African Neighborhoods

I had little to do on Friday. Peggy went and bought me minutes for my phone, and I finally learned how to put them on! Hallelujah! And then I made some phone calls—one the very disappointing one to the Embassy. I just don’t like the idea of Patrick having that many vaccinations at once, without being able to consult a doctor whom I know I will see again. Far too hard on his little body.

Then I went with Florence to Mercy, to see the kids there and assist with their letter-writing to their sponsors. Fun and long, too. They fed me there: motoke (a potato-tasting, banana-looking fruit that they mash up and eat with all kinds of things on it), g-nut sauce (made from g-nuts–like peanuts, just purple and better tasting, I think), and red beans. Good, but too, too much. I gave some to Angela, a little 5 year old who is spunky and busy—an African Ramona or Junie B. Jones—and she finished off her own and then most of mine. I’m amazed at how the children can “put away” food. Perhaps it’s because this food is mostly starch, with little protein, I’m imagining. I’m not sure.

Some great kids at Mercy. Ten-year-old Herbert is intense and careful and very, very focused. I liked him a lot. Little Nici, almost three, whom I met last year, still has the herniated belly button (they stick out from the belly– in some cases, like Nici’s, a LOT) but has lost her fear of muzungus and climbed right into my lap and latched on. So interesting to see the differences between girls and boy existing in Africa as well. Like Maddie and Jake at that age, Nici loved writing her card, making careful O’s that were obviously imitations of letters, while Patu scribbles, simply happy with making a mark on the paper.

Sallee is still ornery, but Hope is sweet and more willing to talk than last year—or perhaps she was just overwhelmed by the number of muzungus then. I played peek-a-boo off and on with three small naked boys about the age of two (Africans really don’t mind the smallest ones running around naked—Patrick often wears just a shirt around the house, and yesterday we took him out with us wearing just his underwear.)These children—Nici, Herbert, Angela, Hope, the baby boys—are at Mercy right now, even during their school holidays, because they have no relatives at all. Many other children are at Mercy because they have only one parent who cannot afford to take care of them, or both parents have died but they have aunties who check in on them. These children—at Mercy full-time—have no one. And while there are house mothers and lots and lots of siblings (when Mercy is full, it has around 65 kids—too many for the house, really), it’s just not as good as having a family. That is where Patrick would be if we were not adopting him. As I played peek-a-boo, I blinked sudden tears from my eyes. Two of these little boys played readily, but another one hesitantly, his eyes the too-old African children eyes. I don’t want to know what those eyes have seen.

Ignorance is bliss. I know that nearly everyone Wilfred and Vena have in their home has some story similar to Florence’s (widowed already at 25, and with one child taken away from her by relatives) or worse, but there are often times I don’t ask. I am not sure, since most don’t offer, if these are stories these people want to share with the American muzungu, me, with her husband of 17 years and three healthy biological children. I am also not sure, American muzungu that I am, that I want to know the heartbreaking stories of those who are closest to me.  So I stay in ignorance of 23-year-old Angel’s story, a young woman whose school fees are still covered by sponsorship and who is currently staying with Wilfred and Vena during her holidays. She must have no family, none. How does that happen in Africa, where people seem to keep track of 2nd and 3rd cousins as if they are siblings?

I am currently writing this at not-quite 5 a.m. The sleepless mornings continue, although last night was better because Florence slept out on one of the couches and I slept on the bed with Patrick, who is a fine sleeping companion—did not kick me once—although I did wake up a couple of times to find his hard, hot head pressed up against my back. I am not sure if these sleeping arrangements (dictated by Vena) are because she and Wilfred do not want Patrick sleeping in their room tonight or if it’s because Florence has been such a terrible sleeping companion of late, and I teased her about it. I hope it’s not the latter. After I teased her about it, she apologized, which was not at all my intent. I will see if I can do damage control tomorrow.

