…you walk out to the streets of Kampala, defeated, head hung low, face unable to muster a smile…
And then, suddenly, you’re buying one of the most delicious mangoes you’ve ever had, for the sublimely low price of 35 cents, sold to you by a woman sitting on the side of the road, resting in the grass, three of her friends at her side, all selling their own fruit of the day. The smile on her face puts one on yours, and the frustrations of the day begin to melt off you, one by one.
You walk along the sidewalk, passing jam-packed matatus and roaring diesel trucks. You pass a small girl in a pink dress covered in blue butterflies, her mother walking alongside her, hand in hand, the mother carrying her backpack, asking her how her day at school was. You lick the savory juice of the mango running down your fingers as you walk past open sewage lines and advertisements for energy drinks, water tanks and optometry services that provide glasses and improved vision, at least for those who can afford it.
On the horizon, you see the skeletons of buildings being erected in the ever-changing skyline of Kampala. You see the prehistoric maribu stork gently circling overhead, searching for a place to perch it’s behemoth body and hover over the bustling city below.
The line of boda-bodas whizzes past: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine in a row. The drivers wear helmets…you don’t see many of those outside of Kampala. A level of safety you’re not quite accustomed to. Even though it’s not quite safe, at least it’s a measure of precaution. The jam stalls around you, horns honk, whistles blow from the mouths of police governing traffic at the colossal intersection just up ahead.
You walk past the paintings on the wall trying to convince you that the electoral process in the country you are walking in is actually fair. “The authorized mark of choice is either a ‘tick’ or a thumbprint.” “We should learn to tolerate the views of others for peaceful elections.” “The cuticle of the thumb is marked with the indelible marker to confirm that you have voted.” And of course, your favorite slogan, occupying the most-viewed corner real estate, “Electing your leaders is a fundamental human right.”
A pledge to human rights, in a country where most people you talk to believe that the idea of human rights is a Western fabrication imposed upon a nation where the majority of citizens can barely afford to put food in the bellies of their rapidly growing families.
You round the bend so you can justify asking the boda driver for a 3,000 shilling boda ride as opposed to a 4,000 shilling boda ride by sheer virtue of walking in the direction that you are actually hiring him to drive you, but this walk is soothing your soul somehow, and you pass one driver after another. They wave you down, their hands high in the air. “Tienda boda, Webale,” you say as they smile at your feeble attempts to speak Luganda. They drive away, darting in between the lines of traffic unraveling ahead of you.
You walk past boys coming home from school, no older than 17, dressed in today’s vibrant and color-driven fashions, and you appreciate the enthusiasm held here with the ability of this city to make strides to become a ‘modernized’ society, a ‘modernized’ country, a ‘modernized’ economy, while still maintaining its unique character, still maintaining its beliefs, still maintaining its personality.
This city is no different from a person. It has a heartbeat. It has a pulse. It breathes, sometimes softly, sometimes so quickly that you think the heart itself might explode. It has its fears, it has its challenges, it has its triumphs, it has its moments of pure celebration and bliss. And every single day it awakens, every single night it sleeps, despite the lingering restlessness that abounds beyond the slumber.
This city is alive, nestled at the very heart of a country that is alive, and that has given you a renewed sense of life.
You are grateful for this moment. You are grateful for the smells around you, no matter how horrid they may be at times. You are grateful for this opportunity to be around these people, people you would never encounter if you had not left the comfort of your own home, of your own borders, of your own life.
This is your life now.
And that doesn’t frighten you. It’s an encouraging notion, one that reminds you of how young you are, how alive you are, how much vitality surges through you. It reminds you of the gifts and talents you have to bring to this part of the world.
Yes, you are an outsider. The term mzungu reminds you that you are an outsider everywhere you walk, every single day. Some days it’s hard. Most days you feel like an ‘other’, like you are being ‘othered’. Though most days you bask in the ability to be able to “zunga zunga” from place to place, earning the label that people throw out at you.
It is never said from a place of malice – almost always with a smile. A sense of amusement that abounds in this country. A sense of joy and hope that permeates every single struggle, every single hardship, every single problem that plagues this stream of people as we all walk along these abandoned railroad tracks, coming from work, coming from the market, making their pilgrimage back to their home, where they can reunite with their family for the night…whatever that home may be, whatever that family may be.
Humanity is very much alive here. These are not poor starving people. These are people of resilience, people of hope, people of passion, people with dreams, people with more similarities to you than you could possibly know.
These are people that have changed your life forever, people that will continue to do so for years to come, whether it’s introducing you to an organization whose work you truly believe in, whether its welcoming you into their homes, whether it’s the simple act of selling you one of the best mangoes you’ve ever eaten while sitting on the side of the road, for only 35 cents.
It’s not just a mango. It’s that smile. It’s that expression of gratitude. It’s that expression of love between two people who have never met, and who will never meet again. This is life at its most beautiful, and you are blessed to be a part of it.