Monday, February 8, 2010

Inside a Small Ugandan Home

I've seen some good views in my time. But this one was very good. As usual, the photo doesn't do it justice, but it gives you an idea. This is Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda. Almost on the border of Rwanda. This was the last stop of a week in the country.

This view wasn't the viewpoint the Dutch acrobat and I were headed for, but the loud, dark clouds were coming in fast behind us. So we spent a few minutes just enjoying the scene from where we were, then heading back down.

We'd been warned that the path would be slippery if it got wet. With the leaves and smooth ground, it was already pretty slippery when dry. We picked our way downhill, passing men with machetes and women with boxes and baskets on their heads going up, going home. I almost took a picture of one of the many cows I'd seen with horns big enough to pick up a small car, but the herder decided he'd want 2000 shillings. I knew I could get a better picture for free later, so I skipped it.

We passed a small family, a man with a cowboy hat, a small boy, and a tiny little girl. I complimented the man on his hat, and we each answered the same question from the little boy that all little boys and girls ask in Uganda: “How are YOU?” The only understandable answer is “fine.” We kept going, both kids watching us. The boy waved a bit and said “bye.” We smiled and said “bye” before moving on. We passed behind some trees and heard the boy yell something in Luganda or whichever local tribal language was more popular in the area (I have so much trouble keeping them all straight). A moment later, he nailed my friend's backpack with a small rock. Two or three more rocks followed, to the embarrassment and surprise of the next set of Ugandan adults we met coming up the hill.

We split up just as the rain started to come down. She'd ordered a pasta dinner at our place as a treat, having spent the last five weeks eating Ugandan food where she'd been volunteering. I ducked under a roof where I saw people with half-liter sized mugs, figuring I could get my own meal for cheap. I asked what I could get. The answer was 'porridge.' I ordered one and sat down on one of the wood benches. I answered the obligatory how are you with the obligatory fine, and talked a little more extensively with the one man there who knew some English.

Soon I had my own mug. Inside the mug was a milky brown liquid. I gingerly took a sip. The closest thing I'd ever tasted was sour mare's milk, a Mongolian specialty. Remembering what a bowl of that had done to my insides in Ulan Bataar, I put down my mug.

“Is good?” One of them asked.

“Yeah. Good.” I said. “Different.” I said.

“Different from what?” He asked, “you had porridge before?”

“Not like this.” I said.

“Ah yes. This porridge, sits four days now. You can get drunk from this porridge.”

Right. I took another couple sips to be polite, cracked a few jokes about not making it back to my place, then decided to give the mug to the man to my right, who would probably enjoy it a lot more than I would. I paid on my way out.

The rain was getting harder, cutting channels in the dirt road. I considered a shop advertising chapati from behind chicken wire and wood, then spotted some smoke coming from a nearby wooden house. It was yet another roasting pot of beans, potatoes, and plantains (known here as matoke). I asked about meat, then looked closer and realized the meat being served was either tripe or some other inner organ I didn't recognize. I asked for the basic vegetarian special. The pot was on a patch of dirt covered by a tin roof. I was invited to sit in an unlit cement and mud room next to it about the size of my closet back home.

It was dark inside, but, stepping over the pile of potatoes in the doorway, I could see a woman in an elaborate wrap and headscarf with her small boy sitting on a makeshift bench. There was a small table, and a pile of corn husks in the corner. I sat down next to the woman, nodded and said hello.

The food was heaped into the bowl, just the right amount of beans and sauce to matoke and potatoes, and was just the right temperature. The boy was finishing his portion and watched me curiously as I dug into mine. He first moved away from me, then to the side, then came to sit next to me and look up at my face. At one point, overcome by curiosity, he grabbed my calf with both hands, just below the knee, where my shorts ended. I remembered being told that people wouldn't take you seriously if you wore shorts here because no Ugandan adult would wear them.

I like kids. I always have, and I like to think I can get most kids to like me. You don't need a common language to do this, you just need to know how to play. So when he started waving his hand left and right, I mirrored him carefully, waiting for him to catch on. As soon as he did, he started giggling.

I showed him the way I could give a low whistle with my hands. He was a little young to understand when I tried to show him how to do it. So I settled for how to make the little popping noise with my middle finger and cheek my dad use to entertain me with when I was his age.

