It was supposed to be over one hundred degrees when we arrived in Gulu, a small village in Northern Uganda but, as the locals say, “God has blessed us and brought the rain.” I’m standing on the lip of our cruiser, a ten-person bus that I’ve taken to calling The Iron Donkey, and looking down the street towards Gulu’s own miniature version of The Sunset Strip. The entire length of the block is made up of shanties and lean-tos. Instead of doors, there are curtains. Instead of cement blocks, mud and corrugated steel. Instead of shingles, tin. If the big bad wolf comes around, he’s going to blow this entire place down.
Men and women sit under eaves, trying to escape the light drizzle while they wait for locals to buy their merchandise – sweet bananas, passion fruit, yams, mangoes, live chickens, dead chickens, chicken pieces and fry bread. All prices are open to negotiation.
Looking down the street I see dark faces and dirty people, individuals that my mind immediately associates with unsavory characters. I brush the thought away, remembering that I’m seeing them through a perspective that has been spoon fed to me through media and pop-culture for over thirty years. This looks like a slum to me, by my western standards, but to them, to everyone here, to these people, this is not a slum. This is everyday. This is what they were born into. This is what their parents were born into. This is the absolute unfaltering reality of their world.
Ten years ago the LRA was here recruiting children into the Lord’s Resistance Army and forcing them to kill their parents. They’d give a ten year old a gun and tell him to kill mom and dad. The soldiers would come in and cut off noses, lips and ears of children just so that, when they looked in the mirror, they’d remember their leader, Joseph Kony. This street was once ravaged by rape and violence so recently that George W. was still in office when it was happening. Most of the locals are now just happy that those days are over and they can now sell their wares in peace. They can feed their family without fear of a lunatic kicking in their door and making them choose which of their sons would be sacrificed to the LRA.
That 20-something guy with the mangoes spread out on the blanket across the street? That’s the world he grew up in while I was kicking back Bud Lights in college, cruising around on my Honda motorcycle in Colorado. I tell people I’ve never won the lottery but I gotta tell you, being born in America ain’t a bad runner up.
From my vantage point atop The Iron Donkey I can see behind these shanties to the village beyond. This street might be where these people work but where they live is tucked away and kept safe from prying eyes. Over the tops of the tin roofs, I can see a collection of huts – true huts whose walls are made from mud and whose roofs are made from thatch. I try to decide if these people live beyond poverty or outside of it completely. It’s easy to call them poor but perhaps their lives are just simpler than ours, unbound by complications like rent control, electric bills and social media.
A voice floats through the air and lands in the crook of my ear, “What are you thinking, Johnny?” I turn around. Noah, our Ugandan guide, is looking at me and smiling. I look back at the tiny strip and point to a bright red shack with people sitting out front. “What is that?” He answers, “A pub. You call it a bahrrr.”
I picture a bar as I know it – dimly lit, some tables, chairs. There is a bar up front, proper. A mirror, some bottles. Beer on tap, people sitting with their backs to the front door. Pool tables, darts, etc. But this red place – none of that is inside. It’s too small, too contained. I look at the people and judge them by their specific demographic. They’re not drinking Jameson. Hell, they’re not even drinking Black Velvet or Wild Turkey or the soup de jour, Bud Light – and not just because this is an impoverished community but because most places in Uganda don’t carry those brands. So what’s inside? My imagination tries to picture what this place looks like and my curiosity is peaked. Is there even electricity? Is there a refrigerator?
There are certain places on Earth that I assume I’ll never set foot simply because I would be unwelcomed. You know the vibe – certain places in Detroit, those nasty neighborhoods in New York you’ve seen in the movies, Skid Row at night. We try to make a peaceful world but there are places where a certain type of person just doesn’t belong because it’s private. It belongs to a culture and by stepping foot inside; you are invading it, exploiting it, making a carnival ride out of their personal world.
I also assume that this red bar across the street or the huts behind them are one of those places. That is some raw humanity that my cowboy boots and sunglasses would never be allowed in.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to wonder. I ask, “What do they serve?” and Noah looks down the street and seems to judge it. “Would you like to go inside?”
There is a part of me, inside my head, that shouts, No! Stay here! Stay here where it is safe! Stay here where your group is! Stay here where the bus is! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. You will not be welcomed. Remember when you got mugged in Nicaragua while heading towards a local bar?
