We’re Definitely Not in Kansas Anymore

The longer I stay in Uganda, the easier it becomes to focus on the daily grind and ignore my surroundings. Most days I spend my time thinking about the restaurant, the Monitor, my academic research, and how I can balance everything at once. As my thoughts contemplate the present, I’m also pondering the future—for Uganda, for me, and for my business.

These thoughts fill my mind every morning as I take a thirty-minute motorcycle-taxi ride to work. Once I leave my house, I hail a motorcyclist from the road and start negotiating the price. Except that I don’t really negotiate. Because I take the same route every day, I know exactly how much I want to pay and I walk away from drivers who try to charge more. I’ve become so stingy that sometimes I walk away from three drivers before I find one who agrees on the price: 5,000 shillings or $1.85.

Once I hop on the back of a motorcycle, the driver and I weave through Kampala’s notorious traffic towards the posh hill where most expats live. We pass the lavish golf course in the middle of Kampala and get stuck in traffic in front of the largest shopping mall. Then we cross to the other side of the city, where traffic is even more congested, and we find ourselves in the industrial area. Here the entrepreneurs do their best to drive Uganda’s economy forward, but innovation and business creation are not keeping pace with the thousands of people who migrate to Kampala every week searching for work.

Their plight is revealed when we abandon the main roads to take a shortcut through Kampala’s largest slum. Doing our best to keep the motorcycle upright on a narrow dirt trail, we wind our way through make-shift tenements that house Uganda’s poorest citizens. Here in the Namuwongo slum is where thousands of people end up after they come to Kampala and can’t find work. Here is where their dreams go to die.

On the edge of the slum, we cross the railroad tracks and the channel that funnels huge amounts of trash into Namuwongo. This provides a constant source of income to trash pickers, but it also makes the place reek—even from the back of a boda boda.

For the residents living there, the stench seems to linger for eternity, but for me, it mercifully passes after a few seconds. Suddenly I’m outside the slum at the office of the Daily Monitor. Sometimes I get off here and sometimes I continue to Jakob’s Lounge a few minutes away.

I take this commute for granted most days—too busy thinking about work to notice the goats crossing the street, people peeing on the side of the road, and dozens of hawkers crisscrossing the intersections, trying to make a living.

The longer you live somewhere, the more familiar and less foreign it becomes. I try to remind myself every morning of where I am, but sometimes I don’t need a reminder. New experiences occasionally slap me in the face and tell me yes, yes, this place is very different from the United States.

One of the most noticeable differences between my life in Uganda and my life in the United States is transport. I had a car in the U.S. which took me anywhere I needed to go on clean, tarmacked streets. In Uganda, I take the motorcycle taxis, buses, and public taxis called matatus that are constantly plunging into potholes on narrow, congested roads.

Most buses in Uganda don’t have a set schedule, so when I left for Gulu three weeks ago, I went to the bus park and hopped on a bus that was filling with passengers. It only took an hour to fill up—a quick wait by Ugandan standards—and pretty soon we were headed north.

Right before we were about to leave, a woman boarded the bus with an infant and two young children. She purchased a seat behind me and tried to arrange her children to sit on her lap, but there was one small problem: the seats on a Ugandan bus are no larger than the seats on an American airplane. There was room for her and her infant, but not enough for her two little girls, who might have been four and six years old.

The woman looked around. There was one seat available to my right. Perhaps she would have purchased it or maybe she didn’t have the money. Either way, it didn’t matter because another passenger quickly jumped on the bus and took the only vacant seat.

Because the average Ugandan woman has six children, it is common to see babies everywhere. But you rarely hear them. You see, Ugandan babies are magical. They almost never cry, even when they’re taking an eight-hour bus ride to Gulu.

So when I heard the screeches coming from the seat next to me, I knew right away that we had a problem. This child was sick. Coughing. Sneezing. Wheezing. The whole shebang.

While the mother had her hands full trying to placate her little traveler, it became clear to me that the two young girls, who were standing on their own in the middle of the aisle, were also sick. They weren’t coughing as much as their little sister, but you could tell they were struggling.

As the conductor checked everyone’s ticket in the back of the bus, he pointed at a man behind me and asked, “Why aren’t you holding your daughters? They’re sick!”

Oh boy, I thought. I hadn’t realized that the father of these two girls was sitting behind me, refusing to help his wife or hold his two sick daughters.

I know that parenting styles vary between different cultures and individual personalities, but to me, this man’s behavior was unacceptable. Perhaps he was trying to toughen up his daughters by making them stand in the aisle for an eight-hour bus ride, but to me, this seemed to be too huge a burden for four and six-year-old girls to bear.

