Personal Column: Lugambo and the art of shutting up

Joseph Mutagaya first photo, for a passport (Republic of Uganda)

Joseph Mutagaya

Joseph Mutagaya first photo, for a passport (Republic of Uganda)

I’ve always had a big mouth. Scrawled tactically under glowing recommendations and smiley face stickers would be a small, tacit note: “Joseph is VERY… social.” Translation: teach your kid to shut up when I’m talking.

In reality, I was a pretty quiet kid, unless, of course, I was with friends. I talked about EVERYTHING. I could name cars off the street, tell you who Mao Zedong was, the new song I was learning on the piano on and on and on. And of course, being a kid, the inevitable topic of home life came up. I’d talk about what I had for breakfast and dinner and the time I got put in time out for breaking a plate when my mom TOLD me not to run while holding it. My mom wasn’t exactly amused by that last part. And that’s when I learned the concept of lugambo.

Literally, lugambo means “gossip” in Luganda, the most spoken native language in Uganda. But like all words, lugambo has much more meaning beyond its literal one. Lugambo isn’t just talking about the new girl at school or who cheated on who, it is almost to slander, to soil your family’s name. It has the power to break up families and reputations alike. And in a new country where appearances are EVERYTHING, lugambo could be dangerous. So, I was taught early on to talk, but only about the right sort of thing, and NEVER, EVER about my family. Granted, most people would not be ecstatic to hear their kid ratting on them for putting them in time out or taking their toys for misbehaving. But, as I grew, so did my problems, and my mouth.

My parents never had the relationship I saw in movies. They weren’t always resentful and cold, but they were never all too affectionate or lovey dovey, which was fine by me. But familiarity really DOES breed contempt and soon, their quiet admiration turned to open resentment leaving us kids, like so many others, stuck right in the middle of it. Whether it was asking for lunch money or getting them to sign a field trip form, everything between them turned into an argument. So to avoid such audial assault at 8 a.m., I began fending for myself. Besides doing the dishes, cleaning my room, I started making lunch for my siblings and I woke up at 6:30 so I could take the bus, small things. And I KNOW you’re probably thinking, ‘This isn’t a big deal,’ but I am NOT a morning person so the bus thing is a big deal to me even if it isn’t to you SO I DON’T WANNA HEAR IT. 

One time in maths class, I was talking to my friend, a smiley kid named Mario. We bonded over soccer and hating maths. We were talking about our mornings and I droned about how I wished we’d had pastrami to make my sandwich with and he said, “So you’re like a little parent, huh.”

Once, I heard that fast music slows down time. If that’s true, I must’ve been listening to Alvin and the Chipmunks because I stared at him for what felt like a good minute, (it was really half a second), and squeaked out a, “Not REALLY.” But in reality, he was kind of right. 

It wasn’t so much practical things like servicing a car or grocery shopping that made me a “little adult.” It was the nodding and ‘Oh really’s’ while listening to my brother talk about his soccer game, coz my parents were too busy. It was getting my sister to put on the frilly socks for church. It was consoling my mother after an argument which, more often than not, I moderated. But, of course, I couldn’t talk about these things. So as not to embarrass the family, of course. Of course, I did, because as we established, I am a blabbermouth.