If there’s one thing I do not miss about America, it’s having a commute worth complaining about.
When I call it a day at S.O.U.L. after the usual 9-9.5 hours of work each day, I walk through the duma (maize) fields past Mama Flo’s house, past Ali’s passionfruit garden, past the murals outside Soft Power Health’s beautiful little community health clinic. Men, women and children line the seats in the waiting area, and most of the lawn surrounding it. I greet the 4-5 boda drivers resting on their bodas, waiting for someone to finish their daylong wait in line and head home. I pass the stand where I sometimes buy bananas from the sweet woman with the very high-pitched voice, speaking in slowed down Lusoga for me to understand our exchanges. I pass down the road leading away from Soft Power, past a few consecutive lawns littered with little kids, playing and calling my name or the name of anyone walking with me that they happen to know (and if not, they default to mzungu where appropriate).
I round the bend where the woman who occasionally drinks a bit too much and quarrels with the neighbors always tells me to come help her when she’s gardening (she has one of the most beautiful homes in the village, sort of the Kyabirwa Village rendition of my mother’s home back in California). I carry on down past the cassava gardens to my right and Maama Allison’s house on the left. On the corner where the road forks – left down towards the Naafa property, and right towards Maama Muganda’s, the borehole, and eventually the football pitch – I’ve reached Maama Ali’s, the maama who has taken me in as her own son, much as she did for Allison as her own daughter. This is where I eat lunch each day, with or without Allison, since it’s the best and healthiest lunch in the whole village, and it’s cooked with indescribable amounts of love.
So on my walk home from work, I shuffle in the entryway to the beautiful property, beans or maize drying on the ground, a few kids working in the yard or playing closer to the cooking area. I greet anyone who may be outside, then walk into the cooking area, a tiny hut just big enough for a few people to sit around and do what they do best – cook. I greet Maama Ali, a big smile always shooting across her face as she sits cooking over the fire in one of her many gomaz. I greet any other maama in the hut, or any of her children for that matter. We exchange my limited Lusoga, then move to chatting in English (since Maama Ali has incredible English abilities – she’s awesome). I let her know whether I will be coming to lunch the next day, and say hello to anyone else who may be home.
I carry on down the road, generally on my own at this point as anyone but V would have branched off to his or her homes at this point…but I’m less than halfway home. I pass the perpetually-under-construction structure to my left in the field tended by an old man who very well may be deaf – or he just doesn’t care to talk to me. To my right, more beautiful brick/mud homes covered in hanging flowers and shaded by banana trees. I pass the road that branches to Brooke’s home (or at least that’s what I’ve been told…), and greet the families residing to the left of the road before it sharply cuts right and follows along the path of the Nile, separated only by a row of houses and gardens. I pass along by the old muzee (elderly gentleman) who sometimes half-jokingly asks me for sugar and where the women always greet me with the warmest smiles. I continue down past Helen’s home where I sometimes buy tomatoes and cabbage when she has some displayed in her small wood booth leaning in the front lawn. Once I pass her home and the adjacent breathtaking view of the sun setting over the river, I’ve entered into Naafa territory.
On my left is Saul’s place, a son of Maama Naafa and the father of Bayati and Musa and so many adorable kids with his lovely wife (who we just know as Maama Bayati). I stop to give Bayati a hug and chase baby Diane around for a minute, followed by some requisite tickling. I converse with the parents if they are around, otherwise I continue down past Maama Roman’s on my right and say hello (though she has not been around lately…I wonder why?), then round the corner past Maama Richard’s house, where 5 year old lunatic Ronald (pronounced Ronal-DEE!) always greets me with the quickest “okobaki” one could muster. I reply with an equally speedy “wazira” and greet the rest of the family a bit more formally, albeit briefly. One more turn to the left, past a few more passionfruit gardens and a strange driveway that leads to a house owned by a very mysterious mzungu apparently named Johnny, and the duma fields give way to a view of the Naafa residence, consisting of 5 homes, 2 occupied by Maama Naafa’s sons, one occupied by no one at the moment, 1 occupied by two very grateful GHC fellows, and one now occupied by Maama Naafa’s sisters and daughters.
Most days, I would come home and greet Muzee on the way to the veranda of Maama Naafa’s home, greeting Maama Naafa with a warm smile and a gentle voice, always being greeted with the same. I would greet the rest of the family, but those moments have always been focused on Maama Naafa herself. In my first 2 months, she would be sitting under the shade of an explosion of ivy and flowers looming over a small handmade bench, a kitten sitting beside her, a smile on her face as she looked out over the land her family called home. When she fell sick, she spent her afternoons on the veranda instead. The greetings were soon moved into the living room when her condition worsened and she was too weak to sit outside. In the past month, when she was not in the hospital, I would greet her in her bed, holding her hand in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Praying with her and for her. Putting a small smile on her face with my fumbling attempts to greet her in her language, while she made me smile with the way she always pronounced bulungi as “buh-loon-gee.” Despite the language barrier, we connected. Always.
Last week I came home after hearing the news, and that veranda and the surrounding lawn were covered with hundreds of grievers, mourners, well-wishers, sons, daughters, sisters, grandsons, granddaughters, cousins, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors there to pay their respects. I will not detail the events that followed, except to mention that to continue paying their respects, the entire community, and much of Uganda and Kenya for that matter, migrated by the hundreds to the lawn in between our 5 homes at the end of this otherwise quiet and unassuming village. This has been the destination of my walk home from work for the week since Maama passed, tents still erected that just last week sheltered over 1000 people from the dry heat of the African sun as we all officially laid her to rest in the plot just across the lawn and dirt road from my bedroom window. I have come home to friends, family and community members that continue to seek comfort within the walls of our own home, the home that Viola and I fill with our boundless love and appreciation for the lives we are currently living.
This home, this land, this village – it is truly a sacred space. Blessed with fertile riverside soils and the gifts and tenacity of some of the most beautiful human beings I will ever know, Kyabirwa Village (all-too-often rebranded as Bujagali, which is not where any of this walk has taken place) is like no other place on this green Earth. They say this region is the cradle of humanity, and within it, I have seen the blessings of life born anew and the celebration of life as it passes beyond this realm. Even in our darkest moments, we as a diverse yet perfectly coexisting community come together to support each other.
This level of communal support, this network of connections, this completely interdependent social structure, this blurring of the line between community and family – it is an ideal that I think deep down we all yearn for. It is an ideal that all the music festivals I spend my time hopping around in California are trying so hard to emulate. It is an ideal that laughs in the face of a rhetorical dichotomy of developed and under-developed nations and populations. It is an ideal that redefines what development is. It is an ideal that we all must learn from. Here, in the cradle of all of humanity, it is an ideal that belongs at the forefront of our next leap in evolution, and it is an ideal that I believe we will all one day be blessed enough to walk home to.