Gerald calls me at 2:46 pm.
He calls from one of those numbers I don’t have saved in my phone. I look at it once and look back at the road.
It’s not a police ticket I’m willing to catch.
Taking a 100k fine for a phone call? From a person whose number you don’t have saved? They could be anyone from a guy selling you non-existent cars to a Dream trips fixer.
Whichever way, you will have lost money. And valuable money during a pandemic. That’s not good economics. So I ignore it.
I proceed with my drive through Naguru, down the Katalima road. Birds are chirping in its neighbourhood. Rich birds. So they do the rich-bird chirp. One chirp at a time. They are chirping from gated homes. Homes that have pebble-stone finishing and remote gates that roll back without a guard pushing from behind them.
I wonder what kinds of conversations birds have.
“That spaghetti bolognaise served on the grey trash bin in house 12 wasn’t worth it” I presume one of them would say. “It’s the drumstick in the brown dishes of house 4 that did it for me” another would reply.
Gerald’s call persists.
I pick up. Quiet. Waiting to hear a voice.
“Hello” He goes.
“Mmmmnnnn” I go.
“I’m at Aleph”
I look back at my watch. 2:47 pm. Gerald is 13 minutes early for our appointment. I don’t like getting to places after people. I ask “Is this Gerald?”
“Yes yes,” he says it twice. Twice like the first one wasn’t enough.
“I’m the one you are interviewing for the blog”.
I hit the gas. It’s no mean feat either. “I will be there in five minutes”
Another rich bird chirp goes off from one of the compounds. “The parmesan in the creamy mushroom soup from house 8 was lacking”
Gerald had emailed after I’d asked for people who would want their stories of COVID19 told on this blog.
His email came in well-titled amongst many. He is – or rather was – a clearing agent. He spent his days at work looking at large trucks deliver goods from different border points. When they got to his workplace, they turned slowly, painfully and with a lot of noise to get into the parking. Then he had to count them and the goods they had brought. It was both mathematics and security in one. He learned to tell drivers ‘Haraka’ when they were delaying. When he said ‘Haraka’, his Chinese bosses liked him. They trusted he was a man for the job.
This might be why he had ‘Haraka’d’ for our meeting.
I got to the Aleph Book Café at 3 pm on the dot. The café/library pasted out two staircases up an old Indian architecture. It had shelves of books that decorated a mostly open green space with a wooden floor. Some rocking chairs added to its boutique ‘library’ feel. In the evenings, it got noisy with hordes of people – I assume many of them writers – talking at the top of their voices. They’d be arguing and sipping wine in the breaks of their argument. Many arguments were intelligent arguments – snobbish writers/readers as you know them.
In the afternoons, like this one, it was idly with few people craning their necks at laptops. Many of them in zoom meetings. “Can you hear me now” was an oft silence breaker.
Gerald and I took up a table in the middle of the restaurant and cozied up to the leather of our seats. His white tuxedo shirt popped out his head at the end of it’s hem. He wore a smile at every sentence he completed. A smile of friendliness. “I have suffered with this pandemic my fren” he starts.
Gerald’s work was only possible because traders were ordering goods. Every time they ordered goods, more trucks showed up at his office – and he went to them and counted them and shouted ‘Haraka’ at the drivers. The goods mostly went to arcades in the noisy behemoth of Kampala’s downtown trade.
There, they would be offloaded and sold to customers. They were anything – from chargers to watches. Most of them were electronics. Gerald would count them whilst they were still in their boxes and tell his Chinese bosses. And they would be happy. And he would get his pay at the end of the month in small bundles of 50k.
“That 400k was good money,” he tells me. “I would rush and pay rent and then keep some as savings”
“How?” I ask him.
There were cars in town whose tanks couldn’t get full with 400k. Some people were wearing shoes and watches in this very Aleph restaurant that were twice the price. Heck, there were people on tables paying a 400k bill and going back to homes with gates that opened on a remote and birds that chirped rich bird chirp!
But Gerald knew his way around his 400k. He knew the bottom side of the nation’s inequality and he had worked well enough to jump out of it.
“When I left Tororo, I said I would never go back” He doubles down.
