The African Library: Entry no 93
Doreen Baingana: Tropical Fish (2005)
Doreen Baingana’s collection of interlinked short stories titled Tropical Fish, after one of the sections, is a multinarrative concerning three middle-class Ugandan sisters: Christine, Patti and Rosa (in the order of their appearance in the text), which is from youngest to eldest to second-eldest. Even though they are sisters and there are obvious links between their stories, the three are remarkably different from one another as personalities and in a way all three are quite lonely people who seem not to share their thoughts and innermost feelings with one another, or even with anyone else. In a way, then, all the narratives in the text’s eight chapters (several of them having appeared previously as short stories) are interior monologues, where reported exchanges with others in social contexts do feature, but the inner life remains private.
The cultural and especially class aspects of the girls’ (later women’s) lives are worth remarking on. Their father is of (indeterminate) Congolese origin, but his mother in particular (like the girls’ mother) speaks Runyankore, not Luganda (the language of the Baganda), which is the language of their “housegirl” (1), Rusi – Uganda being a muilti-ethnic society. In class terms the family is (to begin with) well-to-do, the father being an accountant with a major bank. The girls go to good schools and later to Makerere, Uganda’s famous university, but the family falls on hard(er) times when the father’s serious drinking problem gets out of hand and he ends up disgraced and fired. The girls often have to drag him home from where he has fallen down in a drunken stupor on the sidewalk. He dies not long after. Their mother is a state bureaucrat; a hard-working and rather dour personality and a strict (and prejudiced) Anglican Christian. There are no village scenes or rural landscapes in this text; this is modern, urban Africa as witnessed by three girls and young women who see themselves primarily as members of a youth cohort similar in class; African but definitely not “traditionally” so.
The sisters do not get equal treatment or text space: Christine (who is far younger at 14, in her second story, compared with [the then] 17-year-old Rosa and 18-year-old Patti) features in the first, third and last three of the eight chapters. Patti dominates only the second chapter, whereas Rosa (whose story appears in chapters four and five) disappears from the narrative with only one brief mention in the final chapter.
Since the sisters are not shown to exert much influence on one another I shall discuss each of them separately, beginning with Christine (who gets the fullest account) and moving to Patti (who gets shortest shrift from the author), then concluding with Rosa, whose mere two stories are particularly compellingly presented.
We first meet Christine as a dreamy, romantic-minded little girl, fascinated by her own image of what women’s roles are in the adult world and perfectly happy with the idea that she, too, will one day be putting on the same type of performance – and her conception is, indeed, extremely theatrical, with women as queens receiving homage from their male devotees, their husbands (which is how little Christine views the relationship between her own parents).
This first “Christine chapter” is also the opening chapter of the whole collection, giving us a first impression of the kind of family life lived in the well-appointed home, from the perspective of this pre-teen child whose adolescent sisters and mother do not take much interest in her and who enjoys the company of their domestic worker, who tolerates her presence (though she often shoos her away or gets irritated with her) as she goes about her domestic chores.
Christine is particularly fascinated with her parents’ bedroom, though this (to her) sacred space loses all its lustre while merely undergoing the daily tidying and cleaning. It is when everyone else is away – her sisters are at boarding school, her parents at work and Rusi (their domestic worker) has retired after lunch – that Christine (supposedly having her own postprandial snooze) tiptoes into the holy of holies and starts her play ritual of putting on her mother’s jewellery. First (in a charming childish touch) she respectfully greets her paternal grandparents’ portraits, in particular the grandfather, who has passed away and for whose protection (from detection of and punishment for her intrusion) she begs. She describes what she does as “sneaking around the forbidden room opening drawers, reading letters, sniffing the faint mysterious smells of Maama and Taata; cigarettes, polish, powder, perfume, sweat, and more” (1–2). The mystique of their intimate lives, from which, of course, she is excluded, is at this time at the core of the child’s fantasy life. Her concept of gender role play is vividly illustrated:
The final act was the best one of all: being my mother. When I grew up, I would use lots of cool white cream like she did: Ponds, Venus de Milo, cocoa butter, perfumes called Lady, Chanel, Essence. I’d paint my fingernails and toenails with designs in glaring red, and fling my hands around dramatically like a conjurer. Wear lots of lacy panties, petticoats, bras, and stockings, all in frilly white and pink, with flowers and sequins, and become Maama. Women were nice and pleasant and sweet, like a bowl of fruit or fresh flowers. Men smelt of cigarettes and beer and wore dull dark colours. The choice was clear. (7–8)
