Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. A generation of my kind lived out its childhood and came of age on a continent gone horribly wrong. The independence movements, the pan-African fervor and the promise of a golden self-determined future had given way to a neo-dependence on our former colonial masters, a return to insidious philosophies including ‘tribalism’, and a rapidly destabilizing reality. We went to school, played with friends and acted out our teenage angst against a background of political coups and economic hardships.
As children living in genteel poverty, we watched our families hoard food supplies, queue for fuel and exchange the little foreign currency they had on black markets across the continent. Some of our parents disappeared, either imprisoned or killed for speaking out against the leader of the moment. And across numerous communities, the brain drain of those decades meant that some of our dear childhood friends emigrated to the West, never to return. Life was hard, at times dangerous. But it was our childhood, we’ve known none other.
I read Tropical Fish (2005), I recognized all our experiences and our childhood re-imagined. Doreen Baingana has done, what in my opinion, art does best. She has given us back to ourselves. She has validated the lives we lived as children and teenagers. She’s made the old new again, has broadened these experiences and given them a global dimension. She has humanized us, the children of Africa’s tumultuous decades.
Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe is a collection of eight interlinked short stories about three sisters growing up in post-Idi Amin Uganda. The oldest, Patti, in Hunger, writes in her diary about her struggles at a typical girls’ boarding school during a period of severe deprivation. Patti finds solace in religion as a born-again Christian. The story is an amazing examination of class, privilege and religion.
The voice of Rosa, the middle sister, in A Thank-You Note completely steals the show. Written as a letter to her ex-lover, it is an urgent, desperate, emotional yet intellectual and interrogating piece about being young and carefree, dying of AIDS and everything in-between. The story is stunning and heartbreaking.
David, we whispered these rumors about them, the villagers, but didn’t talk about us, did we? Now we know we are all connected: one big loving community. Back then, we thought we were different, separate from the Rakai kind; they were born suffering, after all, but not us, oh no. We were at Makerere University; we were the cream of the crop. We had dodged the bullets of Amin, Obote, all the coups, the economic war, exile and return, and here we were on the road to success. We were the lucky ones, the chosen few… And, of course, we would one day leave this place to work in southern Africa, or go to Europe or America for further studies. Escape, but not by dying. What went wrong, David? Do you ask yourself this all the time like I do?
The star of this collection is Christine, the youngest of the three sisters. As a seven-year old in Green Stones, she plays dress-up in her parent’s bedroom. She is innocent and believes in her father’s enduring love for her mother. But these notions give way to the realization, as she grows, that her father’s alcoholism has wrecked her parent’s marriage. In First Kiss, Christine’s anticipated first date turns out differently than what she had imagined it would be. A disillusionment that allows her to see the decayed infrastructure of her primary school. In the title story, Tropical Fish, she enters into a sexual relationship with a white man, an exporter of exotic fish. It’s a powerful story on gender, sexual identity and exploitation. Lost in Los Angeles finds Christine in the United States where she tries to lay claim to a new definition of home.
Los Angeles. I’m trying to put my feet firmly in the ground. I’m trying to be here… I find myself searching for signs of home, as if recognizing the palm trees, heat, hibiscus flowers will reassure me the I’m still on the same planet. … this is where I have chosen to be now. I cannot, will not take the next plane home.
But she does go home, in Questions of Home, after eight years. Her people find her changed and once again she is an outsider, of sorts. Because Uganda has also changed.
The words she had heard the whole day were like that too… A new language formed by old ones running underneath and over one another. An ever-changing in-between. Christine could accept this fluidity… She would have to learn all over again how to live in this new old place called home.
What a collection of stories, what a gem. I absolutely love this book. The stories take unexpected turns but end up in familiar places, changed yes, but familiar like home after a long absence. Each sister has a unique voice and Baingana’s prose is both intensely personal and at times distant. Her eye is keen, her insights and portrayals true and revealing. We’ve been laid bare. The picture at times is not pretty but I like what I see of us, of this ever-changing and complex Africa, an Africa of possibilities. Tropical Fish has won numerous awards including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Africa region. It deserves all the attention and them some! Bravo to Doreen Baingana.