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Work Behind the Hills: A Short Story by Abenea Ndago


That night we told Baba and Mama about it. The following morning Baba told us to lie down on our bellies and he beat us on our buttocks with supple powo sticks in front of the hut. We could not understand why.

I would be a liar-child if I said I know who brought him to weed cane fields for Baba those small years, but the man with red lips arrived in the company of a neighbour I did not know, one evening when stars began to poke the curtain of the sky and looked at us through the tiny holes.

He looked thin. His hair was unkempt – the kind I had heard vulgar cane cutters call ‘nyar jakech’, meaning ‘the pubic hair of a man who has stayed for ages without bedding a woman.’ I don’t know who gave the cane cutters those strange ideas, but they used to shout in the cane fields, saying a man who has lived without a woman must have unkempt pubic hair because the hair on the lower belly of every woman’s triangle has the unique power to comb any man. How that was supposed to happen I still don’t know.

Our red-lipped visitor had big eyes. His nose too, and the nostrils were a pair as generous as every donkey’s – we later discovered the first time we took him to bathe in the stream that many things in him were really donkey-like.

The neighbour who had brought him in that evening bid farewell and went away. And then we lined to greet the visitor where he sat near Baba, his two big eyes shining in the clear light of the hurricane lamp Mama had lit to burn for the night.

We went out of the house.

‘His eyes are too big!’ Tabu exclaimed as soon as we were both out of earshot and in the darkness. I agreed and said, ‘They resemble those of tula the owl!’ ‘Why is it so?’ I said I did not know. Tabu quickly told me, ‘I suspect that our visitor is very hungry.’ ‘We will see when Mama brings food.’

Our fears ripened like bananas ready to eat when Mama brought the night’s meal and we surrounded the table. It wasn’t anything to celebrate, especially because here was a visitor who required proper welcoming. The meal was ordinary – red millet bread with omena soup, meant to be waylaid and hurried down our throats in the slippery universe of slimy susa pumpkin leaves.

I nearly choked on the soup the third time our visitor swallowed. Baba asked what was wrong and scolded. Tabu, who sat to my left, almost laughed too. I calmed and looked at Mama. She did not want me to laugh. However she smiled, suspecting she knew what I was laughing at. Tabu and I had never seen a human being eat like that all our lives.

Our visitor had a way with the millet bread on the plate. With one deft movement of the hand he attacked the steep stem of the kuon, used his thumb to dig a deep well in the middle of the ball, swam it across the miserable soup, hurled the boat into his red-lipped mouth; and there was the sound of a great whip as the food went down his throat. What shocked us even more was the casual way he did it, as if it really wasn’t gluttonous and strange.

The next moment Baba discovered what we were laughing at but he maintained his fatherly sternness with a sense of stoicism. Mama went to the kitchen and brought more millet bread. The mound disappeared again.


What became clear to every villager and us was that our visitor’s body swelled within days of his arrival. The unkempt hair looked much better because he bought a yellow comb and began attending to it. His face and sunken cheeks gained flesh. His stomach was taut. The short sleeves of the striped T-shirt he wore slid upward and were arrested in the valley between his biceps and the shoulder muscles, unable to climb the mountain of flesh which barred their way to the elbows.

‘Eat when you are still alive,’ he usually told us before we would blow out the nyangile tin lamp and sleep for the night, to wake up at dawn for school while he carried his jembe hoe and hurried to the cane fields to weed. ‘If I were you children,’ he would add, ‘I would read in school with tears and all the sweat in my body.’

The truth began seeping out on the weekend we walked to the stream. A big hill stood ahead of us, and he knew that a wealthy lady had a large sugarcane estate just behind it. They were the years shortly after the coup attempt, and the people of my village rumoured that the lady was the president’s concubine. It was said that many Ugandans worked for her, especially those who had fled to Kenya after Amin was defeated.

As we walked to the stream, Kiiza was telling us that he had crossed the border when Idi Amin was beaten out of Kampala State House and the big man fled.

‘He was big – big – Amin was very big,’ he was saying. Tabu asked, ‘How big?’ Kiiza explained, stopping briefly, ‘Bigger than all of us combined.’

I asked why a big president was running, being beaten out of state house.

‘That Nyerere man – Nyerere; don’t joke with Nyerere!’ Kiiza exclaimed. ‘Nyerere’s soldiers entered Kampala and defeated us. I crossed into Kenya.’

Our visitor used to speak like that, saying ‘That Nyerere man’ the Ugandan way, as if his voice was climbing up a steep hill and then climbing down again.

We came to know about his wife Kansiime much later, when Kiiza had regained all the flesh on his body and he was now three hundred and sixty degrees whole and alive. Mama used to joke that husbands usually thought about their wives only when their stomach was okay, and Baba wanted to laugh, saying no granary could keep love in times of war.

