September 20, 2008
Where do I begin when everything is so radically different from the landcape I have come from? There are familiar aspects, like dogs underfoot. Here at the Jane Goodall office there are five: Levi, the white rhodesian ridgeback, Tinker (black lab who brings sticks smaller than cigarettes for you to throw to him), Scrappy (the true African dog with ears perked up in a manner that resembles a bird coming in for landing, and Buster and Beevis (two pups in guard dog training). There are also two cats, Pops and Juwa, who are probably wondering what the hell they did in their last life to deserve the company of five dogs.
The office (where I also live–enjoying a one minute commute down the stairs to work) overlooks Lake Victoria, which is the cichlid capital of the world, if you are a fish hobbyist like my bro. I’m wondering how I can bring back some cichlids for him with the 100ml liquid restriction with the airlines.
My housemates are Carol (from Boston, but without a Boston accent as she is of Ann Arbor, Michigan blood), Mary-Lou (from Australia, all 6’4 of her), and Aura, who reminds me of Katherine Hepburn–or is it Audrey? She is known as Mother Superior, and is currently on Ngamba Island working at the chimp sanctuary.
Life on the equator means the first break of sunlight is around 6:20 am, and by 7:15 there is a blackness in the sky that Toronto will never see! There are a few solar powered street lamps, but these seem to be a mile apart.
There are mango, avocado and coffee trees–and a thousand birds. Each morning I wake to the sound of a rooster programmed to cockle-doodle-doo at 4:30. Carol tells me the family buys the bird on Sunday, fattens it up all week, then eats it on Friday. So, the weekends are quieter, due to the rooster being roasted. The birds start a ruckus shortly after the rooster, and I am eager to match the bird songs with the bodies. One of the bird’s calls sounds like the “plook, plook” of a leaky faucet.
The hornbills zoom in and sound like kites taking a sharp cut in the wind, fish eagles (like the bald eagle) take the wingspan prize as they soar with wingtips reaching 10 feet, on the wind currents. The blue turacos are the most spectacular but I have a certain fondness for Uganda’s most loathed bird: themarabu stork. They look lheroin addicts with haggard bodies and jerky movements. They are so awkward, they are like the Bambi of the bird world adjusting to their wings and ability to fly. Their heads are bald, and they need a good bath, probably because they spend most of their life poking through the dumpsters.
The vervet monkeys are a comical bunch–and a few days ago, I was nearly robbed by a pack of them in a parking lot. For my birthday, I thought it only proper that I find some sort of African cake but, I haven’t been able to locate the Entebbe Costco yet (haha). So, for 400 shillings(30 cents?) I found my cake. I also bought some buns (from a shop that sold Ugandan sherry, cooking oil, lollipops, yarn, soap and that’s about it). As I cut through the Imperial Beach hotel lot I spied a great picture of monkeys sitting on the arms of a wheelbarrow. I pulled out my camera, zoomed in and felt a tug on my bun bag. I turned around to see a vervet monkey with his mightly little hands tugging at my bag.
Then, I was swarmed–it was the monkey bun mafia!! I pulled and pulled, and the monkey was actually hanging, suspended, from my bun bag!! The others edged closer, trying to intimidate me, but I stood my ground. It was my birthday cake, dammit!! Finally, he let go, but the monkeys stayed close on my heels, still plotting how to get my goods. Eventually they dropped off and clamboured up into the trees, Barrel of Monkeys style.
So, the cake. It tasted like bread. And the buns? Tasted like cake. I had made a sandwich and it was like fresh tomato and cheese on a donut. And, with no presvatives in this country, it crumbled apart like a taco. Carol informed me later that there are two varieties of bun: salt buns and sweet buns. I would have to check the ingredients.
