My workmate, Carolyne, is playing Bob Marley’s music in the office. It’s 12:57pm. She says she’s bringing some cheer in this place. “You all are all quiet and it feels dull. I need to bring some energy in here,” she says. I want to ask if weed will be part of this creation of cheer event but… You can’t say such words in office. You can’t think about stuff like that at the workplace. Weed? What’s wrong with you? Do you think this is Canada or South Africa or that country you’re thinking about?
I hold my tongue before my lips let out anything silly. Since it’s lunch break, we can simply relish in the reggae beats of the legendary Marley with no smoke from the sacred herb wafting from office.
I work at an office that sits on Katonga road, a 250 meter stretch that connects Sezibwa road to Shimoni road. It’s the horizontal line that crosses the two vertical lines to make the letter H. The vertical line to the right is Sezibwa and the one to the left is Shimoni. Katonga road is a lazy lane by day. Lifeless and stale. It stays there like an abandoned old house with spiders building their webs on its walls and ceiling. Boda boda guys park their bikes under the tree shade by the side of this road. They take naps here like it’s a napping pod. Nothing bothers the people that hang out a long this road.
There’s no hooting and no shouting here. Protestors never get to this side of town. The pathway stands alone. The patches of potholes are conspicuous. It’s a serene route. The only time there was trouble here was a few years ago when one of the opposition political leaders had his office along this road. It’s not here anymore.
At both ends of the road are residential places or diplomatic offices of ambassadors. The high commissioners of South Sudan, Nigeria and Tanzania live around Katonga road. The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates sits to the left turn at the end this stretch. Driving schools bring their learners here to get the art of reversing. Morgen, Nachmitagg, Abend. There are always learners under instruction practicing their reversing skills.
Katonga road seems like an insignificant tract. But when the moon rises, it wakes up too. It becomes a business hub, a collection point for a trade that’s several millennia old. The ladies of the night take control of this stretch. It becomes their home, their stage, a POS machine. It becomes strategic. This is how this road gets its strategic night importance.
There is something else though, a rumour I haven’t confirmed. It could be true. I think it’s true. The reason that’s on top of the pile for why Katonga road is a key stretch for the night workers is, wait for it, the building in which I currently work was once a brothel. You weren’t expecting that, huh! This was many years ago.
They say it was a place where bodies of the street ladies united with those of men who had the money to pay for it, just for the night. Married and unmarried alike would make their pick and walk into this building. They wouldn’t mind where they did the deed; in the grass, by the swimming pool, under the mango trees, on the floor, by the side of their parked cars, in the bathrooms. They’d have orgies.
By the time morning came, this place would become a field of condoms. Expensive and cheap, coloured and non-coloured. Flavoured and unflavoured. It would become a museum of used condoms. The night guards would make money from the tips these men gave. Some of them were big shots in the country. They wouldn’t want the world to know what they did in the dark. Oh, the guards made a living from those tips. This became the kind of place that, if God decided to show up, everyone would hide their faces the way Adam and Eve did after they’d had the apple for breakfast.
It’s the women who came to clean the day after that I feel for. What would go on in their minds? How did they feel? Did they ever pray for that madness to stop? Did they pray for their children to become better than the people who left their semen lying around in rubber tubes? These cleaning women would pick up the used condoms and clean up after everyone else had gone. That’s such a lowly job. But they’d do it. They’d do it because that’s how they made a buck to feed their children or to take them to school. They’d do it because it’s probably the only thing they had going at that time to help them survive. I’m sure, if they had something else to do, they’d opt out of this kind of work. But that’s what they had to do at that point.
To get a standing spot on Katonga road at night, you need a godmother. Someone who’ll put in a good word for you to the gang. Someone who’ll say you have a great future in this business. One who’ll vouch for you, hold your hand and express confidence in your ability. You can’t just walk here in the night the way you like and go psychologically unscathed.
One of my workmates once left her car at the office parking lot and went for a quick evening with friends. She returned on foot at about 9:00pm, walking along this road. The ladies who conquer this route opened their eyes, looked at her with such piercing eyes and asked what she was doing in their territory. Was she coming to take position? No ma’am, this place is full, they told her. This is not for you. Find another location. She told them she worked here, on Katonga road. They told her to prove it. None of the ladies knew her. No one had seen her here before. Of course they wouldn’t have seen her. She works here during day when the sun gives us light not when the stars are twinkling.
This is marked territory, marked with pheromones like the dogs do when they pee to create boundaries. The good news is my colleague made it out alive but to this day, she doesn’t go to Katonga road in the night. The trauma still brings chills to her spine.
It’s also on this road that I flagged down a Safe Boda. It was after 5:00pm. I told him I was going to Kisaasi.
“Can I pair with you?” I asked.
He’d run out of hairnets. I told him I’d wear the helmet even without a net. I plug in my earphones and wear the head guard. We ride to Kisaasi and I stop at a stage called Step by Step. I take off the helmet. This was a cashless ride so I thank him and walk to where I was heading.
Heads are turning. People are staring at me. A guy at a shop is speaking to his friend when he stops and points at me. His friend turns. They both chuckle. I feel an unusual air around me. There is an uneasiness that’s twirling in my space. Why do I feel like everyone is watching me? I stop by a Mobile Money booth to withdraw some money. The attendant looks at my head and gets a little shy. I have no idea what’s going on. I take the path to my place and stop by to have a chat with a neighbour. We exchange niceties. He looks over my head but says nothing. Our neighbourhood dogs run behind me as I get to my door. They bark. Whatever that meant. I chase them away.
I get to my house and take off my work clothes. I remain in my boxers and as I walk past my bathroom mirror, I see strands of female hair on my head. It explains the unending stares. They must’ve imagined, instead of working, I was having a steamy day on Katonga road. I can’t believe my neighbour didn’t say a thing when he saw my head. I feel betrayed.
And now I move with hairnets in my laptop bag every day.