It all began with the slashed crops. They lay dead in my tracks, barricading the pathway through the garden. The thick maize stalks were severed at their base. No way a cutworm could’ve sawed its way through the hardy stalks. No jagged evidence of goat teeth, either. I knelt to examine the clean cut. Quickly, I was pricked with the realization that my maize plant had probably fallen to the sharp blade of a panga – yielded expertly by a human who knew, very well, what he or she had been doing.
Gazing down at the virgin green, I mourned the colour that I had worked tirelessly to mix on my garden’s pallet, everyday for the past three months. Watering, weeding, pruning, spraying homemade concoctions of garlic and chili pepper to keep the pests away.
I felt attacked. I felt as though the same person had taken a panga to one of my limbs and left me with a severed arm. I looked up and spun around, as though the culprit would be gazing on with satisfaction. But, of course, nobody was to be seen.
In Uganda, I was a muzungu. What the Bakiga people of Kigezi, the southwestern region of the East African country, say to describe a pale faced, out of place, foreigner.
I had been living and working for nearly four months in the town centre of Kabale. It was a dusty place with one road running through town, connecting a smattering of smaller villages of mud and stick homes that were rooted into land that rose and sagged like an old woman’s bosom. Around town, people surveyed my daily routine with open amusement. The boda-boda boys on their motorcycle taxis would call out “Muzungu! How are you?” and zigzag across my path. Walking to the office in the morning, going to the dairy to buy a liter of milk in a clear plastic bag, or making late afternoon outings to the market to fill a papyrus woven bag with small purple onions, fat carrots, pineapple and passion fruit. People watched me, constantly, and so I grew accustomed to doing any task with all eyes on me, including the long, late afternoons I spent in my garden.
At first, they had stared with laughter in their eyes, as I somewhat awkwardly swung the efuka, the peasant hand-hoe, up and down into a patch of dirt behind my home, determined to plant herbs and greens and sunflowers into the fertile soils. People were skeptical of a muzungu’s ability “to dig” – as Ugandans say – but as January turned into February and February into March, the formula of rain and sweat and determination gave birth to a tangle of maize and climbing beans, winding their way round the stalks, low lying pumpkin, spinach germinating leafy like rumpled bed covers, and onion tops erect as soldiers. The sunflowers burst from the soils with a marvelous yellow intensity. With their black seedy eyes, they followed the sun until dusk when they hung their heads like “proud girls” as Ugandans would say. They were too proud to raise their heads to smile and greet people in the eye.
“You make better friends with the garden these days,” a colleague told me, after my garden took visible root in the community. Her eyes were smiling, but her voice was edged with the blade of accusation, as though she wanted me to feel, somehow, guilty for having nurtured such a fruitful garden.
“You’re the only one in Kabale who has maize like that,” she said, nodding her head in the direction of my tall standing maize crops, with long green leaves that shone with the sun and fluttered like party streamers in the wind.
I laughed away her words, and told her she’d be invited to eat roasted corn after the harvest. She smiled and withdrew the knife in her voice.
But later that day, her words found me again and I couldn’t help but feel as though she had really been saying something else, something much larger, much more startling for someone planting on foreign soils.
I confided in a trusted friend, who merely shook his head, and let out the high-pitched sound that Ugandans make when they’re frustrated, sounding something like the sudden exit of air from a car tire – Eh!
“People get jealous here,” he explained to me in a low voice, “They don’t want to see you doing better, or having more in life. Just don’t trust that anyone is too happy for you.”
The following week, Wiley died.
Wiley was the Kenyan-White. A small white rabbit with red watery eyes, a twitchy nose and a scrawny neck. He was my only breeding male.
Two days before he died, I opened the small wooden door to Wiley’s hutch, and was startled to see a single white feather lying on the bottom of the wire mesh floor. The feather was white as Wiley, but the long stem indicated it was a bird’s feather. It struck me as strange, though I only swept away the feather, filled up Wiley’s feed dish, and locked the door.
