Just so you know, I’m writing this post as I sip an ice cold cider and gaze out across the Nile, where once I finish writing I’ll go kayaking until the sun sets…
“WHAT DO I STAND FOR? WHAT DO I STAND FOR? MOST NIGHTS, I DON’T KNOW ANYMORE…”
I’ve never been able to resist belting out the lyrics—or whatever I think the lyrics are—to Fun.’s ‘Some Nights.’ And so belting, I was: “TRY TWICE AS HARD AND I’M HALF AS LIKED, BUT HERE THEY COME AGAIN TO JACK MY STYLE.”
I had the compound alllll to myself since Maawe and Byaruhanga had gone to collect firewood and Tata was at some meeting. I was enjoying the cool, sunny afternoon picking coffee (headphones in, volume up, totally content with the old pop music that was probably permanently affecting my hearing).
“SOME NIGHTS I’M SCARED YOU’LL FORGET ME—AHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been more caught off guard. Standing feet from me wearing an ear-to-ear grin was Michael, who had basically just given me a heart attack with a shoulder tap.
I exclaimed something probably not very appropriate and threw the handful of coffee I had just picked at him. Take that, frightening Ugandan boy.
“I scared you? But didn’t you hear me coming?”
“No! I was singing! Well, if you can call it that…” Embarrassment quickly replaced shock.
Michael laughed and began picking up the berries I had thrown. “No, you’re voice is not very beautiful.” Candid as any African I’ve ever met.
For the next thirty minutes or so, he helped me gradually fill my basin of coffee, chatting and probably bickering, because that always seemed to be our favorite pastime.
“Keri?” Tata’s voice carried from the house through the tangle of branches.
I groaned quietly, knowing my pleasant afternoon had just ended. “Wanji?” I called back to him.
“Come this way, please.”
I lifted the almost-full basin to the top of my head and meandered through the bushy garden back to the main compound. Michael followed. For once, I wanted to go back to picking coffee, but Tata insisted I go with him to visit his mother, who lives a few minutes’ walk away. I see her regularly, and I knew there was no pressing reason I needed to go with him at that moment.
“I’d like to finish this basin,” I told him.
“Oh no no no, you’ve done enough for today,” Tata said with that grin.
“It’s a nice night to pick coffee, Tata. I’m enjoying it.” My version of standing my ground.
He just laughed. “You will finish tomorrow.”
And so Michael left, my pleasant afternoon of friendship and American pop music came to as abrupt an end as it had begun, and I went to go greet Kaka—to sit obediently in her dark sitting room silently listening to a language I don’t understand, day dreaming and serving no purpose whatsoever.
And so went my relationship with Tata and my friendship with Michael.
Around my host father, I hated myself—trampled by that grin, hiding seething frustration behind passive manners. I forced myself to smile at his jokes, which I usually found offensive and almost never found funny. He is so principled that there wasn’t much point challenging him on any topic; most critical discussions just led to annoyance on my part, satisfaction on his, and never much enlightenment on either. Most infuriating of all, to Tata my race, my gender, my age all made me somehow weak. I’m grateful for Tata agreeing to host me. But I was not sad to say goodbye to him.
Michael, though, is a different story. To Michael, I was really sad to say goodbye. With him, I was myself—crude manners, honest opinions, tired complaints, and all. He is one of the only people I know on this entire continent who is my age, who I felt truly equal to. Who I didn’t feel like a token mzungu around. Who never expected anything from me. Who expressed his love just once, and accepted my response—a judicious one: that I cannot be in love because that would make leaving too painful—with an understanding smile. Whose friendship did not end with this evasive rejection. Who asked me to leave him with a “snap” of me to remember me by (a fairly standard request), and when given some to choose from, he chose one in which I looked “happier than he’s ever seen me.” Who I wish I could introduce to my friends, to my life back home.
