NOTE: Since I am back in my Chicago writing class, my book proposal on Patrick’s adoption is going through yet another set of revisions. The other day I actually got onto Facebook !!!! and connected with dear Angel, whom I lived with during the Ugandan part of Patrick’s adoption. She asked, “What have you done with that book you were working on in Uganda?” Well, here’s a little bit. This is chapter 6, which tells about my second trip to Uganda, the one I took to bring Patrick home. Heads up–it’s LONG!
With the other passengers I climb down portable metal steps to the ground. Even this late at night, the air is warm and a little sticky, but fresh, a welcome change from the canned air on the plane. Inside I breathe in the scent that all the developing-country airports I’ve been in seem to have, that mix of bodies, spices, and cultures un-sterilized by air conditioning. The bland colors on the walls and floors always seem to be at odds with the rich smells. Returning Ugandans, about half the flight, form lines on the right side of the room we enter, while the rest of us wait on the left to pay 55 U.S. dollars to get our entry visas. Most of the people around me are too tired to show much emotion, but excitement—and fear—makes my eyes roam the room, my feet tap.
At baggage claim I watch the luggage go round and round without any sight of my bags. “Wichita,” I growl and head towards the lost luggage office, where I fill out sheet after sheet of paperwork and spell my name a half dozen times for the man hen-pecking my information into an ancient computer.
It takes so long I begin to worry that Wilfred will think I missed my flight and leave me, but when I finally step into the waiting area, a small group is still there. Wilfred waves. I recognize him and Philip from last year, but the two women are unfamiliar.
The little boy held in Wilfred’s arms, though, is unmistakably Patrick. Wilfred ducks his head to him, whispering in his ear as I approach. Patrick’s face lights up. He smiles at me. I want to run straight to him and hug him tight. I have spent a year falling in love with this little boy, and I want to begin knowing him this very second.
But first come introductions. The small woman with the kerchief over her hair is Wilfred’s wife, Vena. The only time I saw her last year was at her wedding, resplendent in full makeup, a tall hairdo and a dress with a train. Now she is obviously pregnant. I hope she isn’t offended that I didn’t recognize her. The other woman is taller, with darker skin and eyes that flash with energy. When she says, “I’m Florence,” I remember a conversation Jody and I had a few months before. “I hope you can work with Florence,” Jody had said. “That would be good for her.”
I shake hands and hug. Then Wilfred holds Patrick out to me. I feel shaky. Will he come? He does. He is so light compared to the twins, even skinny Jake, and I press one hand gently on his back. He still seems fragile. I drop a kiss on his rough, tight curls. I breathe in his little-boy scent and the soap in his hair. I want to rub my hands down his beautiful chocolate arms, count his fingers, look at his face for a long time, but I resist. Now is not the time, but longing for it overwhelms me.
Someone hands me an international phone. “What’s this?” I ask.
Wilfred explains. It is the phone Aaron used in Uganda last year. Another of his and Jody’s housemates, Tyler Sjostrom (who was one of my 9th grade students a long time past), borrowed it when he came to Uganda a few weeks ago. Aaron told him to leave it here for me to use.
“We brought Tyler to the airport earlier tonight,” Wilfred tells me. “You just missed him. He was trying to wait and see you before he had to leave, but you were held up too long.”
I am touched by the loan of the phone and wish I’d been able to see Tyler. Despite the welcoming party, I feel very alone at this moment. Aaron’s surprise gift reminds me I have a host of people praying for me at home. I wish one of them was with me.
Wilfred leads the way to a small, four-door Toyota. It is on loan from his father. Florence, Vena, Patrick and I cram into the back seat of the car. Patrick perches on my lap. The drive from the Entebbe Airport to their house is dark and disorienting, and I struggle with the thread of conversation. The others slip into Lugandan every few sentences. Not only do I lack general context, every time they return to English, I feel I have dropped the thread. I rub circles on Patrick’s back, probably more to comfort myself than him.
For the first time I think about how tricky my living situation here may be. When Wilfred offered for me to stay with him, I thought mostly of his generosity—and, honestly, the money that would save us. I also thought it would be a good thing for me to get to know Patrick in surroundings comfortable for him. But right now I want to go to a guesthouse with him, just the two of us. That would be the most comfortable for me.
