21 June 2012

You are most welcome.

Benson greeted us from the porch of one of the hundreds of indistinguishably ramshackle government dwellings in the police barracks.  "Hello!  You are most welcome."  We explained that we were a couple of university researchers conducting a very brief survey, and talked to him.  He smiled.  He spoke proudly of his family: "In fact, I am having many children."  7.  But keeping them all fed and clothed is a challenge, to say nothing of keeping them in school.  "This one," he said, gesturing back into the house at his teenage daughter, "this one is a wise lady."  But she got a year behind in school after he couldn't afford school fees.  They live, he said, by God's mercy.

Benson is from the north of Uganda, and he came to Kampala 20 years ago fleeing rebel violence.  His parents were killed.  There, he told us, whether you wanted to or not, they would arrest you and bring you to the bush.  Benson escaped, but he showed us the scar from a bullet just above his elbow.

Just seeing us there, in the police barracks, he told us, gave him hope that "I am not forgotten."

Geez.  There's me, smartly dressed bright-faced pink-scrubbed American university student, loving Benson with all the shards of the heart his story has just broken in me.  Basking and cowering in the magnanimous warmth of his acceptance, the sacredness of his sparse sincere narrative.  Retreading all the recurrent qualms, considering in the brilliant light of this human being whether anything I do means anything.  And hoping that to the extent surveys and data and analyses matter, they matter because of this smile, this welcome, this story, the holiness of which I pray I can communicate some germ.  In my uproariously inadequate offering.  Let me have ears to hear.  Let me hear.

14 June 2012

God's Plan 3.

The taxis here are called matatus.  They're kombis that run in their foreordained and unalterable courses, like stars, while their conductors lean out the open window and bang the sides of the sliding door, yelling out said courses: "Tambula Wandegeya!  Nakawa Kamapala Wandegeya Kamowkya!"  Like a star, each matatu is unique and has an outlandish name, emblazoned across the top of its windshield in gaudy lettering 10 inches high. "God is Able".  "God is Final".  "Bismillah".  "God's Plan 3".  "Jesus is the Answer".  "Black Jesus".  "Patience Pays".  "Be: Patience".  "Be Smart".  "Sleek Figures".  "BIG".

I don't know who names these sweaty heralds of God's glory licensed to carry 14 passengers.  But I like having them around, reminding me that my life is not my own.  Or that it is.  Depending on which starry, Technicolor matatu names Fate sends past my eyes.  Here's the best one I saw today:

"Love: God | Fear: Stan"

08 June 2012

On Dirt Boogers.

The red dirt on the roads and the shoes and the buses and the people here has colonized my nasal passages, making nose-blowing a mild adventure like playing a slot machine.  Those of you who have been camping can understand me.

This essay's title is misleading because it's really about love letters.  The booger thing was on my mind because I was surprised it took me a week here to notice it.  Also because my ringtone here is a Kool and the Gang song containing the phrase "baddest little boogie in the land."  But what's on my mind more often and deeper down is, dammit, love.

I'm in favor of love.  My experience so far has been positive.  Being in love is what I'm talking about, specifically.  There are two guys doing research here with me who are in love with girls in other places (one in Italy, one in USA) and they're adorable.  They chat with their girlfriends and say stupid things to them over the phone even when other people are within earshot.  They think they have great epic stories about How We Met.  They are people in love.

They are people in love with girls far away, and you can and should call me a romantic, but that slays me.  LOVE LETTERS, man; those are the most important documents in history, right?  They have to be.  John and Abigail.  Robert and Elizabeth.  Solomon's Song.  This is the marrow in humanity's bones, what animates and sanctifies civilization's otherwise mechanical advance.  Maybe love letters have little place in today's world, but still I laud those who have the courage and foolishness to feel those love lettery feelings for someone by putting themselves in a position to pine.  It's obnoxious and juvenile and lovely.  Long Live Love Letters, even if their noble bloodline has been diluted down to, well, Skype.

I'll write love letters.  To a girl I'll be in love with and then I'll marry said girl and write more love letters to her.  More and better.

04 June 2012


Today might have been the day when the contours of this trip took shape and it became a real and tangible creature with real and tangible claims on my affections.

