Uganda Wildlife Education Center, Entebbe, Uganda
Having spent 4 weeks with the chimps of the UWEC, they've really become near and dear to my heart. I miss them every day. I've created some profiles of some of the more charismatic chimps and those who are my favorites. Click on a link to see photos and read about that chimp and some of his/her idiosyncratic behaviors.
SARAH AND PEARL
How I miss my chimps! Have been back home for a few months now, but think of them every single day. I force my friends at the UWEC to send me stories about what the chimps have been up to. There is never a dull moment. I saw the "Chimpanzee" movie after I returned home, and of all the odd things to put a zinger in my heart from that adorable movie, it was when the chimps would get worked up and all start yelling and screaming and barking through the forest. It's the kind of sound, when you hear it in person, you don't forget it. As I heard it every day, several times a day, at the UWEC, it's one of those things that is now sweet and nostalgic to me ... the sound of a group of chimps going "ape shit," to use the charming slang. At times it could be nearly deafening if the whole group was riled up screaming, particularly if they were inside the night enclosure. In the chimp house they would also be rattling the caging to add emphasis. If Helen or Robert were around, they would typically go in and try to get the chimps to calm down. Robert would yell, "Hey guys! What is going on in here? Come on, guys!" But I actually got a kick out of going in there and just listening to the riot. I would have to stick my fingers in my ears to curb the pain, it could be so intense sometimes. Occasionally if it went on and on while I was alone in the chimp house I would finally emulate Robert, yelling at the top of my lungs to hear my own voice and clapping my hands, "Hey guys! What is going on in here?"
While a still chimp makes for the best, or at least the easiest, photo ... I adore so many of the portraits I captured of them ... the active chimp is certainly the most fun to watch, especially when they are interacting with one another. It's really fascinating to watch them socialize and figure out the various alliances and what motivates each chimp. Here are some shots of the active chimps on their island.
Probably the two most active chimps are the two youngest, Onapa and Nepa. They have become known as "my duo." Onapa has the most personality of any of the chimps and is brimming with curiosity and mischief. Nepa adores him even though he often picks on her. She is his little side kick. I love this photo ... you can just see how Nepa (right) is admiring Onapa and wants to be his buddy ... and maybe he'll share his snack with her, too.
The fire hose strung between two trees like a tightrope was a focal point of activity, and I loved watching the chimps play here. Nepa was particularly adept at running across it in full bipedal form. I tried over and over to get a picture of her doing this, but she was always too quick; I never got anything but a blur. This is the best one I managed to capture. Look how she places her feet, with the hose between her big toe and the other toes. I was constantly amazed at how dexterous and useful the chimps' feet are!
Sometimes chimps would sit amiably together on the fire hose, or at least with indifference to one another.
But more often than not, the chimps were playing and picking on one another here. This first photo, I think it looks like the one chimp is tickling the other one, though probably that isn't actually the case. The second photo is classic scenery around the fire hose. Either somebody is sitting peacefully on the tightrope and a trouble maker such as Onapa comes along and stirs up mischief, pulling them off their perch; or occasionally it's the other way around, and somebody is walking innocently by the tightrope when a chimp suddenly swings down and knocks him/her over.
Chimps have an amazing ability to design a plan and carry it out. Motivated largely by the desire to possess things, such as food and toys, they can be splendidly devious little creatures when it comes to figuring out how to get what they want. They can also accomplish their goals in the most entertainingly simple ways, like sneaking up on another chimp and stealing what they want. I didn't even notice at first in this photo of Onapa blissfully playing with his beloved skirt, that there is another chimp springing out from behind the tree trunk to grab it.
You saw a lot of photos in the Shirts and Skirts post of Onapa and Nepa playing with the clothing Steph and I bought for them. This photo below I love somehow for the sense of foreshadowing it seems to give. Maybe just because I know the silly adventures that happen next (see for example, Onapa climbing down a tree with this shirt completely over his head in Shirts and Skirts). Also, though, the photo seems as if a movie begins here with this strange item being hauled ashore from the moat, this is like the trailer poster ... "The Shirt." or "Dawn of the T-Shirt." or "Shirt on Chimp Island." One of the zookeepers told me he overheard some visitors exclaim to each other as they were watching the chimps playing with some of the clothing and also the shoes I bought for them, "They're teaching the chimpanzees to wear clothes!"
