Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Village

Back in February one of our mommas (and my friend), Christine, asked me a question. You might remember the name as Christine is the mother of Janet, whose birth I had the honor of being present for about 14 months ago. She seemed a bit nervous so my curiosity, as well as mild concern, was peaked. She asked me,

“I’m wondering if you would like to come with me when I go see my family in the village in Soroti on my 7 days off?”

“Oh my gosh, yes!”, was the obvious answer for anyone who enjoys a little adventure.

So, last Tuesday morning, myself and our two social workers – who were heading in the same direction to do some field work – met Christine and Janet at the taxi park just across the river to catch a passing coach bus heading north. What followed was a 6 hour journey to Soroti, half of it on properly paved roads, the other half on bone jarring, back breaking, brain sloshing, glass-shattering dirt excuses for roads. If you think I’m being over-dramatic and overly generous with my adjectives, make no mistake, only the part about back-breaking is an exaggeration; maybe just back-cracking. At one point, during a section that was being subjected to some much needed road work that had the two lanes operating on different levels, the bus crossed over and took on a frightening angle that had even the seasoned Ugandan travellers fearing for their lives. 

Although on arriving in Soroti, I felt old and shaken ragged, the scenery along the way trumped all discomfort. The terrain was somehow different then I’ve seen before; interesting rock formations, small lakes, swamps and bodies of water full of lily pads and small gorgeous purple flowers. We also passed numerous villages with clusters of 3 or 4 huts surrounded by small crops of maize, potatoes and other local produce. These homesteads were no doubt laid out for practicality and not for beauty and esthetic purposes but they certainly accomplished both.

Once we got to Soroti, we made the switch to a taxi for the remaining 2 hour journey into the bush. This taxi was unconventional; instead of the typical 14 passenger mutatu, this was a small, privately owned and run minivan packed to the brim; 5 in the back, 6 on the middle bench (including 2 small children) and 4 in the front (including 1 small child). As the front had 2 separate seats, the middle man was essentially sitting on a wooden stool and the 5th man in the back? 4 was the absolute limit across so he stood leaning awkwardly over us, bracing himself on the front passenger seat. I’m not sure who I felt worse for…him for how uncomfortable he looked or the people behind who had to travel along with his cabina inches from their faces. Luckily for them, he eventually became too uncomfortable and shifted to the front to share the front seat with the driver; it only looked moderately unsafe.

It became very evident upon arriving that white folk were not common in those parts and no sooner had I taken a seat in front of Christine’s mother’s hut, the children came swarming. First there were 5, I blinked and 5 became 10, I blinked again and 10 became 20, and with every blink the crowd seemed to take a step closer. As no one spoke of word of English, I did the typical making of faces for their amusement, taking a photo and showing them thing but after about 5 minutes, it just got awkward and claustrophobic. After 10 hours of traveling, I just didn’t have the energy to entertain so I sat there and looked around until they wandered off. Dinner shortly followed (rice and nile perch) but I couldn’t really eat because I’m neurotic and when I think there’s a chance I could get sick being in a certain environment, especially when it would be most inconvenient, I’ll just start to feel nauseous in anticipation.

Besides starting to write all this down, the evening’s activities didn’t include much more then bathing, but what a treat that was. Christine prepared for me a small basin of warm water and set it down on metal sheeting overlaid with a sugar sack behind the cooking hut. So while her and her mom set up the mattresses and mosquito nets in the brick and thatch hut where we’d be sleeping, there I found myself standing and bathing in the light of the setting sun listening to the sounds of crickets and casual conversation between members of her family in a language foreign even to the one I’ve become familiar with in Jinja.             

Given the lack of power and the fact that I was exhausted and suffering from imaginary stomach upset, I was in bed before 8. Between chatting with Christine and reading, it was near 10 when I actually went to sleep but besides waking up once (taking the opportunity to switch on my headlamp to try and discover what small critter had moved in with us), I slept like a proverbial rock.

The morning was so peaceful; writing, watching, listening, writing, eating a breakfast of crackers and peanut butter, greeting the random folks who came by to say hi, taking pictures, writing, repeat…

One of the strangest parts about being there was that it didn’t feel strange at all. Something about the landscape reminded me so much of the state campgrounds I’ve stayed at along the Washington and Oregon coast. Even the way the small clusters of huts were set inside a dirt clearing surrounded by brush, felt like a campsite. Switch the huts for tents and anyone besides the yuppiest of city dwellers would have felt at home.   

The day, which for the most part consisted of the cycle previously mentioned with the addition of eating up a good book, was broken up by 3 things. The first was a trip to a bore hole 10 minutes down the road to collect water in 4 large jerry cans. 3 returned via a bike that belonged to Christine’s brother and 1 carried with seemingly zero effort atop her momma’s head; a feat that never ceases to amaze me given how the sloshing would certainly cause the weight to shift with every step. The second was lunch which consisted of rice and chicken killed fresh that morning in honor of the guest. As is tradition, the guest was presented with the choice bits of the chicken…the liver and the gizzard. I’m adventurous, sure, but gizzard? No, thank you. Luckily, Christine and I took lunch in our hut and I knew she’d take no offense to my offering it to her.  The third event was a boda tour of two different spots along the shore line. Both areas were linked to fishing villages with numerous huts all jammed together in close proximity and the shore was buzzing with fisherman and those that run the larger motorized taxi boats. All around was the animated chatter of buyers and sellers haggling prices, much laughter, and of course no shortage of children staring and feigning terror every time my eyes would be drawn in their direction.   

