I watched a man die

November 2013, Najjera, Kampala.

It must have been approaching midnight when something startled me from my sleep. I woke up and heard the noise, my heart thudding. When you’re a single woman living in a two-bedroomed house in a sparsely populated area with low fences then yes, your heart is going to thud when you hear a strange noise in the witching hour.

So I got up and hesitated for many long moments in front of the heavy wooden door that separated the living room from the bedrooms and bathroom area. I opened it slowly, not knowing what I would find on the other end. The noise had ceased by now, and my knees had turned to a special version of jelly as I approached the door. There was a curtain over the door and the only way I was ever going to be at peace was if I drew it back and made sure that there was nothing outside. It felt like two lifetimes passed while I stood there, and I was still bathed in liquid fear from head to toe. I drew back the curtain and saw the cause of the noise. It was a man.

For one long, terrifying moment we stared at each other. He was of medium height, dark-skinned and stocky, dressed in a faded shirt and trousers that were rolled up to the knees. The strangest thing was that he was barefoot and his legs were caked in what looked like dried mud all the way up to his knees. I let the curtain drop and took a step back. One of my very worst fears had come true and I didn’t know what to do. In a moment of madness, I opened the back door and went to bang on my neighbour’s door. She was a single mum with kids, and ours were the only two houses in that plot. There was no response, and I raced back into my house, locking the door behind me. I know, I know, it was the craziest thing to do. I blame adrenalin. Funny enough, the wild-looking man at my front door was exactly where I had left him. He had managed to open my screen door but the main door, made of metal, had proved too difficult for him. I went to the front door and started rattling it, shouting at him to go away. He simply stared back at me and I was getting desperate. What was I to do now?

My neighbour’s lungs saved me. She screamed for help and the armed guard from another neighbour’s house came running. Then there was the loudest of bangs and when my ears stopped ringing, I saw a huge round hole in the wall outside the door. Finally I had the strength to step outside and saw that the hole was a bullet hole. It was the first time in my life I had ever come that close to ammunition. The man lay on the muddy patch in front of the veranda, writhing and jerking about. I could see the blood pooling where he had been shot. A small crowd had gathered by now, including my neighbor and her children. They conversed in low tones in Luganda, as the night wore on. The guard who shot the would-be robber had called his supervisor and was now begging me to say that I had caught the man in the act of stealing something. He even suggested that he plant something like a computer in the man’s hands. I refused. The night was horrible enough without a layer of lies to make it more complicated. I looked across at the man on the ground. He had stopped moving and lay completely still. So this was what death looked like – a faded red shirt with a blotchy blood stain on it, curled up in the foetal position. You would have imagined he had fallen asleep right there. The Black Maria came around 3 a.m. and his body was loaded in while the police officers took a statement from me and the guard.

I thank God that the word ‘attempt’ could be affixed to whatever it was the man in the faded red shirt was planning. Attempted robbery, most likely. And because I am female, rape remains in the realm of possibility, a particular kind of dread that only my kind can understand. I thank my God, I can tell you this story.

 

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