It was a few weeks ago, and it was a pretty small group of us: three volunteers (including me), two school staff, and one clinic staff member. It was Mzungus Gone Wild 3 at Club Oasis, and everything was running smoothly and merrily: I’d harassed the DJ, inserted myself into a circle of dancing Ugandan women, and was beginning to think about what greasy food item I should consume before going home. We were all sitting on some chairs next to the pool tables in the outdoor section of the club. Suddenly I heard four loud pops behind us, about five meters away. It sounded to my admittedly hazy mind like firecrackers. I swiveled around to see what was going on, but couldn’t make out anything concrete in the darkness. I felt Andrew tugging on my sleeve and turned back around to find that I was the only idiot who had not assumed a position crouching as close to the floor as possible. “Get down,” Andrew hissed. I did, slowly and incredulously, my eyes wide: “Were those gunshots?” Christie, the other volunteer nodded. There followed some choice whispered language on my part, which should probably not be entered into the permanent record of cyberspace. There was some sort of scuffle going on, and Andrew kept popping his head up over the small wall separating us from the scene of the action. It looked like whatever was going down was moving in the direction of the exit. Eventually he did a quick check that we were still all ok, and abruptly sprinted off in the direction of the showdown. I felt like the Mission Impossible theme music should be playing loudly. I remained crouched next to my chair, having a furious conversation with Christie and Teacher Godfrey. Godfrey kept insisting that everything was ok, and I should feel free. He reminded me that the bouncers frisk everyone before letting them in. I stared at him for a second before exploding “WELL THEY DIDN’T CHECK THAT GUY, DID THEY?” At this point I looked around and realized that I had once again missed the boat on the crowd’s general change of position, and I was the only one left crouching. At least now I know what my instincts will guide me to do in times of real danger: act like a moron.

But oh, we were far from finished with this little incident. The whole threat of death by bullet had kind of taken the joy out of the evening, so Godfrey and Andrew walked Christie and me across the road to our hotel. They left us outside the front door, where there was a security guard. We climbed up the two flights of stairs to the lobby section, where we were ambushed by Mr. Gunman himself. There were a couple of factors at play here: the late hour, the alcohol consumption, his accent and rapid pace of speech, and my general pissed off state. As a result I didn’t catch too much of his long garbled speech. Some highlights included the moment when he pulled back his jacket to actually show us the gun, his admission that he had to fire in the air because his pepper spray wasn’t having the desired effect on a supposed mugger, and his entreaty that we shouldn’t worry because he had been a soldier for ten years. I nodded mutely, then asked if we could please go to bed now and could he please refrain from any more shooting this evening. He assented to both requests, and we walked the ten feet to our room where I fell into a deep, deep sleep within a minute of lying down.

The next thing I knew Christie was shaking me awake and telling me I had to put on some pants because the police were at the door. It was approximately 5am and waking up felt like trying to swim to the surface of a deep and murky bog. Once conscious, I had to triple check that I was not still dreaming. But no, there was a loud threatening knocking coming from the room door. I dragged on jeans and opened it. I think my sleepiness was actually an asset here, as it allowed me to remain somewhat mellow in a pretty tense situation. There were three uniformed policemen with rifles slung over their shoulders, and one other aggressive man in plain clothes, who immediately began peering anxiously into the room as if expecting to see the gunman’s shoes peeking out from under the bed. The manager of the hotel was actually in tears, pacing up and down the hall asking why they couldn’t just leave his guests alone, just leave them ALONE. The un-uniformed guy wanted to know where our friend was. He was talking about Geraint, a male volunteer who had left the club before the gunshots. I showed him the room where he was sleeping, and then argued with him until he let me be the one to try and wake Geraint up. I wanted to prevent Geraint’s head from exploding in confusion. As I was knocking on Geraint’s door and explaining the situation, Christie was updating the police about our earlier encounter with the gunman. It wasn’t clear who was in charge or what exactly they were looking for, and the manager’s repeated wails weren’t helping anything. After another quick look around the rooms they were apparently satisfied that no, this was not a Die Hard movie and no, we were not harboring an armed fugitive. They all got involved in an animated conversation and seemed to forget about us until I actually tugged on the sleeve of one of the policemen, and asked if I could please go back to sleep now. He said that was fine.

