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Ewa Nansikombi

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It is 14:35. Ugandan time. It is a confused day. Not so chilly, not so sunny. Not so gay, not so gray. It is as confused as a multi-colored sweater. I am seated in a kafunda – a narrow way, a shack – somewhere in between the crafts shops that make up the NACAU, the National Arts And Crafts Association of Uganda compound, just outside the National Theatre.

I am here because I came here in the quest for food, as this is the last meal I will be having for the next several hours which will be spent in a not so comfortable bus seat and travelling from Kampala, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya.

I am writing because I am done eating, and, also, because I am annoyed. Very. I only write when I am annoyed. The annoyance creates an urge, an inspiration. When I am inspired, I must let it out, lest I burst – with anger.

***

I find myself here, on the high end, the better end of one of the few good dining tables, seated in between a very quiet gentleman to my right and a talkative, or rather, chatty lady on my left, one who joined us – myself and the quiet fellow to my right – when she arrived together with her two equally chatty colleagues. One, Remy – because his name was mentioned – is dressed in a majorly black, with a red collar T-shirt that bears the logo of the Insurance Institute of Uganda, and the other, their jollier colleague, is a bespectacled lady who is donning a T-shirt with the ICEA GROUP logo. They are, apparently, very important people, whose language must be characterized by words like clients, stock, investments, targets, and markets, but it does not take so long before this trio gets me laughing, and hard, like they are comedians instead.

Their conversation ranges; from ongoing events at their workplace – I learn that they do not fancy the new targets each unit has been assigned to achieve; to partying – they are adding all their family, friends and workmates to a guest list which will help get them into The Guvnor, an overly expensive discotheque, even by their standards, later in the day; to family – the girlfriend of the cousin to the lady on my left abused their mother, over the phone, for thinking that the cousin’s mother was his side chick; to a trip – while in Kabale, the jollier lady was overwhelmed by a generous serving of chips, French fries, and was astounded by the excitement emanating from the drinking of intense local brews like omulamba and enturire – local alcoholic beverages.

They are not the only ones talking. There are several cliques on several tables. There is a one man clique, made up of a lone mzungu man, who is seated on the table right in front of me. He lifts his fork, both calmly and carefully, as if he is going to poke his mouth with the fork, or the food will leave him ailing. He is dressed in a T-Shirt, denim pants – which have been folded at their cuffs, and rugabire – car tyre shoes. The morning was a wet one. With it, it brought mud, and cold. He looks lonely, even from the back.

There are other people on other tables. In one raising of my head, I catch a lady, a handsome one, catching me, before she quickly lowers her head back into her plate. For a moment, I wonder why she was looking at me. I am not worth it. She has a good pair of legs, and thighs, and she knows it. I noticed them because her skirt lifted by a few inches when she took her seat. Being aware of her predicament, she covered her knees with a kanga probably to disguise the view. I do not know why and how, but I noticed. Perhaps, my eyes simply know where they need to be.

There are other people on other tables. Beautiful women. Ugly women. Handsome men. Uglier men. Big nosed women. Potbellied men. Skinny me. All of us.

***

The service is a perfect illustration of the rest of the country’s service industry. When the talkative trio walked in, the lady on my left told Remy that no one would serve them if they found places to seat. What they had to do was pick a plate each and proceed to queue up. She was as right as rain. The patrons who had walked in after them had had to wipe their plates and carry them around the kafunda while asking for or refusing to take either kalo – millet bread, kawunga – posho meal, matooke – banana plantain, muwogo – cassava, lumonde – irish potato, binyebwa – groundnut paste, ebijanjalo – beans, ekyenyanja – fish, or enyama – meat.

With being served, I was not necessarily lucky, as compared to my fellow patrons. When I arrived, I had sat down, and, immediately, busied myself with an E-mail I was meant to have sent, on April 09, to my new Nigerian friends, who had, in good, polite Queen’s English, reasonably disappointed me in a transaction we were both involved. As a matter of course, I had to keep signaling to the waitress, an unconcerned one, to deliver my order. All foods served together with groundnuts which are mixed with beans. All foods! That so Ugandan thing! She kept avoiding me, like a disgusting meal which a dog had ignored. With further pestering, she said that someone else would serve me. I could not easily appreciate why she was employed, well, beyond consuming the not so enough air and space in a kafunda without not so much to offer to so many. Another patron, seated somewhere behind me had, on the top of his voice, echoed my thoughts when he shouted; they are too many but they are not any effective. I had been through the same; in supermarkets, telecom company’s service centers, police stations, private kitchens, foyers of both public and professional institutions. Pretty much everywhere. It was unfathomable. It was what made my country what it is. I had nothing I could d about it but tolerate. It made me feel like an elevator man in a town where everyone else takes the stairs.

***

My plate, an overly big one, arrived. Heaped on it was a sumptuous meal made up of a generous serving of all foods – matooke, rice, yam, cassava, Irish potato, sweet potato – and a sauce made up of groundnut paste which was mixed together with beans; as requested. Emele! Food! A typical Ugandan meal! Akatogo! A mixture! It, for the next one week, would be the only real meal I would be having. Smokies, mayindi choma – roasted maize, chicken and chips at any one of those Inns or American themed restaurants that dot Nairobi do not count. All they do is make me miss home, and all its all foods.

