An African Santa


Words || Lulu Jemimah

I had a dream the other day.

Arriving at the airport, familiar faces, anxious and expectant, were waiting on the other side of the glass doors. My paternal grandmother who hadn’t left the village in over two decades was also there, smiling with everyone else. As I drew closer, their eyes darted to my empty hands, lacking gifts. The smiles wavered, until finally, their expressions faded into a grotesque kaleidoscope of silhouettes.

I woke up sweating.

As a kid growing up in Uganda, I garnered a certain status of celebrity from the other children for having not merely one, but three relatives living abroad. My relationship with my maternal grandmother and two aunts could be summed up in the Christmas presents they sent from England, and the letters of gratitude my mother forced us to write. Each year she would get my siblings and I to outline our feet on pieces of paper, which were then posted to England and used to measure the sizes for the shoes we would be sent. If we were lucky, we received clothes, but the most dependable arrival was invariably a shocking amount of dark chocolate. As a special treat, my grandmother would sometimes send birthday cards with a pound note tucked inside. During those years, my excitement over such moments was layered with naïve resentment towards my mother.

“Why didn’t you follow them abroad?” I often demanded, my childlike imagination running wild with a life free of rationed meals or debt owed relatives for helping with school fees.

My father who remained unemployed for many of those years, and only spoke in scripture or parable, often retorted with Kukuba kyeyo in defence of our lifestyle. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I associated the word with its English equivalent of ‘beating the broom.’

The description summarised a life of suffering justified by accounts from nationals like my relatives living abroad but sweeping streets or wiping the bottoms of the elderly as their claim to the Western world. It was my father who confided that my grandmother worked a dead shift on a hospital floor although he wouldn’t reveal how my aunties made their living. All this at a time when success was still measured by a profession in medicine, law or education.

This did not deter me. By the time I turned 20, I was spending hours at the local internet café looking up pictures of England, Italy, and America. I joined online dating sites, not for want of a partner but rather conversations that transported me to different parts of the world. By this stage, my grandmother and aunties had all moved back to Uganda. I visited them often to bask in their foreignness but whenever I brought up the U.K, they would dismiss my investigations with weary smiles, insisting they were happy to be back home.

It would be seven years before I eventually left Uganda. My ticket out: a three-year full-tuition scholarship to Australia. Although we are long removed from the days of sketching feet on paper, the thought of visiting home after two years is as exhausting as it is exciting. I arrived in Sydney with three hundred dollars to my name – a love token and generous investment from relatives and friends.

Now word of my return had reached these investors and already a cousin had emailed letting me know of her ailing father and casually enquiring about the price of juice blenders in Australia. My brother had spent hours online searching for notable clothes brands, while my father had in his last message reminded me that the cracked screen of his phone made it impossible to read messages. Friends who had gone quiet over time wished me a belated birthday. With each message, I’m reminded of the dream.

When I confide my anxieties to my mother, she emails back begging me not to worry about buying everyone something. “Just the ones who contributed to your trip.”

The list is 38 people long.

In the early months, I had obsessed over returning home. Within a week I had secured employment as a demi pair and house help for Annette and Michael. This way, I could get three meals a day and rent-free accommodation for taking care of their seven-months-old son and carrying out what Annette considered light housework.

During my induction, I followed her around the house anxiously scribbling in my notebook. She encouraged me to ask questions, but whenever I tried, she leaned in closer and admitted she hadn’t understood a word I had said.

“It’s the accent.” She shook her head each time, as if it was something I could change but chose not to. Eager to please, I followed her silently.

When Michael was introduced later that night, he shook my hand before asking me to iron his clothes for the next day, something that had conveniently been left out of the job description.

I remember crying that night for no specific reason.

The next morning I went over my notes, belatedly regretting not asking Annette how to start the vacuum cleaner. I searched for instructions online, and hours later, as I dragged the machine across the floor, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would prefer it over the lightness and delicacy of a broom. For months, I would load the dishwasher every night and empty it the next morning to scrub the unwashed utensils in the kitchen sink, making sure to put them away before Annette or Michael returned home.

The washing machine had proved less difficult. Annette, who had set it to automatic, had also gone through the trouble of separating the clothes according to colour. I took out my phone to take pictures for future reference when I noticed a smaller pile of male and female underwear peeking at me. Careful not to touch them, I scooped them up with a plastic bag and placed them on the couple’s bed. Back home, married women were the only ones responsible for washing their husband’s underwear, while they let their own to dry under the protective cover of a towel. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I was trying to save my new employers the humiliation of knowing I had seen their stained underwear.

Back in the laundry room, I stood rooted in one spot, certain that if I left, the machine would pour out a soapy foam like I had seen in some of the American comedies. When the buzzer announced the end of a cycle, I would raise the clothes to my nose before inspecting them for stains.

When I wrote to my mother later that day, it was not with awe over the simplicity of Western laundry, but rather to let her know about how upset Annette had been on discovering her unwashed underwear. “She expects me to wash her dirty panties and even touch her husband’s briefs,” I reported back furiously.

