31 Days of Stories 2018, Day 16: “Passion” by Doreen Baingana

From: The Granta Book of the African Short Story

There are numerous layers of power dynamics at work – both up front and in the background – in Ugandan author Doreen Baingana’s sly short story “Passion.” Teachers and students. Students and other students. Blacks and whites. Upper-class Blacks and lower-class Blacks. Indigenous Africans and colonizers. Traditional African spirituality and Christianity. All of these structural dichotomies swirl around Baingana’s coming-of-age story about a teenage girl named Rosa who decides to test the power of African “juju” on an English teacher at the elite girls’ boarding school she attends in the city of Kampala.

A confrontation between conflicting paradigms is apparent from the opening sentence of Rosa’s first-person narration: “You know how we’re taught to throw superstition aside and move forward into the modern world?” The 17-year-old attends Gayaza High School – “The world’s centre of boredom” – where the push toward modernity is a carry-over from Enlightenment ideals brought by missionaries “way back in the colonial days.” These ideals persist for a certain strata of Ugandan society, propagated by born-again Christians and “old white British women who won’t relinquish their power because they can no longer go back home after more than forty years here.”

Rosa is an intelligent, inquisitive young woman who is clear-eyed in her assessment of the way Ugandan society is structured and the unequal manner in which privilege is distributed. “I just wanted to show you what we are dealing with here,” she says. “So, in higher, as it’s called, we have this extra duty, and as privileged young women in Uganda, a Third World country, don’t forget, because we are getting this excellent, government-subsidized (white) education – we must represent all the impoverished throngs who are not as lucky as we are, especially the women.”

Rosa’s opinion of her supposed privilege is undeniably jaundiced: at assembly, she claims, one of the white teachers refers to the Gayaza students’ privilege “as if saying ‘punishment.’” The young woman feels the urge to rebel against the teachings of school and church that appear to reject the legitimacy of her country’s own beliefs and traditions: “I was irritated by all the propaganda against ‘black magic,’ and the way it is persistently pounded into our supposedly still-soft heads. I mean, why insist so strongly against juju if it doesn’t exist?”

This dissatisfaction provides the impetus for Rosa’s “experiment.” She has heard of an old juju superstition that says if a woman secretly rubs a safety pin while staring directly at the man who is the object of her affection, she will be able to place him under her thrall and he will do whatever she wants. Rosa determines to try this out on her English teacher, Mr. Mukwaya.

Of course Rosa’s flirtation with juju overlaps with the realm of sex: Baingana’s milieu is a girls’ boarding school, after all, and the young women’s burgeoning sexuality is never far from their minds. It is the subject of late-night gossip after lights out, when they discuss the hypocrisy of various teachers, who preach chastity and virtue and yet have themselves had multiple abortions. And it is a subject that they giggle over in class where they are studying King Lear – they refer to Goneril, without great originality, as “Gonorrhea.”

But Rosa is also oblivious to the dangers her sexuality poses in a world that does not respect women’s boundaries or agency. Her attempts to seduce her teacher are cast in explicitly sexual language – the safety pin secreted in the pocket of her kilt is “moist” and she rubs it “softly at first, then harder.” Her classmate eggs her on by asking the teacher, “Do you think Shakespeare had something against the female sex?” She repeats the question in various ways, each time emphasizing the final word. All of which has the effect of flustering Mr. Mukwaya, who begins to respond physically to the girls’ inducements.

But Baingana’s story, refreshingly, does not follow a predictable course. Early on, Rosa refers to Mr. Mukwaya as the “hero” of the story and we discover why: instead of using the opportunity to exploit Rosa or try to force himself on her, he behaves in a manner that de-escalates the situation and preserves the boundary between teacher and student.

As with the political dichotomies Baingana plays with, she also sets out a double meaning in the story’s title. On one level, passion refers to the elements of female sexuality that run through the girls’ experience. But on a more significant level, it refers to Mr. Mukwaya’s passion for literature, a passion he detects in Rosa and that he is able to leverage as a means of deflecting her submerged advances toward him in the classroom. “You know, literature requires passion,” he tells her after class. “You have to get involved. You have to care.” The extent to which Mr. Mukwaya cares about literature and teaching is a source of immature humour to Rosa and her classmates, yet it is precisely this passion that allows him to behave in a manner that is professional and proper when faced with Rosa’s provocations.

Mr. Mukwaya is affronted by Rosa’s suggestion that her behaviour in the classroom was “just a game” – what juju and sex have in common, the story implies, is their ability to carry with them forces Rosa does not yet fully comprehend. “You young women here, you are so protected from everything,” Mr. Mukwaya tells Rosa. “But not for ever. You will be forced to grow.” Mr. Mukwaya’s students criticize Shakespeare for including violence in his work simply for dramatic effect; the teacher knows better. The spectre of Idi Amin’s regime haunts the deep background of Baingana’s story and Mr. Mukwaya recognizes, unlike his naive charges, the extent to which the political and familial violence Shakespeare dramatized is reflective of the depredations of the real world. And in his after-class conversation with Rosa, he refers to his mother, married by the time she was 17, and his sisters, whom he does not speak about, though the implication is that they have been victims of sexual violence.

By the end of the story, Rosa has had her focus shifted through a confrontation with the full enormity of her actions. When she recalls the experience with her friend, they laugh it off, but something essential in Rosa has shifted. She continues to carry the safety pin with her, though its implications have changed. The juju worked, just not in quite the way she expected it to.

31 Days of Stories 2018, Day 16: “Passion” by Doreen Baingana

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