Rumpus Exclusive: “Kirabo Visits the Witch”


The moment presented itself at dusk the following day. Grandfather was in his bedroom listening to Omulimi, a farmers’ programme on the radio. Grandmother was getting supper ready. The teenagers had gone to fetch water. Kirabo was not welcome at the well in the evening because that was when the big boys were sweet on village girls and the big girls lowered their guard around village boys. Apparently, Kirabo had a nasty habit of dropping these things into conversation with her grandparents. Whenever she tried to join the teenagers, they hissed threats. There was still daylight, so Kirabo decided to go and sit with Grandmother in the kitchen and wait for the dark.

She paused at the door. Grandmother looked up, a lusansa straw pinched between her lips. A huge roll of the mat she was weaving sat coiled beside her feet. She moved up on the mat to make room for Kirabo. She added the lusansa to the edge of the mat and wove again, criss-crossing the straws above and beneath, sometimes skipping two or even three at a time, to make patterns. Kirabo remained at the door, held back by guilt that she was about to betray her grandmother.

“Are you going to stand there all evening like an electricity pole?”

Kirabo stepped inside. When she sat down, she leaned her back against Grandmother and closed her eyes. She listened to Grandmother’s heart. Her body expanded and fell, expanded and fell with each breath. I am not betraying you, Jjajja: I love you too much. Kirabo was sure Grandmother’s heart could feel hers.

She opened her eyes. Ganda chickens were strutting in. Apart from the one with chicks, they made a fuss as they flew up to the rafters. The mother hen went to the nest in a corner where she hatched her chicks and made roosting noises. The chicks ran and collected around her legs. Slowly, they disappeared into her rump as she sat on them and closed her eyes. Something caught in Kirabo’s throat about Mother Hen’s kind of love.

Grandmother nudged Kirabo to sit up and leaned forward to stoke the fire. When she sat back down, Kirabo did not lean against her again. She turned and looked at her. She stared for so long Grandmother asked, “Have I grown horns?”

Kirabo wondered whether to tell Grandmother that age spots had appeared under her eyes. God must have sprinkled them while Grandmother slept, because they were not there the other day. On her chin were two hairs, thick and curled. Kirabo reached to touch them. Grandmother looked up sharply. Kirabo’s hand fell. “There is a hair on your chin.”

“It means I am going to be rich someday.”

“Giibwa said a hair is coming on my chin, too.” Kirabo rubbed her chin.

Grandmother’s lips twitched. “Let me see.” She tilted Kirabo’s chin. “You are going to be very rich: my wealth and yours combined.”

“Why do you smile small, Jjajja?”

Grandmother picked up another straw, tore it with her teeth, and sighed. “You are growing up, not down.”


“Now don’t go hurrying to grow up to find out.”

Kirabo laughed.

“Mosquitoes have started. Go and check in the water barrels. If there is water, take a bath and stay in the house with your grandfather.”

Kirabo jumped up. Darkness was complete. She ran to the barrels but did not check them. Instead, she ran around the kitchen to the back path that went to Batte’s house. There was no chance of meeting anyone that way. Batte, the village drunk, lived alone. He had already gone to Modani Baara, the local bar, to drink. She reached the rear of Batte’s kitchen and crossed his front yard. The house was in total darkness. When she got to the main road, she heard the teenagers returning from the well. She stepped behind a shrub. Nothing to worry about; there would be an hour of taking baths before they noticed her absence.

When the teenagers turned into the walkway, Kirabo jumped from behind the shrub and sprinted down the road, past the Coffee Growers’ Co-operative Store, known as koparativu stowa by everyone in the village. It was so dark that bushes, shrubs, coffee shambas, and matooke plantations were one solid mass of blackness, a shield rather than a threat. Kirabo couldn’t even see her hands. When she got to Nsuuta’s, she ran across her courtyard, but stopped before she got to the door and tiptoed the rest of the way.

Nsuuta had not closed her front door, but a lantern was lit. An invitation to mosquitoes, Kirabo tsked. But then again, Nsuuta could be one of those witches even a mosquito would not dare bite. She peered through the door: Nsuuta was nowhere to be seen.