It is later in the story that we discover that this rose-tinted view is not even half the picture of the parental relationship. The aloof, preoccupied father, who seems merely to tolerate his daughters but shows no actual interest in their activities or personalities, more and more often reveals his drunken, maudlin “side” (or, increasingly, “true self”?): “the other Taata, the drunk, dancing, rowdy Taata; the one who cried”. His counterpart is a Maama whose voice is one “continuous sentence of complaint, a wail, a plaintive song” in a “voice choked with tears” (10). In other words, the family is an almost proverbial example of the “alcoholic family”, heading for predictable disaster. The reader (unlike the child) feels a twinge of sympathy for the increasingly lost and comfort-seeking father, feckless as he no doubt has become and a huge emotional and financial burden to his overtaxed wife. The mother’s “streams of anger” are met by the father’s “short snarls of avoidance”. The child comments on the mother’s “pain” (which she does hear) by saying that it “filled [her] head with all sorts of unnamed feelings, not happiness or sadness but something deeper, sweeter, more horrible. Desire?” (she wonders) (11). The ugliness of hearing her father flaunting his irresponsibility, saying “‘fuck the children’” (12) when the mother begs him to keep his voice down, does not consciously hurt Christine, it seems; instead, she remains fascinated by “the choking weight of their relationship” and “the strong secret bedroom smell”, which she describes as “very beautiful, and adult, like knowing and using and meaning the word fuck” (12) (which Christine at this age does not know the meaning of).
Years later, when Christine returns home after eight years in the USA, she will be taken aback at her mother’s puzzled response to her question whether she misses her late husband. It is Christine who then acknowledges that she had, “like a leech”, lived off “his love for her”, which the child had been able to recognise despite the man’s many blatant shortcomings and misconduct, and even though her father’s yearning for his eventually emotionally aloof wife was never intended for her to discern.
How deeply ingrained in Christine a certain pattern of expectation of relations with boys and men has grown is made clear in the third chapter, titled “First Kiss”, which tells the poignant story that begins with the now 14-year-old girl being allowed to accompany her two older sisters to a neighbourhood party. Their father has already died at this time and their mother gives grudging permission for the girl to attend her first “adult” party; her hair is “hot-combed” by her more indulgent elder sister (Patti), who also lends her a pair of red high-heeled sandals, in which she teeters off to the get-together. Here the all too predictable pattern follows: she is given whiskey-laced drinks by a girl in her class who has already had an out-of-wedlock child, and by the handsome 19-year-old brother of another classmate, who takes her out to the dark garden, where he French-kisses her and invites her to a date for the next afternoon. Circumstances conspire fortuitously so that Christine can get away to the rather unlikely place chosen by the youth (Nicholas, from a family in their own social circle, though Catholic, and with boys known to be “hunks” but not very bright). Of course it eventually dawns on poor Christine (dressed in her nice, tight denim skirt and the same high-heeled sandals on this extremely hot Sunday afternoon and walking around the now deserted school where she had her primary teaching) that the assignation devised by the then drunk, and now undoubtedly hung-over, youth is never going to transpire. Furious, embarrassed and disconsolate she takes out her frustrations on the nearby plants and then goes home with the still charmingly childish thought (as compensation) that “maybe there would still be some cookies left for tea” (43).
The next stage of Christine’s “love life” occurs while she is studying at Makerere. She is 20, and she meets a 35-year-old expatriate Englishman, Peter Smithson, in a fellow student’s shabby res room. The student supplies the older man with weed, she suspects. Soon after, Christine’s fellow student informs her that Peter has invited her over to his home in the best suburb of the city. Slightly reluctant initially, she goes on condition that two fellow students (the “supplier” as well as a beautiful Rwandan woman) go along. Once they are there, the luxurious pleasures laid on by Peter and his disapproving local steward soon seduce Christine, who allows Peter (without showing either enthusiasm or much co-operation – she’s high on marijuana and plenty of gin-and-tonics) to have sex with her. Christine’s overly placatory attitude is something she is herself quite aware of: she makes no demands on Peter; she does not mind that on occasion he sleeps with other women (objecting only and privately to the “class” of women with whom he enjoys himself when she is unavailable).
