Whenever the hour hand of the clock struck 1 pm, we sang the cherished farewell song, and started on the way home. The school, which was adjacent to the local Anglican Church, was at the common foot of the village hills, and there were tracks going up each of the hills, as well as a feeder road that led to the local trading center, which hugged the Kigali – Mombasa highway. Any traveller that happened to be on any of the tracks or the feeder road between 1pm and a quarter past the hour was sure to meet tens of us, buoyantly marching, chatting and frolicking as we approached our homes in anticipation of lunch, reunion with pampering parents and afternoons of adventure. Sometimes, on those homeward journeys, we plotted the afternoon adventures – decided which mango or guava trees to invade, or which insects to hunt for in the shrubberies, or which games to play.

For my siblings and I, the bliss of the homeward walk was often cut short by the pleas of Zakamwita. Zakamwita was the oldest woman in the village. She was so frail and bent over by dotage that when she walked, you would think she had three legs – the walking stick appeared like the third. To say that her skin was furrowed, especially about the face, may be to understate matters; she was all depressions and knobs, and there was no pattern to them. She lived alone, in a round hut that seemed as vulnerable as her person. This hut was set in a banana plantation, about 50m away from the village feeder road, and about 100m away from the nearest homestead. Zakamwita was Rwandese, and any sympathy with that tribe could, in those days, be interpreted as treason.

About two years before, machete–bearing youth wingers of the ruling party had gone about chasing or butchering Rwandese, razing their homesteads, and grabbing the cattle and other property accumulated over two decades of taking refuge. The government, persuaded that all Rwandese were as dangerous as their compatriots who had joined Museveni in the jungles of Luwero, had issued a directive that they leave the country with immediate effect. Somehow, Zakamwita had stayed behind. It seems her relatives had calculated that taking along someone so frail would slow them down and lessen their chances of escape. And it seems the youth wingers had decided that she wasn't worth their diabolical energies.

She had survived, but she had been left destitute, since her erstwhile home had been razed and the property grabbed. Moreover she was without kin, and anyone that aided her risked being perceived as a sympathizer of insurgency. Yet, Zakamwita, authorized by my father to send my siblings and me on errands, sought my aid whenever she espied me or sensed my footsteps. As if she didn't care how the security agencies perceived me!

While dotage had sapped her physical strength, it seems the vulnerability it had brought along had sharpened her ears. For she had a way of sensing the lunch hour home-ward footsteps of my siblings and I, even across a distance of 50m, and whenever she did, she would crawl to the entrance of her hut, look towards the direction of the footsteps, and, in a piteously feeble voice, cry: “eimwe banamwe mundeetere amaizi.” “Children, bring me some water.”

I hated those words. Yes, I did. No, it wasn't about security agencies. It was about the afternoon adventures. The plea meant that, instead of going on such adventures after lunch, I would have to first go to the well to fetch water for the old woman. In hindsight, I realize of course that it was wicked to so put recreation above duty and charity. But a six-year old is a six-year old, and I can understand why I felt the way I did.

Then a certain three or four days passed without the usual interruption of the bliss of the homeward walk. Zakamwita went quiet, as if she had found an alternative solution to the water problem. It was a sweet relief, but the explanation for the relief, it turned out, was anything but sweet. I don't recall who discovered it, or how they did so, but the poor, frail, long-suffering woman had been invaded by red ants which had not only killed her but also reduced her to a bloodcurdling spectacle over a week of enveloping her body, biting without rest or resistance.

I have seen terrible spectacles in my time. I have seen the grisly images that came from Rwanda during the genocide, and those that came from Somalia during the civil war. But I have never seen anything as chilling as what remained of Zakamwita after that week-long attack of red ants.

No coffin was bought. There was none of the usual night of keeping vigil while singing hymns. As soon as Zakamwita's death was discovered, some youths tried their best, using spades and sticks, to disentangle her body from the hard bites of red ants; some shallow grave was hurriedly dug; the villagers who had quickly gathered sang a few hymns as the chilling body, together with the ants that were unwilling to let go, was dragged out of the hut and lowered into the grave. The backfilling of the soil was done, the round hut was razed, and the villagers returned to their homes and resumed their normal routines, but the events stuck in my mind and still turn my eyes damp when I look back upon them.

As the quick, unceremonious burial was conducted, I thought about the cruelty of red ants, but what I should have really thought about is the cruelty of man, including my own attitude towards the poor, deceased woman, who would never again ask me to fetch her some water.

The moment of birth must be as painful for the baby as it is for the mother. Everybody talks about labor pains – and I suppose they are as severe as they are said to be – but the experience of being thrust out of the cozy womb, snugly inhabited for 9 months, through an excruciatingly tight conduit and into infinitely unfamiliar territory where we are promptly grabbed by nurses or midwives who, for all we know, may be aliens, must be equally painful. Like any other baby, I cried at that natal moment, and I am not surprised that I did – or that any baby does. You cannot open your eyes upon the world for the very first time, and not be overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the prospect, even to the point to the tears.

But, with time, the unfamiliar environment that had initially reduced us to tears became more and more familiar, and we grew curious to discover more and more of it. The sounds of shutting doors and barking dogs that, in the first months, brought on the startle reflex were, by repetition, transformed, from frightening phenomena to intriguing ones worthy of exploration. The desire to explore spawned the desire for mobility. And so we began to shuffle on our tummies, then we managed to crawl and, finding crawling limiting, learnt to toddle. We had to get out of our cradles, go out there and see for ourselves what things were like.

