An Old Man’s Tale. 31st May 2016

[A random conversation, somewhere in Uganda]

Hello, friend.

Do you have a minute? Sit, please, and let me tell you a story.

Would you care for a cup of tea? Two sugars? No, I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t have honey. I used to keep some, once… but that was a long time ago. Ah, yes, In this very jar. Honey doesn’t go bad, you know. Or so the elders used to say.

A long time ago, I knew a person who stood at the top of a mountain. That stunningly surreal place where the sky caresses the earth with the softest clouds. You know that place? Yes. You’ve seen it in those “impossible” pictures a thousand times.

She stood at the top of the mountain. And the sky sat on her shoulders. The air was cold and her breath came out in harried fits, but then, after she had rested for a while and the burning pain in her chest had stopped, the sun rose and the world turned into an indescribable vibrancy that took her breath away.

She had smiled as the warm morning sun stroked her face. It had taken her a very, very long time to get there.

“Years.”, she said. “No, decades.”, she clarified. She used to come here often, to read my books. And we talked about everything.

Her dreams started when she was young, eight, if I recall correctly. All she could see when she slept – every single time she closed her eyes – was the sky, endless before her, and the earth, magnificent and still beneath her. And all around her, she saw the glory of life, radiant with the stillness of unsullied beauty.

“If hope had a smell, that is definitely what it would smell like. Victory’s scent… it was the scent of the heaven.” We had laughed at how silly that sounded.

And each day she woke up, barely remembering the dreams. At first, they came back to her in little flashes; fleeting, but breathtaking. It always caught her unaware, and sometimes, she would drift off for a few seconds before something or someone dragged her back into the real world. But then, suddenly, it was all she could see, whether she closed her eyes or not.

And so the dream took her. And she embraced it. She trained hard. She read all the books she could find and took all the challenges there were to take. The dream consumed her like the ancient fires that ravaged the savannah, back when the wildebeest roamed free.

And it burned her alive. Her friends left her. Her family deserted her because, as they say around these parts, “she had lost the plot”. She hadn’t. But she lost everything else in the singular, resolute pursuit of this dream.

Weeks passed by. Months became years and the years, unrelenting, became decades.

And then, one day… she stood at the top of the mountain.

And the sky sat on her shoulders.

The people of her little village gathered at the foot of the mountain, and cheered endlessly, staring in wonder at the girl who now stood at a place they could only see in their own dreams.

Somewhere in the crowd, her friends and family rejoiced along with her, and her mother, crying happy tears, hugged her father a little tighter. They were so proud, they cooed to each other. So very, very proud.

More tea? Oh don’t worry, there’s a full kettle on the stove.

What happened to my friend? She’s out there somewhere, conquering even bigger mountains.

“I’m in Japan! Can you believe it?!” the excitement in her voice was contagious when I called her from the Post Office ten years ago.

Back here at home, she became a local celebrity, and next thing we knew, everyone wanted to climb the mountain, including Mama Okello’s youngest son, Onek. You know, the one with the front-tooth missing. I really worry about that boy; his tooth should have grown back by now.

I apologize. And old man’s mind is as the dragonflies that flit across the flooding streams during the wet season. Why am I telling you this story? I knew you’d ask that.

I see you trekking home, back to your mother’s house at the top of the hill each evening, after a long day serving customers at the dduka near Ssalongo Mukiibi’s food joint. But that man can cook!

You spend a lot of time on your verandah, staring out into the distance. Sometimes for hours on end…

I’m an old man, and all I have left is time, sunsets, stories, and tea. Tea without honey.

But you… you, my friend.

Tell me, what happened to your mountain?

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