Michael was—is—my friend, but we did not have much of a friendship. Our time together consisted of him dropping by the house in the evenings, when we’d joke and argue and I’d grumble about picking coffee and he’d explain his business plans over pineapple or jackfruit or evening tea. A few times—when only Maawe was home, and Tata wasn’t there to think of an excuse to stop me—I visited Michael’s house, where his grandmother would inevitably go fetch a pineapple, a Fanta, or a beer in the trading center for me.
Whenever Michael was around, Tata would keep his distance, and I could tell he didn’t much like his visits. But he tolerated them. He didn’t tolerate, though, any further extensions of our friendship. Go to the monthly market in Rubirizi (a few kilometers away) with him—no way. Walk to Kyambura River—nuh uh. Meet his cousin (a girl!) in a neighboring village—too risky.
(I ask you: which do you think is more normal? Me spending time with a 60 year old man, or me spending time with a 23 year old? I think my real dad would be pretty freaked out if I told him I was going on a walk with some 60 year old man in America.)
Still, tea cup by tea cup, evening by evening, I came to really like Michael. He’s a dreamer, which his probably why. Right now, he’s living in Busonga with his mother, brother, sister, and grandmother. He didn’t go to school this semester because his family couldn’t quite scrape together the school fees in time, so instead he made the best of his time in his host village. Like me, he picked coffee every day, which, unlike Tata, he took the time to dry in order to sell it at a higher price. He also bought others’ coffee and dried and sold that, too. When I first arrived, he didn’t have much capital at all, but by the end of my stay there, he offered to take me out to get a pork dinner, since he knew Tata had never bought it for dinner (I wasn’t allowed to, of course). Michael also earned money this spring by making bricks to sell to home-builders and by rearing rabbits to sell to nearby hotels. He also, of course, helps his family out around the compound and farms. His house is a particularly neat one, and he’s very proud that the grass never grows long, there’s no litter, and even the bushes and trees are neatly pruned.
Michael has done well for himself the last few months in Busonga, but he definitely won’t settle for life in this village. “I want electricity, Lambert,” he told me once. “Internet access, a car, a computer.” He’s a dreamer, I tell you. Even a poetic one at times. “You and I are no different, just our colors. We want the same things, you know—families, a comfortable house, a secure job.”
Don’t you see why I’ll miss him?
It doesn’t help that with him gone, my friend count ‘round these parts is back down to…drum roll…zero.
I believe Michael’s going to have what he dreams of someday. He’s studying electrical engineering, which probably won’t prove very useful to him even when he does get his Bachelor’s degree, since most people in Uganda can’t get jobs related to what they’ve studied. He knows that, so he’s got other plans. He has a vision, determination, and the work ethic to get out of Busonga. Maybe even scrape together the money for a trip abroad before settling down. But he knows Uganda is his home. Someday—once the current president finally dies or steps aside—he believes Uganda will be a place of peace, prosperity, and progress (three things that don’t often overlap in African countries).
Now Michael is a coffee picker to admire. Michael, and young men and women like him, are the future of Uganda. Dreamers who get their hands dirty. Who are equally determined and patient. Who are damn proud of their nation but knows its people have much to work on, much to improve.
People no different from you or me.
I’ll miss my evening teas with Michael, my only true Ugandan friend. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll see him again, maybe he really will make a trip to the U.S. I’d like to introduce him to Starbucks Frappuccinos. I wonder what he would think of all the options for pizza slices at Antonio’s. Of New England foliage? Of sledding down Memorial Hill?
There’s no harm in dreaming.
And now, this really big river is beckoning to me…
I meant to post this yesterday, but the internet in Busonga wasn’t fast enough. SO, here, I am in Kampala (!!!) uploading pictures in just seconds! I am in awe. The next few days I’ll probably be uploading some longer posts to wrap up my time in Uganda, so here’s a post before then that’s a little easier to digest. I hope you had a wonderful holiday!
Hunt one egg, hunt all, and here’s a (baker’s) dozen zero-cholesterol facts for your enjoyment on this rejuvenating holiday
1. That Easter chicken that Tata talked about for weeks…didn’t happen. But cow stomach and liver sure did! (My considerate hosts, though, bought me generous chunks of “normal” meat, and wow Maawe can cook beef!) (Oops—false advertising on the cholesterol bit.)