Instead I face a completely unknown situation, and I am afraid. Will I fit in with these women? Will I be able to work with Wilfred? Can I become Patrick’s mother without stepping on the toes of these people who have cared for him the past seven months? What am I doing here?
I am slipping into desperation. My body tingles and I rub my arms as if I can stop the tiny bugs from crawling under my skin. “Oh, God,” I silently pray, “I need to know You are right here with me, that Your promise to never leave me is really true.”
We draw near to the lights of Kampala and then turn away from them. All I can see from my spot in the middle of the back seat are roadside market stands, lit by strands of naked bulbs, and people, everywhere, gathered in groups, walking along the sides of the road, carrying loads on their heads or backs. When Wilfred makes a sharp turn and begins driving downhill on a very uneven road, the lights and traffic stop. Though I can tell buildings hover close by on either side, I cannot see much of them. Wilfred stops the car, and Philip gets out and opens a gate. We drive through and park in a courtyard surrounded on three sides by one-story concrete buildings.
Lights are still on in the building to the left of the gate. Vena knocks on the door. Someone on the other side fumbles with the lock and then opens it. Vena introduces me to Angel, a girl in her early twenties. She smiles at me sleepily and then heads back to bed.
Vena crosses the living room and turns left into a short hall with three doors leading off it: bathroom on the right, Vena and Wilfred’s room to the left, second bedroom straight ahead. Vena takes Patrick from me and carries him into her room, where he sleeps in a portacrib. Florence pushes past me into the bedroom straight ahead and turns on the light. It is a small, concrete cube. Most of the space is taken up by a metal bunk bed with a double mattress on the bottom and a single on top. Florence explains that Angel is sleeping on the top bunk with Florence’s baby daughter, Precious. Florence and I will share the bottom bunk.
I am thankful my toiletries are in my carryon backpack. I take my toothbrush into the dark bathroom—no light, evidently— and brush my teeth at the sink. I am thankful, too, to find a toilet as well. Enough light filters in through the high window for me to use it without falling in.
I climb into bed next to Florence. We chat for a few minutes, but jet lag is crashing down on me. I slip into unconsciousness somehow knowing that I dropped off mid-sentence.
I wake in the dark. My pillow smells of sour milk, and I guess that it’s one either Patrick or Precious used. I slip it out from under my head and then lie still, fearful of waking Florence, who breathes deep and slow next to me. The last time I replaced my running watch, I was too cheap to buy one with a light. I regret that now. I have no idea if it is near dawn or not. I pray and pray, pushing away my fears of the unknown, fighting against the slight edge of panic that sets in when I remember that I don’t know when I am going home.
The sky lightens, turning the room gray. When Angel slides over the edge of the top bunk and heads to the kitchen, I get up and slip into the bathroom. Last night Wilfred told me he and I would head out early this morning, and I don’t know what “early” means. I can see the bathroom now. There is no mirror. An empty light socket hangs above the sink. Next to the toilet is a sunken, tiled area for bathing. The rest of the floors in the house are gray concrete. Both the sink and bathing area have hot and cold knobs but only the cold produces water. The bathing area has a lower spigot, which works, and an upper showerhead, which does not. I run water into a round, pink, plastic basin about the size of a kitty litter pan and give myself a bucket bath with a wet wipe. I shiver in the cool morning air, but it still feels good to freshen up—until I pull on the same cargo pants and t-shirt I put on at home three days before. I put in my contacts, though my eyes already feel gritty. I brought my early 1990s glasses with me, but I hope I don’t have to resort to them.
I am surprised to see a refrigerator in the kitchen, but it doesn’t really work. It is so warm ants live in it. Vena uses it simply to keep boiled water and juices slightly below room temperature. The outside wall of the kitchen has a door and a sink to the right of it. A barred window just above the sink looks out on the tall concrete wall that surrounds this small apartment complex. I notice broken glass bottles top the wall. The door is open. I step through it onto the back stoop and find Angel squatting next to a charcoal fire in a small, legged, metal pot. She smiles up at me. Her eyes are still sleepy.
“The water will be boiled for tea soon,” she says.
I smile back. “I’m in no hurry, but thank you.” I step back inside and see Wilfred heading into the bathroom. I sneak into the bedroom and quietly pack a small bag for the day. I am not sure what to do with all my hundred dollar bills. I put one in my daypack and shove the others into a notebook inside the bag I will leave here. I feel nervous with so much cash.