But then the other half of me screams, Go! Quick! Go where there is danger! Go where no one else has! Run from the comforts you know! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. They may embrace you. And you helped rescue a lady during that mugging. If you weren’t there, who knows what could have happened to her.
Ah, back and forth. Back and forth.
I jump down from the lip and say, “Noah. I would love that. Is it safe?” He shrugs and begins walking, stepping in front of a car that comes to a screeching halt. I jog to keep up.
Across the street my boot hits mud. Deep mud. Sticky mud. Heavy mud that clings like little fingers that seem to say Now that you’re here, you’ll never leave. I look up and see a sea of white eyes lacking any casual sideways glances. They are staring, no two ways about it. And whether I am welcome or not, I can’t yet tell. I nod at them, give the cowboy quick-chin-down and nobody responds. I try the more street version with the quick-chin-up but still nothing. It’s very possible that people don’t do that here and have no idea what it means. They might think that my head nod is just a nervous twitch. Or they might think that I’m throwing attitude. This is how new cultures are – things you think are simple and straight forward sometimes get totally lost. I walk around a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) with its wheels ripped off, leaking oil into the rain, none of it mixing together. The mechanic sits on a bucket with a rusty tool in his hand. I lift up my arm and hold out all five fingers in a stiff wave. He stares at me, blinks, and then lifts up his hand in acknowledgment. No smile.
I tap my left and right pocket. Phone and wallet still there. Check and check.
I lift my hand to another person and they immediately respond, meeting my action with the mirrored version. Noah hangs a right and cuts across the street again, putting us kitty-corner from our bus and about a city block away. “Noah, I’m catching a lot of eyeballs here. Are you sure we’re cool?”
“We’re fine. Mzungus just don’t come down here.”
“Why? Why not?”
“They come to Africa but they want the safe and beautiful version from National Geographic. They want to keep their shoes dry and their hands clean. They’ll help as long as it doesn’t put them in an uncomfortable place.”
“And where are we going?”
“We’re going somewhere uncomfortable. When people look at you, you won’t be able to just drive by and take a picture. You’ll have to look back at them.”
We approach a blue building and walk past a man sitting out front. Noah says something to him in Lugandan and the guy responds. Noah jumps up the single step and pushes the curtain aside that acts as a door and I lose him to the darkness within. I lift my hand to the man and he ignores me. Standing out here alone makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, like a snail in an atrium without its shell. I step up onto the concrete “porch” and push past the curtain, trying to look casual and confident, trying to look like I fit in, a white guy wearing a white shirt with a white hood and white sunglasses. Didn’t plan that one out. May as well drape Old Glory over my shoulders and sing the national anthem while I’m at it.
Inside the shack, the rain is considerably louder, slapping against the tin roof, and the light is almost non-existent. It slips under the sheet that covers the door and illuminates a bit of the floor. Inside, two young girls stand in haunting silence. There are no chairs or benches in the room. Noah says something to them in Lugandan and they mumble something in response. He says something again and the older of the two, maybe 13, shakes her head and points.
Noah pushes back past the sheet and steps out into the rain. He strolls past several structures made of rotting wood and tarps. Four doors down we come to the small cell with red walls that I’d spotted across the street. Sitting out front are a number of men, six on each side, lining the benches that lead to the entrance. “Mzungu! Ahh! Haha! Mzuuuungu!” (an African term for white traveler). Their eyes are bloodshot and their limbs are loose. They comfortably lean against one another, all of them drunk. We’ve reached The Pub.
Noah and I push through another sheer sheet and into a dark red room, eight feet across and eight feet wide. Parting the room in half is a counter. Behind the counter is a heavy woman whose eyes are barely visible above the tall ledge. Noah stands on his tip-toes and says something to her. He points to me. Her eyes shift in my direction but show no emotion. She says something and, in English, Noah says, “How much?” She quotes a number and he pulls out a bill, handing it across the counter. Pudgy fingers reach out and gobble up yellow money. I hear a shuffling, a clinking, a pouring, and then over the counter comes a dirty cup about the size of two shot-glasses filled with a clear liquid. She hands it to Noah, who hands it to me. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from The Goonies where Mouth orders water in the Fratelli’s restaurant before discovering Sloth.
