Saturday, November 7, 2009

Contrasts and Parallels

It's Saturday, early evening. In a very few minutes, the sun will slide beneath the horizon leaving a sky striped with purple, pale blue, pink and gold. Against this backdrop, dark silouettes of banana trees will create the vision that most of us have when we think of African sunsets. It's quiet at this time on Saturday evenings, after the Born Again prayer services wind down and before the bars heat up. At 7 pm, the Muslim call to prayer will be heard throughout the city, a single voice from each mosque, beautiful with melancholy at the edges.

It is particularly at this time of day when I begin to think of that time in the future when I will leave Uganda and return to the other life I call mine. There is actually a decision to be made about whether and when I will return and at quiet times like these, the weight of that decision presses in on me. I won't be able to figure it out in a blog, of course. But I do want to document, if only for myself, the depth of my attachment here and the pain it will cause me to leave. It is probably second only to the pain I would experience if I left my U.S. home permanently. Family - even my obtuse, hysterically funny, forever slightly off-the-grid family, gets a grip on your spirit and won't let go. And life is finite. We need to be with the ones we love, simple as that.

Speaking of "simple," I think about the magazine in the States called "Real Simple" or something like that and marvel at life's different realities. For only $6.00 a pop, it teaches you how to simplify and purify your life; dried flowers in galvanized steel buckets, exquisite fabric draped over unfinished dowels for curtains, homemade pasta. The pictures are beautiful. But the people I know here would laugh very loudly at the thought of that being simple living. Six dollars for a magazine! That's 12,000 shillings, the price of a trip to the market or school clothes for the kids. For Ugandans, collecting rainwater for washing and drinking, growing all their food, living without electricity or indoor bathrooms - that is living simply. For me, taking 2-minute often cold showers, going without electricity or water at irregular intervals (but not for long, usually), hanging clothes on the line to dry - that is my simple living. They laugh at that, as well. Simplicity is obviously relative.

If you don't mind, I'd like to share what I thought was going to be a nightmare experience with you. It will just take a minute. I recently decided it was time to get a Ugandan driver's permit. I have been driving for months and have grown to enjoy the creative process that is driving in an African country. Like bungee-jumping with a steering wheel. The local police force, however, is capricious at best and although a U.S. license is allowed, I think it wise to give them no excuse for suspicion. So I did what all ex-pats do. I got a Ugandan who "knows about these things" to apply for the license for me. There is a fee for this service (for every service - in this it is just like the States) but worth every shilling, to be sure. So after the initial application was submitted in May, Steven (the man who knows about these things) went by the DMV and checked every few weeks until I was finally assigned an appointment for today at 8:40 this morning. Here's where things get really strange. When I got there, I discovered that the Kampala Division of Motor Vehicles is exactly like every other DMV I've ever been in in my life. Long lines, hard benches, surly employees, applicants waiting with dead-eyed resignation. It was amazing! I could have been in New Orleans. It was all very familiar and a little comforting even. And my DMV picture? Just as hideous as pictures taken in every DMV all around the world. Actually maybe even a bit worse. In Uganda, for some reason no one has been able to explain to me, all "official" photos must show the victim's ears. I politely explain on these occasions that no one sees my ears, ever, not anyone. They're not malformed or anything. They're just very large and I prefer to keep them nestled in the relative anonymity of my collar-lengh coiffure. My obstinance usually prevails but alas, not today. My DMV guy was not moved. I won't describe the resulting photograph, nor will anyone ever see it with the possible exception of the local militia. Anyway, the point of all this is to say that while many, many things are very different here, going to the Division of Motor Vehicles is exactly the same.

So I leave you now with the pictures below. They are a reflection, I think, of other contrasts within Uganda itself. But in these contrasts lie the similarities Uganda shares with all countries - lives of hardship and lives of relative ease existing in the same place and the same time. With no answers as to why.