Jan. 2, 2012
“Bye, muzungu. Bye, muzungu.” Repeated, it becomes a chant the kids kick around in jest as they wave their hands in my direction. Translated, it means, “Hi, person who’s not black.”
They gather in a little crowd outside of the land cruiser where I wait for Jenifer, the not-yet-30 director of House of Hope, to wrap up her greetings in the tiny town of Kyazanga (pronounced cha-zahn-gah). We’re a few miles from the village where the House of Hope compound sits, and only one thing keeps me from getting to our final destination: Africa-time—the melding of minutes into hours as the relativity of “should” and “must” fades into the backdrop of the softly drifting African sun.
After a few verses the singsong of the children’s chant begins to resemble more of a mock, and the graciousness of smiles and waves wipes away as readily as the sweat collecting on my forehead. Did I ever think I was a kid person?
Jenifer steps back into the car. The chorus of little limbs shuffles from the vehicle, and I get the sense that they watch us pull way before they scatter.
When we turn off the paved road, driving transforms into a different exercise. Tires skate around the grooves and cracks of the packed red earth, a path cleared through the bushes to allow entry and exit from the village—the deepest, remotest parts of Uganda where cars eventually have to be abandoned for bicycles and bicycles eventually abandoned for feet. I wonder about those six months of the year when the rain season overtakes the village and the ground we drive on today no longer puffs dust but… what? I wouldn’t know what the road feels like after months of soaking. Whether it grabs at ankles or collects into a bath of cold, murky water. Much like I wouldn’t know how long it takes before mud houses melt under the pressure of constant rain; before banana leaf roofs begin to wilt and families think to themselves,enough. I cannot bear this for another season. Because next season they will likely have one more body in the house, one more sleeping mat to lay on the floor, one more reason to think,enough. Not one more season.
Upon pulling up to the compound on which House of Hope sits, the driver (whom I have come to know as Majidu, my protector and friend) parks the car. Already a swarm of children have started to collect outside of the passenger side door, where Jenifer steps out and is met by mannered boys and girls. They bend on one knee and hold her hand, a formal greeting for the woman who has provided them housing and food and education—basics of life but not taken for granted.
Then, with veteran practice of those who’ve greeted many muzungus before me, the children gather around, eager to be acquainted with their new auntie. About 40 children, mainly girls, offer their hands and go for hugs. They want to feel the realness of my skin, my clothes, my body, as much as I want to feel the coarseness of their shaved heads and tell them I have no idea what I’m doing here but am so glad we’ve finally met. One girl, who I’ll later learn is Sandra, 8, wraps her arms around my waist in a gesture of reunion and holds tight for many seconds, smiling up at me. She only lets go when her older sister, Shallon, reprimands her. A few rebuking tones, and Sandra loosens her grip and adjusts the drooping shoulder of her pink striped dress.
They are like sheep being herded when I lead them toward the sloping plot where grass still grows, and I take a seat. I let them study the freckles on my shoulders, feel the tiny hairs on my arm, touch the loose ends of my hair. I wonder at how something so commonplace as my body can be the center of such attention and, for a fraction of a thought, I encounter 13 year old me, stultified by her imperfect teeth and acne-speckled skin, relying on the grace of others to show my face in public. Now, fourteen years later, desperate to be seen, I rely on the grace of these children to show my face to me.
Sandra rests her hands on my knees. Shallon touches my arm. She asks me in broken English about the other aunties that have stayed with them. Do I know Auntie Lauren? Auntie Michelle? Auntie Zoe? Another little one sidles next to me to receive similar affections. A rub of the back. A measuring of the wrist. An exchange of Luganda words.
What did she say? I ask.
Nkwagala nyo, someone replies. I love you, friend.
I’ve been welcomed. I’m finally in the bushes of Africa.
Soo Kim lives and writes in New York City. She is a communications specialist for the federal government, which allows her the freedom to get out of her own head during the day. She holds an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University and appreciates being able to apply the same literary concepts of fiction to her nonfiction writing. Her writing can be found at www.nofeardaughter.wordpress.com.