It’s now that I notice another woman standing next to me with a wrap around her waist and a sleeping newborn swaddled into the backside. She smiles at me and I smile back, happy to see a friendly face. I smell the drink, breathing deeply. There is a hint of fruit and a punch of alcohol that burns my nose. “What is it?”
Noah says, “Tonto. It’s made from sweet bananas – the little yellow ones.” It’s whiskey. Or moonshine. Or hootch. It’s made here. I take a little sip and the lady with the baby smiles. I smack my lips together and say, “It’s sweet. It’s like whiskey.” Noah smiles and signals me to shoot it. “Fast.” I pull in a breath and, on my empty stomach, begin to tilt the cup back. It takes me three drinks to finish it off. I pinch my eyes and pucker my mouth. I say, “Tastes a little fruity. It’s quite good,” and when I hand the cup back to the woman behind the counter, I see a small smile in her eyes. Is it pride? She takes the cup and places it back on the shelf behind her without washing it.
Noah says something to the lady with the baby and she nods twice before turning and leaving. Noah follows after her while I bring up the rear. The gray daylight cuts at my eyes and I squint, walking back out into the rain. The drink has gone straight to my head and I can already feel it loosening me up. The men outside again shout, “Yeah! Mzungu! Haha! Woo!” and I smile back and hold out my fist to one of them, not caring how it looks. Not caring about the social implications of lifting my fist or what that might mean here. The man stares at it, confused. Noah keeps walking. I don’t move. I just stare at him and wait for it to click. The drunk man laughs and lifts his fist in return.
I laugh and the rest of the men in the row immediately lift their fists as I walk past them. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Laughter chases behind me as I disappear back into the rain.
The lady with the baby walks past six doors before taking a sharp left down a narrow corridor. I’m being led back into the quiet places. This is not the place that you see from the car. This is the internal. This is the inner circle. This is their community. Their private life. There is a sense of both fear and honor that mix around in my gut. The thought crosses my mind that it may have been years since a white man has visited. The thought crosses my mind that I could be making history.
I step out of the corridor and into a village where Africans in dusty clothes slowly walk back and forth. All eyes are on me, front and center. I lift my hand and say, “Hello. Hello,” being sure to hit each syllable hard. I feel like a visitor from outer space. I mean you no harm. Scattered abruptly around and seemingly without reason are huts. The huts. Real huts. That’s all I can think. These are huts. These are real huts. These are real huts that real people live in. I’ve seen them in movies and books but these are real. The real thing. This is what pre-civilization looked like. This is pre-brick and pre-commerce. I am in an African village. These are huts made of mud and thatch. People live here. This is raw humanity. This is pure. This is honest.
I want to pull out my phone and begin snapping photos. Look at me, Facebook! Look where I am! I’m at a hut village! But the idea immediately revolts me. A few yards ahead I see a small circle of people, eight in total. They sit in chairs around a small pot. Coming out of the pot are long straws that the people all suck on – it looks like some kind of water bong but there is no smoke coming from their mouths.
Noah says, “Do you want to try?” and I say, “What is it? What are they doing?” and he says, “It’s alcohol. It is called Ajono.” We approach the circle and the people all look at me, each of them appearing more haggard than the last. Teeth are missing. Eyes are sunken. Clothes are torn and dirty. Hands are caked in age and filth. I look to my right and see another circle made of younger men, all of them sending me The Eyeball.
“Do you want to try it?” Noah asks again. I look down into the blue and yellow striped pot, the size of a basketball, and see a mixture that looks like water and sand and glue. It looks like chewed up sawdust mixed with spit. It looks like ground up peanuts and warm milk. An older woman stands up, pulls her straw out of her mouth and hands it to me.
This is where the rubber meets the road. This is their culture. These are the hidden things that no one ever knows. You will not find this on a tour bus or a guided walk through a museum. This is a special moment. This is their community extending an olive branch to me. Welcome. This is they giving me a gift. The woman, mid-sixties, taps my shoulder and signals me to sit in her chair, a wooden contraption that’s low to the ground and, after I sit in it, I learn, exceptionally comfortable.
An old man across from me holds his straw in his hands and stares at me. Man, what have you seen? What things have you seen? Were you here when the LRA stormed in? What are those scars from? How long have you been here? What do you know?
I say, “Hello,” but he doesn’t respond. I look around the circle and see them all staring at me, waiting. Not pressuring me. Just waiting. Observing. Watching me take part in their tradition. There is something nearly spiritual about this. We are cultures combining, an unexpected exercise for both of us.
