By good fortune, or so it seemed, the black, African minister and his wife came to my hometown in search of an adventurous and unwavering soul to teach at their mission school in Africa! You see, this was nothing less than a phenomenal opportunity that I was literally born for. The bit of information spread rapidly and then it made its way to me. After all, to know me was to know my commitment and personal mission in life: As a child I had promised my best friend and Heavenly Father…God that I would someday live in Africa. My parents swore that ‘Africa’ was among my first few words. They say I would often head out to our backyard, grab the shovel and announce, “I’m digging to Africa.” I mean, meeting this African pastor was better than shaking hands with a movie star.
A church I was affiliated with had funded the minister’s mission for years and was responsible for his sojourn to America. Four years prior, my son Peyton and I had taken a leap of faith and moved to Anchorage, Alaska to experience the ‘end of the road’ and for me to attend the University. My ex-husband’s occasional flings had gotten the better of me and I needed a strong dose of self-worth, wider skies and a degree in biology. Indeed, there in the ‘Last Frontier’ life was more than pleasant and Peyton and I were doing fine.
While in town Reverend and Mrs. Kozi interviewed many before zeroing in on me. Of course, I felt as though I had won an award. He chose ME! This man, with a rich and romantic dialect, was most gracious, yet in charge. He was well-spoken, quick-witted and uncharacteristically tall for a Ugandan, which added to his rich demeanor. His dark coloring rendered his eyes and teeth surreal. As he extended his hand toward me, I felt flushed and unearthed. Somehow, I managed to utter, “I need time to think about the proposal.” There was one ‘very small hitch,’ and it involved money. The house where we were to live wasn’t quite finished and he was suggesting that I make up the difference in cost. Somehow I sensed disapproval when I asked for time. I rationalized that hesitation might cancel the deal, so I bought into the proposal with only the slightest of constraint.
Our first meeting took place exactly one year before I was to graduate from the University of Alaska Anchorage. Actually, the reverend’s timing was perfect, for it would certainly require at least one full year to prepare for such a migration. Peyton was 11 then and well immersed into a lovely Christian school. Decidedly, yanking him out of the school, the town and the country demanded total attention, research and commitment. Was I up to it? Could I do it? Those questions were forwarded to the reassuring fact that this was a man of God. With Peyton at my side, I was no match and eventually gave way to divine trust.
In return, the minister was taken by the promise I made to myself so long ago. After all, “You did promise to live in Africa and not just visit,” was his most rapid and endearing reply. Most of all, the man was happy with my degree choice. He was thrilled that my scholastic background was biology, assuring me that I would be teaching much more than classroom reading and writing. From there he detailed the job saying, “Sister Penny, this is an all-inclusive, family- involved regimen that is intended to deal with sanitation and agriculture, including how to keep crops vital.” Family health care and even literacy in the home were integral parts, as well. Ahead of these things, malaria prevention took first place in the agenda.
Peyton, P for short, was an integral part of our final meeting. Although reticent at times, he was able to speak of his personal concerns and articulate appropriate questions. I can easily remember his continued and grave issues with food and if there was a McDonalds in Africa. “What will we eat and will Mommy fix it? Can we eat like we do here? Will we cook on a stove?” The Reverend’s answers were never satisfactory to the boy, so he finally turned to Mrs. Kozi for reassurance.
“Of course your mother will fix your meals and there will be plenty of hamburgers there for you,” Mrs. Kozi insisted.
“What about school?” P eventually asked, but through Reverend Kozi’s assurance he was placated and eventually gave it no further thought.
It was during our second meeting that the man made a solid offer. “Well, Madam Penny, can we make a commitment now?”
As those words spilled into the room, passion fueled my zeal and temporarily threatened my composure. It was as though my whole existence spontaneously made sense. I shuddered as ‘YES’ reverberated through my mind. At that precise moment though, I pulled myself down from the ozone to comprehend what was happening.
Recognizing and thanking God for my presence of mind, I followed his question with, “We still need time to think over the money part,” I stated boldly.
Reverend Kozi smiled reassuringly, looked into his wife’s eyes, and then turned and gazed into mine saying, “Of course you need time. But, we will need to ready the house and that will take months.”
I nervously quipped, “It’ll take months to come up with all that money!” We all sorta mumbled a giggle and the meeting ended. We did see the couple one more time before they took off for home. I grew more and more invested as the moments snuck by. P kept quiet most of the time and let me do the talking. But then again, that surely didn’t mean I missed out on his opinion. Once home he let it fly.
More immediate than not both Peyton and I began our research. It wasn’t necessarily a conscience engagement, but more taken in stride. We said our prayers, too. I was constantly praying for answers and a steady mind, while P prayed for me to make good decisions. To our advantage, it was 1996 and political upheavals were minimal; even in Africa. Picture books, journals, travel accounts and even personal interviews shaped our days. Although I could easily envision us in Africa, I knew it was prudent to lay low and ruminate on the facts. And so I did.
Appropriately never-ending contemplation and examination consumed my mind and filled my hours. Deeply housed within were several notions, including my well-kept secret that I might have found a way to force the final commitment. An unrelenting desire to graduate with academic honors began to swell within and I figured that somehow moving to Africa should be fortified with “now business.” If I could achieve cum Laude status, which I believed to be impossible, I should be savvy enough to make a successful transition to another world. Therefore, I resolved to stake everything on the numbers, and move to Africa only if I made the dean’s list.
Central to everything was the well-being of my son. Could I justify uprooting Peyton and transplanting him into a country of strangers where we would be left to survive pretty much on our own? During those confusing times I still held fast to my love affair with the continent. It had always been my energy source and I never doubted that I would eventually live there. I knew my childhood dream was a blessing and that it alone was responsible for the caliber of verve that kept me amenable to leaping tall buildings. But this was not only about me–this was about my child. I had to remember that it was not his dream; it was mine.
As planned, the following year I concentrated on life pertaining to Africa. Too, the pastor was diligent about staying in touch. “How can the Reverend afford to call us so often?” P would press.
I had no answer except to say, “Well Sweetie, I guess they have a private telephone in their home and that’s good news to me.” Often I would simply give to P’s questions with a stock response. Besides, preparing for our potential future while chasing near excellence was exhausting and it nagged at me both night and day. Let’s face it…I was tired.
Graduation was approaching, and that alone was giving me in a spin. Sometimes it was impossible to quiet my mind and I was often disturbed by dreams that captured my misgivings as something gooey, thick and able to squeeze through my fingers like used motor oil, leaving an indelible stain of failure behind. I tried not to think about stains and permanence, but met each morning with hope and the belief that “God had me,” no matter the outcome.
Heading my list of academic fears was not receiving an acceptable grade in one of my final courses. Acceptable meaning an A, that is. During registration I had opted for that particular class because of my fascination with hoofed stock. Neglectfully, I gave little thought to the mechanics of the course. Facts that I innately understood were somehow beyond my grasp. The story has a great ending, though. A few of us proved the course to be of graduate level and an additional final was offered by the professor. I am happy to report I did get the “A,” and that was the remaining component to cement my final decision. Yes, we were moving to Africa and there would be no turning back now. Yikes! Africa; sobering thought that.
That is how it all began. I was determined to achieve my goal or postpone the move until another time. I knew I would eventually meet my African heritage face-to-face and when it happened I would grasp it and never let go. As decisions morphed into reality, I began to rationalize the approaching experience; knowing we were in for a journey that had no end.
Three and one-half months later our African departure date rolled around. Happily, our exit from America was interrupted by a couple visits along the way. We made a stopover in Denver just to see our “family of friends” we had left behind when moving to Alaska. Most of all, we had to drop by my hometown of Fort Worth and extend a hearty good-bye to my family. Naturally, my parents were not too thrilled about the move and my mom would vacillate between congratulations and grumbling about the “wrong decisions I had made in life.”