Angel has carried a tray with bread, Blue Band (the bright yellow African equivalent of margarine), and tea fixings into the front room, which functions as both living and dining room. With the gray concrete floors, whitewashed walls, and ivory couch cushions, the only spots of color are the wedding pictures of Wilfred and beautiful, resplendent Vena that hang on the walls. Wilfred joins me in a few minutes. We greet each other and then have nothing else to say. Finally I ask, “Is $100 enough for today or should I get more?”
He stares into the air above his head, then nods. “Today let’s exchange only a hundred.”
We eat quietly for a few more minutes, and then Wilfred abruptly stands up, rubbing his long, thin hands together. “We must go. There is much to do.”
I slurp down the last of my tea and grab my bag. I don’t get the glimpse of Patrick I was hoping for. I don’t even see Angel.
Outside I open the metal gate for Wilfred to drive the car through. In the daylight I see their apartment is near the bottom of a valley between two hills. Downhill, the land is green and vibrant. Uphill is very different. The few trees are surrounded by corrugated tin roofs so close together they resemble a scuffed-silver quilt. We drive straight up on a red dirt lane divided with ruts so deep Wilfred has to weave the car to make his way uphill. Houses and small shops made from handmade red bricks crowd the road. Some, like Wilfred and Vena’s apartment, have a skim of concrete over the bricks. Near the top of the hill, there are more shops and fewer houses. I see a barber already at work and women selling fruits, vegetables and hardboiled eggs, all stacked in pyramids. I sniff the oily smell of chappatis before I see them, sizzling on a griddle at a shop we pass. At one food stand a woman sells milk in thin plastic bags, like the ones I put my produce in at grocery stores in the States.
A main road, mostly paved, runs along the top of the hill. More things to buy here. Chickens in cages. Pigs in stick corrals. Piles of couches and chairs—the men who made them are hard at work on another one, stretching padding and cloth over a wooden frame. A metalworker flattens the end of a red-hot poker before attaching it to a section of iron fence. I saw all this during my trip last year, but it amazes me again. All these industries right here in the open for everyone to see, and all made by hand, not a piece of complex machinery in sight.
Wilfred turns right, and soon we are in the countryside. Shops and houses still line the road, but rolling fields, some planted with crops, others filled with scrubby grass and dotted with trees, stretch beyond them. I have been busy watching the scenery, but now the silence seems to stretch between us. I have no idea where we are going, who we are meeting, nothing. I ask, “What are we doing today?”
He tells me we have to get such-and-such form from one particular official, another kind of form from a different official; the list goes on. He tells me the names of the forms and the titles of the officials, and I say, “Ok,” even though I don’t really understand. We enter a town and Wilfred pulls off the road. “This is where I bank,” he tells me, gesturing at a two-story building covered in uniform white tiles. It stands out, more modern than the other buildings on the street.
I hand him the hundred-dollar bill and wait in the car while he exchanges it. The street is still quiet. Few people are out. Is Patrick even up yet? He was out so late the night before, he is certain to be tired. What is he like when he’s tired?
When Wilfred returns, he gives me a wad of Ugandan shillings and tells me to check it. The exchange rate is in favor of the dollar right now. Even changed at a rural bank branch, my hundred-dollar bill is worth more than 200,000 shillings.
A few miles outside of the town, we pull onto a dusty dirt road, follow it until it ends at a small, red-brick building (these bricks, too, were made by hand, uniform, but not perfect) surrounded by people. Wilfred parks underneath a tall, spreading tree a distance from the building, and I begin to get out. “No,” he says. “You stay here.” He steps out, then sticks his head back in. “I will need some money for this.”
“Okay.” I pull out the wad of cash. A look crosses his face and I lower my hands so they cannot be seen through the windshield. He nods in approval. “How much?” I ask.
He looks up for a moment, then back at me. “Forty thousand should do it.” I peel off two 20,000 notes and hand them over. He tucks them into his front pocket.
He winds through the colorful mix of people squatting in the shady area near the building and stops in front of a tall, solid man wearing a dress shirt and slacks who stands in the open doorway. I cannot hear what they are saying, but Wilfred’s gestures look as if he is trying to convince the man of something. Finally they step inside.