2. Clothes that dry inside over the course of several days due to April’s showers smell…shocker…not good.
3. Tata stayed true to his word! Yesterday we went to Kyambura River! The walk was steep and slick, but that was, of course half the fun.
4. Cassava can last up to 3 years in the soil before being harvested, and isn’t even ripe until after 18 full months!
5. A pair of $21 jeans from Target can last 27 months, including 9 months being rigorously handwashed and serving as a lone pair of oft-donned jeans, before tearing at the crotch while being tugged on in a hurry when still damp. How much do you think a taxi to the closest Target would cost me?
6. This (below) is called “parchment” coffee. The arabica beans are passed through a machine which removes the outer skin from freshly-picked berries. Next the beans ferment overnight, and then they dry for a couple of days in indirect sunlight, before they are finally transported and sold to a company in Kasese. This type draws a higher price for the producer, but because of the labor associated with the lengthy process, nobody in the nearby communities uses these machines (several of which were donated by an American NGO called Primewest).
7. Byarahanga is planning to leave after receiving this month’s pay, which only I know. “Do you like it here?” I asked him a few days back. His response was judicious: “I like home.” He’s planning to help his parents with their farm work once he returns, but eventually he wants to buy a boat and become a fisherman in Lake George, like his uncle.
8. My friend Michael’s family cares for Catherine, a 6-year-old distant relative whose mother has died and who I want to put in my luggage and take with my back to America. She now thinks her Kaka (grandma), below, is her Maawe (mother).
9. Tata’s emaciated dog, Sarat, just gave birth to 5 hungry puppies!
10. According to Tata, “Wizards” control the weather here. When there is a storm brewing, they are in the “laboratory mixing herbs.” And when they enjoy too much are the bars in the afternoon, there’s a severe thunderstorm at night.
11. Good Friday Mass lasted precisely 4 hours. Amen.
12. My life fit securely into just TWO bags! I wished Maawe and Tata goodbye and hit the road to Kampala this morning! I’ll spend another week or so in Uganda before I fly to Ethiopia on Sunday, April 27th. More details to follow…
13. As a final thank you gift, I gave Maawe and Tata a solar light and a tea set. The tea set was for a number of reasons, partly in remembrance of my amazing American “kaka,” Grandma Grace. May Maawe and Tata serve many more guests with the same kind generosity with which they’ve treated me for these last 3 months.
And now, the moment I’ve so looked forward to… a hot shower? a cold drink? a lunch that includes no matoke (plantains)? should I enjoy the fast internet some more? read my Kindle by the pool? start writing my next post? OPTIONS. INDEPENDENCE. CONTROL. I LOVE IT.
THIS IS REAL. I caught sight of these three boys walking by the house on Easter, my final day in Busonga. I don’t know them, but they were psyched to have their picture taken. It was a Pedroia jersey!
It probably doesn’t take much to tell from my posts that I’m ready to get out of Busonga. I’m bored with this village and I feel stifled by Tata.
To Tata I am a girl (not a woman, not an adult) that must be protected. A few Sundays ago, I told him I was hoping to go see the nearby river (which he told me he would take me to, but has “never had the time”) with my friend Michael—my host cousin and my only friend here, one of the few people I’ve gotten to know this entire year who is my age.
Tata (with a huge grin on his face, as fricken’ always) rejected this plan, telling me he did not want me to go to see the river without him. And he, still grinning, reminded me I always needed any “prior arrangements” approved by him beforehand.
That beautiful, sunny afternoon I sat at the house, flipping through my Kindle, my pangs of boredom tinged with sore annoyance with Tata. But I told myself Fine—it’s not like I have a social life that can be cramped by his domineering host-fathering. On principle, I was frustrated, but in practice, his mandate didn’t really make a difference.
