Where the Skies are Blue
After more than a decade of coercion, Moffat finally convinced me to travel the necessary eight hours to his village, located in Uganda’s Western District of Arua. This man has been my dear friend, guide, confidante and traveling companion from Kampala for an excess of sixteen years and it was finally his turn to capture my every attention. His home place, Maracha, is a radically depressed community that lies less than 20 miles north of the bustling town of Arua. There, the need for awareness has remained constant and all attempts thus far have been in vain. I was slated to be the first mzungu, or white person, to visit and consider their many needs, ranging from the most basic to the erection of a formal place to worship.
Our first stop was taken in Nakasongala in Lowero District at a known bus stop. Motoring in a Toyota we… meaning Moffat, a friend of his named Andrew and myself…stopped for coffee and a stretch of the legs. Once back on the road, an air of relaxation overtook the mood within the car and we three settled into a rousing discussion of Ugandan politics. Somber banter eventually gave way to humor and we found ourselves high with anticipation and general good cheer. We stopped once more in the town of Nebbi and filled the car with petrol. Both Moffat and Andrew purchased bananas, as well as sticks of roasted goat meat. Playing it safe, I forwent any foods and stuck only to liquids.
The road had been entertaining and we were able to stop for photos along the way. Among the animals we witnessed were an onslaught of baboons, an enormous lizard and a plethora of antelope. Most of the highway was smooth and layered with fresh tarmac and eventually paralleled Murchison Falls National Park. Some of the critters had surpassed the Park’s imposed boundaries and foraged out by the thoroughfare where we were driving. Other than these few happenings, the trip was comfortable and fairly uneventful.
We arrived Arua around 7:00 p.m., blithe of spirit and ready for a rest from the cramped quarters of the car. Prior to the trip I had reserved a room at the Desert Breeze Hotel, a mid-level establishment fairly typical as African hotels stand. Immediately I was shown to my room and I grabbed a warm shower in effort to regroup from the long trip. After, I headed downstairs to the garden area and in the cool night air I sat listening to the chorus of croaking and grunting of what seemed to be a million frogs.
After a couple of hours, Moffat and Andrew met me at my hotel and the three of us made our way a short distance down the street to a restaurant/bar that featured the tantalizing musical fare of Lingala from the Congo. As it is my favorite music ever, I was floating above all others and was completely wooed and satiated with the sharp pinging originating from the shrill musical instruments. It was late however, and the band ceased to play soon after our arrival. While there, another joined us by the name of Alex. Alex is a doctor in the area and he, too, had business to discuss with me. But, this one night belonged to the “party.”
We shifted to Dr. Alex’s Toyota and drove another short distance to take in the club called Matonge. Unlike the first venue, this club played mostly Ugandan music and I found myself to be quite disappointed at first. Sine makosa, meaning no worries, I soon adjusted and began to dance with the many folks who surrounded us. The night turned into morning while there and I was eventually delivered back to my hotel at approximately 2:30. I briefly showered, with cold water I must add, and climbed into bed. My slumber was not only abbreviated, but also restless due to a flood of anxiety in response to our impending agenda for the following day.
And the day did come. Queasy from lack of sleep, I refused all food once again and settled for English tea. Soon after, Moffat picked me from the hotel and the two of us were off to his village, arriving in thirty minutes time. The moment we stopped the vehicle, a man standing at the side of the road greeted us and asked us to follow him behind a row of shacks that lined the road. A large group of people was standing under a heavily branched tree enjoying its shade when they spotted us. Immediately the music began, offset by local hollering and the playing of rudimentary instruments. This was the welcoming that we were to receive prior to all the speeches that were to be made. Maybe seventy-five to one hundred people gathered under an open-air, but thatched roof structure and began to explain their desperate needs. There wasn’t any mention of lack of food, clothing or other supplies, for their cry for help centered solely on the lot of land that had been marked off and deemed the construction site for the proposed church.