The story (and it is the title story of the collection) is a brilliant illustration of neo-colonialism; of continuing European/Western exploitation of African societies: the African “supplies” (material or sexual) cheaply obtained from the African sources and making handsome profits for the expatriate entrepreneurs.
Christine in the very opening paragraph mentions Peter’s “deep snores, moments after he rolled off me”, leaving her wide awake, “wondering exactly what I was doing there, in the middle of the night, next to a sleeping white man.” Christine’s lack of real interest (let alone erotic pleasure) is brilliantly pinpointed by the revealing analogy when she states that “sex was like school, something I just did”. A moment after, she seems to sense how this exposes her overly compliant nature and her tendency to do what she deems is expected, adding: “I mean, of course I wanted to. I took myself there, no one forced me” (80).
One of the few moments in the text when there is significant sisterly contact occurs when Patti, whom Christine surmises may have been told about her affair with Peter, relates to Christine a dream she has had about her sister, in which she (Christine) gets given drugs by whites. Patti adds the significant “moral” – “They only want to use you” (86) – to the dream, evidently as a warning to her sister. But it only makes Christine want to resume her visits to Peter, identifying her sister’s tactfully expressed concern as mere “selfrighteousness” (86).
Another clear pointer to Peter’s lack of feeling for Christine emerges when he laughs after she tells him about Patti’s dream and comment; racial and sexual exploitation is clearly not an issue he is prepared to discuss, and to give him his due, Christine (although in an economically and socially weaker position than he – in her own country) can be seen as equally exploitative in her behaviour. But the cost, for her, is higher. Peter (in an economic parallel to Christine’s relationship with him) pays “next to nothing” (her phrase) for the beautiful varieties of Ugandan tropical fish supplied to him by local fishermen, while the pet shops in Britain pay him “handsomely” for the fish he exports from Uganda “in tank loads” (80). Later on (as another understated metaphorical analogy and significantly while she’s at the abortion clinic), Christine learns that the predatory Nile perch, introduced to local waters because it yields much more in food value to locals, is “eating up all the smaller, rarer, gloriously coloured tropical fish” (90). One recalls that Peter had asked of Christine’s full-body naked skin: “You’re so many colours all over, how come?” (86).
After their first sexual encounter, Christine describes Peter as “tuck[ing her] under his arm like an old habit”; she in turn describes him as her “comfortable habit”, as “her” “old white man” (85). It is only at moments that Christine is reminded of how contemptible her trading of her youth and beauty for the material comforts of “white life” is to those around her. She discerns it in the evident disdain of an Indian illegal currency trader who visits Peter for a transaction on one of the few occasions she is in his office, but fails to articulate the fact that Peter’s reference to her (when she refuses to take a fake note from him) as “‘My little Christian Christine’” (92) is equally condescending. When Christine has her period, she thinks she should not visit Peter as they both know that sex is really the only point to their relationship; when she does, she is too nervous to tell Peter before they go to bed; Peter is (as Christine phrases it) “a little put out” when she does so at last. Most of the time Peter uses condoms; when he does not put one on, Christine does not even object. Inevitably, she falls pregnant, but typically, decides without even consulting Peter that it’s a “problem” she must “take care of” by herself. So she organises for an abortion.
Christine goes to Peter’s office to inform him that she has had the “procedure” done; he is distinctly unwelcoming but grudgingly tells her to wait for him in his office. She is too embarrassed to say what has happened and can only write it down for him on a piece of paper. His response, which at last slaps her out of her trance-like connection with him, is to write back: “Do you want some money?” (93), a demeaning offer which she dumbly refuses.
Their relationship has lasted six months. Peter makes a clearly fake “kind” promise to telephone her – as Christine later reflects, “the only Africans [Peter] knew needed money”, probably, and evidently he has never actually made a distinction between her and any of the others. As she walks out, “Peter’s men moved aside in that over-respectful way they treat whites, but with a mocking exaggeration acted out for their black women. As usual, I ignored them, but shrank inside as Peter kissed me dryly on the lips, in front of them all, before I left” (93). She knows that it is a kiss of betrayal and exposure and disrespect, exposing her as “cheap” to fellow males and emphasising a sort of white sexual overlordship – not a tender gesture to make public a commitment to her as a woman he loves or would want to marry.