Until last week. Michael asked me if I would like to meet his best friend, a maternal cousin who lives a few villages over. He proposed we walk there on Sunday after church. When I asked Tata for permission, he told me he’d “think about it” and then 5 minutes later he called me to the dining room table where he lectured—grinning, so much grinning—for a half hour on how he has a commitment to protect me. And what if I start feeling ill while I am with Michael? What if I’m walking and I twist an ankle? He promised my father, he said, to take good care of me. And he is a man, he said, that fulfills his commitments (he said this as if he is the only person in the world who does so).
And so I wasn’t allowed to go to meet Michael’s cousin.
And so I spent another Sunday afternoon hanging out with my Kindle.
Want to know what my American dad said when I told him I had won a Watson fellowship? (After, “What’s that?”) He asked me why I wouldn’t go, why I wouldn’t ship off to Africa for a year.
Here I am in Africa, not allowed to take a walk because my host father is afraid I’ll turn an ankle.
In that same conversation, when he told me I couldn’t go anywhere without him present, he told me I’m lucky he allows me to go on my 20 minute run in the mornings. Without him, he means. I’m blessed he allows me to go to the high school to type in the staffroom. Without him, he means.
He is a man who stands by his commitments, after all.
Oh, and I’ve reminded him a couple of times that I’d really like to see the river before I leave Busonga. We still haven’t been.
Whether or not I see the river, I’m ready to get outta here. I’m wishing Busonga goodbye next Monday morning—5. More. Days.
In light of my late frustrations and also my recent post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would be liked to grow up here in Busonga, to live my life as a woman in rural Uganda.
I couldn’t do it.
For as long as Maawe and Tata have been married (since 1980, 34 years) Maawe has lived in Tata’s home village of Busonga, “holding down the fort”—caring for the compound, tending to the gardens, raising the kids before they were old enough for boarding school. Tata, on the other hand, spent the majority of those years living in Mbarara, one of the larger towns in Uganda, where he taught carpentry and where his kids attended school. And where he took a second wife with whom he had two daughters. He would return to Busonga every few weekends.
In broad strokes: Maawe has had little control over the general landscape of her life; she did not attend much school, she got married, and she’s lived as a housewife in her husband’s clan’s village ever since. The life she has carved out for herself here, though, is spectacular. This community clearly adores her. She has loyal and loving best friends. She is a leader in the church. She is involved in development projects. She attends political gatherings. Also, she is in control over this household and even Tata insofar as it/he depends entirely on her; her controls over what and when we eat is as powerful as it is basic. She is much more than a damn good housewife. And at the core of her dynamic identities is a golden heart, a heart I believe—when she laughs or greets me just after dawn or dances in church—is truly happy.
Then there are my broad strokes: college educated and sponsored by a foundation that filled my bank account and said GO. What’s at the core of my dynamic identities? A constantly conflicted, often frustrated spirit that catches fleeting, wondrous happiness, but is—shamefully? lamentably? productively?—rarely satisfied.
The hardest part of this year for me has been passing the reins of my everyday life into others’ hands; to immerse myself in the way that I intended for my Watson project has required me to give up a major degree of independence. For eight months now, other people (on and off) have controlled my daily schedule, my energy output, who I associate with, how I travel from place to place, what, when, and how much I eat! My siblings and I grew up with pretty much no rules (responsibilities, yes; rules, few); with my bike and my allowance from lawn mowing or my paycheck from Atkins, I have been my own agent, defining my own “self” for as long as I can remember.
What does it mean that in the year that I am explicitly told to hit the road, take the reins of your life, be independent, go for it, I put myself in the passenger seat? As I’ve toiled on rubber farms and in bread kitchens and at coffee gardens, I’ve mentally bucked up against the seat belt holding me in place, wondering why in God’s name did I do this of all the things I could have done?
…and that immobility has taught me probably as much as all the “mobile” things I’ve done before this year. But—of course, never satisfied—I want to know more, I want to know still more:
Why is it that something is so much sweeter when it’s been worked for? When it’s enjoyed with hands that were just mud crusted? Or when it’s scarce? Or when it’s far away? Or long ago?
