Travel, why do we do it, to see other sights, broaden our minds, and learn new ways of being, or for the fun and novelty? Ever since my son John returned from a trip to Uganda last summer, he has been asking me to go back with him. I didn’t understand until I got there, he had been joking. He never expected me to take him up on his request. The joke turned out to be on him.
When he first told me of his plans to visit Uganda I asked an incredulous why? For a man content most times to let a few well-chosen words suffice as an answer, he only shrugged a reply. I, more loquacious by a factor of ten, found myself also bereft of words when the same question was put to me a year later. A mysterious primal urge defied explanation while drawing my interest.
Two previous trips to Africa, was as different from this latest as Zwieback is to banana bread. They set a stage for extraordinary contrasts. When we considered visiting this intriguing continent we chose a tour. It was the antithesis to Hubs and my usual wandering around in foreign parts. But seemed the safest way to avert a disaster.
I met lots of chambermaids, guides, bartenders and support staff on that trip. I never once left a compound or strayed out into a street without a cadre of minders. Everyone was jovial, charming and likable. The same qualities, undoubtedly that got them their jobs rather than exemplifying the citizenry of a country.
With no agenda or tour-guide nipping at my heels, I looked forward to seeing the sights. I found myself both exhilarated and terrified. That is until Church greeted us at the airport. A younger sister bestowed the moniker finding her sibling’s name a challenge. Church Fridaus, a friend John, made on his last stay appointed herself our guide. She also acted as a representative of the Ugandan chamber of commerce. According to our wig-bedecked docent, (to give herself more cred) for a white person to be in Kampala unaided by an African amounted to a suicide mission. John and I impressed upon her that she should lose the wig straight away before we set about to disprove her suicide theory.
Since my view of the city appeared to be a labyrinth of clogged streets and menacing motorcyclists, I couldn’t argue. My princess-and-the-pea sensibilities recoiled when I first laid eyes on my Ugandan lodgings. Used as I was to several more stars in the ratings and loft in the mattresses. Kampala met all the criteria for an exotic city. My interpretation of the word runs more to romance, delicious foods, and extraordinary sights. The traffic alone negated any romance Jambs are a way of life. On time, is a western concept. Clouts of frustrated tourist stand looking at their watches. Meanwhile Africans and expats arrive without apology when they do.
Mass transit does not exist. By default the job comes in the form of thousands of motorcycle taxis. They swarm like hornets through and around traffic. Boda-bodas, as the taxis are called, are the only way to get from point A to point B on time. Safety, however, is an issue when using this form of transportation. They drive on either side of the road, on sidewalks, weave in and around traffic and never stop at a light. Boda-bodas were off limits to us white folk. Though our keeper hopped aboard one, if Kenny the driver was missing in action.
As we sat in the interminable traffic, a constant reframe of careful emanated from our over-cautious-hostess. I don’t know if Church has a larcenous soul or a vivid imagination. She saw cell phones plucked from unsuspecting hands, while on a boda-bodas, standing at street corners, or sitting in a car in a traffic snarl. Despite all the dire warnings, we brandished our phones about filming the cityscape. Neither of us lost our cells even while filming aboard the dreaded boda-bodas.
After two days of no so great western style restaurants, I suggested we try an African one. Had that first meal been my sole foray into African cuisine I would have delighted in the subtle tastes and flavors. As meals turned out, I experienced a preponderance of African food in my seventeen-day stay. The problem, whether for lunch or dinner was the monotony. The only variance in the menu was the choice between goat or chicken with steamed bananas, white rice, plantains, beans, Irish (white potatoes), vegetable gravy and fruit for dessert.
The fruit could not have been more delicious, especially the pineapple. It became my go to breakfast. I never thought of myself as a picky eater (as a friend once said “we’ll eat anything look at us!”). That is until I bit into a commercially grown hard-boiled Ugandan chicken egg. I had a strange sensation of what’s-wrong-here when I took a bite and noticed nothing but white. Wondering how an egg could be yolkless, I inspected further to find the yolk to be the same hue as the white. Odd as it was, I hardly suspected the color would affect the taste. As I started in on my second bite of egg, I began to gag. A person at the table across from me had that moment noshed into a similarly cooked egg with a gray yolk.
Church and her husband Geoffrey work in the slums. They keep tabs on several woman and their children. Many men in Uganda marry, produce children, move on to another wife and make more children. Since most lack jobs, few support the women and children they left. The Kampala slums have a disproportionate amount of single mothers in residence because of this. When I was invited to visit the slums with Geoffrey and Church, I wanted to find a reason, and I assure you any would do, not to go.
I couldn’t fathom being in the squalor an African slum conjured up. Seeing children no more than four-year-olds begging in the streets with their month’s-old siblings strapped to their backs was mind-boggling enough. Having been a single mother the stories of the families the two shepherded were especially heart breaking. It didn’t allay my dread that I needed to have a police escort equipped with AK-47s.
Every square inch of the place assaulted my senses. Mud huts crammed into each other among more filth than I could ever have imagined. I went into several homes and met countless children. I came away awed by the kindness and joie de vivre exuding from so unlikely a place. There is more discontent on street corners in the United States than I saw in that slum. I’m glad I couldn’t find an excuse not to go.
A few days later we went to the Kampala Home for the Handicapped. Church whispered to me as we approached the grounds that even she couldn’t work here. I shuttered then steeled myself for a magnitude of horror and sad circumstances. If this angel of misery couldn’t handle what was in store how was I?
I had no idea how many afflictions disabled encompassed. Nor did I know that some of the afflictions I saw there existed. In a few minutes the scales fell from my eyes and as I looked past the handicap at the unmistakable joy for life the children possessed. Someone asked a volunteer how she kept from being depressed. She responded, “How could I get depressed?” The attitude of gratitude that permeated the school was palpable.
Though my body might have wished for a more varied menu while I was there, I left Africa with my soul fed.