Anyone who reads novels is aware of the not merely lasting, but seemingly increasing, popularity of the thriller format. In African writing (in English), there have been interesting variations in local incarnations of this genre, some examples of which have been discussed in previous African Library entries. Glaydah Namukasa’s choice of topic makes no mystery of who the villain is in the rural village area of Uganda in which she sets her story, since we are introduced to him in the very first words of the novel. The “deadly ambition” mentioned in the title is his. The novel, which is Namukasa’s first for adults, was published in 2006 by Mallory under their New African Writing rubric in association with the British Council. The text takes much of its power from the vividness with which the villain – most often referred to quite formally as Mr Busagwa by the region’s mostly poorer peasant farmers and their family members – is evoked. The text is one of the successes of the women’s writing group FEMRITE of Uganda. Namukasa has won an award for a young adult novel and has also written short stories published either separately or in her own or mixed collections.
Even though she evokes, in brief, deft strokes, the different settings for various parts of her text, which range from the homes of the wealthy businessmen who are the respective fathers of Busagwa’s two main opponents to the hut of a herbal healer in the forest, a factory compound and a boarding school for well-off parents’ sons, Namukasa’s novel is not an example of the kind of thriller that serves the main purpose of exposing the society’s ugly underbelly. If it does slot into any traditions of “thrillerdom”, it would be those that draw the psychological profile of the evildoer; that pit good people against the wreaker of havoc in an essentially healthy social context.
Two unusual features of the plot are its setting mainly in and among farms and villages rather than the traditional urban location of the thriller, and the fact that Busagwa’s two main opponents are two children, both survivors of families attacked by him, and very young to begin with. A particularly memorable character in the text is, indeed, one of these children, named Anna, who is only six when Busagwa wipes out her family. She teams up only much later with her ally in exposing Busagwa as a murderer: an older boy (and her childhood friend), Ivan. Ivan also loses his father, and later his mother, because of Busagwa’s “deadly ambition”.
Busagwa’s childhood was clearly traumatic. His beloved, talented older brother (his only sibling) dies in a drowning accident in his company, and the grieving parents manage their grief by blaming the boy, whom they execrate from this point on. They die in a car accident and, as an adolescent boy, the orphaned Busagwa flees to the city where a Dickensian-type master criminal managing a team of youngsters takes pity on him and teaches him the code of ruthlessness, unending persistence and cunning, in terms of which he then leads his life. He makes modest financial progress and builds up a facade of respectability as owner of a spare-parts business – a basis from which he intends advancing. But his uninsured place of business burns down in an accident and three of his employees are killed in the fire. The sentence on which Namukasa’s narrative opens is Busagwa’s declaration – in answer to a reporter informing him of the destruction of the building, its contents and the deaths of his employees – that the workers’ deaths are of no consequence. Even the mention of their death alongside the destruction of his “investment” he’d put all his money into, “freshen[s]” the fury and resentment of this evidently pathological personality. Busagwa sees the entire world as an enemy out to destroy and thwart him; everyone around him is either material to be manipulated or an obstacle to his will to power and rapid financial (and social) advancement. Because of this mindset, the setback of the burnt-down spare-parts business spurs him on to refine and finalise his demonic plan to make good by destroying the two richest men in the area and contriving it so that he inherits their wealth.
The plan he makes relies primarily on the unexpectedness of the murders (his victims being both kindly, humane employers and well-loved neighbours in their community) and his own daring and his utter ruthlessness – almost inconceivable in its brutality to the normal mind. One social factor that Namukasa does expose in her novel is the corruptibility and ineptitude of the police – which is why it falls in the end to the two children and the adults whose assistance they manage to enlist to restore justice and to avenge the series of murders committed by Busagwa.
Busagwa’s plan involves making himself known to Mr John Bosco Mukasa, the father of Anna, his youngest and brightest child, and her nine siblings, who owns a prosperous coffee factory. Busagwa’s entry into Mukasa’s office unfolds as follows:
He halted in the middle of the room and his deep-set eyes that John Bosco beheld through the glasses surveyed the room, as if searching for any uncleanliness.