I was always entertained watching them fish things out of the moat with their branches. I've posted photos of this activity before, but it's one of the more entertaining solo acts the chimps perform. Sometimes they start with a small stick that turns out to be inadequate and it's interesting to watch them work their way up, scavenging the island for larger and larger branches until they achieve success reaching the floating item.
One day near the end of my stay, Helen told me to search through the trash cans at the zoo for discarded water bottles with lids. Fortunately, Steph and I had both been accumulating them in our rooms for recycle. So I didn’t have to search the trash. When I showed up with 13 pristine bottles a few hours later, Helen was singularly impressed. We filled them with cooled porridge and then put them in the freezer … essentially make porridge popsicles. The challenge for the chimps was to get the treat out of the plastic. Basically this involved simply tearing the plastic apart and demolishing the bottles. Perhaps not very challenging, but added some variety to their days. As usual with treats, the zookeepers spend a lot of effort making sure each chimp gets one, throwing them across the moat with precision aiming and waiting until the dominant chimps have moved off with their treats (as they inevitably grabbed the first ones) to throw to the others. We made 13 bottles for 11 chimps. Who ended up with both of the extras? Matoke, the alpha male, in the first photo. Second photo, Nepa finally gets her bottle and immediately scampers up a tree, using the fire hose with her feet to help her climb. She knows she can only retain her treat if she is hard to reach up in the tree branches.
The most entertaining times, though, were usually when the chimps were in all out chaos with a whole bunch of them involved in chasing and scolding one another ... chimps everywhere running around the island screeching and chasing, climbing up and down trees, jumping across branches, usually at high speed. That wonderful deafening sound of everyone being riled up. First photo below, looks to me that Aluma, standing on the rope, is schooling another chimp and saying, "And another thing ...!" before continuing his scolding. The second photo I like for portraying a fairly good sense of general mayhem. And the third cracks me up, Matoke chasing another chimp around and around the tree while little Nepa takes refuge part way up the trunk, you can just see her foot and her head peering down on the action.
Here is a fun exercise for anyone to try with their travel photos. The Capture the Colour Photoblogging Contest challenges travel blogging folks to find a photo from their travels to represent each of five colors: red, white, blue, green, yellow. But I think this would be fun for anyone to try ... gives you purpose in sifting through your vacation photos. Maybe even something to think about next time you are traveling ... composing a mini photo album to represent a spread of different colors from each location. Here is my blog entry.
Reed Flute Cave. Guilin, China.
I simply love caves. No matter where in the world I am, if there’s a well-reviewed cave nearby, I’ll make a point to see it. The Reed Flute Cave in Guilin, China, fell directly into my travel path. Sightseeing in the popular regions of China can seem oppressive and distracting, particularly if you are required to join a guided group, with the hordes of chattering tourists following the guide blaring information through a megaphone. One of the insights I’ve gained traveling over the years, though, is that the vast majority of tourists stay within the herd and upon the roads most traveled. It is so easy to separate yourself from the group, as we did here, by simply hanging back until everyone has moved on. Left behind in the dead silence of the cave, the ancient geologic formations and still ponds of water presented a mystical atmosphere. Oddly, while viewing with the group, the colored lights seemed cheesy and wrong. While alone, they seemed a like beautiful magnifying glass. See more China here.
Longsheng Rice Terraces. Yangshuo, China.
The landscape of terraced rice paddies outside Yangshuo, China, is visually stunning. Traversing across the hillsides is an experience indescribably soft and lush. But can you guess what the overriding sensory input is? It’s sound. The sound of water, trickling all around you as it is guided and channeled and bridged across the hillsides and down from one terrace to another with bamboo tubes and spouts. I have since never eaten a spoonful of plain white rice without remembering the rich green hillsides and blue horizon which nurtured these unassuming grains. See more China here.
