(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, March 17, 2017)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ The original meaning “God be with ye” disappeared into the phrase “good-bye” long ago. But this is what I’m now left with, this long good-bye.
It’s a prayer as much as anything, this good-bye to Africa. These days I’m swimming in it, the tears and laughter, both.
I felt it in that swanky Kampala hotel, in that large room. Dorothy was elsewhere, but many others were there, gathered as if it was a wedding.
Nobody was getting married. My bride and I had married long ago. Still, there we both stood in traditional Ugandan attire normally reserved for couples preparing to wed: me in a so-called kanzu, a flowing white tunic from shoulders to shoes, my bride in her long, blue Gomesi dress.
Our African friends and colleagues had carefully chosen the good-bye gifts, so, amidst the celebration, we wore them like we wore other Africanisms over the years: with wonder.
The formal thank-you was more for my wife, for her long-time work to help save even some mothers and children from Uganda’s horrible war of childbirth. Even so, I was recognized for being “A true Ugandan.”
I knew the humour because in grade school I was known as Whitey and would have been voted the kid least likely to ever live in Africa, never mind be called a true Ugandan.
My bride and I knew also that our years in Uganda have been about another sort of marriage, a mysterious union of circumstance and vocation and developing-nation need. The kanzu and Gomesi seemed all the more fitting.
We’ve invited Africans into our world even as they’ve welcomed us into theirs. We’ve known the laughter of countless, nameless children at our home’s playground, once just a banana field, along with the faces and names – Ritz, Alice, Florence, Eve, Yosias, Paul, Richard, Joyce, Gloria – of closer Africans who’ve shared our everyday experiences.
Nobody was closer than Dorothy, the Ugandan woman who recently stood at my office window and cried into all this.
But like the celebratory laughter in that hotel, it’s Dorothy’s laugh that I’ll remember more. It’s an infectious laugh, a laugh I first heard upon arriving in our African home, when this kind Ugandan woman appeared as a stranger to help unpack our cargo.
She laughed on that day when we met as she laughed for years while she helped care for the children – how our children loved her – in Uganda and in Canada too.
Yes, Dorothy laughed when she flew over the ocean, then laughed when she landed and saw the superhighway from the super airport – “Oh, Mr. Thom!” – even as she laughed when, for the first time, she saw a hand and a bag come through a McDonald’s drive-thru window.
One summer day I took her to Gage Park where she laughed at a routine of Al Jolson, a white man with a black face, before she laughed at another man, just a common downtown Hamilton man with a moustache as big as Africa. “Oh, Mr. Thom!”
It was something, as if all of Africa had come into our Canadian home, the shades of different souls from different places on Earth mingling together in another kind of marriage, not unlike my family’s season in Uganda: a full bouquet of a dozen years, a sacred time for its laughter, sure, but sacred also in that, like in any marriage, iron sharpens iron.
In those years Dorothy wanted a husband more than anything. Our Hamilton neighbours knew all about this. She prayed for years for a good Ugandan man and asked anyone within door-knocking distance to pray. Then, in the fullness of time, she did marry.
She went down the church aisle in a sort-of victory dance, amidst music and, of course, laughter, before, on my family’s front lawn in Uganda, with a sea of guests, she laughed more.
This is what I’ll think of when I think of Uganda: the laughter and all these marriages, the surprising ways this all changed me, the ways this shaped the entire family.
There are tears too. Salty tears. They flow like, in this world, trouble flows. But, you know, there’s more to life. And there is more to good-byes. Because laughter, somehow, has overcome the world.