“Have a seat, sir,” John Bosco said. The wrinkles on his face softened into a welcoming smile as he extended a chair for his unknown visitor.
Busagwa placed his briefcase on the table. He took off the glasses and his eyes roamed John Bosco’s face. “All right. But I don’t intend to stay long because I’ve waited long enough,” Busagwa said, a smile spreading on his lips. He reached into his trouser pocket for a handkerchief and wiped the chair as if to imply it had not been cleaned for weeks. He sat down and crossed his legs.
“I am Evan Busagwa. I’ve come from Kamengo – I actually live in the outskirts of Kamengo. You don’t have to introduce yourself because I know who you are, and what you do.”
“Many people know me, but for good reason of course,” John Bosco said.
“I know, that is why I am here. I’ll get straight to the point, Mr JB Mukasa. I need a loan so that I can buy some land. I actually need a loan, from you, to buy land, from you. I hear you have acres of land here.” Busagwa was still smiling.
John Bosco felt such ambivalence towards the unknown visitor that he tipped his hat brim as if the action would help him digest Busagwa’s proposal. “A loan from me?” he said.
“You want me to repeat what I’ve just said, or do you want me to interpret?”
John Bosco gaped. He took the hat off his head and placed it on the table. (17)
In this remarkable passage, very simple words are used to convey the menace exuded by Busagwa, and the way the shocking audacity and brutal rudeness – yet power and ugly authority – of his manner ruffle and undermine the confidence of the host, who is being spoken to as if he were an irritating imbecile and a sort of interruption or intruder, while he is actually the one being intruded upon. So disconcerted is the normally urbane, always affable John Bosco that he cannot stop his body language from betraying this fact to the audacious and contemptuous Busagwa.
Of course John Bosco refuses to give out a loan to this man, who is not only a complete stranger but an unpleasant a petitioner who demands rather than requests. He also (just!) manages to maintain his mild and courteous manner despite the provocation of further and now open insults and lies from Busagwa, who accuses him of exploiting his fellow villagers and coffee bean suppliers. So perturbed is John Bosco by the disturbing visitor that he registers the lingering effect of the man’s presence as a thick cloud of stinging smoke.
Anna was the person who first registered Busagwa’s personality as strange and scary, not referring to him as a “man” or a “visitor”, but instead calling him (from the start) “the stranger” – for many, many years the only name by which she would know him.
John Bosco takes Anna with him when he goes to consult his best friend, Vincent Kalule, the richest man in the neighbouring village and the father of Anna’s eleven-year-old friend Ivan (Kalule’s only child). He hears from Kalule that Busagwa had also a year earlier introduced himself to (or rather, inflicted himself on!) him in the same unpleasant manner, announcing that he wanted to do business with him and then walking out. Kalule says he had thought Busagwa insane, and had later only caught glimpses of him, but had not forgotten him or his manner. Thinking to himself that Busagwa is no mere cloud of smoke, but “a crocodile lurking below the water surface” (30), John Bosco tells his friend that they “must act”, but their discussion cannot continue beyond this point because of family duties. And Busagwa will act before these good men do anything.
Busagwa’s plans are spelt out in his notebook. He adapts them as circumstances require. The core of the plan is to obtain for imitation by himself a copy of John Bosco’s handwriting and signature, to write a fake will in which he is named as the sole trustee of John Bosco Mukasa’s estate and to post this to both the police and Vincent Kalule. Crucially, though, he will wipe out (firstly) John Bosco and all his family (so that the estate comes to him in its entirety) and (secondly, before he can receive and expose as a forgery the letter that will be posted to him) Vincent Kalule. In the letter to the police Busagwa, claiming to be John Bosco, refers to threats on his life and to Busagwa as his dearest and oldest friend to whom he can entrust both his children’s education and his estate as reliable “caretaker”. In Kalule’s case he plans to acquire the man’s wealth by wooing and winning his widow after he has killed her husband.