Vervet monkey. Entebbe, Uganda.
I acquired a love-hate relationship with the vervet monkeys at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center where I volunteered for a month. They were bold little stinkers hellbent on stealing your food whether you were eating it on the café veranda or carrying it home in a doggie bag. And yet, they’re the cutest little devils and I loved photographing them; they just ooze personality. This vervet had been coveting this piece of fruit from a larger colleague. After he succeeded in stealing it, he savored it with such obvious glee, I was happy for the success of his caper. See more vervets here. And also here!
School kids at Lake Bunyoni, Uganda.
I lived on the grounds of a small primary school on the shore of Lake Bunyoni, Uganda, for a few days. It was the “mild” rainy season and each night brought forth brief torrents of rain. The mornings were dark and misty, full of gray sky. The brilliantly colorful clothes of the school children popped out of the thick green landscape. The kids wandered in at vaguely the same time to join the ever-widening circle led by the school mistress in the middle, singing songs whose lyrics dictated exercises. I always thought it was ironic that these kids started their day with calisthenics after they’d already walked some number of miles to arrive at the lake shore. Rather different from the American school scene. See more from Lake Bunyoni here. And also here.
Nature reserve near Ixtapa, Mexico.
While staying at an all-inclusive resort outside of Ixtapa, Mexico, I found this little gem of a nature preserve right on the ocean shore. Very small but packed with monster crocodiles, legions of iguanas, and marvelously diverse avian life. I spent hours by myself observing the wildlife. These large white egrets were bosom buddies with the crocs. I found them standing inches away from them in the water, looking unconcerned. Here, one takes flight just as a croc gets a little too close for comfort. See more from Mexico here.
As I mentioned earlier, typically you can’t get in a close-up photo of a Ugandan in rural areas. When Mistress and I were walking around, a group of older school kids from another school had latched onto us for awhile on their way home. One time I lifted up my camera to take a picture of the islands in the lake and the kids screamed and sprinted away from me. Except for one brave soul who stood behind me to see what I had taken a picture of in the digital screen. So one benefit to boarding at Mathius’s primary school on Lake Bunyoni was that he asked me to take photos and videos of the children so he could use some of them for a website and brochure … as he continually tries to solicit donations for the school.
The kids arrived in the mornings mostly by foot, though a few came from across the lake in a dugout canoe.
The morning ritual consisted of singing songs by the lakeshore, most of which had a component of exercise or coordination skills. I just adored the kids singing like this. I love cultures in which song is an integral part. I mentioned in the Transport post that at one point on the bus from Kabale a woman broke out in song and soon several other women had joined in harmony … just for something to pass the time on the bus. These kids knew a bunch of songs and of course they could bust a move along with them like few white kids could. Just tickled me every morning.
See a couple videos of their singing:
Beyond singing songs for mere enjoyment or entertainment, this is how the kids were learning as well. Even at the UWEC I would hear classes of children passing through the grounds singing, led by their teachers. The one I most remember was about mzungus … “How are you Mzungu? Mzungu, how are you?” My favorite the kids sang at the lake was a call and response; the teacher says, “Have you eaten sugar?” “No, papa!” “Have you told lies?” “No, papa!” “Open your mouth wide!” “Ha ha ha!”
Because of a recent wind storm, the two classrooms, one for younger kids and one for older, were unusable in the rainy weather. The wind had ripped the plastic tarps to shreds. The kids instead were all piled into the shack where normally they can eat their meals when provided. There were no teaching aids at all beyond the chalkboard. Not even a pointing stick for the teacher; notice in the photo she has a twig from a tree to point with.
In the classes I witnessed, everything was learned via verbal repetition. And again, there were songs to be sung. Learning the alphabet in English, for example, came with a song. Learning basic English words seemed to be as much an exercise in learning English as in personal confidence. The teacher would point to an item and say “This is a ball.” The kids repeat, “This is a ball.” After naming each item on the chalkboard, she then points to one and says, “What is this?” “That is a ball,” the student reply. Then the trickiest question, she points to the ball and says, “Is this a tree?” Then there is always some hushed confusion and tentativeness until one or a handful of kids dares to say, “No! That is a …” And by the time they get to the object, more kids, but not all, will have joined in with confidence “… tree!” They were enthusiastic about affirmative sentences but if they had to give a negative response, it was obviously much harder for them to say “No!”
