On a train somewhere between New York City and upstate New York, we pass snowy banks peppered with naked trees, snaking along an intermittent river with cracked sheets of ice. The surface looks like a map, but as the blocks of ice move with the river, it seems that the countries drift away from each other.
I’m reading a book about Liberia, describing the way rain forest meets the ocean, and pepper soup and canoes and soldiers. Thinking about the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, and shivering with my coat on, I feel ready for tropical humidity and a new set of challenges.
Being back in the USA has been its own challenge. Trying to reconnect with family and friends who I see literally twice a year can be wonderful but can also be trying. It’s hard to explain the where and the why of my life as we walk around Soho, surrounded by women whose purses cost more than most people in the world’s annual incomes. Several years of annual income. It’s hard to find common ground with my good friends when I go off on a tangent about HIV or an obscure border conflict in central Africa.
I had dinner with a journalist friend now in New York, who I’d met in Kampala. Over $15 ramen, we talked about Uganda. We were at Momofuku, a restaurant in the East Village. While my friend was in Uganda, he’d received a package with a bunch of copies of the New Yorker, and in one issue there was a profile of Momfuku’s chef that made me crave food not available in the entire country.
And then, I was there, at Momofuku, talking about muchomo. My friend ordered us appetizers – scallops and oysters. They came on a bowl of iridescent green seaweed in individual shells, small morsels of raw fish swimming in flavorful clear broth. I wasn’t sure how to eat them. I watched my friend gulp down the liquid and the fish in one quick swallow, as if he’d taken a shot of Waragi. I tried to follow suit, but ended up drinking the broth and then eating the fish.
I thought how a Ugandan would say, “This scallop has defeated me!”
My very New York friend just said, “You’ve been in Uganda for too long.” But not with the inflection on too long, as a Ugandan would say it, but just straight, as an American would say it: I’d been there for too long.
On the second shell, the oyster, I did better, and ate it all at once, enjoying the savory, buttery, slippery mess.
I learned so much in Uganda about the kind of work I’ve done and the kind of work I want to do. And now, I’m off to Monrovia, Liberia, in early January, ready for the second shell.
When I first was heading to Uganda, two and a half years ago, I mailed my passport to the Ugandan Embassy in Washington DC. They lost my passport, just a week before I was supposed to leave. Enraged, I asked the lady at the embassy what I was supposed to do with a plane ticket but no passport.
“You should follow your heart, dear,” she said. At the time, I thought that was an absurd piece of advice for a practical and logistical nightmare.
Now, it kind of makes sense.
I’m ready for Liberia’s challenges: a buttery slippery mess.
My last day in Kampala, I took this photo at the junction of Kabalagala and Kibuli.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Monday, December 1, 2008
Cross posted on the Walrus
They said they would come by my place yesterday afternoon and they did. Out of a small and very used Japanese sedan came a Rasta, a fashion designer, and an entourage.
Our conservative Indian neighbors glared from the protection of their balconies. At my apartment, we prepared for the sudden influx of fashionable-ness by putting peanuts in a bowl, spreading jam on crackers, and breaking out a new box of juice.
The entourage was coming to see us off. After more than two years in Uganda, my boyfriend and I are leaving – we’ll spend a month in the USA and then move onto West Africa. It’s hard to say goodbye to place that’s been home for so long – with all the connotations of comfort and frustration that any place which is truly home necessarily has.
The entourage was a steady part of our experience in Uganda and they had trekked from their side of town to ours to say goodbye. Jaja, whose real name is Peter but is called the word for grandparent out of respect, wore a Gilligan hat with bulbous top to contain his massive and ever expanding dreadlocks. His shirt was a white button down with green, red and yellow trim and patchwork that he carefully hand crafted. He never removed his sunglasses throughout the course of the afternoon and into the evening.
Latif Madoi, the fashion designer, has taught Jaja and scores of others how to sew. He showed up in a forest green smock with red plaid trim and matching shorts and cap. He made his own leather shoes, trainers colored like Jamaica’s flag.
The entourage: a thin, pretty girl wearing a funky silk dress, a student of Latif’s wearing a shirt made from He-Man fabric, and another student wearing a Canada tshirt and a purple and brown cap.
