The feeling of walking down a street for the first time is always eerie. Whether I’m strolling down a side street in New York or in this case, walking down the street in a small village in Uganda. I’ve been in-country for three weeks now. The stares have slowly started to subside. The pressure that they use to pin against me has lost a little of it’s force. Yet, walking in the unfamiliar, the strength and the impending penetration that has no actual force, becomes a little stronger.
I was told this was a short cut to work. It’s a quick side street that by-passes the main hill and will shoot me out to the main road. My neighbor said it would save me five minutes on my walk. I trust him, I don’t believe it’s a set up. The morning time is serene here. The sun rises at the same time every day. Just after seven. At six o’clock the mosque will call people for prayer. It’s a natural and trustworthy alarm clock. The school children head to school at eight. Everything is in sync and consistent. This is the first time I’ve deviated from my routine.
The road has the surroundings as the others in town. A little hidden house sit back behind a row of banana trees. The red clay sits on top of what might, at one time, be a tarmac. The motorbikes whiz past you right before the incline. The ones heading down are coasting to save fuel. I noticed a group of men wearing yellow jump suits walking out of a path. They are the prisoners of the town. I learned early on. They don’t really bother anyone, but I’ve never walked passed them.
I stand a little straighter; I keep my eyes pasted forward. I refuse to look down. I learned early on in New York that if you mind yourself no one would ever bother you. I have found that it works in other parts of the world too. I try to use my peripheral to see whether or not they take any interest in me. I’m use to the stares, but I watch to see if they move their arms in a certain way. A gesture of the head.
I make it past them with out any problem. I make my way up the hill. I pass the entrance of the school I usually walk behind it. I see the kids making their way to class. They walk in pods. Three or four to each, they walk holding hands, teasing one another, and are always full laughter. The innocence is still very much within in them. The younger ones will be accompanied with an older sibling or parent. There’s usually one motorbike that will have four or five younger ones hanging on to the driver making it’s way down the hill. The front of the school has all the children lined up. A few catch me walking by and start to wave hello, shouting “Mzungu! Bye, Mzungu!” I wave in acknowledgement and give a smile.
On top of the hill I make a left and follow the road. There’s nothing but farmland to the left. To the right are the back of buildings, the same buildings I usually walk in front of. I know in the front of the first sits the policeman. He wears military fatigues and holds an AK-47. Everyday, he sits in front of the same tree. Lazily, slouched in the seat hidden from the sun. One time, when I left very early, I caught him sleeping. He was soon woken up by one of the people opening up the store. The shock that he woke with scared me that he might use his rifle, but he didn’t that day.
As my neighbor told me, I pop out on the main rode. I look at my watch and I did save five minutes. The main road has buses, motorbikes and personal cards going in all directions. Theirs no pattern to the driving. It’s more of an opening is your guide. If you are going faster than the car directly in front of you and theirs space to the left or right that is where you head. The lines in the road are solely suggestions, suggestions that are never taken.
The frogger games I played with my little brother as a kid are put into use everyday at this spot. I wait for the first area to clear of oncoming cars. I walk just enough and see if the next space is open. I move left or right to help the next jump happen faster. Eventually, I’ll weave my way through the traffic. I’ve had a few close calls. The pedestrian does not have the right away. With a quick little jump, I’ve suffered only a clip of the trunk from a car.
After crossing the road, the trip is all down hill. The ‘high rises’ of three story buildings line the walk down. They’re full with small little shops. All selling similar items. I can buy phone cards here, black market dvds, and snacks along the way. People stand at the same shop, talking to their friends before the start the day. Across the street, people wait for public buses, sitting in the shade. No one is rushed, there’s no eagerness to get to point B. It will happen when it will happen is the feeling that you get watching the surroundings.
Halfway down the huge hill, I make it to my office. I walk past the guards. Two of them, one sits in a high chair and the other stands in the doorway. These two carry a shotgun. “How you doing today?” I say as I continue walking in. “Jendi,” follows me through the door way. At times they joke with me. They ask if I brought them breakfast if I’m carrying food with me. I smile and shake my head. I have heard stories of them demanding payment for our security. Yet, they have always been pleasant to me. I walk the two stories to the office.
I open the door and slump my backpack on my chair. I pull the blinds to let the sun light in. The sun is peaking right above the hill in front of the office windows. I open the windows to let the stagnant air of the night leave the room. I look around and see the three-cluttered desks. I take a deep breath and crack my back. I grab my water bottle and stair out the window, waiting for the rest to come in for the morning.
A lot happens outside this window. It’s the busy street in the village. North is Kampala and South is Rwanda. The street is the outlet for the bus and delivery trucks. The produce aggregated in town use this road to go from farm to merchant to cities. Parades celebrating holidays and events come through the road.
On a daily bases I am guaranteed at least one interesting moment. The most entertaining are the parades. They start from the village on the other side of the valley. They swoop down the valley and walk up the hill towards the center. First it is the public motorbike drivers. They fly through the streets, blasting their horns and attempt tricks. They jump on their seats, hang off the side have three to four people hanging and standing on the bike. They are followed by two military police trucks and the rest of the police force walking in unison behind them. The civil police, carrying wooden sticks and wearing plain clothes follow behind them. Then who ever the parade is for follows behind them. If I am really lucky a full marching band will accompany the police. The band, though, is saved for special occasions.