Is happiness something that’s attained or is it something that’s believed?
Should we live gently, pole pole, empora empora, or should we grasp life with both fists and see where we can take it?
Can we be happy with both fists clenched?
I don’t really know what I’m trying to say with this post, to be honest. I needed to vent about Tata. I wanted to try to show you, again, just how admirable Maawe is. I’m aching for answers to questions there are no answers to. I’m aching for control when I already know that doesn’t promise me the solution I’m looking for, not that I even know that is.
What I do know is that I want to unclench these fists. I know that this place and these people have been good to me, and that I want to enjoy my last few days here. I want to see the river and celebrate Easter with a loving family. And I want to bottle Maawe’s laugh and her gratified gusto and sip it empora empora—slowly but surely—for the rest of my whole damn life.
I want, I want, I want, I want. Will I ever stop wanting? Is that a solution?
Friggin’ question marks.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Tata’s school where he teaches carpentry. The visit wasn’t worth writing about because all I learned was that Tata’s government job is essentially a joke. He is paid as a full time teacher, though he’s required to report only on Mondays and Fridays, and when he arrives (most often late), he “teaches” only two students. His instruction consists of writing a few measurements on the board and waiting for his students to hand-saw and plane wood accordingly. Most of the time, he admits, he dozes to pass the time. He is terrifically proud of this “responsibility.”
I promptly stopped evaluating Tata’s job as indication of his hard work ethic and instead wondered why he always claims such exhaustion after a day of naps.
Today,I “went to work” with Maawe. Today is worth writing about.
Traditionally, men in Uganda are responsible for not very much other than finding wives and making babies with them. Nowadays, men should be the ones responsible for cash crops and paying their kids’ school fees. Women, meanwhile, are responsible for…well, everything else. Chiefly, that means food production and preparation. While Tata grows avocadoes and coffee for cash, Maawe takes care of all of the food that the household eats. She grows millet, matoke, maize, cassava, potatoes, pumpkins, beans, and dodo, leaving the ingredients she buys in the markets to just tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt, garden eggs, eggplant, fish, sugar, and fruits.
“Today you see my land,” Maawe said as we meandered down the mountainous trail that leads to “Kaieyto,” an area where people in Busonga have their gardens. I couldn’t see her face, but I was sure she was grinning ear to ear. “Agnes, she has taken lead.” Agnes is Maawe’s very best friend, and witnessing the camaraderie between them as they gossip away in the kitchen regularly warms my heart. And, oh, do they make me laugh—Maawe and Agnes have no use for phones like most girlfriends, since they live only a (loud) shout away from each other. And loudly shout they do. Never angrily and never without a response. They’re best friends, after all.
I’m not sure how the logistics of their friendship works, but they both lean heavily on each other. Agnes, a widow, regularly works for/with Maawe on Maawe/Tata’s land, and Agnes seems welcome to whatever matoke, potatoes, firewood and whatever else she might need from their gardens. Their relationship is a constant, incalculable give and take that only best friends can pull off.
“Eyyyyyy Kyomugisha!” Agnes called to me when Maawe and I arrived at the plot. “How are you?”
“I’m good, Agnes! How are you?”
She responded with a boisterous laugh. How are you?—and not the response—is the extent of her English.
Throughout the morning, Maawe, Agnes, two younger women (one with an infant in tow), a small boy, and I dug our hands and hoes into the deep brown soil of Maawe’s garden. Gradually—empora empora—we cleared the garden of the dried remains from the last harvest, which we piled up and set a match to. Next we set to planting cassava. The fertile soil felt obscenely good slipping through my fingers—a tactile softness I found hard to believe was as unrefined as could be: dirt. There’s something so basically rejuvenating about planting food—not rubber, not coffee, but something that’s going to nourish a human being in just a few months’ time. The energy I took to plant that cassava will multiply ten-fold, one-hundred-fold, a-thousand-fold, and nourish who-know’s-what?