Even in those incipient stages of life, the instinct of self-preservation, that famous first law of nature, was in active play. That instinct compelled us to classify the things we discovered as safe or unsafe: there were safe places and unsafe places, there were people we grew to trust and people we grew to mistrust; there were plants we learnt were edible and plants we learnt were poisonous. We learnt how to attract succor; we learnt, for instance, in our very first months, that crying was a very useful measure, since it attracted the attention of those that cared for us.

Crawling or toddling in my mother's trail as she went about her domestic chores, I observed the routines of family life: the removal of a matoke bunch from its trunk and the subsequent peeling and cooking; the harvesting of millet stalks and the subsequent drying, winnowing, threshing, grinding and mingling; and so forth. These things were repeated so often that they registered in my mind as fundamental elements of life – as fundamental as the rising and setting of the sun. And the transformations they entailed – green matoke turning out to be white upon peeling, and then morphing into a yellow mash upon cooking and mingling – were as impressive as the twilight transformation of yellow day into black night. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously wrote that nothing is constant in life except change, but no observant child ever needed a philosopher to tell him that.

Even my mother's breasts, which I had suckled with great savor for many months, changed one day and gave such a burning sensation that I jerked from them with the resolve to never again bring my lips within their proximity. I didn't realize this change had been artificially contrived until my mother decided it was time to give my little brother a taste of the heat. She sent me to fetch red chili pepper from the matoke garden, and I saw her crush it on her breasts just before my poor unsuspecting brother came for another round of suckling.
I wouldn't have warned my little brother even if I had got opportunity to do so. By that time I was glad I was no longer breastfeeding, I wanted him to similarly grow up, and I could see that the pepper pain wasn't too high a price to pay for the growth.

I was born amidst war – the war that brought Saba Sabas to my village, and rid my country of a president whose name had become an international byword for brutality. Before the war, the phrase Saba Saba had never been uttered in my village – the sound of the Soviet BM Katyusha Rocket Launcher, which Google now tells me is the formal name of Saba Saba, had never been heard in the country – and to this day, the phrase, when mentioned, swings the minds of many of my compatriots back to the horrific war – a war that wrought so much grief and destruction but, ultimately, delivered a semblance of liberation.

The liberation was superficial, and the guns hadn't been silent for two years before Yoweri Museveni, one of the erstwhile saba-saba shooters, took off into the jungles of Luwero, promising to spring therefrom to deliver a truer liberation. Luwero was 400km from my village, and so, unlike the media, which quickly shifted its focus from the Saba Sabas to this triangle, the people of my village maintained, as the pet topic of informal discourse, the earlier war, which they had bitterly experienced. A Saba Saba had crushed into ashes a little cousin of mine as she innocently crawled into the verandah of their house – which neighbored ours – and there was no way you could shift my uncle's mind from the war which had claimed his precious child to one which he only heard about on Radio.

And so, Saba Saba was amongst the first phrases I picked out as I took my first halting steps into comprehension. Even the bravest men mentioned the phrase with something of a shudder. I heard about the grisly death of my cousin and the subsequent flight of my family to distant hills, with me strapped to my mother's back. Just a few weeks after arrival into this world, I had had to flee – I am sure my mother had understood then why I had cried upon arrival! As I grew up, I listened keenly to recollections of the war, especially as the adults made references to me or to my ill-fated cousin, who would have probably been my playmate.

When I came to the age at which one understands that events have causes, I asked about the cause of the Saba Saba war. And it turned out to be very accessible, because it was analogous to the causes of many local land wrangles. In these local conflicts, which sometimes turned violent, with the parties brandishing machetes and spears, determined to finish off those they perceived as encroachers on their territories, it was common, when mediators came in, for one party to accuse the other of stealthily shifting the emigorora trees that marked the boundary between their fields. I therefore easily understood why Nyerere, the president of Tanzania, had become furious and reached for Saba Sabas when our Idi Amin Dada had shifted the emigorora, as it were, between the two countries.

When we were about five, my cousin Dick and I converted our impressions of the Saba Saba war into drama: one of us would act as Nyerere and the other as Amin, as we attempted to bring to life the images that were swelling within us, demanding expression. Whoever acted Amin had to sing the Swahili martial song ‘Kibonge’, and whoever acted Nyerere had to feign throws of Saba sabas. I very much liked the Kibonge song, so I usually preferred to act the Amin role, although that meant that the drama had to end with my defeat.

The concept of territorial integrity, over which Nyerere went to war, was always used in the village fields and woods to prompt physical fights between any two children that got a misunderstanding. The peers would draw a line in the dust, with the two antagonists each on one side of the line. Whoever wanted to prove himself the pluckier, one had to simply cross the line. When your challenger stepped into your “territory”, you found yourself in the corner in which Nyerere had found himself several years before: you had no option but to fight. And so, the act of stepping over the line always marked the start of a fierce physical tussle.

One afternoon, I had such a tussle with a boy called Grace, and as I walked home with a bloody nose, I fully understood the war that had welcomed me into the world.