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Spyglass: Welcome, Prodigal! 

By Azore Opio

I think I must begin this story from Entebbe Airport if it has to make any sense at all. That Saturday morning, I mean Saturday 22, August, Entebbe received two different Rip Van Winkles; Olara Otunu and I. Different in the sense that Olara was an American Rip Van Winkle, while I was African-based. And that made all the difference.

Anyway, that is another story altogether.
I got out of the car that had taken me home to see my other people. And now, I approached what was once my village. I met people none of whom I knew, which somewhat surprised me, for I thought myself acquainted with everyone in the village. They all stared at me with equal marks of surprise, not so much for my dreadlocks than for my now smattering knowledge of Luo, which happens to be my mother tongue.

The village was larger, more populous. There were rows of houses I had never seen before and those which had been familiar haunts had disappeared. Strange faces peered at me at the windows. Everything was strange – humans, dogs, fowls and all the like. Pop In, the bar and restaurant that had been our favourite darts joint, in its place now reared a tall glass box. There was an unusually rowdy crowd much less refined than the old gentle folks of the village I grew up in. My mind misgave me. I began to doubt whether I had been bewitched by Rip Van Winkles’ grave roisterers.

Surely, this was my native village which I had left some 16 years ago. There stood "Got Ngetta" [The Rock of Ngetta] with its bald greyish crown glinting in the early evening light; there was the nameless stream that flowed across the town, now dirty, stinking brown. There was every tree, hill and valley precisely as they had always been. I was surely perplexed.

It was with much difficulty that I found the way home; to my own hut, now walled with baked bricks and plastered with a veneer of cement. The "bendskin" had taken me past the very eucalyptus trees I had planted, past to a palm tree I suspected to be the one that had always stood in the middle of our courtyard. A short telephone conversation with my old boy proved me wrong.

"Take a walk back; just keep walking, you’ll get there," said my father.The sunset was pale orange. The birds were twittering their last songs of the day among the bushes that had grown wild over the years; thanks to my insistence that nobody cuts down a tree nor a shrub. Weighed down with a backpack, a handbag and another baby bag, I trudged towards home. Under the palm tree, I dropped my baggage.

She tottered out of the house, her hand to her brow. She peered under it in my face for an endless moment. And old woman, now wizened. Bitterness had overlaid the past with a harsh brush on her face. The elastic vitality of her youth had faded away but traces of beauty still lingered in the wrinkles. She stood there amazed. Then she exclaimed. "God in heaven! Sure enough, it’s my son, Okelo Adwong! Where have you been these 15; 20 years?" I could not contain myself anymore. I ran into the open arms of my mother, fighting back over a decade of tears.

Sure, this is not where I was born. I recalled the adobe brick, grass-thatched hut that had been my resort, the tin-roofed rectangle that had been the main house and the grass thatch hut; Mother’s humble home office. In their places were cosy and clean accommodations in a relaxing atmosphere. I felt very much like Rip Van Winkle [not the happy mortal of foolish, well-oiled disposition, who took the world easy…and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound] waking up on the green knoll on the foot of the fairy Kaatskills Mountains up the Hudson River, but this Nilotic wanderlust.

Now snugly shut up in my low-roofed hut, a wood fire glowing gently in the ashen hearth, I listened again, after that enormous time lapse, to Luo, rich in that legendary lore so invaluable to my history, float from my mother’s lips.

The walk next morning took me through "African Quarters" the equivalent of Clerks Quarters in Buea to the Cathedral, still sitting where it had been since the 60s; high window glass panes tinted as ever reflecting Christ’s halo in the afternoon glare. The swing, which as a 10-year-old boy, I had taken dangerous daredevil flings from and the merry-go-round that had made our heads spin with dizziness, were now encrusted with rust; the chains having fallen off.

The walk took me straight to "Lily" something, I forget. Naturally a thirsty soul, I ordered a cold, frothing beer. I was soon tempted to repeat the order. One order provoked another. I reiterated my dedication to Bacchus with a bottle of Uganda Waragi (triple distilled afofo) until at length my senses were overpowered.
"Where is Okuku Joe?"

There was a silence, then an old man in a thin, raspy pipe voice replied, "Okuku, why, he has been dead and gone 10 years!"
"Where is Ocen?"
"He died five years ago."
"Okwir Sharp?"
"Died five years ago…"
"What about Ladit?"

"We buried him a week ago."
"And Atima?"
"Died long ago…"
"What of Sarah?"
"Oh, she was killed in a car accident."
"Where is Akelo?"
"She went off to America."

Alas! I was dismayed. My heart died away hearing these sad changes in my home and friends and the enormous lapse of time and matter. It was some time before I could get into the regular track of gossip; into the groove, if you like, and be able to shoot the breeze with the new folks and begin to comprehend the events that happened during my Rip Van Winklish torpor.

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