Harriet Anena is a Ugandan author, poet, and journalist. Her collection of poems, A Nation In Labour, was published in 2015 and her journalism has appeared on the pages of the Daily Monitor, New Vision, and The Observer. A Nation In Labour joint-won the 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. Her short story, Dancing with Ma, was longlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She lives in Kampala. Twitter: @ahpetite
The woman in my poem stood before the mirror – naked. She’d gotten tired. Tired that her bae comes home drunk every night and whips her. And yet according to the good woman rule book, she wasn’t supposed to speak back or hit back, not supposed to flee or make an alarm. But looking at herself in the mirror that day, she prayed to her breasts:
Turn into stones
pelt my husband
send him to the grave
be my weapon of destruction
My reader said, are you trying to promote violence against men? I said, far from it. I believe the woman in my poem is desperate, and desperation can push one against the wall of unimaginables – like breasts turning into stones; like a woman embracing herself, her nudity and finding strength in it – in a society where her body is expected to be wrapped up.
My reader said, but wasn’t it your people that used to wear only lacomi (loin cloth) before we knew what clothes were? Yes, I said, but you see; the Acholi also say, pii pe mol dok cen (water doesn’t flow backwards), so perhaps the lacomi era is gone and we should embrace the new ways, adhere to the new moral codes of the land. I say that as convincingly as possible, but the voice inside my head reminds me that my happiest moments is arriving home and unbra-ing, strutting around the house un-wrapped. The voice inside my head says, well, change is inevitable, but some, we can challenge, resist even, especially when you find yourself in a country like Uganda with a ‘mini-skirt’ law. Well, that bit about miniskirts was dropped from the Anti-Pornography Act, but not without some women getting undressed on the streets by self-appointed hemline cops.
My reader said, but there’s a woman in your poem who is very defiant. Is he related to Kizza Besigye? Lol. We may have to ask the Ugandan opposition politician, I said. But, I hear you. She lives by one question; aling aling ma ki celo wanga ki cogo? Should I remain silent when they have pelted my eyes with a bone? She met hemline cops one day. Once they were done with her; she said,
Your hemline court
finds me guilty
of your jail cell
I can’t breathe
but I dig
into the walls.
So, she basically goes against the good woman rule book? My reader asks. I nod. Don’t we all need to be her? Well, we should, I say. Silence is a rat that bites you in your sleep and blows over the chipped skin. If you are a deep sleeper, by the time you awake, the skin on your feet will be in the belly of the rat. Mehn! I remember those days, my reader says.
Who doesn’t? But, silence can also be a trumpet, the loudest. A shield, the thickest. A time buyer for things you can’t change in the short term, for things you need to strategize for before setting off a missile, for saving breath and energy when you know words will only fuel the danger you are confronting.
Are we the women in your poem? I say nothing. The truth sits between us like silence made of stone.