Dennis Asiimwe’s Notes
The Man with the Beans
Disclaimer: They say we die twice; when we die, and when no one says our name again. My sister was a storyteller, and storytellers fascinate me. It is almost like they are unaware the tapestry of words they are putting together is creating a universe, populating it with characters, events, life and action. I don’t remember when she told me this story but I remember swearing I would write it down. And I did. So when I have a day where I miss fighting with her, or miss watching her drink a bottle of gin and a couple of beers like it was nothing, I remember the little things that stayed behind. I remember the stories she would tell, with a gleam in her eye, and with detail that made the story vivid, almost tangible.
In my head, I keep her alive by saying “Juliet told me this story once…”. Or I say it to someone, ensuring she does not die twice. So here goes…
Juliet told me this story once…
One day, during the harvest months of Western Uganda (probably June or something), my sister, who was on vacation from Uni, decided to visit the village. She was determined to give a hand on the farm that surrounded our house in Ntungamo. Lord knows what motivated her, but she packed her bags, bullied one of my dad’s drivers into making the journey. Soon she was breathing the chilled clean air of our village, surrounded by the sights and sound that defined a happy farm: the harvesting of beans, matooke, and millet, and the milking of cows and the managing of the goat herd.
Of course she was not needed on the farm; it already had a very strict foreman, a rugged 50-something coot named Bwezire, and was run smoothly and efficiently. Indeed, she was more or less on holiday, enjoying life in the adjoining villa (any house larger than a two bedroom upcountry is a villa), but to give her her due, Juliet did try to lend a hand and was appreciated by all on the farm.
As the harvesting process went on and bags of food were collected and stored, it occurred to everyone that this was going to be a bountiful harvest; the farm had done well. There were trays of eggs ready for the market, plenty of millet and sorghum to dry and store, stacks upon stacks of matooke, and potatoes. The milk cows were producing abundantly, the goat herd had actually tripled, and the exotic cattle were healthy and not doing that thing where they keel over by the dozen.
Juliet was proud of how things were going on the farm, and regularly called my dad, letting him know how things were going. My dad, who must have been equally proud of his daughter’s involvement in the farm, decided to visit from the city. He told her he would be dropping in over one weekend to see this amazing progress on the farm, and Juliet hastened to prepare for his visit.
She and Bwezire called the farm hands together and everyone was told about my dad’s impending visit: “The professor is coming”. The main house was cleaned top to bottom, and the kitchen was stocked with the old-man’s latest favorite foods. The cows were numbered and tagged, as was the goat herd. All the harvest was neatly arranged (beans, millet, matooke and potatoes), the egg batteries were cleaned out, and all in all, there was a fuss about the place as the visit of the old man grew closer.
On the morning before my dad arrived, the crop harvest had been lined in the barn storage area (yes, we are one of those fancy villagers with a barn). Sacks upon sacks of fresh beans, millet, Irish potatoes, sorghum, stacks of matooke stood proudly in the large cool building.
Juliet and Bwezire stood contentedly looking at everything, knowing my dad would be happy, especially about the fresh beans, which he never seems to get enough of.
That evening, Juliet went to bed after putting some finishing touches to the house. There were fresh sheets for my dad’s bed, and his room had been aired; obushera had been prepared so he would imbibe the traditional refreshment the minute he arrived, along with some roast goat’s meat, a favorite snack of his. Afterwards, she and Bwezire would take him on a tour of the farm, and hopefully the farm foreman would sing her praises in my dad’s ear, lauding the amazing help she had been on the farm (which she had indeed been).
The next morning, the day of my dad’s arrival (he was expected at 5.00pm), a loud wailing cry awoke my sister at about 5.00am. She jumped out of bed, her heart beating fast, pulled on her robe and rushed outside to see what the commotion was all about, for this is where the cries where coming from.
She found Bwezire standing at the barn door. It was he who had raised the alarm. His face was slack, his expression ghastly, like he had suffered a stroke. He had torn torn his clothes into rags in true Biblical fashion where he stood; she could see the shreds in his gnarled hands. Juliet’s heart beat even faster, wondering what had evoked this reaction (and making a mental note that maybe this just wasn’t an Old Testament thing). The foreman’s helpless expression was difficult to look at, lines of grief etching his face like eager scars, and she turned away, and saw what had caused his doomed cry. This time, her heart did skip a beat at the sight that greeted her from the barn, which was now lit by faint dawn light: ALL the sacks of beans and millet were missing. These amounted to about 500 sacks in all.
The farm hands were standing about, wringing their hands, and Juliet felt the cold hand of failure run down her spine. How on earth did someone deal with this? Someone had obviously broken in at night and stolen the bulk of the produce she had been eagerly waiting to show to our dad. Someone with a lot of help.
My sister stood numb, starring at the disaster before her. There was an ominous silence as everyone waited what she would say, and with good reason: this looked like an inside job.
Someone shook her from behind, and she turned to see Bwezire, the farm foreman. He seemed to have recovered his wits, though his clothes were still ruined.
‘Come with me,’ he said.