But the thing that cracked me up the most was what I call the gold star dance. When I was a kid, if you did well on your paper, you received a gold star sticker. But since there were no papers or stickers in this area, when a child performed well at the chalkboard, the other students sang a song in that child’s praise while he/she did a little dance at the front of the class. This was their reward. A couple kids performed at sub-par and were obviously disappointed that they had to take their seat without dancing, they had had their booty all warmed up. But I think how now in American culture the self-congratulatory dance is a mainstream component, and here little kids have probably been doing it for ages.
See video: Gold star dance
Most of the children showed up in bare feet. Several times Robert would use this common occurrence in rural Uganda as an illustration to me of the depth of poverty and lack of “civilization.” But as I have witnessed more and more lives around the world, I know this is not especially remarkable, and this particular aspect doesn’t bother me much. I was more bothered by the complete void in educational materials at the school.
And what bothered me most about the school children was that according to Mathius, whatever he fed them at school was sometimes the only meal a child would eat in a given day. Around 11:00 a.m. they gathered for porridge. Sometimes there is food to fix an afternoon meal of some potatoes or vegetables. While I was there it was just the one meal. I couldn’t get it out of my head that the children obediently lined up and were handed the exact same porridge we made for the chimps in the exact same plastic cups we used to feed the chimps. But the kids were not later thrown 2 buckets full of fruits and vegetables. That was it. I had lamented the shortfalls in food for the chimps and other animals at the UWEC, but now I had to come to terms with the fact that the zoo animals ate better, far better, than these children.
In the evenings, as I mentioned in the last post, Mathius and his neighbor, a secondary school teacher, and I spent evenings around the campfire drinking beer and eating dinner. The school teacher was a very curious and affable fellow. But sometimes I found myself surprised at the conversation I was having with a school teacher. Even taking the Third World rural setting into account, I was still surprised. I had already learned the near impossibility of explaining the scale of America. (Though this was not something new to encounter … once in Lesotho, a man asked me and Erik how many times we had met the president of the United States … not “if” but “how many.”)
For his part, the school teacher was extremely surprised at many facts I imparted to him. For example, he was somewhat shocked to learn that Canada is its own country and not part of the USA. Less shocked, but still surprised, to learn that Jamaica was also separate from USA. “What about Mexico?” he then asked, as suddenly his geographic world was rocked. “Yes, it’s its own country as well,” I informed him. It took him awhile to digest this. Then the doors flew open as we had a mini geography lesson to address his inquiries: “Where is South America? Is it a country? I’ve heard of someplace called Central America. Where is that?” I had to pinch myself this was a secondary school teacher asking me these questions. Yet I was charmed as I watched him process this series of epiphanies. I drew a rough map of the continents in the dirt, and watched the world transform in his head as he sipped a Nile Special.
I put the size of the U.S. into perspective for him by comparing it to the basic space it would take up in Africa. Too bad I only then near the end of my trip discovered how to explain its scale. (seems obvious in retrospect) Most educated people at least have a basic perception of their own continent. Again, he sat back to take in this revelation. “So what is the population?” When I told him, confusion took over his face. “So you’re telling me a country that big only has a population of 300 million when a country the size of Uganda has 34 million?” “Yep.” “Your country is dangerously underpopulated!” I laughed at this. I said, “No, it’s not, I assure you.” “Yes, it is!” He was overcome with genuine concern for my homeland and I could not convince him that our population was not excessively low. The concept of needing open land for resources couldn’t push through. “But we have plenty enough resources for us here in Uganda and look at our population,” he argued. Now it was my turn to stare at him wide-eyed and astounded at his assessment, proclaiming sufficiency while many of the children in his own village were subsisting on a single meal of nutritionally-void porridge each day. I didn’t even know where to start to try to illuminate the invalidity of his statement. So in the end, I didn’t.
