A Wet Ride on a Boda Boda
The 41 km road from the airport in Entebbe to Kampala is an endlessly spreading slum, the road choked with traffic and with boda-bodas and minibuses that serve as public transportation and which obey a vague set of driving rules. The banks of the road are littered with broken-down vehicles and garbage, and burning piles of garbage, and with ramshackle-looking developments. I can’t tell if they’re incomplete or if they’ve been left to deteriorate; every structure has heaps of sand and rocks and blocks surrounding it. The warm equatorial air is thick; the sun filters down through perpetual ground strata of dust and emissions. More people travel on foot than on machine, usually burdened with great loads of fire wood, fruit or large bags of rice. People appear busy; yet there are no obvious signs of commerce in the endless succession of convenience stores, restaurants, barbershops, clothing boutiques and other roadside kiosks roofed with umbrellas. This slum, like slums everywhere, carries the acrid smells of hydrocarbons and garbage, and unpaved roads lined by tin-roof concrete shacks with dirt floors. I’m reminded of Indonesia, Nepal and Bolivia. We pass a handsomely dressed woman urinating behind a road sign, and a desperately thin dog sniffing for scraps among the garbage – it appeared more vermin than companion. A ball gets away from a couple of children and I watch it bounce through an open sewage gutter and out onto the road. Vehicles don’t stop for kids, maybe they honk without slowing.
I feel viscerally puzzled and disturbed. The Africa of my imagination is a vast expanse of lush jungles and open savanna teeming with the continent’s iconic creatures. I knew Uganda was impoverished; afterall, that’s why I’m here. But here, poverty is as much a part of the scene as the banana trees and cumulus clouds. Africa is poverty. Breathing, smelling, feeling; indeed, being among poverty is an assault on my sense of humanity and morality. It’s shocking and difficult to confront, let alone absorb and process. I lose myself in philosophical and conflicting thought: How does this happen? Is this a product of exploitation by wealthy nations and, if so, the result of the comfortable lifestyle I enjoy? I’m thankful, if not guilty, that I won the lottery of life at birth being born in America. Why did I elude such a miserable fate? Am I just lucky or do I hold an obligation? I question my reason for wanting to be here and wonder if I can endure three months. Surely I can last 12 weeks, these poor souls are serving a life sentence. Most have never left their village. At this moment, I realize my life was easier when I was unaware and unconcerned with such things as poverty. It’s impossible to get that back.
Suddenly panic strikes. I haven’t yet arrived in Kampala and I realize the scale of poverty here is far beyond my capacity to effect. I came to learn and experience, yes, but I came mainly, perhaps naively, to make an impact, to help alleviate poverty, to make lives better, to try to equalize the gross misallocation of opportunity. There can’t possibly be anything I can do — I feel like a doctor must if called to treat an epidemic with only a single vial of penicillin.
But I must try.
I look for inspiration and courage in a book called “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, the wonderful story of Dr. Paul Farmer who has devoted his life to providing free health care to individuals in absolute poverty, the poorest and most neglected. Surely, the central plateau of Haiti, where Farmer works, is much worse that Kampala. If he can live there year after year, then I can certainly manage a few months here.
In reality, it’s not all misery. After all, this is the Pearl of Africa. I strolled by Namirembe Cathedral this morning. It’s an imposing but beautiful structure. It sits atop a lovely and well-manicured hill overlooking most of Kampala. It is Sunday and worship services are in progress. I couldn’t help but peek inside. It is packed with worshipers adorned in their Sunday best, men wearing ties and coats and women in colorful floral dresses and matching headdresses. These are proud and dignified people, and devoted to their faith. Here is the finest choral group I’ve ever heard. Absolutely beautiful, mesmerizing and soothing. I reluctantly begin to see value in faith. Perhaps it gives answers and strength and hope to those who are suffering, and a sense of community. An usher invites me warmly to join the congregation, but I decline; I’m in bush clothes and a 4-day beard – it would seem disrespectful.
I discover a few other unexpected pleasures my first day in Uganda: one, peanut sauce over rice, matoke (mashed plantains steams in banana leaves) and coffee. Delicious! Two, mosquito nets. There’s something romantic about them (think “Out of Africa”); I find it conspicuously satisfying to see a mosquito buzzing around me, but powerless to strike!
Shortly after settling in, I took a motor taxi (“boda boda”) to try and locate BRAC’s office. I could see on a rudimentary map that it was not far. Riding shotgun on a motorbike is a cultural experience; today, a rather unsettling, in fact, terrifying one! My driver, Eric (the name he gives us “mzungus” so we can pronounce it) is a friendly guy, 28 years old with a wife and young daughter. I wonder why he takes such unnecessary risks, swerving repeatedly into the lane of oncoming traffic, avoiding head-on collisions and certain death by mere inches. Within minutes, the sky darkens and opens up with a dramatic display of thunder and lightening. We take shelter under the corrugated tin roof overhang of a roadside convenience shop. I’m relieved to be off the bike and in relative safety. I’m captivated by the torrent; I’ve never seen rain this hard. The street is flooded within minutes. I then take notice of the store’s proprietor. She’s an attractive young woman with her adolescent daughter in tow. I ask if I can buy water, but she doesn’t speak English and I see she doesn’t have any anyway. Her store must cater to locals. She sells subsistence items like soap, flour and canned goods. I wonder if she’s a microfinance borrower. Naturally, then, I want to know her story. How’s business? What did she buy with the loan proceeds? How has the loan impacted her and her daughter’s lives? Her store has a concrete floor and a metal roof, it’s clean and well-stocked. She and her daughter wear nice clothes and shoes. They don’t appear to be ill or malnourished. I wonder how far she has come, and how far her daughter will go. It’s with this thought, looking in this young girl’s eyes, that the hope and meaning of my Fellowship is restored. I don’t need to solve global poverty, but maybe – with luck – my presence here will help just one person triumph in her struggle over poverty and reach a day that holds greater promise than this one.
I wonder what my days in the field will be like. Its the rainy season in Uganda./>