I couldn’t daydream in Kampala.
Getting somewhere required all my concentration, patience, and if I failed to stay watchful, too much money!
The clammy streets of Uganda’s capital city were ringing with clamor. People bustled along – women clad in vibrant skirts of red and yellow, sweeping the gritty roads with straw brooms; men herding cows or trundling goods for errands. Vendors squeezed their wares and stalls onto every inch of the roadside dirt. Children played with toys made from scraps while their poverty-depressed, bored parents rested in coveted shade. Cannily, beggars and fried grasshopper sellers scoured the rows of frustrated drivers snarled in a jam.
Obnoxious taxis beeped incomprehensively, weaving along impulsive routes and imaginary traffic lanes. Paid “fare pushers” hollered out the taxi destinations to attract potential customers, while the drivers raced each other to the best “stages” (pull-over spots). Hopeful sellers, who knew just where to wait, thrust their wares through the stuck-open taxi windows, offering soda, gum and slices of jackfruit (the largest fruit in the world). Numerous times I clambered in a rickety taxi and sandwiched myself between strangers on a wobbly bench, no longer surprised to sense live chickens under my seat.
In the heart of the chaos, boda boda (motorcycle taxi) drivers straddled flapping turkeys, and strapped down flopping fish onto their bikes. Passengers clutched bags of groceries, balanced inverted chairs on their heads, and cushioned massive water bottles on their laps. This quick but reckless mode of transport promised passage through the ever-present traffic jams. Countless times I risked the boda bodas, going against oncoming traffic, bumping along on the sidewalk, and once ending up in a yawning pot-hole.
White-uniformed traffic cops sometimes pulled over our vehicle, hoping to receive a small “fine” (bribe) from us Mzungu (Westerners). Randomly blowing sharp whistles with manifest enjoyment, they gestured traffic instructions which none of the road travelers acknowledged or even appeared to understand.
But despite such flurry and stress, I never regretted our journeys. Whether riding three to a boda boda, stranded in an overheated vehicle, or travelling in a non-air-conditioned van, the sovereign joy awaited: singing with orphaned children or leading Bible studies for imprisoned girls of my own age.
Every week, I’d barter my boda boda fare (and usually lose), mount the motorcycle in a skirt and with no helmet, and hazardly ride to a pick-up point to travel with a team of nurses and social workers to a rehabilitation center. We’d treasure each other’s company and share stories as we endured the extremes of Uganda’s tropical weather. More than once the vans were stuck in the mud, and the outnumbered boys would half-heartedly yet heroically scramble out to rescue us. Guilty in our over-crowded van, illegal extra passengers ducked down when we passed through a police checkpoint.
But the exhausting, pot-hole cajoling road adventures were forgotten as we clapped and sang with the neglected youth. Helping bandage puncture wounds, and show a little craved-for attention to affection-starved girls was my favorite activity, and a real eye – opener. Every visit, the young inmates begged to solve puzzles, practice their English, and play their beloved card game, Uno.
The truth is, we hadn’t come for ourselves. We had come for the children: the runaways, abandoned, orphaned, and mistreated. The trials of the journey weren’t important. It was how we spent time with them that mattered. Simply by us coming the children were thrilled – someone had heard about them; someone wanted to see them; someone truly cared enough to make the journey.
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