The following journal sketches were done while I was in Kampala, Uganda in December and January of 2015-2016. They are included here, word for word, exactly as I journaled them, at night, in my mosquito net, by flashlight (or in the case of the last two, in Entebbe airport, waiting on my flight back to the States).
Desert heat and bashing desert light, the cement and swarms of Ugandans walking/pushing. The second-hand van taxis and boda-boda motorbikes choking on dust-gas and mirage heat, the African women and the way they sway their hips when they walk. The smog. Children, children smock-painted with grime, in tatters of shirts with motionless faces, motionless hands out in front of them, begging, movementless as statues, with eyes looking at you, seeing through everything; dead eyes. Seeing through everything as dead eyes do. The traffic will actually run you over. Move in the heat. Move in the banging sun. Keep moving. Or, if you have to be still, be still like the man on the street corner, holes in his old shoes, holes in his old clothes, grime-coated skin, he stares straight ahead, watching it all, with the biggest, most constant, most content smile.
African rain comes, in the middle of the night, waking us in our mosquito-netted beds with its godlike announcement. Its godlike shower. The flooding delivering shower. Loud as popgun shots on the tin roofs. No power here, but if there were, it would have cut out. Only the middle of the night, the earth turning, and the reigning god of the rainy season come to express water, life.
In the morning, it’s like it never happened. But the rains last night marked another turning, another new chapter. And the sun always comes out hot and nude, after.
Went down to Namuwongo today – Kampala slums. Feces wind. No, no wind there: feces air. Women outside their mudshacks (framed with tree-branches, you see them in the dried mud ruins), hoeing at the earth to find water to drink: squatting by the hole to fill plastic jugs with drinking water (water green from feces). Don’t step on the feces, all under your boots, rolled in dirt and dried. Because the public toilets here are nightmares and you have to pay to use them. People defecate in plastic bags and throw them on the construction-sites of trash, fat plastic-bagged gobs of trash. Flies all over filthy children. Narrow corridor streets, around corners, duck under clotheslines and women with straight-sloped backs bent down, cooking posho or millet or porridge over charcoal-burning pot-stoves. Kampala waste flows here, into the river, the skinny river, green with feces, that floods sometimes. What is this? joy? the people here – they have joy. There’s joy here.
Board the boda-bodas. They take you sweeping up and down cracks and potholes of road, past markets, up right next to people – just right there, reach out and touch the taxi van beside you. Swerve to the left, the right, and then the driver speeds up so suddenly, you’re in a pack of bodas like a flock, a Muslim woman to your right riding side-saddle, her hijab flagging out in the wind; someone else to your left; someone ahead; traffic jam, no issue, the boda moves gliding as a fish through cracks and crevices in-between automobiles, streetcrossers, other bodas. Bare-bones metal, spoke, tire, dirty and dusty skeleton bike, runs so nice and simple, the long cushioned seat and no helmet and the worlds move by you, real to the touch, moving by fast, wind breezily cooling you in the Kampala sun. He stops, lets you off. “Webale.” “Kale.” Only five-thousand shillings. You tip him a thousand more and he looks around, eyes still – for the next fare.
WHAT IS AFRICA
What is Africa? My experience of it was equatorial days exactly as long as nights. Fruit in the trees – avocado, jackfruit, mango. Banana trees. Cooking with the giant banana leaves, boiling small green bananas (peeled) in them, then mashing them. Sweet potatoes boiled and cooled – good. Hitting beanplants and sorting beans in trays. Breastfeeding. The children kicking the soccer ball in the roadstrip between the tin-sheet-hung shanty houses, the roads impassable but yet we walk and cars drive them, even trucks with beer for the bars. The dust in the air, in your throat. Palm leaves. The chickens walking around. The heat on beautiful dark-black skin. The largeness of smiles, the warmth of them. The slow walk (finally, other people who walk slowly with me, strolling, not in a hurry to get everywhere - to die eventually). The enjoyment of life. Life is fruitlike – the colors of it, the juice of it. People touch you freely, their emotions come out purely, no guile. I’ve known a heart in the people, the people I’ve known. I’ve relearned the meaning of blessings. I’ve lived with them so close to life you can smell its sweet scent of perspiration and feel the warmth of its touch. In the wreckage and ruins of the third-world, souls bloom through the cracks, like flowers. Africa is everywhere.
But there is nowhere else like Africa. What is Africa? Africa is Africa.
