When I was a child, I played in streams I thought were rivers, woods I thought were forests, with children I thought were heroes for knowing everything about those rivers and forests.
They knew how to get “ensonzi” (eels) from the “river,” rub sticks together to make a fire to roast them and they knew how to eat them without the treacherously sharp tiny bones pricking our tongues or sticking down our throats, “Like Obote who was a greedy fish eater,” they used to laugh.
We would go to fetch water in jerry cans without covers, some of us pots, or cross the “river” with our fathers to the farm to help carry back the milk that was going to the diary, in the chilly morning with our teeth chattering and not return until after 10am. When we would find sweet smelling milk with “ekiyansi” and burnt delicious sweet and Irish potatoes waiting for us for breakfast.
If we did not have to go to school, those of us who were too young or who had paid the school dues for that term could go back to the forest for the rest of the day-running feet of happiness, shirtless, shoeless, empty-pocketed, to hunt for the treasures of the forest, to heat our feet in the noonday sun on the caked earth of the great rift valley, in whistling wonder listening to Kasigi retell how God belched and the earth separated to create this rift valley and how one day he might belch again: it could even be today!
The boys would run naked into the “river” and splash water at the giggling girls huddle on the bank and I could see, even then, in the corner of my eye, the boy and the girl who had split from the group to talk in private under a tree away from us. The girl chewing the “ntututu” the boy had brought her and we would know somehow that they would never be like us again.
The older boys would slap the guy on the back and wrestle him to the ground so roughly his knees would bruise and he would have to rub “eshabarara” where the skin had been torn off. The girl would become like a mother, the girls and all the younger ones jealously vying for her attention, and she would turn away no one. She would have answers for the girls that would make them cup their chins in thoughtful attention and she would frolic her fingers though our hair in a ticklish progress that distracted us to no end, then stop, ask us if we could name the cawing bird cry that had just rung out in the forest.
Off we would go! Running for the tree we thought we had heard the booming cry, to stand, up-turned faces of wonder, searching, looking at the sky blue mat of branches and leaves and a spinning sky till we were dizzy from the game.
Sometimes it rained but we never left the “forest.” Sometimes there were accidents, but we returned to the “forest.” Many times we were warned, but no one stopped us from going back to the “forest.” The “forest” was big and we would return every evening from the “forest” when we had not been to half of what it was, the big boys would assure us. But we did not mind because the “forest” was a part of us and we would always go back, we thought.
The “forest” is no longer there, in the village where I was born.