I’ve found myself in some strange situations over the past four months in Uganda. My ‘job’ here has expanded like some wacky accordion, and I currently act as Arlington Academy of Hope’s Volunteer Coordinator and Guest House Manager, US Board Liaison, interim Facilities Manager, and reading teacher. In my efforts to fulfill these roles I’m growing to know the grand spectrum of the Ugandan experience. Sometimes I freeze in the middle of whatever I’m doing, and literally start laughing at the absurdity of it all. I’ve become something of an alien to myself. I imagine my family and friends heading into the summer months of the Northeast United States, and I feel a million miles away.

Trips to Kampala are often the source of strange adventures. In the city there’s a bizarre mingling of Ugandan and Western culture. I sit in Café Pap, sip my cappuccino and watch CNN on the flat screen. As I leave a series of white leaflets, pasted on the back of every street sign catch my eye: “Gain Bums Quick! No side effects!” You can also gain hips, manhood, and just weight in general, if you are so inclined.

Weight gain craziness

Last Tuesday I picked my way through the dark, muddy lanes of Kampala’s busiest market, studiously ignoring the pleas of the fake Levi’s vendors (muzungu—you would look goooooood!), and slapping away their insistent hands when necessary. I was tailing Rashid—AAH’s jovial and tireless driver—on a quest for school saucepans. We passed mountains of wares for sale that defied categorization. Shoes next to matches next to chewing gum next to kettles next to Little Kitty backpacks next to suit jackets next to exercise books next to cigarettes. Stacks of neon pink and green plastic basins rioted as men strolled by with four boxes of toilet paper perched on their heads. With every step the soles of my flip-flops clung stubbornly to the thick clay underfoot, until I was forced to mince around on tip-toe like a demented ballet dancer. The woman manning the saucepan stall gazed at me sardonically as Rashid began negotiating. Her four assistants sat draped over piles of kitchen wares, staring at me and slowly picking their teeth. I had a crumpled piece of paper with some garbled dimensions written on it, and no tape measure. The saucepans were all manufactured by a company called Shmuck. That summed up how I felt quite nicely.

Later that afternoon I stood by the side of a busy highway outside Kampala, waiting for the Bishop of the Mbale Diocese to drive by on his way to the airport. He had to authorize all the bank withdrawals the school needs to make while he’s on his month-long trip to the US. He had already signed everything once, but whaddyaknow, our particular bank requires two signatures. He pulled over, barged into some poor woman’s roadside shop, frantically signed all the checks, and stepped back into his pick-up with a hearty wave. A chorus line of boda-boda drivers lounged listlessly over their motorbike seats, and looked on disinterestedly. I scurried back and gave the checks to Rashid so he could rush them to Mbale and the school could pay its bills.

I stayed in a hotel right along the main street in the city. It’s near the taxi park, and close to restaurants and shops so that I don’t have to travel far for anything when I’m alone at night. The owner knows me, and gives me a discount. The rooms aren’t exactly luxurious, but they’re decent and clean. In four nights spent there I’ve only seen one cockroach. At night the sounds of the busy street filter in, and the repetitive thumping of Ugandan music prevents me from ever really sleeping deeply. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in New York.

In the morning I geared up for the return journey. In the giant taxi park I squirmed my way through the ever-shifting lines of white matatus. The park is a miracle of non-engineering. There are no rows, no parking spots, no apparent rules. There are two exits, and two hundred determined drivers. A friend who lives in Kampala summed up the taxi park operating procedure well: “You look for where there is space, and then you fill it.” Negotiating the chaos requires keen wits and a keener sense of humor. As I paused to orient myself I realized that the matatu behind me had forgotten its handbrake, and I jumped out of the way of its slow rolling path just in time. A young conductor plucked me from the crowd, and deposited me in the back seat of an Mbale-bound taxi, before spending the next half hour doggedly trying to get my phone number. I studied the chintzy watches vendors kept thrusting under my nose, and began my standard pre-departure ‘to pee or not to pee’ battle.

Taxi park craziness

Backseat craziness

An hour into our journey we pulled over at a roadside market. Instantly a swarm of blue-aproned vendors blocked all the light from the windows. The vehicle rocked slightly, and I felt like some world leader being transported through a rioting crowd. Arms appeared through every available window crack, wielding roasted bananas, hunks of charred beef and entire chicken thighs on skewers, bottles of cold water, chapatti bread, and sweets. Sometimes the over-eager vendors wave the items so erratically they actually hit you in the face. It’s cheap, and usually pretty good.

Vendor craziness

The trips to Kampala are hard going sometimes, especially since I’m so often alone. Wandering around those busy streets, I can sometimes feel like an anchorless ship, meandering through some random backwater. But I wouldn’t trade it. As David said, if you really want to get to know a culture you should try and do something mundane, like buying saucepans, rather than a fancy safari or beach vacation. My ‘life experience’ cup overfloweth. And, at the end of it all, I can tumble out of a matatu onto the dusty village road, and display my Kampala treasures to the volunteers (Tupperware! Body wash! Marshmallows!), and it feels good to be home.

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