This brought us to the conversation I had had probably more than any other, “Why don’t you have children?” But his was the most vehement argument against my position I would encounter. “You need to have lots of children! Your country is underpopulated.” My ears sort of glazed over during this lecture. He continued, “And you need to have them right away. The older you are when you have children, the stupider the children will be.” I sipped calmly on my Nile Special bobbing my head around a bit to avoid the campfire smoke. He went on, “You are …” I suddenly straightened up, “Wait, what?” “Yes,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Your body slows down and doesn’t function as well when you’re older, therefore the children who grow inside you also are slower and don’t function as well. They will be lazy and stupid.” “You’re kidding me.” “No! It’s a fact.” Didn’t know where to start with that one either, so I let it pass.
Then we came to the most fiery lecture on how I am spiting God’s will by refusing to have children. At first I thought I was making some headway with my argument that I didn’t think my value as a human being was based solely on the fecundity of my reproductive organs, that rather, it could have value and carry out facets of God’s will by trying to be a kind, thoughtful, helpful and generous person. A moment’s thought over a long draw of Nile Special as I waited hopefully. “No,” he finally declared. “You are spiting God’s will and desire for you.” OK, whatever. Another viewpoint forfeited. If I had been going to stay another couple weeks, I would have launched some strident arguments against all three of the last topics, but seeing as I only had a handful of days, I opted for quantity in variety of topics.
Another health-related topic that came up was the “fact,” the school teacher informed me, that one should not drink liquids while eating. Interestingly, Robert said the same thing to me. One day I asked him one of my undoubtedly silly-sounding questions. Each day at lunch at the UWEC, the employees were fed but no drinks were ever offered. Everyone ate their food, no one brought in outside drinks or water bottles, ever. So I asked, “Don’t people drink water here? Or sodas?” “Not with their meal. Do you think it’s good for you to drink with your food?” “I didn’t realize this was a problem.” “No, I’m asking you a question, do you think it’s good for you?” “I always drink with my meals; as far as I know it’s fine for you.” “Ugandans believe it is not healthy. That’s why you never see it.” I then learned that I could ask for a bottle of water at lunch, they kept some in the back room. But Steph and I were the only people ever to ask. After awhile, when I stepped up to the counter with my plate, they automatically stepped into the back and returned with water. Sometimes when they didn’t do this and I neglected to ask, a few minutes later, one of the servers would come over to my table with a bottle of water. Really quite sweet of them to so diligently indulge the mzungu’s strange habit.
Other topics that we spent a lot of time on had to do with basic amenities available to Americans. These topics commonly elicited the head-shaking remark, “It’s a different world.” At first the teacher and Mathius couldn’t understand why I didn’t own a generator. To them, this is the epitome of electrical comfort, and when envisioning the opulence of America, assumed we all had generators. “But I have no need of a generator, the electricity is very reliable. It only goes out in a severe storm.” “So how often does it go out?” “I dunno, several times a year.” “Several times a YEAR?” “Yeah.” Absolutely stunned silence ensued. “You mean there is no load-sharing?” they asked. “No, I have electricity 24 hours a day 7 days a week.” “It’s a different world!” they said, with a mix of fascinated wonder at such a marvel and sad acceptance of the difference between our worlds. I’ve mentioned already how the electricity goes out in Entebbe at some point every day, sometimes for the better part of a day. It’s probably worse out in the boonies. And that’s if you even have electricity. We were of course, having this discussion around a campfire where none existed.
I can’t bring you back with me to our firelight discussions, but there you have some examples of how I passed my evenings at Lake Bunyoni. Oh, and also, my favorite question, which was asked surprisingly often of me throughout Uganda, surfaced here, too: “Can you see stars in America?”