Within this culture it remains vital for a proper church to head the community. This was their concern, their every thought and every prayer. They turned to me, asking what they could do to bring the plans to reality. Without fear or timidity I rose to my feet and took control of the room. I told them to create crafts and to market them by the roadside, reminding them that the village was fortuitously positioned on the main highway that stretched all the way to S. Sudan. Encouraging them to work hard, I suggested going about the community and asking everyone and anyone, no matter their origin or tribe, to join them and bring any skills or ideas they could conjure. From there I spoke on integrity and referred to Moffat as a model of success.
Africa is patched together by millions of thieves and liars and it remains commonplace to engage in any trickery one can to secure any amount of money one can. The gift that Moffat had brought to my life was the lack of lies and trickery. Early on there had been problems, but his regret was true and bold and for years he has stood by me, steadfastly leading me through often-troubled circumstances while securing my safety. Because of these things, I could hold him high as an example of honor. Sitting by were his head schoolmaster from years earlier, as well as the priest that had helped raise him. The people were thrilled and cheered wildly and continuously.
After the meeting I was the guest of honor for a noon meal. Local foods were served and I had no choice but to eat. The rice and pasta were pretty straight ahead, and the greens were delicious. The chicken was quite dodgy and the beef was alarming. Nonetheless, I managed to take in small bites, avoiding the millet that is intended to soak up the beef drippings on the plate. Of course, keeping to tradition, various soft drinks were on hand and after finishing my first they were quick to encourage me to take another.
Soon thereafter I was guided to another part of the village where another church was holding a service in a brick building that was only that. The people, including the children were forced to sit on the cold cement floor. Again there was singing and the playing of instruments, but this time the crowd had swollen to hundreds. As I took my stand in front of that congregation I prayed that the words I offered would provide comfort and energy, with enough encouragement to see them up and working, as with the others. I advised them to go to bed tired from hard work and to hold on to their faith. I promised to deliver their message to my church in America and informed them that we, too, had worked hard to make a success of our established church. My testimony regarding Moffat was clear and to the point. Once more I proposed that they follow in his footsteps and cling to honor and integrity.
As requested, this particular speech lasted at least 30 minutes, and I remember the relief I exhaled once it was complete. This need for a respite was not from nerves or concern of poor delivery, but for the fighting of tears as I spoke my words. Peering into faces plagued by hunger and pain, I could not help but shed tears, although I later attributed the moisture to allergies. Never in all my years of living in Africa have I witnessed such an extreme and threateningly impoverished existence as with these people. My heart was heavy and within the brief seconds of lag while my interpreter verbalized, I would turn away and blot the water from my cheeks.
The speeches ended and the people sang until it was time for the presentation. A gentleman approached me from out of the crowd, stating that the only thing they could offer me was the gift of two live chickens. I graciously accepted the creatures, hiding my apprehension of dealing with their pecking beaks. The service came to an end and it was time to go. As I trudged through the fields surrounding their makeshift church, I was quietly and secretly grieving for all of them and too shaken to offer much in the way of good-byes. That said, upon leaving the village a couple dozen children came running to the car window. I stretched out my hand and allowed as many to touch me as possible. They had never felt the warmth of a Mzungu’s skin and each child was giggling and merry-making as though it was Christmas.
We spent two more days in the area and I did manage to meander into Congo, but the work had been completed just as Moffat had hoped. Two events did take place that bear mentioning: the local radio interviewed me before leaving and on our return drive we passed an enormous bull elephant at the side of the road. Another escapee from the game park we all agreed. As we pulled away from the town of Arua, I was saddened because of what I was leaving behind. Overhead the skies were a brilliant blue, penetrated with an occasional puffy white cloud. It was nothing less than the pristine environment of Uganda’s up country and as always, I somehow felt a sense of belonging. Kampala is remarkable, but give me the fresh air, wild animals and clean fields any day and by gosh, I’ll make sure to return.