They walked away from the barn door and she followed docilely; she was still stunned.
Looking around to make sure they were alone and out of earshot, Bwezire spoke quietly.
‘You can tell this was done with some help from here’.
Juliet nodded numbly.
‘Your father will not be pleased’.
She nodded again.
He looked her full in the face.
‘I need your permission to do what I need to do to save this. There is a way. But a true-blood of the owner of the property must consent to what I am about to do’.
Now let’s pause for a second here. Its 5am in the morning. Juliet has just woken up to find that more than half the harvest she had proudly described to my dad on phone, had been stolen, stolen from a place she had always thought was a safe secure homestead.
She is dazed, horribly worried about disappointing my dad, and not really thinking straight.
Otherwise, she would have politely asked ‘ What the fuckety-fuck are you talking about, Bwezire?’
Instead, she nodded her head, again saying nothing. Silence (and a head nod) is consent.
The supervisor looked at her for a full 15 seconds, and then walked to a small rise in the ground.
He stood still, the rags of his clothes flapping in the early morning breeze, oblivious to the cold, a 50-something old face lifted to the rising sun.
And he spoke these words in a loud clear ringing voice:
‘Before the Midday Sun leaves its place
Before the day loses its pace
Before all and sundry
Before all you would see go hungry
You and your kin
You and your accomplices
As sure as the wind is thin
As sure as witches dances with corpses
Will return to this barn
Every single seed
That you plucked in evil deed’.
(Now of course he said all this in Runyankole; I have just given you a skillfully translated English version, for which you can thank me later).
Then Bwezire went and sat at the barn door cross-legged, and would not eat and or drink anything that was brought to him.
Juliet went back into the house. She was slowly getting over her shock, decided to keep herself busy by preparing for my dad’s visit. She also knew she was going to need a pretty handy story for him when he showed up.
But the words from the proclamation made by Bwezire stayed with her, and as she fussed about the house, a dark nugget of hope blossomed in her mind. The entire farm was holding its breath, counting down towards midday.
Soon it was 11.30am.
And still Bwezire sat by the barn door, the farm quiet and tense around him.
Juliet was now double-checking and triple checking things around the house, straightening a cushion here, going to the kitchen to check on the goat being slaughtered for my dad, making herself as busy as she could to keep her mind off that count-down.
At exactly midday, there was a buzz from outside as voices were raised.
Juliet was now in my dad’s room, straightening his duvet for the 100th time, and one of the maids, a distant cousin run in to her.
She was a 13 year old with bright shiny eyes, and rarely spoke to Juliet, always deferring to her. But now her eyes shone with excitement, a sliver of fear in her voice.
‘Madam, I think you should come outside’.
Juliet followed her without a word, glancing at her watch as she did so; it was 4 minutes past midday.
Outside the house, all the farm hands and relatives who helped on the farm were gathered in a group and staring in the distance. Juliet looked and beheld a sight that left her giddy.
Running up the hill more than 5km away but closing were more than 40 people. Each carried a sack on their shoulders, and was ululating to the skies.
Each of them was stark naked.
Men, women, teenagers, they run towards the farm gate, oblivious of their nakedness, yelling their strange cry and carrying their impossible loads of what Juliet could now see were the sacks of beans and millet. They leaped heedlessly over the farm-gate with superhuman agility and run into the barn, stacking the sacks neatly where they had been the night before, then run out, sprinting back in the direction they had come from.
It was nightmarish to watch.
Looking at their eyes was awful; black stares were what you got and their mouths worked feverishly to produce that strange ululating cry. They formed a human convoy that seemed to emanate from a household about 7 km down the road.
And still they came, naked, ululating and carrying sacks 5 times their own body weight.
Within an hour, the barn was filled with its original stock.
The returning naked ululating villagers became fewer and fewer, until the last sack was placed by a farm-hand that actually looked familiar to Juliet. The farm-hand stopped, dropped to the ground in a pool of sweat and dust and lay face-down before Bwezire, who had been seated silently during the whole episode by the barn door.
Bwezire stood up, looked down at the prone body in front of him.
‘Free us’ the man spoke, his voice muffled by the ground.
There was total silence as Bwezire contemplated the guilty man.
Then he spoke, calmly, softly, with a voice that sounded as tired as a sigh.
‘It is done’.
The farm-hand leaped to his feet and run after his retreating kin, and was never seen on the farm again.
Juliet went back into the house, went to her room and calmly opened a bottle of Uganda Waragi that she kept in her bag for emergencies, then waited for the arrival of my dad.
P.S: When my dad did arrive, he was delighted with the harvest. No one told him of the slightly dramatic events of the day.
P.S.S: Juliet was gloriously drunk by the time my dad arrived, but in the true family tradition, was able to keep this from him. He was understandably proud of what she had achieved on the farm.
P.S.S.S: Juliet and Bwezire to this day remain friends.
P.S.S.S.S: Juliet swears the events described above are true. She was also sober when she told me this story. She also still carries that emergency bottle in her bag…just in case.
P.S.S.S.S.S: Juliet is gone. She no longer needs that emergency bottle…