Today is my last day in Uganda, probably forever, and boy is it a long one. At 9:30 PM Herbert will take me back to where he found me, the airport at Entebbe. My plane leaves after midnight and I’ll be home on Sunday, 4-ish, in time for the most un-Ugandan experience I can think of: watching the Academy Awards. Such glorious culture shock! After three weeks of breathing black air and drinking warm water out of plastic bottles I look forward to restoring my life span. But while I’m leaving, Kim is not. She still has business to attend and it could take upward of three more weeks. I feel kinda bad leaving her. Bad, not martyr-y. I’ll continue with the updates.
It occurred to me today that I don’t see black people anymore. I see kindness and rudeness and waste and potential but no color, and I’m stupidly tickled by that. I’ll share photos of some of the memorable characters from this trip but first check this out: on my walk (today the diaper bag contained the potatoes, two cans of tuna and four bottles of water; we ate the pineapple) I watched a large cow* stroll across the busiest street in all of Uganda without looking in either direction and disappear into a piece of sheet metal. Next to the hippos-roaming-the-streets-of-Jinja thing, this was maybe the best part of the trip. And Esther gave me a kiss today, our first. That was good too.
I’ll share some of the stuff I saw today, and some of the people who have made this trip not only bearable but edifying. They’ll be Kim’s very able support system once I go. But first, something Herbert told us yesterday about snakes. They spray something here at Le Petite Village to keep them away. Jesus. I had no idea they were so close. Herbert also says that there are things her called “safe houses” which are actually torture facilities for those whom the government finds to be troublesome but haven’t technically broken the law. Some of their strategies include putting people in water with snakes, surgically removing their arms and/or legs, and gouging out their eyes. And that’s the last awful thing I’ll share, unless Herbert drops any more bombs on the way to the airport. And now, the gallery.
Today finds me almost too beaten down to summon the high dudgeon you’ve come to expect. Here, I’ll just have this glass of warm gin*… Better. We’ll proceed now.
The day began innocuously enough, with my vigorous stroll. This time I loaded the diaper bag with 10 pounds of potatoes and a pineapple and joined the throng headed downtown. Soon enough there were beggars, but of a different stripe than seen heretofore. These people had no game whatsoever, just sat like statues, eyes closed, hands out. Herbert tells us opium is the drug of choice in these parts and I suppose, if forced to choose between food and the means to take leave of dreadful and unchanging circumstance for a moment, I’d go with the latter. Every time. Anyway, it was a good workout and I’m up to #14 on my Italian lessons! We’re doing times. Go ahead, ask me if I’d rather eat at eight or nine.
It was a big day in terms of “the process.” For at 2PM we could go fetch Esther’s passport! Herbert picked us up and off we went. The usual murderous looks and ransacking of our purses, the usual…wait, this wasn’t usual: we were directed to the white tent this time, not the green one. The green one is where people are grilled remorselessly about their “clan” affiliation. I couldn’t understand the language but the body language was unmistakable: every time one of these poor people answered a question posed by a uniformed thug, they were not believed. How can this be tolerated? The rule rather than the exception? Endemic? How? But there is no recourse, none. Anybody with a shred of power in this place is drunk with it, insulting and abusive at every opportunity.
But there we were, yes, in the white tent! Here’s how it works: you sit on a metal bench and scoot from one end to the other, progressing as people fall away for whatever reason. When you reach the end you move to the next bench and resume scooting. The front bench is the goal. The “Passport Delivery” tent was across the parking lot. So couldn’t you just walk up and say, “I’m here for Esther’s passport, you called and said it was ready”? Well, you could if you were in a real country. But in Uganda you have to wait for the heinous woman in the green dress to walk slowly to the white tent, berate the people who are standing because there’s no place to sit, force them to squeeze into non-existent seats, then mosey back to the Delivery area. When she gets there she shows ten fingers to the officious prick in charge of receiving this information, he barks out, “Ten!” then shoos the lucky ones across the tarmac. I have to think slave auctions were conducted with more respect. And remember that asshole from our first Passport Office visit? Yeah, he was there, bossing people around from his comfortable shaded chair, sending people thither and yon with a lazy wave of his ringless** hand.
More scooting, more rounding of corners, more making it to the next bench…and finally Kim and Asher (our friend from Jinja who’s on the same adoption schedule) get the call! They scamper over to the Passport Delivery tent! The scooting situation is the same but the benches are shorter. Herbert and I hang back to watch the show and talk Ugandan politics, two like-minded individuals reveling in our shared disdain of authority.
