I’ve left the village. There were tears, although not as many as I expected. I almost lost it once when I was giving my little goodbye speech to the teachers. I almost lost it again when I was saying goodbye to the kids at the end of year assembly. I did lose it when I had finished speaking and then they all started singing. Then they blessed me while I nodded mutely, tears rolling down my cheeks. The most surprising instance of tears, however, came in the US Embassy in Kampala. I was there helping one of Arlington’s teachers who had received an offer of free medical care in the States and was trying to get a visa. We were in the consulate waiting room for a good two hours, so I had plenty of time to study the vaguely propagandistic ‘Welcome to America’ video that was playing on a five minute loop in the corner. It was very well done, with lots of lovely scenic shots and people of all colors and backgrounds grinning and proclaiming their American-ness. They reminded me of characters in a children’s book: the rugged cowboy, the jovial baker, the pretty teacher, the noble Native American—oh no, wait—none of them in the video. Anyway, my usual reaction to such a piece of media would be to scoff and roll my eyes along with my other liberal buddies. This time though, I started to cry. The Ugandans in the room must have thought I was psycho. I’m on the verge of having some Broadway musical-style revelatory moment, standing up and proclaiming “Oh it is a wonderful country, you really should all come!” And they look at me all stony-faced, like “We know loser, why else would we be here?’ Anyway, it made me realize that I do miss the USA, and that I’m probably ready to go home.

Being ready to go home doesn’t mean that I’m over Uganda. Recently I had a chance to figure out what exactly about this place and experience I am going to miss the most. After I left the village, I met up with David, his sister, and his nomadic friend Sean, who is in the middle of a Cairo to Cape Town African Epic Journey (AEJ). He is traveling with one t-shirt and one pair of pants. Eleven months ago I would have said that was just crazy. Now I think it’s admirable. And crazy. They rented a car with the aim of doing a miniature AEJ out to the west of Uganda, and I was able to join them for the first part. Our first stop was Jinja—the adventure and drinking capital of East Africa. It was there, on a wooden deck overlooking the Nile, third beer in hand, that the inevitable happened. “So Ruth,” said David, “what are you going to miss most about Uganda?” I protested at the difficulty of this question, and it was duly re-formatted: name the top five things you will miss about Uganda. As happens to me frequently, I didn’t know the answer to that question until I started talking, and found I had a lot to say. The beer helped. I think the top 5 list I came up with sums Uganda up for me quite nicely. So here it is, sobered up and re-ordered:

Ruth’s Uganda Top 5

#5: The music. This is random, I know, but true. When you go out in Uganda there’s a certain mix of African pop, Ugandan reggeton, old-school American R&B, and eighties music playing in every bar and club. In the village it was pumped out of the neighborhood bar/shack’s speakers every market day. It’s grown on me, big-time, and in these last days some of the ridiculous and ubiquitous songs have become unlikely tear-jerkers. Who knew I could get choked up upon hearing a song entitled ‘Do Me.’ The music here became a comfortable backdrop, and its familiarity helped me feel at home. Uganda has a drastically different sound-scape from America. It’s going to be out with cows lowing and roosters crowing and matatus honking, and in with canned laughter on TV and the car radio and ‘You have a nice day now.’ I have no idea what songs are popular right now in the US, but I predict that I’ll catch myself wandering around the house, humming ‘Do Me’ wistfully every now and then.

#4: The mind-boggling scenic beauty. I came to take it for granted that I would wake up every morning to watch the sun rise over a bowl of lush green hills. My morning commute involved a walk of such staggering picturesque-ness, that even months after my arrival I would sometimes just stop and look. Some evenings, around dusk, the cow moos would take on this unearthly quality and ring out over the banana trees, and I would sit on the front porch and feel like I was in Jurassic Park. In a good, awestruck, way—not a scary raptor way. The natural beauty of the village soothed my soul and set my default mood at happy and relaxed.

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Jurassic Park?  Land Before Time?  Other dinosaur-related movie?

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Downtown Kiholo

#3: The pace. Now this is a tricky one. I do think that I’ve fallen victim to some nostalgia here, because there were definitely times when the ‘pace’ of meetings, or functions, or just getting a basic task completed would make me want to repeatedly bang my face against a brick wall. I have sat in meetings, watching the sky darken outside as we drone through the 15 item agenda, digging my fingernails into the underside of my chair, counting backwards from 200 and taking shallow breaths to quell the huge and frequent sighs I want to emit. But those feelings faded with my time in the village. I came to accept the airy nature of deadlines in Uganda, and unclenched my mind enough to acknowledge that a lack of urgency can be a good thing for a person. I would saunter down from school around five, and the agenda for the evening in front of me consisted only of: 1. Do whatever you want until you’re sleepy. 2. Sleep. I got eight hours of sleep a night. I don’t think that’s been the case since about 5th grade. I had long conversations with all the different volunteers in the house, read, wrote, played games, stared into space. No appointments or engagements or errands. It was lovely. I hope I can keep some of those ‘must be busy always’ wolves at bay when I’m back in the land of drive-throughs. I hope zen is a continent-transferable concept. Although there is one area of ‘pace’ that the rosy glow of nostalgia never touched: the mofo-ing internet connections. I have suffered near blackouts due to my frustration while trying to use internet in this country. I think one 3-day attempt at attaching a photograph to an email may have cost me thousands of dollars in future blood pressure medication. Bring on the high-speed, for real.

