NOTE: This piece fits with my continued focus on gratitude–and this week being Thanksgiving. It’s a possible chapter in my book on Patrick’s adoption. The muzungu in the piece is me. The young Ugandan man is Philip, one of the pastors at Light the World church, currently a student at Moody Bible Institute.
In the shade, the air settles on skin like hot, damp cloth. In the open the sun blasts like a blowtorch. Women passing carry umbrellas, open them to block the heat rays. Men wet handkerchiefs to spread over their heads or tuck inside their collars. As matatus swerve into bus stops, the scent of sweat drifts toward those waiting to board. Women holding chickens in small wire cages or bundles of bananas argue with the conductor to hold them on their laps. “No, you cannot tie them to the roof today.” They are afraid they will find cooked meat and shriveled fruit at the end of their journeys.
People sit under awnings, seek out the cool of open-front bars. Those who have to walk the sides of the road scurry from the shelter of one scrawny tree to the next or stride with purpose, the sooner to get out of the sun. They skirt around the girl sitting listless on this busy corner. They edge away from her hopelessness. A square of cardboard lies next to her. She lifts it to shield her head from the heat, but her arm grows tired, and she lets it drop. It takes up no more space than she does on the small ragged cloth she sits on. One leg, skinny like a chicken’s, is tucked beneath her. She pulls the other to her chest, tucking the skirt of her worn, color-faded dress around her leg so she is not exposed. One outstretched arm rests on the top of her lifted knee. She turns her palm up, fingers curved to catch the coins that no one drops.
Eleven? Nine? It is hard to tell. Her face has lost any impish qualities of childhood, any softness. It is angles and planes, and the dark eyes in the face have no light to them. She stares at the ground, uninterested in what passes, but when people come near, she lifts her face so they see her, so, perhaps, they notice her. It is an appeal the “guardians” teach their street children, one the children, in turn, teach each other. “Hold up your face, look sad, some kind uncle or auntie may take pity and give you a coin. Maybe a muzungu. Sometimes they give more.”
But no one pauses to drop coins into her cupped palm. Though she follows the rule, turns her face up, she does not give the right face, the face that draws pity, sympathy. She is past “sad.” She is blank. If she is on her own, she will not eat today unless she steals or finds some scrap unwanted by anyone else. If she has a guardian, she will be beaten. She will be told to sell her body if her begging does not bring coins.
The wind swirls grit from the packed dirt walkway, and she closes her eyes, brings her other hand, bony, long-fingered, up to shield them. Her knees and elbows are dusty, with wrinkles like the joints of an elephant. The skin of her legs and arms is chapped; gray shadows hover on her dull brown skin.
She lifts her face again. No passerby this time, but the spicy scent of pilau, floating out of the restaurant behind her. Her face still does not change, but she breathes in deep the onion, the chicken, the rice. Her chest rises high and falls. Repeats.
Inside the restaurant, tucked beyond the awning, near the coolness of the concrete walls, a muzungu woman and a Ugandan man wait. The waitress brings out food. She slides a tray of meat and potatoes in front of the young man, then adds a bowl of broth, a small side of vegetables. He smooths his spotless white buttoned shirt and rubs his hands together. The pilau is placed in front of the woman, a missionary or aid worker by the looks of her, with her long, dark split skirt and wrinkled t-shirt. Short dark hair sprinkled with gray frizzes around large-lensed glasses. Her nose shows pink from the sun. She leans toward the young Ugandan, asking a question. His eyes glint and he smiles, showing strong white teeth. He talks between mouthfuls of meat, leaning down to pull strips from the bones, gesturing gracefully with his long, slender fingers. The woman finishes her pilau and sits back, listening to the man talk. She motions to the waitress, who brings another plate of meat to the man and swings her hips as she walks away, hoping the handsome young friend of muzungus will notice her, but his close-cropped head doesn’t turn her direction.
It does tilt, though, toward the front of the restaurant, at the girl sitting on the ragged cloth. He looks back at the muzungu, keeps talking, but he is distracted, and she notices, turns in her seat to look behind her, sees the street child. They stop talking, stare at the girl. She does not notice, her head still tucked to her chest, her neck bent level with its weight.
The muzungu turns back to the man, asks him something again, her eyebrows pulled together, a deep line separating them. The man shakes his head, his shoulders slump, but then he speaks again, his arms waving, his food forgotten. His voice rises, phrases puff up into the damp, hot air. “Thousands of them.” “Government has no plan.” “Police round them up, put them out of the city whenever an official visits.” “Eventually drift back.”
“More every year.” “Girls pregnant.” “First sexual encounters as children.”
“Some find guardians, more like pimps.” “Beaten if they don’t bring home money.” “Prostitution.” “Not enough homes.”
The muzungu puts her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands.
The man winds down, sits back in his chair. They are quiet together. They sit like the girl, still, slumped, their words finished.
The woman pushes up from the table, goes to the counter and talks with the waitress. She returns, and the man looks up. She speaks. He nods.
They go to the counter together. The waitress hands the muzungu a platter piled high with food. She passes it to the man, and he carries it out into the sunlight, the blazing rays making his brown skin glow like polished wood. He sets the food down and kneels beside the girl, puts a hand on her shoulder, speaks, his Lugandan words a gentle murmur.
The muzungu hitches her bag higher on her shoulder, tucks it tight against her side, and moves a little way down the street to wait for her Ugandan friend.