The next morning, Wiley wasn’t eating. He cowered in the back-corner of the cage, his eyes half-closed, his pink nose frozen. He shivered and ignored the wilted greens I had placed in his cage the evening before. I poked him. His fur was hard, the vigor gone from his eyes. I knew something was terribly wrong with Wiley, so I called Alphonse.
“Let’s check on him later,” Alphonse’s voice eased over the phone, “It’s normal for rabbits to occasionally lose appetite.” Alphonse was trained in raising rabbits. He was the one everyone referred to as the ‘Rabbit Doctor.’ “Don’t worry,” Alphonse had said.
But my worry didn’t go away. Nearly six, seven times over the course of the day, I peeked through the wooden slats into Wiley’s wooden cage. Wiley’s wasn’t moving as a healthy rabbit should move: quick and inquisitive and hungry for the hand that feeds him. He sat and blinked slowly as though he was waiting for death. His stool was like pea-soup. The round watery redness of his eyes was lost in the snow storm of his white fur.
The next morning, I rose from bed, took the keys to the rabbit hutch in hand, and approached his cage with a terribly feeling in my stomach.
I opened the door and found Wiley lying down, his body elongated and hard as a two-by-four. Red eyes closed. I reached into my pocket for my cell-phone to call Alphonse. “Don’t move anything from the cage,” he said. “I’m coming.”
Alphonse came, minutes later, and examined Wiley’s cage. He flipped through pages of notes made in a small leather-bound journal. Finally he spoke.
“It’s cocosis,” he said slowly, eyes downturned to his page of notes. “A highly contagious disease – though it’s not so common in rabbits.” Alphonse up at me. “Actually, it’s something that usually only affects chickens.”
And suddenly, a feather fell from memory and landed, uneasily, upon my thoughts.
A bone white chicken feather.
Quickly, I told Alphonse about discovering the strange feather in Wiley’s cage only days before. And as I explained the chain of events, Alphonse grew quiet.
“There’s no way a chicken feather could’ve blown into the cage,” he said.
His words triggered a flash of uncomfortable thoughts. Someone planted the chicken feather in Wiley’s cage. Someone wanted the rabbits to die. Someone wasn’t pleased, at all, with my presence, my projects, and my garden in Uganda.
“But why would someone kill the rabbits? If they were hungry, why wouldn’t they just steal the rabbits?” I spat out anxiously.
“You know, people here are capable of strange things…” Alphonse answered, his voice trailing off. There was more he wasn’t saying, information he was deliberately keeping from me. And, all too suddenly, I knew.
I knew, with certainty, from Wiley’s death, from the slashed crops, from the subtle warning issued to me by my colleague weeks ago.
People in Uganda, even my friends who’ve received the most formalized Western education, including Alphonse, believe that witchcraft is a very real force. It’s an evil potential that dwells in villages, towns, and cities. No one is immune. No matter the level of one’s education, the thickness of one’s wallet, the colour of one’s skin, the religion one carries in his or her heart, or their origin country.
Witch doctors, or traditional healers, reside in rural villages in grass-thatched homes without doors that lock. People fear the powers that protect healers and would never dare trespass for risking their lives. One can seek the services of a healer without money, and instead, with a goat on a rope, or a bundle of matooke (plantain) in exchange for a spell that causes misfortune, harm – even death – to the target of one’s desire for revenge.
A rattle or twang of the Witch Doctor’s instruments. Crushing dried herbs between the fingers. Swallowing back brewed tea. Feet dancing and pounding on the dirt-packed floor of the Witch Doctor’s home, and a low voice issuing instructions to carry out revenge. Whether they openly confess it, or not, many Ugandans believe that the destruction of another human being can be manifested through powerful rituals, like these. Any object can become contaminated with evil. A bowl, a basket, or a feather.
In Canada, my mind wouldn’t have caved into the idea of evil spirits and a world of witchcraft. But after days and months of living amongst people, people whom I had come to trust and respect, who would never, despite their level of education, seem to erase the threat of witchcraft from their minds, I, too, began to fear the unexplained, the unknown that had boldly expressed itself across my path, and in my garden.