After we harvested a bunch of potatoes and tied together bearable bundles of firewood, cassava, and potatoes, it was time to mosey our way back to Busonga to cook lunch (fresh as potatoes get—mmm mmm!).
I’ve complained plenty about picking coffee in Tata’s gardens. I don’t like the chore one bit. It’s boring and it’s especially aggravating knowing that the job is made so much more tedious by Tata’s neglect—the trees grow tall and bushy, and what could and should be a neatly trimmed plantation more resembles an overrun forest. Just yesterday I “inspected” a garden with Tata and found that he had uprooted dozens of garden egg bushes that now clog the already-weedy space between the coffee trees. I asked Tata if we would clear them away, maybe burn them, so the garden would be “smart.” Tata said no, no definitely not, he doesn’t have time for that. It would probably take about 2 hours some afternoon, and it would make the garden infinitely easier to move around in…
Maawe, though—now Maawe is proud of her gardens. I could see it in the way she meticulously, yet swiftly, cleared old plants from the rich soil. I could see it in her neatly mounded potato plants, the cassava growing in a grid, the way she picked any weed she spotted. Her empora empora (“slow but sure”) movements murmured diligence and patience, and the meals we eat every day serves as proof of the payoffs.
Best of all was Maawe’s unending cheeriness as she plugged away. She called out to people—me, Agnes, any passerby at all—asking them how they were doing, thanking them for their work. Her greetings were not unusual; African cultures are much more intimate than the look-at-the-ground or check-the-watch “greeting” etiquette found in many so-called communities in New England. Additionally, Maawe has a knack for injecting into anything and everything an invigorating dose of gusto and joy…of life. She dances and she sings and she hugs and she thanks with incredible genuine energy and emotion. Yesterday at Palm Sunday service she was so overcome by the music at one point she started a movement in the whole congregation to stand up and dance before the altar.
I love it. Her vigor, her wholesomeness. Her love for people, for her neighbors, for me, for her best friend. Her unceasing faith and her hardy dutifulness. Her laugh. Oh, her laugh. I honest to God love it.
To write about farming coffee with Tata without writing of Maawe would be to ignore a fundamental element that makes Tata’s production possible. It’s impossible to understand where coffee comes from without meeting the very backbone of this household, the motor that makes Tata’s operations plug along as they do. And yet, in the giant “black box” that so many “stories” are lost—where does coffee come from? who’s responsible for that product? you mean that comes from a tree?—women like Maawe are arguably the most silenced victims. Women like Maawe probably most deserve to have their stories heard.
Women like Maawe…
Maawe’s feet have grown wide from walking long paths to and from gardens and carrying loads atop her head, from supporting her family. Maawe’s hands don’t blister from hoes, they don’t burn from hot plates, they peel matoke, cut potatoes, and gut fish with rapidity honed from years of wifehood. Her forearms ripple with muscle grown from gardens. Her face creases where a lifetime of compassion, prayer, sun, and smiles as wide as the gap that could separate us but isn’t has left its beautiful mark.
One of the major shortcomings of my experiences so far has been the absence of women in my life. I mean that for personal reasons—a girl’s gotta have her girlfriends!—and also for Watson-project-reasons. Most of the “stories” I’ve shared have been those of the more dominant sex here in Africa. I’ve gotten to know more men than I have women, partly by chance, and partly because men tend to be more educated and consequently bolder and more able to interact with a mzungu. I’ve admired some of the men I’ve worked with and I’ve learned from many of the men I’ve met… but I’m so very sure I could learn worlds—and really enjoy doing so—from African women, but a language barrier silences many of these lessons. There are means of communication other than language, something I know so very well from the time I’ve spent abroad, but there are some things we can learn from each other only if we’re able to trade words we both understand.
