A Welcome Uncertainty in Uganda

I was alone, and I was anything but prepared.  This was the moment I had trained for, or so I thought.  Now that the heat was on, I was realizing just what a precarious, uncertain position I had gotten myself into.  “15,000 shillings,” the man said to me, as he handed me a pineapple.  Passersby brushed against me on all sides.  It was hot.  With one hand stuffed firmly into my back pocket so as to never lose direct contact with my wallet, I reached out and took hold of the pineapple with the other.  I had received two warnings before entering Uganda’s largest fruit market: (1) keep an eye (and a hand) on your cash, and (2) don’t get swindled by the vendors, who are notorious for trying to gouge foreigners for all that they’re worth.

“15,000, eh?”  I turned the tropical plant over, trying my best to pretend that I knew for one second the way in which a connoisseur of pineapples would handle himself if he were so imposed upon.  It was all I could do not to channel my inner sommelier and give the thing a good sniff.

“It is very ripe . . . and sweet, too.”  The vendor told me.  “Look!”  He reached out and, with a flick of his wrist, plucked away one of the pineapple’s leaves.  “Well . . . that certainly looked impressive,” I thought.

The numbers were doing pirouettes in my head.  “15,000 . . . 15,000 . . . .”  Transferred over from Ugandan Shillings to U.S. dollars, that’s about six bucks.  “How much do pineapples cost back home?  Six bucks?  More? Gotta be more.”  My adrenaline was really pumping now.  “Deal!”  I shouted.  Before I knew what happened, I had handed the two brightly colored bills over to the vendor.  He turned, without saying a word, and literally ran away.  Unless you’re in the middle of a relay race, it is never a good thing when someone runs away immediately after concluding a transaction.  15,000 Ugandan Shillings later, I was alone again, now clutching East Africa’s most expensive pineapple in my hands.

The several minutes that followed my first try at “bartering” on the streets of Uganda were some of the most shameful of my life.  When I finally found my roommates in the crowded marketplace, I was greeted by the unwelcome sight of several other pineapples, resting comfortably in the arms of my friends, all purchased for about six times less than my prized fruit.  Competing vendors seemed genuinely pained when they learned of my folly.  Some friends were sympathetic.  Others laughed.  And laughed.

The “Golden Pineapple,” as it came to be known, was consumed shortly thereafter, during a makeshift church service that was organized in our apartment building.  Our time together, which began so conspicuously, ended with a whimper, some tea, and a side of mango.

Uncertainty has, perhaps inevitably, been a theme of my journey so far.  I, along with two of my fellow students, began the long trek from Southern California to East Africa about two weeks ago, arriving in Kampala, Uganda, after a brief stop in Cairo.  Along the way, we encountered what I can only expect are the usual speed bumps—warnings given by our own airline not to check luggage for fear of almost certain loss, passports withheld by Egyptian security, scares over phantom yellow fever vaccinations—par for the course.

After settling in to our new home over our first weekend, we were off to meet our Justices.  When our first meeting began with an invite from Justice Geoffrey Kiryabwire for us to introduce ourselves and state our expectations for the summer, I was relieved that the first person to speak omitted the latter request and thus relieved the rest of us from that burden.  Truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect.  Unlike some of those that I’ve travelled here with, I had never been abroad, let alone to Africa, before our plane touched down in Entebbe.  I have never worked in a legal capacity before.  Outside of our own law school’s dean, I’m not certain that I had ever even met a judge before we found ourselves seated in what is known as Uganda’s “Temple of Justice.”

Even now, I’m hesitant to make any assumptions about what the next two months will hold.  Our assignments will take on further clarity as we learn more about the specific areas of the law in which we are each working this summer.  We’re all looking forward most eagerly to our trip to the remand home in Masindi, where we will, with any luck, be able to expedite the trial process for several children who are at present languishing in what amounts to one big jail cell.  Personally, I’m anxious to help Justice Kiryabwire in any way that I can, while he continues his tireless struggle not only for justice on a case-by-case basis, but for increased efficiency in the Ugandan court system in general.

For now, I’m strengthened by being able to watch my classmates as they each bravely tackle their own assignments.  From handling a life-or-death decision with otherworldly grace and commitment, to having the self-assurance and tact to openly disagree with an influential judge about a critical issue, each of my friends have shown that they were chosen to join the Global Justice Program for all of the right reasons.

The beautiful thing about uncertainty is that it makes what I am sure of all the more clear.  I am sure that no matter how much of a difference we can end up making here in Uganda, I’ll take more away from this experience than I could ever repay to this country.

And so I soldier on.  Ready for whatever the next few days, weeks, and months will bring.  Into the library.  Into the courtroom.  Into the prisons and out again.  Ready for whatever this adventure can throw at me.  As long as it isn’t a papaya.

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