Like the much younger Christine’s hope of biscuits with the tea, once the failure of the excitedly expected “first date” was clear, Christine finds the “fat hips, warm arms, moist breath” in the crowded taxi she gets into “strangely comforting” (93). It is like her first return to her own people, and despite her willing “the noise and heat and sweat to recede to the back of [her] mind” (94), her feeling is an acknowledgement that she is Ugandan and African, subject to a sun beating down equally on all.
Christine’s eight-year sojourn in the United States is described in the penultimate chapter, titled “Lost in Los Angeles”. This is how she characterises the mechanised efficiency, yet alienating effect, of life in this wealthy, well-equipped society, beginning with the symbolic nature of paying for a parking place in a parkade:
I slip my ticket and a few dollars into a metal drawer, which slips into the glass cage, slides back out with change, and the long pole ahead of me rises up. Smoothly, soundlessly, straight and narrow. Metal, metal everywhere, and I need a drink. The same thing happens at my apartment. After the wide flat perfect roads, I click my garage door open, the metal rises up, disappearing into the wall. I slip into the cement womb of the building, enter my car slot, get out, press a button. The elevator doors slip open soundlessly, then close. A metal box lifts me up, but it’s so smooth I can hardly feel it. It opens again and lets me out. I wish something would go wrong. I wish things weren’t so perfect. My mouth is sticky from not talking, my face sticky with silent tears. I am home. I crawl into bed and try to remember the dirty smells of Kitoro, the dark swirling mud after an hour of rain like vengeance, hard fast rain that means it. The rotting fruit and swarming flies of Nakasero market; the unkempt, uncut grass that creeps, uncontained, uncontainable, disruptive, across any kind of man-made borders. I have been torn from natural living chaos that wrapped itself strongly around our lives. I am alone and trapped in metal. I am lost. (103)
Even though Christine works as a temp, she earns extremely well by African standards. She tries to fill her empty existence as a lonely, isolated woman in a society where hardly anyone speaks the same language (in the sense that her more British-inflected English and African lilt both make it difficult for Americans to understand her), with things, acquisitions – going on lonely shopping expeditions to malls where again she has hardly any human encounters. She develops the habit firstly of going for twilight rambles over the Los Angeles hills. Later on, she joins a walking group, of which she is the only “unattached” member – everyone else is in a couple or part of a family. But this is, at least, a start – even if much about the other members irritates her, she shares with the enthusiastic children bits of information about life in Uganda, once they hear that she is “from Africa”.
On first arriving in America, Christine had stayed with her cousin Kema, who took her along to weekend gatherings of fellow Ugandans, where wannabe African dishes were served (without all the fresh and appropriate ingredients being available), political gossip exchanged and matchmaking attempted (unsuccessfully for Christine, whose family was evidently neither rich nor important enough for the ambitious, well-groomed young Ugandan men working or getting their qualifications in the US).
After a month of these parties, Christine decides to cut the ties, feeling “sick of this game of going back home”. She says to herself that she “left home for a reason” and “will try and find out what that reason is”; attempting as well to “try and crack this new code” of an “American” existence (109). She does this by going out to a few of the numerous arty clubs and nearby gatherings or musical and poetry “events’, has a casual and pleasant sexual fling and ends up “friends” with a rather weird as well as odd couple of women: a wannabe Native American who keeps at Christine to “voice her people’s pain” in poetry (as she believes she is doing for the Pueblo Indians) and her sarcastic, mostly silent sidekick, rather unattractive but faithfully ever present. “Light Feather,” Christine says, “has a softness, an innocent vulnerability I like to be around” and (as significantly) “she really believes I’m like her” (118). When Feather waves her hand over the smog-covered hills of the city below, declaring it all her “[Pueblo] people’s land”, Christine says, “Mine too” and in her mind adds, “What the hell” (119). She has acquired the “right” attitude and from this odd angle feels she, too, can now fit in.
In the collection’s last chapter, Christine’s return to Entebbe (where her family has always lived) and to the home where her mother and Patti still stay, is described. The mother she had missed so much that she imagined imbibing her characteristic smell from women on the Metro in Washington (where she later worked) turns out to be “shy” and shakes Christine’s hand when she leans in for a hug. So Christine is forced to remember that “her family did not hug, as though that was too expressive” (122). She has unconsciously absorbed some American ways and forgotten some of the local and familial habits of conduct.
