Remember Atita by Jackee Budesta Batanda
When there is war in a country, it is easy to lose people. Mothers lose children, children lose parents, sisters lose brothers, friends lose friends…
Atita is in Gulu town, looking for her friends. All she has is an old photograph, taken eighteen years ago. At night she sleeps on shop verandas, with all the children from the villages, who are hiding from the rebels. It is a hopeless search, but Atita does not stop hoping…
We’re five of the Ten Green Bottles in the nursery rhyme that we sang all those years ago in 1985.
Five Green Bottles standing on the wall of life. Five bright smiling faces stare out of the old black and white photo. Our arms are round each other’s shoulders, and we’re looking towards the camera, our eyes shining. We don’t notice the torn clothes that we’re wearing. Our legs are covered with brown soil. We smile through our missing teeth.
- The photo of my past lies in my hands, with the edges torn. It’s brown with age. It doesn’t shine in the light from the shop signpost above me. I pass the photo to Okema, who sits next to me with his legs crossed. There are a lot of us here, sitting on the floor of the shop veranda. A radio is playing loud music.
I’m trying to explain to Okema why I’ve travelled back to Gulu town to search for the girls in the photo. We sit on the veranda because it’s safer to spend the night in the town. The LRA rebels don’t come to Gulu town; they only attack the villages. We talk quietly because we don’t want to wake the other children, who are sleeping. Okema and I are kept awake by the fear of the night. We talk to hold this fear back. In the distance we hear gunshots from time to time.
The faces in the photo are like strangers. I’ve been away too long. I’m not sure they’ll recognize me when we meet. I begin to get an empty feeling inside me. Tears fill my eyes. Okema takes my hand and whispers, ‘It’s all right to cry.’
Our eyes meet. I smile. My finger trembles as I pick out the faces. Laker stands close to me in the photo. She and I were born on the same day. We were more like sisters than friends. We had such fun together! She was the leader of the group, and always had the craziest ideas. I wonder what she looks like now. Perhaps she’s tall and beautiful.
‘Why did you leave Gulu?’ Okema asks.
I am not sure how to answer. We leave places because we need to start a new life. I left because my grandfather, Won Okech, died. I had lived in his house since my parents’ death, and after his death there was no one to take care of me. Then my mother’s cousin, min Komakech, appeared like a rain cloud and took me away to help with her children.
‘I don’t know,’ I lie. I quickly start talking about something else. ‘How many children are left in your family?’
‘I’m the last of them,’ he says. ‘That’s why my mother makes sure I come to town every evening.’
‘I’m the only one in my family too,’ I say.
We are two lonely stars.
Sometimes I think this search is hopeless. So much has happened since I last saw my friends. Perhaps they have died or the rebels have taken them away. But I know I have to find Laker. I know she needs me. All I have is this old photo, which no one recognizes. I spend my days under the sun, moving from place to place, but I get no answers.
Okema is asleep. I’d like to sleep too, but I can’t. Okema gives a frightened cry in his sleep. I know he has the same dream every night. In his dream the rebels attack his home and take him away from his mother. That’s what happened to all his brothers and sisters. And as they take him away, he can hear his mother’s screams. He always wakes up then, and finds me staring at him. I tell him that he’s safe, and that the rebels are only a bad dream. I pull him to me, put my arms around him and start singing quietly,
Ten green bottles standing on the wall,
Ten green bottles standing on the wall,
If one green bottle should accidentally fall…
Soon he stops crying and goes to sleep again. I know he has slept on verandas in town for almost a year now, hiding from the rebels that attack the villages. When the sun rises, he’ll run home to his mother, who’ll send him off to school. He’s reading for his school-leaving examinations.
‘I shall become President and end the war,’ he says when he’s feeling hopeful.
‘I want to see my mother smile again,’ he says when he’s feeling miserable.
I go on singing the nursery rhyme as I look at the photo. We are five of the ten green bottles on the wall. And if one green bottle should accidentally fall… Which of us fell first?
Gulu Hospital. I’m shaking with excitement. Laker is here. Someone guides me through the hospital, past patients lying on the floor. There are flies everywhere. I pass a bed where a little girl lies, crying with pain. She has no legs. An older woman sits beside her and tries to keep off the flies.
‘A landmine,’ the guide whispers to me. I stare straight ahead and try to walk faster.
When we reach Laker’s bed, I see that she’s asleep. We stand silently and wait. The smiling child in the photo has become this poor, sick woman. A torn blue blanket covers her body. The sheet on the bed is brown with dirt. I have waited four weeks for this moment. I was hoping we would laugh and talk about old times together. I did not expect our meeting to be in a hospital.