The building has another door farther down, and a policeman steps out of this one. He is dressed in the standard creased khaki uniform and shiny black combat boots. He carries an AK-47 in his hand. He motions behind him for someone to follow, and a line of men shuffles into view, each one holding his hands together. Tied? Handcuffs? I cannot tell from this distance. They wear loose shirts and pants, like hospital scrubs or prison garb, but gray, like the color has been worn out from wash upon wash. He orders them to stop; then he stalks up and down their line, waving his AK-47 in the air and shouting. The men hang their heads. The people squatting in the shade don’t seem concerned by the policeman or line of men, but that doesn’t reassure me. They might be still simply so they don’t draw attention to themselves. My muscles tighten as I watch the big gun slash back and forth in the policeman’s hand.
I don’t even notice Wilfred coming back to the car until he opens the door. I jump.
He is smiling. “Okay, let’s go.” He turns the car around. A cloud of dust rises behind us.
“Did you get what you needed?” I ask him. I want to ask about the prisoners but am uncertain. The line between curiosity and judgment is so, so thin.
He nods and holds up a piece of paper.
“Oh, was there a fee for the document?”
His eyebrows wrinkle. “Hmm,” he says and then pauses. “Well, we call it ’appreciation.’”
“Like a bribe?”
He shakes his head. “No, no. It is not really a bribe.” He explains that this is an accepted practice. “These officials don’t make very much in their positions, so the ‘appreciation’ is almost like part of their salary.” I understand, but my inner Western-world voice shouts, “That’s wrong!” I shut it down. It is so easy—though still wrong—for Westerners to feel superior in developing countries. Lord, please, please make me aware of this.
Wilfred tells me to stay in the car at the next stop, too. “If they see you, a muzungu, they will expect more appreciation.” I hand over another 20,000 and wish my skin were darker, though that is not really the issue. I’ve heard Ugandans refer to an African-American as a muzungu.
As we drive to yet another “meeting,” I ask Wilfred, “So we need all these documents for the adoption?”
A funny expression crosses his face, and he doesn’t answer right away. “Well, they are for Mercy. If Mercy’s papers are not in order, it makes the adoption harder.” It is not really an answer. It is more of a question.
I nod. “That makes sense. In a way, these are for the adoption.”
His shoulders relax.
I am thankful for his honesty. Is this why he has seemed so distant? Was he afraid I would be angered that these things weren’t taken care of already? Afraid I would question how the money we have been sending him has been spent?
At the next stop Wilfred parks as far from the building as he can. He turns to me. “Stay down.” I recline my seat and lie back. “I will need 60,000 this time,” he says. I raise my eyebrows, and he nods solemnly. This first hundred dollars is not going very far. Will all these “meetings” work? Did I bring enough money? God, I want to take Patrick home. Soon.
Peering over the edge of the window, I watch Wilfred saunter to the building. I close my eyes and try to sleep but can’t. My eyes pop open just in time to see Wilfred walk out of the building, followed by a small, stocky woman dressed in a khaki skirt and jacket whose hands are on her hips. She wags one index finger at Wilfred. Then she turns and marches away.
Wilfred comes back to the car. I stay down until he pulls into the street. “Well?” I ask.
He shakes his head and shows me the document he wanted the lady to sign. “She doesn’t like this wording.” He points to one line on the page. “She said if I get it fixed, she will sign it, but it won’t be free.”
The document must be official, but there is no seal, letterhead or signature. You’re in Africa, I tell myself. Improvise. Go for it. “Can’t I just retype it?” I ask him. “You have your laptop here.”
Wilfred shakes his head. “I don’t have a way to save it so I can print it.”
I have a flash drive in my daypack and tell him this. His face brightens. “Can you type fast?”
I nod. He parks and hands me his laptop, a present from another of his U.S. friends. I follow the format of the original document—it seems to state that Mercy is fulfilling its mission—and type until I get to the problematic wording, something about Mercy House’s system for accepting children. “What should it say?”
We play around with several options until we land on one Wilfred thinks will work. It is less specific than the original language. I wonder if the woman official—I see from the document her title is Family and Child Services Agent—wants this changed so she is less responsible. I save the document to my flash and give it to Wilfred. He drives to a stationary shop—just a tiny room with an old computer, printer and copier—and prints the document. When he returns, he hands me the flash drive. I have two with me on this trip. When we get back to the house, I will clear one of them and give it to him.
This time Wilfred is able to complete the deal. As we drive out of town, he suddenly swings the car off the road. “Lunch!” he declares. “You must be hungry.”