Suddenly Kim and Asher and Sylvia, the all-but-useless attorney (Rebecca, the main attorney, has been in labor for some time now) stand and approach the table with all the boxes of passports…could it be? Could this finally be happening…? You guys are adorable! Of course it’s not happening! Those dumb girls should have started in the Accounts office! And joined a long line of The Disgruntled. When they get to the head of the line they’re told they should be in the tent outside after all. (For heaven’s sake, will these girls never learn the ropes?) At this juncture, however, Sylvia remembered why she was there and got her lawyer on, capturing the attention of a woman with a certain light in her eyes, the light that burns in the young idealist intent on righting administrative wrongs. The idealist ushered us*** to the desk, tantalizingly close to the passports, and had a word with the armed thugette in charge. Papers and a stack of passports were shuffled like cards. We could see the ones we’d come to pick up, but she couldn’t, and we weren’t allowed to speak. Eventually the idealist located what we needed. Now it was time to go back into the Accounts office. Obviously, right?! But this time straight to the head of the line, for some more slow motion paper shuffling and dirty looks. The Accounts guy looked at Kim and said, “Where’s your husband?” She said, “I don’t have one.” Based on his expression, I honestly thought the whole deal was off. A single woman adopting a child!?! ****With visible effort, he wrestled his disgust to the ground and had Kim enter her name in his giant ledger book. So now it’s done, right? Guys!! Have you learned nothing?! No it’s not done! Now the guy has to toss the passport through a louvred window to the thugette outside, in the tent! And now Kim has to go back out into the tent and sign her name in that ledger book. Now it’s done.
What should have taken five minutes has taken three hours, Kim holding a 30-pound kid in 95 degrees. But, we count our blessings: Herbert didn’t get arrested for malparkage this time, and nobody got shot. Winning.
* Ice?! Are you crazy? The ice here is poison!
** Who would ever marry this bastard was a small comfort. It kept me from gouging out his eyes.
*** Somehow I’d insinuated myself into the group, against express rules to the contrary, and, being white, was not fucked with. Sad, so sad, but true, so true.
**** Every other woman on the street is pregnant. Five percent of the mothers in this country live without the fathers. Nine kids is not unusual.
“The grandeur of a bygone era” was certainly not the phrase I expected to come to mind on arriving in Jinja, Uganda. The two-hour ride had been strewn with the usual pitiless depravation, garbage, vacant stares, and goats. But then! Greenery! Sugar cane as far as they eye could see, and a sea of tea! Herbert announced we were entering the forest, which is the same as the jungle, and it hit us: we were in the actual jungle in actual Africa! Next door to Sudan, spitting distance from Egypt, etc., where all the shit’s going down. So naïve, right? But it’s easy to forget what goes on outside the confines of Le Village, and away from the enormous polluted horror that is Kampala. When it hits you it’s a bit of shocker, how far away we are from real life. I see I’ve waxed philosophical. Apologies.
Tea, with sugar.
Back to the jungle. Hebert said people go there to camp, which struck me as…risky? There are pythons, cobras, mambas, and “that little green one,” which I believe is the one that did in Cleopatra. Also monkeys, and to prove it we soon passed the remains of one that didn’t quite make it across the road. Herbert told us something else. I’d heard that many people still do business with witchdoctors here, those who have not subscribed to Christian salvation. Herbert confirmed. Witchdoctors can exact whatever payment they choose and some of them choose small children who are – there’s no nice way to put it – slaughtered. It’s illegal of course (polygamy is not) but it still goes on, and not all that far from the city center. Herbert told us about a “man” who is still in jail, a wealthy man, who sought to protect his wealth by turning over his nine year-old son. I really don’t mean to upset anybody but how can I hear something like that and not tell it?
The outskirts of Jinja were pretty sad, but once in town the charm set in. Not radically, but definitely. There wasn’t so much noise, traffic was minimal, and polite. The roads were wide enough for all who would use them. Remember Asher from a few posts ago, that pale blond woman who was made to sit in the sun by the monstrous passport tent guy? She’s one of many, many Christian do-gooders in Uganda and she runs SoleHope.org, which deals with the “jigger” problem. She started a “factory” to make shoes for the kids here so the jiggers don’t burrow into their feet and cause a lifetime of problems. (Look it up. Throw money at her. She’s cool.) She noticed there was a big, formerly beautiful house on the factory premises and decided to turn it into a guest house. She invited us. We came. We said holy shit! It’s on a curving road that is lined with beautiful old walls behind which sit once-beautiful, now magnificently run down homes that once housed wealthy British ex-pats. Many of them are now headquarters for various dot orgs, doing various good works. Gracious, flower-choked, and really quite otherworldly, given where we’ve been lately. It was intoxicating, and it lasted all day, all night and much of the next day, when we had to go to hell return to Kampala.