As I savoured the taste and surprised myself, by finishing it all, I remembered that I had not eaten well in a very long time, that the last meal I had had must have been the katogo I had had in a De Winton Road restaurant the previous day, which could have passed for someone’s fecal excrement, with some pieces of hard, poorly prepared meat discarded into it, and lots of dirty, tasteless soup, which both the waitress and the manager had been rather unenthusiastic in serving, and that the recommendation of this kafunda, by a short lady whom I had met right before I sauntered in here was well worth it.

Not to say that she was or is a midget, which is alright, but she was or is too short that I kept staring down at her forehead with eyes that must have probably been saying; poor you, young lady! What are you doing down there? If I had another opportunity, to meet her again, especially after the kind of meal she had directed me to, I would, as a matter of course, be much more polite and grateful. I would even eat her food save for the unfortunate fact that her restaurant, where I had begun, does not sell food – emele – as we Ugandans know it, but snacks. It is a kiosk for mandazi, chapati, cakes, pies and more of the same. Well, in addition to water and a few sodas.

***

Certainly, I am not the only person engaged in enjoying my meal or excited by it. The gentleman on my right said hello when he took his seat and never said a single word after his fork met his mouth. When the talkative trio arrived, and asked for chilli, a Krest Bitter Lemon, and that we push up to share the unused space, I did not hesitate to help out. I could not but wait for them to follow in the lead of the gentleman on my right. That was before I found that they would be concentrating on their food, before the little people in my head agreed to name them the talkative trio. As more patrons sauntered in, I observed that the first person to arrive would wipe a plate and hand it over to the next person in line. When a patron was trying to clear their bill, but went unnoticed, another patron would alert one of the waitresses or Nansinkombi herself of the same. Good food can do that to you. It turns you into a humanitarian agent.

Even when word went around, that this roofless shack looks much better now with an etundubali – tarpaulin – over a cross-section of us, we all ate our meals with both smiles and apparent satisfaction; just like it should be in any kafunda anywhere. We ate and catered to one another like a community, as a whole. No one was uniquely distinct from another. We shared in another’s laughter and chimed in another’s story. Some of us bellowed out for more food or sauce or salt or obushera – a millet flour derived refreshment. For a paltry UGX 3,500, my moment in Nansinkombi’s kafunda offered me more satisfaction than that mountain of a meal possibly could. Good food can do that to you. It can entertain you.

***

Before I found myself here, I had spent most of the morning engaged in an unfathomable argument. A miscommunication between the bus booking office and its cabin crew had led to my missing of my trip the previous day. As we had agreed, they were to pick me up from somewhere along the way, but thanks to their wonderful memories, they chose to forget. They managed to take their bag, though; to help me to losing four days of constructive work, to missing two meetings that I could not afford to miss, to missing a scheduled trip to Arusha, to paying an unfair fine that we should have shared, to losing time, opportunities and other resources, and to filling me with the right amount of angst, just enough for me not to spare them any thought in both the nearby and later future.

As a person, an abnormal person who works averagely twenty hours a day, any and every second of that time counts. As a person, an unpinned person who lives like he has ants on his feet, being in one place and doing absolutely nothing productive while there is uninspiring. As a person, a limitless person who lives without borders and is invested in connecting diverse communities, not doing so is an unfathomable impression of failure for many of clients.

***

When Nansikombi finally approached the table on which I was seating, we were overwhelmed by a sense of that innate motherly love. It was reminiscent of my own Mother, and pretty much all the Mama Mbogas – women who sell food and groceries – had to offer. When she took our payments, she did it like she did not want to, like money was not a motivator for her, like she had more than enough of it, like we were her children whom we she was simply ensuring we were nurturedwe had a decent, warm meal. She asked us to calm down, to relax, and not to be in any haste for anything or to anywhere.  She said that she would attend to each one of us, one after another.

I could not tell what exactly it was that lightened us up. I do not think that it was the aprons that she and her waitresses were donning, a corruption of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards census ones that had been prepared for enumerators, but which had now had that word, printed at the back, right above the apron string, replaced with the words Nansinkombi’s Diner. It was job so poorly done that they did not fully do away with the word ENUMERATOR or the acronym UNBS. It, certainly was not them. We had done enough towards cheering ourselves up.

It must have been in her tenderness, in her welcoming nature, in her persona, in her being that left us immensely delighted, felt catered to, and, of course, very satisfied.

***
Suddenly, my anger ebbed away. I put complaining to the bigger boys in Nairobi at the back of my mind. I had other more important things to attend to, and a life to live. Good food can do that to you.

***

Alexander Twinokwesiga.
Part; Nansikombi’s Diner, Kampala, Uganda. Friday, April 15, 2016.
Part; Ngong, Kajiado, Kenya. Saturday, April 16, 2016.

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