I hold out my hand to touch her, but the guide stops me. ‘She’s still sleeping,’ he says. I say nothing. I wait.
Suddenly Laker’s eyes fly open. She stares at us, with no expression. I smile at her. She continues to stare at me. Her thin face frightens me. Her skin is oily and wet. The heat is awful. Surely the blanket is too hot for her? I move closer.
‘Laker,’ I whisper, holding her thin hand. I don’t think she remembers me. ‘It’s me, Atita,’ I say. ‘Won Okech’s granddaughter, Atita.’ I’m close to her, but I can’t reach her.
She opens her mouth. ‘Otoo. Won Okech otoo.’
She’s right. Won Okech is dead. He died over ten years ago. No one could forget Won Okech. I remember once I told him about a game that we had played with some older boys. We called it playing ‘mummy and daddy’. When Won Okech heard that, he was very angry and beat the five of us girls very hard with his stick. We couldn’t walk or sit for a week. My friends told me to keep my big mouth shut in future. ‘Yes. Won Okech is dead,’ I reply.
I want to know what happened to the others, but Laker still doesn’t seem to recognize me. The guide tells me it’s time to leave. I want to stay, but he won’t let me. I bend down and whisper into Laker’s ear, ‘Laker, please remember Atita.’
That evening on the shop veranda, Okema asks, ‘Did you and she talk together? Did she remember you?’
‘Don’t worry, I remember you. Look, I kept a sleeping place for you on the veranda.’
‘She said my Won Okech was dead.’
‘So that means she remembers…’
‘No,’ I say coldly, ‘she doesn’t. I want her to remember me. I want her to remember Atita.’
‘I’m sorry,’ says Okema.
‘Let’s not talk about it.’
The other children are restless. Sometimes a figure passes by our veranda or a dog runs past. But most of the time the town square where we sit is empty. The townspeople are locked up in their homes.
I stare ahead. Laker doesn’t remember me. Laker doesn’t remember Atita. Perhaps I have changed too much. I am a stranger to her. I am not the same Atita who she played with years ago. Time and distance have made us different people. It’s the price that we have to pay in the game called life.
I haven’t found out why she’s in Gulu Hospital. Perhaps a serious illness has made her forget everything.
It’s raining now, and a strong wind blows. Loud thunder sends Okema running to me. I hold him close to me. What is he afraid of? ‘The rebels came when there was thunder,’ he tells me later. We stand because the veranda is so wet.
One of the children starts singing. ‘Min latin do, tedo i dye wor… My mother is cooking at night.’ I join in, happily. It’s a song that Laker and I used to sing when we were young.
Soon we are all singing. The night is cold and wet, but the song helps us feel warm, and we are safe in town away from the rebels.
In the morning it feels good to be still alive. As Okema and the others run home to get ready for school, I go to Gulu Hospital again. I can’t take anything to give Laker. There isn’t much food around and I have no more money.
Today, as I sit beside her bed, I hold her hands and repeatedly tell her, ‘I’m Won Okech’s Atita.’
‘Otoo. Won Okech otoo,’ she replies.
‘Yes. Won Okech is dead,’ I say.
She reaches out to feel my face. I hope that today she’ll remember me. Her hands move over my face and stop at the scar under my chin. Is she remembering? I got that scar when I fell off a seesaw once.
Then she looks at my neck. She used to like the lines round my neck. She always said I didn’t need to wear a necklace because I had a natural one. She used to say to me, ‘Atita, Atita, bangle-necked Atita.’ If she says it now, I will know that she has remembered me.
I watch her face and wait, hoping and hoping for a smile, which will tell me that she knows me. Suddenly she pulls away from me. Her eyes are empty, without expression.
I want to sit here until she remembers me. I’ve learnt she was found lying in the street near the hospital. No one knows her story, but it will be the usual one. If she can remember the past and the good times, perhaps it will help her get better. She hasn’t talked since she came here.
‘Laker,’ I call. No answer, nothing.
‘I have something to show you,’ I say.
I take out the photo and hold it before her eyes. I hold my breath, hoping she will remember. She stares at it.
‘Do you remember?’
I point to the faces.
‘See, you’re here in the photo. I am beside you. Atita. See, there are the others – Oyella, Adongping, Lamwaka.’
I’m getting restless. Perhaps Laker will never remember anything. But I’m sure she can tell me about the others. Five bright smiling faces in a photo… Five green bottles standing on a wall… Which of us fell first?
I come here every day. I have to help Laker. Each time I say Won Okech, she gives the same reply,
‘Otoo. Won Okech otoo.’