First, and most importantly, there were dogs here! There are none in Kampala. Like, none. (So as not to upset like-minded folk, I won’t say why. But at least it’s quick.) A house dog and four “guard” dogs who are kenneled during the day and police the premises after six, by which I mean crawl into the laps of the guests. Maybe that’s what colored my entire impression of Jinja, but maybe not. You decide.
As we were shown to our rooms we learned that Idi Amin had stayed in ours. It was titillating and disgusting and altogether wonderful and horrible, if you know what I mean. Kim and Esther took Idi’s bed; I was happy with the bottom bunk, thanks. My friend Emily from London tells me her mom grew up in Jinja as her dad was the Managing Director of the Dunlop company. One day they were told Idi was on the way and they had 24 hours to leave home and country. Emily’s granddad buried the family treasure under a Jacaranda tree. She told me the street and if we’d had time, (and if there had been street signs) we would have done some Jacaranda excavating, you can be sure. Alas. And chilling.
Then it was time to do what people come here to do: take a boat to the Source of the Nile, where Lake Victoria gives way to River White Nile. In Sudan it joins the Blue Nile and together they make their way to the Mediterranean, a 4,000-mile trip which takes three months. The longest river in the world, the only one that goes south-to-north. (#2 Yangtze; #3 Amazon; #4 Mississippi for when you get on Jeopardy.) Thankfully our boatman, Joe, took the long way, and shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the local bird population (400 species? 1,500? Some impressively huge number.) Gigantic, tiny, transcendentally beautiful, not-so-pretty, Joe knew them all and was just as delighted to see them as we were. I love when stuff never gets old.
About the Source: you can see very clearly when it stops being lake and starts being river. There’s some agitation in the water owing to a spring, and suddenly the water is clear and swift-moving. It’s unmistakable. That’s what Dr. Livingston was looking for when Stanley, who was looking for Livingston, found him.
And here is the no-fucking-way morsel that will delight me for the rest of my days: as recently as the 70s hippos roamed the streets of Jinja. Read that again and let it sink in. You might open your back door to feed the chickens one morning and see a hippopotamus. You might have to slow down on your way to yoga because a hippopotamus was crossing the street. Maybe you’d have to shoo a hippopottamus away from the mango tree. Now you can only see them in parks. Back in the “Budget?! What’s a budget?” Nike days, I (and many, many others) was privileged to shoot a TV spot in Kenya, in the bush, and on the last day we did a game drive. So many iconic sights (like a herd of elephants ten feet into the park) but what I remember best is something our guide saw once: a hippo snapped a crocodile in half. Read that one again, too. Damn. Nature. You just can’t beat it.
Back on dry land, as they say, it was time to think about dinner, for when is it not? Lunch had been courtesy of Herbert who disappeared for a bit and returned with Rolex! It’s a chapatti smeared with scrambled egg, chopped tomato, onion, peppers, then grilled and rolled and eaten to mouth-full murmurings of Jesus, and thank you, Jesus. The Ugandan breakfast taco and one that will soon be coming to an Austin, Texas near you. On the way to Jinja we stopped at a wide spot in the road and were swarmed by people in blue coats hawking water and soda and skewers of roast chicken and roasted plantains. We eschewed the chicken, but we chewed the heck out of those plantains. Fear of street food and its consequences has completely vanished. I even drank some tap water at House of Idi, in direct defiance of the sign on the mirror. Just a couple sips, just to see what would happen. So far so good.
So, dinner. There’s a big Indian population in Jinja and we were told the Indian fare is “good,” a scandalous understatement. It took awhile to find Moti Mahal because there are no street lights. And when we walked in we were seated all alone in a one-bulb afterthought of a corner. This was what all the fuss was about? Then a bunch of people walked in and kept walking, into the rear of the building. I investigated. It was like the difference between a funeral and a New Year’s Eve party. That’s where we wanted to sit. Festive, gay, full of large parties of Indian and British people celebrating birthdays and last holiday meals. And Oh Emm Gee the food. Without question the best Indian food any of us has ever had, maybe the best food period. Any of you who recall Plainfield’s Mayur in Portland will know they set a high bar; Moti Majal stepped over it as if it were merely a loose tile on the floor. Food that was unforgettable and, sadly, probably not getable ever again.
