bit as she gazed at the figure. Her son's hand instinctively found hers and she gripped it and held it tight.

"Toka wote!" the figure ordered. At the sound of the harsh tone, a small child started wailing. The brutal face turned in the direction of the small voice. Terrified by the hostile stare, the child's mother quickly pulled her breast from under her blouse and pushed the nipple into the eager mouth. As if waiting for appraisal, the mother looked at the man but he avoided her eyes, pulling his mouth into a small black line. He did not say another word but he lifted his heavy gun and gestured to the passengers to stand up and leave the bus. Slowly, the men and women stood up from their seats, hampered by the luggage heaped on their laps. The odour of sweaty bodies filled the stale air.

As the passengers left the bus, their bags and bundles were seized from them, some thrown violently back into the bus, narrowly missing bodies that were pushing forwards. The woman and her son slowly climbed down from the bus. She saw a group of not less than twenty uniformed men sitting under a cluster of trees. These were watching, with sadistic amusement, the passengers being herded from the bus warily take their position as far from them as possible.

"Separate the women, let us look at them," a cruel voice shouted. Seized by sheer terror, the women clung tightly together as they were separated from the men. A huge man, his uniform in tatters, looked at his kingdom of cruelty and fear. He lay his hand on the shoulder of a young girl and pulled her violently from the elderly woman she was clinging to. As the muzzle of the gun was pushed hard into her back, she lost her balance and let go. With an iron grip, the tall man dragged her behind in the shadow of a dilapidated unipot, grinning at his comrades as they cheered him.

The small group of women drew more closely together as two more uniformed men approached them. The woman felt a tight grip on her arm and knew that her fate was sealed, but she would not give in to this overpowering villain without a fight. Her son had also clutched her in total panic. "No!" she screamed. "I am not well and I am with my child, please...my son...here...you see." She stumbled in the muddy water and the brown liquid shot up and splashed her to her ankles as she pulled the bloody scarf from her pocket. "I shall make you sick..." As if she had waved a magic stick, the soldier pushed her roughly aside. She fell down, one hand still clutching her son's, the other holding the bloody scarf. The man looked at her in contempt and made his way back to the group of women.

"What did the man want with you?" her son asked fearfully, his voice trembling. As he watched, another woman, much younger in age, was hauled from the group and pushed roughly behind the hut. "We are lucky we didn't have to go behind the hut," he now said, quite pleased with himself.

From behind the hut, the woman could hear some subdued sobs of the young girl, then some angry voice and a slap. While the boy strained his ears to make out what was going on in that secret place, his mother made an effort to involve him in some conversation. After some time, he grew tired and started looking around the place.

One of the women, not young any more, came from behind the dark shadows holding the young girl. She had put an arm around her, speaking softly. Two more women reappeared, one looking defiant, the other looking at the group of male passengers who seemed to be gazing in a void, their feet rooted to the ground. Others gave their shoestrings an aura of importance. Neither group spoke. A force that could not be argued with had taken possession of them. The only thing they could do now was wait.

Some of the uniformed rogues had entered the bus. From outside, one could hear boxes being broken, locks discarded. Whole bundles of clothes were flung through the windows. The woman saw her bundle thrown close to her feet. She was about to go for it when a strong hand of another woman held her back. "Don't push your luck. You have escaped once, let those things go."

Time seemed to stand still. Minutes dragged into hours and the people sat there like waste being washed ashore by a violent river. Anything could happen to them any time.

Finally, under a lot of cruel laughter, the loot was carried away and the air of oppression became lighter when, in a coarse voice, they were told to get back into the bus. Hastily, they scrambled up, pushing and shoving each other, trying to escape from the place of inhumanity and terror. None of them bothered about their property any more: everything of value had been taken, anyway. But the boy dived under his seat and triumphantly reappeared holding the polythene bag with his four cakes, some reduced to crumbs. His mother smiled and patted his head.

As the bus slowly and hesitantly drove off, a bullet passed above it, narrowly missing it. Derisive laughter followed as the driver accelerated. The ordeal was over but what lay ahead of them?

Outside, the evening came up slowly. The green hills receded in the mist, the clouds lay low and a cold wind came up from the lake. It was going to rain and they still had another two hours to go.

The woman felt exhausted and could hardly breathe. The anguish of the afternoon had taken its toll. Her chest was tight, her breathing very painful and her head thumped. The other passengers sat in silence, each trying to come to grips with what had happened, in their own way.