Patti is astonished and somewhat mocking about the mounds of luggage Christine has brought with her from the US; she (still being the rather straitlaced person that was left behind) would probably be scandalised if she knew that the luggage contains not only “lots of organic decaffeinated coffee” and “pink women’s razors with Aloe and vitamin E”, but also “enough lubricated, ultra-sensitive, extra-strong, non-expiring latex condoms to last anywhere from two to six years” – “depending on male availability”, as Christine mentally and with recognisably high hopes, adds.
The text as a whole makes only occasional references to the Ugandan political situation, probably accurately reflecting the extent to which comfortably off, middle-class professionals were, and are, to a large extent isolated from the more life-threatening and disruptive aspects of their country’s recent past. But mildly and pleasantly surprising (on the return drive from the airport) is the following change:
The road from the airport had only one army checkpoint, which was quick and businesslike. Patti said there were now almost no demands for chai, no threats to dodge by secretly slipping money into soldiers’ fists. The roadblocks weren’t even permanent like they used to be. Christine could not imagine not being scared. No starving-thin, red-eyed, angry-looking soldiers with harsh voices? Army men who never smiled? No more repetitive, insistent interrogations meant to intimidate rather than to get information? Christine held her breath out of old habit, but was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the soldiers, the casual way they swung their guns. They greeted Maama respectfully, then joked with her. The soldiers actually told them they were checking for drugs or other smuggled goods, and apologised for the inconvenience! (124)
What brought Christine home, we learn, was the appeal made in a speech by the Ugandan president named Munino. He appears to be a character invented by the author; a local leader who in the USA would call on the young people from his country living or studying there to return to Uganda and help the country to recover from its turbulent recent past. Christine applied for, and was given, a post in the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, we learn, as well as a Ford Foundation grant to help her move back and to pay for her salary, housing, health and other costs for a full two years. If coming back to Uganda is a “pill”, then these perks can be considered quite considerable sweeteners!
Christine goes to work keen and keyed up, but her first day turns out to be in many ways a rather disconcerting let-down. The receptionist, to begin with, treats her with scant respect until Christine identifies herself as “the new Executive Assistant to the Director of the Human Rights Commission”, as she rather grandly announces. But the director, Mr Musozi, is away for the day attending a relative’s funeral in the village, despite having made the appointment with Christine, and has not left her any particular message, explanation or instructions. She is shown to her office by a somewhat surly colleague, who turns out to have a dry sense of humour as he plops down some dusty files on her desk – which has no computer. He advises Christine to take Panadol against the dust and she sets to work as best she can with a pencil and paper she ferrets out from her boss’s desk. He is back the next day, but late, and even later because he first chats at length to the receptionist. Then “Mr Musozi came in at last, bustling like a bumblebee”, with “a round ball of a belly sitting on his small frame” (134). He is an amiable person from whom flows “a stream of words and energy swee[ping] through the air” of their adjoining offices. These offices, he tells her, are (in the sense presumably that they constitute the extent of) the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, which was set up by an Act of Parliament. He baldly states that their “problem is money”, and soon refers (within Christine’s deeply outraged hearing) to the fact that getting allocated funds paid out by “Accounts” is an outcome requiring a “fight”. To which he adds humorously that he fondly hopes that in the USA she had taken the course “How to Fight for Your Money” (135).
Christine is not amused. In fact, the reader cannot help being struck by how “American” Christine’s expectations of strict efficiency and absolute financial probity in a state department are, and how unsophisticated and naive she appears in comparison with the urbane Mr Musozi, who is clearly able to take things in his stride without (at the same time) merely yielding cynically or weakly to the prevailing conditions.
But while she is trying to get over what she has been told about the frustrating aspects of their job, a stream of colleagues come in to greet and pay their condolences to Mr Musozi. He must be “very popular”, Christine reflects bemusedly. The warmth and humane courtesies of African social life (which she had so sorely missed in the USA) do not at this stage (yet?), in Christine’s perception, compensate for the lack or low level of achievement, drive and streamlined systems on which she focuses.
