Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Life at the Father's 1: Hail Mary

I wondered at first why everyone here carefully took a seat at exactly 7:13 p.m., and then I was stricken suddenly blind and tripped like a fool over nine or ten chairs whilst walking through my first Ugandan sunset. Honestly though, the sun here does not so much set as vaporize; one moment it’s broad daylight and the next it’s pitch black. I might not have actually tripped my first time, but I certainly paused for a long moment wondering if my body’s internal efficiency systems had decided to conserve power by lowering the brightness level of all visual displays.

It’s true, actually, that everyone sits down at exactly 7:13 p.m. here at Father John’s house.  However, I figured out very quickly (thanks in part to the giant statue of Mary, complete with light-up electric halo) that the purpose is spiritual rather than physical.  The populace of Father John’s—some 25-35 people, depending on the day—gathers every evening in plastic chairs on the cement courtyard, inside the barbed-wired walls and outside the tanned-adobe buildings, to ask the Virgin for her prayers.  Father John is not always there at the beginning but he has inevitably shown up at some point, and you can pin-point this exact moment via the loud, heavy Italian accent that drowns out many of the quieter voices.

Those quieter voices belong to a wonderful assortment of characters the likes of which I’ve never seen assembled in one place.  Understanding that this list is limited by both my short acquaintance with the home and my natural ign’ance, here is an attempt at an abridged dramatis personae:

Ettore,  75-year old Italian construction overseer and Father John’s right-hand man.  A tanned and wiry little fellow whose teeth match his hair, inveterate flirt despite an absolute lack of English language capabilities, quiet more often than not (when he ain’t layin’ his mac down).  The last few nights he has come to dinner groaning about the incompetency of Ugandan construction workers at Father John’s various building projects—a category of people which may or may not occasionally include Alex and I. 

Enrico Marianni (Marianni, Signore Henry), a man of similar age to Ettore, electrical foreman at Father John’s various building sites.  Uses his 9-10 words of English primarily to make fun of me, Alex, or himself; frequently misappropriates the name of our fair home Chicago into a rather scatological Italian pun, complete with squatting and grunting motions.  Sometimes bears the brunt of Father John’s ire, for what I don’t really know, except that Father John does not allow wine at his table and Marianni would very much allow wine at his own.

Samuel, a 29-year old Ugandan from a village in the north of Uganda, who worked his way through school with the Father’s help since he was forced away from his home by the civil war.  Currently employed in the office here at the complex taking calls, receiving visitors, running errands, etc.  Awkward but quite affable, loves to share stories of his home village, his struggles with girls, and his plans to get good at guitar and marry a beautiful wife.  Proud of his new abs.  Always willing to reach out to Alex and I.

Ronald, another gentleman in his late 20s who works as Samuel’s counterpart in the office.  Funny and put-together, doesn’t interact with us much outside of meals.  Wears really great floral-print button-downs. 

Various ages of children, caretakers and security guys, anywhere from 3-50, some of whom live here full time (a few orphans the Father has taken in) and some who just work during the day.  The kids enjoy running, screaming, singing with us, playing sports, and throwing things at the cats who graze in the trash-pit out back; when they can get it their favorite sport is Muzungu-wrangling.  The older girls mostly cook and clean, and as such are too busy to interact with us regularly.  The head of the house is Angela, a venerable older woman who always has a smile for us even when we commit classic Muzungu blunders like greeting her loudly during the morning mass.

Random guests, various ages, such as the former Italian lawyer-turned international businessman Michele, who is helping bring foreign investors into Uganda; Lorenzo, an “associate” who is helping build a new primary school for the Father in Gulu, far to the north; and an Italian whose name I didn’t catch that the Father helped in a stolen-passport type situation.  Others come and go, usually with a smile and that weird Ugandan handshake that pumps once, holds limply for a bit, pumps again, and then drags off your fingers like a slab of steak sliding slowly from a sloped counter.  *shudder*  …trying hard to get used to it, don’t know if I ever will…

Most of these people sit in for at least a small part of the Rosary, although some seem to be exempt from Father’s expectation of participation.  We go round and round the necklace for what must be a fairly long time, but as I don’t wear a watch who’s to say?  Mostly I just spend my time looking at all the fascinating new faces.  Slowly, slowly, the voices begin to rise and the end of prayers looms nigh, bringing my internal monologue to a halt in anticipation.  Tonight I even thought I began to hear the ringing of the dinner bell— mmmmmmmm, the dinner bell—as the chanting reached its crescendo.  The crowd crosses themselves, the bell tolls outside my head, and as its perfect notes peal through the pitch we file into the dining room.  It’s feasting time.

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