A man who can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, the words echoed in his mind. He ate fork after fork of matooke, rice and beans but tasted nothing. It was the first time in their two and a half years of marriage that she had lashed out at his impotence.
“I heard he can’t even get it up.” Halima’s words snapped him into consciousness and he spun his head towards her like an invisible hand had slapped him across the cheek. She was looking away from him, towards Liz, who was listening eagerly.
Liz gasped. “No! You’re lying!” she said incredulously.
“I’m serious,” Halima said.
Frank swallowed. A chunk of matooke fell off his fork and back onto the plate. He did not notice the tiny splash it made in the bean stew, or the little brown speckles of soup that splattered onto his shirt.
“How do you know?” Liz said.
“Diana went home with him after the employees’ dinner. She said he kept mumbling apologies all night,” Halima said and giggled.
“But Gesa, that gu man,” Liz said, “And the way he likes hitting on me, you’d think he has a fully-loaded one down there!”
They both laughed heartily over their food, looking around briefly to make sure they were not laughing too loudly to attract attention. Frank turned quickly back to his food just before they caught him staring at them. His heart released rapid thuds of relief and his hand shook with gratitude as he raised the fork to his mouth. His secret—his curse—was safe with him for now.
The short story “Potency,” published in Omenana magazine, is probably the reason I’m interviewing John Barigye.
A man can suddenly move objects at will, but this new superpower contrasts painfully with his lack of sexual potency and ability to earn a good living. The gift of power ends tragically without any trace of heroism.
John: “I’d been going to various online forums and I was bit distressed that men’s reproductive issues are not talked about as often as women’s. There are so many men suffering from ED or impotence. It’s not talked about mainly because most guys don’t want to talk about it.
“I wanted to see if people had come out and said ‘You know what, I’m suffering from this.’ So I actually got in got in touch with one of my doctor friends and I asked her if she could get me someone who is suffering so I could interview them for my story. She said it would be impossible. Because whenever they talked about it, it was similar to having a confession with a Catholic priest. It stays in the confessional.
“There was a lot of scientific, technical stuff but there wasn’t a lot on the human side of it, about what guys go through, what it’s like to have ED.
“So I asked another friend of mine who is also a doctor, ‘Since I can't talk to anyone face-to-face maybe you could tell me what you’ve seen yourself. How do people behave? How are they emotionally affected?’ He told me that many of these people don’t consider themselves fully masculine. About 90 per cent of a man’s self-esteem is inside his pants. So it’s very hard being a person who doesn’t function properly.
“So I got as much information as I could and I improvised the rest, tried to place myself in character. What would it be like if I had something like that? The more you go into it, the more people are—you know—they are very evasive.
“Especially in Africa, it’s basically the worst thing that can happen to a man. Even the word for an erection in Luganda—amaanyi g’ekisajja—literally translated is ‘the male power.’ Without that you are just a non-descript human being.
“I’ve realised if a man fights with his girlfriend or his wife, what’s the one thing that she knows will get under his skin? She’s going to talk about what he does in the bedroom and even if he does OK, men are so insecure about it that he will believe what she is saying. That is how we are wired. I wrote about it because it was pitiful for a man’s entire self-esteem to be based on that. And it was pitiful for that to be something you are ashamed about. It’s not something you can control. It just happens.
“So I said let me write about it. I wrote about this man with ED. He had a tumour that left him crippled. But because he was in this African setting, that was not acceptable, especially to his father who wants heirs and grandkids. So someone else did the job for him.”
SPOILER: The story stops abruptly and ambiguously, with the hero killing the dangerously ill child he has accepted as his own. Had he been trying to cure it? Even John, the author, is not sure.
John: “You sometimes might not know yourself. The traits of your character might not be very clear to you. Even now I still wonder, did he accidentally kill or subconsciously terminate the child because A: he was so tired of seeing it so miserable, or B: that the child was a constant reminder of his inability to be someone’s true father.
“He did love the little boy, but in the ending he probably wasn’t...I don’t think he would have been that unaware of what was happening to the child. He didn’t take it to the hospital, so is it possible even before he got the powers that he wanted it dead? It would end his marriage. His wife would never forgive him for that.”
GR: “The wife is called Oliver? Does this have any significance?”
John: “Over here, it’s supposed to be Olivia, but the locals can’t differentiate the sound so you will find many women here called Oliver.”
“I always want some kind of an emotional depth in all my stories...I don’t think I will ever write something that is pure science fiction. I’d get bored after the first two paragraphs. I really like psychoanalyzing people, and getting into their heads. I like to add the supernatural part of it as the icing on the cake. I don’t know if it would be the butter for the bread.”
He means money. That very day John had to move back into his father’s home in Gayaza, a city well outside Kampala. So we meet halfway at the luxury Ridar Hotel in Seeta, about a forty minute drive along the Kampala-Jinja Road.
The hotel has a pool and a rooftop bar. John asks the staff to turn off the TV so we can do the interview, and unlike, say the bar in the BBC, they do. So our interview is also full of the sound of children playing in the pool.
John studied engineering at Makerere University and for two years worked in the Coca Cola bottling factory near Seeta.
John: “I left there to pursue something more creative. I wanted to write more. It wasn’t easy to write while working eight to five every day. It’s been over a year since I left Coca Cola. I’m actually out of work, though I write scripts for radio, but obviously that’s more of a side job. I’m still looking for that permanent eight-to-five creative kind of work.
