Murder in Mbale

Will Heilpern

Uganda 300x223 Murder in MbaleWe were meant to go to mount Elgon to speak to farmers who were disillusioned at their crops dying because there was no rain. The plan changed when Amos, the local TV reporter I was shadowing, got a phone call from the police. He got a call, so he hit the Boda Boda (moped taxi) driver hard on the shoulder.

‘Jangua! Jangua!’ (faster! faster!)

He hit again. ‘Jangua!’ (faster!)

Clearly he was concerned with more than just the velocity of the bike because we turned around almost immediately. After snaking through the dust, traffic and random obstacles that litter the treacherous roads of Mbale, we encountered a police truck: one of those with a front cabin and a trailer at the back with two rows of outside seats facing opposite ways.

Four soldiers with guns facing left. Four soldiers with guns facing right.
Amos and I jumped aboard the truck with the eight. The vehicle roared and we rode and I felt oddly jubilant. I was drunk on the authority of their uniforms and their guns and their nasty, worn faces. Or maybe just the adrenaline.

In between spattered words of Ugandan English, which I always find fairly incomprehensible, I grasped only ‘murder’ and ‘dangerous area’. I became comfortable despite the rattle of the pot-holed road and the annoyance of the gun-butt which was lodged into me, but then we stopped somewhere deep in the vast maze of the Namatale slums. After reluctantly jumping off the truck, I followed Amos and the eight through the tight alleyways, passing dilapidated buildings and staring, dark faces.

Amos rushed excitably, the police strode assuredly and routinely, whilst I was nervous, slow and awkward. The morning light was glaring. The women with scarves wrapped around their heads and the men without were also glaring. Then the crowds became thicker exponentially; to pass through spaces I muttered impotent ‘excuse me’s to the increasingly worried, intense faces.

By this point, and for the first time in Mbale, the locals main concern was not the whiteness of my skin. For once they did not need to shout ‘muzungoo’ at me.

Amos pulled me through with him and the police. We reached a room within one of the stained alabaster alleys, next to a space between houses where the main crowd gathered and chattered.

The room was mainly filled with large women, dressed in variously coloured dirty rags and headscarves. The most active woman wore a black headscarf branded Dolce and Gabana. Her dark, weary face was pot-holed like the roads. Her eyes were wet, but not soaking; not moving yet. She was handing out disposable gloves. The small room was crowded and it was obvious that the body was in there and needed to be moved.

Amos confirmed this by grabbing my arm, squeezing it and pulling me in to the room. With his other arm he pointed at the bed, smirking: ‘Have you seen?’

Of course I had seen. I stole a glance at that small, velvet black, male head that poked through the grey sheet which covered his now redundant and limp limbs. His open mouth showed a wide gap between his white middle teeth where the poison was presumably forced into him. His eyes, definitely closed, still managed to portray a wiry pain.

I felt wrong being there. I had invaded the scene of the most intimate act. The act of murder was shared between husband and wife. They were in their mid-thirties, business people. I should not have felt that man’s lifeless feet brush against my jeans, as they carried the wrapped body out of the room, into the alley, through the crowds and ultimately to the police truck in which I had been sitting in earlier, jubilant.

The next 10 minutes were the worst. Amos grabbed relatives of the deceased to get them to stand in front of his camera and weep. The smell of death also became more pungent, presumably dislodged when he was picked out of his final bed. The sickly sweet rot of flesh forced me to retch sporadically.

Eventually, we left.

I had never seen death before and so I assumed that its profundity would give me reasonable excuse to go home. I think that somehow my facial expression conveyed all of this. Amos simply grinned and we went to Mount Elgon to speak to the farmers who were disillusioned by their crops dying because there was no rain.

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