After his school in Manjasi, Gerald followed his brother as he trekked to the border one day and he learnt to count goods and know which ones could pass the tax body and which ones couldn’t. He learnt the art of quick math and the flavour of Kiswahili on the tongue. He said ‘haraka’ the way a Kenyan or Tanzanian said ‘Haraka’. With it’s accompanying arrogance. He became good at it and came to Kampala. In his first months, he counted mattresses at Mega industries but later grew into counting trucks.
“Did you study clearing and forwarding at university?” I ask.
He looks at me and shyly smiles. “My fren…”
“Everyone in Tororo knows clearing and forwarding,” He says it with confidence only a person with a census result should. “I don’t believe learning is only in class, some things you can learn outside the class” he adds.
I probe further. “Did you learn it all on the job?”
We now delve into his life.
After he’d passed Manjasi and was counting boxes at the border, Gerald had saved up some money to come to Kampala and visit his auntie [and also get a good job] His parents had pushed out 7 of them. Each in quick succession. He was the third-born. Born straight into poverty.
“We would stone mangoes and eat them as the only meal,” he says. “When things were bad, we would just boil water and drink it” They learnt early on that knowledge was the way of survival. Knowledge on mango seasons, knowledge on planting seasons and knowledge on how to survive on a glass of hot water a day. [Google thinks I am asking for health benefits when I type this in]
School wasn’t on the cards. And Gerald knew it. He didn’t ask his parents. One day, however, a small UPE school opened close to their home and he went there. He found out he was good at counting and acting. Because he was good at counting he also found other subjects involving counting easy. Then he learnt the vocabulary and after 7 years in the school, Manjasi called him on a bursary. His parents were happy. They threw a feat to celebrate. His aunties and uncles came along. Manjasi was no small school. It had eight basketball courts. And many, many, many classrooms. It also attracted the brightest children East of the country. He reported from his humble village for the first day with enthusiasm. One of his aunties even told him he had a ‘bright future’ ahead of him.
He was, all of a sudden, not stoning down mangoes for lunch or heating water on a three-way stone fireplace. Now he saw bulbs of electricity, meals arrived three times a day. He made friends. He also remained good at counting. And he topped his class – 6 years straight. And the auntie who said he had a ‘bright future’ ahead of him sent him pocket money and cared for him.
He also started to like some ka girl. The way she talked. The way she walked. Even the way she counted things.
“My fren” he says “Princess is beautiful”. He calls her Princess. A whole kingdom of love right there.
He stays with her now. And one of his brothers.
After S6, she got a job at a microfinance. Gerald was in Tororo counting things at the border then and working as a pastor at a church in the village. In the evenings, they would talk over Warid’s pakalast bundles and he would tell her of his day. How the congregation had taken in the word and how many boxes he had counted at the border. She would smile, and laugh, and tell him about life in Kampala. She talked about it’s buildings and jobs. She talked about how she missed him and that did him in. He knew Kampala was where the heart was – literally. So he planned and saved up to move closer to her.
When he eventually came to Kampala, they rekindled their love – and moved in.
“I am naturally blessed with jobs”
He immediately started at Mega Industries and quit for the Chinese. He also doubled as a lay-reader at an Anglican church in Kampala.
One day, while he was going to work, he received a phone call.
“Gerald” the caller called out authoritatively.
“Auntie is dead”. His whole world stopped. ‘Bright future Auntie’ had gone. She had promised to cater to his tuition. She had loved him as her own. She had welcomed him to her home and given him a side job at a pharmacy she owned. She had discouraged him from joining the army after S6 and promised to pay his tuition for a course he’d love at Uni.
Now, the little light that was flickering at the end of the tunnel, a shovel of dirt was being thrown down at it. Clogging the view and almost killing it entirely.
He went for burial and never returned to Kampala.
“I was lost”. “I cannot explain now”
At the funeral, he couldn’t look at her corpse. He couldn’t believe she could be lifeless. “I took her like my mum”.
A tear rolls down his cheek.
It’s still a fresh pain. He talks. And stops. “It meant” he waves up a new handkerchief. It’s new because I see the sticker is still on it. “That we now had to look after my younger siblings”
“By that time…”
More tears roll. I sit in silence. Watching him grieve. Watching him recollect the day his low point came.
“By that time, I had planned to do school and then join a good profession”
I ask him which one?
“You know, like journalism”
I laugh. He laughs too.
He gets lighter and the grief lifts off his face.
“I sacrificed my university so that my younger brother can also go to school,” He says.
