All the other relatives would come to visit us for the first couple of days we were there. Shabanu Maasi and her family came. Her husband had close ties to the African ministers in the government, but even that was not enough to save them a few years later.
“When are you coming to stay at our house?” Shabanu Maasi asked me. Shabanu Maasi was about five feet two inches with a trim figure and dressed stylishly in tailored dresses. Her hair was cut in a jet black bob framing clever, black eyes with a strong nose. She always seemed to be smiling about something, perhaps recalling a private joke.
As if I was a visiting potentate, I consulted Mum. “You can come and pick me up on Wednesday and then bring me back on Sunday.”
I liked the house as Maasi’s daughters were only a couple of years older than I was. They played cards with me and dressed me up like a little doll in their mother’s old saris. Their house had few rules, and we could do whatever we wanted.
Shabanu Maasi teased me. “If your Nairobi grandmother is Ma, and the Kampala Ma is Ma two, then who am I? Am I Ma three?”
“No, no, I just like calling her “Tuma.” It doesn’t mean she is number two. And you are Maasi.”
“So, who is your favorite Ma?”
“I love all of you. But I live with the Nairobi Ma, so I love her the most.”
That would be a running joke between us for the next forty years, and she always said she was my Ma three. She took me everywhere with her, like a pet puppy. Shabanu Maasi was a probation officer and a social worker, one of the first Ismaili women to be so educated. One afternoon, when I was eight, she took me to what must have been home for youthful offenders, far from Kampala in the lush countryside. She talked to some burly female officers in khaki uniforms. The home had ugly, green paint in the hallways and a smell of Dettol disinfectant. Two teenage African girls came to meet her.
“Shaza, this is Judy, and this is Susan. Say hello, Shaza.” I said hello to the two girls, who were both tall and thin with short hair and wore shapeless, blue uniforms. They stared blankly at me with their hands at their sides.
“Now just play here for a little while, I have to talk to them in the office.” I soon got bored. I waited and waited until Shabanu Maasi came out with both the girls. She had her arm around the younger one’s shoulder. The girls looked happier and even gave me a small smile this time.
“What kind of place is this, Maasi? It’s not a real school, is it?” I said, confused by the empty playing fields, the barbed wire fences and the armed guards at the gate.
“No, it’s a school for children who have done something bad. We teach them and look after them until they learn how to be good children.”
“Oh, that’s why they were so sad. But where are their mummies and daddies?”
“They are not allowed to live with their families. But Shaza, when they leave here, we find them jobs, and then they can live freely.”
“What did they do that was bad? Was it breaking their toys, doing masti and being mean to their little sisters,” I said, thinking of my bad deeds.
“Sometimes! We don’t want anyone doing things like that, do we? But they don’t have nice mummies and daddies like you do, so no one teaches them what is good and bad. That is what we teach them.”
“It’s good that you help them, Maasi,” I said before clamming up on the way home. Sitting in the back seat with Maasi while the driver sped us back, I realized how lucky I was to have a family, a family who loved me. I resolved to take care of my toys and be patient with Tara, even when she annoyed me.
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