Monday, August 18, 2008

all god's children

Several weeks ago, the headmaster of a local primary school showed up at the office (in the middle of a sale) and gave me an invitation to be the "guest of honor" at their school Sports Day. Having no idea what this meant, I naturally agreed. It was later that I read the invitation (which was addressed "Dear Sir") and learned to my horror that the event was being held on a Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Seems I would be spending all of a precious Saturday watching children run around in sacks. From there, the news went downhill. I learned from my co-workers here that Sports Day is a very big deal in Uganda and that the "guest of honor" is expected to bring a very big gift. "Like a world globe or something?" I asked cautiously. "No, more like a computer," was the answer. I was then told that there would also be a marching band and that I would be expected to accompany them around the field waving like Miss Iowa's Corn-Again Queen. (Thanks, Mandie). At this, I began to seriously regret my decision. I even tried to delegate the guest of honorship to someone else on the staff but no one was biting. Then I considered cancelling - after all, the letter was addressed to "Dear Sir"; how much research could have gone into the selection of their guest of honor?

In the end, I went. I told the headmaster I would come around 3:00 plenty of time to give out the trophies instead of 8:30 in the morning. I arranged for a gift certificate from a textbook publishing company (this is a poor school with few books)and one of the staff people graciously agreed to accompany me to the event so I would know what the hell I was supposed to do. And it turned out to be a blast. Yes, there were children runnng around in sacks but there was also a spelling contest (spelling as sport), a bottle-on-the-head relay race and, best of all, a matooke peeling contest. Matooke (ma-toe'-kay) is the staple food of Uganda - a large, very green banana that is peeled with a knife, steamed and eaten everyday by the majority of the population. It is also an acquired taste - like grits. Not only were the students judged on how fast they peeled the Matooke, but also on form - how they sat and how much they wasted. A very educational experience.

And yes, there was a marching band but I was not required to march and wave; that had only been my co-worker's idea of a joke. I was not warned, however, that I would be escorted onto the field with other esteemed guests and expected to dance - in front of approximately 1,000 parents and children - with my back to them.... I repeat, with my back to them. Dancing is an important part of every event and even the elderly gentleman next to me in the long white robe and ornately carved cane managed to shake "it" expertly. While I, on the other hand, being the only Mezungu within a radius of at least 10 miles, was in danger of experiencing the single most painfully embarrassing episode of my entire life. Well, the whole situation was so ridiculous that I just looked at the crowd over my shoulder and burst out laughing. And they, thank God, started laughing too and a good time was had by all.

Well, almost all. Like every story in Uganda, there is humor and there is tragedy. As I sat in the stands watching the children in their bright gym shorts and t-shirts running around the field, I became acutely aware of dozens of children in rags sitting in front of the grandstand watching the proceedings quietly. At one point, they were made to move to one side by two police officers with sticks so they would not block our view. These were the children from the surrounding slum; the ones whose parents cannot pay school fees and so therefore do not attend school of any kind; the poorest of the poor. A child with one red shoe and one large yellow shoe, another wearing a red sequinned evening top meant for an adult, most of them barefoot. All of them very thin and very dirty. But of all these, there was one child who has remained in my mind ever since; a little girl around seven years old, who appeared to have been horribly burned on most of her face and neck and head. She was very dark-skinned and what I could see of the unburned part of her face was quite beautiful. But the burns had resulted in massive white and pink scar tissue that was unnerving when first seen. She sat apart from the other children by a few yards and drew with a stick in the dirt. No one talked to her, no one played with her. Several times, she would glance around at me and give me a shy smile which I returned. One stranger to another. I think about what the future holds for her... for all of them.