As the bus lumbered on, night took over the world. The rain fell slowly and the trees were now mere silhouettes in the deepening darkness. Gradually, the rough road descended towards the valley and somewhere near a mud track, the woman made out the Mutolere Hospital signpost.

"I have had enough problems for one day," the driver shouted through the bus. "Diesel is little and if we pass through the hospital, we might get stuck there before we reach Kisoro town. You must find your own way there now." The woman froze. She did not know anybody in the town.

"No," she said to herself, "he can't do this to me." But there was no pleading with the man. He stopped some good distance from the town near a beaten track. "Follow this path: it is just a few kilometres from your hospital," he said.

As the woman and her son stepped out into the night, they held on to each other. It was a very dark night and a sense of total loss overcame them. The rain had changed into a steady drizzle and a cold wind made them shiver. The woman pulled her son closer. Her teeth were chattering and an ice-cold grip held her throat. She tightened her grip on the boy, trying to give him the reassurance she herself needed so badly.

Slowly, they stumbled on in the darkness, hitting their feet on the sharp lava stones. There was no sign of life anywhere. They had no idea where they were and whether the direction they were taking was the right one.

There was not a soul near the roadside. All the little village bars that had in former days bristled with life and resounded with the happy laughter of men, had long closed now. These were times when one did not move about at night. Too much had happened lately.

Suddenly, the woman was shaken by another violent burst of coughing. She stopped walking and pressed her hands to her chest. As the bout shook her violently, she slowly slid onto a grassy patch. The hot sticky liquid filled her mouth again and she spat it out. She spat again and again until her breathing became shallow and she lay exhausted. The boy had started crying silently.

"Don't cry," she whispered. "Just give me a little time." He crouched near her and they sat holding each other. The rain had stopped but it was very cold. The woman knew she had to make an effort to stand up but she felt terribly weak. Her cheeks were burning and she felt an urge to just sit there and let things happen to her. The boy seemed to have fallen asleep next to her. So she sat and waited for a little while longer until she regained enough strength to continue. "Let's go," she shook him awake and he hastily stood up and felt for her hand. Together, they stumbled on in the darkness for what were just a few minutes but seemed like eternity to them.

They passed trees, their branches hitting their faces and thorns scratching their legs. The woman could hardly walk but she had to continue for her son's sake. Every part of her body was now aching, every breath a torment. She sat down again and again as the minutes of the dark night slowly ticked away. They had come nowhere near the hospital; they did not even know if they were moving in circles.

Suddenly, the boy saw a small flickering light in the distance. A ray of hope for them in this desolate night. The woman seemed to regain her energy but as they came nearer to the house, she again fell down heavily. "Go to the house and tell the people inside that we need help. Tell them that we need shelter and that we are looking for the way to the hospital..."

"Mother, I am scared. I don't know those people."

"Just go. You have to be a big boy now."

"Okay," the boy breathed, swallowing hard.

Slowly, he moved towards the house, repeatedly turning to glance back into the darkness. After only a few paces, he had lost sight of his mother lying there and he started to sob as he moved forwards. He felt his way forwards, guided by the flickering light until he was standing before the door. As soon as his hesitant knock was heard inside, all voices fell silent and the little gleam of light was extinguished. After a lot of whispering, somebody cleared his voice and asked, "Who is that?"

"It's me. I have come for help."

"Go away. We cannot help you." This time the voice was very loud, drumming in the boy's ears.

"Please help me. My mother is sick outside. We need someone to help us," he pleaded.

"You need to go to the hospital. Isn't that the story you told our neighbours two nights ago, and when they opened the door the soldiers came from behind the bushes and rushed in the house? You go and see what is left of that house and the people there."

The boy did not understand what the man was talking about. But from the sound of his voice, he knew he would not get any help from here. He tried just one more time, pleading and crying but there was only stony silence inside.

Slowly, he turned away, stumbling back into darkness, crying out softly for his mother. He heard her voice that was now barely audible. When he finally came close to her, he just sat by her side. She did not even ask what had happened at the house. She slowly pulled him towards her, pulled her sweater over him and the two lay motionless side by side. It was not until next morning that two early risers from the village found a young boy sleeping peacefully next to his dead mother.

Waltraud Ndagitjimana teaches literature at St. Gertrude's Girls' Secondary School, Mutolere. Her short story, "The Key," was broadcast on the BBC World Service jn 1996. She is currently working on a book of short stories.