On one of those evenings when we walked to the stream, our herdsman said he could beat Kiiza in a clean race. Kiiza laughed. Our herdsman was skinny and tiny while Kiiza was big.

The following day we gathered under the ng’ou fig tree behind the homestead. Mama and Baba stood watching, together with Tabu and I, and two Ugandans who had come from behind the hill to visit Kiiza. Kiiza had folded his trousers. He wasn’t laughing. Conversely, our herdsman was smiling and the gap in his upper teeth was visible.

My other elder brother was the starter. A group of onlookers stood where the race was going to end, just near the second fig tree along the wide road earlier on paved for cane-hauling tractors.

My brother clapped his hand and we saw Kiiza’s back curved backwards. I don’t know why he farted as he ran. Three strides alone and our herdsman remained behind, laughing, but Kiiza was farting his way to the end of the race, his back still curving backwards, his trousers folded. He did not even hear when we began shouting telling him to stop because our herdsman had given up and accepted defeat quarter way into the race. He reached the other end neither smiling nor laughing and all of us clapped for him.

‘I tell you always not to joke with a soldier man,’ he was telling the loser. ‘Don’t, my friend. I saw hell working for Idi Amin.’

He said ‘Idi Amin’ the Ugandan way again.

We knew his wife Kansiime because Kiiza didn’t know how to write, so he dictated as we wrote the letters, asking us which letter is that, and this one, and that one, how is this word read, will I really know how to read and write? The first letter we wrote as he dictated one night sounded like this:


P. O. Box 24,





Dear My Wife,

Kansiime my wife, I pray that this letter, which I have written with my own hand, and in my own handwriting, finds you well with our two children (The wind should have whispered to you how these days I know how to write and can write very well).

How are they both doing? But first of all even before I ask about them, how are you doing, my dear only wife?

Here in Kenya I am well and missing you. I am happy but not happy because you, Kansiime my wife, are not near me. I keep thinking about you. I dream. In the morning I pray to God so He can take care of you and our two children.

How are my father and my mother? Greet them for me because I miss them too.

I miss all the things we used to do together. The ones that stand out the most in my mind are the ones we did at night. I miss you, Kansiime, and hope that you do not sin, the way I do not sin. But I am not worried because I can swear that you are the wife that beats for me all other wives, and God who lives in heaven created you for me.

Kansiime, My heart suffers from many aches day and night even when I am in the fields working.

My wife, do not worry.

I have hidden in this envelope a total of 100 Kenyan shillings to help you and our two children. Use it well, as the next money I will earn is thirty days from today.

Do not worry. When I have arranged everything I will come for you and the children.

My wife, sleep with kisses as many as all the stars in the Uganda sky.

Your dear husband,

Kiiza Kabarega.


The following morning, on our way to school, Tabu and I branched, bought a stamp at the post office and posted the letter, which travelled to Kabale in Uganda.

One evening we heard a rumour the next moment after many months, when clouds were beginning to gather for the New Year’s rains. Mama said that Kiiza wanted to leave our homestead to go and work for the wealthy lady who lived behind the hill. Baba said there was no problem and wished the Ugandan well. Tabu and I were unhappy because Kiiza had become our brother. Why was he now going away?

‘Kiiza?’ Baba called him. ‘Here I am, Sir.’ ‘Will you really manage behind the hills?’ ‘I will, Sir. I am a man.’ ‘That is well,’ Baba explained to him. ‘But there, people earn wages; not salaries the way you do here with us. The woman has a large estate and she pays only what you have worked per day. Are you okay with that?’ ‘I am, Sir. I will manage.’ ‘Well,’ Baba told him, ‘may God take care of you, Kiiza.’

Baba paid him and Kiiza began buying new clothes and utensils. Tabu and I knew that Kiiza was happy. He was humming a song which he told us had been sung by a group called Afrigo Band in Uganda. Next he told us about someone called Philly Lutaaya. Kiiza looked happy. He was going to rent a house at the shops.

One evening we came from school. It was going to rain. Dark clouds were gathering. We reached the entrance into Baba’s homestead and met Kiiza running, carrying all the things he had bought, beating the rain on his way to his newly rented house behind the shops. He was bidding us farewell in a hurry. Telling us to please branch one day on our way from school and drink water in his house behind the shops. His body told us that he was happy to leave. We were not sure what he meant about drinking water but perhaps Kiiza meant well.


