They said he would be back in hours.
It’s been days.
I should have put up a better fight when they came. I should have known not to trust the Resistance even though we are its spies. I should never have agreed to be the one to stay behind. But all the ‘should haves’ in this world will not prompt the Resistance to keep its word and yet, I should have known better.
I keep my face down as I make my way through Market Street. It is a long stretch of land, about 10km. At the end of the stretch, a few meters from the towering black gate, sits the ‘Submitters’ office’ for those who tire of living like beggars and need to sell their souls to the Republic. No one judges you for submission. It’s what we all want to but are a little too scared to try. Ever since the factories closed, money has been slow to come by and I’m now becoming adept at picking pockets and stealing food.
I am not proud of this but I also don’t gain that much from my petty crime. Yet if the Republic got its hands on me, it would be the guillotine for sure. If they knew what I looked like, it would be my face plastered all over the city instead of X’s but their misplaced notions will not allow them to suspect an eighteen year old girl.
When the sun goes down tonight, it will be a week since I last saw him. A week since we sat in our hut discussing a future that may never happen, a week since I heard his carefree laughter like the world we lived in was not falling apart, a week since I saw my best friend.
I come upon what used to be Kampala, the capital city of what was Uganda. The only self-sustaining city in Africa now, no imports or exports just merry making or perhaps this is what we are led to believe. The government built a wall around it when the insurgence happened. The army forced all the ‘unlanded’ out as the Resistance retreated in defeat. It felt like a terrible script taken from the colonialists’ playbook but this was country men against country men.
The Republic is as bad as it sounds but the Resistance is not any better. We only aligned ourselves with them to avoid starvation. For both groups desertion is met with death. They are all the same; greedy pigs interested in power and titles and land. It’s always about land with these African men.
I finally make it to the gate of the ‘Submitter’s office’. I must stay around for information that will be useful to the Resistance. Something worthy enough for them to take me to their very secret headquarters and while there I will find X and break him out, then we’ll get onto one of those midnight caravans and leave Uganda. Forget that to get into that caravan I need 5 coins. And a coin is equivalent to a labourer’s wages for three years. The system is rigged against us which is why we must try to gain autonomy as a nation again. Maybe the economy will improve then.
‘Seven dots for a piece of bread,’ I hear a small voice by my feet and look down to see a small boy hold up a mouldy ban. Seven dots is extortion for such a small piece and if the Resistance caught him, they would cut out his tongue. Like I said, the Resistance is not any better. Seven dots is a week’s pay. I give him two dots and send him on his way. Market Street should be neutral ground so we try to help each other here. That’s why I am not in any fear while I idle around the office, no one will tell on me except for when a guard or spy passes by.
The little boy runs to a shack selling tea and it takes me back to when I met X.
“Three dots for bread, tea and pepper,’ I went around vending.
He sat on the other side of the road, his eyes following me around as he toyed with a hand-curved knife. He sat with so much comfort for someone caught between the Republic and the Resistance and had the sort of look that invited questions. He was well-groomed. Healthy muscular body that was nothing like my starved sickly frame, clean wholesome clothes unlike my patches, sandals and a bottle of water which was and still is a very expensive commodity. His face glowed with knowledge of something greater and he span everything around him with extreme ease, I was hypnotised. I tried to make my way to him, enchanted, then I saw him tense up.
I knew there was something wrong before I bumped into the Republic guards. Everything else happened so fast. One hit me on my head with the butt of his gun and I was down. The other had already kicked my pepper and bread into the soil, as per Resistance standards I would have to offer one dot for the same commodities that would have fetched me three dots. As the guard was preparing to gut me in the stomach, X was there bowing over me and negotiating with the guards. With all the reeling in my head from the blow, I couldn’t make out what he said. Then he pulled out a coin and handed it to the guard. Three hard laborious years wasted in one moment of inattention. Before he knew my name, he showed I was worth his time.
The guards went well on their way and X stood up to leave. He didn’t say a word to me or acknowledge my whispered thanks. Yet I was smitten and curious and like a lost puppy I followed him in the hopes that he would lead me home. And he led me home. This was three years ago. X is all I know about home and all I can call my own. This is why I will move heaven and earth to find him.
The line by the Submitter’s Office is as long as it always is, circling thrice around the small building. This is understandable; there is only one small office to cater for the many remaining districts in crushed Uganda. Some people make this trip in days and even then the Republic reserves the right for admission.
I inch closer to the guards by the gate and set down my basket of paper. Paper is another expensive commodity as both the Resistance and the Republic would rather we don’t do any writing to send messages. One small strip of paper could go for seven dots. This means little to me. X and I discovered an underground library and for now I am sure we are the only ones who know about it. Unless the information has been tortured out of him and this has me thinking of the past again.
‘When we get to the Resistance, they will test our resolve with torture and we must be able to bear it,’ X said, three days after I had gone to live with him. “We need to be able to go two days without water and about four days without food. We’ll build our resistance as we go on. We need to be strong enough to carry a bag up three stories without rest. We need to…”
“If the Resistance requires us to tempt death to join them, why should we join them?” I interrupted, breathing heavily, as he added a brick to my already heavy bag.
“Because we need to survive,” he replied as he hoisted the bag onto my back, “and you, my dear, are not yet a survivor. We need to be useful enough for them to want to take us on. We need to be as swift as the wind and as alert as an eagle.’ He laughed his wild deep carefree laugh and assured me we’d make it.
I shake my head free of doubts that X will not endure the torture. He is stronger, faster and smarter than anyone I know. He is stubborn too and that is a good trait when defying death.
I start my chant, ‘Twenty dots for one clean sheet of paper.’ And just then the gates open for the trucks to deposit the dead out of the city. The Republic is not loyal to its own either. The trucks come out every day at about 3pm. You can tell the time on their schedule. They can be as many as ten trucks filled with dead bodies. The trucks are also the surest way to get into the Republic and that’s how X and I were able to get in and throw them into a little chaos. He always said that though I was not adept in any physical skill, I could out-reason any general. My smarts are all I’m counting on to help free X. Without X, I can’t attempt to go beyond the wall.
I have only one paying customer but plenty window shoppers. They surround me and this frees me to study the guards. At the end of the day I approach the quiet one. The Republic is still in the habit of producing newspapers for its people. They foolishly believe that all those outside the wall are uneducated and can’t read. I ask to buy his paper at thirty dots. He looks hesitant but today I look the part I set out to play.
My kinky hair is plaited in two cornrows and dust coated at the top. I wore my scraps of cloth and went out without any shoes. The makeup I applied makes me look sicker than I am and I break up my speech into stutters like the fool I want him to believe I am. He has already seen me sell the paper I have and can't think that I would have more use for it than quick cash. I am not worth a second thought and he throws his paper to me forfeiting the thirty dots. The arrogance of the Republicans is what has enabled us to make dents that label us wanted criminals. Not us, I mean X.
The paper talks of a disease eating the people, which explains the trucks and the rumours that there is now a 3am corpse deposit truck shift. And finally the wall serves as an advantage. Whatever it is, I don't think it will jump that very high wall. The paper continues with musings that their emperor might be sick as he has not been sighted in four days. It is all rumour but this is pure gold right here. X would be proud. While no one is watching, I tear it out. Now, the Resistance will have no option but to bring me in. X, I think, hold on just a few more days.
I am coming.