The witch’s diiro was small. The lantern sat on top of a packed bookshelf with glass shutters. On the wall a huge portrait of Kabaka Muteesa II—this time in royal garb, sitting on his throne—took up most of the space. On the other wall was a calendar: December 1968. On it was the familiar image of Sir Apollo Kaggwa with Ham Mukasa that every household had on its walls, as if attempting to turn back time and wish Idi Amin away. In a basket placed next to the lantern was a heap of spectacles, some plastic, some metallic.

Koodi?” Kirabo called.

Karibu; we are in. Who is there?” The voice came from the inner rooms.


“Eh?” Disbelief. “You mean Kirabo, Miiro’s morning sunshine?”

“Yes.” Kirabo had no qualms about that description.

“My grandmother, Naigaga,” Nsuuta swore. “Is everything all right?” She appeared from the inner room, frowning. She stood in the doorway, too tall and erect for an old woman and too dignified for a witch, as far as Kirabo was concerned. Nsuuta stared at Kirabo with glassy blue eyes. “Come, come in.”

Kirabo was transfixed. She had no idea old people could be beautiful. She had seen Nsuuta up close five years ago on Aunt YA’s wedding, but all she saw then was a witch. In her own home, Nsuuta had the light skin of a gourd. Unlike Grandmother, who plaited her hair in small tucked-in knots, Nsuuta cut hers short and brushed it backwards. And her house? Too tidy. She must have trapped a newly hatched ghost, on its way to the ancestors, to do her chores.

“Everyone is fine.” Kirabo whispered to indicate that she had come on the stealth. She took a breath as she kicked off her slippers at the door. When she stepped inside, she felt Grandmother’s trust evaporate with a shiver.

“Something big must be chasing Miiro’s favourite.” Nsuuta sat down on a mat. “Come, tell me what it is. But first, how is your grandfather?”

“He is there. Very well.”

Now inside Nsuuta’s house, Kirabo didn’t know how to start.

“Come close, let me see how you have grown.”

Kirabo shuffled forward on her knees. Perhaps Nsuuta would sense her problems through touch. Nsuuta felt Kirabo’s hands, then her arms, measuring them at the joints. She touched Kirabo’s face with both hands, feeling her cheekbones, eyebrows, forehead, and chin.

“Hmm.” She seemed worried. “Your features are well arranged.” Nsuuta felt Kirabo’s neck. “Oh, your grandmother’s neck. Now we have a problem.”


“You might turn out good-looking and dumb.”


“You didn’t know? Once the world stares at beauty, the brain stops growing.”


“Beauty brings all the fine things in life, but a plain girl needs her wits about her.”

“But I am so dark-skinned, they call me Kagongolo.”

“That might help. By the time people realise a dark woman is beautiful she has walked past. But light-skinned women, mya”—she made a flash with her hands—“they dazzle and blind.”

Kirabo wanted to laugh; did Nsuuta have any idea how light-skinned she was?

“People say my legs are ‘embarrassed.’”

“Who cares about skinny legs? You are going to bury them in a busuuti.”

Kirabo had never thought of that.

“However, you might get too tall if you don’t stop growing now.” Nsuuta cupped Kirabo’s face in her hands. Unlike Grandmother’s coarse ones, Nsuuta’s hands were as soft as a baby’s. She does not do chores, Kirabo thought.

“How old are you?”

“Started walking my thirteenth this month.”

“Just made twelve? Wo! You are already too tall. Listen, if people ever say to you, Oh, Kirabo, you are good-looking, you are beautiful—ignore it. You have not earned it. Otherwise, beauty can get in your way.”

“Already they call me Longie, for longido or lusolobyo.”

Nsuuta laughed relief. “We Ganda cannot stand tall women.”

“I will never get married, anyway.”

“Good. I mean… why?”

“I am a witch.”

Nsuuta sat back and batted her eyelids. “A witch?”


“What kind of witch?”

“A real one.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Have you talked to your grandmother?”

“How? She would not understand.”

“And I would?”

“You are the only witch I know.”

Nsuuta’s face shone as if it was a compliment.

“Everyone says that despite your blindness you can see. And you make men do things for you.”

“I do.” Nsuuta was shameless. “Tell me, how do you know you are a witch?”

“There are two of me.”

“Oh? That is serious. Where is the other one?”

