Every afternoon, throughout my first two primary school years, as a final act before breaking up for lunch, we sang a vernacular song whose lyrics were:
Nkabugana orwoma nitwetambuza
Omujungu yarutera embundu
Osiibegye masita, twagarukayo
Eshaha zietu zahika ezokutaha
Kare bayi bayi, kare bayi bayi.
Loosely translated, they say:
I met a walking cable
A white man struck it with a gun
“Leave me alone,” it said
Have a good day, teacher,
We now return home,
It's our usual time for departure,
So bye-bye, so bye-bye.
The first three lines threw our minds into the distant world of the mythical, but at the fourth line we were hurled back to the pleasant reality of a successful end to the day's work and the inviting prospects of home and lunch. The two seemingly discordant sections of the song were in fact tightly and neatly bound together by the tune – a melodious and memorable tune. We always sang with great gusto, both because we loved the tune and because the song marked the end of the school day. We hit a crescendo at the last line, and then scurried towards the shortest routes home.
The song was something of a beacon of freedom. As we endured the occasional drudgery of school life and the frequent flogging of callous teachers, we looked with hope towards 1pm, and nothing symbolized that hour more effectively than this farewell anthem. It's not far-fetched to say that three of the images that most frequently flickered in our minds were a walking cable, a white man striking out with a gun, and the cable raising its voice in protest. These three images meant a great deal: they meant freedom, and they meant food for the famished
After lunch, the norm was to go out to the field, either to fetch firewood or to fetch water or to chase birds from the millet garden. One afternoon, while out in the field, we saw a trio of white folk lounging in the canopy of a roadside tree. They had parked their car on the shoulder of the highway, and were taking a meal and chatting. Above them were cables – the telecommunications cables that hang on the poles that stood on the sides of the Mbarara-Kabale highway. I had never seen white people before. We were Primary 2 pupils, and in the village school that we attended, instruction was given in the local language up to Primary 3, so their language was as unfamiliar to our ears as their skin color was to our eyes. Nevertheless, we stood at a safe distance, and watched and listened. We should have gone away but something in the situation – a promise of enactment of our freedom song – held us spellbound. It was common to hear an old person say: “obuhangazi neihano, nembeba ekarugaho yarwa ahamuguta gwa kapa.” “Longevity is a wondrous thing; even a mouse that lived long enough came to feast on the carcass of a cat.” And it now turned out that we had lived long enough to see white men in close proximity of a cable. And they might have had guns in their bags, for all we knew. We were just about see to our musical images become visual realities.
To our disappointment, the Mzungu trio, after getting through the meal, walked to their car and drove off. We saw no gun, and the cable didn't get off the poles and walk and talk. And so, the first Mzungu that came within my close range turned out to be unequal to the lofty expectations planted by the school song.
Mzungu myths were deeply embedded in the narratives and songs and utterances we were exposed to as children – it was the legacy of colonialism. The Mzungu, armed with his gun, had subdued our previous rulers – rulers we had, for centuries, considered descendants of demigods. Mzungu had brought churches and schools and roads and cables. Of course the Mzungu was a superior creature – perhaps a demigod! As we rose through the school levels, we learnt of the Spekes, the Livingstones, the Newtons and the Napoleons and concluded that only Mzungu has ever achieved greatness.
But the more I make close contacts with Mzungu, the more the childhood disappointment has been replicated. The only way, it has turned out, to keep away disappointment, is to humanize my expectations – to recognize that the average Mzungu is just as average as the average person of any other race.
O yes, longevity is a wondrous thing! I have lived long enough to know that whatever Mzungu can do, whether with ideas or with cables, I can do just as well.