Nevertheless, we might have only a few dozen words in common, but the morning I spent with Maawe and Agnes, two best friends, was much needed girl time. In the last 8 months, I’ve become frustrated time and time again by the unproductiveness all around me, by imbalanced gender divisions and standards, by, quite frankly, many African men. We had no nail polish (unless you count the dirt that caked my fingernails), no Starbucks (we did have tea before we left), no gossipy long-run (the walk back did take a while), no cheap wine (no potential substitution for that one)… but this morning was a redefined girl time, invigorating in its own way. A fresh, fertile way. An empora empora way.
A Maawe way.
Today, today was worth writing about.
My dad’s white work van smelled like peanuts, sawdust, and that not-unpleasant sweatiness that sticks to baseball hats. He sometimes took me to his worksite and would let me “help.” Scrambling up scaffolding, handing him nails, traipsing between rooms in wall-less houses-to-be, I had an absolute ball.
Dad sometimes used to let me steer that old van. He controlled the brakes and the gas, but that steering wheel was alllll mine.
I didn’t mind letting him steer (and pedal) when he would buckle me into a seat on the back of his 20-speed and we would go on bicycle rides together on summer evenings every now and then. We would stop at the gas station on the way home, where he let me pick out a treat. Flintstones orange sherbet push pop. Every time.
One year, my dad had the grand idea to make a hockey rink in our backyard. Throughout the Fall, we spent long afternoons outside attempting, with shovels, to level our yard’s rises and gullies. I’d never been, and never again will be, more excited to see the weather channel predict frigid temperatures, when finally Dad flooded the “rink.” That rink and its lumpy ice came back again and again for the next 5 or so winters. January nights were never better.
I knew I had the coolest, strongest Dad in the world when he used to punt a soccer ball high, so high, straight up into the air after Saturday morning soccer games at the Crocker Farm fields. I and all the kids watching in awe would scatter in glee as the ball came crashing down toward us at breakneck speed.
Mrs. Andrade and Mr. Kurtz were pretty taken aback when I came into my 6th grade classroom lugging a 3’ long model of the Parthenon. My dad and I built the masterpiece out of scrap wood, PVC piping, and mock-marble spray paint. The looks on my classmates’ faces were well worth the hours I spent drill-pressing holes to hold the columns in place. Definitely got an A on that project.
My dad isn’t a perfect man or a flawless father, and his childrearing was haphazard at times, but I can honestly say I love him more than words can do justice. By most American standards I was not spoiled as a kid—I worked for my allowances, wore plenty of hand-me-down clothes, never got “Lunchables” no matter how many times I asked—but when I think of the way my parents (I have plenty of brilliant mom-memories, too) loved me, I sure feel like I was. They might not have had big salaries to spend on me, but they spent obscene amounts of time and energy not just on me or for me, but with me.
In fact, when I think of the most painful moments in my childhood, I remember moments when time wasn’t given to me—that night I made pasta from scratch and my dad came home hours past dinner when it had turned cold and crunchy; the Frisbee games when I looked to the sidelines and not more than twice saw my father among the supporters; the fact that my dad has traveled two times to Africa but has never asked me what I wrote my senior thesis about. I write these words and feel something inside of me flare up, tighten, grind. Despite the fact that for every Frisbee game my dad didn’t go attend, he took me to 100 hockey practices; for every meal he was late to, he cooked me a dozen …I somehow feel entitled to still more of his time and energy.
Observing childrearing, specifically fatherhood, in Africa on one hand shows me how blessed I am to have the parents that love me as they do… but on the other, it simply and wholly breaks my heart. The fact that my father loves me has nothing to do with geography, class, race, whatever—he just loves me, and I know and I’ve always known it. I find it hard to understand why that fact shouldn’t equally apply for kids here.