My parents, originally from Michigan and Ohio, had migrated to Texas before my birth. Both embraced the conservative culture there and pretty much regarded foreign lands to be off limits. They perceived Africa to be nothing less than a looming threat controlled by savages, and the most volatile continent on the planet. Once my mom raised her voice saying, “I can’t imagine a single white woman and child all alone in what will probably end in total disaster.”
My dad described frightening scenarios saying, “Do you know they steal white women and turn them into slaves? What will Peyton do when he loses his mom?”
I worked to make sense of it all adding, “But listen you two, I have researched and studied for a solid year and know what I’m getting in to. I wouldn’t risk my son’s life. I have a job and it’s with a minister!”
“But, he’s an African,” Daddy scoffed. “No telling what he believes in.”
“Yes, is he Baptist?” chimed Mother.
While I worked to inject enough reason to mitigate their angst, they commiserated and finally revealed their biggest concern. They declared that their grandson would be forever lost or killed and they would never see him again. Mother acknowledged my preoccupation with Africa from what she called a disturbingly young age, but now confessed that she had always hoped I would never really go. It took true conviction to leave without their blessing, but in the end we said farewell and vowed to see them in no more than six months.
After all the fanfare from friends and family, we were finally on our way and boarded a British Airways plane there at the DFW Airport. P and I had a case of the sillies and laughed all the way until we were seated. Funny how relaxed we were. As I squeezed P’s hand he looked up and smiled saying, “Here we go Mommy. It’s the adventure of our lives.” We touched the side of the plane for good luck–not knowing why–and stepped inside. What seemed like forever finally delivered us to the airways and my heart soared ahead of us all.
The flight was uneventful and we exited the plane just as we had entered. Neither of us had slept and we were enlivened to the heights. We were scheduled to spend three days in London and were even picked from the airport. A friend from Anchorage was living in London at the time and she had offered to share her flat for the duration. There were two bedrooms, so I settled for the couch, allowing P to go to sleep early that first night.
Because my sleep pattern had been turned upside down, I purposely left the television on all that evening just for the noise. In the early morning hours as I lay in a state of slight slumber, alarming words entered my mind. At first I thought it was all part of a dream; then I rallied and began to rationalize my whereabouts. I focused. The newscaster announced the brutal news that Princess Diana had been killed. I sat up and cried out, “Oh God, Princess Diana has been killed.” I then ran into my friend’s room, repeating the same words as I approached her bed.
“What’s going on Mommy,” rang from the other bedroom. Peyton came hobbling out, still in a state of sleepiness.
“Who is killed?” he demanded.
“Princess Diana apparently was killed in an auto accident,” I offered. After that there was nothing left but the sound of the newscaster’s voice. We did not venture out until late that day. The streets were filled with mourners and my friend was reluctant to deal with the crowd. The day ended early as we faded off into silent sadness.
The fact that Diana was dead and the stories that followed left me in quite a state of disbelief. Because of this, I took a bit of time and talked things over with P. Somehow I got entangled in the ordeal and even took it personally. It gave me pause and I can still remember the waves of fear that temporarily engulfed me. I just wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing and that we would be safe.
“I understand the sadness,” P added, “But why do you seem so worried?”
“Do you realize the gravity of our situation and that we are actually moving to Africa?” I insisted. “I just hope I am doing all the right things.” Peyton finally gave it up and so did I, for the most part. We both went to bed and had the best sleep we had experienced in days.
Although we originally had no plans to lengthen our stay in the U.K., the idea that Scotland was within a reasonable distance from London, literally “just up the road,” spoke to me. After all, in addition to Africa, Scotland held a special place in my heart. With that kind of proximity, who could blame me? It was a rather quick diversion of four days and three nights and we were back on track again.
While on the road we stopped at the post office and placed a call to Kampala and the mission office. We had nailed down the day and time of our arrival. It was about eight in the morning when the Reverend’s voice came through the receiver and filled my ear. “Hello, Reverend Kozi speaking. May I help you?”
“This is Penny,” were the only words that would roll out of my mouth. For reasons unidentifiable I froze after that and just looked at Peyton.
“Yes Sister Penny, we have been waiting for your call. Are you well? Where are you? How is Peyton?” These were the nagging questions I could hear, but just could not answer! I can still recall the spine tingling sensation that gripped me and refused to let go. His voice seemingly brought about a weird trepidation that stunned me. Perhaps it was the distance, but I had never felt such in America.”
Moments passed and I easily perceived his discomfort from the other end of the line. Finally I uttered, “We are in Glasgow, Scotland and will be arriving Tuesday morning at 7:30.”
“We will pick you, no problem,” was his return. After that I made an excuse and simply got off the phone. Of course Peyton heard and saw what was happening. He was full of suspicion.
“What happened to you, Mommy? You were rude to the minister.” I made up some excuse and tried forgetting about the whole occurrence. Meanwhile, I plugged away at convincing myself I was just feeling a bit skittish concerning our actual arrival. True, there were times my waning courage got the better of me, but again, I was convinced that God had me.
That night instead of sleeping I tossed and turned while trying to make sense of my secret and internal “explosion.” Eventually my mind wandered to Mrs. Kozi and I made effort to focus on her, and for good reason. At first notice she appeared kind and thoughtful with eyes as still and deep as pools of water. Her vocal tone was soothing and it was easy to listen to anything she had to say. I appreciated her cheerful demeanor and especially valued the words she sometimes chose for expression. She was a large woman, but not to the point of obesity. She was less black than her husband and even had a brown cast to her skin.
At the mission I was told that this reserved and dignified woman was recognized for having a spiritual power of sorts. This I found fetching, for it was not in any way connected to her husband’s agenda. She was strong and stood solid. I knew within my heart that I could trust her and Peyton heartily agreed. Still, there was a general unease and it weighed heavily on me, yet I told no one and conducted my part with a peaceful resignation.
The moment we touched down at Uganda’s International Airport, south of Kampala, I was 100% in. I mean, it was the whole basket of goodies waiting on me. All was worth the stress, the fear, the constant need for reassurance, and of course the money. My elation was irretrievable and unleashed. I probably would have trusted a known thief at that moment. Deplaning onto African soil was over the top! Without hesitation I knelt to the ground, kissed my hand and laid it upon the tarmac. I closed my eyes and softy spoke, “I’m finally home. Thank you God.” It was as though I had reached the pinnacle of my entire existence. There I was with my precious son at my side, standing upon the land that had forever filled my heart. That was all I could comprehend for days to come.
After customs and immigrations had their way with us, including two $60 entrance visas, we declared nothing and received treasured stamps on our passports. We slowly marched out of one room, immediately into another and finally ended up in an even larger room with dozens of people waving placards above their heads. Inventorying the crowd, we immediately spotted a “Penny and Peyton” sign among the others, right in the middle of all the confusion.
“I think that’s them,” yelled P. “There’s Mrs. Kozi up front.” There they stood, a group of many extending their lips upward with hands clapping, beaming from ear to ear. They were holding those placards high with the jumbo-sized red letters appearing almost neon.
A crowd of many were shouting, “Welcome, our American guests!” and they were looking squarely at us. “You are welcome!” was their continuous mantra. I was overcome with heightened emotion to the point of extreme embarrassment. I had never been the center of attention in such a way. I’m telling you, it was like we were celebrities. Later we learned that it was customary for large groups to travel to the airport to receive visitors. They were there to welcome us and assure our comfort and safety back to Kampala.
The terminal was small and we were outside in the African sun in moments. Reverend Kozi ordered someone to retrieve our bags, and we followed him to his car. Again, my delight held me hostage and I knelt to grab a piece of earth. Yep! The dirt was old; it was riveting; it was Africa.
