How is it my heart still beats red?
Whispering me back.
Settled into ancient passion, yes.
But, the place my skin crawled with life is haunting me.
It started innocently enough. We packed multiple cans of bug spray, knowing Murchison had been the downfall of many in the dance with malaria. No-one told us we might need a fire extinguisher, or better yet a helicopter.
Murchison Falls is in the north of Uganda, bordering the Congo. A wonderful game drive with camping and lodges right along the Nile, hippopotamuses floating by, or camped as well, sharing the shore. Very excited to teach our little one the joy of sleeping in a tent, we headed out and up through the country to see it.
First sign that something was wrong was when we entered the park it felt as though the apocalypse had come. Where we expecting to see green and mammals, we saw nothing but ash and smoke. Never ones to turn around (that would come later) we forged ahead, wiping tears from our eyes and drinking water for our burning throats. Mile after mile, kilometer after kilometer, we drove into literally the middle of nowhere. At one point, fires were burning on both sides of the road, a lone eagle sitting in a tree watching us as we slowly crawled forward into it.
“Must be burning season,” my Canadian said.
“Burning what?” I asked.
“The brush, the upper level of soil.”
Canadian went on to tell me that many people the world over, East Africa in particular, make the mistake of burning to clear brush and then plant, but in effect they actually burn off the nutrients making the ground sadly barren.
We arrived at the lodge hours later as a few men were running back and forth to an awfully close fire with nothing more than jerry cans (think a milk jug) filled with water. Assuring us we were fine, they escorted us back down the road a bit to the campsite. The only ones there, we set our tent up right in the middle of the clearing and promptly went back to the lodge for a beer. Swinging in a hammock, the little one playing nearby, hippos lolling in the sun, we didn’t think anything of the increasing cloud of smoke above our heads. After more beer and a little dinner, the sun now set, we headed back to the tent.
“Um, honey,” I cried as we turned the corner and flames were shooting up from the exact place our campground was. “I think our tent is on fire!”
We stopped. Fire was burning completely on one side of the road.
“We have to go back,” I said.
“No, baby, it’s not bad. The road is still clear. We can drive in and grab our stuff if it’s still salvageable,” my fearless man replied.
“But what if the fire jumps the road and we can’t get back out?” I reasoned.
“I think we can move fast,” he assured me, already heading in.
I think this is where I screamed, or cried, and my dear hubby, realizing I was about to faint, turned the car around and dropped the little one and I at the lodge.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “Get another beer, you need it.”
“No, baby, let it burn,” I pleaded.
“I’ll be fine. Beer!” And he drove off.
It was the longest 20 minutes of my life.
He made it back and amazingly all was saved, but the fire had jumped the road he told me.
It was by then very late. The little one sleeping in my arms. The lodge tells us it has no rooms. The person who can maybe help us is out fighting another encroaching fire. We can’t get out. We can’t go back. It’s too far and dangerous in the dark. We are in the middle of the woods, at the edge of the world, surrounded in flames. We wait.
The manger comes back and incredibly there has been a cancellation so yes, they can board us for the night.
“My husband tells me this is all for farming?” I asked the manager.
“Oh, some, yes,” he replies. “The close ones though are from a disgruntled ex-employee who wants to burn the lodge down. Good-night.”
I didn’t sleep at all.
What some girls have for shoes, I have for rugs. Old, dusty, antique floor coverings make my heart pitter-patter like an untrained little lemur. This is why any rug dealer can see me coming a mile away and why, when we moved to Uganda without any of our stuff (which 3 years later is still sitting in a warehouse in Jersey), we ended up with 6 antique rugs that cost as much as a pure bred stallion. One Mrs. Ali and her husband import (sneak) them into Uganda from Iran and Afghanistan and know their worth to empty-handed arrivals, especially to ones jumping up and down on top of them.
One carpet in particular made me want to wrap myself up in it and roll around like a flea. Partly the color of cream, it did not match well, however, with the red dirt of Uganda. After a while, I called Mrs. Ali to see if she knew someone who could clean it, and of course said she could clean it, for a small fee, say closer to the buying of a pony.
I took the rug to her and was told to pick it up in a week.
Here’s what happened when I did:
“Hello, Mrs. Ali. I am here for my rug.”
“Ah, yes. You did not tell me you have a dog. “
“Um, I don’t have a dog.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“Then who ate it?”
At this point I started to well up. Not for the woman who was now accusing me of having a murderous dog, but for the fate of my dear beloved rug. Pulling it out from under the counter, she showed me the gaping new hole right in the middle of my masterpiece.
“What happened?” I asked her through gasps.