“I’m actually shifting today. I’m moving back home to Gayaza to my father’s house.
“My first published story is called ‘Temptations’, a story that was about a young man who finds it difficult to commit to his long term girlfriend. It was published in Dilman Dila’s magazine Lawino.”
I ask him why he said he wouldn’t write science fiction.
John: “Fantasy, dark fantasy especially, has always been my forte. Even when I’m reading, I prefer to read in that genre. I’ve actually been writing short stories since about 11. The first book I read that brought out that part of me was Dracula by Bram Stoker, but this one was illustrated for children. It really made a very big impression on me. It scared the hell out of me. But for some reason I couldn’t shake the allure. I felt drawn to the dark kind of literature.
“I started writing horror stories when I was eleven, very short stories probably five hundred to a thousand words long. But I gave up writing when I entered high school. All the way to campus, I gave up writing. Until I went onto Facebook. Instead of writing a few notes, I said ‘Why don’t I try writing some more stories?’
“There I started writing a story called ‘The Tree.’ It was my first horror story after my long sabbatical from writing. Yeah. So by the time I’d got published in Omenana I’d actually written quite a bit. My first published fantasy story—it was my first published story in such an international magazine—was ‘The Man Who Stole Monday’.
“It was inspired by hating Mondays. I didn’t like going to work at Coca Cola every Monday morning. Such a brief weekend and you haven’t done much over the weekend, probably just slept the whole time.
“So the story is about a guy who finds himself where time is kept. And he finds the days and he steals Monday because it’s his worst day. But as I thought it through I realised it wouldn’t change much; there would still be a first day of the week. So you would just transfer your problems to Tuesday. It ends with the guy realizing that he hasn’t changed anything.
“I got published in the Afridiaspora magazine. I wrote a story called ‘The Storm’. It was about a semi-apocalyptic kind of event where it floods and wipes out a large chunk of the Ugandan civilization. This guy goes home one day, it’s raining, but the rain is weird.”
We talk about the importance of people like Dilman Dila publishing Lawino, or FEMRITE with their workshops. John talks about the many other initiatives that help African writers.
“Have you met Dennis Asiimwe? He has a group on Facebook where he tries to run writing competitions at least once a year.
“I think the very first writing award for Innocent Acan was from Dennis Asiimwe’s group, the very first competition he held.
“So I was using that group as another incentive to write. The group is putting together an anthology called The Gathering. We just had a competition, it’s called The SSW Competition, and Doreen Baingana judged it.
“One of the stories I wrote was about a guy who is something more than human. Something inhuman lurking beneath his humanity. But he doesn’t really know because he suffers from memory loss. Whenever episodes occur he remembers them as dreams so he doesn’t know what’s happening until at the end he realizes that it’s been him who has been killing all these people. That one was called ‘I Don’t Know What I Saw.’ And it was published in The Gathering.
“Then there is Writivism which is based here in Uganda. It organizes a regular literary festival and also gives a prize. I think Kyomuhendo Ateenyi is in charge of Writivism on Facebook. He’s the only guy I know that works for them but I know many people are involved.”
We go back to talking about his early reading.
“Some of my favourite horror books? I’ve read Stephen King. The Stand was an epic, but I preferred Pet Sematary. I recently read The Taking by Dean Koontz. It was awesome. I am crazy about Franz Kafka. The Metamorphosis is obviously exceptional. When I wrote ‘The Storm’ I was in a kind of hangover from reading The Metamorphosis and The Taking. When you read something so good it seeps into your writing.
“I also like M.R. James. I am an unashamed horror fan. I love ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.’ I have a collection of his short stories. Obviously, Edgar Allen Poe. I read ‘The Black Cat’ when I was in my form six. I don’t know what I was doing. I think I was bored. I was a science student then. I went into the library and got a Reader's Digest book of strange stories, a very old book that was eaten by roaches. I opened it and I saw The Black Cat, so I read it and by the time I was done I was both wowed and horrified at the same time. That story has stayed with me since then. I shared it recently on The Gathering. But I have to say that my favourite short story of all time has to be ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’”
We talk about the story for a while. Is there a hint of vampirism to Roderick Usher? Is the house a symbol of a divided America? So much of his reading is American or European, so I ask him what elements of his work he thinks of as being distinctively African.
John: “I haven’t thought about that. When an African writes in an African setting for his character and story I think that’s natural. When I write I just sit and picture something in my head and write.”
With so many of his influences being European, I ask him about his heritage. What is his mother tongue?
John: “Runyankore-Rukiga. I had to switch to English in school. I eventually spent more time at school speaking English than my mother tongue at home. So I got more of English than my mother tongue. Then I would go back home and it would take a few days to get back to normal. I don’t write in my mother tongue, but I can.
“I have characters in my stories who are Banyankore/Bakiga but that information shows up just in the name. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s not as easy for an African to write a story that is as deep as if it were written by an English speaker. The vocabulary is lacking something for most of us. I tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses once but I needed a dictionary to get through most pages.
“I feel that Africa has a lot of untapped treasure for fantasy writing. If you were to start writing fantasy from scratch and if you got all the famous fantasy writers: the Edgar Allan Poes, the Stephen Kings, the Franz Kafkas and if they had been born African, they would have had a lot of material to work with. There is a lot of magical realism here. It is very fertile ground for someone with a mind that gravitates towards fantasy.
“We have a lot of culture, but a lot of our history is not written down. So we have to write it down.”