Once reaching the car, we were expected to hop into the back seat. We waved goodbye to the others as they dispersed, accessing public transport back to Kampala. A turn of the key and the engine roared. We were on our way. As we slowly motored the 35 km. to Kampala we were suddenly bathed in a heavy fragrance I had never experienced before. “What’s that smell?” asked P. “Is it food? I’m hungry.”
“Yes Peyton, but it is also what is used for cooking the food.” said the Reverend. “It is actually a mix of paraffin, wood smoke, probably some charred meat, and for sure, steaming bananas.”
“Mommy, can we eat when we get there? How long will it take?”
“Sure, sure. We will eat,” replied Mrs. Kozi.
There in the back seat, I secretly frowned at P, for I thought he was too demanding. But more importantly, I was focused on that original scent, for it was fading and lost within the inordinately thick, vehicular exhaust. I made effort to memorize the bouquet and disregard the rest. This is not to be taken lightly. Until this day, both Peyton and I know that fragrance all too well. Most of Uganda retains this distinctive ambiance and we mentally wallow in it when it first hits our nasal passages.
We learned lots on the way to the guesthouse. I was ready to absorb, and my questions never ended. “What’s steamed bananas about? Is that the reason the air is full of steam?”
Once again the minister answered saying, “Yes Sister Penny, that is our national staple called matoke. It’s simply steamed bananas. You will love it.” After that, the minister talked on about how little wood there was in Uganda because of dwindling forests. He gave us an earful about the value of charcoal and how dear it was. After that he discussed the use of paraffin and how it would become our best friend. We had no idea what that meant at the time.
The ride to Kampala city center was long and I was fidgety the whole way. I had asked to stop at a bank so that I could exchange my American dollars for some Ugandan shillings. Too, we had quite a bit of money on us and I wanted to open an account. All these things had been discussed earlier, so the couple was prepared to make the stop. Before we knew it we had pulled up to a rather modern–yet post-colonial–red brick building. We parallel-parked and all four of us got out of the car.
“This is the most secure banking institution in all Kampala,” the Reverend informed us.
“I remember reading about the guns,” P quipped. “Everyone has them.”
“No,” said Mrs. Kozi, “Only the guards, police and military. They protect the bank.”
We approached the bank and passed the two guards holding automatic rifles who stood on each side of the heavy glass doors. On entrance, we began to search for the first available teller. Waiting our turn, we eventually strolled up to a window manned by a distinguished, yet frightfully thin, young black man in a dark suit and yellow-striped necktie. He was ever so handy and smooth with the transaction and I recall thinking how ordinary the whole process seemed…except for the big guns, that is.
At the end of our business Mrs. Kozi counted the money I had received in the exchange for my dollars. She was quick to point out that the man had cheated me by thousands of shillings (roughly $100). While I confronted him, the teller insisted we were wrong, yet all along gushing apologies and never offering to recount the money.
At the same time, the wife was persistently whispering in my ear, “This is no place to put your money, Sister Penny.”
After all the counting and absorbing the advice that had been irritatingly tickling my ear, it was established that we had caught the young teller straight away and exposed his shenanigans. By that time the other bank tellers had been alerted and a couple came to my aid, each one of them gushing apologies and assuring me it was nothing more than an innocent mistake.
Everyone was saying, “Sorry, Sorry,” again and again; two “sorrys” at a time.
The abundance of apologizing took me aback, for it appeared wholehearted, although no one took any responsibility. Next came the preacher’s unexpected diatribe, as he seized the opportunity to berate the man with a rueful vengeance. He demanded to know how he could commit such a crime and sleep at night.
“Don’t you know the Lord is watching you?” he ranted.
Peyton and I didn’t know what to think about any of this except we had read that banks and money always meant trouble in Africa. Although I knew to be constantly alert and to preside over any exchange of money, this was all happening too fast. Ultimately I shank from the situation and let the “man of God” handle the whole thing.
Yes, it was odd that I was surprised at the blatant attempt to cheat me. After all, I had been informed, educated and lectured in regard to suchlike matters for more than a year. Questions regarding where and how to be safe flooded my mind as I heard the Mrs. sharply inquire, “You won’t put any money in this bank, will you?”
All I recall was my open mouth and the syllable “uh” coming out. Not at all sure what to do or think, we turned to our trusted sponsors. After all, the two of them had given us many scenarios depicting the deplorable and ruthless state of affairs in African banks. From the beginning they both had written letters and even made a few phone calls in an attempt to prepare us for the move and caution us on the Ugandan banking system.
At the time Mr. and Mrs. Reverend were ever so irate, forcing their opinion upon us. I had trusted them all along, even to the point of forgoing traveler’s checks, as they insisted that most banks would not cash them. And so, in the end P and I locked eyes, shrugged our shoulders and I acquiesced. “Forget the bank,” I agreed, “but then where do we put our money?”
Our hosts replied in unison, “At the guesthouse!” As exhausted as we were, we were too drained to make another decision. For now we would simply sit back, enjoy the ride and the city sites that would soon give way to an even thicker blur of vehicular exhaust.
Later I would write in my journal about the thin, dark, young bank man and his perplexing behavior. I noted that during the entire incident the man was never noticeably off guard. Although, once confronted he surrendered completely. He was profuse with platitudes, possibly detecting that this was our first day in Uganda. His smile was as believable as a five-year-old. This was our first strong indication that we might not know so much about the African mindset. As we withdrew from the banking area of town, we were off to see the guesthouse where we had agreed to stay until our home at the mission school was completed. We became increasingly anxious as we took stock of where we were headed, realizing we were leaving the big city behind.
By the time we reached Hoima Road in Nakulabye, Kampala’s Old Town, we had entered a world that was somewhere between village and industrial. Mostly it was poor. The main road was paved, but given to continuous potholes that housed a great deal of smelly decay and never-ending red clay. The clouds of red dust, coupled with the seriously thick, black sediment from the many passing lorries almost rendered our air source clogged. You could pretty much taste it.
About then we pulled off the road. In the midst of many run-down buildings and shacks sat our temporary home…the guesthouse. We were pleased at first glance, as it outshined all other nearby buildings. We particularly appreciated the no “mzungus” (white people) status of the area, all along assuming “Old Town” to be a precious and preserved section of the city.
As the Reverend’s late model Toyota Corolla slowly eased inside the protective compound that surrounded the guest quarters, the gateman closed the 12-foot, cast iron frame behind us. I was thinking, “Why the secrecy?” Before we could inquire if the gate remained shut at all times, the car was swarmed. Members of our “extended church family” had gathered with our airport greeters for an official welcoming. They, like the airport greeters, were all singing and waving their hands while preparing to receive us from the car. This was traditional Ugandan etiquette, which remains active even today.
The greeting ritual is just one of the many practices we have always held most dear. As a mzungu, the most common sentiment you will ever hear, other than “Sorry, Sorry,’ is one of welcoming. Proper manners and politeness often outweigh truth in Ugandan culture and that should never be forgotten.
Whites hold an excess of power in most of Africa, whether it is wanted or not. The British and European colonists forced their cultures on the natives in the name of religion, civilization and commerce. Ugandans continue to uphold some of the same standards and some of the old practices of the British imposed in the late 17th Century. Imperial powers eradicated almost all of Ugandan’s original culture, leaving behind confusion with no trace of nationalism or collective self-esteem.
We often heard that one never really knows what an African is thinking. Taking that into account, Peyton and I still believe the emotions expressed on that first day were honest and true. Everyone appeared genuinely grateful to have us–including all we represented. Even today, we not only believe in it, we depend upon it.