And this is where it starts to get weird.
She starts screaming at me that I have tried to trick her and brought her a clean rug that needed no cleaning after all and that my dog ate it.
“But, I don’t have a dog.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
Her eyes became enraged and I just wanted out of there because it was all so surreal, so offered to pay for my now ruined, but at least clean, carpet shred. “No,” she screamed and I feared smoke might soon shoot out of her ears, so I did what anyone would do in that situation: I grabbed my rug and ran.
And she gave chase.
Here I am, a small white girl with a large rug under her arm, running through a mall in Uganda, with an older Iranian woman chasing me.
Now, for any of you who have been to an African country, you know how quickly a crowd (or mob) can form. I was certainly cause for that.
I ran to the parking lot, started my car, and just as I was about to drive out—and you can’t make this stuff up—Mrs. Ali threw herself on the hood of my truck! I slammed on the brakes and the crowds swarmed. A very large cop came to my window and asked what was going on. I tried to explain what I did not even understand, but it was hard to be heard over the screaming of Mrs. Ali. The cop finally said to her,
“She is offering to pay you for the cleaning, even with the damage. Take her money or leave her alone.”
But Mrs. Ali didn’t want my money. She wanted a dog.
The cop made her leave the front of my car and I started to drive away gently, parting the sea of onlookers, but here comes Mrs. Ali again. She runs ahead of me and actually grabs a young man and throws him in the middle of the road. By this time there is a gaggle of cops and all I am thinking is, “Oh s^*t.”
I am ordered to pull over and here we go again. The new cop asks what happened as we each take our turn.
“I don’t have a dog.”
“Yes she does.”
“No I don’t.
And so on.
And this is why I love the officers of Kampala (or at least this one): he looked at her and said, “So, you are saying she brought you a clean rug to be cleaned and that she has a dog she’s not admitting to? Excuse me lady, but I think your nuts.” And then looked at me and shook his head.
But because the situation was so out-of-control by this point, he would not, could not let me go until UN security came to mitigate.
I called my husband.
“I’m in trouble. There’s this dog that doesn’t exist and I ran away with a rug and a woman jumped on the car and now the cops have me surrounded and could you come and help please?”
I think it says a lot that my husband did not find this strange coming from me at all.
Finally he arrives, and here is what he sees: hundreds of people gathered around our truck, cops at every window, me sobbing behind the wheel and an irate Iranian waving her finger.
I’d never felt so far away from Kansas in all my life.
They hashed it out. Forced Mrs. Ali to take the money for the “unneeded cleaning,” made me write out a receipt for “rug received” and finally let me go.
My husband told me to go home and let the dog out.
Right now, as so many people in the world sit watching the royal wedding, riots have broken out in Kampala. As a couple is being made, a city is falling apart. My thoughts and prayers are turning to the people there. May the Ugandan voices be heard.
*update: 2 people lost their lives, many more injured. Dr Besigye is recovering in Kenya. The leader of the opposition party, Besigye had been protesting the high-cost of living by walking to work. Fearful of the kind of uprisings happening in North Africa, the government arrested him. For walking.
Unrelated, but remarkable, I received an email after this post from a woman who recognized the boy pictured above. I took it while volunteering in an orphanage our first three months in Uganda. Each child I met remains with me and I’ve often wondered where they are today. Well, she recognized him because he is now her son, living in the States, with his forever family.
I am asked all the time what it was like to live in Africa. Not a day goes by that I don’t ache to one day live there again, explore it again, perhaps the west, or south, which surprises me, as life was not easy and I was happy to go when the time came. But Africa seduces you, claims you, even if unaware. Something about living there gets into your cells, takes hold, settles, then tugs. I watched this with my husband after his very difficult three years in a small Kenyan village. When he finally came home, he came home different, and I knew the moment I saw him he’d left something behind that we’d have to one day go and find.
Living in Africa, you are so close to the root–it is the root of humanity–you go home in a way. You feel free, alive, awake, connected to the source. But as an ex-patriot, (those born and raised there have their own claim and story), you are also like an outlaw, a pioneer, outside of time and constraint. You are the “other,” the one’s who’s different, who doesn’t really belong, so you start to question if even the laws need apply to you. I saw so many expats living on the edge, grabbing the reins and feeling they were at the abyss. You live like you could never do back home and there is a danger of walking too far over that edge and of exploiting the very thing that has pulled you in, which allows you to truly test your morality and ethicality. You get to learn who you really are and what you are capable of, for good or bad.
And you do it all against the backdrop of great beauty and people who will teach you the true meaning of joy and suffering, if you let them.