A storm was coming and our boda driver didn’t waste any time on the road back as rain drops started falling; albeit sporadically, but it felt rather impending. It wasn’t until we got back and the boda drivers left leaving Christine, myself, her mother and aunt that I realized that the presence of the male members of her family up until that point hadn’t allowed me to feel completely at ease. Not that they were somehow untrustworthy, it’s just that I had tired of being stared at. The whole rest of the evening was something I will never forget and an experience I couldn’t have paid for. The rain didn’t come ‘til long after we’d gone to sleep but the wind picked up and the temperature cooled so we drank lemon grass tea as the sun went down, bathed under the moonlight and ate dinner together on a mat kept warm by the sun soaked earth beneath it. The 5 of us, including Janet, ate rice and pulled fresh tilapia off the bones with our fingers while an astounding amount of fireflies lit up the brush and lightening came in quick succession from one end of the sky to the other; I could have sat there all night watching in awe, stunned into silence by the scope and wonder of God’s creation. There was nothing artificial about that evening; no light besides the moon, no sound besides the crickets and the wind through the trees, no food from a can or a package and certainly no insincerity in the evident enjoyment we all had during that time together.

Getting out of the village is significantly harder than getting in as bodas are few and there’s no taxi park down the road. Christine warned me about this scenario ahead of time, but I admit to feeling a bit nervous when I went to bed that night. I set my alarm for 6:30 although both of us were awake at 4:30 and couldn’t really sleep given the anticipation of it all. The plan was simply this: get up really early and pray to God that a taxi drives by as it heads out of the village to start its daily to and fro. By 5:30 I couldn’t lay in bed anymore so I got up to brush my teeth and pack up the last few things so I’d be ready to run out at a moment’s notice. I pulled a stool out and parked myself facing east as the sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon. No sooner had I sat down though, we heard the sounds of an approaching vehicle and Christine didn’t waste a second making a mad dash to the road to flag them down. As they talked rapidly, I waited for direction and soon after I was told to grab my things and come and after a quick hug and a hand shake to Christine and her mother, I was ushered into the front seat between two jovial Ugandan men. 6:00am and I was on my way home heading straight toward what turned out to be a beautiful sunrise.

The driver was a loud and erratic man who had a propensity for laughing at his own jokes, driving extremely fast and taking his eyes off the road; sometimes all at the same time. It didn’t take long to discover that the front seat is not for the faint of heart and sitting in the back affords you peaceful ignorance of the many close calls you inevitable experience on any long journey using public transit in this country. It also didn’t take long before I got my first marriage proposal but after I informed them all that my husband was back in Jinja caring for our many children, they dropped the subject.

This taxi wasn’t going to Soroti, but was heading straight to the town of Mbale and it was 3 hours before we met up with the main route via a town called Kumi. It wasn’t until that point that I realized how anxious I had been driving through the middle of nowhere Uganda on terrible roads, alone, no idea where I was; in a word: vulnerable. It didn’t help that we were flagged down in one small town by a group of young men who had some business dealings with the driver. Even though it was clear they knew each other, the fact that they argued and that a large amount of money changed hands and a bag was placed on top of the taxi felt a little too back alley and I wanted nothing more than to get back on the road.

Fortunately, the driver kept his word to his kinswomen, Christine, and not only got me to Mbale in one piece but delivered me to a taxi park where I could catch another mutatu straight to Jinja. One hour later, the taxi finally filled up and we headed out on the final 3 hour stretch to Jinja. It was hot and cramped and smelled bad and the driver was a bit of a jerk. He got super mad at me because I refused to give him my 20,000Sh until he’d given me my 10,000Sh balance (I had my reasons); he went on a tirade as he slammed the sliding door that included only one familiar word: Americans. But all’s well that ends well and I returned to Jinja sunburned and exhausted but grateful.

Christine’s entire family (aunts, uncles, brothers, half-brothers) were so incredibly gracious and welcoming. Among other gestures of respect and kindness, it was always insisted that I sit on the best chair and was given a small table to hold my drink, book, camera and whatever else I had with me; in fact, if I stood in one place for too long, someone would inevitably bring the chair and table to me despite my insistence that it was unnecessary.  What a privilege it was and may I never forget it; especially during the times when I get frustrated with this country, I truly want to remember the kindness and generosity Christine’s family showed me and remind myself that these people were a true representation of Uganda, its culture and its people.    

Yes, I made a slide show. Click here. (sorry for the poor quality, I made it small to preserve data usage when uploading)

Next stop…Gulu to see Annelise!