The ululations echoed back through the walls of the house. They had received the gift and so the ceremony could proceed. This is how I was introduced to the concept, ba Mama or the mothers. Among the Baganda, your mother’s sisters are your mother. All of them combined are your mother. Your mother remained invisible even during your traditional marriage ceremonies, tucked away in the house. Her voice though remains loudest, and so if she rejects the gifts from the prospective in-laws, hang their heads in shame and leave immediately.
As far back as I could remember, my mum and her sister were always together. They fondly referred to each other as, My sister. My earliest memory was her bar on DeWinton Road, Canton Bar and Restaurant. It is from this bar, that we named her, so we hear, Auntie Canton. It was later in life as teenagers that we were calmly corrected that her name was Elsie pronounced as EL-ay-see by the Bakiga. A bit too late, I think. She will always be Auntie Canton. This restaurant with it’s multi colored, multi diamond shaped mural at the front, well polished wood floors and huge orange booth chairs, became our favorite place. The bar man, PK had such an amazing speed of service. All the waiters decked out in white shirts and black well pressed trousers, operated like high speed robots. They added bow ties when there were formal occasions. The kitchen was so huge, so huge. And the backyard opened into an even larger parking lot and an entrance to flats with so many playmates. When Bimbo Ice Cream finally opened on the opposite side, we were set for life. We watched all the Kampala rallies from the verandah of Canton and crossed over to meet the Rally drivers at Bimbo when they came to rejuvenate. For those readers who were not born by then, the first rally race courses were through the streets of Kampala.
My aunt run this establishment with impeccable standards, I am yet to find a kebab that tantalises my taste buds like the ones served at Canton. The drinks were always cold, it did not matter what time of day or night. Those drinks were always chilled to exactly the same temperature. The wooden floors shone so much, that when the sunlight hit the entrance, you could make out your reflection in the floor. The door had a glass partition but never once were there finger print marks on them or single layer of dust. Her glasses were always sparkling, you did not hold a glass from the rim and you most certainly did not bring a client stained or wet glass.
She celebrated her birthday with a ball. We all dressed up, and my cousin Pamela and I were privileged to be flower girls at her party. How glamorous. We were welcomed by Uncle Rukampena, the Master of Ceremonies in his white dinner jacket. He had such a rich baritone, it was a real ball. They had dances like waltz, fox trot. Well, my feet are both left so I could not keep up. It was beautiful to watch the adults glide across the dance floor.
In 1986, this establishment was shut down and my auntie lived in Makerere with us for a while. As an adult, with hindsight, I now recognize this as a difficult season in her life. As a child, I thought this was one long conversation with her sister. Oh my, those sisters could talk. We always wondered if we would talk like them when we grew older. Because they started talking in the morning at breakfast, through lunch, through tea, after supper, they camped at the dining table and continued talking. In the morning, we would find them at the table in the same positions, we bade them good night. Her staying over in my mind, was to attempt to finish this conversation that never ended.
As difficult a season as it was, she did not bow out. She started a retail outlet for ladies’ clothes, enlisted my brothers to go and advertise in the ladies’ halls. She got a steady stream of customers, but she did not settle. Her next target was the ladies in the banks. Did I mention her ironing and sewing skills? She had this ability to turn any garment into as good as new. She leveraged this skill to turn second hand blouses into almost new, and sold them as what we now call first class.
I was privileged to share a room with her, everyone says we are alike. I don’t think so. She was so neat and orderly. She had this ability to sit on a bed and leave it neither dented nor creased.
Whenever we visited Kabale, my dad would point out her home. It looked so forlorn and abandoned for a long time. When she finally returned and we visited, what a transformation. The impeccable gardens, alive with flowers and bees. The grass was well trimmed and looked like a golf course. The wooden floors again, sparkling. The same neatness and orderliness. It became our favorite stop over.
As part of completing a bachelor’s, I needed to conduct research and submit a dissertation. I had no qualms about going to Kabale because my auntie Canton was there. True to form, she welcomed me with open arms. She spared no effort in making me very comfortable. There was a fire every evening when I returned because she knew how cold I got. The meals were ready like clockwork. She ensured my cousins sought a very trustworthy boda boda guy, she said she could not trust those Bakiga men with her niece. And indeed Sadayo proved to be very helpful and resourceful in asking the questions and finding respondents.
She spared no effort in teaching me everything she knew. Every moment was a teaching moment. She found me ironing one time, or should I say attempting to iron. She took over the iron and showed me exactly how to get a crease free ironing everytime. My mother was never too far away from her sister, she always reminded me how privileged I was and to pay attention because I was learning from the best.
On my wedding day, she was unwell but there was no missing embaga ya Kemirimo. She had given my cousin, very strict instructions about her outfit. She came to the wedding dressed like the Queen Mother but she had strained herself to come and had to go back home to rest before the official photos. I don’t have her in the pictures outside the Church.
My auntie Canton, how she loved me so. It was such a humbling gesture.
On 28th April 2011, I received a phone call and my dear Auntie Canton had passed on. On 28th August 2014, I received a phone call and my dear mum had passed on. Even in death, they remained, sisters.