As I hung out the side window of our bus, a small girl brushed my arm and then whipped around to face her mother. “It doesn’t come off!” she exclaimed in astonishment. She spun back and proceeded to rub the “white powder” off my arm with renewed fervor.
This incident was not an uncommon one as I, along with seventeen other students spent three weeks in Uganda for a service project. Children latched onto our arms as we wandered through the villages. Toddlers teetered from the houses calling out the two English phrases they knew: “Mzungu, how are you!” and the answer, “I’m fine!” Cameras both baffled and amazed them more than anything else we showed them. They would fall over one another in their excitement to be in the frame. They gaped at their images and attempted to rend the devices from our hands for a closer look.
On our first day to visit Tororo, my friend Brett and I flagged down two boda-bodas– bicycle taxis– and rode into town. As we wandered aimlessly, slightly lost, through the market, we earned our title of “Mzungu.” Though the Ugandans use it in reference to foreigners, its literal translation is “one who walks in circles.” We were literally walking in circles.
At one point, a fairly young man approached Brett. “You have a beautiful sister,” he commented.
“Ah, no, she’s not my sister… She’s just a friend.”
“Oh, so also your lover?” came the reply.
“…Uh, no, no, we’re just friends,” Brett answered, starting to crack a grin in spite of himself.
“Mmm, mmm, okay… How much?” the man asked.
“I, uh… What?” Brett chuckled, taken aback.
“How much?” he repeated seriously.
Realizing the stranger was serious, Brett opted for a new defense. “I’m sorry, you talk too fast; I don’t understand,” he fibbed.
The man quickly switched over to making small talk. However, as soon as Brett’s defenses dropped, I was once again on the market. The back-and-forth banter of “how much?” and “I don’t understand” continued until the man gave up and stomped away in a fit of frustration. After experiencing that on my first day in town, I could hardly imagine what was to come.
Once in Malaba, where we were building the community center that brought us to Uganda initially, we were introduced to nearly a hundred children who all wanted to hold our hands. There I discovered a nine-year-old boy named Kazuma. As Kazuma and I walked back from the lunch house, other children scampered alongside us, chanting. Kazuma nudged me and reported in his soft voice, “They’re talking to you.” That’s when I surmised that they were chanting, “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Maggie!” as they raced down the side of the dirt road. I stared at Kazuma in disbelief. He beamed up at me. “I taught them,” he proclaimed proudly.
When preparing for this trip, I assumed we’d be confronted only with desolate villages and famished villagers. And though we did encounter this, what really struck a chord was the humor and joy that I encountered at every turn. I ventured to Uganda to build a place of safety, comfort and learning for the young children in Malaba. My goal was to help and to give to them. However, I can only hope I gave to them half as much as they gave to me. They managed to bring me out of my culturally-sheltered egg and into a whole new existence, one where I was constantly learning and laughing. They gave me more than I could ever imagine.
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