January 29 2012
I don’t like remembering my life in exile but fate seems determined to always thrust me into circumstances that throw that life back into my face at every opportunity. Last time it was at the funeral of my childhood friend in Nshungerezi refugee camp. You remember that as the camp that hosted us for over thirty years, in Uganda. My late friend was an officer in our army and may his soul rest in peace!
So, this time fate got the opportunity when someone at the funeral service mentioned the fish we used to eat. In Canika where I was born and bred, we used to be near Mount Muhabura and far from Lake Burera, which meant that we were strangers to fish. It was something we only heard about in fairy tales.
Only that what we heard about was not exactly fish: we were told that fish had the face of a beautiful woman who only had upper limbs. That, in turn, meant that below the face and the arms was where the fish started to grow its scales. It was only much later, in Kenya, that I realised that our story tellers meant mermaids.
Our other story tellers, however, used to swear to us that that was not the end of the story for fish. They told us that, apart from that fish having the face and arms of a beautiful woman, it had powers to stretch those arms to unlimited lengths. There was this time, for instance, when this group of fishermen at the shores of a vast lake were arguing over whether what they were seeing in the middle of the lake was a boat or a log.
A young lady swimming near them put an end to their argument when she stretched her arms and pulled the log to the shore. Our story tellers assured us that those fishermen are still running for their lives, as we speak! Again, it wasn’t until I went to Kenya that I heard that such ‘fish/women’ were called jinni.
Mermaid or jinni none of us ever saw but, all the same, you can imagine the dread we held for fish. Refugees being refugees, though, what do the poor souls do when the rations of normal food that is being doled out to them dry? That is what befell us in 1965. Not that we had exactly been getting normal food because, after some happy time of beans (weevils and all) and yellow maize, plus its maize flour, time came when it was announced that these were finished and we had to feed on another dish – sorghum!
(But, little secret, learnt later! That maize was called corn in USA and was used exclusively as cattle fodder! Wonder if some ‘logs-in-the-eye’ there, ba giti-mu-jisho, are also feeding on that!)
Anyway, everybody knew sorghum as the seeds that dried to become reddish, after which they were pounded into flour for use in brewing alcohol, the way it is still done today.
Imagine our dilemma, then, at the thought of eating alcohol! As kids, of course, we could venture into anything but our parents could never try them out. They only depended on a bunch of bananas laboured over in a Munyankole’s banana plantation.
Fortunately, when the sorghum dish came, it was not alcohol, even if it was not sorghum as we knew it. The grains were the size of maize seeds, with sorghum shape, and their colour was cream. Surprisingly, though, they were cooked like any other food and soon we adapted to them and even started to enjoy them as a delicacy, especially when cooked in soya bean oil.
The problem only came when we started to take them as cold breakfast. What with the cold fat and proteins, what was brewed in the stomach produced gas fumes that forced their way through whichever part of your body had an opening. At school, that ‘perfume’ was pungent enough to send the whole class into permanent exile!
Still, when time came and the rations of that delicious dish dried out also, we mourned them. And that’s how now fish came in. That fish, though, was not the fish that the Rwandan fishermen had known. As they described it, fish was supposed to be small and oval in shape, with fins that looked like feathers. The fish presented to us was in the shape of a large plate, like the one weaved in Rwanda for blowing trash from harvest….. Rwandan reader, that winding effort is supposed to describe ‘intara yo kugosora’!
If it is impossible to understand what I am trying to describe, imagine a satellite dish and give it the shape of a large, flat fish. Give it little thickness and then sock the thing in a few sacks of salt. Dry up the whole composite and what you have is a salted dish that can act as a shield and a dwelling – and anything in between that can protect you from the elements or predators.
The lady in the funeral service was describing how their mother always went into hiding when her children were at table, with an offering of that fish. She would call out to ask if they’d finished eating so that she could come to check if they’d all survived!
Well, if you want to identify a survivor of that salted monster ‘makayabo’, you only need to check the size of their thirst!