I see a traffic patrol person standing a little up on the corner. A man with a rifle and full riot gear next to him. The site is out of the ordinary and immediately sparks my interest. I get caught staring out the window. My co-worker shuffles in and sees me standing at the window. She nudges up to me and finds my line of sight.
After a quick noise, so unique to Uganda, she says, “I wonder what’s going on today?”
I shake my head, “I have no idea, but I’ve never seen a guy like that,” I motion to the man in full riot gear, “out there.”
She shakes her head and throws her bag on her desk. She sits down, relaxing her shoulders. I turn around sit at my desk, “So, what’s on for today?”
We both dive into what we need to get done. We prioritized the work ahead of us. Both of us are exhausted from weeks of long days that never seem to finish. At least two items that we wanted to finish the day before are carried over. Just around lunchtime I started to hear the honking that blares from the street. The sound starts from down the hill and then slowly becomes louder and then fades away again.
It’s the motorbike drivers. There are more of them than usual out. They all have yellow shirts on. The national party’s color. They rip up and down the hill. I try to catch what the shirt says, but they go by too quickly for me to read. Luckily one stopped and I was able to read M7 2016. “Museveni 2016.” I whispered it under my breath.
My co-worker stands up, “Here it goes again. The elections have come.” She sits back down at her desk. I stair out the window watching the yellow drivers fly up and down the road. The man in full riot gear still stands on the corner. His body language has changed. Before he was relaxed, almost bored, but now he is at full attention. People on the street cheer the bikers as they past. Men hold their boys on their shoulders. Women fall in little pods dancing in circles. Everyone stops what he or she was doing.
Eventually the line of police men and women walk up the hill. The band is with them today. They blast their trumpets and beat the drums in unison with their steps. Behind the band is a sea of yellow. The people are marching up the street eight to nine shoulder to shoulder. They start from one side and consume the road. The end can not be seen from the limited view of the window. They shout “Museveni! Museveni!” The cheers can be heard over the band. A few more police in riot gear appear on the corner.
The people on the street, the bystanders, are cheering or watching them as they pass. The street is more crowded than before. I can see the shop owners have come to see what is occurring outside too. I look up at the hill and see a few people standing on top. At first it was two or three. They had their backs to me not paying attention to what was occurring down here on the road.
A motorcade was in the middle of the crowd of yellow shirts. A few men waved huge yellow flags in the tailgate of the truck. The street is lined three people deep at this point. I scan the crowds, not aware that the area had so many people in at once. My scan brought me to the top of hill. This time a crowd of twenty or so people stood on top. They all wore blue shirts. None of them looked down the hill still. They are gazing at something that was just out of sight on top of the hill.
“Hey,” I turned to my co-worker, “what’s going on up there?” I pointed to the top of the hill.
She began to shake her head and grabbed my hand. “That,” she stayed staring at the top of the hill. She took a deep breath in and let it out. “That’s the color of the opposition party.” I scanned the top of the hill, the number of people in blue had double. They too, seemed like they had created a parade of their own. I looked out in front of us on the street. The sea of yellow carried slowly towards the center.
The men in riot gear had shifted their attention to the top of the hill now too. The contrasting blue shirts had started to make their way down the hill. The group was not larger than the sea of yellow that was right before me. They were three to a row and I was still unable to see the end of them. The men in riot gear lined up and walked to where the path of the hill led. They shifted the shields they had kept to their sides in the directions of the blue shirted crowd. The people coming down the hill did not change their pace when they saw them. They steadily walked down. They were not rushed, nor hesitant in their walk.
The approach was out of a movie in my head. The loud chants of crowd on the streets consumed my hearing. My breathing started to deepened. Each time my chest would rise a little higher and fall a little deeper. I felt my co-workers hand tighten little by little. Each step the group took down the hill it became just that much stronger. As they came closer to the men in riot gear my perception of time slowed down. They did not change their pace, nor did the people in the street. Yet, my line of vision flashed back and forth, waiting for the eruption that I was afraid of to occur.
The shields dug into the first row. They knocked them back, but did not knock them to the ground. The people behind them caught them by their shoulders and pushed forward. They out numbered the men with shields and simply pushed them closer and closer to the street. A few more people on the street noticed the river of blue that was not on the hill before. They diverted their attention from the parade before them to the men being pushed back.
The parade was still oblivious to the incident that was occurring twenty yards away. The shouts from the sea of yellow drowned any chance of hearing what the river of blue was trying to say. Then suddenly I saw two blue shirts throw something into the crowd. My body tensed, I froze. A blinding white over came my vision.
“Finny?” Someone was nudging my shoulder. The white was still lingering in my vision. “Finny?” This time the voice was more concerned. More strained. Slowly my vision became more focused, I could see more than white. “Finny, can you hear me?” It was my co-workers voice. “Finny, are you okay?”
“Where am I?” The room was not the office. I was lying in bed, with an IV attached to my arm. I was at the clinic.
“You’re at the clinic. You have malaria.”