Growing up as a child in a typical household in Kampala, there are few things that I remember more vividly than my mother – clad in a headscarf, broom in hand – screaming Apana! Or, more aptly, Aaaapaana!
Apana is one of those words that is difficult to explain, for its gravitas is less in its meaning and more in the way it is said. Apana means No! I’m not sure in what language exactly, definitely in a few languages in and around Uganda… but its home remains unclear. But it is a very specific No. For one, it is a No that is only screamed! And a No that is more often than not accompanied with a swat from a broom! But more complexly, it is not really a No as much as it is a cry of exasperation, a sigh that comes from deep within, a cry for help from every mother attempting to communicate with their – often non-verbal – child.
I heard the Apana! often as a child. Oh so often!
Like when I thought it would be a great idea to find out what our leather couches were made of on the inside. I ran and grabbed my mother’s tailoress’ shears, lying atop her sewing machine, not three feet away. And, I sliced and sliced and sliced our offwhite leather sofa’s seats open. The insides were a mix of foam, spring and gorgeous lilywhite cotton. I remember thinking: ‘Mummy will love the cotton, she loves things clean and white!’ I scooped up a bunch in my arms, so much you could barely see my face. And my five-year-old self proudly took it to my mother, to give her something cheerful to appreciate as she lay down for her only nap of the day, in anticipation of my four rowdy brothers’ arrival from school in an hour. Beaming, I called out to her: ‘Mummy, mummy, see! Cotton! Pamba!’
Or when, as a now maturing nine-year-old, I thought I would help my mother with the washing, and prepared the basin with a little too much soap and left the tap running, as I left to bring in the pile of clothes. Before I knew it there were massive white suds everywhere, in my face, all over my clothes, bobbling all over the bathroom floor… I tried to scoop them up but just kept falling flat on my face… it was a losing battle.
Alarm bells rang deafeningly in my head: Mummy is going to kill me!
Or when, for the 100th time, my annoying older brother pissed me off (he had grabbed my newly-gifted handheld Gameboy and broken it, just so that I couldn’t play with it and didn’t have something new) and I scribbled his face out in every photo in the family album with the black marker from the kitchen’s junk drawer. Mum had found me, tears streaming down my eyes, ruining the last couple of pages of the large green album that mostly had pictures of family birthday parties and gatherings. The look on her face soon turned my own from sadness to bloodcurdling fear. Forget the fight-or-flight response, my mother inspired a frozen with fright response!
Apana! Swat! Swat! Swat!
Or when, as a teenager, after a (legal) night out, I came back home starving and decided to – quietly, in order not to wake anyone – reheat my leftover beef and bean burrito in the microwave. How was I supposed to know that aluminium foil in a microwave leads to a bean-bomb explosion and starts a fire? And is it really my fault she didn’t have a fire extinguisher in her kitchen?
Trust me, in my day, I drew many an Apana!
But now the Apanas were few and far between. In fact, the very last one I had earned was in my second year at university, when I shared with my mother my plans to have Christmas break in London.
You don’t even take a week out of your year to come to Uganda and see your parents anymore? Are we no longer your family?
It was a slower, more disappointed Apana. She had a point, I had sort of swapped my spring and summer breaks from trips home to see family to trips to see the world. My yearning for Uganda had waned with every passing year. I made a mental note to do a year-long internship in Kampala after graduation, as a way to make it up to them.
But generally, over the years, I had grown and my actions had matured to sit within the boundary lines of polite adult behaviour. To her relief I am sure, I had lost the ability to draw from my mother the Apana! In fact, the Apana! had drifted out to sea – even my nieces and nephews seemed to be a more mellow next generation, never quite naughty enough to summon it. Apana was gone.
Last week, my boyfriend was visiting Kampala for work with his health NGO (of course, the free ticket to see me didn’t hurt!). Sahruddin and I had met during international orientation before freshman year, and played badminton against each other weekly for over two years before I had realised it was some form of slow-burn flirtation. We had only started dating towards the end of junior year, which is when I realised that his insistence on sharing an apartment was not just about cost saving. I guess Malays just aren’t that forward? I have since taken the reins of the relationship’s progression… Anyway, now he was here, in Kampala, on my home turf. He was due – I had visited Malaysia twice already! While we were that African family that never introduced their dates until one was certain of marriage, I was pretty serious about Sahruddin and thought it would be best if the family met him at least once before, years down the line, I called to say I was engaged to what they would deem a complete stranger. So, off to family dinner we went. I had mentioned that I was bringing a friend from university, which pleased my parents to no end as my life in the US was largely a mystery to them, but I had neglected to mention the ‘depth of our friendship’. But as we approached the junction towards the house, I panicked – maybe the ambush was not a good idea after all.
I pulled the car over, made an excuse to Sahruddin, and then texted my mother hastily.
The friend is actually my boyfriend, we have been dating for almost two years and he is in town for work for the week. I hope that’s OK?
Of course my dear, we will receive him well.
Relief. All is well. Maybe my folks were more chill than I gave them credit for. I eased into the driveway, calming down somewhat. My anxieties switching back to what Sahruddin thought of the house, my childhood home, and what he would think of my family. No sooner had I switched off the engine than my mother came galloping down the balcony steps, father close behind her (trying to appear more nonchalant). She peered into the car excitedly. And just as I was about to start the introductions…