Tropical-Fish-DoreenBook: Tropical Fish

Author: Doreen Baingana

Publisher: Oshun

Year of publication: 2005

Number of pages: 147

Genre: Short story anthology

A few months ago I mentioned that the Miles Moreland Scholars for 2013 Doreen Baingana, Percy Zvomuya and Tony Mochama were in the process of giving us new work in English. With a new call out for scholars for 2014 already out it is only fair to see the work that one of the previous scholars have done and today I focus on my favourite writer of the lot; Doreen Baingana.

Tropical Fish is the first (and to my knowledge only) book that Ugandan writer Doreen Baingana has out in the market today. The little book is a short story collection revolving around the lives of a family based in Entebbe Uganda. It follows Christine, Patti and Rosa the daughters of a relatively well off family whose father, a senior government official, becomes an alcoholic and loses everything starting with his job. This is followed by going the route that every drunk goes down before eventually dying. Through it all the mother has to support her family on her own.

The biggest character in this story is Christine the youngest daughter. She starts our collection as a child as she is looking at the jewellery that her father has bought her mother and imagining that she is a princess with the story Green Stones. As she narrates her tale we start hearing a more sinister tale as her father goes deeper into alcoholism. In stories as she matures like Tropical Fish she is a campus student that procures an abortion after having a relationship with a white man who sold fish abroad. She leaves the country and has adventures in the US with Lost in Los Angeles before returning home and having to cope with the process of reintegrating back into Ugandan society with the story Questions of Home.

We meet Patti her older sister in a boarding school suffering the pain that teenagers who have no one to visit them at school go through in with the story Hunger. She has to have the school food which by the description is horrible but the hunger that she is suffering through forces her to eat the food to assuage it. She finds religion and moves eventually back to live her mum.

Rosa is the oldest of the lot and she gets the shit end of the short story stick as she gets infected infect with the HIV virus eventually succumbing to the AIDS syndrome with the story A Thank-You Note. This is sad but makes sense because she was involved in unprotected sex with many partners with no fear of the consequences.

This is one of the better short story anthologies out there. Let’s start with what I did not like. That cover… Ugh! I have seen bad covers in my time (I am Kenyan after all) but this is one cover that doesn’t inspire you to want to open it. The only thing going for it is that it doesn’t suffer the savannah effect that so many African books suffer. Actually I would have taken a mugumo tree or even marabou stork on that tree much better that that cover that made me not read that book for so many moons.

Once you get over the cover what you find in there is one if the best writing coming out of the continent in the last decade. Baingana deals with issues that many of us are very invested and familiar with. Hunger for boarding students is a commonly discussed topic for many who went away from home as heroes will be familiar to many East Africans. She handles the Diaspora experience for an African in a way that makes it easy to understand for those who left and stayed. And that reintegration hit home for me as the experiences that Christine was suffering when she went home were the same ones that I went through after a few years out of my city. Baingana wrote that experience like she was in my head talking about my drama.

I am most impressed with how she handle’s the HIV issue that our Rosa had to go through. She didn’t go that whole NGO route of scaring folks and doing facts and figures that patronises her reader. It was more a Shuga route as she gives the lifestyle that was being lived when people didn’t realize that you could die from sex.

Baingana also succeeds in being a one woman brand ambassador for Entebbe with the characters living their lives in the little town with the international airport near Kampala. For folks like me, my vision of Entebbe has to be of that period in the 1970s when the airport in the city was raided by Israeli commandoes to rescue a plane that had been hijacked by Palestine terrorists. The Palestine guys were being supported by president at the time Idi Amin. This vision was of course enforced when watching The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin and to a lesser extent The Last King of Scotland. The writer shows the other side of Entebbe and I am grateful for this new vision of the city.

Would I recommend that you read this book? Hell yeah! I don’t understand why this book is not in our selected readings for high school in Kenya seeing as Kenya and Uganda are such buds. If this book is any indication of the book that Doreen will be unleashing for us in the next few months then we are in for a treat. I can’t wait!