Within a day or so the plans are set in motion. Two slight hitches (in Busagwa’s eyes) occur: Anna is out of the living room where the whole family has gathered when the killer arrives and shoots down the family (Mrs Mukasa dies of a heart attack; all the others are shot); and when he tries to shoot the sleeping Vincent Kalule, his gun is empty from the previous carnage. He does not see the missing six-year-old Anna as a danger and intends hunting her down in due course, whereas he improvises in Kalule’s dark bedroom and attacks him with a piece of furniture, all but crushing his head.
After the killings of the Mukasas and the failed murder attempt on Kalule, Busagwa takes time to reconsider the situation, back in his own bedroom, where he has got rid of his bloody clothing and hidden the gun. The most immediate problem for him is that he has left his car in the Kalule compound, having rushed away as Mrs (Maria) Kalule began to wake up in fright and bewilderment, having been sleeping beside her now terribly injured husband. Remembering the heartening advice of his mentor in crime, Busagwa instructs himself to improvise. He had left the car because Mrs Kalule would obviously call the police to report the attack, and the car would have left clear tracks. So he fakes a break-in into his own garage and waits until the next morning to report the “theft”, during the night, of his car, clearly creating the impression that the attacker(s) decided to use his vehicle to get to Kalule’s place and that he is an innocent victim of this minor crime, on the same night, possibly by the same perpetrator(s).
Later that same morning the butchered corpses of the Mukasa family are discovered by Joel Wasswa, one of John Bosco’s customers. He drives in a panic to the police to report the carnage. Despite Wasswa’s insistence that what he has to report constitutes an emergency, he is treated dismissively and told to wait until the ’s OC emerges from a meeting. What follows after he has given his report makes partly clear why Busagwa (who will also expertly bribe them) has so little fear of being tracked down as the killer by the police:
In the sparsely furnished room, silence fell after Wasswa’s report.
“I saw the corpses with my own eyes!” Wasswa’s gaze held the OC’s round face. Now that he was closer to him, Wasswa noticed the flabby cheeks and the bulging eyes. Indeed, like the people said, every feature on the OC’s face betrayed incompetence. No wonder he did nothing to improve the station.
Wasswa shifted his confused gaze from the OC to the open cupboard revealing a clutter of old files. He then looked at the deputy OC, then at the sergeant seated beside the OC. They were all looking at him as if they were making a medical assessment on him. Did they think he was a lunatic? He repeated: “I saw the corpses with my own eyes.”
“So,” the OC finally said, chewing the cup of his pen. “Are you sure of what you just said?” (74)
Not much later we see how easily Busagwa manages the police, ostensibly concerned only about the theft of his car and dropping the false information that he had had an appointment with John Bosco about “personal matters” (we recall his supposedly very old friendship with John Bosco that validates the fake will’s specifications).
Anna, in the meantime, has been discovered in a semi-catatonic state, hiding in the gardens of their family compound where, in a desperate panic, and aware that he would want to kill her too, she had fled to after hearing Busagwa shooting her family. She is found by their family’s gardener, a kindly, elderly woman whom all the Mukasa children treated as their grandmother. Little Anna was her favourite. She calms the terrified girl, washes and feeds her and lets her sleep in her own bed in her small cottage. Thinking to report the girl’s presence, she is with Wasswa when the terrible discovery is made of the murdered family and is obliged later to inform Anna that they are all dead. Anna, who is a precocious child, knowing that her life is in equal danger from “the stranger”, in terror persuades Mrs Kamya (her “Nana”) to tell no one where she is, but to keep her hidden in her cottage. She becomes known as “the missing little girl”.
In the meantime Mr Kalule is in hospital, with increasing chance of recovery from his terrible injuries. The letters planted by Busagwa arrive and set him up to take over John Bosco’s home, estate and coffee business “until” the only surviving heir (Anna) is found – not that Busagwa has any intention of allowing the property to go out of his hands! But when Anna’s mother’s sister arrives for the family’s funeral from her distant island home on Lake Victoria, Mrs Kamya sends Anna to live with her. Once Anna is safely away, Mrs Kamya (who is now employed by Busagwa) attempts to tell him that the heir is alive (neither she nor Anna knowing that Busagwa is in fact the killer, “the stranger”), but he brushes her off.
