Stevie teaches at a girls’ secondary school, and we sometimes hung out with the other teachers in the staff room. They had ongoing Scrabble tournaments with an old board and a bag of mismatched, well-worn letter tiles, and despite having been warned about how good they were, I was excited to finally play them one afternoon.
I love Scrabble, but I was no match for the other teachers. They blocked, kept tabs on what letters had yet to be played and knew all the two-letter words. They were ruthless. I had no chance. I came in last place.
It can be expensive for Ugandans to send their children beyond primary school. I was told that some girls might form relationships with much older “boyfriends” who pay for their uniforms and books — it’s more common for girls to miss out on continued education in a country with one of the world’s highest birthrates.
Uganda has been relatively effective at combating AIDS and greatly reducing HIV infection rates in the country, and there were signs on many girls’ school campuses warning them to keep their virginity.
In such remote regions of the West Nile with such few white people, we tended to stand out. The local word for white people was “mundu,” and people driving by would call out “Yes, mundu!” as we walked down the road (what another volunteer called “drive-by confirmation”).
Fang Island – Daisy
I found myself just as fascinated whenever I saw another white person, despite their best attempts to look inconspicuous. Saying hello simply because we happened to have the same skin color seems a bit backwards, so amid exclamations of “mundu!” we would always awkwardly avoid eye contact as we passed.
Nabulo – Iryn Namubiru
The children in Warr were especially excited to see us. They were used to seeing Stevie, but now there were two mundu. They followed us as we walked, giggling and calling out “Hello! How are you?” (“hawayuu?”). When we asked them the same, they always answered “I’m fine!” with big smiles.
They loved to have their picture taken, and especially loved seeing themselves on my camera’s screen. After returning home one day, a large group of them waited around outside Stevie’s residence, saying “Mundu, come out!” and trying to peer through her frosted windows, asking “How are youuu?” in quiet voices.
I did come outside once with my camera to surprise them, and they were ecstatic:
Transportation is probably one of the most dangerous aspects of life in Africa. Pedestrians share the roads with buses, motorcycles and bicycles piled high with bananas, and trucks honking and maneuvering through the crowd. (A friend told me, with only some hyperbole, that the driver has to pay the hospital bills if they hit someone, so they’re more likely to hit you twice, to kill you.)
Oseka Ki – Mesach Semakula
The motorcycles are called boda-bodas, and are a convenient, if slightly more dangerous, version of a taxi. Young men hang out at informal boda-boda stands, where you can negotiate a price before climbing on the back of the bike. (They usually try to raise the price for foreigners — i.e. white people — who don’t know any better.) Most of the time, hailing one isn’t even necessary, as there are constantly men on motorcycles pulling up and saying “Yes! Sister! Boda!”
Of course, Stevie’s site is too far for boda travel — she lives in a rural part of the West Nile region. To get there, we first took an 8-hour bus ride north to Arua. As we sped past bicycles and army vehicles, the bus’s horn (which was like an elephant playing a trombone) would occasionally sound and the bus would swerve and sway dangerously. I was grateful to not be near the front.
Arua car park, and a big, beautiful African sky.
From Arua, it was a bumpy 3-hour ride in a pick-up truck over dirt roads to the village of Warr. The cargo bed was filled with luggage and deliveries, and on top of everything were perched some people paying for a ride, too. Children ran to the road at the sound of the engine so they could see the truck go by, and waved at us with delight to see such strange-looking people in the front.
Nearly every matatu had huge decals on the windshields with words in giant letters. Some were religious, some were not. In no particular order, here is a collection of some of the matatu decals I saw:
IF GOD SAYS YES WHO SAYS NO
IF GOD CAN SAY YES WHO CAN SAY NO
IF GOD SAYS YES WHO CAN SAY NO
SLOW AND STEADY
BOMBER FOR ALLAH
One day and two flights later, it was rainy season in Uganda. Storms rolled into Kampala quickly, but the sound of the radio came out of every doorway as people took refuge inside stores and barber shops.
Storm coming into Kampala.
Juliana – Sanyu Lyange
The red dust that is normally everywhere in Kampala quickly turned to sticky mud that splattered onto the backs of my legs as we trudged up the streets in search of a matatu.
The matatus were minibuses that zipped all around the city, sometimes fitting nearly 20 people in the rows of folding seats. You could hail one on just about any main street, and if the conductor (the man who sat at the front and told the driver when to stop) thought they could fit you, they would stop and cram you in with all your bags.