Here, from what I can tell, the duty of a father is to provide shelter and school fees. If a father puts a roof over his child’s head and that child attends school, he has succeeded in his role. Often, that roof is at the house of a relative, who has offered to raise the child to relieve the parents of a burden. Ideally, that roof is at a boarding school, where some Ugandan children go as young as 7 years old. Tata, who is acclaimed by others and himself for being a commendable man and father, lived for only a few years with each of his children before they moved to school or, in his second son’s case, to his sister’s. He does not expect to meet his children’s significant others until they intend to marry. I can’t remember a single time he has mentioned one of his kids unless it was related to the fact that he paid his or her school fees. He has not spoken to his youngest son, Victor, since before Christmas; he has no idea where Victor is; he has not reported Victor missing to anyone…and he has spoken of this just once, when he admitted he “hopes” Victor is alright.
Tata’s children all have or will attain Bachelor’s degrees, and that is to have succeeded.
Oh, you want to know about the bad dads in town? They’re the ones who hang out at the trading center drinking liquor every evening. They splurge on meat and fish and bread and booze during the coffee harvest season instead of paying their kids’ school feels. Their children pick coffee in the gardens on Mondays and Tuesdays and every weekday, wear soiled t-shirts instead of school uniforms, will not learn how to speak English (Uganda’s national language). These children are all over and everywhere.
Maybe in urban, wealthier, more developed areas it’s different. I don’t know. But I do know the majority of Ugandans live in villages much like this one. And around here, the thought of a father attending a football (soccer) game to cheer on his kid, or making breakfast for his children on a rainy Sunday morning, or taking his daughter to work on a non-school day because she asked to … hah, the absurdity is cruel.
I adore the memories of the days I spent at work with my dad. Kids around here, if they’re going to work with their parents, it probably means they’re not going to school. It means their labor is needed to put food on the table. It means that if they didn’t go, they’d be left at home to fend for themselves (at 4 years, 5 years, 6 years old) which happens plenty often, also.
I’ve been asked many times why Americans tend to have smaller families than Africans. I know that the answer to this is very complicated and is rooted in culture, religion, economics, and history, so I don’t really attempt at an explanation. But the conversation often results in me simply saying that parenting and family dynamics are very different in Africa than they are in America.
And the conversation often concludes with me thanking god I was born to my family in America.
Where it’s a parent’s job to brag about their kids’ artwork/softball team/musical talents. Where parents tuck their little ones in at night and, if the kid’s lucky, reads them a bedtime story. Where dads take their daughters fishing. Where moms bellow “You’re So Beautiful!” at Track meets. Where fathers cook killer omelets. Where mothers drive daughters to ice hockey practice on Friday nights.
In some ways—how elderly parents are never sequestered to nursing homes, how children are expected to contribute to their household’s functioning, how extended relatives (great-maternal-thrice-removed-second-uncles included) are known and appreciated—Africans have Americans beat. I don’t look around me at families here and glorify my own American one; we are not perfect—not as individuals or as companions. But I wouldn’t want the perfect family…not that I even know what that is. I’ve learned from our mistakes. I’ve laughed at our faults. Our bizarre and broken and beautiful stories are the hearty cords that knot my life’s convoluted tapestry together.
I hope that families are simply something that can’t be understood from the outside, and that the families I see in Busonga, Tata and Maawe’s included, are bound by love and care in a way I just can’t see.
I know that I’m incredibly grateful for my own family. And when I raise children of my own, they will know that they’re “so beautiful”; they will know how to cast a lure into a weedy fishing hole; they will know that No, they can’t have a Lunchable, but that I love ‘em all the same. Because I’ll have told them and taught them so.
Because my family taught me, among a helluva lot of other things, how, with time and energy and passion and joy, to love.
Sitting in the smokey kitchen while Maawe perfects supper’s beans or dodo or groundnut sauce.
Gulping water from my Nalgene after carrying a dozen kilos of fresh-picked coffee back from one of Tata’s gardens.
Dressing in my nicest skirt and shirt for church on Sundays.
Munching on jackfruit following a sweaty afternoon walk back from Kichwamba High School.
Holding an albeit brief and basic conversation (okay, that’s an ambitious term) in Runyaruguru.
These are the entirely ordinary moments when I realize with distinct, overwhelming clarity how much I’m going to miss this place.