I got smart last night—at least about one very small thing. One of the reasons I have not been sleeping well, other than stress and a wild sleeping companion, etc., is the heat. I deal just fine with the days, which are similar to hot Kansas summers, with just a bit more humidity, but the nights! It cools down outside, and I steal chances to sneak out on the back porch. But the mosquitoes also come out! And since there are no screens on the windows, at night the Africans close up the windows, and the house becomes a stuffy tomb. I don’t know if it’s because they are just used to it, or if they actually prefer it that way, but when they go to bed, they pull up covers and wrap themselves in comforters, while I lie on top of the sheets, feeling the heat prickle my skin, the sweat glaze my stomach. So last night, since I had to wash out the dress I wore because it was so dusty, I took it to bed with me, laying it across my body as I fell asleep and then pulling it over whatever part of me felt too warm during the night.

One more side note—Patrick lies on the bed next to me, sprawled on his back, his legs and arms spread-eagled, one leg draped over the side of the bed that is next to the wall. I touch his skin and it feels cool and good—unlike my own.

Okay, back to running events. On Friday after we returned from visiting Mercy, I just hung out at the house until later that night. About nine Angel asked me if I wanted to walk up the hill with her to buy a few things for the household. Wilfred and Vena’s house is in a small, walled compound that has six, 4-roomed (plus bathroom) homes inside it (these little compounds are very common in Africa and, I think, denote economic level: no compound—usually a non-plastered brick house with a dirt floor; homemade compound surrounding several small houses—they usually have no plumbing/electricity; stone compound surrounding several houses like Vena and Wilfred’s—plumbing/electricity[though not always working], bare concrete floor; one house with a stone compound—this can range from a house like Wilfred’s to one with tile floors to a very nice house! Anyway, I’m sure I’m categorizing it all wrong—and don’t forget that there are a whole lot of shacks/shelters that are far below anything I just described—but what’s interesting is that in many of the neighborhoods I’ve visited so far (neighborhoods seem to be linear here, running in horizontal lines along the rutted, red-dirt branch roads that come off the main roads, mostly paved) is that there is a huge mix of all types of housing in them and TONS of little shops, which can also range from “shack/shanty” to plastered-brick buildings. Wilfred has told me there are some NICE neighborhoods in Kampala, but we haven’t visited any—not surprising.

So, after all that description to try and set up a world about as far from my small Kansas town as possible, I’ll get back to it. Angel and I walked up the road. Even in the dark she seemed to have no trouble knowing when her feet would meet the dirt (Africans have this slow, rolling way of walking that allows them to gracefully traverse uneven ground) while I stumbled and tripped my way next to her. All along the street the shops were buzzing, and people were everywhere—no different from the daytime, but with a greater hum to it. When we reached the main road, it was—well, more. People sitting in small groups talking, men playing games, people selling—roasted corn, chicken on a stick, g-nuts, as well as the usual shops , people buying, children running around. I’ve never been to Mardi Gras, but I imagine it a bit like that. Just add live chickens in cages and lots and lots of red dirt. But it does feel festive and a bit drunk.

We went to about three different pharmacies (all within yards of each other) and six different shops, most selling exactly the same things, but only the last one, of course, having honey, which is what Angel was trying to buy for Wilfred. This is not an area where one sees muzungus in the daytime, much less at night, so even more than the usual, “Hi, muzungu.” One man offered me his drink—a small plastic bag filled with I-don’t-know-what-kind of liquor in it, and asked me if my work was going well. I said it was and asked him the same. “Ah,” he said, “with this” he held up the plastic bag, “and this,” he gestured with his cigarette, “I am happy.” It reminded me of the homeless men on Lower Wacker in Chicago, but it also made me think that this is just another way to anaesthetize ourselves against our need for a right relationship with God. The only difference is in the “stuff” we use to do it—cigarettes and alcohol for this man, drugs for many on Lower Wacker, material things for the middle-class American. The material things just seem a more moral and acceptable substitute, don’t they?

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