A lot of words heard and images witnessed during my brief time on the lake haunt me to different degrees. But there is one that kept me awake at night: My first day at the lake, Mathius had told me that because it is so close to the Rwandan border, during the genocide, many refugees fled their homes and looked for shelter here at the lake. One day I was sitting on the porch of his family estate while he was visiting his mother, the one stung by the bees. It was a beautiful afternoon, the clouded skies brought out the green colors of the terraced hillsides and the dark blue of the lake water. Below me, a dugout canoe was nestled into the tall reeds. I could hear children off in the distance yelling at each other in play. A cow munched grass a few yards away from me. I was very much at peace and content. Then Mathius’s nephew came into the yard with a banana tree trunk. With a machete he began chopping it up for the cow. On each strike, the metal landed with a dull thudding sound before it sank into the fibrous trunk. I thought about the Rwandan genocide; I know the method by which most of those people were killed. I wondered if the machetes made the same sound when landing on human flesh and bone.
I love when I get to use the word “sidereal” in proper context. It’s one of my favorite words. Lake Bunyoni afforded me the pleasant verbal treat of nightly contemplation of this word. But let me back up just very briefly … This was my swanky accommodation in Queen Elizabeth National Park. I’m standing on the porch of my room to take this photo.
Subsequently, this was my accommodation at Lake Bunyoni. I'm in no way implying that 5-star luxury trumps rustic charm. I'm merely pointing out the abrupt change in my lodging.
How did I end up here? Through couchsurfing. So this was my second hook-up with a fellow couchsurfer. But our time together was a little more involved than an evening of pizza and beer. He invited me to stay at his place on Lake Bunyoni. I arranged for 4 nights (actually originally 5, but ended up cutting it back). You’ve read about Mathius already as the fellow who ultimately helped me achieve one of my life’s ambitions in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. He used to work in the Ministry of Tourism. He quit a number of years ago and bought some land around Lake Bunyoni, where he grew up and where his mother and assorted extended family still live on their estate. (His mother, incidentally, was recently attacked by bees and she nearly died, as many people do. She was in hospital 3 weeks and her health has never fully recovered. I met her; she smiled meekly and extended a friendly hand; it was obvious she was extremely weak.)
On his new land Mathius built a small school and terraced some land for farming, recruited a teacher and a couple helping hands, and now feeds and schools some of the local children, many who have been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. More about this soon, coming in another post. (By the way, there is a prominent campaign throughout the country to educate the public and prevent AIDS with radio ads and newspaper ads, street signs and billboards advocating the use of condoms. Also, a similar campaign advocating the use of mosquito netting to prevent malaria.)
Mathius decided to board me at the school “compound,” as he calls it, rather than at his home. This was quite fine. So my room was a tiny thatched mud hut (“banda”) with just room enough for a bed and nightstand. The bed was on such a slope that in the mornings I woke with all of my covers having slid off one side of the bed. Rustic but charming. There are 3 bandas on the grounds, he and the teacher slept in the other 2. He left out one tiny detail when extending to me his invitation to stay with him. We arrived at the compound via puttering motorboat at night in pitch darkness and driving rain. Having spent the previous 20 minutes on the lake surrounded in blackness should have rung the bell in my head, but I didn’t process it until we landed and scurried up the hill to the common hut where a campfire was burning in anticipation of our arrival. As we ran up the hill, Mathius pointed off into the dark where the toilet was. No electricity, no running water.
If you know me, you know this is OK as a general rule. I grew up backpacking on a regular basis, and have stayed in other “rustic” accommodations void of amenities many times. It is nice, however, to be forewarned of this condition rather than discover it only upon arrival. But whatever. Part of the adventure. I hadn’t, however, taken a shower on the morning I left the 5-star swank at QENP because it was an early wake-up call and I figured I would simply shower when I arrived at the lake. Now I faced the prospect of another 5 days without one.
The following morning it was chilly and raining steadily, and not pleasant for much. A short distance across the lake is an island with a fancy tourist resort on it. The proprietor had come over to talk to Mathius about something, and his boatman (for a putter boat …) and I were shooting the breeze as he spoke good English. He mentioned I could come over and check out the resort for something to do in the inclement weather. So Mathius and I both went over and had a few beers with the proprietor. But first, the boatman showed me around the island and was telling me of their accommodations and amenities (presumably for me to tell my friends about when I got home). He mentioned that they have hot water showers in each tent. I squealed and asked, “Do you think I could come over and take a shower one day?”
