Updated: Sep 24, 2021
I start every morning by murdering the small colony of ants that moves into the water kettle during the night, rinsing them down the sink. This does little for my self-image as a compassionate person, but I’m not exaggerating when I say this- they move in every night. We’ve tried cleaning the thing with bleach water, storing it upside-down, storing it on top of the refrigerator, but they persist. There’s something about a metallic-plastic infusion that calls to them, and so they march past the faucet, past sticky dinner bowls and softening fruit, past empty glasses of drying wine remnants; and nestle in a clump near the little patches of water remaining at the bottom of the kettle. And then they are flushed away to their doom. There must be millions of them somewhere, otherwise how could they sustain their numbers through such daily catastrophic loss?
Today I’m also starting with the reheated (questionable) leftovers from the restaurant I was at the other night. Questionable because I was sick the next day. Not from food poisoning, but from too much oil. I usually eat really healthy things. My stomach is, as they say here, “not yoost (used).” Unaccustomed. I mixed a scrambled egg into the leftovers, hopefully that will counteract something. So far, it seems to have worked.
Someone asked me earlier this week what Uganda is like. I spit out the normal answers; the things to do, the energy of the changing city, and so on and so on.
But this doesn’t give an accurate impression of the place. The problem is that everything seems so normal now, so I don’t write it down or think about it, really. In a year or so, though, I likely won’t live here and none of this will be normal at all anymore, it’ll be just a memory.
So here is my day. Deciding whether to crawl out of bed and go for a run, or do some yoga. Often resisting my higher self to stay in bed a few more minutes, scrolling through Instagram to see what the good people of my past life on the other side of the world were up to while I was sleeping. Being jealous of their access to donuts, even though I don’t usually eat donuts. Taking a shower, getting dressed, doing away with entire colonies of ants.
My favorite part of any morning is feeding the dog, Neville. I walk across the house with a plastic container of meatloaf-like substance, freshly made each week, and open the curtains over the front door. He is always there, tail wagging, licking the sides of his mouth and gyrating furiously. A series of small jumps and twists, his whole body shaking with anticipation, ears twitching. I forget about the ants and revel in Nevi’s enthusiasm. It’s wonderful to have someone so excited to see you, twice a day, every day.
“Morning John,” I say to the security guard, who is usually brushing his teeth at the faucet or sitting blurry-eyed in the little stool next to the guard shed, waiting for his shift to be over. “How are you?” “I’m fine and you?” “Good.”
This is our ritual. I eat breakfast, drink coffee, scroll through my inbox. He drinks tea, then sweeps the front patio, something he’s never been asked to do but has imposed upon himself as his most serious commitment. He shows up late or drunk a lot for his shift (I like him anyway), but he always, always sweeps. And then I realize the time then grab my motorcycle helmet and leave for work.
I walk out the alley that leads up to the road, over rain-cut rivets, where old flip-flops and plastic bags have melded with the red soil. The boda boda guys on this road all know me, and the first two to turn their heads and see me walking towards them start their engines and race to see who can get to me first. Today it was John. A different John.
“Oli otya, Ssebo?”
“Gendi, nyabo. Kale.”
Good morning sir, how are you? Fine, ma’am. Thanks.
This is our game, the comically formal.
He chuckles in that strange way of his, like I’ve just made a dirty joke, an edge of surprise in his voice- as if I’m not always going to Soya at 8:45 every weekday morning.
I hop on the back of his motorcycle and pass vegetable stands and taxis and children walking to school in matching uniforms. Two men are boxing in the driveway of a big house, dancing back and forth and jabbing at each other. They stop when they see me, drop their gloves and stare as we soar past at 15 mph. We punch through the traffic jam and head south, toward the lake, weaving in and out of cars and pedestrians, dodging minibus taxis that cut back into the road with no warning. A man in one of the taxis looks at me through the window and purses his lips. “Hey, baby girrrl.” I roll my eyes.
I get to work. I forgot my keys. Sarah will get here in 30 minutes, so I apologize to everyone and we scatter our separate ways to find somewhere to sit until the workshop is unlocked. I find a strange flower growing in the garden that I’ve never noticed before. I see flies swarming in a corner of the yard and walk over to investigate. Dog shit. Or human- the dogs have pulled a diaper out of the garbage and shredded it everywhere. Look up, though. The trees are beautiful, mangos and palm trees swaying in the breeze, green everywhere. A hill grows up out of the back wall of the compound and climbs toward the blue sky, covered in foliage and red tile roofs.
Work is a blur. These women are hilarious, we joke about everything, gesturing dramatically when our language skills don’t match up. They are persistent, bending wire again and again, re-soldering until something finally takes the right shape. They are traumatized by what they’ve been through and push back against boundaries, sabotaging their own work when I try to correct their errors and thinking it somehow punishes me, finding the strangest ways to hurt themselves and each other. They are helpful, staying late to sweep and making sure we always have fresh cups of tea, even when we don’t want them. They teach us new words and laugh at our pronunciation. They laugh when Sarah and I pet the puppies. How strange we are for caring about dogs.