Busagwa now begins to ingratiate himself with a worried Mrs Maria Kalule, pretending to be her injured husband’s friend too. By this method Busagwa soon gets the opportunity to complete his murder attempt, surreptitiously closing off the patient’s life-saving supply of oxygen. And then he starts wooing the widow in earnest, initially in the tactful guise of “family friend”. In this case, too, it is the child that sees or senses the evil underneath the plausible veneer, for Ivan Kalule (who is away at his boarding school most of the time) cannot stand Busagwa and resents every little touch he makes on Maria’s body, even if just to hold her elbow. There is nothing he can do, however, when after some two years his mother is persuaded to accept Busagwa’s proposal of marriage, partly because her trusted companion Allen (her former housekeeper) strongly promotes the match.
Namukasa is very good at delineating the well-meaning, but too trusting, weak-willed Maria’s personality. She isn’t entirely sure that Busagwa loves her, does not wish to alienate her beloved son, who hates the man, but nevertheless allows herself to be pressured into contracting the marriage by the insistent Busagwa.
As soon as they are married, her nightmare begins. Her second husband is a monster who tyrannises the entire household. This is how Namukasa portrays the adolescent Ivan (now fourteen or fifteen) thinking about his stepfather:
The day Mummy had got married to Busagwa was a cricket still chirping in his head, harsh and relentless. He was no longer Ivan Kalule the footballer, no longer the striker – “soon to be star” as his team-mates called him. He always spent evenings wandering the school compound like a professional idler; wondering what it would be like, to live in the same house with the man Busagwa. How he would stand aside and watch that man enjoy Daddy’s cars, coffee shambas, and the two factories. How he would go to sleep every night knowing that Busagwa had taken Daddy’s position in Mummy’s bed. In class, his mind was always “floating endlessly”, as the teacher once said. (154)
While an uninformed reader might pounce on this passage for its seemingly classic Oedipal (Freudian) features, they would be missing the point, since, like Hamlet, Ivan knows his father’s supplanter is a wicked man and an utterly unworthy husband for his mother.
When Ivan arrives home for the first time after the wedding visit, the following transpires:
“Shh,” Jane gestured, pointing at the guest room door. She whispered, “Mr Busagwa hates noise.”
“Where is Mummy?” Ivan stared at Jane, his interesting friend. Poor girl, she had lost weight.
“In the guest room. That’s her room now.” She darted away.
Ivan hurried towards the guest room. “Mummy, are you there? I am back.”
“Go back and wait!” Busagwa’s voice sounded from inside.
“Mummy are you well? Please answer.”
The door opened. Busagwa stuck his head out. “You are not going to see her for two days. Punishment for being disobedient.”
“You can’t do that, Mr Busagwa, she’s my mother.”
“Say more and you’ll go back to school without seeing her.” Busagwa banged the door shut in Ivan’s face. (158)
This passage shows an awful enough situation, but worse evidence of Busagwa’s anti-familial cruelty awaits the reader when Namukasa depicts the dread, profound depression and apathy to which the once loved and lively Maria has been reduced, somewhat later in the narrative. Her life has shrunk to the dimensions of her room, where she makes and remakes her bed or dusts and redusts the walls as her main occupation. Allen, her former confidante, hardly ever visits her, terrified of being discovered there by Busagwa, who would chase her away with harsh words or fire her, as well as being racked by guilt towards Maria for having talked her into accepting the monstrous Busagwa as her second husband. Maria describes his sexual demands as follows:
There were the disastrous moments that she would die accepting. The nights when Busagwa came to her room: moments of absolute torture. He was a beast under cover, a baboon burning with a sexual thirst that he quenched with her body, as if she was a sex doll. She hated the way he looked at her at such moments. The way he harassed her body with his fingers. All she could do was close her eyes and grit her teeth as she saw herself at the bottom of the sea fighting to catch oxygen. She would see an octopus swooning for her, then she would fight to grasp her husband’s saving hand above her, but in vain. Busagwa would be drawing her closer to the octopus, and then she would regret ever being born a woman. […] Yet this was the life she had to live now. (167–8)
In this passage Maria’s initial reference to “her husband’s saving hand above her” clearly brings Kalule, her first husband – rather than the odious Busagwa – to mind, but Maria’s complete apathy and her painful inability to walk out of this dreadful situation is, unfortunately, made as evident in the passage as is her revulsion against Busagwa.