His father walked in. He saw me and said hello. His breath smelled like the porridge stuff I'd just been drinking. Turned out he knew a bit of English. It is the national language, something I'm still getting used to. He introduced himself as David and his son as Joshua, his firstborn. His wife was never mentioned or introduced, even though she was sitting less than a foot away.

I'd finished my food, and something in David's look told me he was going to ask me for money, just like so many others before him had over the past week. So I thanked him, and made to leave. But he said, no please stay, let us talk. I didn't feel I could turn that down, and anyway the rain was really going at this point.

Conversation was halting and laborious, but questions and statements came from David in slow spurts. He had six children. His youngest was named Joel, like me. This little room was his house. What did I think of his house?

I knocked a fist on the walls.

“Strong.” I said. I tried telling him about some of the mud huts with grass roofs I'd seen in Ethiopia and how here in Uganda the brick and mixed mud and cement structures with wooden reinforcement was much more durable. I don't know how much I got across.

Joshua coughed. He picked something in the back of his mouth. He coughed again, this time the something landed in his mouth. It was red liquid. Blood? His father looked a bit disgusted, and sent Joshua away.

An ear of roast corn appeared. He split it in half and gave me half. Joshua reappeared and sat down next to me, hugging my leg. After a couple bites, David split his half of corn in half and gave a piece to Joshua.

More halting conversation. David offered me porridge. I thanked him but told him I'd had some already. He talked more while I ate corn, wondering who I could split my half in half for. I ended up finishing it on my own. David then tried to get me to eat the rest of his. I insisted that he finish it himself.

He asked where I was from. I told him. And he slowly pulled out a piece of paper. I wrote my name and my home town. He looked at it and asked for a number. I gave him my voice mail number in the US. Then he asked if a letter would reach me there. He thought I'd just given a mailing address. I pulled out a notebook and asked him to give me his address instead.

He wrote down his name, David Baine, and then C/o Richard with a completely illegible last name, and then a Ugandan phone number, missing a digit. He explained that Richard was doctor in a nearby town, and that the phone number was his, not David's. He tried to explain something about “grafts” on “papyrus” and lake water that I didn't understand. He asked a neighbor who had just stopped by for a translation. Instead, the neighbor told me about his job before he left.

The rain had slowed to a trickle. David looked out and then at me.

“I live here.” He said. “This my house. I have six sons.”

“Six boys?”

“ehm. Four girls, two boys.”

“I see. Good house, good kids.” Josh was still hugging my knee and trying to make the popping noise with his finger and mouth.

“So you see.” David said. “I am not happy.”

He just looked at me, hunched over in his tiny place outside a mud road. He lived just off the shore of a beautiful lake. He was literate, but with six little mouths to feed. And the 'porridge' was talking to him.

I nodded slowly, looking at the scene. Before, I'd thought more than once that I'd wanted a picture of the perfect lighting on the potatoes and plantains on the dirt floor, but didn't feel comfortable asking for a picture. But the man's face was one of the many moments I never would have dared photograph yet wanted to keep an image of much more than some nicely lit food. Not for the beauty, but for the reminder that there are people who wear this expression every day. It's not sadness or hopelessness. It's just a blank. I am not happy. That's how my life is.

When I crashed at an aid worker's place in Ethiopia, I pulled a book of the shelf by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank. It was about how we can eradicate poverty. One of the last chapters was all about the museums that we would create to show kids what poverty was like after we'd eradicated it. When it would be history, something our kids would never know. The picture I never took of David's face would have been just the exhibit Yunnus had in mind. Maybe if we all work hard at this, someday that's the only place we'll ever see that expression again.

But in the meantime, when I got up to pay and leave, and he asked me if I'd send something to his impossible mailing address. I didn't know what to say. I still don't.

Check out this entry's Photos.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting story and the way you handled the situation. Still, I'm curious about what you did exactly, or said when he forwarded the question.
    Or you just ignored it completely?

    About that shot, I know that a good photo is hard to come by, and you have to be in the right place, at the right time.
    As a passionate amateur photographer, I don't know if I would have resisted the temptation.
    From the way you described it, it would have made a nice reminder to look at, from time to time; or for other people to see such an expressive recording of the moment.

    On the other hand, just like in certain physics experiments, the mere observation can interfere with the behavior and results, and by using the camera you could have broken or shortened that "magic" moment.