High-spirited was the crowd and the singing, dancing and clapping spilled onto us in heaping proportions as we stepped from the car. The festivities temporarily halted at this juncture with the minister’s announcement that we were tired and needed to rest before the welcoming could continue. “Please clear the way now,” were his words. Everyone obeyed and gave way to as we followed the couple into the building.
A small group followed us through the courtyard and into the building’s reception area. There in front of a small window was a brown counter that was covered in deep scrapings embedded in the wood. The clotted dust worked to hide the insults. Against one wall stood a dilapidated, stained and torn couch and a white, plastic chair was positioned against the opposite wall. Unfortunately, the window provided just enough sun to illuminate everything all too well, revealing tattered curtains and age.
As we turned, we faced a very dark, long hallway lined with several doors on each side. The corridor smelled of something chemical; something we had never smelled before. The room doors weren’t made of ordinary wood, but of very stout teakwood; dark and suggestive. They were obviously hand-carved, equipped with a slot for a corresponding skeleton key. Our room was the last one on the right. As we stopped in front of the locked door, I was handed the key. I gasped quietly, yet it was just loud enough to be heard. Peyton peered into my eyes and then took charge, relieving me of the duty.
P’s little hand turned the key and the door swung open. There it was, worse than I could have ever imagined: a large room with a bed covered from above by a heavily stained mosquito net that was nailed to the ceiling. There was an end table and another long table and a dirty floor in between. Mrs. Kozi seemed embarrassed and offered, “The maids will be cleaning. They forgot your room.” As she spoke my attention wandered to the opposite wall that was comprised of two large wooden doors, which I didn’t bother to open. To relieve the palpable tension, both P and I smiled as we turned to face our keepers. Then we all stood there smiling together.
Eventually the Mrs. said we should take an hour to rest. “Sure thing!” I sputtered as they slowly backed away and were swallowed by the darkness of the corridor. When the door finally closed, I fell back against it and sorrowfully moaned to my sensitive one, “Oh God, what have I done?”
Peyton squeezed my hand and said, “Don’t worry, Mommy. We will get our things out and arrange the furniture to make it work.”
His courage overwhelmed me. Naturally we were inquisitive about the two wooden doors and eventually opened them, discovering dozens of drawers arranged side by side. There were no hangers and everything had to be folded to fit into narrow cubes. Next, I turned toward the bathroom. This took guts! There was a commode with no cover and a large showerhead in one corner protruding from the wall. This room was quite large and it was obvious that the water would merely fall to the ground, splashing everywhere, as there was no shower curtain.
It didn’t take long to discover what I deemed to be our first African pet…a cockroach the size of my thumb! Peyton noticed it first and yelled, “Watch out!”
“My gosh, P! What is wrong?” I bantered back as I took leave for the door. Then I spotted it. Peyton spotted the large aerosol can on the bathroom floor. The word “DOOM” was written on the side of it with a picture of a bug. Without hesitation I grabbed it and sprayed the life out of the roach. After, I slumped down into one of the two chairs and wept as P sat quietly next to me holding my hand.
“Mommy, this will all work out. Remember your love for Africa,” were the words my sweet son poured out. That made the difference and I dried my eyes and hugged my boy ever so tightly. We returned to the dead bug, looked for non-existent toilet paper, and finally scooped him up in a plastic bag we had brought from home.
Exactly one hour later the minister’s house girl Florence summoned us. She knocked on the dense, wooden door so faintly we barely heard her. That was followed by an even fainter voice saying, “Sister Penny, you are expected.”
Somehow the words made it to our ears and we unlocked the door. As we followed her back down the black hall, she advised us to keep up with the key because it was the only one.
“You mean no one else has a duplicate?”
“No, madam, there is just the one,” she returned.
“What do we do if it is lost,” I insisted.
“I do not know, madam,” was her only return.
We followed Florence outside where the Toyota was parked. The compound extended far past the car to a separate covered area filled with more white chairs and some white plastic tables to match. Later we would discover those chairs to be nearly a national symbol, as they are found everywhere. At the back of the room was another door that led to an expansive kitchen with space enough for many. Several women were in the first room, moving slowly while preparing the refreshments in a cheerful and enthusiastic manner. As before, we were immediately surrounded when the gatherers saw our faces. Within minutes the singing and dancing began again. There were no instruments; just voices singing in unison and praising God for our safe arrival.
“Please take your seats at the head of the room,” the Reverend commanded us. “The ladies are to come,” he announced to the room.
Just then the ladies entered from the kitchen with trays of various soft drinks and plates upon plates of small cakes. This, too, was tradition. The well-wishers engulfed Peyton and began petting his head, enthralled with his blonde hair. “Oh, what a sweet boy you are,” came the remark of one woman and another kept kissing his cheeks. Poor P hated it, but worked to hide his awkwardness.
At the same time, multitudes of questions were fired at me, one after another. “How old are you? Where in America do you live? Why do you only have the one boy?” I could make out most of their words, despite the thick Lugandan dialect. English is still widely spoken in Uganda; particularly in the city. This, too, was a holdover from British colonization. Various tribes filled the urban centers; each tribe with its own language. A common language, like English, greatly simplified communication and helped to offset cultural divides.
The party extended well into the night and by the time most had taken leave for their homes, P and I were weary. During the evening we had been swamped with information. Some insisted that we learn a few Lugandan words while others were bullish on cultural enlightenment. The “icing on the cake” was the dance. I was oozing delight when asked if I wanted to give it a try. Hands on, personal involvement such as this was big—really big! I was eager to tell about my love for dance, but feared it would not be taken seriously.
As P and I stood there watching, I was mesmerized by their excellence and couldn’t turn away. The trick was to isolate the hips from every other part of the body, rotating them remarkably fast while advancing one footstep at a time. “Awesome,” I shouted as I stood before them. Naturally, I made every effort to relax my body and allow my hips to circulate in isolation. Once they caught me practicing alone in a corner of the room and the ladies were greatly amused that I was trying so hard. They laughed and teased, but made no attempts to ridicule.
”Don’t worry, you will do… someday,” they consoled me. “You are too tired for this try. Wait until tomorrow.”
At that point there was nothing left to do but retire to the “aisle of doom,” and on to our room. “Peyton, let’s buy a flashlight tomorrow,” I whispered, trying to disguise my overwhelming fear. The electric was on at the time, but it was obvious that the candle in our room had a purpose.
P was holding the key and once again he unlocked the door and we stepped inside. Making sure to conceal my aversion, I spoke of nothing but the sweet contentment of being “home.”
We had prepared to live in the village; the bush was to be our playground and the trees were said to be plentiful. Instead, everything around us was urban: concrete, dusty, loud and worse! Secretively I was grateful that I had what it took to pass through that corridor and into that room without asking Peyton for reassurance.
“Well, I guess it’s about time to hop into bed, huh Sweetie?” I cheerfully asked. Getting into that bed was going to be the real test though, so I nervously chattered and immediately began to unpack. “Now all I need to do is find the sheets.”
“Here, let me help you look,” P said as he began to shuffle through our belongings. “Gosh Mommy, you brought everything we’ll ever need. We have no reason to worry.”
Back then airline weight restrictions were lax and we were permitted four jumbo duffel bags filled with items designed to maximize our comfort. I knew our surroundings might be rough and I did all I could to address our Western needs. Nonetheless, never did I foresee such stark austerity, old dirt and the threat of enormous bugs. To make matters worse, while we inventoried our furnishings and supplies, our olfactory senses were inundated with the repugnant odor of the latrine located outside our barred, opened window.
“What’s that horrible smell,” Peyton asked in disgust. “I’ve never smelled that before. Uh, maybe we should wear masks. I wonder if the bugs…uh, I mean, they might crawl into the bed with us. Where should I put our kitchen stuff?”