Latif is known for the great caps he makes. When I first met him two years ago, he was filling an order for a Rastafarian shop in Ireland that had requested 500 caps. Except, he pronounced the word like cape and I pictured him and his team working away on foot pedaled sewing machine to make 500 capes, Harry Potter style.
His studio is little more than a room cramped with sewing machines and walls covered with graffiti and an old stereo playing Lucky Dube on repeat. I hung out there on Sunday afternoons, took photos of him and his friends playing dress up, and wrote a few stories about him for the local newspapers in Uganda. Jaja made curtains for our flat and Latif made me a few dresses, and they both gave us caps every time we needed presents to bring back to the USA.
That afternoon at our apartment, I put Johnny Cash on my Ipod (they love him), gave them old magazines to tear out clothing advertisements as fashion fodder, and we all sat around and thought about leaving. Latif told me of an upcoming show in Congo-Brazzaville, Jaja brought us a drum he’d made from ebony wood and goat’s skin.
They all insisted we come back to Uganda soon. It’s hard to tell them – and everyone else we’ve made friends with here – that we probably won’t. We might, but not for a while, and still unlikely. Living abroad means meeting the kind of people you wouldn’t at home: people who make 500 caps at a time and have several pounds of dreadlocks suspended in a cap. And others: a Ugandan journalist friend of mine who has been arrested by suspicious government agents so many times his wife doesn’t even worry much when she gets calls informing her that he’s been locked up; colleagues for development agencies that change countries and even continents annually; neighbors with strange pets and the lady on the corner of our road selling bananas and expats here for cheap beer or job opportunities or a faux sense of adventure; and mainly, scores of people with kind hearts who welcomed us into their homes and lives knowing that, most likely, we would eventually leave. And now we are leaving.
As Latif, Jaja and the entourage wished us well, they requested we send an email from West Africa confirming that Uganda is the best place in the world.
I promised we would.
After more than two years in Uganda, I'm leaving on Tuesday evening. (Announcement buried in a Saturday blog post from a bit ago.) The next few posts will be of the wrapping up kind, and then in the coming weeks links to a few stories and pieces currently in the pipeline, and eventually, an announcement about West Africa whereabouts.
Wrapping up Kampala:
Best of times...
- Best Restaurant: Tuhende in old Kampala
- Best local lunch buffet in town: Café Joy on Shimoni Road
- Best/only margaritas: Lotus Mexicana
- Best indoor ice skating rink that’s really just a waxy floor: Alleygator’s
- Best hotel with fast internet where all you have to do is buy a soda to use the connection: Protea
- Best (expensive) get away only one hour from Kampala: Mabira Rain Forrest Lodge
- Best (cheap) get away only one hour from Kampala: Hairy Lemon
- Best used bookstore: the one run by that nice British lady who smokes menthol cigarettes all day in the compound for the Surgery
- Best newspaper to find photos of yourself, drunk, from the other night: Red Pepper
- Best croissant in town (and only one that doesn’t taste like a stale roll shaped like a croissant): La Patisserie
- Best place to sit somewhere swanky and overlook a slum: La Patisserie
- Best muffins in Uganda: that tourist shop at the Equator near Masaka
- Best place for a picnic: Entebbe Botanical Gardens
- Best place to buy wine, especially inexpensive South African wines: Wine Garage in Muyenga
- Best rafting company to take you on your white water tour of the Nile: they’re all the same
- Best street food: Rolex and chapatti
- Best place to stay when you first arrive in Uganda if you’re on a budget: La Fontaine guesthouse. (Call and ask for Jacob.)
Worst of times...
- Worst Ugandan landlord in the universe who works for USAID and therefore uses my tax dollars to subsidize my apartment, but is still rude and misogynistic despite my Obama-electing background: My landlord
- Most overpriced place for coffee with bad service and slow internet: Café Pap
- Worst mobile phone connectivity and internet pricing scheme: MTN
- Place where a boda boda is most likely to rip you off, or try to: Garden City
- Most unclear and inconsistent billing system in town: Umeme
- Worst place to go on your weekend off from work that truly boggles my mind as to why people do that: Gulu
- Worst newspaper to find photos of yourself, drunk, from the other night: The Onion