GOWANUS Summer 2002

The Queen of Tobacco
by Beatrice Lamwaka


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I lifted my head off the pillow. Mosquitoes shamelessly buzzed near my left ear. I had already spent a long time in bed without  feeling sleepy. I thought of the fifty years I had spent on this earth, but all that came to mind were the ten sons I bore, who had neglected me for their wives and children…my sons and the long hours I had spent in the garden. They say god created everyone for a purpose. But, what was the purpose of an old woman who couldn’t afford tobacco for ten shillings? All she could do was beg and beg. Could god create a no-good just to beg and beg until her last hour? These questions filled my mind. Oh how I wish Lutukamoi hadn’t gone hunting and…that elephant had not killed him. What an old woman can wish for. 

The urge for taa, ground tobacco, was back again. I felt nauseous, and for once I was envious of Alim who always looked at me with bewilderment every time I told her I needed to smoke. I knew it would be a long night, like it always was when I failed to get a spoonful of tobacco.

It was probably ten o’clock. The compound was quiet, only Atuku’s baby, Otim, was yelling every time his mother gave him a slap for disturbing her. 

I stretched my hand out to grab the old tin where I kept tobacco. I knew it was empty, but I checked all the same. Somehow something could have happened. The gods could have decided to show their presence.

‘Don’t I always pour water for them before I drink, even food I give them,’ I told myself aloud.

But it was as if the empty tin contained all the disappointment I had gathered throughout my life, so I threw it across the hut, hitting the water pot noisily. 

At first I had hated the idea of sleeping alone in my hut, but now I cherished the privacy.

Lazily I dragged myself out of the rugs I called my bed to check if the fire I had used to cook the evening meal was still burning. I used my finger to explore the ashes. It was still hot, I could get a live coal, I told myself.

The pawpaw leaves I had smoked earlier had not helped my craving for tobacco. Instead they had increased it mercilessly.

Without thinking, I tore off a piece of my bed sheet, rolled it like a cigarette and was about to light it when I realised what a shameful thing I was doing. With nothing left to do, I went back to bed.

I lay there like a watchdog for a long time with nothing to occupy my sluggish mind. Then suddenly there was the sweet smell of tobacco entering my nostrils.

Excited, I threw off my blanket and followed the smell into Akwero’s deserted hut, built away from the compound. I did not care to question who this late-night smoker might be. I was too determined to have my share.

As I neared the door of the hut I cleared my throat to announce my presence. Dead silence was the only response to my intrusion.

‘Odi!’ I said.

‘Mama, come in,’ a strange voice answered.

I bent down a little to avoid my head striking the grass roof.

When my foot was inside I took a quick glance to see who my saviour could be. But what I saw made my whole body shrink with fear: men of various sizes dressed in dark clothes with rifles slung on their backs. And on the floor lay pangas and axes.

‘Mama, what do you want?’ The man near the door asked.

I gained some confidence when he called me Mama. But how else should he address a fifty-old-woman dying for a smoke? I lowered my voice as best I could and said, ‘My sons, tobacco,’ and exhaled heavily. 

My answer produced laughter, but they laughed silently as if trained to laugh so as not to be heard. I joined in the laughter, only mine was the laugh of a coward trying to calm herself. 

‘Okello! Give her some,’ a voice near me said.

Okello thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a black bag tied together with string.

‘Give her all of it,’ the voice said. 

‘Mama, let me help you,’ a voice in the middle of the hut said. He took the bag from Okello and poured some dried, pounded tobacco into his hand. With his other hand he took a piece of paper from the man who was giving orders, then carefully rolled a cigarette and put into my hand the thing I had been aching for.

‘Thank you,’ I said.

A man near the fire picked up some burning wood, and I put the cigarette in my mouth and lit it. I saw now that all the men were smoking. We formed a smoking class, myself included. Finally I had the thing that had been keeping me awake all night. We all seemed united, united by this bond. We inhaled and exhaled as if we had rehearsed this all our lives and today was the big day to show off our talents. I was the happiest of all. The Queen of Tobacco. I didn’t care what happened next, as long as I had got the thing that could make me sleep. I didn’t even care if they killed me. But why would they? They had called me 'Mama.' Who would kill his mother? I told myself, and began to smoke with more confidence.

