It has been one week. What is Africa like? I can only speak on what I have experienced here in Uganda. It is a riot of images, feelings and sensations. It is despair and joy. It is unwavering in its assault on the human experience and it is remarkable how violently we humans strike back. When left alone the land is lush, tropical and fertile. But then, rounding the corner you stumble across humanity and it’s a though a hundred dumpsters have dropped from the sky and made up a town. Litter, rust, refuse strewn across red clay roads - like massive red gashes in the landscape.
When we landed in the capital city of Kampala I was dismayed.It seemed dumpy, dusty and polluted. I could see no significant architecture, graceful parks or central plaza. Now, two days back from the field, lying on the cushioned couch outside my hotel room I think it is paradise. In the morning I wake to the gentle skritching sound of twig brooms sweeping the street. Brightly colored women in turbans bend over sweeping the concrete with bundles of small branches, picking up what was blown by the wind or dropped out of windows. I have a new love of concrete. It is clean, straight and organized. It has a plan behind it. It can be swept.
As I relish the hotel sounds behind me and I think of my “guest” room in Kamuli. Driving through Kamuli Town I am nervous. Cows wander through the streets, ragged children play with beat up plastic cans, men sit idly against the aging buildings. Women wander, either holding babies, bundles of cloth or with firewood stacked on their heads. Everyone is wearing logo t-shirts or coats. A young woman walks by with IOWA printed in white against a pink ringer tee. Nothing matches and I wonder how the women pick what they will wear each day. Then I wonder how many options they have. Perhaps they only have two shirts and skirts. Perhaps this is their best to wear into town. Two little girls run by in dresses that have no zippers in the back. They seem unperturbed that their clothing seems ready to slip off their small shoulders at any moment. I look down at Picho’s shoes and laugh. Across the top they say “In and Out Burger, California”. Home is present everywhere and yet I have never been so far away from it as now.
We stop for bottled water. Even Picho and Frank avoid the tap water. The dimly lit stores are filled with bags of corn meal and cans and cans of some kind of food. Cell phone plans don’t exist – instead everyone buys minutes. A steady stream of customers wait at the counter to refill their cell phones. A bota bota driver blasts by with a whole family on the back, the youngest clinging like a monkey to his mother’s back. We all burst out laughing and I am happy to see Picho and Frank find it as funny as I do. Next comes a man on a bike, tree branches balanced on his head, talking on his cell.
We pull into the guest house. It is a gated compound with a large open lawn in the middle. Sitting on an old wooden chair in the middle of the lawn sits a man, small hoe in hand, chopping at the grass. He swings his arm down several times, then plucks something up. He then sits back and watches us get out of the car. After a while he chops the ground again. Then sits idly. I can see it could take him all week to get through the grass at that pace. I wonder if that is the intention.
We head out to visit the hospital. As we pull out of the gate we are struck across the face by poverty. Across the street is a stick and clay hovel with a shriveled old man sitting in rags. His fire is smoking and the dirty curtain that is his front door flaps in the breeze. Seeing our van he waves with both arms, shouting hellos. We wave back, his joy is contagious. I look out my window and see a pack of small boys running along side the van shouting in the sing song language they share. I tell Picho to stop. Reaching into a bag I pull out Cliff bars. Andrea is excited and finds more. Reaching down we ask the boys if they would like a treat – their eyes grow wide and their smiles light up the sunny afternoon. Shouting they reach for the treasure – crowing, jostling, joyful. Andrea and I are in heaven. Finally we think each boy is taken care of and Picho starts the wheels rolling again. Suddenly a small fist hits the side of the van, I look down and a grinning face meets mine. Shouting and gesturing I realize that he is telling me that one more boy is coming. Looking back I see the smallest of the pack running behind, he was overlooked. The larger boys are all waving, yelling at us not to leave their friend out of this celebration. Picho slows down and I look down into a pair of excited, grateful eyes. I hand him the last Cliff bar and as one hand closes around it the other pats my arm in thankfulness.
I forget the damp room, the spiders and humid air. I forget all about my fear. I am in love with eleven little boys. I am in love with Kamuli Town and it’s ragged, dirty streets. I am in love with Africa.