The next event (funny to the reader, but humiliating to the at this stage quite uptight Christine) that serves to remind her forcefully that she is back in Africa where habits acquired in America make little sense, occurs when an “older woman in a faded bussuti of cream and blue flowers” comes in with a tray of pre-sweetened tea. To Christine’s dismay, the woman kneels in front of Mr Musozi before she starts enquiring at length about the health of (it seems) all his family members as well as his own. She is also the person who provides the office lunches. When Mr Musozi recommends that Christine get “matooke and meat”, as he does, she baldly states, “I don’t eat meat” (137). Nobody here seems to “understand” vegetarianism, and Christine is doomed to a tasteless meal of boiled beans like she last had at boarding school, but at least without the weevils.
Christine is not in the best of moods when she gets home and when the topic of her unmarried, childless state (at almost 30) comes up during tea with her mother, she gets into a huff at “people” – and her mother – “prying into [her] business” (144), as though life here should resemble the lonely isolation of her American existence.
Christine stalks off and encounters Patti in the vegetable garden, industriously picking beans. “Christine stood apart, careful not to soil her shoes, as she watched her sister’s rhythmic movements” (146). Patti, who senses that Christine is upset, soothes her sister’s feelings and Christine remembers that Mr Musozi had given her the sage advice to “dive in” and “get involved”. Calmer now, Christine takes a walk to the lakeside as Patti goes indoors; the dramatic sunset colours are succeeded by “this blanket of warm dusk”. And the text (and Christine’s narrative) ends with her accepting that “she would have to learn all over again how to live in this new old place called home” (147).
Patti, the eldest sister, features centrally in only one out of the eight chapters in Baingana’s text (as was mentioned earlier). The chapter depicts her at boarding school in “junior high school” (or the equivalent), and beset throughout most of the story with extreme pangs of hunger, envy, loneliness and general adolescent confusion. What she is most strongly aware of are the hunger pangs, since she is confined during term time to the hostel and its meagre, unsatisfactory meals. Unlike the girl of whom she is most fiercely envious, a minister’s daughter, Patti has no stash of home supplies to supplement the school diet, which consists largely (if Patti is to be believed) of small helpings of pulses like beans or larger helpings of starches such as cassava, unappetisingly prepared and hardly flavoursome. Patti refers to the uninviting “dining room smell of burnt beans, rotting cabbage, oily plastic plates, and about two hundred sweaty girls” (18). Hunger, she says, “is like a child crying and crying: you can’t think about anything else” (25). The mechanism by which the profoundly unhappy girl attempts to hang on to her dignity is a rather suspect Christian faith – but she lapses every so often into wishing ill on those of whom she is jealous, relishing thoughts of their not being saved (as she sees herself) either now or when eternal judgement is pronounced. But she tells herself, “My Father in heaven fills me. He satisfies my every need. Yes, Lord, I believe” (19), even when she is battling to restrain herself from licking the left-over avocado from the rich girl’s plate.
The chapter is constructed as entries from Patti’s “PRIVATE Diary” (17), to which she trustingly confides her innermost feelings. Her reference to the heavenly Father can be linked (by the reader) to the highly unsatisfactory father the girls actually had. He has now passed away, but had been less and less of a provider as he declined professionally and socially due to his alcohol addiction. As is well known, alcoholism is often said to be caused by a “hole in the soul” that drinkers attempt to “fill” by pouring alcoholic beverages down their throats. Perhaps poor Patti has inherited that sort of aching yearning, but being a girl in her teens at a strict and disciplinarian institution and poor to boot, there is no chance of her obtaining drink or drugs to alleviate the pain of her psychological lostness. All she can do is to continue to attempt to elevate herself “spiritually” above more fortunate and popular fellow pupils.
The one type of fellowship she appears to have is that of the other members of a Christian group that gathers on Sunday evenings, but even here, she feels herself different from the others, who manifest their faith in Christ in joyous or triumphant ways. Clearly, this wound-up, wounded girl has no actual friends and is not actually capable of extending friendship in her bitter, ungenerous and self-righteous state of semi-permanent and only half-conscious rage against the world and her own fate. But she participates in the group’s activities, pushed by the unassuagable need “to be part of something” (25, original emphasis).
