It took some resolve the first time I convinced myself to leave my house in Uganda alone. I had been in the African country for only five days and I knew that in a village as small as the one where I lived, many people wouldn’t speak English. Maybe most of them wouldn’t. I could hardly stumble through a Rutooro greeting but here I was, armed with a notebook, pen and an American smile that I hoped would charm the locals into tolerating my presence in their world. My graduate research depended on it.
So I pushed open the gate and stepped on to the red dirt road. Located less than a quarter mile from my door, the trading center had grown up on either side of the main road. Cars and trucks screamed through the center, kicking up great clouds of dust that settled in the long intervals between vehicles. The unwritten law was that whomever was biggest had the right of way. Pedestrians seemed to be lowest on the totem pole, a fact that would be proven true when a friend with a star-burst scar over his left eyebrow from the accident described being struck from behind by a boda boda motorcycle taxi driver. He had been walking exactly where I was now.
But I didn’t know that then and worried more that the boda boda drivers might live up to their reputation and hassle me. I focused my eyes on the road as I passed their stage, the place where they leaned over their motorcycles or lounged under a tree waiting for someone to flag them down for a ride. Past them, I could see the buildings where the stores and trading posts were located. The metal doors had been flung open and people stood in the door frames. People were everywhere, and as I came closer, all eyes fell on me. I was white, they were black, and it was obvious I was the outsider.
I followed behind a young school girl wearing a blue gown, the kind you might find on a flower girl. Uganda, it turned out, was a dumping ground for secondhand clothes, and most prominently, forgotten wedding outfits. During my early days, I was often caught off-guard by women walking barefoot through the dirt roads while dressed as if they were headed to be a bridesmaid at the altar.
The girl was slender, her arms and legs long, her head shaven. She turned when she heard my footfalls behind her. Her face showed no expression, but she crossed the road so that she could walk across from me, and stare.
The trading center had a tree with a wooden bench built beneath it. I walked there, my plan having been to sit in the shade and take notes about what I saw. A journalist and writer, I considered it my first introduction to the community where I had come for a three-month research project to learn about subsistence farming in Uganda, the world’s fourth-fastest growing country. She followed, her eyes locked on me as she walked to a fence built around an outdoor pool table. There she stopped and kept watching.
She was not the only one. A teenage boy came over and sat on the opposite end of the bench from where I’d taken a seat. He seemed to have no purpose in being there other than to look at me, so I smiled and lifted my hand to wave hello.
“Osibiirota,” I said. It was my best attempt at saying how has the day been.
The boy lifted his chin as if to nod, and murmured something.
I smiled back harder since I had no idea what else to say, and looked away.
My knee-length skirt that I’d chosen to wear out of respect for the fact that women wear skirts instead of pants began to feel short. I wished I’d picked a long, wrap skirt instead. I knew that my whiteness gave me the leeway to even wear pants if I wanted and that I was dressed appropriately, but the way I was being studied by the girl, the boy and everyone else—the shopkeeper, the pool players, the men drinking at the bar—made me worry I’d done something wrong.
An older man dressed in a suit jacket and slacks sat on a chair, an unfolded newspaper held between his hands. He wore a hat, and looked like an old-school detective except that he had a large yellow jerry-can resting on the ground beside him. I watched as a woman in a gold headscarf approached him with an empty water bottle. He took it from her, placed a funnel in it, and poured from the jerry-can. The liquid came out an opaque yellow. I had no idea what it could be. He saw me watching him, and smiled.
“Osibiirota,” he said.
“Karungi,” I replied. I’m good.
“Empako yaawe?” he asked. What’s your pet name? In the local culture, everyone has one of ten pet names; often people have no idea what someone’s real name might even be.
“Abwooli,” I said. I was thrilled to be understanding him. “Kande yaawe?” And yours?
“Abwooli,” he said.
Okay, I thought. We have the same name. That’s cool.
He continued speaking, but I shook my head to tell him I didn’t understand. Again, I smiled. Did it communicate everything I felt? Things like, I’m so excited to be here, thank you for talking to me, and I feel so out of place, what have I done.
“He wants to know where you’re from,” said the boy, who continued to sit opposite me on the bench.
“America,” I said.
The man and I looked at each other. His face lit up. He pointed to his jerry-can, a gesture of offering, but I shook my head to say no. I had no idea whether he was selling juice or alcohol or unboiled water, and I wasn’t prepared to drink it. We smiled at each other for a few moments more, and each returned to our own work, me writing, him reading the newspaper and waiting for customers.
I made a commitment to sit in the center for a half hour. Whenever my discomfort rose, my gaze would flutter to my watch while my mind tried to hurry the minutes. When thirty had passed, I put my notebook away, stood up and waved to the man and to the boy. The girl had wandered away, returned for some time and left for good, or I would have said goodbye to her too. Then I headed home…
About the Author: Lisa Meerts-Brandsma is a third-year graduate student in the University of New Hampshire‘s Master of Fine Arts in Writing. She grew up in Guilford, Connecticut, but found her place in the world while living in Durango, Colorado, and wishes it were her hometown. While not holed up in Hamilton Smith, she loves to ride mountain bikes at Kingman Farm.