He asked the proprietor after we’d circled the island, but Mathius pointed out the next few days we had planned activities to begin early in the morning, so my only real option was to take one right then and there. I protested slightly that I had no toiletries with me. Everyone said, “There is lots of soap, no problem.”
“What about shampoo?” I asked. I was met with vague stares … “Sham…poo?”
“Yeah, you know to wash my hair with.”
“Just wash your body,” Mathius said.
“But my hair is what most needs washing!” I said to a group of men with essentially no hair to speak of. More blank stares.
“OK, I’ll see what I can do with soap,” I said. “It’s probably better than nothing.” I followed the boatman toward one of the rooms. Just as I reached the door, the bartender, who had been in on the conversation, ran up and proudly produced a hotel-sized bottle half-full of shampoo with a dramatic, “Ta dah!”
“Yes!” I exclaimed with deep gratification. "Hot water" was a bit of an overstatement, but the water was warm and running. Good enough. Afterward, I donned my dirty clothes and it would be three more days before I worked up the courage to force a brush through my hair. I don’t know what your hair is like, but washing mine without brushing it beforehand and then letting it dry without having brushed it afterward results in something like the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest of hair.
The resort island and other morning scenes:
In the afternoon the rain let up and the school teacher (referred to by all as “Mistress”) took me for a walk. I asked her if I could go walk around and she said yes. So I started uphill on my own. I stopped and looked back down over the lake and saw her at the shore washing her bare feet. I walked up further and soon heard footsteps behind me … it was Mistress in dainty sandals catching up to me. I guess she thought I was asking her to take me on a walk. But it was for the best by a long shot that I tagged along with her, affording me glimpses into and interactions with the local villagers I never would have obtained on my own. Except for the hotel on the island, there are no tourist facilities over on this part of the lake, so a mzungu wandering around by herself would have been a bizarre sight indeed. Perhaps not even particularly welcomed.
The Mistress was a popular young lady, with many villagers stopping to exchange a few words with her. Her English was very limited, so few of the conversations were translated for me, and we had an extremely sparse conversation between the two of us, but that made no difference to me. She asked me a few questions about America. One of them was, “Is there a lake in America?” As with many questions posed to me in Uganda about my country, it seemed impossible to explain the scope of it all and I decided it was not important to try. In most cases it would only lead to confusion.
“Yes,” I said, “We have a few of them, actually.”
“Are they as big as this one?”
“Some of them are,” I said. Mistress contemplated this for a few minutes and then asked a question I was asked many times in this region, “Are there mountains in America?”
“Yes. In fact I live in them.”
“Are they as big as the ones here?”
“Yes.” At this answer, another contemplation followed with the distinct air of someone thinking: “Hm. Fancy that.”
The area we walked through was so beautiful and provincial in a way that made me feel like I was walking through a fantasy book … you know how so many fantasy novels are set in quaint countrysides of centuries past. (Why I felt a fantasy novel and not just a step back in historical time? … no idea)
Because it had been raining, the paths were mud and muck. Most of the villagers walked around barefoot, carrying their farming tools and sacks full of the produce they’d harvested that day (on top of their head, of course). My shoes and pantlegs were filthy, caked in mud. But Mistress in her neat skirt and low-heeled shoes was spit-spot clean. I was flabbergasted at how she maintained her little dress-shoes in such pristine condition.
At last we came to the hub of the area. It wasn’t a town, just a row of small wood and mud buildings along a portion of the path that wound around the serpentine lake. Unfortunately, rural Ugandans nearly always freak out if they see you bring forth a camera around them and literally flee your foreground with displeasure. So I couldn’t take any photos of the charming stretch of road where the villagers gathered in numerous social clumps.