Regular meals are a much lower priority here, but Wilfred also strikes me as one who forgets to eat when he’s busy. I had forgotten, too, but when he says “lunch,” I realize it’s been nearly nine hours since we’ve eaten. I wonder how much longer it will be before I can go “home” and see Patrick. Wilfred reaches behind our seats and finds two empty glass bottles (in most stores in Uganda, you have to return a glass bottle for each one you purchase), and I hand him a bill. A couple minutes later he returns with chappatis (they resemble a fried pancake but are not sweet) and soft drinks. He hands me the Fanta orange, and I suck on the straw. It tastes so good. Wilfred pulls back onto the road and eats as he drives.
At a large two-story building in the middle of nowhere, Wilfred gets out and waves at a big man and a small woman. They wave back. Then Wilfred sticks his head back into the car. “You can get out here.” No bribe must be involved. I am glad to get out of the car, glad to meet new people, but my heart beats faster than usual. I have no idea who this man and woman are, if I am supposed to impressing them or not. I shake hands with them, but the woman pulls me in for a hug. “This is Liz,” says Wilfred. “She is the chief information officer for our district, and she is on the board for Mercy.” He is clearly proud of the association. Wilfred steps away with the man, and Liz asks me how I am doing. She is a small woman, maybe even a couple inches shorter than I am, but she is wearing business clothes, heels, a navy skirt, a nice blouse and she carries herself with a kind of confidence I have seen in few other African women. I am very conscious of my green cargo pants, my rumpled shirt. “I am so sorry for my appearance. My bags did not make it.”
She waves it off, and we chat about the adoption and Mercy House. “I want Mercy to be recognized by the government,” she says. “They are doing good work there, but everything is not in order.”
It makes me want to visit an orphanage that does have everything in order. Do they turn children away when they have no more beds? Wilfred will not do that, a wonderful thing, but also a difficulty. Too many children means Mercy is unable to follow guidelines about the separation of children into age group sleeping areas and caregiver/child ratios. Though How do I get Patrick home? sits at the base of my skull like a dull headache, never quite going away, I find Liz’s work with orphanages fascinating, and I am distracted for a few minutes.
Wilfred and the man return. The man says, “Liz, she looks like you, the way she stands and talks!” Wilfred agrees, and both Liz and I laugh, for she is dark as fine chocolate, and I am Kansas-winter white. The man and Liz have to leave, but Liz grabs my hands and tells Wilfred to stop by her house this evening. She and Wilfred need to talk about the probation officer’s report for the adoption, and she wants me to see her garden. I feel like I have made a friend.
We make two more stops before going to Liz’s house, so I have no idea if she lives close to where she works or not. The wall surrounding her house and yard is tall, clearly meant to keep intruders out, but the gate is plain and wooden, not metal. Her home, too, is made of the same red bricks, but it is bigger than most in her neighborhood and shows signs of constant care. Still in her business attire, Liz welcomes us at the door of the home she shares with two girls about 12 and 13 years of age. The introductions are so quick I do not catch the details. One of them may be a niece, the other her daughter. She does not mention a husband. We chat in the living room for a few minutes. The walls and floors have not been skimmed with concrete, so dust coats the bricks, and the ceilings are open to the corrugated tin roof that rises above. But it is a spacious home and obviously a work in progress. Liz tells me some of her plans for the house and leads me to her pride and joy, the garden, which covers most of the large yard and flourishes with vegetables and herbs. She gives me cabbage, some corn, a pumpkin, and fresh thyme to take back to Vena. Then we return to the living room, where she and Wilfred get down to business, lapsing into Lugandan after a few minutes.
I watch them as they talk. Wilfred obviously respects Liz’s guidance, and she carries herself with authority, reminding me of an American businesswoman, even as she sits in her living room in bare feet. It is nearly impossible for a woman to rise to a position of real influence in Uganda, and I want to know Liz’s story.
It is late by the time we get home, and I am surprised but glad to find Patrick still up. He is bright eyed and energetic, but I only have a few minutes with him. Vena, Florence, and Angel have held dinner for us, and they shoo Patrick and Precious to the corner where the two of them share their food out of a common bowl. We eat a delicious vegetable broth over potatoes (they call them “Irish” here) and drink boiled water. Then it is straight to bed for everyone. Wilfred and I have another early start in the morning.