Maria’s health is in serious decline, both psychologically and physically, under the onslaughts of Busagwa’s tyranny. She is also completely isolated. There are suggestions that Busagwa actually poisons her. Not long after the above citation, Maria dies in her son’s arms – Ivan, who has completed his school-leaving examinations, is now a young man of eighteen, but he arrives only in time to hear his mother enjoin him to tell Allen that she loves her, to warn him (Ivan) to go away and to say that it is Busagwa who has killed her.
The final part of the novel is somewhat contrived, though it ties up all the loose ends and shows Busagwa meeting a suitably bloody nemesis. Ivan heeds his dying mother warning and runs away, and on that very night Anna reappears. Earlier we heard that she had returned to her “Nana’s” home, but when they saw Busagwa (Anna having hidden herself betimes), Anna had realised that the man now occupying her family home was the one who had murdered them and she had run away again, taking shelter with an elderly, kind herbal healer known as Clever Peter. She and Ivan are joined by Allen, who takes them to shelter with an old man who has a home outside the village in a secluded area. He turns out to be the father of a young man used as a messenger by Busagwa, who had subsequently killed him to cover his tracks. They have all been grievously harmed by the murderous Busagwa and are now sure that they have sufficient proof of his evil deeds. On the advice of the old man they go to Wasswa (the man who had discovered the bodies of Anna’s family) and ask him to take them to the police. Busagwa is indeed arrested, but it is immediately evident that he will bribe or bully his way out of captivity with the unreliable and corruptible police force. So Ivan rallies the factory employees and when a blustering, gun-wielding Busagwa reappears on the scene, he is bravely denounced by Ivan, the gun is wrestled from him and the mob batter and stab him to death. He is finished off by the father of the one man among the crowd he had managed to shoot (dead) before the gun was taken from him.
Ivan and Anna suitably and sensibly plan a future together, but will both first study business administration, since they are the heirs to two businessmen’s properties. With the help of several good and competent people the two are clearly heading for a fulfilling and prosperous future after the dreadful events to which they were subjected.
Admittedly, it is typically in their conclusions that most thrillers struggle to combine a “satisfactory” outcome with writing that maintains psychological complexity and insight. It is also both appropriate and convincing that the humble people whom Busagwa had treated with such contempt are in the end the ones to finish him off; still, in the final part of the narrative Namukasa seems in slightly too much of a hurry to conclude and give a “romantic” twist to her tale of two orphans. She even has Ivan’s eyes lingering on the “ripening breast” (200) of a raggedly glad, thirteen-year-old Anna! But a passage I do like is one near the end where Ivan sits in the garden his mother had loved, savouring the atmosphere of a dwelling from which the doom of Busagwa’s presence has been lifted:
It was a week after Busagwa’s death but every passing day had added to Ivan’s joy. Today’s radiance was sweetened by the aroma emerging from inside the house; Aunt Allen was preparing an omelette for Anna. The aroma mingled with the scent of Busagwa’s absence: the best scent that had ever touched Ivan’s nostrils! Ivan sat up again, facing the house. The house was beaming, all windows and doors open, the curtains swaying in liberty. No more did the doors have to be locked all the time. Everything had its own reason to celebrate Busagwa’s death. (231)
The writing in this extract has a sort of naivety, too, but it is in character for young Ivan.
Despite the weaker writing towards the conclusion, Namukasa’s text weaves a very powerful spell, showing how the tentacles of the menacing Busagwa suddenly intertwine themselves into two families’ lives and poison a whole community. Removing him is indeed a liberation for the survivors and a satisfactory eventuality, but it is shown to be an outcome not easily achieved. The strange power wielded by a relentlessly evil, selfishly focused, but socially plausible figure like Busagwa is vividly and scarily illustrated in Namukasa’s cautionary tale.