“Evelyn, how old are you?”
She turns her big hazel eyes at me, smiles then takes my hand; “when the time comes to get married Evelyn and you love the person deeply, don’t be scared when you hesitate. Sometimes your heart is telling you something.”
Kezia* is in her golden years, but could pass for late thirties. Her skin is clear, I am almost tempted to ask her what she uses to keep the blemishes and wrinkles away; her eyes are still clear white with hazel irises and her neat “Janet cut” is still a thick crown of curls on her head with specs of grey scattered in there.
She notices me looking at her hair and chuckles, “somethings you can’t hide from as the years go by…”
She takes the baby (her grandchild) and walks me to the terrace, her house is so beautifully decorated with small cute things, so many pictures and modern furniture here and there. Looks different from the usual Grandma houses that look frozen in the 80s with gaudy furniture and knickknacks scattered everywhere.
The terrace overlooks a well kept lawn that has flowers scattered here and there, across from that is a banana plantation that she promised to take me through after our tea.
Edna the housekeeper comes with our tea and we exchange pleasantries then she goes away. Kezia seems lost in thought as I set my phone to record.
I was 16 when I met Gilbert*, those days Kampala was not as big as it is now. There were few drinking places compared to now and we couldn’t stay out all night the way you guys do now. I was in Gayaza High School and he was in Kings College Buddo. He was a lanky but shy fella, never boastful and always keeping away from everyone. He was 17 and a class ahead of me in high school but the day we met, I don’t remember what event it was to be honest. It’s such a long time ago, but I know we were drawn to each other from the moment we met.
We started writing letters to each other from then on till he finished high-school, I got done the next year. I joined Makerere University, did a course in nursing. I had forgotten all about him because the letters had become less and less. We didn’t have the phones you young people have now, if you wanted someone you either had to write to them or use the telephone and my family didn’t have any of those.
It was someone’s party, a graduation party to be exact. I was helping my friend adjust her hair pins, when a tall lanky man walked up to us smiling. I assumed he wanted to talk to her, you see my friend was so pretty and light so it meant many men always saw her first before noticing me. I was not bothered by that to be honest, I always found it amusing that she would turn them down and they would see me as their second choice then I would turn them down as well. The looks on their faces were quite a sight.
She giggles gleefully
This time, the man walked up to me and smiled; “Hello, Kezia.” I heard the voice, it sounded familiar but deeper. I wasn’t sure it was him but I turned and there he was, taller and more handsome than before. I wanted to hug him but if anyone saw me embrace him, questions and rumors would start flying. I composed my self and managed a calm:“Hello, Gilbert.”
We were married four months later and living in a nice cozy house in lower Muyenga. We had the best time of our lives; he was an engineer, I a nurse and I worked in a clinic near home and when he came back home we would go for walks. Back then, the roads were clearer and the air was still fresher around that area.
Our first child, came a year later. Our lives were beautiful, Gilbert had been promoted at work and he had advised me to quit my job to stay home after the baby comes so that we raise our family. Of course I obliged, I didn’t see anything wrong with it.
The baby cries and she calls for Edna to take the child into the house. Kezia smiles at the little fussy bundle in her arms as we wait for Edna.
Evelyn, you see sometimes we get so blinded by a lot of things that we don’t notice how dangerous a person can be for us.
Gilbert used to beat me when he got drunk, I didn’t see it as him hurting me but more another person doing it. I told myself that is not my Gilbert, that is the beer and whiskey harming me not my love.
The chairlady of the married church members advised me to seek God and pray for my husband and also work on myself so that Gilbert loves me again. She said we displease God when we disobey our husbands.
When sober, he was the sweetest soul you could ever be around. He loved our children and played with them whenever he was home. After our third child was a year old, I told him I wanted to go back to work and he was indifferent about it so I advised him to give me money and we start a shop in the neighborhood that would keep me home but still make money. He liked that idea and a month later he gave me money for shopping the goods and also renting the spot.
The shop flourished, our children were growing but Gilbert’s abuse got worse. Sometimes he would beat me in front of the children, sometimes he would lock me in the shop and rape me then tell me to clean up before coming back to the house.
I had to smile to the world like I was fine, I was told to be strong everyday by the women around me and my relatives said I had to have done something wrong to upset such a kind man. The one time I wanted to leave, he found out and beat me so bad then told me that he would kill all my children and see how I would live without them. I was trapped. I was scared for them and for myself and for what he would do to us one of these days when he was too drunk.