“Don’t worry about that. Let’s get this done so we can go to bed,” I ordered. Unpacking the cleansers, bedding, incense, photos, coverings for furniture, plastic gloves, plates, cups, utensils, clothespins, tons of toiletries and books did help to keep me sane. “No P, bugs can’t crawl up into our bed. We will tuck the bed clothes under the mattress.” I looked up and starred at the filthy, years-old mosquito netting that was intended to drape over the entire bed. Fear of being touched by it almost got the better of me. Nonetheless, we eventually came to terms with this dismal affair by remembering the roach. For us, the net was much more about keeping the creepy crawlers out than letting the malaria mosquitoes in.
For a moment I stood there considering the net. Even though most of Equatorial Africa sleeps under one, we have always found it to be a pointless exercise. Malaria mosquitoes fly in the early evening hours when people are still awake and active. Once full darkness sets in, they fly away. That night we elected to use the dirty netting, but it wasn’t long before we chose to forgo it. But, that night we were able to tuck it tightly and to my knowledge it never touched either of us.
Most importantly, before getting into bed I took charge and hid the bag with the money and Visa card. Stepping across to the cabinet, I reached all the way to the back, dug deeply with my fingers and carefully placed the bag between two cubicles. It was stuffed flat and I was confident it was safe. As P said, “No matter what, we have the only room key.”
“That’s true, and it will be with us at all times,” I promised. “We will put it in the money pouch and take it everywhere.”
“Let me wear it,” Peyton pleaded. “Oh please, Mommy, let me! We’ll put our shillings in it, too. They’ll never suspect me. I’m the kid.”
I agreed that it sounded good, but I had no plans of letting my child carry anything. We were savvy about pickpockets and knew never to keep money on your person, unless it was in a money pouch and hung around your neck out of sight. “You just never mind about that, P. You are too young.”
Once the sheets were changed, the money was hidden and our teeth were brushed we hopped into bed. At one point I said a prayer thanking God for our safe arrival. After that, I promised my child that we would soon be out of the city and in the bush. Considering all the money we had sent to the Reverend, I was confident that the house would soon be finished.
The following day we were up early moving our few items about the room and stringing pieces of cloth we had brought. Our interior design was comprised of these swatches and a few chairs and tables. Together there was enough to section off areas of the room and dress it according to its function. Peyton created a dandy little nook that he christened “the official kitchen.” Even still, the outside toilet and numerous stains were still of great concern.
Even though I did all I could to hide my angst, it was perceived. It wasn’t long before the women were making serious efforts to ease the strain. We received a white, plastic table from the kitchen, along with our own flask and electric “coil” for heating water. The flask was dented, and most of the paint was scratched off, but it was clean inside. See, the water, coil and flask are the components needed to make tea. They naturally assumed we drank tea, and graciously offered these things. But then again, they couldn’t find a suitable pan and we waited on it for two days. By the end of our second day we had collected a room full of furniture and all the makeshift comforts a mom and son could want (sort of).
Once Florence, the house girl, discovered our methods of sectioning the room, she brought more pieces of cloth borrowed from some of the ladies. By the third day we were able to install our kitchen, living area and bedroom. To hear the Ugandans depict our “remodeling” was most flattering. They were taken by our inventions and entertained by our imaginations. No matter what we did, we were praised—and watched. The Reverend’s men were always around, organizing our evening hours and preparing us for village life. When Peyton needed a separation, they would play ball with him; in the meantime the women would teach me to cook traditional dishes.
All the attention was reassuring and we were able to accept and even enjoy our surroundings within those couple days. That brand of Ugandan affection is sincere and it couldn’t help but soften our hearts and foster tolerance. It wasn’t as though we were searching for love, as are so many westerners, but instead we were wooed by the dedication to our every need. Too, I was taken by their deliberation over Peyton, which really helped me to ignore inconveniences. All in all, P and I were remarkably at ease in a place that was ever so foreign and rough.
We arrived on a Tuesday, and things took action immediately. Each day was filled with different places to visit and various people to meet. One by one, the ladies volunteered to show us the sights. Once outside our room we were fair game for anyone taking a turn entertaining us. We were never left alone. All travel was limited to our feet, or a matatu if significant distance was involved.
This matatu, or minivan, is used for transporting people. Only authorized drivers operate them and today they are licensed to carry only 14 passengers. An attendant sits in the back and is responsible to collect the fare as he opens and shuts the sliding side door for people to come and go. Back then these vans were seriously overcrowded. Although P was now 12, he often was forced to sit on my lap with people leaning heavily into him.
Riding in such vehicles was dangerous back then and is still dangerous now. Expert drivers take charge, but they also take chances. When passing, running smaller cars off the road is still common. Nonetheless, the attendants were always cordial and I was impressed with the assistance they offered to anyone who needed it—young or old.
At first we weren’t at ease enough to ride them, but Peyton and I finally did take advantage of the situation, if nothing more than to ascertain facts about Ugandan culture. With English so commonly spoken, we became privy to the everyday topics that aroused the interests and concerns of the people. Of course, we did not enjoy the annoying overcrowding, which included the various items that others brought on board. We were usually asked to sit at the rear of the van, occasionally with chickens that would invariably extend their necks to peck at our feet. This would get under our skin, literally, resulting in rampant irritability on both our parts.
To ease tension, P would sing songs that revealed his inner most aversion. “Every time I look around, it’s in my face,” often bellowed out when a large individual squeezed by. He made them up, as well. “Poor little boy getting picked on and shoved? He wants to fly away just like a dove.”
We were amazed by the number of people who knew plenty about politics and the state of their country. The daily newspaper was a significant part of everyone’s life and it was common for many to share just one, passing it around until most everyone had absorbed their day’s worth.
It was refreshing to find Ugandans so inquisitive and aware of world affairs as well. In general, Kampala society turned out to be an interested and caring one, full of curious people who were always up for a worthwhile exchange. When a Ugandan, urban or otherwise, would greet us and ask how we were doing, it usually seemed sincere. As a rule, they remembered everything we had told them and never failed to inquire about our current circumstances. Although many were pandering for a personal cause, the majority actually cared…or so we chose to believe. The country’s mantra, “You are welcome!” always felt genuine.
Returning their gestures of kindness, I often memorized names and stories as though I would be tested on them later. This meant the world to them and they expressed deep gratitude each time. My conduct with these soft, fun-loving people was free-flowing and relaxed from the start, without effort or self-awareness. When in Uganda, there is an all-inclusive feeling of belonging, sponsored by an obvious spiritual strength. God is important to the majority of these people and sharing such provides equal footing and respect. I could not help but feel at home.
By that Friday we had made it to city centre twice, visited in many private homes, seen a few huts near Hoima Road in our area of town, and even stopped in at the local hospital to visit the minister’s mother-in-law. Our fourth day in Africa turned out to be the best. We were escorted to the home of Martin and Gertrude, dear friends of the Kozi family, where we were the guests of honor at a traditional dinner with all the trimmings. Despite his appreciation, Peyton had a problem with the cuisine and privately groused about the fat-laced meat, threatening not to eat it. I was greatly embarrassed when he refused to partake of the traditional gnut sauce, vowing aloud that it made him gag. Not that I could blame him, for gnut sauce is made from peanuts and sardines and tastes as though it has “gone off,” or worse. Thankfully, he was able to eat the greens as well as some rice, which was his choice among the four starches added to the meal.
Dessert was followed by a relaxing stroll down the road to another house where they had prepared a surprise. The entire neighborhood had arranged an exhibition of local musicians and several dancers, both male and female. I was thrilled and even shed a few tears. The attempts they made to please our Western curiosities were touching and I was thankful for every kind word and deed they offered.
But, in Africa things are often not as they seem. This same Friday was the day I began to display symptoms of illness. It was late in the afternoon when I sparked an unusually intense headache. I surmised it was a mere reaction to the harsh sun. “Peyton,” I whispered, “I feel like Cujo, you know…from the movie. My head is thrashing and I’ve never felt such pain.”