For twenty minutes, I considered the decision before me. I immediately wanted to let the daughters sit on my lap, but I was concerned by the cultural implications of picking them up when their father insisted that they stand in the aisle. Would he be relieved or offended? If none of the men around me were addressing the situation, was I also intruding on some kind of gender boundary? There were very few women on the bus, but every one of them had a child on her lap. None of the men did.

Eventually, I decided to take the risk. I looked at the woman sitting next to me, pointed to her child in the aisle, and pointed to my lap. She smiled and said something to her daughter in Luganda. A few seconds later, the eagle had landed. The six-year-old had escaped the aisle, but now she was coughing on my lap with seven hours of pavement still in front of us.

An hour later, the other daughter joined her sister and the two of them snuggled up for a cozy ride. I couldn’t really sleep with two little girls on my lap, but at least it wasn’t the least comfortable trip I’ve had here (keep reading for that story). Nevertheless, I was fuming for most of the drive as I wondered how a father could make two sick little girls stand in the aisle for eight hours straight.

This thought was still burning in my mind when the woman got up and exited the bus with her two daughters right before we arrived in Gulu.

I looked at the man behind me. He hadn’t moved. And that made me think: he hadn’t arrived with the woman and three kids, he hadn’t said a word to them the entire trip, and now he was still on the bus leaving them behind.

When the conductor called him out and admonished him for not putting his daughter on his lap, I hadn’t questioned his authority, but in the end, it appears that the conductor was mistaken.

Spending seven hours fuming at how terrible this guy was had been a total waste of time and I violated one of the most important rules of journalism: always get your facts straight. This wasn’t a case of bad fatherhood; it was simply a woman with three sick kids who needed some help.

When I finally arrived in Gulu, I laughed at my own ignorance over a delicious meal at Aulululu, my favorite pork joint.

The next day I arrived at the Third Annual Institute on African Transitional Justice. During college, I researched transitional justice for my senior thesis and my mentor, Lori Hartmann-Mahmud, and I coauthored a journal article on the prospects for transitional justice in the Congo that is being published this spring in the African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review.

I haven’t focused on transitional justice during my research in Uganda, but I was excited to meet scholars in the TJ field and dive back into it. And even though I had huge obligations pulling me back to Kampala, I decided to give the conference a chance.

While I met some interesting people and learned a lot from the panels and discussions, I was fairly disappointed with the conference overall. The institute lacked a timekeeper, which seems to be a big oversight for any conference, especially one in Uganda. The conference also didn’t seem to be very “African” as it was almost entirely focused on Ugandan transitional justice. There were a handful of participants from other countries—Kenya, Burundi, Morocco, and South Africa—but over 80% of the attendees were from Uganda.

Because I’ve focused most of my research on TJ on mechanisms in Congo, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone (with the latter two being some of the most important case studies in all of Africa), I was disappointed that these and other countries weren’t represented or discussed.

Looking back, perhaps I should have read the program more carefully and checked the list of attendees before traveling eight hours to Gulu and an additional three hours to Kitgum, but I’m still glad I attended the institute. I met many interesting people and the conference had the potential to be amazing—it just fell somewhat short.

Nestled in the corner of Uganda, Kitgum is a strange place. It was deeply affected by the civil war in the north but has received about a tenth of the media coverage and NGO focus as Gulu a few hours away.

Most interestingly, Kitgum is now home to the rockin’ and boppin’ Facebook, its newest bar and night club. I experienced Club Facebook with a few other conference-goers on my last night in Kitgum. The club has a pool table, a T.V., a stereo system, and a bar with two beers and three spirits to choose from. It isn’t quite New York City, but for Kitgum, it’s not too shabby.

We left Club Facebook around two in the morning in a truck driven by a friend who works for an NGO in Kitgum. Normally I don’t like to drive around unfamiliar towns this late at night, but I had heard that Kitgum has much less crime than Kampala or most American cities.

What could have been a simple drive home quickly became the most surreal experience I’ve ever had in Uganda. I was standing in the bed of the truck, holding onto the safety bar, which is the best way to ride when the cab is full. If you try to sit on the side of the bed, as we do in the U.S., the bumps and pot holes might eject you from the truck. But if you stand up and hold onto the safety bar, you have greater stability and it feels like you’re surfing as the wind blows past you.

Immediately after leaving Club Facebook, we passed a police truck on our right. It flashed its lights at us but didn’t move. About 50 meters later, there was a military truck parked in a ditch on the left. Ugandan military personal carrying automatic rifles circled the truck.

Perhaps they’ve crashed, I thought, or maybe they’re doing some kind of training.

We drove on and 200 meters later, I saw a strange sight in front of us and banged on the top of the truck. “It’s a body!” I said, jumping down as the truck stopped. The driver rolled down his window. “There’s a person up there in the middle of the road!” I told him.

