Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,
There’s a jazz band in the hotel garden with a heavy bass that’s shaking the table as I write to you, my cold Nile Special beer sweltering in the evening heat. I’ve been here nearly three weeks and just checked in to my flight, a long journey back home starting tomorrow night. My first trip to Uganda was exhausting but productive, and while the report I write with my colleagues will be completed by the end of next month, I will have more lasting memories of the places I visited and the people I met.
I was reminded early in my journey that a formal greeting to a friend or stranger is commonplace, if not expected; one always finds the time to say good morning, good afternoon, or good evening. You are expected to wait for the response, and only then can the conversation properly continue. It’s something I hadn’t experienced in a long time, not since my days living in Ghana, and it was a pleasant reminder that simple courtesies matter. It slows down the pace. It gives you time to smile to the person you’re talking with. A few times in our journey across the country we were lost, looking for a guesthouse, a school or a district office. To stop someone by the side of the road and ask for directions would never be as curt as “Excuse me, where is the Golden Courts Guesthouse?” No. “Good evening,” our driver would say. “Good evening,” the response from a man by the side of the road, approaching us as our driver rolled down his window. And then the discussion, go down this road, turn left, take the first exit at the roundabout. In some cases, when the roads were windy or circuitous, the person we’d ask directions from would hop on his boda boda and personally escort us to our destination.
The band is now playing an instrumental of “Isn’t She Lovely.” The temperature has cooled now that the sun’s down, the patrons in the hotel’s garden area are sitting at their tables with friends, sipping their juice cocktails or Nile beers, the occasional lonely traveller like me typing away on an Excel spreadsheet or something that looks just as boring.
Last week I had the opportunity to meet students, many of them your age, who have benefited from a scholarship program that helps them throughout high school. All were happy to have received their scholarship, most of whom told me that without it, they might not have gone to secondary school. Can you imagine stopping school back when you were 11 or 12? Many of them come from small villages not unlike the ones we passed by as we drove across the country. Let me tell you what I saw.
Driving on the main road up to Arua near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, you get a sobering sense of the toll that drought has taken on the population. Without rain for months, the landscape is scorched yellow as far as you can see. A spattering of dried patches of grass become congregation areas for emaciated goats and cows chewing on meager offerings amidst a scenery blotted with used plastic bags: black, blue, transparent, they are omnipresent, on the ground, stuck in trees, half-burned, in ditches, by the side of the road. It’s as disgusting as it is sorrowful. Massive tree trunks add to the desolation, ancient trees once tremendous and hallowed sit crippled by the side of the road, cut down by villagers, their stumps jutting out of the ground, robbed of most of their branches used for firewood to heat up what would likely be a family’s only meal of the day. You see some men walking by the side of the road, most of their shirts a dull red brown that could have been white a long time ago. You look to your left and see boys playing in a ditch with a stick, shoeless, half-naked and crusted with dirt. Dozens of girls walk on either side of the road, barefoot for the most part, clothed in filthy tattered dresses shredded with time; you know it’s probably the only thing they own. Each girl is holding a yellow plastic jerrycan in her hands if she’s going towards the borehole to fetch water, or on her head if she’s making her way home, a balancing act she masters for a few hundred metres, a kilometre or two, or more. The brightest spots are the school uniforms worn by students on their way back from school; sometimes a bright purple, other times canary yellow. They walk together for the most part, taking up both sides of the road, a blaze of solid colours to spare me from the arid landscape. They seem to go on forever, until finally, a few kilometres ahead, we pass by the school, and see just as many students walking home in the other direction. I try to calculate how long some of them likely walk to get to school, and the best estimate I come up with is anywhere from a few minutes to three hours. And they do this every school day, twice a day. To sit in a classroom with on crappy chairs, to share a text book if they’re lucky, to listen to a teacher whose only resource might be a lousy piece of chalk that scribbles on a bumpy chalkboard that might have been black a long time ago but is now faded.
I think of the lives of children your age who grow up in these villages and I want to dismiss the urge to feel pity. Theirs is a resilience that is admirable. Living a day in their shoes, I suspect most teenagers you know would cower in desperation. It is a life nearly bereft of opportunities, but not, I would hope, of dreams. Unfortunately, even for those who complete their secondary education, their options are limited, and should they find gainful employment, their obligations to support family members will dwindle any savings away. It is a life of obligations, a life of duty and responsibility to family, a life guided as much by a parent’s decisions as an unquestionable and unwavering faith in God.
Having met some children from places not unlike what I’ve described, the reality is that they are no different from you. They stress about exams at school, they act silly in the absence of any adult, and they laugh at my corny jokes probably more out of respect than humour. Like you, they have dreams of who they want to be when they grow up; doctors, lawyers, engineers and nurses. I can’t say that I admire them, because their lives are not nearly as easy as ours, but I am thankful for such trips because they remind me of the respect that others in less fortunate circumstances deeply deserve. It’s a respect that helps me listen to their stories with rapt attention. One boy your age took his savings to buy a goat to help his family. One girl a little older than you used her savings to pay the school fees of a younger girl in her village who otherwise would not have access to primary school. A group of boys your age donated a dollar a month of their precious pocket money to help another student in need. No one obliged them to do these things; they are acts of kindness, acts that reflect their upbringing which reminds them to help others – “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
As I spend my last day on a continent I called home for four years, I down my now-warm beer and head back to my hotel room. The security guard near the elevator looks up from her Bible as I approach. She stands and presses the button to summon the elevator. “Good evening,” she tells me with a smile. “Good evening,” I reply. I notice my own smile reflected in the mirror as I step into the elevator.
Je vous aime, les boys,