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Ugandan Psalm

Mornings we sit on the veranda, the three of us; for my father has long vanished into the reaching branches and tangle that surround our house, despite violent spats of slashing at the underbrush. He will reappear in the evening, a stack of papers under a looping arm. This is our world, this hill. It’s early, and the air is still cool. A breeze shifts the top branches of the bougainvillea. My mother looks outward, toward her tomato garden. There is a sole survivor, a pinkish fruit she has been thinking about plucking. Today or tomorrow, she is not sure, but she has been watching it ripen all week.

My mother hums as she opens her slim Bible. She turns to Psalms. It is always Psalms, and the words drop out of her mouth like music:

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

My mother reads chapter 121 at a leisurely pace. She seems to relish the milk and honey of David’s language. She is drawn to his metaphors and finds company in his ambivalence. In a green felt pen, she has underlined a single verse, a passage she does not read to my sister and me, not ever. It is the rumination of the exile and the question must resonate. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

When Idi Amin fled to Libya, we returned to Uganda. We were glad to be back, or rather everyone was glad except my mother….

It’s 1979, and my parents are missionaries in Uganda. We moved here when I was one and my sister Sonja was four and Idi Amin was clinging to a bloody dictatorship. We moved here at a time when those with choices flooded across the border: leaving, leaving, leaving. Later, we left too, but before we did, in those waning days, we met Idi Amin at the airport and shook his hand.

When Idi Amin fled to Libya, we returned to Uganda. We were glad to be back, or rather everyone was glad except my mother. Uganda is a beautiful land, and it seemed pregnant with possibility. My father fell happily into teaching and my mother less happily into scrubbing floors and walls. Sonja and I studied some, but mostly, we galloped about the house, climbing trees and dressing our guinea pig in doll clothing.

These years after Amin have been a time of elections and coups. My mother begins fretting again — she waits by the window each time my father drives to Kampala. She thinks roadblock. She thinks carjacking. She thinks one of us will die here. When my father is home, my mother worries about malaria and snakes and germs. Each morning, she turns to Psalms. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Among the Mangoes, 1887
(Oil on canvas, 89 × 116 cm)
BY Paul Gauguin
Van Gogh Museum

After reading the scriptures, my mother kneels on the cement floor. We, her daughters, kneel beside her. We bow our heads and fold our hands and turn one ear to our mother as she prays for our deliverance. It is a prayer we have heard often, but the words are spoken with fresh urgency. A story has been passing like ashes from mouth to mouth, from mother to mother.

The story is this: A young girl climbed the mango tree, the one that sat between the dispensary and the college gate. The girl must have been the daughter of a new student for we have not played with her, will not, in fact, ever play with her. Still, I see her, slight and smart, ankles freckled with scars. She stops at the base of the tree, searching the dark foliage until her eyes rest upon the top branch, upon fruit hanging down like small, green hearts. Unripe mangoes, white-fleshed and sour, are best dipped in salt and chili powder. The girl stands, hands hanging at her side, eyes sweeping the trunk as she considers the best way up. I want to tell her — Keep walking. Today is not a good day for green mangoes — but she cannot hear me, and so she must hitch her skirt and dig her toes into rough bark.

A few men squat in the shifting shadow of the tree, paying little mind to the girl shimmying up the trunk. Fruit is communal, and we children climb with ease. The men squint against the sun and discuss everything except politics. It does not do to share too much of what you are thinking. Instead, they wonder when the rains will come. It is the dry season, and the leaves gathered overhead are coated with earth. They are still talking when the girl screams and, a breath later, falls to the ground, landing in the dirt with a thud. The men hover over the frail, birdlike form, uncertain what to do. Finally, one man turns her over, places burning fingers against the curve of her jaw, against the stillness of her artery.

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