Back now in Kampala. I can start counting the days in earnest but unfortunately not so for Kimbo, not just yet. Does anybody know anybody who works in the US Embassy in Kampala? Serious. Friend of a friend, just a name will do, in the hope that that person knows somebody in the adoption department. We need to grease the skids here. Everything so far has had a known and fairly reliable beginning and end, but the Embassy can sit on the whole thing indefinitely, and agonizingly. Anybody got any markers to call in? Anybody?
The last two days have been uneventful. We walked to the embassy to get the legendary Blue Form; something that could have so easily been downloaded required another brush with armed persons and a wait in the sun. But it wasn’t so bad. Or maybe I’ve lost the energy to complain.
We just had a very impressive downpour, and some passion fruit. Hmm, what else. Oh yeah, yesterday I went temporarily native, entertaining the locals by having my hair braided which lasted exactly as long as it took me to locate a mirror.
My need to skewer this country has resurfaced! Enjoy a bit of what Uganda’s been up to this week…
Six and counting…
Museveni is the president. I’d hide too.
On purpose, apparently.
But, so we part on a happy note, here’s Esther doing art…
To all of you who are fortunate enough to be with all your loved ones, have a nice weekend, and a happy Valentine’s Day.
I wish. It’s been that kind of day, friends, and time to recognize a fourth world country. To wit:
Up before the sun to make it to the “passport office” by 8AM. Office. Riiiight.
First off, of course, there was the metal detector; a uniformed woman lounging in and dwarfing a folding chair indicated where to enter, with a friendly sneer and a chin jut in the general direction. A big open-air tent crammed with metal benches loomed. While we tried to figure out where the “office” part was, Herbert was approached by the rudest, most officious person in all the land who quickly got my vote for Asshole of the Day, though it will turn out I voted too soon. He physically pushed us into the tent as Herbert tried to explain we were waiting for our attorney. The guy interrupted Herbert with another push and said, “Enough.” He said it real quiet like, as if he’d had it up to here with our nonsense and would be forced to kill us next. Herbert told us it used to be much more efficient here at the Passport Office. I suppose that’s what happened: some government functionary on a fast track to the presidency realized there was a pocket of efficiency and stamped it out. We weren’t the only white people there, but we were the only ones he didn’t make sit in the sun. I think he liked us!
Here’s Asher, a lovely woman who is going through the same process with the same team as Kim. Blond, pale, naturally she had to sit in the sun.
And here’s the asshole:
Two and a half hours later, amid much milling (inside the tent, and no legs or arms hanging out, you hear me?) and much stamping of documents, Esther’s passport application was complete. Not the passport, you silly guys, the application. The passport has to be signed by the Commissioner, who is away at a “workshop.” And when will he be back? Shrugs. Crickets. And without the passport, we can’t make the medical exam appointment. And because it took so long, we missed the appointment to pick up the Blue Form at the embassy. We’ll do that Friday. But without the passport, things have ground to a halt.
Here’s a nice lady who borrowed a pen…
And another one with a cool hairdo.
Our work here was done, and we went out to find Herbert. That’s where things went seriously sideways. See, there’s no parking at this huge municipal compound serving the capital of the country, because, well, parking? Like, why? There’s lots of parking for police vehicles (largely unused), and then there’s a long, broad expanse where cars and motorcycles pull up, drop people off, and wait. That’s what Herbert did. He got thirsty after about two hours and went to get a soda; when he returned, a boot had been affixed to his tire and a notice that you can’t park there. No signs, none. Nothing! Anywhere! Apparently they wait until you break the law, and go away for a minute, then charge you, rather than telling you what the law is.
When we got to the car there was a cop sitting in the passenger seat and others lurking nearby. They removed the boot, gave Herbert a citation, but wouldn’t let him just pay it later. They acted like he’d murdered somebody, hollering at him in Lugando, one of them especially, the angriest, nastiest looking guy I’ve ever seen. He was just so, so hostile over nothing. A mean and scary dude. With a gun! I was afraid to take his picture.