“What happened? You seemed OK at lunch,” P insisted.
“I don’t know, but it came on all of a sudden. I feel like a rabid dog out here in the sun. Help me go inside somehow. I feel as though I’m gonna throw up.” And we did go inside. I made up an excuse, hid my suffering and asked to take cover somewhere. Late that evening it became obvious that I was far less tolerant and practically unwilling to deal with the same inconveniences I had previously forgiven. “I can’t stand the smell of that urinal another day!” I protested. My forbearance was wearing thin as the pain had progressed to my neck and even more to my arms. By Saturday morning I was vomiting and by nightfall I had spiked a significant fever.
“Peyton, I’m pretty sick and think there’s really a problem here. I’m not sure what to do.”
“Tell Mrs. Kozi, she will know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to tell her. Every time I start to ask her what to do, I seem to get better. Maybe it’s my imagination. I mean, right now I feel fine.”
“Your imagination can’t make you throw up. And, what about your aching arms and head? I believe you are really sick.”
As one might expect, this perplexing on-again/off-again state gave rise to self-doubt and questioning any legitimacy of illness. But, by Sunday I was unable to leave my bed. The illness had advanced dramatically. My temperature was approaching 101 degrees and the pain in my head was unbearable. Finally I gave in and went to Mrs. Kozi. “What can I do? I feel there is something seriously wrong. Should I see a doctor?”
“I will make sure someone is here to see you in the morning,” she agreed.
Monday finally arrived and with it came a house call from a local doctor. He took one look at me and promptly diagnosed malaria. I disagreed because both Peyton and I had been on a daily anti-malaria medication two weeks before arriving in Africa. My doctor at home guaranteed they would prevent the disease. There could be no way I contracted it. Besides, I had only been there four days. The doctor stuck to his convictions and said, “You must take this serious, madam. Malaria is a very dangerous disease and you can die, he said. You must begin taking the pills today.”
“Thank you for coming and I will go to town tomorrow and see the British doctor,” I replied. “He is supposedly very good at diagnosing.” The reverend’s wife had been told that was the prudent thing to do and I was in no shape to disagree.
By day’s end I was beginning to think I was going to die. But on the other hand, I would rally and feel fine at times. Was I ill? Was that the trepidation I first suffered in Scotland? Had I come all the way to Africa to simply fall ill and die?
The second day of the new week brought real freedom as Peyton and I were finally allowed to leave the guesthouse on our own. Early that morning I had experienced a period of remission and felt well enough to attempt a journey into town. I paid attention to the advice and concerns of the minister’s wife and promised to return at once should I feel the need.
We headed for the upscale area of Kampala and took in the sights along the way. We were so happy to be on our own that my sickness was somewhat ignored. This one occasion was rich with exuberance, and that energy was all that was necessary to propel me onward. Perpetually working to ignore my misery and any limitation it might create, I pledged to stay upright and make the most of our day in Kampala. I was dedicated to the cause, and the immediate cause was ice cream for Peyton at the Sheraton Hotel.
In that we were both still a bit shy, we had decided to forgo the matatu and foot it all the way to the hotel. By the time we reached our destination we had trekked more than 12 miles, most of it uphill. Until this day neither P nor I can conceive of how I performed such an arduous feat. All I can offer is that “mind over matter” was successful at the time.
“I can’t wait to get there! Maybe we could stay there one night, Mommy,” Peyton said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m sure it’s crazy expensive.”
We finally made it to Nile Avenue and walked up to the hotel gate. At that time there were only guards for security and you could simply walk in. The café was outside and it was a perfect day. The waitress came. “We’ll have two dishes of your vanilla ice cream please,” I ordered. Just as she brought the dishes I fell ill again. I became confused and couldn’t decide what to do. I turned to Peyton. Without hesitation, he literally dragged me to a floor above the mezzanine and placed me on a lounge chair where I could lie down. By then I was unable to move, let alone walk. “I’m going for help!” And with that Peyton ran downstairs in search of someone; anyone. Soon after, Peyton showed up with the hotel manager.
“Madam, we cannot do anything to help if you are not a hotel guest.” He explained.
“Call a taxi. I think I’m terribly ill and I can’t stand up,” I returned.
“I’ll help Mommy downstairs, Sir if you would call the taxi,” Peyton offered.
The car came and P helped me into the back seat. By the time we arrived at the British High Commission Peyton practically had to carry me inside. My temperature was 103. The doctor at the clinic took me seriously and personally transported me to Kololo Hospital; first choice for ailing mzungus at that time. He was, of course, English, ever so polite and sophisticated. We three got into his car. As I lay lifeless in the back I think I temporarily fell in love with the man. It wasn’t just the accent, but his overall charm. He talked with P and made witty remarks, one after another. Word choice and delivery caught me off guard. I was quite ill, but not dead. Perhaps I was edging on delirium, but I found something romantically empowering in his voice.
Once we arrived at the hospital, he instructed the nurses to begin an I.V. drip with nothing by mouth until further notice. I was admitted to a large room with four other beds. The doctor assured me it was a private room and said, “No one will be in here but you, so please don’t worry.” After admission, he made a visit to the room and comforted me with his bold guarantee that I did not have malaria. He was convinced of this and knew the Ugandan doctor had been wrong. “No one can get malaria if they are taking a preventative medication, not to mention the fact that you have only been here one week.”
He convinced me and diagnosed a nasty sinus infection instead. By the time the X-rays were developed, however, he had changed his mind. Maintaining an attitude of little concern, he simply described the culprit as a virus that would eventually cease to exist. At the time he was more concerned with my dehydration and insisted that I finish the drip and spend the night. I agreed and Peyton and I slept together in the room, both tormented from the drama of the day. During that same night my temperature spiked to 104 degrees. All concerned, especially me, were honestly afraid I was going to die.
By morning I felt almost back to normal again. That afternoon my doc, Dick Stockley came for a visit and spent more than an hour with me. He admitted something was wrong, but refused to believe I was all that ill. Instead, he was now audaciously suggesting I might be feigning an illness that would allow for an emergency evacuation back to Alaska. He insinuated that I was embarrassed by coming to Africa in the first place and needed a way out, seeking to save face. “How ludicrous!” I barked, proceeding to tell him I wouldn’t return to America if I were on fire and it was the hose. “Above all,” I demanded, “how do you explain my temperature?” I directed my mounting intolerance of everything around me squarely at the doc and made certain he knew that I was in no mood to listen to any more of his spurious accusations. At that moment I rapidly fell out of love with him and reconnected with reality.
Later that evening I had another spike in temperature. It was 105. I called for the nurse and ordered her to get in touch with the doc right away, which she did. Only because I refused to back down and demanded an immediate blood test was the truth finally revealed. I had read about malaria and knew timing was critical with respect to discovery. Those nasty “buggers” had to be detected precisely when they dumped their toxins into the bloodstream or a test would expose nothing.
An hour had elapsed since drawing my blood when I forced my weak and sweating head high enough to focus upon the slender outline of a man standing at my door. It was the doctor again. I was ready to let him have a piece of my mind, but was much too weary for such. I believed him to be nothing more than arrogant and I had every intention of telling him so; if only I could.
Just at that time, I scarcely heard him say, “I was wrong.”
Energized, I rallied just enough to speak and said, “What’s wrong with me? Have I been out of my head? I don’t know what’s going on.”
He then continued, saying, “Yes, I was wrong my dear, and you were right. You do have malaria and I suspect it is a rather severe case of the falciparum strain.” By this time I really didn’t care what strain I had, as long as I could live through it. Displaying a contrite, yet optimistic glance, he said with a grin, “Rest assured, you are going to be ok.”