“On the 400k?” I ask
“My fren…” he responds.
Gerald returned to the city. His fortunes peaked again. He started to make money – real money this time. In his email he had told me his savings had gone into millions. Business was booming. He was counting trucks and shouting ‘haraka’ again. Then in the evenings, he was at an internet café recording content for his youtube page. He planned to marry Princess. And have many babies. And have a house. A house with a gate that rolls back without a guard pushing it. A house where birds chirp rich bird chirp.
One day in March, whilst a truck was struggling to park, he sat at the turnboy’s seat. There was an address on the radio – he didn’t bother with it. It was the President announcing a lockdown. He shrugged it off. It will only be a few days he thought. The 400k became 200k, then 100k and then steadily a stream of Chinese accent apologies. He started on his savings. Adjusted his life.
“We started to eat one meal a day”
“I would preach during lunch so yes, we also ate the word of God – two meals” he joked.
The millions depleted fast. He changed houses to get a cheaper house to rent. A one-roomed house; with him, Princess and his brother. The rules were harder. No boiling – If he did, all units around lost power. So supper was cold water and a luck of tea leaves if they managed.
Life was slowly rolling back to before Manjasi. A small virus had unwound his dream – and the world. He remembered ‘Bright future’ Auntie on those days and cried alone before getting into the one-roomed house. He had content for his youtube channel but no money to sit in the internet café to record it.
“I would leave the house and promise to return with food,” he says as he lifts his hands to shake off the despair.
“Then I would walk around Kireka counting cars and houses then return home, boil water, drink and sleep”. Even sleep, at that point, had forsaken him.
He tried his hand at betting. 10k for 30k. First time – success. 40K for 80k, success. 90K for 267k, success. Then one evening, he got balls! 200k on 8 teams, the return 11 million shillings. He sat on the betting screen. The first match, win, second, win, third, win, fourth win fifth 5- 2 win. Sixth, win, seventh win.
The final game, a Qatari team, Lekwhiya.
The betting house gathered around him. The team hadn’t lost in nearly 20 games. He started to picture an 11 million shillings life. A new house, a mobile money business. School fees for his brother. A camera for youtube content. The game starts. Half time – Zero – Zero. He imagines how a good meal was going to look like that night.
“I was even going to buy Javas that day” he jokes.
The second half opens, Lekwhiya concedes, not one but six whole goals. SIX. GOALS. MABAO SITA!
He was finished. He collapsed at the sixth goal.
I contemplated taking my life. It crossed my mind like five times in the lockdown but the word of God kept me. I ask him what verse; Psalms 119:50.
One day when he was staring up in the night, he saw a bright light moving around his house. The light was bright but matched with footsteps. He thought, finally the Lord had come to my rescue. He prepared a testimony that he would tell. Trying to memorize each detail about the light. Then his door was slammed down. He was robbed. Clean. And beaten. A real good beating.
“My fren…” he says “those guys could beat”.
If he needed a sign, this was it. He was ready. Next morning, he planned, he would leave home and promise to return with food. He walked. On him some money to buy rat poison.
I had come 225 kilometres from Tororo. He says the number like a person who knows how to count. And I would go back only when I was dead. And this was it.
But the verse came back to him;
“My comfort in suffering is this; Your promise preserves my life”
And then he abandoned the plan.
A week later, whilst the internet joked around and made memes of the President’s speech, he shouted with euphoria when arcades were opened. His Chinese bosses called him immediately. Life started to return. Only though on 200k.
When he saw my tweet, Gerald thought; “This might be my opportunity”
He emailed and signed it off with; “There’s a lot to put out there but I become emotional when I start talking”
He tells me he has to return to work. He has more counting to do and more ‘Haraka’s’ to shout. Our packed lunch arrives.
I ask him; “What about Princess?”
“We plan to get married if things work out”
I ask him his second name; “Gerald Psalms”
Just Gerald Psalms? “Gerald Psalms Onyapidi”.
Gerald goes off and I remain in complete awe. But still, a bird chirps from Aleph. I don’t know where to place that one. Kamwokya birds chirp different on each side of the street.
You can reach out to help Gerald, talk to him, give him business or even hear him say Haraka here: 0789 003 358
I look forward to telling at least 10 stories of people who the pandemic dealt a bad hand. If you have a story to tell, email [email protected]