Koming to Kampala: Part 2
The airport-taxi driver’s name was Eman (pronounced ee-mahn, short for Emmanuel) and he was, in fitting correspondence to me, the tallest Ugandan I’ve seen since. At this point I seem to be the tallest person anyone here has seen at all, but for some reason less people ask me if I’m a basketball player than in the U.S.
Thank you, Uganda, for not giving me “that look” when I say I can’t dunk.
I wasn’t in a talkative mood as we drove from Entebbe towards Kampala along the shores of Lake Victoria, but Eman asked a few questions and I didn’t want the conversation to fall unmutual, so I asked one or two back. Eman responded to a tired prompting about the niceness-levels of his countrymen by saying, very earnestly, that Ugandans will return whatever respect they are given tenfold. Thus, if you are nice, they will love you from the first moment. If you ignore them, they will ignore you. If you are mean, they will fight. Simple, direct, but assuming that people are primarily nice an exponentially potent karmic policy.
Simple, again, but it stirred something inside of me; never before had I considered that a general populace would respond to kindness with total openness and affability. Sometimes when I smile to people on the streets of Minneapolis they look straight down; one time when I smiled at a man on the El in Chicago Alex and I got asked to buy alcohol for a 40-year-old whose name was, I crap you not, Michael D. Jackson (he showed us his driver’s license, with which our 16-year old selves were supposed to fool a liquor store cashier). Things just get a little variable stateside, and so I’ve always been willing to shut down and NOT smile at people on trains if I’m worn out, because who knows what on earth could happen? However, living this way seemed like it could be kind of sad here— if what Eman was saying proved true, I was literally guaranteeing him to be less nice and engaged by keeping myself inward, and he seemed real stinkin’ ready to be nice and engaged--plus I’d been realizing, rather terrifiedly on the airplane, that I needed to learn a lot of stuff, fast. So I sucked it up, tried to forget my guilty headache, and began to engage in earnest.
We touched on many things during that 10-kilometer drive past Kampala and into Luzira, right to the top of the hill on which Father John lives, things covering a large bit of Eman’s little chunk of Ugandan life. The power of parents over children, the University system, his hopes for tribe-uniting business work, the love of Ugandans for alcohol and nice clothes: Ugandans, Eman informed me, Dress to Kill. Most importantly for me though, was his constant emphasis on the earnest love of Ugandans for life and each other.
Is it dangerous for me here? -Absolutely not! Will I be mobbed by people for being white? -No, they would not want to make you uncomfortable! Do people treat each other well? -Since the war! well, there is the whole police and military corruption issue… but yeah!
He dropped me off in the Father’s courtyard with a big handshake and a repeated promise that I would have the time of my life. I felt a little wary of this obscene optimism, but gave him a nice tip anyways. I mean, the dude was on his game.
I kept wondering if he was just playing things up for the extra cash as I fell asleep, business student though he was, but my skepticism started getting squashed as early as waking up the next morning. Now, I am in a strange position being white and all, but everyone from the Father’s nicely-homed hilltop to the craziest market streets in downtown Kampala has treated us with enormous sunshininess. We get wide-eyed looks at first, but the second we smile and raise a hand the smile is returned, at least ten times brighter than our own (nice call Eman!). People certainly solicit us more, as it is assumed we have more disposable income, but they rarely continue to badger. To be honest, the beggars and vendors in Chicago are about 10 times more aggressive on average, making these downtrodden downright Ghandi-an (ghandian) in comparison. There is an intensity to many things, it is true, and most people here in the city must work craaaaaazy hard to live (more on that later—all I’ll say for now is that despite colonization, war, and intense poverty they are some of the sharpest entrepeneurs I have ever seen). Regardless, there is a camaraderie through it all that I have found fascinating and, well, really darn nice.
Today we worked at a construction site in the grounds of the primary (elementary) school that Father John also runs. The gentlemen there ranged from 15-38, and yet they all talked, joked, laughed and sang as they tied together massive re-bar rods into foundation towers. Alex and I were simply members of the group within 15 minutes, listening at times, adding jokes at others, answering questions about our country and sweating when the lifting started. It was the most fun I’ve ever had at manual labor, and the end result was a slowly but surely rising building, a building that will make the lives of kids at the school much more sanitary.
Not to brag or anything, but my life is wonderful right now.
I do, of course realize that I’ve been here a week, and have seen very little in a relative sense. However, I can say without reservation that few places have felt this much like an adventure and a home to me on first impression. Must be something in the water. Oh wait, no, that’s just the bacteria that have funkified my excrement. But to be honest, even those lil’ guys aren’t as vicious as I thought…
That’s all I got for now, tired from construction and then giving a million piggy-back rides to kids at the Father’s when I got home. We start our orientation for teaching tomorrow morning, and I want to be well-rested so’s I ken git a gewd grasp of what kinda Inglush wur gunna impart unto these here children. Hopin’ it ain’t the British kind. Oh wait, whose colony? Crap…
I’ll tell you all about Father John’s place next, in all of its idiosyncratic glory. Hope your lives are wonderful, look out for Alex’s posts soon (he’s gotta finish up some stuff on the Italian experience, find that here: ),