As I end my journey in Uganda (eet), I wanted to share some fictional stories of the lives of people here. Even if these stories are not necessarily true, they are the truth.
Upon hearing the rustling in the mango tree I was climbing one day, I turn to see a young girl, no older than nine, perched on a very thin branch. She smiles mischievously, plucks a mango, and says hello. After one bite, she throws it down onto the ground. That’s when I hear a young girl sighing in very good English, “These children always waste.” Right below my feet, stands a young girl. As she climbs up, I climb down to meet her. With ease, she introduces herself and begins asking me so many questions about my life. We interrogate each other, cautious in the beginning, but gaining confidence with each answer, both curious about the other’s world. She stops the conversation at one point stating, “You people, you people are very good. Africans are very bad.” My mind struggled to find the right words. How could explain that all humans can be bad or good? And that white people have been especially cruel and conniving to the Africans? Should I delve into basic morality? I think I managed something along the lines of no no no, we are not good. We are both bad and good just like Africans.
At one point, I’m pulled away from our conversation to play a game of football and I say goodbye to Mary, the girl from the mango tree. As I attempt to play against my highly skilled coworkers, she goes back to her grass hut, only a couple hundred feet away. She starts cooking her family dinner at 5:30 p.m. – Thursdays are her night to cook dinner ever since her mom was sent to the hospital. As she lights the charcoal in her cook stove, her mind wanders, joining the smoke from the fire. She thinks about her dad, and how if the jealous men had not shot him down, then maybe her mom would not be in the hospital. Maybe she would be able to go to school past the end of the week, because his knack for selling cars kept their family well off. But as she adds the cassava flour to the boiling water to make atapa, the local bread, she knows that these thoughts will not get her anywhere. She leaves the cook stove and goes to where the people who make cook stoves play football and watches. As Juma easily takes the ball away from me, I catch a glimpse of her. I wave, she waves back. After the game when I go to talk to her, she has already gone back to finish making dinner.
You can hear Ochieng before you can see him. His laugh penetrates your entire body, to which you instinctively join him, shaking with laughter. His skill with sheet metal – he works in the cook stove industry- and his willingness to help anyone, made him loved by his fellow coworkers. As he spends his days hammering, cutting, and bending, he makes his comrades laugh by teasing them incessantly. At only nineteen years old, he was already making the best cook stoves at the factory.
Ever since he was about eight years old, Ochieng had been working with sheet metal. His dad, too poor to feed him and his other children, told him to work. He learned how to cut keys from his father, then quickly moved from trade to trade, picking up skills as he went. He went from being a pool connoisseur, to a welder, to a cook stove maker. When he was young he went to school, and even got a scholarship from the school for three years for his talent for long jump. But eventually the school fees were taxing, and he stopped going to school.
Not going to school changed his life. He knew that he would always need to make money by trade, so he decided to always do his best at no matter what job he did. He wanted to be rich. He had a dream of being a pilot, but needed money in order to get there. Without a high school diploma, he would have to start saving up for a long time. He spent little on himself, never buying things in excess, eating little. But when times were hard, he always gave what he had saved to his mom or dad, so that they could use it to feed themselves.
When you talk with Ochieng, you could never imagine the pain that he hid. You could never imagine that when he was seventeen years old, his childhood friend got pregnant. And that when she went into labor, there were medical complications that required a lot of money. You would not be able to tell that Ochieng spent days and nights finding that money, selling off his mattress and clothes and anything he could. That he resorted to begging, despite having promised himself that he would never do that. And you would not be able to know that a couple months after his girlfriend got better, he would walk home to an empty house, no traces of his girlfriend or his son anywhere.
Ochieng hid his pain away, focusing instead on his goal of becoming rich. He no longer talks to girls. When a girl says hi to him on the street, he will not respond. One girl told him that she loved him, and he told her to never say that again. If he wanted to give his son a better life and to get out a poverty, he could not be distracted by women.
Yet, even fixated on this goal, Ochieng always gives more than he has to everyone else. He forgoes dinner several nights a week in order to save enough money to give to the starving woman down the street. He offers his time to help the cook stove newbies, allowing them to catch up with the rest of the workers. He’ll watch his neighbor’s kids when they need him to. And at night, when he has time to himself, he goes on walks, reflecting on his life. He sits on his favorite log, looks up at an airplane flying above, and wonders what life is like in other parts of the world.
Emma was twenty six years old when he finished college. He was the third youngest in his class; most students took time off between semesters, since they could not afford to go every term. He had been sick with malaria while taking his final exams, so he waited in fear to learn whether or not he passed.
While he waited for about a year, he needed to find some way to make a living. So he ran into debt with a motorcycle dealership, and became a boda-boda. Life was fair; he was grateful for the steady income that trickled in every day, but he was restless. Waiting for hours at the boda-boda stand for a customer to come was tedious. Sometimes he would drive around looking for someone to pick up, but he always had to find a balance between aimlessly driving around for customers and not wasting too much gas. Mondays were always the worst. After the weekend, people were refreshed and often did not spend money on a boda-boda. Them saving money, meant him losing money.
But he always made sure to look his best for his customers. He kept his clothes very clean and his hair short. He cleaned his motorcycle every other day. At nights when the day was over, Emma would go back to his rented home, bathe, and go to the neighborhood restaurant. He goes to the same restaurant every day owned by a forty three year old women named Helen. He gets the usual of atapa and beans, winks at Helen, and compliments either her hair, her clothes, or her cooking. After dinner he always walks around with his friends that come from the same district as him, listening to whatever new song someone might have downloaded.
But June 31 was a different day - Emma will learn whether or not he passed his exams. As usual Emma started his day at six, taking his motorcycle along the usual route. But instead of stopping at the boda-boda stand, he continued straight towards his college. When he arrived to the Ugandan College of Commerce, he already saw a line of people waiting to hear their news. He parked his motorcycle, walked up to the end of the line, and did what one tends to do in Uganda: he waited. As hours passed by, he finally reached the beginning of the line, where a young woman smiled pitifully and handed him an envelope. Too nervous to open it in at the front of the line, he walked back to his motorcycle, his hands shaking. He carefully opened the seal, pulled out the piece of paper, and read the first few sentences. His shoulders relaxed, his hands unclenched, his spine stretched. He was a certified accountant of Uganda.