Crying was part of my ritual those first months. Annette and Michael lived half an hour away from the university and I needed to get there by train. I missed a week of class because I couldn’t summon the courage to get close enough to station. When Annette found out, she dismissed my fears and, taking a day off work, offered to help me “figure out the public system.”

She walked me towards a machine, punching in a few instructions before handing me a ticket. “This should sort you out for a few weeks.” I nodded obediently before quickly adding, “Okay”. By virtue of necessity, I had adopted this as the Australian term for affirmation. Back home, you agreed with someone by raising your eyebrows twice. Nothing about it had seemed strange until Annette had tried to force the habit out of me.

“It’s so weird and a little rude,” she informed me more than once.

At the station, she led me down an escalator and onto a platform that warned me to ‘Stand behind the yellow line.’ The train tracks sneered at me menacingly. I remembered a story I had read years back about a woman who had pushed a man in front of an approaching train, and although the incident had happened somewhere in America, I stood with my back pressed against the wall. I heard the train before it pulled up and when it did, I was caught off-guard by the cold rushing air it brought with it. I clutched Annette’s bag and begged her to leave but she waved her hand dismissively, peeling me off the wall and onto the train. Nothing prepared me for the speed that assaulted my senses.

As a child I had always hated injections. Being so close in age to my other three siblings meant we were almost always sick together. My mother would walk us to the neighbourhood clinic where we clung to each other. When our turn came, we would gather to the room and nurses would hold us down while the doctor pressed a needle to our skins. As the eldest, I would always go first and I realised after many such visits that my kicking and screaming terrified my siblings, making their experience that much more horrendous. I was about ten when I made the decision to change this. On this occasion, although I silently made my way to the thin metallic bed with the faded sheet, indicating my cooperation, the nurses rushed at me, holding me down. I stared straight ahead, quieting my mind. It took all my willpower to remain still.

Back on the train, my heart felt bloated, and I summoned the same stillness from all those years ago.

This is something I have done plenty of since arriving in Australia. The websites advertising clear blue water and endless beaches do not warn you about the country’s obsession with pets. While at home people locked dogs in kennels and starved them to make them ferocious against thieves, here they shared beds with them and let them prance the streets without leashes. My father had once been attacked by stray dogs, and spent a great deal of money to travel to the only clinic in the country that treated rabies.

In Australia, I would always cross the road whenever I saw someone walk their dog, but once I had been too slow and watched in horror while a dog sprinted towards me. In my panic I flicked my half-smoked cigarette and was hit by a new fear as I saw it land on the animal’s fur. I learnt that day how possessive Australian dog owners could get.

A year has crawled by since that incident and taken with it what now seems like an irrational fear of dogs. A lot has changed, in fact. The time has been condensed between lecture halls and cleaning strangers’ toilets. The relationship with Annette had become strained and lasted only a few months before I found the courage to leave. The day I left, she had inspected my bags while calling me ungrateful for not having the initiative to wash her car or help with the lawn. She wished me luck in a tone that suggested anything but.

With what I was charging, it was easy enough to find work as a cleaner. I found tranquillity in messiness and even made peace with the vacuum cleaner, using it to trace my anxieties and frustrations on the floors I cleaned. I embraced the humility that can only be born from accepting customs like washing other women’s underwear or stripping couples’ bed sheets without stopping to question the stains.

Shining floors and polishing furniture became my new art. I moved from house to house with tenderness, leaving behind a signature of detergent and well-pressed beds. I laughed with children whose parents hired me and sat still as their dogs leapt and licked my legs.

“You don’t say much,” one of my employers told me, handing over a fifty-dollar bill for four hours of work.

This hadn’t always been the case. I had made friends around the university and had even indulged in the drinking culture. I had grown to accept that people stood and laughed together but paid for their bills separately. My network of friends expanded, and although unlike home, I had to make an appointment to see them, I was warmed by the urgency with which they embraced me into their lives. My wardrobe was filled with a collection of hand-me-downs I had been too polite to decline.

It seemed that everyone I talked to was hungry for descriptions from my home country and in the beginning I didn’t mind repeating myself so people understood what I was saying. I didn’t even care when people slowed their speech while addressing me, only to express their disbelief at the fact that I spoke ‘good’ english. Eventually, though, I grew weary of people explaining jokes to me, mistaking my laughter for bewilderment.

The absence of my parents was filled with emails quoting enough Bible scripture that it was hard to tell the difference between their advice and God’s.

I fell in love with silence. There were brief moments when I missed the screams of Ugandan children laughing down the streets and the choir of angry drivers honking their horns. I think about my grandmother as I fill my suitcase with chocolate – the only present I can afford. The idea of going home had seemed like a warm bed on the other side of the wall, but now I understand her reluctance to talk about her experiences abroad. The dogs and the washing machine and the trains don’t matter as long as when I arrive at the airport, it is with chocolates and not stories.

Grapeshot publishes this short story in solidarity with its author, Lulu Jemimah. Despite graduating from Macquarie with a Bachelor of Arts-Media, being shortlisted for the Monash Creative Writing Prize for this story, and assisting in the production of a play in Melbourne, Lulu’s English has been deemed incompetent by the Immigration Department. She was deported to Uganda in late January, 2017.