Monday, June 20, 2011

Kampala, Gulu. Almost Atiak.

I have only ever passed through Kampala until now. This place is sprawl all day. Every other place in Uganda is a township or a district. This is a city by any measure.  

The vast majority of NGOs are based here. It was explained to me once that this presence has given rise to its own economy. There are areas of Kampala in which the cost of living is comparable to european styles and these are the places in which aid workers live and conduct most of their business. In such an area you will find a coffee shop, a place for laptops and lunch meetings. It even specializes in American food. Order the BLT and you will learn the timeless truth that much is lost in translation; The lettuce and tomato are cooked along with the bacon. 

At the supply store, the poster for Nestle baby formula boasts that the product will give your child “shiny hair” and “good posture.” A certain brand of soap advertises that it is “one hundred precent effective at reducing cases of sickness.” Either this soap is magic or regulatory powers are weak on this scene.

The streets are vibrant. Cats are hustlin’, there can be no doubt. All motorcyclists are men and most are taxis. Traffic itself is culture. I know this but cannot help but feel the immanence of peril as I ride pillion. There are holes in the road. Not potholes. Holes. In Japan, apparently, it is law that vehicles must be replaced every ten years. Those old cars and trucks end up here. “New from Japan,” says the salesmen at the dealership. The guy tells me he has a good buy. I ask who makes it, as he walks us through the dirt lot. “Japan,” he says. Nice. 

I strike out one day to witness the installation of a bishop. I don’t know that I have the wrong address as I make my way down a chill shopping district, the poverty stricken equivalent of a strip mall. Within I find a church, the wrong church. I get directions from a woman who stands beneath a picture of White Jesus. I remember a professor once telling me about a preacher who had to sneak into his own church to replace such a portrait with one he thought more fitting, a pic of a man with hair like wool and feet like brass. It is a start, though it is a poor one.

Eventually, I make it to the right church. Even the stuffy ceremony of Catholicism cannot stifle the desire to dance that seems to be the only universal on this continent. I always think of myself as dark skinned until I get here. I welcome the disruption of that frame.

At the hotel, the baby follows two children at play in a large foyer. She walks well enough to walk out on her own, until she encounters steps or an incline. We are not far behind. 

The quest for the cosmopolitan ends in snacks. We eat Indian, Greek and Chinese food, all of which are quite tasty. At the family home of a friend, a whole pig is roasted. Ugandans will have none of our bourgeois distinctions between cuts of meat. Fuck your tenderloin and your pork chop. We just cut that shit into … parts. 

After a week of searching and fundraising, Rachel and Olivia get a new vehicle and it is time to rock exit. They pick from the many applications for drivers and a prospect comes down to drive us to Gulu. He sucks and the trip feels itself to be all danger. We have gotten off to late in the day to see the monkeys that chill on the side of the road hoping for a banana from suckers like me. 

We arrive at St. Monica’s and are swarmed by nuns. The baby grows comfortable with her new popularity. Less comfortable with her ever increasing number of teeth. 

We hit the market for food and supplies. Last time I saw that meat with the flies all on it I thought that it was a road that westerners should never tread. Now I am like, yo, that shit is fresh. Two kilos please. Olivia introduces me to cats selling veggies and such. I get that question again, the once that hurts: “What tribe are you?”  It aches to have no answer. Though I suppose this is an appropriate lack; the mark of my membership in the diaspora, the lostness from which my mother and grandmother marched. But I know better now than to go searching for promised lands. If they are not made, they will never be found. 

If you go to the bank and you are white, a banker will come out and lead you by the hand into an office where you can conduct your business without lines or prying eyes. The darkies just stand in line. 

With the truck loaded down, we head off to Atiak. Once again, I have the sorry fate of being the driver on this road. With babies in the back and everything. We pass the World Food Program. The tents are being taken down. Through an act of classification, IDP camps no longer exist. Atiak is a town now. And towns don’t get UN sponsored food. I wish somebody told that to the drought. 

The road is as suck as I remember it, which is funny because I demonize this wretched stretch in my nightmares. Still, the new transport works well and I get into the groove of movement until a tire blows out. 

1 comment:

Lea said...

You have said everything in this post, and you have both strengthened and broken my heart.