#2: The people. I don’t mean this in a ‘oh my gosh Ugandans are just so friendly. All of them. And beautiful. Aren’t they all so beautiful?’ way. I think generalizations like that are just as disrespectful and inane as generalizations like ‘All Ugandans are corrupt.’ I’m talking about the individuals that I’ve met here who have become good friends, the students who became bright spots in my days, and the many acquaintances who did me favors and told me crazy stories and made me laugh and helped me understand. One of my favorite things about Uganda is that the frequency of human-to-human interaction is about fifty times that of the States. I feel like technology in American is moving towards the moment when one human will be able to make an income and acquire all basic needs without ever interacting with another human. It’s not like that here. You never deal with self-scanners, online booking, or telephone robots; you always deal with a person, usually face to face. And even if it’s just a shopkeeper or matatu conductor, you often have a decent sort of conversation because everything is negotiable, so you’re haggling or arguing or explaining your specific dilemma. I was doing some shopping in the market area of Kampala yesterday, and ended up giving my email address to the entire staff of a t-shirt store. Our negotiation over prices evolved into quite a long chat, and they want to stay in touch. That doesn’t mean the encounters are always pleasant. I’ve met plenty of rude, bossy, aggressive Ugandans. But I still appreciate the fact that the culture here prioritizes human interaction. It makes everything much more interesting.

Beyond the vibrancy of the culture of interaction, I am going to miss the Ugandans, particularly the Arlington staff members, who became close friends. There’s not all that much to say, except that I’ve been through a lot with them, and they’re the kind of people I hope I can stay in touch with. I’m a fairly social creature. Having good friends around is important to me, and I was lucky enough to find a group of warm, intelligent, hilarious friends in Bumwalukani, who made the village feel like home.

#1: Limitlessness. I’ve thought about this one for a while, and I can’t find a way to state it more clearly than that. This entire year in Uganda has been a process of learning that there are very few absolutes in life, and really, there are no limits to what I can do. I know, I know, cue the violins and Mariah Carey warbling on about self-belief. But this feeling was constant and concrete. It manifested itself in small moments: bumping along on the back of a motor-bike, clutching my shopping bags and watching the moon-lit banana leaves whiz past. Wandering around hot Kampala streets placing orders for thousands of dollars worth of textbooks with USAID money. Rafting the river Nile. Getting the water pump fixed at the guest house. Organizing a library. Writing a budget. Finding common ground and something to laugh about with people who have never seen a white person before. Watching a woman from the village put on trousers for the first time in her life and board a plane to the USA to undergo a life-saving surgery. Petting a cow. Learning to stand up to the mean taxi conductor. Teaching a kid to read. It’s about the flexibility and endless potential of the African continent, and the strength and confidence I’ve gained to tackle it. It’s about becoming completely at ease in my independence, while also experiencing connection with a wild variety of people. It’s about developing common sense and street smarts, but always having an open mind and pushing my limits. It’s about living in the moment while imagining my future as a bright, sunny sky somewhere. It’s about being happy, and feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile. So let Mariah sing, because the hero does lie in me, thank you very much.

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School library, with part of the Science Fair banner in front of it.  Taken by Nimrod–the 10 year old burgeoning photographer, apparently.

Now technically #1 doesn’t belong on a ‘what I will miss’ list, because I plan on taking it back to the US with me. It’s a way better souvenir than a ‘mzungu’ t-shirt. Traditionally I think I’m supposed to have discovered a life purpose/goal/ambition during my African adventure. I haven’t. Currently my plans include: get to America, greet family, eat a lot, drink a lot, talk a lot, throw greatest new year’s party ever, survive hangover, . . . . . . . . . aaaaaaand that’s it. But my outlook is positive, and I’m not freaking out about not having a plan. I feel strong and empowered and confident that I’ll find something good to do. Uganda has blasted open my concept of what it means to be successful and happy, and shown me that I can achieve it. You don’t have to be a hippy or a hobo to take a step back from the traditional concerns of American society and recognize that following those prescribed paths won’t necessarily make you happy. For most, in fact, unthinkingly following a prescribed path is a recipe for unhappiness.

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A mystifying, but appropriate Kampala traffic sign

I think my hardest battle will be to maintain these feelings as I hit the brick wall of my upcoming culture shock, finally, finally actually look at my bank balance, and begin watching ‘reality’ tv shows on MTV again. That’s where y’all come in. I am blessed with a hugely supportive and encouraging family and group of friends. Your emails, letters, blog comments, packages, and sometimes even physical presence have more than cushioned any blows a year in Uganda could deal me. Just thinking of seeing everyone again is a giant cushion against the nostalgia and sadness that’s seeping around the edges of this departure.

So, I’m not crying. I’m feeling good and looking forward. Stay tuned . . . . . . .

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