I received an email from an old family friend a few weeks back expressing interesting in getting me together with a Ugandan colleague of his from a hospital in Washington State. She was coming "home" for a couple weeks to see her family and attend to matters in Kampala and he thought we should meet.A lunch date at her parents' home for Friday afternoon was set in the sprawling urban district of Makindye, an area of town far from the university campus.
The problem was getting there. A boda b- even by local standards- was highly impractical. It was just too far, over rough terrain, in the middle of the day, with Friday traffic. So, too, was a local taxi (too many transfers) and a metered taxi (too damn expensive). Actually I had no idea how I was getting there as I sat in my favorite coffee shop reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence" outside, inhaling secondhand smoke from three Russian men sitting behind me, waiting for my fruit platter and lemon tea to arrive.
Just then an older woman in dark sunglasses walked by on her cell phone, discussing her "lecture notes" from a class she had taught earlier in the morning.
"Excuse me, do you teach at Kyambogo or Makerere?" I asked.
After a brief moment of confusion after putting her phone away, she smiled and sat down gingerly. "Makerere she said. I'm a law professor there."
I filled her in on my job and what I was doing in Kampala as we waited for her food to arrive and my bill to come back. When I looked at my watch it was already 12:30 and I still had no idea how I was getting to Makindye.
"Damn," I said.
"What is it, dear?"
"I've got to be in Makindye Hill in thirty minutes and I don't even know where it is."
She smiled knowingly and checked the clouds.
"My office isn't far from there. I"ll drive you..."
About two minutes into the journey, the clouds opened up and shook violently all across the valley. The city was flooded within minutes. Visibility inside her saloon was less than nothing. Nothing my hand or the defroster could do would alleviate the blindness as we skirted past impromptu raging intersections of water and mud towards the U.S. embassy.
After Josephine dropped me outside the gate, I knocked. Seconds later I was greeted by two servants and a heavy set woman in her fiftees. Regal gaiety oozed out of her elegant African attire, gold jewelry and warm smile.
"I'm Miriam. Harriet's mama. Welcome."
I wished I had brought my camera.
The Mpiinda household was really three-in-one. The parents' quarters was the oldest part of the compound, built in 1976 in a plot of acreage overlooking Lake Victoria and Munyonyo far in the distance. Three Roman columns and a sweeping staircase led to the Pension, where four bedrooms were rented out daily to weary travelers. An American I never met was sleeping off jet lag in one of them as lunch commenced. Harriet, the daughter and aforementioned contact, had her own private chalet tucked next to the parents' home, with private living area, bedroom, bath and kitchen, with a sun deck and patio and views of the city.
Two women in their forties were draped in bandanas and work clothes, preparing lunch, tending to the garden and carrying water back and forth between the three abodes.
Paul and Miriam welcomed me into their home like relatives, ushering me into a burgundy couch as food finished cooking. Grandmother came in a few minutes later, shaking my hand and getting down on her knees to greet me. I turned red and laughed, inwardly pleading for her to get up. I didn't deserve that.
Harriet, Paul, and Miriam and I talked through lunch and well into the afternoon. I listened mainly. About Amin. About poverty. About buying land. About their lives.
Their family life was a success story on the surface. Educated parents. Father worked for a French firm as an accountant. Got his CPA. Has a pension. They bought a house. Sent their four daughters to school. Two are U.S. citizens now. Grandmother has a place to live and die in. Both parents are retired in their late fiftees, eating fresh fish, living in a paid-for house, traveling to London or Asia once a year. they get to watch their grandkids grow up.
But then I took a walk with Harriet up to the market.
"I lived in the bush with my grandmother, you know," she began. I wanted to ask her where her parents were but let her continue. "Long story..." she said with a knowing smile.
"I somehow got out. Made it to school, university, found a job in the states. Went back to school. Got a computer degree at DeVry. Bought a house. She pointed to a couple kids yelling 'mzungu' at me, trying to get me to look and wave. We both smiled and then her face turned serious again. "I could have ended up like one of these women. Selling onions on the street. Sitting in an office made up of chicken coops and cardboard. Walking around barefoot selling crap each day of my life. This place changes you. And amazes you. But mostly it humbles you."
Just across the street from the madness of an outdoor market with poverty everywhere was the ARA (American Recreation Area); this was a walled-in compound of elite expats getting away from it all. Shangri-la. Tennis courts, ping pong tables, a sports bar, swimming pool, and a play area for kids. Rooms rented by the day for those wishing for a little seclusion amidst the chaos outside the gates. A mirage. I didn't really like it even though I probably should have.
We stayed for a juice, paid the bill and then returned to reality.
"Don't be a stranger. Don't let yourself be lonely here, Matt." Paul came out of his slumber to shake my hand and say good-bye. "Ever wanna watch telly with me, talk sports, go out...just call and come by."
His wife nodded. "We are your Ugandan family."