Beyond the choke of the city, its jamming traffic, loudspeakers, sardine-packed taxis and headache-life, we escaped into the country. Because it took us hours to go fifteen miles and leave urbanity, we pulled in to a market stop, and all of the peddlers in purple shirts covered the car, arms holding sodas, waters, sticks of roasted meat, fruit penetrated the interior through the open windows. All of their faces, right there, looking at you, speaking Luganda, and when you don’t respond, and they see you are white, they say, “Hello! Hello!” You wave them away, pleasantly. They don’t leave.
One lady with sad face, hopeless eyes: “Buy mango from me,” she says, voice flat – “give me 4,000 shillings.” You have it in your pocket. You might reach for it. But, the driver is pulling away, chewing off some kind of barbecued meat on a stick.
Bumping up and down on the nowhere roads to the village, women with hoes atop their heads walking, swinging their arms as though dancing – the heads of the hoes with blade down, just behind the backs of their skulls, the handles out long in front of them. Big baskets on women’s heads, a little cloth between the basket and their hair.
The man stands, shirt open, feet bare and spread tough over earth with barely-there toenails, holding a staff of sugarcane, calmly, as in a trance, biting into it and ripping bark of it away, spitting it away, back to the planet. And children do this, too, a ways down the road.
In the village the huts are low to the ground, you have to crawl in, with branches for framing, and maybe some tin sheets nailed together for a roof, or maybe just brush and husks and organic matter. A little firepit inside, over which to roast corn, bananas, coffee beans. Flies eat you. The children naked under soiled evaporated shirts are barefoot and have leaves in their hair and will give you bugs if you touch them to take home in your clothes and silently eat you at night in your bed. The pigs in their tree-branch pen snort, galloping valiantly around in their shit. The chickens walk-strut and talk to each other, and peck at the loosely-stitched bags of maize-meal we deliver from the mill.
Out beyond the huts, they are harvesting sweet potatoes out of the new-dark mounds of dirt, packing the many-shaped vegetables, rootlike, into sacks, jamming them in, tying off the tops with twine and pillows made of vines to hold them in.
Everyone is so happy.
The children and young men have been hitting the harvested beanplants all day with sticks; the beans have been loosed; we gather them into monster piles, scoop them up in pans and sit, for as long as we will (could be the rest of the day, could be until nightfall, could be all day tomorrow: we never know about tomorrow until tomorrow), and we sort them, tossing out the small ones, discolored ones, ones with holes, bits of plant, etc.
Children appear at the edge of the shadowy-vast forest from the neighboring huts, running across the field to us, throwing their arms up to the glory of the sky’s decision, screaming, “Hallelujah.”
They prayed for me tonight, in the kitchen-space. Grandmother on her mat on the floor, leading the chants; MaryLove in the chair beside me, translating. Irene and Isaac were there, Irene on the steps and Isaac on the floor, clapping the rhythm to Grandmother’s prayer. I bowed me head. They thanked God for my safe journey to them, for watching over me on the streets, in the air, when I was sick with bacteria – all things I could not have taken care of myself: for I am not the one who instructs the body how to heal itself. I closed my eyes and, with concentration, connected to that tangible immaterial umbilical cord to the source: to our home; one home, infinite homes: one home.
“Mukama akuwe omukisa.”
Go with God.
And, I did not expect this, but they packed into the van to ride with me to Entebbe, to see me off in the middle of the night, to make sure I made it onto the plane. I saw them, the young beautiful African men around me, twelve to twenty-eight years old, looking out the van windows at the newly-intrepid night stars, understanding that I would be up there soon, among the stars. They were imagining it. And we were quiet on the ride. I was remembering how Grandmother had called me a child, how she had thanked God that I was happy, – how she had referred to me as part of their family. And I also watched the stars.
I hugged each of them tightly and truly, heart to heart. And then they left me. “Weraba.”
I sit in Entebbe airport, awaiting the return of my life, new life: the tunneling forward of being born.
As I go back into the dream of my everyday life now, leaving Africa, perhaps forever: where will my memories of it live? where is eternity? I’ll go there in dreams, to visit, where I am young again and so are they, Sliman with the basketball outside in the heat moving back and forth with it dribbling, the music across the street at night, the beans and peas and posho, Grandmother’s sea-blue-green eyes speaking of God, MaryLove’s toughness and tender insides, Irene with the light inside of her – the lifelight, Elijah arguing his Christian values and standing up straight with heart forward, Uncle Charles in the grip of his own love to give, Farook and his eyes studying with the purest curiosity and how he is a father to all children, and little Isaac caring more than he can show or say in words, the school, the charcoal stoves. It is already drifting away to that place. I’ll go there sometime – when I have woken from this dream.