About 50 meters in front of us, a lifeless man lay in the middle of the road.

Three possibilities instantly came to mind. (1) This man was drunk and passed out in the middle of the road. (2) He was dead or in need of serious medical assistance. Or (3) This was an ambush.

Either way, this was a bad situation. Here we were at two in the morning on a dark road with a motionless body blocking our path. Even though Kitgum is relatively safe, stopping an NGO vehicle filled with passengers would be a clever way for thieves to steal some money…or worse.

And if the man was dead or seriously injured, then what if the military or police 200 meters back were somehow involved? Or what if they blamed us for this man’s condition? The Ugandan police and military are fairly corrupt, so who knows what they would do or say.

I asked the driver what we should do and he insisted that we continue. “This isn’t our problem,” he urged. “Let’s just drive around!”

At that moment, I forgot about the other six passengers in the truck. The driver had made his decision and now I needed to make mine. Do I hope back in the truck and pretend like nothing happened or do I do something to help?

Looking back, I realize that the driver faced a different decision than I did. As the driver of an NGO-vehicle, he was responsible for all of the passengers inside and could lose his job if he or the NGO got involved in a serious situation.

I never considered running over to the man and checking his pulse. Perhaps I should have, but the possibility of an ambush seemed too real to run over to him. Instead, I decided to notify the authorities 200 meters away.

It was still risky to go talk to the police, but I am also fortunate to have a layer of protection from my contacts in the U.S. State Department and the Ugandan media, military, and police. A police officer could still harass me or ask for a bribe, but I could probably reach up the chain of command to get out of trouble.

The safest thing to do was to get back into the truck and drive away. But I asked myself, would I be able to sleep tonight if I left someone in the middle of the road?

The answer was no. If I had gotten back in the truck and driven away, I would still be wondering right now what happened to that man. Had he needed life-saving medical attention, then I would have also been responsible for his death.

At that point, my decision was clear. The driver was wrong—this was our problem. History tells us that bad things happen when good people stand by and don’t help other people.

“Go ahead!” I told the driver while grabbing my backpack. “I’m gonna go tell the police.”

Only fifteen seconds had passed since I first saw the body and during that time, I had completely forgotten about the other passengers in the truck. So when my friend Cory grabbed his backpack and hopped off the truck, I realized my mistake. I had incorrectly assumed that everyone in the truck would go along with the driver, but of course, they were facing the same dilemma I was.

So when Cory got down and walked with me toward the police, I was incredibly grateful. It was still a surreal situation, but not nearly as scary with someone by my side.

A minute later, we met a soldier outside of the UPDF truck. “Excuse me, sir,” I said. “How are you?” Even during an emergency, I thought it was best to observe Ugandan formalities.

“Fine, thank you. How was your day?”

“Fine, sir. There is a body on the road about 200 meters down.”

“Okay.”

“I mean a body, like a man, lying in the middle of the road.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I know.”

When I play this conversation back in my head, it sounds pretty ominous, but the tone in the man’s voice was completely unassuming. I think he knew that a man was lying in the road—he simply didn’t care.

What a strange place! I thought. How can police and soldiers, who are responsible for protecting people, leave a guy lying in the streets?

I wasn’t going to ask the soldier that question. At that point, my work was done. I had notified the authorities and they were responsible for the man’s fate. Now it was time to get back to the hotel.

Cory and I looked back and saw that the NGO truck was still where we had left it. We ran back to the truck and hopped on the back, thankful that they had waited.

“What happened?” I asked. Cory and I were planning on taking a taxi to the hotel because we thought they had left.

Another conference-goer told us that they had gotten out of the truck and approached the body. They were braver than I was!

From a few feet away, they said the man looked like he was dead, but when they got closer, they smelled the alcohol, felt his pulse, and heard his breathing. Sure enough, he was a drunkard passed out in the middle of the street.

With the help of a Kenyan social activist, my brave friend Bani lifted the man and carried him to the side of the road, where cars wouldn’t run him over.

At three in the morning, we finally got to our hotel. We had survived the surreal experience, and I must say, I slept like a baby for the next four hours.

The next day, as people were wrapping up the conference, I left early to grab dinner with a few friends in Gulu. Because the evening bus to Gulu was full, I jumped into a matatu, which was the second-most uncomfortable journey I’ve been on here. I’ll spare you the details, but imagine 25 people and animals crammed into a 15-passenger van.

The highlight for me was a goat that was tied up and lying between my legs. About ten minutes into our journey, it had to poop. So for the rest of our three-hour ride, I kept my feet still and stuck my nose out the window.

Well, Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

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