Why Come to Uganda?

Kamwokya Neighborhood, Kampala, Uganda, May 28, 2014, Correspondent: Andrew Goldsmith.

A little boy runs up to hug me, his shirt is torn and he is dirty. He is not wearing shoes and steps into a small pile of goat feces as he throws his arms around me. He doesn’t notice.

“Mazungu! Mazungu!” (Translation: white person)

“How are you, little guy?”

“I love you . . .”

Six Mazungus just pulled up to the Kamwokya slums, one of the worst neighborhoods in Kampala, a sprawling East African city of over 1.6 million people. A five minute boda-boda ride (back of a motorcycle) down a dirt path off the main road brought us here. We’re surrounded by small clay-brick buildings, street merchants hawking their wares, chickens and goats, boda-bodas, and plenty of small children. The compact winding streets and mud trenches oozing the distinct smell of human waste are long familiar to me. This could be any backstreet in Baghdad; so many things are the same.

“Why go to Uganda, Goldsmith? Why leave your girlfriend and family and all your hobbies and projects and comfortable life in Los Angeles behind? What do you aim to accomplish? What are you trying to prove?”

“Come, come.” Two of the children grasp me by the hands and lead to me to a small gated compound. I duck my head and enter a concrete courtyard adjoining a small building with several rooms. The Mazungus are instantly crowded by a mob of twenty smiling, laughing children. They range in ages from two years old to teenagers of sixteen or seventeen. There are boys, girls, and little toddlers who can barely walk. Everyone is friendly and happy to see us.

These are the orphans of KICK: their parents are dead, missing, unfit to raise children, or have simply abandoned them. The Mazungus have come to eat pizza, play games and sing songs. We met them for the first time last Sunday, at a performance featuring traditional East African dance, music and song. It was an incredible performance. The dancing and song evoked the endless themes and rhythms of all humanity: love, war, joy and sorrow. It brought me back to the source, spoke to our common history and myth, and, after a week, finally hammered home the realization that:  “Damn . . . I’m in Africa . . .”

Of course there is fear and doubt, hesitation, and a questioning of one’s wisdom and rational thinking. Do I want to get sick, lose sleep, get hit by a car, pickpocketed, hustled or any number of bad things that could happen in a strange country in Africa? Of course not, but I know it’s a possibility. A Mazungu doesn’t come to Africa for comfort; they come for adventure, romance, or maybe for missionary reasons: to spread the gospel or the rule of law. Did I come to test my bravery, with paternal notions of enlightening the natives, or was it other selfish and personal motives?

The Mazungus play music and simple games with the children. Alexandra paints the nails of the girls, she is mobbed by a steady ring of those waiting their turn. Andrew K. beats on the large drums and Andrew N. has been plucking the strings on the local guitar-like instrument for an hour. Tim is dancing and singing in the circle, the most popular attraction in the whole place. The children wouldn’t let him quit if he wanted to. I’m tired from playing soccer keep away, the kids are too fast for me. My shirt is spotted with sweat as I sit down on the stoop.

Looking around I see smiling faces enjoying the simple things in life. School is out and the sun is soon setting; this is play time. There are no TVs or videogames, no doll houses or Nerf guns. There are a few board games, a soccer ball, and song and dance with one’s fellows. What else do you need to have a good time?

Why come to Uganda? One travels to obtain balance. To restore a semblance of basic sanity to a life overrun with routine, endless work, habits and vice. The first year of law school is very “me” focused. We’re proud of ourselves, future big shots and grand attorneys. One strives against one’s classmates to earn that slot in the class rankings. Our loved ones and hobbies and social obligations and friends outside the school fall by the wayside. They are sick of our excuses and don’t even bother calling us to hang out anymore. Travel and adventure offers a break to all this. Back to basics; like living out of a rucksack again, when all we needed was a place to rest our head, maybe read a book, and stare at the bright, open sky.

Shafiq and Martin join me on the stoop. Shafiq just taught me how to play the small drums, he was an excellent teacher. Martin is eleven and immensely bright. He tells me about school, asks about life in America, and gives me the insider scoop on Kampala and Uganda. The little ones wander over, led by little Simba, a silent three-year-old boy who climbs onto my thigh and rests the back of his head on my chest. Leaning back he eyes my sunglasses, grabs them and puts them on his face. My prescription must make the world look pretty weird to him. He stares around him in wonder and I must admit he looks pretty darn cool.

“He’s the comedian.” Martin tells me.

“I can tell.”

“So, eh . . . do you have parents.”

“Yes, I have a mother and father back in California.”

“Living?”

“Yes, both of them. . . ” I realize the import of what I am saying. Suddenly I am ashamed being twenty-nine years old, a grown man with two parents.

“Oh . . .” Martin stares at the ground and his thoughts drift away.

Why go to Uganda? Life can be too good sometimes. One gets lost in the grind, gets upset when minor inconveniences create delays, when those we rely on fail us. “First-world problems” they call it, when perspective is lost and the “pity me” attitude comes to the fore. I was a man once, I endured great trials in the desert and was not found wanting. I went days without sleep, facing danger and endless boredom and the unknown. My peers were my friends, my therapists, and my brothers. But now, in law school, I complain about staying late to right a paper, about being stuck in traffic, having to attend a birthday party for a family member or a friend. Am I still the man I was: brave and capable of enduring. Have I forgotten that sometimes living well is learning to live without?

“Time for supper, supper, supper!” The children chant in unison and the dancing circle breaks up. The Mazungus help serve the pizza and hand out the sodas. The children walk into the room one at a time, polite and grateful. Many of them have never had it before. They sit outside in the concrete courtyard and eat it in small groups. The Mazungus are no longer the star attractions. We chat with the adults who take care of the children: Joseph and Ivan and Samba the former boxer. They are good men in every sense of the word. They are the father figures to these kids, their protectors and benefactors. They are glad the Mazungus came.

The games are over, pizza has been served; it’s time to be getting home. We say goodbye to the children; shake a dozen small hands, give a dozen hugs.

“Will I see you again, Andrew?”

Why come to Uganda? To have an adventure, to test myself, to do some good? Nothing has been more satisfying than to play the simple games with the orphans, to hear them chant, to see them dance. It feels good just to be here, to exist. Maybe it’s as simple as that. Is it hubris to think we can come here and teach the locals how we do law in America? Is it paternalistic, naïve, and fundamentally wrong? Perhaps. What isn’t wrong is giving the little ones a few hours of our time, to spend some time in the slums, to be human and loving and kind.

“Andrew . . . Andrew! Will I see you again?”

Why come to Uganda? To be human again; nothing less and nothing more.

“Absolutely.”

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