TOUCH OF AFRICA

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When I flew to Uganda last year, a woman – she eventually disembarked in Burundi, where the plane touched down for an interlude – accidentally brushed up against me as she walked down the asile. She quickly apologized, and extended her hand in apparent concession. Coming out of a failed nap, I responded in kind: in a gesture of mutual reassurance, we pressed each other’s hands for a short moment, the pads of our fingers warmly easing into each other’s skin. Then she walked back to her seat.

I thought about the exchange, and how removed it was from New York City etiquette. We bump fists and have a repertoire of handshakes, but that kind of reassuring touch doesn’t happen in the subway tunnels. That’s the stuff of sub-Saharan African and the Middle East, and maybe western Europe. But not New Yorkers. We’re too tough, too independent for community support. No, thanks, I got this.

A few months after my flight, I was heading to Brooklyn on a packed rush hour subway. A woman boarded, and, even before the train resumed moving, she tried to reach the metal pole behind me to steady herself. But it was too far away, and all she grasped was air.

I wasn’t holding on to anything, either, but I’ve had years training with this urban balancing act, first as a kid taking tram rides in Warsaw, then as a kid taking subway rides in NYC. I didn’t even think of it as a skill until a visiting friend of mine described it that way. She didn’t seem to have the requisite cerebellar skill; she looked lost and helpless without an anchor to stabilize her.

“You can hold my hand, if you need to,” I told her.

“Oh. OK,” she said, without much conviction.

As the train accelerated out of the platform, I waited to see if she would take me up on the offer. She braved the physics of it at first. But as we picked up speed, the train began its steady mechanical sway; and, at the first jolt, she grabbed my hand immediately.

“Thanks,” she said meekly.

And I responded by doing the same. I held on to her forearm with equal strength, a shared rescue operation. And so we remained, two strangers holding on to each other and breaking New York City subway decorum, as the train sped under the river.


SEKAMANYA

All electricity had gone out of Kisoro, and I was sitting in the garden of the lodge with a book on my lap when the news came that my driver’s son had been taken to the hospital with a case of malaria. Ugandan roads have no lights and Ugandan drivers have no sense of moderation, so when Ibra, my driver for the week-long trip to the edge of Uganda, asked to leave a few days earlier than we had planned and at 3PM, which meant traveling late into the lightless night, I hesitated, but my anxiety quickly yielded to medical urgency.

“How old is your son?” I asked Ibra in the car.
“He is five.”
“What is his name?”
“He is called Sekamanya. S-E-K-A-M-A-N-Y-A.”
“Does it mean something?”
“Sorry?”
“Does it mean something in Luganda?”
“We have kings,” he told me and chuckled, suddenly embarrassed. “It is the name of a king.”

When I offered to buy medicine before we left town, he refused. Ugandans hide fear and sadness, and maybe Ibra’s nonchalant expression and manner were nothing more than cultural conditioning.  Within an hour of the drive, I shrugged off the urgency altogether, remembering that malaria is common in this part of Africa and many sick children return to health in a matter of days. We didn’t talk about Sekamanya any further, choosing to focus on radio and road instead, as I repeatedly failed to dissuade Ibra from passing large trucks precisely at those times when the curve was sharp and visibility wasn’t.

About half way through the trip, Ibra’s phone rang. He spoke in Luganda, which I couldn’t understand, and his tone, like his smile, communicated no vulnerability. When he hung up, I nervously asked him if it was about his son.

“Yes,” he told me. “Sekamanya is fine.”
“He is fine? That’s very good news.”
“Yes. My brother called. They told me I need to go to hospital. To clear the bill. But he is fine.”

Ibra’s smile loosened, confirming that the earlier version was nothing less than tense concealment of fear. We listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Bring It on Home” (“the beat is very OK”, he told me), Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” (“is that country music?”), and Edward Sharpe (no comment from Ibra).

It was dark now, and the myriad of trucks on the road kicked up dust that limited visibility even further. The continued possibility of an accident reminded me of a cocktail party I attended years earlier, where I’d talked with a medical student prepping for ER medicine.  We indulged each other’s fascination with the violent, undignified, and unexpected type of death.  It wasn’t just the banal assessment that life can drastically change in a fraction of a second that drew me, but, even more than that, the fact that the universe continues relentlessly in the face of tragedy–unabated, unaffected, unfeeling, with a stupid indifference. Mortality’s staggering aspect isn’t the the mangled body, but the absence of discernible disruption in the world. When the Death Star destroys peaceful Alderaan, Obi-Wan feels “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” But here on Earth, there is no despair in the wind, no empathy in birdsong, and no Jedi to feel terrible about it. Death is ripple-free. When my mother died, I didn’t know about it for days. You would think the universe would whisper bad news to you, but it doesn’t, and it feels like a betrayal.

My reflections were cut short when Lily Allen’s “Fuck You” came on the radio. I lowered the volume, thinking that most Ugandans wouldn’t appreciate the progressive politics or the impolite refrain. Ibra certainly had no comment, which was comment enough.

We arrived in Munyonyo at just about midnight. Ibra dropped me off at home, then drove off to see his son. I went to sleep, relieved about Sekamanya, relieved that we left when we did, relieved that we made it back without incident.

The next morning, I dawdled on the edge of Muchinson Bay before a work call scheduled for 10:30 AM. I was about to dial when a text message came from Ibra’s boss: Sekamanya had died in the morning. Another message flashed: “Ibra is so sad”.