A crisis occurs one Sunday afternoon when Patti is attending one of these fellowship meetings where they are supposed to “witness” to their faith and have even attracted a couple of gawkers from the rest of the bored Sunday afternoon hostel girls. Patti describes her most awful moment of this period in vivid terms:
The light seemed to darken behind my eyes. The day’s humiliation, hunger and deep loneliness crept through my body, rising like a dark river, as if to drown me. I was overcome by a strange sadness, as though touched by the sorrow of Jesus Himself. I started to cry and hid my face in my hands, bowing low. I couldn’t control myself, didn’t want to. The tears came slowly, painfully. I gave up all resistance and let them flow free. Wave after heaving wave washed away my strongly built dam of false hopes and pretensions, my anxious pleas and desperate beliefs. Out flowed the dirt of resentment, bitterness, and blame for my suffering at school. My family’s proud history gone horribly wrong. Maama’s criticisms, complaints, and endless scraping for money. Taata’s hopeless cycles of drinking and trying to stop and failing, then drinking even more in disgust. My family’s disgust with him, our shame, our pity. Out poured my own self-absorption and self-pity […] All my longings welled up and flooded over. (26)
Strangely, unpredictably, this bout of tears, emotional truth and moral honesty has a powerful cathartic effect on Patti. It leaves her in a state of “quiet calm”; she can “taste peace” and find it “sweet”. She does not mind the other girls staring at her, but smiles at them; “standing at ease in the warm dark air, under the faraway but friendly sky” (27). She returns to the dorm, where nothing has changed – yet everything has.
Finally I come to Rosa’s two chapters (four and five), which especially vividly and effectively convey the impression of a living, strongly individual voice. The earlier chapter, titled “Passion”, is – like Patti’s – set during the girls’ high school years; in fact, Rosa draws our attention to the fact that her class, being in Senior Five (doing their A-levels) is allowed a few signs of seniority, such as wearing skirts and blouses and having their work in files rather than exercise books. Rosa is fair-minded, but hers is a critical, frequently satirical perspective on the many colonial vestiges within their (all-girl) school set-up. The ostensible topic of her narration is an “experiment” Rosa conducts to test the efficacy (or lack of it) of a juju device women can supposedly use in order to bewitch men sexually – supposedly, Rosa’s idea is also to refute (or confirm) the validity of European-based, missionary-inspired, disdainful dismissals of “African magic”. Of course the nature of the supposed “experiment” is closely tied to adolescent youths;’ burgeoning fantasies about and puzzled fascination with sexuality, and with youthful rebellion at the Victorian-type repression of information about sex, especially at school level, prevalent in Gayaza High School in Kampala. Rosa also sneers openly at “all the ‘savedees’, ie, born-again Christians, running around” at their school (44–5) – a group which the reader knows includes her slightly younger sister, Patti. Evidently, in contrast to her introverted sister, Rosa lives all-out and is a relisher of life’s opportunities, even in the unlikely context of a girls-only high school. She may be a lot less sophisticated than she believes herself to be, but this free-spirited, daring young woman is also considerably more emotionally mature and emotionally independent than many at her age. She proclaims, “(W)e learned about real life from our roommates” (47) with an endearing naivety, but in a context where no one else provides any sex education this is the best that girls like these can do as they exchange both reliable biological information and ridiculous myths with one another.
Rosa’s favourite teacher – because her own love of literature is fostered by the intensity of this teacher’s commitment – is Mr Mukwaya, whose subject is English literature. Both because she clearly is more than a little fascinated with him and because he is the only remotely attractive one among their few male teachers, he becomes the unwitting guinea pig in Rosa’s experiment – he is also a challenge because his fascination with King Lear (their topic at this time) is so intense that to break through his concentration on the text will be a measurable achievement. The juju (somewhat hilariously) consists of a female surreptitiously rubbing (of all things!) a safety pin while staring into the eyes of the man in whom she wants to arouse inescapable sexual fascination with herself. Of course the plan is risky, considering the embarrassment the “experiment” will cause her if her purpose is discovered, and although this is not quite what happens, in a sense the juju seems to work, since Wodo (as the teacher is nicknamed) “scratched himself right there” (60) – something he never usually does in class. But Rosa’s unusually distracted behaviour predictably attracts Mr Mukwaya’s attention. After briefly discussing Cordelia’s nature and asking Rosa a direct and personal question he tells her (and ostensibly all the class members) that “One shouldn’t say or do things one doesn’t know about.” Rosa says, “(H)is tone was both kind and menacing, but I knew exactly what he meant. The trance broke” (62). Mukwaya summons Rosa to speak to her alone after class. Here, he warns her: “Passion, Rosa. Don’t waste it” (63). His fatherly attitude and profound understanding as well as his concern and caring disarm Rosa, leaving her ashamed of her frivolity and of having let him down in his high opinion of her (Rosa is his top-performing student and evidently a favourite pupil).
