CN: bathroom talk
The story of how the piece you’re about to read came into my inbox is one of the more serendipitous moments that I’ve experienced. I was listening to Mugabi’s episode of the podcast No End In Sight, a podcast about chronic illness, and I was struck by how unique and compelling his story was. When I learned that he was a writer, I knew I needed to contact him and ask if he’d be interested in writing for this blog. I followed him on twitter and Instagram and made a mental note to think about what topics I might ask him to write about, when I had the mental capacity to do so. A few days later, before I had even gotten a chance to contact him, what should arrive in my inbox, but a submission from Mugabi Byenkya!
He had seen me follow him on social media, discovered my blog linked in my bios, and it just so happened that the most recent post on the blog at the time was the article explaining how to submit to Yopp. He, like I had guessed, instantly could tell that his writing would be a good fit for our platform. And so it was that I got to publish this short and wholesome piece about adapting to your environment and the value of having your disability accommodated.
For Jjajja Atwooki
July 1996: Kampala, Uganda
“Mommy, where is the toilet?”
I pleaded as my left hand repeatedly wrung, yanked, and twisted her bright yellow bubu. Mommy glanced down at me rapidly shifting weight from one leg to the other. She gently extricated my fingers from their death grip with her bubu, and spattered off something beyond my comprehension in Luganda, to the petrol station attendant. In response, the attendant kept his rigid blank stare, only contorting his lips to point towards the direction of the toilet. Eyes on the prize, I sprinted over as fast as my four-year-old legs would carry me and flung open the creaky wooden door. Lo and behold: a pit latrine.
I froze; Eyebrows furrowed as my right hand rose to scratch the nape of my neck. I ruminated on my quandary. I had never seen a toilet that looked like this before. How on earth was I supposed to poop in this strange room? I scanned the bare exposed brick and noticed a radiant green gecko casually wall-crawling towards the one window in the back. The gecko glanced at me in my 3-foot-tall glory, daringly flicked its tongue at me, and continued crawling towards the window. Challenge accepted.
I never turned down a challenge, especially one issued by a pretentious gecko. So, I stepped forward, my white sneakers kicking up dust clouds as I gingerly stepped towards the rectangular hole. I did a triple-take and confirmed that this small one-meter square room was completely bare, outside of:
- my gecko friend;
- the small window they were crawling towards;
- a roll of two-ply toilet paper dangling off a hook on the right wall and 4. the rectangular hole in the ground.
Getting on all fours to further assess the situation, I inched my face closer and closer to the hole. Meanwhile, the gecko gave up on their mission to the window, instead choosing to perch from the windowsill and observe the little human, who clearly had no idea what they were doing. My face moved directly over the hole, as I steadied my splayed palms on either side and peered in the hole, only to be greeted by the largest mound of excrement I’d seen in my life! The gecko blinked and grinned. How on earth was I supposed to poop in this hole?
The gecko flicked their tongue out at me again, prodding me into action. I slid both sneakers off; took off my socks, rolled them up and stuffed them into my sneakers; slid my shorts and underwear off; glanced back at the peeping tom gecko, and stood over the hole. I could pee like this, but could I poop standing up? Might as well give it a try, so, I spread my legs wider and wider as they trembled under the exertion of attempting the splits until – squelch.
My butt cheeks were awkwardly squelched in the damp hole now, as I swung my legs around, jiggling my bum into a more comfortable position inside the hole, I stabilized myself with my hands and settled into this awkward toilet that you literally had to sit inside. I had never used a toilet like this before, but it was also my first time in Uganda, where both my parents were from. They had both told me that I would have to adjust to new things during this trip and strange as this toilet was, the cold damp cement against my butt cheeks was strangely soothing. I settled into an enjoyable relaxing poop as the gecko stared on with a sheepish grin.
Suddenly, the door was flung wide open as my head jolted back and my eyes reflexively shut by the abrupt influx of dazzling sunlight. Mommy towered over me. Her incandescent yellow bubu and matching headwrap formed an imposing silhouette that billowed in the wind. She froze. I blinked. My eyes adjusted.
“Mugabi! What the hell are you doing?!”
July 2006: Hoima Road, Uganda
Uncle Joseph yelled back at us from the driver’s seat, keeping his left hand on the steering wheel, while his right hand cranked the window handle as quickly as humanly possible. We all grabbed our respective window handles and cranked them just as quickly. This was always my favorite part of the family trips to my father’s hometown of Kikuube. We played this game every time a lorry and its ensuing dust cloud were about to barrel past us. First one to shut their window before the dust clouds hit wins.
“First!” I proudly proclaimed. My window slid shut and I triumphantly fist pumped as my brother Victor smacked his lap. Much to his chagrin, I had bested everyone. Celebrations didn’t last long, as Mommy was a little slow on the window crank. The lorry that had been barreling towards us steamrolled past, and our car was violently assaulted by the massive dust cloud that trailed in its wake, on the rocky marram road. Mommy and I (sitting directly behind her) got hit the worst by the sharp blast of dust that got through the crack in her window. Victor was cracking up over the brown dusty film coating my head but it was worth it.
“Alright, windows back down” Uncle Joseph chuckled as we all cranked our windows back down, now that the dust cloud crisis was over. I patted the dust off of my head as Victor attempted to ‘help’, which involved smacking my face to get the dust off. I side-eyed Victor, fishing my handkerchief out of my pocket to wipe the rest of the dust off my face. My gaze settled on the jet-black vehicle mat that my left leg was anxiously tapping on.
Trips to Kikuube always made me anxious because they were so awkward. I didn’t grow up in Hoima, didn’t speak Runyoro, barely understood any cultural cues, and was physically unable to perform most of the tasks around the farm my father grew up on. What made things worse was that ever since my stroke, my extended family always fawned over me. Frequently grabbing my spastic right hand to splay my fingers out and marvel as they automatically clenched back up. Dragging me by force to various: healers/prophets/pastors who exasperatedly shooed me out of their spaces whenever I inevitably ‘resisted healing due to the strength of the devil within this boy!’ Maintaining awkward silence around me because the disabled boy scared them.
Jjajja Atwooki, however, was always different. When we arrived at my father’s childhood home in Kikuube, Jjajja Atwooki was waiting to greet us. I got through the awkward 5-minute-long greeting I had re-memorized on the car ride. Settling into the awkward silence of being unable to have a conversation with my own grandmother. Jjajja Atwooki looked down at me, grabbed my hand, and led me over to the pit latrine. I tried to signal that I physically couldn’t squat since my stroke but she just smiled and opened the door, revealing: an accessible pit latrine with raised seating, arm support, and a grinning gecko perched on the windowsill.
About the guest writer: Mugabi Byenkya is an award-winning Black, disabled writer, poet and occasional rapper. In 2018, Mugabi was named one of 56 writers who has contributed to his native Uganda’s literary heritage in the 56 years since independence by Writivism (East Africa’s largest literary festival). Mugabi wants to be Jaden Smith when he grows up. For more information visit: www.mugabibyenkya.com, and buy his award-nominated debut ‘Dear Philomena,’ at Mahiri Books here.