Just as we were on the far side of the short stretch, Mistress’s heel suddenly detached from her shoe. She took it off and inspected the shoe; it was impossible to continue walking in and probably impossible to fix. But she put it back on and we turned around. She limped back into “town” and approached a boy sitting on a stool beneath the awning of one of these buildings. He disappeared and reappeared shortly with a key to open the door of one of the buildings. A girl went inside and dragged out several enormous burlap sacks bulging with unknown contents. Then, beneath the awning she spread out a sort of drop cloth and began emptying the sacks onto it. Scores of shoes came tumbling out of the sacks onto the ground. The girl and Mistress waded through it with their hands, looking for something appealing and then searching for its mate in order to try on a pair. It was a shoe store! What luck, I thought. Never in my life walking past that 80-yard stretch of little buildings in the middle of proverbial nowhere would I have guessed a shoe store existed.
I could see other sacks inside the building; probably it was a mini department store and sold other items that were kept stuffed into sacks as well. Mistress was a long time in deciding, occasionally seeking my opinion, and meanwhile I watched a lot of life pass by around me. There were two little kids playing on the opposite side of the path. The buildings are set down below the path so that you descend down several stairs to reach the entrances. One of the kids, barely a toddler, was rolling around on the grass and eventually rolled right off the edge … bloop, just disappeared. I heard no cries of distress or pain, and thought maybe I should go over and check to see he was OK. But suddenly two chubby little hands clawed their way onto the grass and he hauled his body back up, utterly unfazed. Finally Mistress settled on a delicate pair of sandals with rhinestone flowers on top. And as we continued walking, she kept them just as clean as the other ones.
We walked quite a distance and came eventually to another similar but smaller hub of buildings and descended the steps into one of them. It was a small square room with long benches lining three sides and at the back it was cordoned off as if it were a bar. “What is this place?” I asked, wondering if indeed that’s what it was.
“It’s a store,” Mistress said. But I couldn’t see any items for sale anywhere. There were several calendars hanging on the wall, but none were the current 2012. She asked me if I liked “xxx” didn’t catch the name, but she was able to describe what I thought I had eaten for lunch sometimes at the UWEC … a thin purple-colored sauce. I replied in truth, “yes.” The proprietor and who I assume were her grandmother and daughter sat down with us and she handed over a huge mug of purplish liquid -- so I was somewhat on the mark (i.e., it was purple), but not quite … it smelled a bit like the banana liquor brewing in the drums at the crater lakes. Naturally I had to feign enjoyment while suppressing my gag reflex. Someday I would like to be looking in a mirror when I have this experience … I truly wonder if I’m fooling anybody -- if I manage a believable look on my face that says “yummy” instead of “god help me.”
We made it back to the compound just as our eyes were adjusting to the dusk. Time for the nightly routine of beer around the campfire with Mathius and his neighbor up the hill, a secondary-school teacher at a school somewhere nearby on the lake. Then dinner was cooked and served to us by the helper, Bruce, who always greeted me with the phrase, “Hi guy!” I presume he had learned that “guys” was a common slang phrase in America, to say “Hi guys.” And figured since I was only one person, it should be made singular to “Hi guy.” It cracked me up every time.
Then the evening’s discussion with more yummy beer (Nile Special) (this amenity, in my book, makes up for a lot of other deficiencies such as the lack of electricity and water). I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I think one of the most valuable skills a traveler can have is the ability to stay up late and kick back a few beers. This was the only beverage offered me, we drank in comradery, and I would have missed a lot of interesting conversation if I’d conked out early. Read about these exchanges in "Firelight Conversations: Insights Into Ugandan Frames of Thought."
And finally the fire dies down, the neighbor disappears into the darkness, and I head back to my hut, carefully picking my footsteps down the slick muddy path, my pupils dilated to the max to bring in the light offered by the far away stars.
So when did I get to contemplate my beloved word? At my favorite time of night: The time when I have to get up in the middle of it to go outside to use the loo. I know you are skeptical, but truthfully, strange little me loves this aspect of rustic living, when it seems as if there is no barrier between me and the rest of the universe, no blue sky separating our view of one another. No matter how rainy it had been during the day, the sky always cleared late at night around the lake. I padded alone in the purity of a night bereft of electricity, past the wooden dock to the outhouse. And on my way back, I stopped at the dock to stare up at the Milky Way, to be bowled over at the thought of all those stars and all those galaxies marking the stupendous lengths of space and time that lead away from our tiny planet into the sidereal depths.