About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Daily People

Joy in her phone booth

Erin ready to take my order

The little people are the ones you remember. The ones who you mix with each day. They make me feel like I'm part of the community. Sure, our relationship exists because I need them to provide a service and they need my money, but that's beside the point. Our encounters are what make the mundane interesting and often laughable.

Joy is a tight-lipped, conservative woman in her late thirties. She doesn't plate her hair, doesn't wear make-up. She is taciturn and soft-spoken. She passes my compound to and from work each day. Some days we don't see each other. When we do I wave and she returns the greeting, never stopping to chat. There is no small talk between us, just transatctions. I wonder where she lives. I should follow her one day. See where it takes us. Her office is a phone booth. No glasses or capes inside though (I checked). She sells phone credit, setting up a shop on a cobblers stool underneath a sizable deck umbrella. She sometimes has a younger woman who stands next to her, both of them in the shade, speaking out softly or not all, gazing inward at whatever it is phone credit ladies in the late thirties think about on uneventful nine hour shifts. I cross paths with her about once a month when my internet credit runs out. Usage is by the bandwidth here, not that I really get that..but when I use up too much 'credit' watching videos, sports highlights, downloading music, etc., I come to Joy. I call her early in the morning. "Joy, I need 45,000 Orange. Can you get it?"
"Let me see...I shall call you."

Within the hour she does call me. "Sir...yes, I have it. You come."
"Thanks, I'll come in a sec."
"Yes, sir."

I come, give her money, she hands me three scratch-off cards, I pocket them, walk home, scratch off the codes, and re-new my internet for the month.

Then there is Erin. Erin is my waitress at the fruit stand on campus. She's extremely kind, gentle, Christian, soft-spoken. If I had a Ugandan daughter, I would want her to be like Erin. When I walk in the musty 4 x 6 fruit center (it's a bandbox with bananas and an ice chest) Erin brightens up, awaiting the same order I give her every day of the week.
"Can I get a fruit plate, glass of juice, bottle of water, and one cake?"
"Yes, sir. I'll bring it for you."
I nod, wave at Big Mama sitting down on her beer crate, and move back outside into the swarm of horse flies, banana peels and smashed mangoes, find a plastic chair next to the wooden table and awai Erin's plate of breakfast. The fruit plate is about forty cents. At a restaurant in the center of Kampala, the same order would be six dollars. I get sliced bananas, pineapple, watermelon, and papaya fresh from the tree. The mixed fruit juice is fresh too, complimented with a glass cover (to keep away the flies) and a straw. When I tip Erin, she thanks me, makes as if she's about to curtsy, surreptitiously takes the coin, and moves quickly back inside behind the counter next to Big Mama.
Note: I actually made up the name 'Big Mama' to amuse myself because that's basically what she is. 'Big' because she's big. 'Mama' because she has a motherly authority over the fruit stand. About six months afterward I silently named her as such, I heard someone call her 'Mama' out loud. I snapped my head around and noticed it was one of the girls working there. I guess I wasn't the only one who was thinking the same thing.

Agury is my boda driver. I can't really remember when I met him or decided he was the one. But ever since I did, I wear out his phone. I call him morning, noon, or night when I need a ride anywhere. Despite his incessant tardiness, lack of experience, control, tact (I could go on..), he's more dependable than anyone else near campus. And he doesn't argue about the price. I pay him what I know is fair. If fuel goes up, he lets me know. If I'm short one day, I pay him the next. If I have it in my heart, I pay him a little more. He hangs up the phone with the same monotone reply to my request for a ride every single time we talk.
"Agury, can you come get me now?"
"Okay....LET. ME. COME." He almost sings it.
He wears a hooded sweatshirt and hat when the temperature drops below seventy and asks me why I don't have a jacket. He will be getting all my old shirts and socks when I finish here in a month. Maybe even a pair of shoes if he can fit into them.

Maria and her baby boy inside the canteen watching soaps

I buy beer from the Kanziri Canteen about two hundred yards from my front door. Fiona and Maria work the counters. Except they really only laugh, give my change, and continue watching Venezuelan soaps while I go behind the counter and get whatever I want myself. I also bag the beer, calculate the price, pay them, and calculate the change I'm to receive. Why can't they do it? Well, they need to focus. There gazes never move five millimeters from the center of the 18 inch TV screen over my right shoulder. There is usually one to three babies who need a change of diapers when I peer over the canteen. I navigate between the tots and the ice box where all the cold beers and sodas are kept, making sure not to step down hard lest I create a hullabaloo during a particularly tense moment of the nightly episodes.
Phiona's reaction to my request for correct change

"Where is my beer?" Maria often half-jokingly asks as I return my bottles.
"Tomorrow," I promise.

I wait patiently for a commercial break or Fiona's eyes to notice my incessant glare and open hand in hopes they actually have correct change in their plastic jar below the parafin candy wrappings and black polythene bags. Correct change is a big problem at the canteen, which actually causes them to run a tab on my spendable income.

Esther takes my money at the lunch buffet up the road next to the Kyambogo Guest House every afternoon. She just had her second baby two weeks ago, prompting a minor crisis at the buffet. Esther couldn't work the counter, write the hundreds of daily receipts in the account book, or deliver and keep track of change and IOUs as staff, students, and locals saunter in and out of the guest house, treating her and the other cooks and servers little better than cattle. People never say 'please' and 'thank you' to these women. Never. I only here grunts, orders, commands, and more grunts, pointing at trays of food or items without every considering how impolite they are treating these women. And yet every day these women are waiting to serve us with a smile and a hot plate of food. Esther's newborn, Abigail, already as a full compliment of hair on her head, lovely caramel skin, and soft brown eyes. And thankfully Esther is just about back at work. I can't take the new girl much longer. Her math is about six months away from flash card-ready, and if I see her counting how much 5,000 minus 3,500 is one more time I might just walk away without bothering to wait.

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