(The Hamilton Spectator – Friday, September 20, 2013)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ It was late and dark and unusual because the visitor lives hours away and I didn’t expect him. But he came anyway and sat at my front door and cried and told me all about it, how thieves had come the night before.
He had been at church, he explained, at one of those all-night prayer services common in this part of Africa, when the rats did it, when they broke in and cleaned out his house. Clothing, furniture, cash I had recently given for his kids’ schooling, everything gone by sunrise.
When Frank, which is not the real name of my Ugandan friend, cried, his body shook. And when he screamed ‘Why?!’ into the night air, all I could do was go into my home and open my wallet, again, and then my closet to pull out shirts and pants and more.
My wife did the same and the kids left The Brady Bunch on the computer to gather some stuffed animals and Hot Wheels and their own clothes or whatever they could find for Frank’s children.
So he walked away – actually I drove him to the roadside – with so many bags for his family that he couldn’t carry them without the help of his buddy, a Ugandan built like an army tank, but a man stumbling along with Frank into this night, for both had consumed at least some drink earlier.
This is it. You come to Africa thinking that you might somehow change the place only to find that Africa, in fact, changes you. Because there’s a rat race even here in the poorer world, where desperate people might do desperate things, even lie about night robberies to get something, anything, in this case from a so-called ‘Mzungu,’ that is a rich, white person.
It’s a disturbing possibility. But thinking of all the snake oil around here, and thinking of the various times you’ve actually bought it – remember, Uganda has no social safety nets – you realize that getting played is an unfortunate but common part of the mix in this culture.
Of course this makes you angry, maybe even fearful, but then, if you’re lucky, it changes you for the better too. Because what you learn is that life is less about the mistakes that any of us may make and more about what you do with it all after-the-fact.
Frank is in front of me as I write. This is the funny thing. He’s never minded when I do this, tap away on my keyboard in front of him. By now he expects it, I suppose.
We’re meeting at our usual place, in what he calls The Big Room, and I’m getting it all down so I don’t forget any of it, the things he updates me on: his children, his modest job, his wife’s bicycling to her garden of beans and maize, his new hopes for even a beater car in 2014.
He’s relaxed and happy and, as always, grateful.
“Do you remember the clothes?” he asks me. “When you gave me those clothes?”
“Yes,” I say. “I remember.”
He still wears my shirts, he tells me, but the best I’ve ever seen on him is an Oilers t-shirt he got on some dusty Kampala street without knowing anything about the city of Edmonton or even hockey on ice.
He asks about my family and Canada and then we get to what he travelled some distance for, those few hundred thousand shillings, those few hundred dollars, like usual, to help with his children’s school fees.
My wife and I help as many as a dozen Ugandan children, similar to other expatriates we know, other Mzungus who also help from their back pockets at this time of year.
Frank may even phone before long to ask for more, as he often does. And I’ll tell him that by simply giving more money, I’m not helping as much as he thinks.
But his stories will be good, sometimes even true, and they’ll tear at my heart and make me want to also scream into the night and wonder about our old world and how long it will be before it’s any different.