I couldn’t sleep. I kept wondering what I would do if the boda (motorcycle taxi) I had arranged to pick me up before dawn didn’t show up. I woke up sure that my alarm was about to go off, but it was two hours away. Finally, I stopped pretending, got up, dressed as quietly as possible and to avoid waking everyone with my bull-in-a-china-shop grace I left the house. The guards were already awake. I sat with them by a low fire, quietly chatting. I heard the boda’s low hum begin in the distance. Turns out I had nothing to fear. He was punctual to the minute.
I straddled his back seat with a small backpack and let myself enjoy the cool, clear morning. Orion’s belt was directly above us, the sky was scattered with pinpricks of twinkling lights. He took the long way around to Naturum, the main road instead of paths overgrown by towering grass. I was immediately thankful but hadn’t thought to insist. When I arrived at the sign posts in Naturum, it was still dark. The cocks were crowing but they start at 3:00am, I was told. I stood for a moment alone in the dark of a town that is usually bustling with people. My friend, Margi, came out to meet me and then was anxious to hide me in her house until the taxi arrived. We’re both aware that the color of skin changes how people act, whether good or bad, valid or accentuated. She offered me tea while we waited. I refused and so did she, you don’t drink or eat a lot while traveling public in Uganda. The taxi had called to say he was on his way. Only once the small white car pulled up did we leave her house. We were four when we left Naturum. My friend and I had the backseat to ourselves. We were five when we left Lolacat. We were seven when we left Nabilaatuk up to Moroto. No one seemed to mind the lack of physical space. A man in front and another beside me carried on a conversation lamenting a dispute between the Catholic and Church of Uganda over a local primary school. They decried the corruptness of officials, laughed at actually acquiring land titles and described a community meeting where witnesses had been created. The conversation alternated between Karimojong and English and I stretched my ears to hear it all.
When we arrived in Moroto, we were still early. Margi insisted that we find a hotel for the night; she was fearful of returning to Nakaale in the dark. So we walked to a hotel her son had suggested to her where his cousin sister (I forget the exact relationship now, the step-sister to his father’s brother??), worked. We had a breakfast of potatoes, fried eggs and fruit.
When we left the hotel, we walked the block back to the taxi park passing four or so road side shops. We bought some sugar, milk, biscuits and bathing soap for Margi’s daughter, Georgia, who was the whole point of this trip. It was visitation day at Kangole Girls’ Secondary School and we were going to surprise her.
We loaded into the next taxi, this one a van, to take us the last stretch to Kangole, tucked like sardines and generally happy to be so. It was clear there were others with our same destination. Kangole is no more than a small trading center, but home to multiple schools run by the Catholic church. We arrived a few hours after the event was scheduled to begin and we were still few. They checked everything we brought, no prepared food is allowed. The man beside us was making a case to bring in the local soured milk – milk with cow pee.
Although it was an exciting day for the school, the girls were still in class and we weren’t allowed to see Georgia until after three hours of speeches by various esteemed personages. They encouraged the parents to discipline their disrespectful daughters, praised the reduced number of girls who left due to pregnancy, asked for funds for ongoing expansions of the school, and the senior four students performed two traditional dances. I stepped out to find a restroom when the parents were making their case not to pay all their fees. Georgia caught me on the way back and introduced me to four of her friends. We were thrilled to see each other. It struck me that in her uniform she looked much younger. Her friends all seemed so young too. They soon sent me back to the meeting hall for a lunch of rice, beans, meat and potatoes. There was no silverware so I got to practice eating with my hands.
Finally the time had come just to chat with Georgia. She gave me a tour of her class room stuffed with desks. We pulled a few wooden stools into the yard and sat asking how the term was going. One of her friends joined us who’s parents hadn’t come. We made sure she had finished her treatment for brucellosis and was generally healthy. We rejoiced that one of her trouble teachers had been replaced. Then we went with her to get her marks from last term. The teacher giving out the grades’ sage advice was to apply herself more. I offered to go with her friend to get her marks as well and was surprised at the enthusiasm with which she accepted. She took my hand and we walked back together. I tried to take the task very seriously, although the Ugandan system seems broken to me. Another friend asked to use my phone to call her family. They aren’t allowed to use phones during the term. We met up with another girl from Naturum and gave her a gift from her mother. She also wanted me to join her to get her marks, apparently I was good moral support. We enjoyed the short time together and I could see Margi’s face beaming. Georgia returned her concern for her mother after seeing the lavish box we brought, asking where she was going to get sugar for hertea. We prayed for the girls before we left and then raced the rain back to the roadside to await transport back to Moroto.
The following night, day and finally transport back to Nakaale were filled with memories: meeting new and old friends, a taxi driver who almost got in a fight with a truck driver who was blocking the road, a boda ride in the rain, Margi enjoying a full length mirror, and finding our way around Moroto town. Above all though, I will remember the broad smile on Margi’s face, the barriers we naturally put up falling down, feeling more like sisters than ever before. I won’t be making the trip often, but the opportunity was irreplaceable and so worth the trouble.