The next morning I looked out our room window to see Mr. Gunman and his family packing up their station wagon. In fact, they had a flat tire and so spent a good twenty minutes milling around on the street about forty feet away from the club. Then they all piled in and headed off. The scene reminded of me of The Griswalds or something. Something wholesome and innocent. I heard a few different versions of what had happened. He and his family had been guests of the hotel, so one would assume the police had managed to come across him in their dramatic pre-dawn raid. So why was he joking around on the street and driving away with his family? The most likely answer is that money changed hands somewhere, and all charges were dropped.

This story could have happened to me anywhere in the world. There’s no accounting for wackos. I’m sure the probability was much higher that I would encounter gunfire as I walked home from work in the Bronx than it is anywhere in Uganda. But this incident is a symptom of an undercurrent that runs beneath all the smiling children and growing crops and government initiatives in Uganda.

In one of my first weeks here I was walking along the main road with Cynthia to go and visit a student. It was a sunny day and we entered an avenue of Eucalyptus trees that provided some dappled shade. We heard the repeated beeping of an approaching boda-boda (motorbike) and stepped over to the side of the road. The bike came whizzing around the corner. Behind the driver sat another passenger, with the body of a young man slumped across his lap. The man’s head was hanging and bobbing, his eyes closed and mouth slack. You could immediately tell that he was dead. They were obviously in a rush, and I wondered to where? For what?

Some medical volunteers had the chance to witness the birth of a baby at Bududa Hospital back in April. The poor woman was pregnant with twins, and had already delivered one still-born in a local clinic before being transported to the hospital. A volunteer described how the mid-wife asked the volunteer to answer her cell phone for her, and hold it up to her ear so she could have a conversation while her hands were inside the woman, trying to get the baby into a suitable position. The second baby died as well, and the woman was left lying on a blanket on the floor until a family member came to clean her up.

A few days ago I got an email from a friend who had come to Mbale to visit me, and then traveled on to Kampala. Her matatu from Jinja to Kampala got a flat tire at 70 mph, swerved off the road and rolled repeatedly. Several people died. She was lucky and alive and crawled out the back window and was picked up by a passing vehicle and delivered into the caring arms of the Peace Corps in Kampala. God knows what happened to the others in a country where I’ve seen a total of three ambulances.

I’ve been lucky here in Uganda, in lots of ways. I have come by absolutely no harm, not even a stomach bug. In fact, apart from the odd case of fleas, my health has been on the up and up here. I have felt safe 99.9% of the time. But then again, I’m white. This has two important meanings. Firstly, it means that I am part of the ex-pat and volunteer community that has, comparatively speaking, lots of money. We can hire security guards and buy health insurance and own cars, or can at least hire one in an emergency, and pay the hospital bills. Worst case scenario we can fly to Nairobi or Johannesburg or London or home. Secondly, due to a complex interplay of traditional hospitality, colonial echoes, and the good-natured assumption that we’re all here to help, the mzungu life is privileged here. I always have Ugandans looking out for me, Ugandans who don’t know me at all. It’s like reverse racism. Or maybe it’s just plain old racism, except I can invoke the defense that I didn’t ask for any special treatment.

But this is still a developing country, and death in all its forms is more commonplace than in the States. That’s kind of a mundane and obvious conclusion, but it becomes more dramatic when you see it up close. There are vital systems and protections missing. There is no 911. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, but it was only about 40 years ago that Uganda suffered the brutal and largely lawless regime of Idi Amin. It’s still a living memory. President Museveni recently did a tour of the country to promote his reelection for a fourth eleven-year presidential term. He’s been in power since 1986. He came to a nearby village and we took a group of kids to see him. The rally was supposed to start at 9:30am. We showed up at about 11am and endured several hours of rain. We all played the ‘how many people can fit under an umbrella’ game. The President showed up at about 3:30pm. The wait time gave me a chance to get a good low down on Ugandan politics from Thomas, the school’s headmaster, and Teacher Nelson. They were of the opinion that, even in a completely free and fair election, Museveni would win again. I wondered out loud why a country would want to let its head office slink towards dictatorship like that, and Teacher Nelson brought up the point that Ugandans are still comparing this regime to what came before. Why rock the somewhat stable boat when you are haunted by images of random gunmen shooting innocent civilians, disappearances, and torture?

Like so much else in Uganda, progress in the arenas of healthcare, road safety, law enforcement, is there, but slowly, slowly. My experience here has allowed me rapid shifts in perception between glass half empty, glass half full. I think that’s probably the nature of development, and I think Uganda’s glass holds a lot more than many other African nations. But I know one thing for sure; I’m not going to be heading to Club Oasis again anytime soon.

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