The first time Tabu and I meet Kiiza is a week after the Ugandan left our homestead, Friday and he is returning from behind the hills where he works cutting burnt cane stems which vulgar loaders pile onto waiting cane hauliers. Kiiza tries to smile so as to make us feel at ease with him, but we can see that he is not well. He is struggling. He is visibly hungry. His body looks deflated. He chews a stem of sugarcane. His clothes are dirty and grey. His face is black with soot from burnt cane leaves. We greet him. His palms are rock-hard, because of the calluses the panga machete has built by rubbing, grinding and bruising at the foot of his every finger.

‘Will you come to my house tomorrow?’ he asks us. Tabu says, ‘Yes, we will.’ Kiiza asks, ‘When will you enter my house? I welcome you children.’ Tabu says when we get time. ‘Aaah, children, you are cheating me now!’ Tabu says, ‘We promise, we promise we will come.’

I laugh. The Ugandan leaves us to go home.

It is several months the second time we meet him. Kiiza is dull and dejected. The most remarkable thing about him is that his body has reduced tremendously. He knows it. That’s why he greets us with guilt splashed onto his face. When we greet him he only grumbles with aloofness. He doesn’t give us his palms.

‘I see boys are going back home?’ he asks. ‘Eeh, we are going back home from school,’ Tabu says on our behalf.

We walk away, turning to look behind and see him properly. We can’t believe this is Kiiza, the one who used to weed for us and tell stories about Idi Amin and Nyerere.

But there are two rumours now – one at home, another in our lonely village. At home, Baba and Mama say Kiiza does not want to meet them. When they return from the shops and see him ahead, coming to meet them, Kiiza branches and ducks into the nearest cane field like a wild animal, to let them pass. When they have passed he emerges and walks to the shops where he lives. Baba feels bad. He says perhaps Kiiza is ashamed to have left.

In the village people whisper that Kiiza is not strong enough to work behind the hills. Other Ugandan refugees can manage the work, but not Kiiza. When people gather to drink chang’aa liquor on the banks of the village stream, the same Ugandans, his very friends who convinced him to leave Baba and flee behind the hills to work, these same people now bring word that Kiiza is a man with no strength in his muscles. They spread word that they have been helping him too much. They say Kiiza cannot clear his rows of burnt sugarcane. It is they who help him every day, and they threaten to abandon him soon.

‘Let him return to Uganda if he cannot manage,’ some say. ‘He thought it would be easy? Never! Let him return to Kabale and live with his wife. He thought behind the hills you can also get free food the way he used to where he worked?’


January rains have subsided. People are busy with weeding. It’s approaching March and April, and the whole village wants to clear the maize fields so the farms can be ready when the next rains, which pour in April, come.

Tabu and I are walking from school when a shaggy man suddenly appears from behind the bend ahead of us. The man is dirty, scrawny and thin. Who is this, we wonder, but something in our bodies tells us that we know him. He carries a panga in his hand.

‘Is your Baba at home?’ the man greets us when we finally meet. ‘Eeeh, our Baba is at home,’ Tabu replies. Kiiza’s voice has changed in a big way – like a very poor man who does not eat regular meals. His body has reduced. He walks weightlessly like a feather. He does not want us to go. Today he holds our hands. ‘Is he really at home?’ Tabu confirms, and asks him what we should tell our Baba on his behalf. But Kiiza says, ‘No word. Tell him I will come to see him.’ Something tells us that Kiiza really wants to see our Baba. We wonder who writes letters on his behalf these days, and whether his wife, Kansiime, and the two children are doing well in Kabale. We haven’t seen Kansiime, and that means things are still not well with him, for he had promised in the letters we had written those years on his behalf to bring her over once things stabilised.


And then, this lunch time, many days after we last met Kiiza, as Tabu and I eat, someone appears from the entrance into Baba’s homestead and walks to the house. We can’t recognise him. He is dead thin. The eyes are deep set. We see red lips – the way we had seen the previous year when a visitor came that night.

The dogs bark and threaten to bite but the man walks on bravely. He doesn’t seem to care about dogs. He reaches our door and knocks at the same time he enters. Tabu and I want to run away because we barely know the visitor.

He reaches the floor and pounces on all the food we have been eating. We scream and shout at him. He eats everything and grabs the water. He sits and drinks, breathing desperately.

‘Eh,’ he whispers in his failing voice, ‘I was dying of hunger. I have been weeding your Baba’s cane field since morning.’

He walks away.

This night Mama and Baba return. We tell them about the visitor and how we screamed at him. ‘Eh?’ Baba is shocked. ‘These children can’t recognise Kiiza whom I yesterday allowed to weed my cane because he can’t manage the work behind the hills? You must be joking.’ The next morning he beats our small buttocks with powo stems and says all human beings only want to live under the sun and then go their different ways.



Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago
Abenea Ndago is a Kenyan writer/scholar. He has published Voices (2017), Crossing the Border (2018), Lord Kitchener (2023), and several short stories.

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