Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 11, 2022

Waiting, by Goretti Kyomuhendo (2015) (Decolonising a Blog… a work in progress #3)

Just before Remembrance Day, 2022, I came across  a review by Francis P Sempa of A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945–1955” by Ronald H Spector, at the Asian Review of Books., Reading the review made me more aware of the way that war and its memorialisation tends to be viewed exclusively through a Western lens.

On 2 September 1945, on the US battleship Missouri, US General Douglas MacArthur concluded the formal surrender ceremony of the Pacific War by stating: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world, and that God will preserve it always.” When the guns of the Second World War fell silent in Asia, peace did not return to the peoples of East and Southeast Asia. Instead, as Ronald Spector details in his meticulous and informative military history of the postwar Far East, the region “erupted” as a result of decolonization, civil wars, and the broader Cold War. The region became a vast “bloodlands” in which nearly four million combatants and probably close to 20 million civilians died. When the guns of the Second World War fell silent in Asia, peace did not return to the peoples of East and Southeast Asia.

There hasn’t been much postcolonial peace in Africa either…

So when I considered a Novellas in November post for Remembrance Day, I looked through the TBR for books I had tagged War, that were about postcolonial conflicts.  And I came across Waiting, by Ugandan author Goretti Kyomuhendo, recommended by Stu at Winston’s Dad. Under the auspices of the Women Writing Africa project, the novella was published by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York (CUNY).

The story is deceptively simple.  Set in a humble village in a rural area, it’s narrated by fifteen-year-old Alinda, who doesn’t always understand what is happening. The representation of war is mostly off stage and it is only as the story progresses that the reader perceives the impact of the 1979 Liberation War, which was fought between Uganda and Tanzania (Oct 1978 – Jun 1979) and led to the overthrow of the military dictator and brutal despot, President Idi Amin.

The family learns about the war when Father flees the city to avoid both the Liberators and soldiers loyal to the president.

We had learned about the details of the war a month before, when Father returned from the city where he had worked at the Main Post Office as a clerk. He told us that President Idi Amin was about to be overthrown by a combined force of Ugandans who lived in exile and the Tanzanian soldiers who were assisting them. The soldiers were advancing quickly, heading for Kampala from the southwestern border that Uganda shared with Tanzania. The districts along that route were already in the hands of the Liberators. (p.11)

Alinda’s narration gradually reveals that the family — parents, children and grandmother — are joined by other villagers as they pack up each night to hide from the soldiers.  During this period of the war, villagers feared soldiers on both sides because they were known to loot villages of their produce and the Ugandans loyal to Idi Amin raped the women and killed the inhabitants.  So they bury their precious items in a covered pit: a bicycle (dismantled), a radio, their mattresses, the saucepans, and their best clothes. And they sleep overnight in the banana field.

The war, coming after years of corrupt government, has impacted on the family in many ways.  Many everyday items are in short supply because Idi Amin expelled Ugandan-born Indian citizens who were the backbone of the economy.

“Sugar, soap, paraffin, medicine . . . those are things we forgot about long ago, ever since the Indians were chased away, and the factories collapsed, and the rich countries refused to help us. Everyone has been watching and saying nothing as we suffer and drop dead like flies. Unless, of course, you belong to the inner circles of the Muslims, the Army, or the people from West Nile.” (p. 49).

Uncle Kembo, who had been well-off and helped to support the family, becomes poor when he lost his job at an Indian-owned sawmill. He restores his fortunes by converting to Islam, and enjoyed the polygamy it allowed, but the price was alienation from his Christian family.  And his good fortune on the black market doesn’t last.

A baby born between Alinda and her sister Maya had died of measles, because there were no vaccines. Mother, who is about to give birth to another child, is anaemic, but the hospitals in the city are closed. Soldiers had already been there and looted all the medicines. The nurses and doctors had fled, leaving the family at the mercy of superstition and folk medicine.

Normal life has been suspended. Tendo, Alinda’s adolescent brother, is bored and uncooperative, refusing to do his share of the household responsibilities like fetching water:

I could sense that Tendo was bored. Under other circumstances, he would not be here, talking to us girls. He would be with his two friends, our cousins, who were Uncle Kembo’s children. They would be playing football, fetching water, or riding the bicycle. But the two boys had gone with their mother to visit her people. Uncle Kembo was alone for the time being.

I would normally have been with my friend from school, Jungu, but her family could not stay in their house in town where her mother sold vegetables in the market because it was not safe there. They must have gone to her mother’s village, which was about three kilometers from our home. (p. 18).

Alinda — doing the cooking and the laundry — is already shouldering too many responsibilities, and when the soldiers finally arrive and tragedy ensues, at fifteen she has to help her mother with the birth, and care for the infant afterwards.  Whereas YA literature in Australia is almost always centred on the perspectives of the young people in the story, Goretti Kyomuhendo broke new ground in Ugandan literature with her choice of narrator.  As Margaret Dayward from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban says in the Afterword:

No other Ugandan writer has used the perceptions of a young girl who, at a time in her life when she would normally be beginning to comprehend how her family’s practices sustain the proper functioning of her world, is compelled to try to make sense of unpredictable violence against which, as she witnesses it, none of the villagers can protect themselves. (p.116)

Waiting is a quiet, but devastating portrayal of the impact of war on an ordinary family, doing the best they can.

About the author (from the Afterword):

Goretti Kyomuhendo was born in 1965 in the district where Waiting is set, in the town of Hoima in western Uganda. She went to school there, and then, after passing exams at the highest school-leaving level, she studied Marketing at the National College of Business Studies, Nakawa (now part of Makerere University). She has always been interested in writing, and after publishing her first novel, she became the first woman writer from Uganda to attend the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, in 1997. In 2004–2005, Kyomuhendo studied for a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa; the first draft of Waiting was successfully submitted for the degree in 2005. (p. 113).

I read this book for Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck.

Author: Goretti Kyomuhendo
Title: Waiting: A Novel of Uganda at War
Afterword: Margaret Dayward
Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY (City University of New York), 2015.
ASIN : B00W5T8IVC, Kindle Edition, 137 pages
Source: purchased for the Kindle.



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