Autonomy.  I went for a run with Corrine, Brady, and Matt, and came back to find that we'd run about two pages' worth of big-comprehensive-Kampala-map-book each way -- probably close to 4 miles total.  No marathon, but enough to see new scenes at a proximity impossible from a matatu ride.  A matatu is a kombi.  And enough to feel some slender sense of dominance over the geography.  Corinne made homemade chapati for lunch, after which she and Brady and I took off for central Kampala to get Things done on our various Projects in the Uganda Bureau of Statistics -- a tall building with an exotic outside and a shabby inside, both of which feel like about 1963.  It has enormous steel letters on its side reading "STATISTICS HOUSE".  We discovered a restaurant sunken down in a roundabout on Nile Avenue and accessible only by a dark, smutty-looking passage underneath the road.  We never got lost or mugged or kidnapped, facts which I attribute at least partly to my map book.  At Family Home Evening there was another foreigner, even newer than me -- a BYU Public Health Master's student who has been here all of one day.  There comes a point when the mantle of total wide-eyed dependency passes on.  I guess I wrote from that perspective a few days ago, and I'm glad I did because today was the day I realized it's gone.  I mean to her credit, this girl seemed pretty savvy.  Still, I'm not the newest muzungu anymore.

Community.  While we were eating homemade chapatis for lunch, Peter announced he'd received a text message from Lillian, a branch member, who had seen "CRN, MTH, WYN, and BRD" out exercising by her place of work and sent "GRTS to all".  I've been here four days and already someone in the branch knows my name, or at least 3 letters in it.  In the right order.  On the matatu ride into Kampala, I started talking with a guy named Alinda because he had really cool sunglasses on, and he helped me figure out the word the driver was yelling at every stop ("Wandageye" - it is, perhaps predictably, the matatu's destination).  On the matatu ride back to our house in Ntinda, I talked to a dude named Patrick who is a chef at three different restaurants, and who told me his favorite radio station (91.3 FM.  Our phones have FM radio!).  Brady and Corinne and I celebrated our survival watching the French Open in an ice cream parlor.  Family Home Evening with the young single adults of the Ntinda branch was a delight.  We played Simon Says and Duck Duck Goose and then ate chapati and drank watery hot chocolate; I mean it was like a chocolate tea more than anything.  And it was a delight.  I was able to have actual conversations with some of the ward members, who are bright and humble and warm and riotously funny.  Later, Brady and Corrine and I met Matt and Peter at "GABRIELLAZ" for a regular, traditional Ugandan dinner of assorted starchy things and beans.  Washed down with Stoney, the spiciest and most mysteriously beautiful ginger ale I have tasted.  And we just enjoyed one another's company.  Last night we ate at Khana Kazana, the best Indian restaurant in Kampala, and talked about our research and other people's research and our travels and other people's travels.  Which was good.  But tonight we just sat around and shot it and some of us even got more than one drink like they were real drinks.  And it was good.

02 June 2012

Short Calls.

The title is a euphemism here for going number one.  Nice, huh?

I don't have that much to write yet, and I'm also really bad at taking compelling pictures (suggestions, anyone? And if you blithely chirp "just buy an slr" your name is mud) but I want at the very least to record that I'm in a new place and it's beautiful.  I will get familiar with places and sounds and smells and people and that familiarity will bring its own pleasures. But just now there's a refreshing and fleeting purity to knowing nothing.  I can't get anywhere without asking someone, and this imbues humility.  But also there's the delight of quotidian living unencumbered by the web of associations that accompany experience.  I mean when I walk down a street, I'm not equipped to know what to think about my destination, or the incentives of people around me, or the interplay of social forces.  What's available to me to notice is sights and sounds and smells in their lovely and ostentatious intricacy.  Wonder itself, too, is available in great supply for the same reason.  And it's gorgeous to be coaxed onto that plane of existence, which so easily eludes us as we accumulate savvy.  That sounds a little zen for my habitual taste, but I feel like it's real.  The scriptures hint that God has a special place in his big heart for wanderers, and I think this is one of his tenderest mercies to them.