Apr 11, 2013
My mother comes from hills. Intermittently, I am reminded of this — for instance, when I, recently returned from Kandy, arrive in Vancouver, city whose mountains stand in for compass points, their guardianship over the horizon a strangely comforting exercise in dislocation; they are never so close as they seem. Those first days I would look up from streets that, from certain angles, seemed to stretch to the feet of those peaks and would feel as though I could make that place home, so much did they make me think of the angle of roads through Kandy. Kampala moves me in similar ways. It is all green hills and red roofs, all blue waters and blue skies that give way to bulbously elephantine clouds that lie heavy and low on the horizon. They break first in lightning too distant to hear, until the downpour arrives properly, bringing with it thunder, the water’s roar enveloping the night. I email an old professor in Toronto that Makarere University makes me think of Peradeniya, but so lots of leafy East Africa does. I think it’s just a misguided sense of nostalgia. It is the flamboyance of its flora, it is its students perched on bus station rails, it is the colonial architecture and the land’s rise and fall below unthinking feet; I trace the ghosts of my young parents, looking for them in places they left long ago, looking in my older parents for those places, looking because I don’t know how to formulate the questions I want to ask, have not yet gauged their underlying implications, their dangers, and their hurts (do you feel when dreams morph, does it feel like muscles straining, were we worth it, who were you then, are you still them). I wake in Kampala to smarting shoulders, their skin peeling, leaving me a speckled sort of armour; I have to reorient myself to a body that stretches with an unfamiliar landscape under bemused fingers. And in Kampala, I also sling a shabby bag over one arm, packing with me on every venture into the city’s nights cardigan and scarf, blanketing myself in outdoor bars and air-conditioned, carpeted indoor clubs. The women of Kampala pick their way through the city’s legendary potholes in heels. I wear black skinny jeans and slouchy black tshirt, conscious of how the things do not fit and how their drabness here lacks any of the anarchist chic with which I’d once imbued them, offset here by the perfect nails, the form-fitting dresses, and the immaculate hair of my analogues Driven by some kind of desperation, mostly a certain fatalism — if I just cut it all off, I will be free of this or the other thing — I stride, while on my way to an appointment, into a salon that looked promising enough, or at least was open when I walked by its entrance. The Chinese Hair and Beauty Salon has a set price for Asian haircuts, is run by two Chinese women, and is staffed by black Ugandans. Its TV plays Bollywood films. A brown woman walks in, pottu maroon on her forehead, and watches closely as a a young man takes a clipper to my head. My reflection looks pained. In 30 minutes, my reflection watches me from a righthand motorcycle mirror. If you drive fast enough, you do feel a bit drier in the rain. We are climbing Kampala’s hills. The inclines are always gentle enough that I don’t notice their slant, until we reach the peak, and I’m standing at the massive gates to Namirembe Cathedral, looking down on the city. Once this was a city of seven hills, but it its peaks have now tripled. You can stand on one and look to the others as a watchman might. You have this sensation not of omniscience, but of a coming into space. In a day, I will be back in Dar es Salaam, and in two weeks following back in Toronto. There are long moments when this perpetual leaving makes it difficult to be anywhere. I am distracted, already in transit. There are moments when this feels like being able to breathe again. I didn’t realise I had been holding my breath those years in Vancouver. Its mountains, after all, were an illusion, much too far to claim as home. My mother comes from hills, and I have only just come appreciate the extent to which this is a birthright, both wealth and constraint.