Rukia* was an Indian lady who lived next door to us and every time Gilbert would beat me she would take the kids into her house and keep them there then come hold me till I stopped crying. She helped me clean myself up when I had a miscarriage due to the daily beatings. Rukia had been there for me from the time she moved back to Uganda with her family. She loved my children and I loved hers. We exchanged recipes and always looked out for each other whenever we had problems.
This time as Rukia cleaned me up, she vowed to find a solution to what was happening. She said she would write to her sister in London and get back to me.
A few weeks later, we got a telegram from her sister and hatched a plan. Her sister’s husband had a few flats for rent in London and she advised us to save for the tickets, she would handle the visa and everything else.
Rukia’s husband used to beat her as well but she would fight him back, he would resort to screaming insults over their balcony so that the world could shame her.
I know what you might think of the men back then, but times had become hard and somehow we got the full punishment for what they were going through. Beating women was okay to some extent, you would hear a woman cry and wait till the man was done then go to calm her down so that he doesn’t do it again.
For several months, Rukia and I saved all the money we could from our shops and hid it in a tin. We worked on travel documentation for our children through a lady who worked at the post office, she had a brother in government who in turn did it for a small fee. We didn’t care, as long as we got ourselves out of the country.
One night I heard screams, I ran over the fence because I knew it was Rukia. He had beaten her so bad, I couldn’t recognize her face. He had used the chair, she was bleeding all over the place. I took the children to my house and ran a few houses away to Mrs. Nahabwe* her husband had a pickup and we rushed Rukia to the Nsambya hospital, she died when we got to the reception.
My heart broke, I didn’t know what to do for those little babies Evelyn. Rukia was older than me and she was my strength in everything we did, she had two twin girls and they had just lost their mother.
We took the body back home after she was cleaned and phoned someone in the Indian Association who came home the morning after. I packed whatever belonged to the twins and moved it to my house. Gilbert was away working in Southern Uganda and would be back within two weeks. At least then, these little babies would have had a good home to stay at maybe till Soreya* reaches out to me about our travels.
I bundled the children onto Mrs. Nahabwe’s pickup, hid them under a tarp that we covered over the car. It was important that no one knew we were leaving especially since I had the twins with me as well.
It was 2am and we had carried a few clothes and our tickets, she was sneaking us off to the bus station then we would go to Kenya where we would board our flight to England. I was moving with five children, two Indian and three Ugandan so the looks I was getting from everyone were very suspicious. I was worried that we would be stopped by the authorities when we went through the checks in Busia. The twins were crying for their mother and I didn’t know how to tell them we had cremated her a few days ago. I was scared for my own children, what if they took me away? What if Gilbert found us? He had means in the government, they could find me and kill my children.
I was so scared but I had to make sure we found Rukia’s sister no-matter what.
A few days later, we were in England. It was spring so the children were not freezing. But I was still very anxious. Once through the security checks and questions at the Home Office, I telephoned Soreya and she said someone was waiting for us at the exit with a sign. We found him, bundled ourselves into the cab and I cried. I cried all the way to the house. Soreya was Rukia’s twin, seeing her face made me cry even more so we went to her room and cried even harder. She asked what happened to her sister and I told her the story, it was heart wrenching just watching her cry like that. The pain of losing her sister was too much for me.
A few days later, Soreya had set me up in a small apartment. She told me I had an interview at a hospital near by that she had setup because Rukia had told her I am a nurse.
It was hard rebuilding my life Evelyn, even worse taking my children away from their father. I never intended to separate them but I would rather have done that than having them grow up without me. I knew the next time he touched me, I would end up like Rukia and I didn’t want that. I needed to live for my children and by God’s grace, here I am.
I never remarried or courted again, to be honest I never had the time nor the strength to have my children around a man again. I have lived a happy life.
I came back to Uganda in the late 90s, officially divorced him but he was already married again so that didn’t matter that much. This house here was built for me by my children, they all live in the UK but do come back home once in awhile. The twins call me Mummy too and they come here a lot more than I thought they would. I lost a friend due to domestic violence, but I gained two children who look like her everyday.
I would never want to see any woman go through that, if any man treats you like that please leave before it’s too late. Evelyn, no man is worth your life or the mental health of your children. None!
I always tell the young girls in my church to put themselves first, because it’s then that you can know what is good for you and what is not.
*Not Real Names.