Rain comes in sideways through the window and the power goes out. The women scream and run toward the center of the room. Sarah and I MacGuyver a curtain out of mopping towels and paper clips. We flip on the flashlight feature of our iPhones and get back to work quality-checking and packing brass rings for our shipment. We huddle together in such close quarters around the light. In the proximity, these women, who we’ve known since March, finally feel free to ask us questions like friends instead of obscure authority figures. Does it snow in our country? Have we ever seen a bear? Do bears eat people? What do animals eat when everything is covered in snow? Is it really night over there, on the other side of the world? They’ve heard that in Alaska, there are sometimes days without night. Is it true? How do people know when to sleep, when to go to work?
I give an impromptu astronomy lesson, moving small round objects around my glowing phone. We are, at the equator, spinning through space at around 1,600 km per hour. (In my mind I imagine someone at the North Pole, standing still as if on a turntable, such a slow rotation that it takes an entire day to go 360º. Does this difference in velocity affect us in any way?) I tell them that our sun is just a star. There are other planets around us, and around the other stars. They ask where Heaven is. Heaven is not in the clouds, if it exists at all, it is ephemeral, on some non-physical plane. They are astounded.
I’m leaving work early to run an errand. Last time I did that, I went to the tannery to get a leather sample. I couldn’t have a sample. I had to buy the whole hide. I took photos for my boss in the US and came back later. The hide I wanted wasn’t priced, so I couldn’t buy it. But I could buy a similar one and take a sample of the first. It took 20 minutes to find change. The man who prints the receipts wasn’t there, but his machine was. No one else could use it, it wasn’t their job. They could write a paper receipt, but they’d have to put an “official” stamp on it. The stamp was somewhere else. They were gone for 10 minutes finding it.
After this tedious exercise, I walked out to find my boda boda driver, Geofrey. His motorcycle was parked under a tree, but he was not with it. I heard his version of my name. “Emi!” He was standing by a tiled fountain in front of the tannery. The water was off, had been off for years. “Emi, you come! First come and you see!” I walked to the edge and looked down on a thousand small black and silver fish, swimming through the murky green. “These are fishes!” Geofrey laughed. “Swimming in these tiles here. Fishes!” Our eyes met and we grinned at each other, though not for the same reasons.
We rode home in the gathering storm, the sample tucked into my jacket to guard it from sprinkles. I listened to a podcast; Malcolm Gladwell investigating the demise of the perfect McDonald’s french fry. We don’t have McDonald’s here, but there is KFC. And Pizza Hut. I’ve never been. Geofrey drives slowly, I think I like him best.
I stopped at the vegetable stand up the road from my house. This one is my favorite, both because of the variety and the owner. She’s a sour older woman with furrowed brows, but after years of carrot and pineapple purchases, she smiles when she sees me. “My customer! How are you?” I feel more like a real part of this neighborhood, a fixture of sorts, whenever she smiles. I’ve also, finally, earned local prices for produce. It took four years. When she’s gone, her daughter still overcharges me.
Home was rain-soaked that evening, torrential rain that battered the wide leaves of the banana trees into strips, so I made a fresh tomato soup and sat in my studio in the garage, piecing together bits of old magazines and catalogs to make something new until my eyes were too tired to sleep.
Some nights I watch the sun go down over Lake Victoria from the veranda of my favorite Indian restaurant. Sometimes I walk to the Ethiopian restaurant 10 minutes from my house. They repainted the walls with blacklight paint. They are under new management, but their shiro is still the best. These nights are full of friends from here and all over the world who are all the most interesting people I’ve ever met. We talk about parasites and refugee camps and relationships and the latest Game of Thrones episode.
I try to chase Neville around the yard, for exercise, every night before I go to sleep. We’re waiting for his special leash to come from the UK. He was abused before we got him, he almost died, and walking him has always been a nightmare. I think this leash might be the solution. For now, he plays with two identical squeaky toys. Blue shoes. Throw one, wait for him to fetch it and saunter back over, distract him with the second, throw it, and so on, and so on.
This is Uganda, at least for me- someone who has a disconcerting amount of privilege even where I am foreign, the sorry persistent residue of colonialism. Someone who has money to call up Geofrey and pay him to buy my groceries if I don’t have time. I try to make time. The market is chaos and order and strange vegetables and fresh herbs and mud. I love it and it stresses me out. For me, life here is a roller coaster of frustration and poignant beauty- both in sweeping landscapes and the smallest of human interactions.
On weekends I wash the dust off my shoes and go downtown to look for various hard-to-locate objects, clean out my purse and file relevant receipts, grab dinner with a friend in a restaurant I could never afford to frequent back home. On weekends I take the bus to far corners of the country and camp under the wild night sky, waking up to elephants trumpeting in the distance. On weekends I wait in line for three hours at the phone company to re-register my SIM card again- they lost the form- then play board games in somebody’s living room with delivery pizza. On weekends I watch the sun go down over the Nile or dance to the beat of Congolese reggae, three drinks in, because somebody grabs my arm and asks,
“How can you possibly stand still?”