Olanya had not uttered a word to his family since the day Lalam left him for another man. For a year, he spoke only to the bottle of Arege – the bitter local brew – that sat permanently on the lone table in his hut.
He refused to take meals with the rest of the family: Grandma, concerned for his well-being, brought food to his hut every morning and evening. Olanya never thanked her. His face remained expressionless even when Grandma criticized his endless drinking.
One morning, as he sat on the verandah holding a plate of cold food with one hand, and a bottle of Arege in the other, the infant Alinga came tiptoeing towards him. When he saw her, he growled like a lion.
She came closer.
“Go to your mother,” he snapped. Alinga drew closer still, curious to hear him speak.
“What do want? What?” he muttered, pelting the three-year-old with food from his plate. “Do you know that I have a wife?” he asked.
Alinga wiped off food from her skirt
“Are you a dog? I’m speaking to you!”
Alinga sat down in the dirt and began to play with the Arege bottle tops Olanya had discarded there.
“I have a wife,” the drunkard told her. She looked at him and blew spit bubbles.
“Shut up! Just listen. See? I have a wife. Her name is Arege. She is beautiful. I’ll introduce you to her. She is the only one who understands me. She is not like Lalam…that slut!
Arege cannot leave me. She knows I would go blind if I don’t see her. How can I, Olanya take a day without sipping her? How?” he asked. Alinga said nothing.
“I loved Lalam. If it wasn’t love then why did I pay her dowry? Why did I give her parents six cows? They were so poor they ate cassava leaves! And what about the twelve goats and chickens and tobacco and…”
“Oh, Lalam! Lalam!” he wailed.
“But what did she do? Tell me, what did Lalam give me in return for all that love?” He took a long gulp of Arege.
When he had removed the bottle from his mouth and swallowed, he closed his eyes and bared his teeth as though the alcohol was a ball of fire rolling down his throat.
Then he belched.
“Ah. What was I saying?” His eyes were bloodshot now.
Alinga reached for the bottle of Arege. Olanya snatched it away.
“See child, Lalam had no eyes. She didn’t see the love I poured on her and her family. Ungrateful wretch. If she did, she would have given me a child. She would have given me a son. But she insulted me by refusing me children. That evil woman made everyone think my axe had fallen into water. Me, whose own father sired fifteen children. The men from Pawel are the most fertile of men. Everyone knows that. Except Lalam.”
Alinga stood on her fat legs and began to toddle away.
“Hey, come back,” Olanya reached out and grabbed her arm, pulling her back towards him. She sat with a bump and began to fuss a little. To stop her from crying, Olanya gave her an empty Arege bottle to play with. She put it in her mouth. Satisfied that he still had an audience, he continued.
“I got tired of her. I couldn’t stand a woman who humiliated me before my elders. I beat her, and the stupid woman summoned my people and told them I was not digging her garden. Lalam said her garden was overgrown with grass because I had stopped tilling it. But how could I? How could I continue digging a garden so infertile that it only produced thorns and bitter fruits. I refused to let Lalam squat over my head. I, Olanya, a man who urinates while standing was not going to let a woman pee on my head.”
Olanya put the bottle to his lips and, for a while, the only sound was of his greedy gulps.
“See, that’s why I got a new love. She sweeps away my worries, takes me to the real world where problems look only for people like Lalam. This woman, this bottle of Arege, is the only one that makes me complete.
Even when I take her five times a day, she doesn’t say no. She is sweet. She runs down my throat smoothly, settles gently in my stomach and digests all my problems. Then it travels to my head, erases everything – all the bad things that Lalam left behind when she eloped with that useless son of Rwot Ineka.”
“Go…leave me alone,” he suddenly said, kicking at Alinga.
As the infant Alinga began to cry, a woman entered the compound.
“I see you have found someone new to bully,” she said, rescuing Alinga from her uncle’s vicious foot.
“Who are you?” Olanya demanded, rubbing his eyes to clear his vision.
“Olanya, don’t you recognise me?” she asked, rubbing her swollen belly. “It’s me, Lalam, here to show you that it is not my womb that is thorny but your axe that is blunt.”
Among the Acholi, childlessness was largely blamed on women in the past. Even when it had been established that the man of the house was impotent, the issue was hushed so that it didn’t bring shame upon the head of the home. To cover up a man’s impotence, his wife could be forced to become pregnant by his brother. However, if the woman was infertile, her husband could take a second wife without her consultation. Although times have changed, many still blame women for a couple’s childlessness.
Harriet Anena writes and edits.
She participated in the 2013 Caine Prize workshop, and in the 2014 Writivism Creative Writing Workshop. As a mentee with Writivism, she worked under the guidance of Rachel Zadok. You can read more of her on her blog, Jotspot.