“What is the falciparum strain?” P inquired.
“The falciparum strain is a cerebral malaria and quite deadly. We have caught it in time however, and you will be out of here in three to four days.” Truly humbled, he then asked, “What can I do to make this up to you, my dear?”
“How about taking my poor son for a burger and bringing me a coke?” I returned. He agreed and began to inform Peyton as to where they were going.
“We will go to a mzungu sports bar and have the biggest burger you have ever seen and the place is actually owned by an American. They have milkshakes, too. Let’s go and get your mom’s coke.” At that they both bid me farewell and I slipped away again into what the doc called a pre-coma sleep.
Sometime later the two of them returned. Peyton’s disposition had transformed from near panic and exhaustion-induced mindlessness to effervescent and buoyant attentiveness. The stories began and never ended. “I saw lots of white people, Mommy. Almost everyone was white. The doctor paid for everything and we even brought you two cokes.” He described every person he met and every word that he heard. The hamburger must have been great because he raved about it and the deliciously greasy French fries for days.
Inexplicably, while Peyton and the doctor recounted the events of the evening, an unforgettable gust of cool, fresh air brushed along the side of my face. There were no open windows in the room and no explanation for the breeze. As the two stood there detailing their adventure I scarcely heard their words. Maybe it was just hope, but I felt restored. Before leaving, the doc bent forward and hugged me as he handed me an ice cold Coca-Cola. “Please forgive me, my dear. I shall see you in the morning.”
I responded by smiling bigger than I had in several days, barely whispering the words, “You’re on!”
As the doctor promised, I was well in three days, which remains a matter of interest in itself. It is difficult to conceive how a disease of such severity could be overcome so quickly after ingesting a single packet of pills. Malaria is still one of the leading killers in Africa, with a million dying every year. The epidemic proportions of infection on the continent, combined with the overall money spent to fight malaria leave the African GDP seriously affected. Discounting or offering these medications for free would greatly reduce this impact, in addition to saving lives.
As it turned out, a relatively inexpensive box of pills cured me within a few days. Had I believed the African doc in Nakulabye, the entire ordeal would have cost about $10.00, pills included. Although I would later reevaluate this dichotomy, at the time I gave it only a modicum of thought. For that moment, it was enough to be rid of the parasitic vermin that had taken up residence in my blood.
It’s crucial to recognize that from the beginning to the end of this near-death experience Florence, the minister’s house girl, was by our side. This, too, is an African tradition. Should one fall ill and need hospitalization, a designated companion attends to all necessities past basic nursing care. Friends or relatives must provide linens, clothes and food. Because of this, the minister ordered Florence to stick close by. In fact, she was a Godsend. We were always thankful for her and made sure she knew it. Aside from Florence, Mrs. Kozi came to see me every day. Many others from the mission and church would occasionally drop by, too.
My dependence upon Florence grew to the point of trusting her with our lives. She loved Peyton and her pertinacious attempts to cheer him always warmed my heart. In the darkest of times, when my temperature would peak, Florence seemingly made the difference between my falling to utter despair and holding steadfast. Whenever I was in remission, she would take the opportunity to return to the guesthouse for food and to deliver a daily report on my progress. After stopping at church for prayers she would prepare a full day’s worth of food for the three of us. She always returned within three or four hours.
Everything about this woman appeared genuine. Often she would take to dancing about the room, singing and praying aloud. Her words were convincing saying, “Peyton, you and your mom were sent to us and I won’t let either of you go. You both rest now and let me watch over you.” This soft and pleasing lady was always reciting personal events. Her stories were real and they afforded us valuable insight to the life of a villager who opted for the city and an independent lifestyle of her own.
There were times that I would lose myself in her tales, especially when she would encourage me to laugh while she poked fun at herself. In Uganda it is always fashionable to have a laugh at everyone’s expense, especially oneself. Her jokes were always funny. If I was coherent, Florence could always draw a smile and I would praise her highly, always finding her silly quips endearing.
The day of my release was finally upon us. The hospital was requesting one third of my tab upon dismissal and I needed to access the guesthouse for money. The night before I had instructed Peyton to accompany Florence to our room and retrieve $100. For this reason I was quite surprised when she awakened me early the following morning. “Sister Penny, please let me foot it to the room and get your money by myself. Peyton is exhausted and he should sleep.” It was true. Once P knew they were releasing me, he had worn himself out playing and running around the hospital talking and interviewing anyone who would give him a moment. I worried that giving her the key and the location of the money could be a big mistake, but as I looked over at P sleeping, I didn’t have the heart to wake him.
After tossing this about for minutes I concluded that she had a good point. If Florence took off that early, she could be back by 8:00. This was just too convenient, so I simply caved. The sensation I felt as I held the metal key in the palm of my hand was a memorable one. Although I believed her to be a loving, honorable lady, I had serious misgivings. Still, I pressed on, telling her the exact location of the stashed money. Until this day, it baffles me that I could ignore all my conscious perceptions, throw caution to the wind and put all of our money into the hands of a single, poor African woman. I guess it must have been post-malarial confusion, because I handed Florence the key…and with it, our lives.
By 10:00 a.m. I should have been walking the floor, but I was still too weak, so Peyton walked it for me. The hours trickled by and with each passing minute I grew more frightened. It was around noon when the woman finally sauntered through the door. As she walked closer to my bedside, I could see nothing except that same soft, glowing smile. Making effort to steady myself, I took a breath before I calmly inquired about all the time that had passed and then, of course, the money. Without changing her expression one bit, she answered me saying, “Sorry, sorry madam, I could not find.” It was as though someone had shot me. Peyton began asking questions while I gathered my wits. I knew there was no need for further questioning. I had heard “sorry, sorry” before.
I was smoldering…terrified and then I heard my son ask, “What does that mean?”
Eventually words formed, and I spoke. “What couldn’t you find, Florence?”
“I could not find the money, Sister Penny.” I said nothing, but rose and slowly crossed to the hall and began to make my way downstairs to the hospital offices gripping the handrails. Once there I informed the clerk of my predicament. Being a mzungu, I was allowed to leave with few questions and only instructions to bring the money as soon as possible.
We quickly gathered and packed our belongings, piled into the special hire provided for us and sped across town to the guesthouse with Florence beside us all the way. As the taxi pulled into the compound, I could not wait for the car to come to a complete rest before opening the door and leaping out onto the driveway. I had already secured the key from Florence, so I was free to hobble down the more-frightening-than-ever aisle of doom, unlatch and throw open the door. In the middle of the floor lay the grey canvas moneybag with the accented black lettering. It was unzipped. Every single dollar and pound sterling was gone. The only thing left in the bag was the Visa card. That was it. The taxi driver was out of luck.
“We’ve been robbed. Shit! Damn it to hell! We’ve been robbed,” I screamed.
Observers would testify that the wailing, the shrieking and the bellowing went for hours. During my tirade Peyton was yelling, “Call the Marines! Call the Marines!” I suffered an instantaneous tsunami of rage and had nowhere to spew it. In desperation, I ran outside in the courtyard and started calling for help. Then I told passers-by to quit staring and leave me alone. I was everything and I was nothing. I had no power whatsoever.
Eventually I remembered the phone in reception and dialed the number for the police. As I was describing the crime, it suddenly dawned on me that we were alone. No one was anywhere in the whole of the compound. The minister, the wife, and all his men were gone. The kitchen ladies were gone. The assistant ministers were gone. I felt as though I was in an unknown dimension and nothing was real. But, then I thought of P and I managed to get some control.
All the while Florence was sitting close-by, undisturbed with that same, hideous grin and “Sister Penny” sweetness about her. Without warning I turned my fuming face into hers, lowered my eyes and seethed the syllables, “Where is everyone?” She simply shrugged her shoulders and looked away, refusing to talk.