When the cigarette was finished I thanked them and said it was time for me to leave, the rest of the tobacco still clutched in my hands.

‘Not yet’, the leader said. ’Mama, you should know that a visitor does not leave immediately after eating her food.’

‘My son, you have spoken right,’ I replied.

They all nodded in unison. I took this opportunity to count them. They were nine in number. Nine against one. There was danger in lingering, I told myself. I had to outwit them.

‘My sons, daybreak is soon,’ I said.

‘Didn’t you know that when you came here?’ a voice said.

I decided not to look at any of them squarely.

‘Don’t be rude to mama,’ another said.

I was determined not to confront this one either.

‘Mama, we have come to take the cows you have. We know you will go now and give the alarm, and we do not want that.'

The cows he was speaking of belonged to my co-wife, Atima. I did not care if they took them, because they were her great source of pride.

‘I will not give the alarm,' I said.

‘You think we are stupid?’

How could I explain to them that Atima had never given me a moment's peace ever since her daughter had married? Or how Atima had called me a witch when one of her children fell sick? How could I tell them this, I kept thinking.

‘Tell us what we should do with you?’

‘Let me go into my hut, and you can lock me up there.’

‘Are there no other people there?’

‘I sleep alone.’

‘Time is running out, we must do it fast.’

‘Maybe we should just lock up her mouth with a padlock.’

‘That’s a good idea.’

‘Please don’t hurt me.’ I begged, going on my knees.

‘We shall make you quiet for the rest of the night,’ their leader said.

I begged them to let me go, but nobody took any notice of my plea. I had become a ghost to them. One said I was an old woman who meant no harm. The others didn’t agree with him and said I had a tongue and soon they would be caught. Is that what they wanted? 

I thought this was a good opportunity for me to slip out of the hut. But as soon I started inching toward the door a coarse hand grabbed me.

‘See what she is capable of?'

They all turned to stare at me.

‘Okay, now watch,' he said.

Grabbing me by the hair, he pulled me down. I felt my bones object noisily. My mouth was now flat against the rough floor that had not been compacted with cow dung in quite a long time. With the force of a possessed animal he ground my mouth against it, back and forth. I didn't resist, afraid I would only cause myself more pain. I thought I was going to die and closed my eyes as if to say goodbye to the world. I didn't even think to scream. I could feel the ground was wet either with my saliva or my blood. When he suddenly let me go, I let out a yell like a hyena.


'We will shoot you!’ 

My head felt heavy and numb. My face was burning as if pepper had been rubbed on it.

‘Now we can take her home, just to be sure she doesn’t breathe a word to anyone.’ 

A handful of them followed my unsteady steps toward my hut. When they were sure I would be alone there, they left without saying another word.

I realised I still had the bag of tobacco clutched in my hands. I knew I was safe now, so I put the bag in the pot, and it was only then that I realised I was shaking from hair to toes. I let my exhausted flesh sink onto the bed. I do not know how long I lay there, but I kept thinking about what had just happened to me and shook all the more.

When I opened my eyes I saw that my lips were badly swollen and I knew it was dawn. Atima’s scream startled me. Then I heard footsteps and the voices of Okello, Lanyero, Ojok, Arac, Aber.  I opened my mouth to call Arac, but I couldn't move my upper lip and, looking down, it was so grotesquely big that I had no trouble seeing it. 

I heard Ojok calling my name and then his heavy step approaching my door. I sat still as a dummy waiting for the shocked expression on his face and his demand to know what had happened. How would I be able to tell him? How could I tell them I had seen the men who took the cattle, or that I had shared a cigarette with them?

(Beatrice Lamwaka is a teacher and writer. Her published works include "Vengeance of the Gods," a short story. Her poems have been published in various anthologies. She is one of the pioneers of a British Council writing scheme to link Ugandan writers with established writers in the UK. She is currently working on her first novel.