Ready? No? It doesn’t matter, reality strikes nevertheless. All I was really prepared for was the heat, the rest came very close to a surprise. This is the problem with planes and fast transport. They’re fine where planes are just one of the many ways two distant places have been connected, for long. With people move goods, customs, clothing habits, social norms, brands; for most parts of the world I had seen, no matter how apart, I hadn’t found myself in a whole new world. But two places that are connected and yet lack reasons to meet that often, don’t absorb much of their own qualities and defects. So it is the relationship of the West with this part of Africa. After all, when I think how many times I read the word Uganda in the daily life of the so called first world, I can’t even recall reading it in the exotic products section of the supermarkets. If my life had taken a different direction, Uganda would have existed only to the extent that I would have bothered to look for it. Stereotypes rule in our white man vision of Eastern Africa but this world is more elusive than other far away places. First time I saw New York, I wanted confirmations; I wanted to see for myself what was shot by Woody Allen and sung by Lou Reed. In LA I craved to see the Hollywood sign, in San Fra Alamo Square and the Golden Gate, in Amsterdam the coffee shops, in Madrid the Santiago Bernabeu, in Barcelona the works of Gaudi and the inspiration of Mirò. I knew those places before I got to know them and traveling was reassuring, the unexpected and unforeseeable somehow mitigated by the known.
All this all changed shortly after landing, without the need of expanding the horizon of my restricted Ugandan acquaintances. Courtesy of the Fletcher network, when I landed in Entebbe I had a driver and a relative of a fellow student to pick me up. We drove for long, bordering the waters of Lake Victoria and the reminiscences of the British colonial period lingering in the white buildings, converted to homes for important political figures of Uganda. As the car pushed its way into the constant jam of the inner Kampala, my presence drew the attention of kids standing by the traffic lights and those of their older brothers trying to sell off newspapers and calling cards. A white man doesn’t go easily unnoticed. Nothing of anger, envy perhaps, but most of all the scent of an opportunity apparent to all on the street. I certainly escape easily the definition of rich in the Western world but here they think me so, and with good reason. I know people who are just not well off and, having been a student most of my life, I did enjoy some restrictions to my quality of living yet I always remained well above a certain baseline. Many times I had to choose to buy GMO over organic, canned instead of fresh, tuna instead of salmon but I never had to think that I could not afford the price of cooking gas. What is normal at home here is luxurious and most often than not, just unavailable. Soon enough I stopped pushing back the wave of expectations that my presence was raising, often in favor of an undignifying, simple acknowledgment. “Muzungu, muzungu” they call. I wave, pass by and I am returned a smile and a cheer that somehow relieves my uneasy sense of guilt and luck. A recurring feeling these days. Before leaving Boston, I received a farewell gift from a person whose kindness surely exceeded my merit. I was left without much to say and even less to understand. I still find it very hard to accept, just accept, be it an unexpected gift or my privileged status as a child of the first world. Perhaps it’s true that certain things aren’t meant to be understood.
As dawn broke through much earlier than I was used to, I got up to find that Sekasi had cleared the lawn and prepared breakfast already. Together we walked down the hill with the sun raising opposite to us, returning to the city its constant haze of smog and dust. Following in the trail of bicycles and motorcycles to avoid puddles that betrayed deep potholes on the streets, we reached a lively and colorful slum where paintings of different brands of mobile phones added a touch of modernity for those who could not afford a design of their own choosing. The internet café had a few computers with flat screens and optical mice laying on a worn out wooden frame, whose unintended slickness carried the signs of years of hands laid. A distinctive feature of Uganda, the modern and expensive resting on a base of poverty and long overdue change, a brave attempt to strive for a progress not yet within reach.
I sat at one of the computers, Sekasi, quiet guide and curios observer, beside me. Typing distractedly my login credentials, I asked him if he wished to use the internet too. A big white smile bursted out as he nodded his head. The shop owner activated his computer too and Sekasi stood idle in front of it, his quiet and discreet personality waiting for me to pick up a sign of his cluelessness. He had never used a computer before but heard tales of the mysterious potential of the internet and was very eager to try. We spent our time at the internet café browsing through websites of NGO who offered training services in livestock keeping for small scale farmers. Sekasi diligently wrote down numbers and names before moving on to the next big task. We created his email address and I left him wandering his unsure fingers on the keyboard, happy to inform uncle Patrick of his entrance in the digital era. I looked at him to reinforce the camaraderie building between us, once again marveling at the normality of my life turning into luxury here.