“Right now? Inside me, both. But recently, the bad one keeps flying out. Are there two of you, too? Does one of you fly out, does she make you do bad things?”

Nsuuta sighed. “Yes, there are two of me, but we are looking at you, not at me. When did you find out there are two of you?”

“They have always been there, but then the bad one has started to fly.”

“Hmm.” Nsuuta sighed. “Tell me, Kirabo. Of your two selves, who are you now, who is talking to me?”

Kirabo looked blank.

“I mean, when the bad self flies out, do you stay with the good self or do you fly with the evil one?”

Kirabo wanted to lie that she stayed with the good self, but Nsuuta already knew.

“It is a crisis, is it not, Kirabo,” Nsuuta asked, “when you realise you prefer your evil self?”

“I don’t. In truth I don’t. She takes me with her all the time.”

Nsuuta sighed. “Your two selves are different from mine.”


“Yours seem special… I think you are a special girl, Kirabo.”

“But I want to stop the dreadful things.”

“What dreadful things?”


“You can trust me, I am a witch, too.”

“Ah… it is not good…”

“If you don’t tell me, how can I help you?”

“You know when people say, ‘Don’t do that, you are a girl?’” Kirabo picked at Nsuuta’s mat, not meeting her eyes.


“I wait until no one is around and do it,” she said. “Just to see what happens,” she added quickly. “Like the other time—”

“What did you do the other time?”

“You know the jackfruit tree behind our kitchen?”

Nsuuta nodded.

“I pulled down my knickers and flashed my… erm to see whether it would die or stop bearing fruit.”

“Oh, Kirabo.” Nsuuta clapped shock.

“I fight with the boys—they don’t pass the ball to me and I throw them off my grandfather’s pitch. I hate chores, I hate kneeling, and I cannot stand babies. Sometimes I feel squeezed inside this body as if there is no space. That is when one of me flies out.”

“Kirabo.” Nsuuta held Kirabo’s shoulders with both her hands and looked into her eyes. “Maybe everyone, even your grandmother, feels squeezed sometimes.”


“Maybe occasionally she hates being a woman. Did you know she loved to run naked in the rain when we were young?”

“That grandmother of mine?” It was impossible to imagine Grandmother young, let alone running naked in the rain.

“It is our whisper; don’t ever tell anyone.”

Kirabo looked into Nsuuta’s glassy blue eyes. They looked back at her. Nothing in her manner suggested she was blind.

“As for your two selves, you will have to come back. I need to consult my powers.”

Something warned Kirabo against coming back. That is how addiction to witching starts—with multiple consultations. But what was the alternative? She had to stop the flights before they got out of hand.

“Okay, but I only want to stop flying, that is all. I don’t want to do anything horrible.”

“Don’t worry, I will take care of it. When you find time, come back and I will tell you what my powers saw. Now run home before you get in trouble. And remember, not a word to anyone about this.”

“I promise.”

As Kirabo stepped outside she remembered the other thing that had been troubling her.

“Nsuuta, can you find my mother for me?”

Nsuuta started. Kirabo did not wait for her to recover. She ran across the courtyard and back into the road. Behind her, Nsuuta smiled. A huge, fat smile. Twelve years ago, when Tom arrived with a six-month-old baby without a mother, Nsuuta had predicted this moment. What did her grandparents expect? That they could love the mother out of the child? Through the years Alikisa, Miiro’s wife, had turned Kirabo and the rest of the family against Nsuuta. Then her blindness had grown worse, making it impossible for her to lure Kirabo over to herself. Yet, out of nowhere, Alikisa’s spite had delivered the child right into her hands. With a bonus—the idea of flying out of her body. It was as if Kirabo was biologically Nsuuta’s own. This notion of flying would give her the perfect angle to start. Nsuuta clapped wonderment. Sometimes God loved her as if he would never kill her. She stood up and closed her door. She was ready.


Excerpted from A Girl Is a Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Copyright © 2020 by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Tin House Books.

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and her first novel, Kintu, won the Kwani? Manuscript Project Prize in 2013 and was longlisted for the Etisalat Prize in 2014. Her story “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” was the global winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Jennifer lives in Manchester, UK with her husband and son. More from this author →