Nick Makoha (b. 1974) is a Ugandan poet who fled the terror regime of Idi Amin. He studied biochemistry and worked in a bank, but poetry was his calling. His most important publication is Kingdom of Gravity, “a searing, mysterious contemplation of exile, fatherhood and violence”. I read a poem about corruption.
The best thing I did was move my body from one side of the world
to the other. This required a visa, which required a bribe.
The bribe, placed in the palm of a man with a gun,
took my mother’s monthly wage packet. The man with a gun
let me speak to a clerk. He too wanted a wage
because it would be his job to have words with a judge
for another month’s salary. The official wanted his bribe
so listened to the clerk escorted by the soldier as he held his gun.
As I sat with my mother on the steps of the court,
drinking soda, waiting for one man to say yes, my mother said,
“In Uganda a bribe stops men doing nothing. It rolls away the stone.”
Her sips were slower than mine, each separated by this prayer.
The world is very simple. The poem makes it seem like the bribe has no moral dimension. It is part of the bureaucracy. De salient detail of the two month’s salary tells us that ‘salary’ is a stable measure, so there must be some income equality among those who have to bribe officials to get out of the country.
When I read these lines, and I remember visually similar scence at African borders where I was waiting for a stamp in my passport, without of course the anguish that Nick must have felt.
The soda. I know Coca Cola corporation operates in Uganda, and wouldn’t feel any scruples to do so under Idi Amin. Rolling away the stone could be a Christian metaphor, but I don’t believe that. “This prayer” is the line about rolling away the stone, that the mother repeats like a mantra.