During the confusion Peyton had somehow slipped away and raced to the shack next door to use their phone. Wouldn’t you just know it? He did call the Marines! He had disguised his voice, exaggerated some of the details of the theft, and gave them instructions to motorcade their way to our rescue. The police arrived about the same time as the U. S. government and it became a mess of questions and incertitude.
It took more than an hour to sort out the whole story and ensure accurate recording of all facts. After concluding, the marines returned to their vehicles, leaving only condolences behind. The police instructed me to follow them to what they called “the station” and Florence was taken to jail. The crying had ended and so had the ranting. Only the two of us remained. Turning my attention to P, I hoped to be the prevailing tower of strength God intended. I reached for my son, drew him in so close that we became one, and promised it would all work out as if it never happened. “But Mommy,” P whimpered, “there was $6000 and all those British pounds! How will you make it never happen? No one can do that.” I agreed, but rationalized that we would have spent it quickly anyway.
And then I became as serious as the situation, stopped, lowered my head and looked directly into his eyes. Knowing what he was thinking, I headed him off before he could ask, declaring, “There’s no way we’re going back home. We will recover the money and stay here as planned.”
An argument ensued, which lasted for some time. Mostly, P was scared and couldn’t imagine not hopping on the next flight out. He blustered for an eternity about how alone we were. “How will we eat? How will we live?” We didn’t have a shilling on us and had nothing but a credit card to our name. He pointed out that the only food in the kitchen was rice with black weevils, and he made the excellent point that Florence would never be punished and would merely use our $6000 to buy her way out of prison.
Oddly, Peyton immediately suspected the minister as the ringleader. He insisted they were all in on the robbery and had left Florence to take the fall. At first I thought it was all a bunch of T.V. dialogue, yet I, too, wondered about the strange mass disappearance in light of the event. Mostly I just knew the money was gone, probably forever. My depleted body was barely hanging on and I prayed for strength. We were rocked hard and had only each other.
I looked deep into P’s frightened blue eyes once again and pledged to make it work if he would just give me a chance. We held each other for minutes, praying and sobbing. I was first to pull us apart, smiling and asking, “P, what do you do when someone steals every single penny you have in the world?” He only frowned and looked away. I continued with my official podium-trained voice, “You thank God for the Visa card, find a fancy hotel, sit down and stuff yourself with tons of Western food. Look out Sheraton, here we come!”
It was after dinner that evening when the two of us began to develop a noticeable case of the “sillies.” It was obvious that we had entered into the world of seriocomic relief out of desperation and our overdrive had been tapped. Needless to say, our perceptions of Africans and every tiny African custom were now subject to rethinking. There and then, both Peyton and I “mashed up” our keen sense of humor with our intellect and observational skills. We even coined our own mantra, “We will be African,” and kept it handy as a reminder of a no-trust policy. After all, if Florence could bamboozle us, anyone could. This was a kick in the gut, for we knew full well we really were alone and could confide in absolutely no one. A clever combination of skepticism and slapstick was definitely indicated.
For a short time we made fun of everything that moved. Lots of our folly was somewhat wicked. It remained exclusively between us and was our own special brand of private revenge. Indeed, when Peyton told me his favorite jokes I doubled over with laughter that turned to tears. Most all Ugandans seem to have bad breath of the same origin; and I’m not sure what origin that is. When we would get a strong whiff, I would announce that the “Langoliers” were here. Peyton would giggle heartily over that. We made up songs; we made poems; we invented our own little language, in fact. This passive-aggressive act of retaliation served us well. I believe it helped keep us going.
This was a committed effort as we zeroed in on exactly what it would take to be African, with meaningful examples gradually unfolding before our eyes. We were assured that if we thought like an African we would begin to see through them as well as they could see through us. Besides our intensive beliefs, designed to keep us safe, we still had the Visa card on our side. But, most of all and more importantly, we had our faith. We schemed to uncover various ways of comforting ourselves. Peyton found hope when I promised that we would spend one night a week in a four-star hotel and make use of all available amenities, including the pool.
Consequently, the Equatorial Hotel became our home away from home just as I planned. The staff knew of our theft, for news travels fast in such places. Out of sympathy they showered us with their concern for our well-being and even discounted rooms and meals. Accordingly, attendants at the pool adored Peyton and offered him free-swimming lessons whenever we were guests. This was effective and a great comfort. We basked in the support of the institution while licking our wounds.
Prior to instigating our ritual of weekly hotel hopping, I was forced to deal with the nasty business of the robbery and the police again. Also, the American Embassy had requested I recite the event in detail to them after speaking with the local authorities. Normally the embassy didn’t involve itself with private affairs such as ours, but for some reason they had taken a keen interest in us. The following day they sent two officials to the guesthouse to take my statement. The local police sergeant was in the room at the time and demanded that he, too, advance his litany of inquiries that did nothing more than reiterate what the embassy asked. Peyton and I cooperated and spoke with the three men for hours. The reverend’s disappearance continued to mystify them, just as it had us. Where had he gone and why hadn’t he returned?
They wrote down everything we said, just like on T.V. They asked us questions individually and collectively. The report was pages long. After the American official in charge was satisfied, he informed us that we needed to appear at the Embassy within the week and cooperate with the local police in the meantime. Upon their departure, the police sergeant insisted that we accompany him to the station. “’Station?’” I scoffed. “’Hut’ would be more like it.” We complied with his wishes, however, filing into his car and riding down the street to the domed room made of mud where we he officially swore us in. Unfortunately, the police never took fingerprints; stating that everyone had touched our door before we arrived and that it would have been pointless. Pointless indeed, but not for the reasons they gave! As feared, we discovered early on that the whole enforcement system was involved in one way or another and everybody wanted a piece of the pie.
While at the station, the sergeant took note of a wee, black kitten pacing back and forth around his feet. He asked if we liked cats, to which I replied that I liked every living thing except for Ugandans. “I have great dislike, teetering on hatred, for all Ugandans,” I announced. “I particularly despise soft-speaking people with perpetual grins on their faces like Florence. Perhaps my present emotions are tainted, but for now they are what they are.”
The police captain countered my scorn with some philosophical advice saying, “Look, I can’t blame you for your feelings, madam, but time will soften your pain. Meanwhile, do you like cats?”
“I like kittens, but that isn’t relevant just now,” I said with final disgust.
“Well, do you want this cat? He’s wild, so be careful,” the policeman countered.
“For sure!” Peyton forcefully said, then grabbed the little feller up into his arms.
As we stood to walk away, I looked back and said, “In the end we lost our $6000, but we gained a cat; how comforting!”
The sergeant ignored that and simply added, “He’s wild you know, so be careful. I doubt you will ever get him home.” He had a point—we had a quarter of a mile’s walk down busy Hoima Road and I, too, believed the cat would fight for freedom. But this kitty was different—seemingly brave and bright. I took hold of the cat to assist Peyton and turned to walk away. As I clutched our furry prize to my chest and headed out, the sergeant called out that I had no worries about Florence because she would be in jail for a long, long time.
“What about a trial?” I yelled back. The extremely short, dull-looking, middle-aged man followed us outside, explaining every step of the way that the courts would let us know. He continued, saying that it would most likely be a month or two before it came up on the docket, but that we should remain hopeful.
The kitty was commanding all our attention by then, so I didn’t pay much mind to the sergeant’s closing words as we walked straight into the ruckus of the traffic. We had a great pet, Florence was in jail and surely the minister and the rest of the gang would be back before too long. Much to our surprise this two-month-old skinny, dusty, intuitive, black fur ball never made any efforts to scratch or jump from my arms all the way home. Funny how these babies always seem to come along when they’re needed most. What’s up with that?