My eyes pooled with water as they always do, instinctively, when my body senses some kind of external threat. My limbs tensed. The hairs on my arms stood tall, fearful and erect as the fur on the back of a dog’s neck.
Did someone want me off the land? Did someone want me to leave Uganda?
I choked back tears as Alphonse and I disposed of Wiley’s body, swept away the remaining signs of what had been a healthy rabbit only days before, and sanitized the cage with the smell of disinfectant burning my nostrils.
I lay in bed that night like a corpse. The damp air cut through the barred window, the blanket. I felt cold all over.
In the days that followed Wiley’s death, everyone was a suspect. My eyes hardened when I repeated the story of Wiley’s death to those whom I knew, and I surveyed their reactions with caution. I was looking for the hint of upturned lips, a smirk, a quick glimpse of satisfaction. Even those whom I had called my friends, I felt, could be licensed for the potential of yielding evil onto another.
But the only person who laughed when I told them the story was Carol, one of my work colleagues, who was known for her unwavering frankness. Carol scolded me for succumbing to superstitious speculations.
But the strange combination of events, and the cultural potential for witchcraft, felt too real, and too risky to not take seriously.
Fear followed me around town like a sad eyed dog. I watched over my shoulder for any unknown followers and looked out for holes in the road. I’d steer clear of bicycles, boda-boda motorcycles, and oncoming traffic. I even refused food offered from a few friends. I was reluctant to dawdle in conversation and small-talk with friends and acquaintances, and became addicted to my own solitude.
While working in my garden, I’d look up often, scan my surroundings in all directions, watching for someone who would be watching me. I’d examine, carefully, the branches of the trees and shadowy bushes on the slope above, looking for any subtle movements.
One afternoon, I was carrying a bucket of compost to the garden, and from the corner of my eye, I saw movement in the vegetation. A skinny, bright green snake s-curved across my feet. I nearly jumped a meter high in the air, banana peels went exploding everywhere, and my heart kicked its way up my throat and burst out of my mouth in a three-syllable scream “Oh my God!”
I was teetering dangerously on the edge, waiting for the worst blow to come and send me back to my home-country on an airplane.
It wasn’t until I bought another male rabbit for breeding that I began to calm down. Sandman, an ocean-shore coloured rabbit, was delivered in a cardboard box on the handlebars of a boda-boda. I began to check on Sandman like an overanxious mother, ensuring he was eating and moving about with vigorous quickness. And I scanned his cage, constantly, for any sign of mysteriously-placed chicken feathers.
A few weeks passed, and nothing happened. I held my breath, and waited another week. Still nothing. Eventually, my fear softened like butter. The worst was over. Someone had, successfully, knocked me down a few notches. Maybe I had felt too proud of the garden, the rabbits, and the fruits I was harvesting in a country that wasn’t my own.
Another month went by in Uganda, the rabbits grew fat, new seeds germinated in the garden and eventually I forgot all about witchcraft in my garden.
One morning, weeks later, I went to the garden to harvest leaves and weeds for the rabbits. The sun had just risen and the whole world was stained golden. I crouched to uproot handfuls of the green and yellow-flowered weed that the rabbits loved. Just before I began to harvest the weeds, my hands froze. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Chicken feathers. Bone white chicken feathers. A whole chicken’s worth of feathers nearly concealed by a blanket of green weeds. Quickly, I realized I was about to harvest from the very same spot where the cook slaughtered chickens, and the guts and feathers remained to be eaten by stray cats, eagles and other hooked-beaked scavengers.
I had gathered weeds from here before, but usually only when I came home late, and I went searching for greenery growing closer to the house. It dawned on me that the sunken sun had covered the feathers in darkness.
I stared down at the white, stringy chicken feathers and Carol’s words returned: “If you give too much thought to a chicken feather on your doorstep in Africa, you’ll go crazy.”
I looked down at my hands, the same hands that placed the feather, and all the fear of a culture that wasn’t my own, in the rabbit cage. I began to laugh.
Winner of the Amber Bowerman Memorial Travel Writing Award (2014 Alberta Literary Awards)