I had no time to reply. I slowly dialed the bridge to the conference call instead, the mere act of pressing numbers suddenly a momentous effort. The phone rang, slowly, loudly, coldly, intrusively, wrongly. The death of a child is so ugly that we don’t even have a word for it in the English language. I connected to the bridge, and I focused desperately on the conversation: the legal issues, the business goals, the timing. The sadness receded as I puzzled over various subjects, and when I hung up about half an hour later I felt calm and satisfied that the call turned out OK.

A minute passed, and I stared blankly at the water, my mind back in Uganda. Ibra’s son was dead, I remembered. Ibra’s son Sekamanya was dead, and I was making calls. And it felt like betrayal.


SEVENTEEN MINUTES

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“That the self advances and confirms the ten thousand things is called delusion,” says Dogen Zenji. “That the ten thousand things advance and confirm the self is called enlightenment.”  It’s all in the metaphysical hands of a greater force.  There’s an Yiddish saying: “man plans, God laughs”.  We’re deluded to think we’re in control.

I’ve traveled to Japan, Dogen Zenji’s country of birth, but it was in Uganda that I felt the fuller force of this principle.  Nothing here goes to waste, except time. It’s not lack of planning exactly, it’s just a different relationship with time altogether.

After filming one morning, I drove to a Mzungu restaurant in town. (Mzungu means white person; a Mzungu restaurant is one that caters to the western palette by serving burgers, fish and chips.)  It wasn’t lunch time yet, and the place was empty, save for a 20 something year old boy behind the counter.  I was hoping for relatively quick service.

“How long will a dish of fish and chips take?” I asked.
“Fish and chips?”
“Yes.”
“Seventeen minutes,” he replied authoritatively, and with surprising precision.
“Seventeen minutes,” I paused. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“OK. I’ll just run to the bank in the meantime, then,” I responded.
“OK. So we start fish and chips, and you come back.”
“Yes.”
“OK.”
“Thank you.”
“Yes, please.”

I jumped back in my car, and drove to a nearby ATM. As I approached, I saw a big sign on the screen: “Sorry, ATM closed.” The teller inside the bank told me it would be open again in 10 minutes.

“I’ll just eat lunch and come back, then,” I told him.
“Yes, please,” he responded.

I flashed him a thumbs up, and hopped back in my car to return to the restaurant. Fifteen minutes had passed, and I was hoping lunch would be at least close to ready. The 20 something year old boy was gone, and the woman behind the counter was washing something in the sink.

“I’m back,” I said.
“Hello,” she said.

I looked around, and noticed that the stove wasn’t even on.

“Have you started to cook?” I asked.
“I am just cleaning the fish.”
“What? But he said seventeen minutes,” I paused. “It’s already been fifteen.”
“The fish,” she held up the plastic bag. “There is ice in it.”

Normally, I’d take this in stride. But I had to film in the afternoon, and I didn’t have time to pass the time by contemplating the passage of time. I headed back to my lodge, the one place in town that seemed to serve food at familiar speeds.

But my lodge was an island onto itself. The rest of Uganda breathes and lives in different, slower, more organic rhythms. Not just in NYC, which runs on hyper speed, of course, but the slower American and European towns, too. I thought about the boy behind the counter telling me that lunch would take 17 minutes to prepare. It was just a number that sounded good, but it had no mathematical reasoning behind it–it was just a synonym for “when it’s ready”.  The food would come when the food would come.

When I headed back to the ATM an hour earlier, the “Sorry, ATM is closed” sign was gone. But the ATM wasn’t actually working. Neither was the one at the only other bank in town. I had to make do with the few shillings I had left. And I did. And like every other day in Uganda, this little experience confirmed my suspicion: planning is useless. More than that, it’s not even necessary. In Uganda, things fall into place own their own.


ON THE TERRACE

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the air
In the habitual silence of this wood
Is more than silent . . .
Come!—let me see thee sink into a dream
Of quiet thoughts . . .
–Wordsworth

Murchison Bay was perfectly flat.  Here and there a wooden fishing boat glided over the lake’s motionless surface, and the oars–gently and nearly without sound–disrupted the mix of gold and blue resting just beneath.  The water parted for a moment, then returned to the original, reflective pattern.

The silence–the pervasive silence–felt infinite, connected to the silence of the entire cosmos. Maybe that was the source of its metaphysical power: silence, not small talk, is the universal default. But it wasn’t complete silence. There was a soft, delicate tapestry of sound. Crickets, birds, monkeys; some near, some far. After enough Ugandan mornings, I’d begun to distinguish them from each other, the way, in NYC, I had learned to distinguish the sounds of cars from the sounds of trucks, or a departing subway from one just arriving. This wasn’t actual silence, just sound without human noise.

The richness of the vista and the soft cacophony seeped into and healed every distraught molecule.  Mornings like this are spiritual euphoria–paradoxically, an auditory embrace.  It’s tempting, at the height of the experience, to make a break, to imagine finding permanent refuge in solitude. But it’s not in my nature. Once my soul is satiated, the physical and mental idleness of solitude begins to feel like lingering. I have to say something, do something. I have to be around people, immersed in urban noise. I have to take things in—the very the things that, sooner or later, I want to leave far away.

An hour later, I finished my coffee, gathered up my books, and drove off to continue the day in Kampala. But I was already looking forward to the next sunrise.