My first market experience was a complete sensory massage. Every Tuesday, vendors congregate to sell everything from rat traps to knock-off watches, to pineapples and eggplants. There are heaps and heaps of second-hand clothes, apparently shipped from North America as Value Village rejects. There are winter parkas for sale, skinned goats, and rolexes. By rolex, I mean the ultimate Ugandan street food (although there are knock-off Rolex watches too). It’s a greasy cabbage and tomato omelette rolled up in a chapati for, about 75 cents. Carol insisted that we have a rolex, and street chicken. This was the ultimate test for my Dukoral, the travellers anti-diarrhea medication. I thought for sure I’d be shitting my pants in the night, tangled up in my mosquito net trying to get to the toilet. We sat at a table below the street level, just as night was falling. Kerosene torches lit the length of the street as crowds pushed along. Wild cats circled under the table as a young boy provided water for us to wash our hands. I wondered later where the water came from, but thougt, eating street chicken was the worst evil.
The market just hums. Many of the vendors sell the same produce (mostly onions, tomatoes, peppers, bananas, peas, limes, ginger), so there are great attempts to make their blanket area the most visually appealing. Tomatoes are stacked 4-5 high and the best eggplants are fanned out in front with open sacs showcasing tiny minnow-sized dried fish. I asked for four tomatoes, but was given 8–Carol told me that this is normal. “They always give you 3-4 rottten ones to get rid of them.”
The grocery ‘stores’ sell peanut butter, sardines, Cadbury chocolate, unrefrigerated eggs and bottled Coca-Cola. There are cassava and matoke (cooking banana) chips and even a local icecream.
On the streets there is constant motion. As they drive UK style (opposite side of the road), my morning runs have been a test of dodging bikes carrying six foot lengths of aluminum, sacs of pineapples, matatus (SUV taxi) honking horns, and boda-bodas (moped taxis) zooming by with 3 people on them. Women sit sidesaddle, sometimes there is a smiley kid in front, and everything gets transported this way. Yesterday a boda boda driver had a suitcase in the front, a rolled up duvet and a live chicken in his hand. A version of the African motorhome?
Poverty is very close at hand. The road I lived on has two 3-star hotels, a golf course, the zoo, and an AIDS clinic. However, turn off this road in any direction and there are mud huts, women sweeping dirt from the dirt in front of their homes. Fires of rubbish are burning, skinny dogs run along the ditches, and chickens run truly free range.
The roads are red, like burnt sienna of Crayola crayons. In the morning, the roads are dotted with kids immaculately dressed in school uniforms (bright purple, yellow and green, pink & red–they certainly make fine use of the colour wheel). With so many people all at once, it seems as though a concert or movie has just ended. Where did everyone come from, and where are they going? The kids yell out to me: “Mizungo! Mizungo!” I am a celebrity for my skin colour alone here. The men holler out, “America!” I like to think it’s because I look like Miss America. But, it is again my skin, white=America.
During the week I am actively working on my project: to compile and edit stories and artwork about the tribes and totems of Uganda. The Jane Goodall Institute runs a program for kids called Roots & Shoots, and this book development is part of that. There were over 500 submissions from 40 local schools to sift through. The stories are dramatic, and some of the drawings quite comical. The lion seems to garner the most intriguing interpretations.
Ruth, our housekeeper provides lunches during the week that are wonderful, but leave me in a starch coma. The diet here is very soft–bananas, rice, matoke (mashed banana), eggplant, millet loaf–Wanda, my saviour is sending All-Bran bars in hope that I can have a bowel movement at least once a month.
There is a calm here, of suspended time. Technology is ever-present (many Ugandans have cell phones pressed to their ears, and Big Brother Africa 3 has a huge following), but I have found pleasure in reading more and eating breakfast with nothing more than the scenery to read (part of me does miss the Vancouver Sun folded out though!). With early dark nights, it is easy to follow the pattern of the sun. Plus, I have yet to find the switch that turns the early morning birds off.
That’s my first week in Africa…the condensed version. It is difficult to communicate the vibrant colours and peculiar sounds and warmth of the equator, because it is so very different from the landscapes of my life so far. Aside from missing my gal and dog incredibly, the richness of this experience illuminates the reason why we live: to pursue our dreams and stretch our minds a little farther, into uncomfortable and new places. And, to share those dynamic experiences with those we love and find comfort in.