So we crowded into the back seat and started driving, Kim, Esther, Rona the social worker, me, and the car seat, while the cop lounged up front. All conversation (heated, loud, unintelligible) was taking place in Lugando between Herbert, Rona and the cop. We had no idea where we were going or why, but very soon the cop in the front seat called Herbert to task for the route he had selected. That’s like questioning Einstein’s physics prowess. Herbert knows The Best Way to There. But to where? It came out that we were going to the courthouse to pay the fine. And it also came out that since Herbert had chosen a route not sanctioned by the scary mean bastard, we would be escorted there, followed by a van full of yellow-shirted thugs, the car keys would be seized, we would go through another metal detector and a pat-down (for the gents) and Herbert would disappear for another hour. It was noon now, and it would be 2PM before anything could happen. (Lunch, you know.) Herbert arranged for another car to take us home, and we hope to see him again. Serious.
This place blows, utterly and completely. And now the mission has become how to get Esther and Herbert out of this fucking hell hole.
No appointments today, just exciting news that the PASSPORT happens tomorrow, followed by the Embassy to pick up the almighty BLUE FORM! After that we’ll go to the IOM place to make the appointment for the medical clearance. If we can offer an inducement for some kind of hurry-up (oh don’t look at me like that, it’s how this place runs), it is entirely possible that all the paperwork will be in the hands of the Embassy before the week is out. And if that happens, it is also possible that Esther will be cleared to travel to the US of A within a week! Not likely, but possible. That would be cool because we could travel together and for the life of me I don’t see how one parent can possibly do it all. I know many do, and my mom was one, but man, mothers and especially single mothers deserve vast, vast treasure and Nobel prizes by the score. I mean come on, could you do it? That is, you who are not already doing it? That’s what I thought
Kim is a great mom already. Really, really great. A freakin’ natural. Notice I didn’t say a fuckin’ natural. I’ve changed, friends. I’ve curbed my vocabulary, for I am an auntie now. Kim says I can choose any auntie name I desire and I’ve selected Auntie Inflammatory for the time being.
Anyway, despite my rants, it’s certainly not all bad. Check this out…
Today was the biggest in a collection of big days. Kim’s guardianship was approved! And the judge couldn’t help but smile a little bit. It was just lovely.
Then it was a series of phone calls to the lawyer and the social worker to find out what to do next. Nobody had the same advice so we decided to get passport and visa photos. After another harrowing trip across town we washed up at the same mall from several posts ago, et voila! C’est un fait accompli! What’s with the French! Then off to the attorney’s office (who astonishingly has not given birth yet) to drop off the photos. She will take care of some or all of the passport business. She told us to go to the place where we get the Blue Form that needs to be completed when the health certificate is issued, but that can’t happen until the passport is issued. The “place” is the “IOM” and it’s another heavily guarded state compound with several pat-downs and a cavity search. I’m kidding. The guy on the other side of the metal detector was asleep. I’m not kidding.
It was lunchtime there (2:30) and the receptionist had to return before we could get the Blue Form. We watched rap videos in the interim and it was surreal and loud. There was a power outage that lasted less than a minute, our first. The receptionist returned and we learned the BF was only available from the US Embassy, whose phone has been busy for the last eight days that we know of. And, see, you have to have an appointment to enter the US Embassy. Which you can only get by calling them, so Catch-fucking-22. Also, when we do get the BF, we have to go back to IOM and make an appointment for the health exam. So how about making the appointment over the phone, you wonder. You silly guys! You can’t make the appointment over the phone! You have to drive there and first come to a complete stop at the place where the beggars surround your car, and you have to close all the windows or they’ll climb inside, but no matter because you have air conditioning and it’s only ten minutes or so until it’s your turn to move, right? You guys crack me up! There’s no air conditioning!
But, back at our lovely enclave all was clean and cool. We made a nice dinner, Esther had her bath, and Kim put her in her basinette. Not a popular move and she cried herself to sleep. It was agonizing but had to be done, and it will get better every day. It’s the only way Kim can get any rest, plus we’re told that’s how the French do it. And after all, it is Le Petite Village.
Anyway, upshot, Kim has an official child and she’s perfect. And we’ve met a number of people who are very dear and work tirelessly to make this country all it can be. I apologize if my rampant cynicism is making this journey an unpleasant one for you, but, like the Ugandans, I am a product of my culture. And if I see a place for improvement that could easily be made, and has not been attended to, while thousands are standing around unemployed, it makes me furious. I’ll try to rein it in. Maybe.
In other news, the mangoes are the best I’ve ever had. And next week we’re going to the source of the Nile.