Tropical Fish: A girl’s discovery of self

Saturday January 3 2009

By KARANGA KARIUKI

Title: Tropical Fish
Author: Doreen Baingana
Publisher: Oshun (South Africa)
Published 2005
Pages: 148
Price: Sh700
Reviewed by KARANGA KARIUKI

Tropical Fish is a refreshing anthology of eight short stories told by three sisters: Christine, Patti and Rosa while growing up in Uganda.

The author, Doreen Baingana, who is a lawyer and an editor with Storymoja Africa Publishers, tells these stories in a real, bright and creative way. The eight short stories take the reader harshly and humorously through the world of the three girls as they grow up and discover themselves. They also learn the tough realities of adulthood.

The first story, Green Stones, is told by Christine at age four or five. She stealthily explores her parents’ bedroom which awes her by its mystery of being always locked! When able to get in, she discovers her mother’s prized necklace of gemstones, which she tries on.

Christine also narrates her relationship with her elusive and drunkard civil servant father and their domestic hand, Rusi, in this story. There is a need for adults to be of high moral probity all the time for Christine hears and judges her father as he frequently quarrels her mother following drinking binges.

In the same mysterious bedroom, unlocked this time, Christine finds her father naked on the bed with Rusi at his feet.

Slurring, her father calls out, “Patti ... I mean Christine, no who are you anyway? Rosa? Come here!” And in here the author deftly introduces the three sisters in one drunken breath of their sinful father. Her father dies but her mother shoulders all responsibilities, as she had been doing all along anyway.

The second story, Hunger, is told by Patti. It is a haunting narrative of desperation and apprehension in a girl’s secondary school where class consciousness among the students and rigid discipline rule.

Often Patti goes hungry on account of the meagre school rations. She has no cash to buy goodies unlike some girls from rich families. She questions the meaning of suffering and God’s role in it and tries everything to fit in with the various social groups. But she ends up not belonging!

In the third story, First Kiss, Christine gingerly gets into a romance with a young man. In a hilarious peek into the anticipation that goes on in a girl’s mind when love bites, Christine is groomed by her elder sisters Patti and Rosa. The two also teach her the romantic ropes, ostensibly to make a good impression on her date.

The fourth story, Passion, is told by the naughty Rosa, now a young woman in secondary school. She carries out a juju experiment on her male literature teacher. By rubbing a safety pin in class, she hopes to see her teacher’s body respond sexually as myth has it! And so she goes ahead with the test, arousing her own passion in the process!

Rosa matures and goes on with her wild ways, taking advantage of her sexuality and freedom after school.

She contracts Aids and, in the fifth story, A Thank You Note, she tackles the stigma surrounding it head on. Written as a letter to David, this story examines the irony of death, having survived Idi Amin’s bullets, and when Uganda is on a recovery path.

A Thank You Note draws heavily from folklore and takes a philosophical hue. But in the end, Rosa accepts her status and urges David to do the same.

Christine goes on to become a carefree party animal in Kampala universities’ socialising circles in the sixth story, Tropical Fish. She hooks up with a mzungu, Peter, who runs a business of exporting tropical fish from Uganda to Europe.

Peter makes love to her when she visits his house but Christine, held down by television exaggerated stereotypes about wazungu love making, does not know what to do.

But she glows in the thought that she is making love to a white man! She would later get pregnant and abort Peter’s child. On getting this news, Peter dispassionately pays her off and that’s about it for the cold affair!

Christine resurfaces in America in the seventh story, Lost in Los Angeles. Christine is here chasing the American Dream like so many other Ugandans. She gets her first taste of cultural shock when children, seeing a black person for the first time, call her a freak.

The people have pity or impatience in their eyes when she talks to them. She smiles at the wrong moments.

Everything in Los Angeles is automated, cold and impersonal. Loneliness bears down on her heavily in this city where things work with precision.

Christine narrates how boredom and dislocation weigh heavily on her in Los Angeles away from familiar sights of rotting fruit and swarming flies, and unkempt uncut grass back home. “I have been torn from natural living chaos that wrapped itself strongly around our lives. I am alone and trapped in metal. I am lost.”

But gradually she learns to cope and gets strong support from Ugandans and other Africans in this city.

In the eighth story, Questions of Home, a mature Christine returns to Uganda after living in America for eight years. But everything seems to have changed so much.

Her mother deftly snubs her hug and instead offers her a hand! She has a stick figure -- prized in America -- with no hips or breasts to speak of but her mother reminds her that this figure is not appreciated here! People think that a thin figure means one has Aids.

Christine starts to work and goes through a second culture shock as she tries to come to terms with life at home. To her shock, her boss often sees his private visitors for half of the morning and everybody views her with suspicion, having come from abroad.

Indeed, this is the pedestal from which each of her words and actions are now judged! But the author should have made Christine more forceful in practising the good mzungu things she has learnt instead of meekly getting brow beaten by everybody.

Tropical Fish renders the theme of growing up and self-discovery well. Some sections may appear lurid, but they are pardonable for aptly depicting the modern environment in which our girls are growing! The girls’ mother, like most African mothers, comes in their lives, and not coincidentally, in the first stories and last stories.

Tropical Fish intersperses some Ugandan local words that are explained in the text, giving the narrative an uplifting uniqueness of style.

Given the economy of words in short story genre, Tropical Fish succeeds in weaving the sisters’ linked journeys vividly and in a real way. At some point, it is hard to imagine that the narrators’ actions are fictional and not snapshots of the author herself.

No wonder Tropical Fish was short listed for the Caine prize in African writing twice in 2004 and 2005!

The book, which is distributed and marketed locally by Storymoja Africa Publishers, is recommended for the general reader and more so young women in school and college. There are many things in the book that they can identify with.