Saturday, 19 January 2013

Doctor Robert, I Presume?

We Bazungu are map-obsessed. Samuel has already documented our nearly-fruitless eight hour search for a map of Kampala; in addition, we thought it would be swell to create a map of our own, detailing our surroundings and associated points of interest.1 We haven't really done so well at this task, partly because every time we go out to walk around and do some low-tech surveying,2 something more interesting happens.

“But Alex, what could be more interesting than maps?” asked no one ever

1 I still haven't told Sam that I got lost in the neighborhood when I was here in November. I don't think he suspects that my motive for mapmaking includes not only the beauty of man naming his environs, etc., but also a desire to not die in a dark alleyway.
2 Low-tech in this context having the meaning of “involving our eyes.”

On one recent occasion, we got out the door, and headed down the bumpy dirt path-road to find out where it went. The answer was goats.

I'm going to pause a moment to allow anyone from Monroe Hall reading this time to stop laughing.

The goats marked a dead-end, so we turned back and went down another side path-road, one that we had traveled before. After making a turn onto an almost-road, we heard a man calling our names.

The first time you run into someone you know in a strange city is a near transcendental moment. You experience a feeling of such comforting familiarity that mom's meatloaf for once wouldn't even make your mouth water3, and a sense of wild, carefree excitement that leads you to conclude that all time and space has conspired to bring you to this moment, and that you are invincible.

This feeling may be misleading. Do not attempt to experience if under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other mood-altering substances. Side effects may include feelings of invincibility.

3 Nothing on your meatloaf, mom.

In short, this alien place, no matter how much fun and stimulation it has heretofore provided you, this place in one instant becomes home.

The man calling us was named Ignatius, and the backstory he's going to get here is none, because we knew very little about him at the time—he's an interesting enough character to get a post or two of his own later on. Ignatius is a wiry young man who hunches forward slightly when he talks, which he does often, quickly and excitedly. He has narrow features, which as we learned later he attributes to his suppositious Ethiopian ancestors,4 and a confident air that manages to be both energetic and disarmingly friendly. Nevertheless, any interaction with him causes a very slight sense of unease, as if some neurons meeting in congress in the long-forgotten regions of one's brain have checked and double-checked the calculations, and come up with a number just a bit different from normal.5

After a bit of small talk, mostly centering around the subject of “what the hell are you muzungus doing down this backalley?”6 Igantius invited us to come to an orphanage where he claimed to volunteer.

4 Ok, so I lied about the no-backstory thing. You don't have to get all bent out of shape about it.
5 As will become clear from the following, neither Sam nor I read the report those neurons handed in to Central Command.
6 I'm not sure we provided a satisfactory answer; there's a distinct possibility that every single African we've met in our wanderings thus far thinks that we have a mild case of never knowing where we're supposed to be.

As some of our readers (hi, Moms!) may know, evaluation of locals' claims is always a dubious art during your first time in a foreign country. You never know, for instance, if the chap you just met sporting the huge skull tattoo7 can be trusted when he claims to be third in line for the presidential succession: perhaps the tattoo is some sort of regional custom denoting political power and not a penitentiary custom denoting terrifyingness.8

7 No, Ignatius did not have a huge skull tattoo. Thank you for your concern.
8 The above is an excellent example of the little-known danger of the word “perhaps.”

In any case, we went with our gut9 and allowed him to lead us away. As the almost-road receded, we found ourselves weaving in between dwellings that gradually reduced our way to a path-road, then a not-at-all-road, then a careful-don't-run-into-that-wall-what-is-this-not-road, and finally an I-didn't-know-people-could-fit-through-spaces-that-tight-road. With each reduction in peripheral manuverability, Sam and I looked at each other with just a bit more misgiving on our faces, wondering if after being beaten and robbed and chucked unceremoniously in the sewer they would at least give us a map so we could get back home.

None of that came to pass.10 Just as we had resigned ourselves to our impending doom, Ignatius, motioning for us to follow, ducked through a small doorway of the type that commonly open into courtyards here—a child-sized pop-out set into a massive 10-foot painted iron gate. When we emerged from under the gate, we found a crowd of teenage boys who seemed to know Ignatius smiling at us.

9 Which was in conflict with the aforementioned Neurological Council, the latter having finally unequivocally decided that something here was the matter.
10 Although I can state with near-certainty that the “they” who never materialized would not have given us a map.

After being shy-smilingly greeted, we were told that the courtyard, which was ringed by dilapidated-looking one-story concrete structures, was in fact a secondary school, although from the look of things it was the one-room thatch-roofed country schoolhouse to Fr. John's Swanky Ivy-Covered Red-Brick East Coast Prep School. Our welcoming committee, naturally, was made up of the boys, mostly orphans, who lived and studied in this sorry-looking compound.

Having obtained the name “Brother Robert” and a guarded assertion that the aforementioned was both an American and the local head honcho, Ignatius volunteered to bring us to the Brother's house.

When you have to get up the cojones to trust that someone who could be leading you to a messy death11 is in fact bringing you exactly where he promised, and he goes and does bring you exactly where he promised, it builds a certain kind of intrapersonal bond, albeit somewhat one-sidedly (Ignatius probably had no inkling of our unease throughout our previous journey). So we meekly tagged along on more I-guess-you-could-call-this-a-trail-but-it-certainly-isn't-a-road-roads until we reached a house the size of your average suburban bungalow in an upscale neighborhood nearby.

11 Dear family, I promise that I have not been in any real danger at any point here.

Brother Robert is what you picture when you picture a westerner running a school in a place like Uganda. He is medium height, ruddy and with a paunch and white hair no doubt donated him by increasing age that hasn't yet managed to get at his vitality. His heavy and unplaceable accent led us to believe at first that we had been unwittingly tricked into entering the lair of a Canadian (believe me, we were 'bout ready to turn and bolt), but it turned out to be from New Hampshire.

Crisis averted.

We let him take us back to his school in a Land Rover that I would classify as one step up from “bombed out,” where he gave us the grand tour, which largely consisted of him pointing out how little the school had of everything: space, supplies, desks, concrete that wasn't in the process of quickly eroding, etc.12 He managed to accomplish this without once complaining or pleading, but rather smiling and laughing, stating things matter-of-factly and not expecting any reaction, sympathetic or otherwise, from us his guests. In this, the Brother is much like the Ugandans we have come to know in our time here, and spending an afternoon with him was a genuine pleasure.

The upshot of our adventure was that we may become doubly employed: at a meeting that very morning we had learned to our dissatisfaction that we would likely only be teaching a few classes at Bishop Cipriano, the school run by Fr. John's organization. Since Brother Robert's school is short on teachers,13 and experiencing his school would provide a wildly different perspective from that afforded us by our current position, we will hopefully be able to teach a class or two there as well.

12 According to him, the only criteria for admission to one the school's limited posts is poverty: “the poorer the better.” This is, he notes, in marked contrast to Bishop Cipriano, which explains the incongruity between the two.
13 Other things in short supply, aside from those listed above, include everything.

I note with some remorse that I have not significantly reduced the number of footnotes from my first post as promised. Therefore, I will finish this up posthaste in order to not run afoul of the internet.
Burn the footnoter!

Happy Saturday to you all.

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