‘Yes. Won Okech otoo.’ I repeat her words, but I’d like to tell her about my little friend, Okema, who wants to become President and end the war. No more sleeping on verandas to escape the rebels. A life when we can laugh and grow fat from being lazy. Okema wants to make that happen.
Another evening on the veranda. Okema asks about Laker. ‘She’s fine,’ I say without looking at him. ‘Nearly fine.’
‘You should leave Gulu,’ Okema says, ‘and go back to your comfortable life, where you lived before. It’s crazy looking for friends who won’t remember you.’
I spend the nights on the veranda because my friends lived like this while I slept safe and warm. I am ashamed that I was not with them. The rain washes away the pain in my heart. I tell Okema he cannot understand why I visit Laker every day.
A cameraman walks past, and takes pictures of us. Okema spits at him.
‘Why did you spit at him?’ I ask.
‘He’s making money out of our misery.’
‘Perhaps he’s from the newspapers.’
‘You’re new to this business of homelessness.’
Okema is right. I know nothing about this nightlife. Tonight we hear heavy gunshots. The voices of the other children stop, and the radio is turned off. Okema recognizes the kind of gun. He knows all the different guns and the sounds they make.
Laker manages a smile today. She’s a little friendlier. Again her fingers feel my face and the scar under my chin. She touches it with one finger… Perhaps the scar is saying something to her. She smiles.
‘Atita?’ she whispers.
‘Yes, Atita, Won Okech’s Atita.’ I take her hand.
‘Otoo. Won Okech otoo.’
‘I’m here,’ I whisper.
Laker pulls away her hand and starts rocking on the bed. I look in her eyes and find myself travelling down a dirt road. Now I’m behind Won Okech’s house. The five of us are standing under a mango tree, laughing. We have just made a seesaw. I sit on one end, then Laker jumps on the other. As the seesaw goes up, I fall off and my chin hits the ground. I scream in pain.
Laker stops rocking. Her eyes are empty again. My heart is beating fast, as I remember what happened that day.
Okema sits on the veranda, studying. His examination is soon. I don’t talk to him this evening. I let him read. He has to work on his dream of becoming President. Who knows? He may bring us the peace that he promises.
When I visit Laker next morning, it’s like the first day. There is no expression on her face. And I have so many questions to ask her! I help her to sit up and drink some black tea. I pull out the torn photo and point to the other girls.
‘Laker, tell me about Oyella?’
She looks at me. Her eyes tell me she recognizes the name.
‘What happened to Oyella?’ I ask.
She suddenly seems to be in pain. She starts rocking. I try to calm her, but she only rocks faster. Her eyes take on a dreamy look, and her words are hurried and strange.
The men came to the village and took them away. They tied them with ropes and made them walk a long way. Some of the men hit the girls with sticks or with their guns, to make them go faster. Someone fell, and stayed on the ground. She turned her face. OYELLA. Our Oyella. One of the gunmen shouted to her to get up. On her face was fear, and then, nothing. She was ready to die.
-Do you want to rest? the man asked.
-Yes, she said in a weak voice.
-You can have your wish, he laughed as he shot her between the eyes.
She made no sound. Later, the other girl ran away and came to Gulu Hospital.’
Laker stops rocking. She’s breathing fast. She starts laughing wildly, crazily. I leave her bedside and run outside. I cry. In the photo Oyella’s smile has gone and so has her face. Instead, there’s a patch of grey. I stare at the sky. It’s still blue, and the hospital still stands there.
‘Oyella is dead,’ I tell Okema that evening.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says and holds my hand. We sit close together on the veranda. It’s another cold, starry night. I look up at the sky and see a full moon. Perhaps the gods up there are looking down at us and laughing at our misery.
‘One day this will end,’ Okema says.
‘Yes,’ I say hopelessly.
Today Laker smiles brightly when she sees me. She looks different now, with her hair cut and clean. The wild look has gone. As I sit beside her, she touches the scar under my chin.
I help her off the bed. We walk slowly to the door and go outside, where we sit under the large mango tree. She likes it here, and lies on her back with her head on my knees. I don’t know how long we sit there under the mango tree. We watch the sun disappear and see the shadows get longer as they fall on the hospital windows. Laker lifts her head and looks at me.
‘What’s that song we used to sing?’ she asks.
I smile. ‘Min latin do, tedo i dye wor… My mother is cooking at night,’ I sing quietly.
She closes her eyes and listens to me. Then she opens her eyes. I feel her looking fixedly at my scar, then at my neck. She laughs lightly.
‘Atita, bangle-necked Atita,’ she whispers.
A smile comes to her lips, very slowly, it lights up, and burns brightly like a flame. She remembered!