Country Focus: Uganda
By Doreen Baingana
Originally published by University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
My edition: Harlem Moon, 2005.
Genre: Short Stories
Time period: Contemporary
Doreen Baingana’s three fictional Ugandan sisters, Christine, Patti and Rosa Mugisha, may be growing up in a country still reeling from ex-president Idi Amin’s 1971-1979 terrifying rule, but they still face issues that will resonate with most non-Ugandan women:
- In “Green Stones,” Christine’s changing perceptions of her mother’s jewelry signal her transition from innocence to adulthood.
- Patti has a revelation after suffering from “Hunger” at boarding school.
- Is fourteen-year-old Christine ready to go beyond a “First Kiss” with a fast-moving eighteen-year-old?
- Rosa experiments with traditional tribal juju to see if she can inspire “Passion” in her English teacher.
- Years later, Rosa writes “A Thank-You Note” to her ex-lover David, who gave her AIDS. (In the 1980s, over 30% of Ugandans were infected with HIV, which explains why Rosa and so many of her friends were dying. That rate has since dropped to 6.5%, but makes “A Thank-You Note” no less chilling.)
- Christine’s interracial relationship with an Englishman who exports “Tropical Fish” has her wondering what exactly foreign whites expect from Africans and vice versa.
- Christine emigrates to America. Rather than hunker down with fellow Ugandans, she engages her new community and discovers that even some Americans are no less “Lost in Los Angeles.”
- “Questions of Home” describes Christine’s return to Entebbe after spending eight years in the states. Ironically, she is just as much a fish out of water in her hometown as she was in L.A.
A native Ugandan, Baingana liberally sprinkles indigenous food and vocabulary throughout Tropical Fish. However, her depictions of Kampala and Entebbe are given short shrift; Baingana chose to focus on the emotional lives of her characters.
In the final story, Christine says that her move back to Uganda was partly instigated by the president’s call to expatriot Ugandans to return home and help rebuild their country. Baingana herself left Uganda for America. She and Christine could be likened to the exported tropical fish in the titular story. This metaphor left me pondering the implications of a country abandoned by its unique and brightest denizens. Every one of Baingana’s stories are intelligent and thought-provoking; she is the fish who got away from the Ugandan publishing industry.
My eldest sister, Patti, might have heard about Peter from someone. She was a born-again Christian, like I once was. “Saved,” with too clear and rigid a sense of right and wrong. But she wouldn’t say, “Stop seeing that white man.” Instead, she told me of a dream she’d had: that I was given drugs by some whites. “They only want to use you,” she said. I didn’t answer. What could I say, that it actually was okay? Her self-righteousness made me want to go right back to Peter’s.
For some reason, I told him Patti’s dream. He laughed at me. I heard “superstitious, ignorant blacks” in his laugh. Maybe not, but like with most things between us, I wasn’t going to try and explain it, what one can see or read in dreams. I don’t mean that they’re true. But we couldn’t climb over that laugh to some sort of understanding. Or didn’t want to try.