I took my first long journey over a rutted and pitted red dirt (murram) road. The plants lining the road were copper brown from a thick layer of road dust. You know how, when you’re on a bumpy road, you kind of clench all your muscles so you won’t get thrown around the car? My stomach was quite tight by the time we arrived at our destination.
We arrived in a village and pulled up to what I thought was an abandoned building. People were ranged about on the lawn being counselled by TASO (The AIDS Support Organization) counsellors. We entered a room of the building full of ancient hospital beds with doctors and nurses sitting with patients. What I had foolishly thought was an abandoned building was an active community health clinic. Come on, Kusems, you’re in Africa, remember? TASO rents out part of the building once a month to treat patients with HIV (HIV/AIDS services not being offered by the normal health clinic). We did a bit of a tour, then sat down across from a worried woman with a pretty baby. Doctor Julia told her to come sit in the chair next to me. I was inches from the baby and wanted to reach out and touch her, but the mother didn’t look like she’d appreciate it and the baby herself was off in her own little world. Most babies and kids are fascinated by we white people, but this one just stared off into space, her eyes sometimes rolling back in her head the way a mentally disabled person’s might. I noticed that she was quite thin for a baby. The proceedings between doctor and patient took place in Luganda (the local tribal language) but I glanced at what the doctor was writing on the baby’s form: TB refill, fever, oral thrush. Oral thrush is a common infection among people with AIDS. I was sitting inches from a baby with HIV and tuberculosis (and possibly mental handicap?). This realization, perhaps combined with having missed lunch and having spent the past hour with a clenched stomach, not to mention the fact that hospitals have always freaked me out, made me feel a bit queasy and I had to take several deep breaths and focus on the vegetation outside the window. Here was everything I had been studying all year, sitting right in front of me. I knew what Africa was like, I knew it was this way, but it still caught me off guard and threw me for a loop.
After a while of sitting around not doing much, we caught a ride with some of the TASO workers to a place that served pork with cabbage. The place was a roadside set-up that I never would have recognized as a restaurant. A heaping portion of the food was served on a large plate. We ate with our hands (after sterilizing, of course) and it was delicious, but I haven’t mastered eating greasy, shredded cabbage with my hands, and I made an absolute mess of myself. The TASO workers chattered in Luganda and paid little attention to me, until one of the women asked if I was married. I thought it was an innocent enough question, until she pointed at the youngest man there and said, “He’s not married either. He’s a good catch, too. He’s a doctor, he’s young, attractive” etc. We all laughed, but I’m sure none of them missed the deep blush in my face. “I have his number if you want it,” she added. “You should give me yours, too.” Awkward!
After that, we got a ride home with them. I was crammed in the back of a van on a bench suited for four people, but holding six, being careful with my feet to avoid stepping on the beans and yams being stored on the floor. At one point, we passed two men on a motorbike carrying a bicycle. After a while, Doctor Julia turned to me and said, “We haven’t given you a Ugandan name!”
“Someone already gave me one,” I responded.
“Oh really? What is it?”
“Namutebi,” I answered, and everyone burst into laughter. I have no idea why, but it wasn’t mean laughter so I shrugged it off. I think they just thought it was funny that I had a Ugandan name.
So that was my odd, slightly scary but wonderful day.