So the chapter ends on both a let-down and an enlightenment, for Rosa does not share her fuller, deeper understanding of the teacher’s warning with her best friend, who had in anxious solidarity been hovering outside the classroom.
The next chapter is the saddest and perhaps most profound of the collection – and it links with the preceding one in that it shows how the wilful Rosa had lived her university days and early adulthood recklessly, wildly and wholeheartedly, and lives (more briefly than many) to both rue and celebrate that. This chapter is in the form of a letter written by Rosa to her former boyfriend, to whom it will not necessarily be delivered, as the letter is primarily introspective, but also carries the flavour of the dying voice naming the killer. For Rosa is dying (and knows it, so many of her youthful crowd having preceded her) of Aids complications – and so is the boyfriend, David. Rosa’s words in this chapter have a dark lyricism: she refers to the invidious pervasion of the virus as “this slow invisible spread, like a harmless cloud from afar” having “turned into an invasion of insatiable locusts, a cruel blanket covering us all”. She writes that while her body has started to fail, her mind persists as if “watching, like vultures circling a sick and dying animal”. Yet (and this is both the saddest and the most shocking truth we hear from her) she had not loved David, she realises – and so she writes: “(T)he vultures mock me, David, for not loving you; for not having that great romance we read about so many times” (66).
Rosa recalls earlier times, when privileged Makarere students (having heard rumours concerning the onset and spread of Aids) thought it confined to the lowly and rural members of society. She writes, “(W)e whispered these rumours about them, the villagers”; “we thought we were different” (70). Rosa addresses the class aspect of the spread of Aids, a topic mostly avoided – that students (male and female) would engage in sexual relations well outside their own circles; poor male students would turn to cheap prostitutes in the slums for sex; female students whose male counterparts could not provide them with the luxuries rich sugar daddies could give them had no qualms, and some male students, too, slept or had relationships with wealthy women (some of whom passed on the infection to them from their other lovers). The sexual connectedness of the nation knew no class boundaries and so, Aids came to the set of promising, beautiful young people to which Rosa and David belonged. Rosa can work out exactly who probably was infected by whom, now that it is all far too late. “No one,” Rosa writes, “could see the link forming and stretching across the country, a tightening chain that bound everybody together” (70).
She describes being overcome by grief at the deathbed of lovely, elegant and now inexorably dying Mary; at old friends avoiding each other because each is ashamed of exposing their declining health (and its likely cause) to the other; at the sadness and absurdity of funerals where no one is prepared to acknowledge that Aids infection brought on the illness that killed the person. Evidently, David has long since ceased seeing Rosa and she speculates that he may be hiding his condition from the public gaze, although his wealthy father may be paying for what appears to be antiretrovirals, which are now just beginning to be available and are still extremely expensive. This chapter has a (mostly) sarcastic and bitter title: Rosa calls her epistle “A Thank-You Note” (66).
Even so, it is not only, or entirely, a bitter reproach, for Rosa writes partly to expose to David her awareness of his probable responsibility for her infection, coupling this accusation with a defiant proclamation of the dread topic so as not to be complicit in the social silencing (and dangerous taboo-making) of necessary Aids awareness. Rosa also poignantly, and still appreciatively, recalls the joyous freedom with which she and her fellow students had celebrated life and youth among themselves; especially the enjoyment of sexual liberty as they were freed from parental and school supervision. So, Rosa reasons, to decline in melancholy is to surrender even more than one’s life to death. “What better way is there to bury your dead,” she asks, “if not to go lustfully after life? I must scream against death just like I used to with life. I must live even harder” (78). She ends her letter by inviting and asking David: “Will you join me, shouting out loud, just like you did before?” (79).
Tropical Fish is a fine text; important in raising subjects like Aids infection and the ways in which it spread in Africa – including the middle-class, educated members of society – and more generally, for the poignant and memorable way in which the author depicts varieties of African modernity, the cosmopolitanism of some “authentically” African persons and the many concerns contemporary Africans share with people across the globe – stresses on family life, and the difficulties of growing up in a time of extensive social change and loneliness, illness as well as relationship problems. Yet mostly it vividly depicts how young Africans in our time are learning about life; making many mistakes, but also developing life skills and professional expertise.