A Day

Ugandan babies are silent, Ugandan people are extremely soft-spoken, and the country is loud.  Blaring music from every speaker, televisions on in every corner. We come back to our little cottage at the hotel most nights to find the hotel manager (owner?) watching TV with his son, who is 2 or 3, and either likes to imitate trucks or has some Ugandan form of tourettes.  They leave when we come in, but leave the TV blaring. Sometimes the owner comes back in to shift some switch that sends a signal to the tv at the little bar down in the gazebo for a loud football game.

We’ve argued about the “need” for a television at the project for years, me thinking it frivolous, Blair thinking it unedifying, brain-melting for kids. A friend of the project bought them a TV a few years ago, which disappeared among the petty graft of the previous director, who apparently was using it to show films to his neighbours at a fee. It was replaced by the same person who bought the first one, and then we gave in and bought them a satellite dish last year.  They love music videos and soap operas.  Blair would prefer we only had educational channels and football.

I had dinner tonight at our social worker’s place, so I could meet her sister and her fiancé, the father of her baby.  In her cramped, comfortable living room, we ate matooke and meat and rice and watched a spanish telenovela called Don’t Mess with an Angel.  All chat ground to a halt so we could watch the woman faking having a twin struggle with her conscience, a lot of deep sighs of bad lovemaking and facial grimacing.  T’s fiancé howled with laughter.

I learned a few things about gender relations in Uganda today, from observing T and her man and by a chance discovery at the entrance to the safari park we went to.  Under the paperwork and officialese, the park ranger was reading a tattered copy of Men are from Mars… I wondered if the woman sitting quietly outside the booth holding a baby had pushed it into his hand.

En route to Mweya — aka, Queen Elizabeth park — I carefully held an untethered 2 month old baby on my lap, my own seatbelt cautiously placed around me. Nana is always swaddled, sweating in the fleece blankie her Auntie Cate brought her, little mouth moving.  Three times, I gently prodded her to make sure she was still breathing.

Mweya was the most successful excursion we’ve had yet, a boat ride with all the kids on the Kazinga Channel, spotting hippos, Uganda cob, buffalo, egrets and ibises and herons of several species, osprey, warthogs, egyptian geese, fish eagle among others — and prize sightings of a close by crocodile on a bank, a great forest hog, and eight lions.

The boat trip was miraculous, and tinged with the reminders of the dis-ease of being mzungu in this country.  We wrangled with the drivers of the vehicles we hired, who basically charged us as much as they would to drive us to kampala. We wrangled about park entrance fees, which ended up being $60 for each white person (including the boat), and about $8 for each kid all in, then the person in charge of the boat asked for some “small money” (a bribe), then the boat pilot — dark glasses and combats menacing — refused to allow more than 40 onto the boat and tried to prevent the whites from boarding, almost shoving some of the kids off and taking off with the official number. After C produced a receipt demonstrating that we had paid for the whites, he let us on with ill grace, and then did his job.  Three stages where we were shaken down at every one.

Luckily, our interpretive guide was a lovely woman named Petra, with a penchant for birds, and ease with the kids.  I gave her a decent tip and she helped us find a picnic spot where we could assemble 60 peanut butter and jam sandwiches.  Mean boat conductor hovered at every vehicle, trying to commandeer a tip.

Nails embedded with peanut butter, I sat in the van with the primary school kids en route to stage 2 of our outing. I had goosebumps of perfection as the children howled their version of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, improvised with “I love you like a fish loves water… I love you like Nikibasika loves Kazinga.

Our kids are so resilient.  They piled out of the vans at the lodge we were supposed to swim at, and Derrick immediately started plucking at a kind of traditional harp in the airy, comfortable lobby. Our mzungu juju hit again. When our director had inquired about swimming, he was quoted 1000 UGX per kid.  (About 50 cents).  We’d stopped on the way to Mweya to confirm, and showed our white skin too soon.  In three hours, the price jumped to 10,000 UGX.  We couldn’t spend another $250 on this excursion even if we’d been willing to be grafted.  No amount of negotiation shifted them.  I took pictures of a few of the kids in front of the Christmas tree, a few kids drummed a few beats on instruments scattered about, and we left, the pool empty, and at least six employees sitting there with no customers.

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