As with most of the monumentally memorable moments in my life, I never thought they would happen when I opened my eyes that morning. There is power in running towards fear. After all, can a true adventure be planned? Aren’t they, by their very nature, an exploration of the unknown?
I look back at the pot and the smell hits me. Rotten bread and moisture. I lift the straw to my mouth and think, Can I get Hep A from this? Hep B? I got my vaccines… Can you contract AIDS from backwash? I’m fairly certain that’s not possible. I pinch the straw between my lips and pull, pull, pull. The length of the straw is about three feet but the thick liquid comes up faster than I anticipate. It’s hot, like green tea that is just cool enough to drink without pausing. It doesn’t burn but it warms me. The taste is just bearable enough to take on, just awful enough to put my mind elsewhere while I swallow.
Sometimes taste is deceiving – sparkling water, curry and dark chocolate – sometimes you need a second taste to really appreciate whether you like it or not. I pull again and realize that this is not one of those things. This stuff just tastes like soggy bread with yeast. It is apparent that it will never grow on me.
I hear a laugh and when I look up, both circles, young and old, are watching me. A woman lets out a long cackle, which acts as a wick to the fireworks. The rest of the old people begin to laugh. They each pull their straws back into their mouths and begin to sip. Noah says, almost as a command, “Take more.”
I put the straw back in my mouth and pull deeply. Three, four, five, six drinks. The effect of the first shot is massaging my brain and I can feel this sludge caking my stomach like glue. The young guys begin to shout and I look over. A tall guy that would fit perfectly in the NBA yells something at me. I turn to Noah. “What is he saying?” Noah listens. “I don’t know. He’s speaking Acholi.” The NBA-guy yells something again and the woman with the baby says something to Noah, who translates to English, “He wants you to drink with him.” I say, “Should I?” and Noah tilts his head ever so slightly left to right.
I don’t know why and later on I forget to ask. I stand up and admire the toothless smiles that shine up at me from these ancient villagers that have seen more tragedy than anyone on my block back home probably ever will. I stick out my fist to the oldest man and hold it. His smile grows ever wider as he pulls the straw from his mouth and bumps my fist. All the way around the circle I connect with each of them. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for this. Thank you.”
I know, even as it’s happening, that this moment is unique and will play back through my mind for the rest of my life. I know that it will be rare to ever meet someone with a similar story who I can compare notes with. I understand how valuable this is. This experience is irreplaceable and will probably never repeat itself.
I turn to the eldest man, the leader, and I say to him, “May I take a photo? May I take a picture?” Noah translates and then the lady with the baby translates again and the man’s eyes shine. He nods his head yes vigorously. I pull out my iPhone, worth more money than they make in three months, and snap a photo of the brew.
I repeat, “Thank you. Thank you for this,” as Noah speaks over me, translating. An older woman gently claps her hands together. The NBA-guy yells again and then hoots. The mood is so good. So light. So pure. So human. There is so much awesome connectivity happening that I try to take it one step further. I don’t want it to end. I’m in The Current of All Good Things and I want to watch it all play out. My luck is ripe. I pull in a breath and look at the group of elders. And then I ask, “May I see the inside of a hut? May I look inside?”
Noah looks at me and then looks at the woman with the baby. The woman with the baby says something to an older woman. The older woman smiles and jumps up from out of her chair with more grace than I would anticipate possible. She says something that I don’t understand but waves her hand through the air in a follow me gesture. She leads us to her hut, signals one more time, and walks inside.
I watch the lady with the baby disappear. And then I watch Noah disappear. I turn my head back to the circles and the old man waves at me. I look back at the hut and realize that this woman is bringing me, accepting me, into the deepest part of her life. This is the deepest privacy this woman has. These huts are only ten feet across and everything she owns in the world exists inside.
The only place this woman has with more privacy is her heart.
I touch the soft fabric hanging in front of the door and push into the darkness and once again, out of the rain that is now turning my clothes damp. The humidity hits me first. It’s very warm – at least 10 degrees hotter in here than it is outside. It’s also dark. It’s very dark. The rain falls silent. The drape falls and the four of us stand in silence. Noah, the old woman and the lady with the baby all stare at me. To my immediate left is a small bench. At the back of the hut a small curtain hangs, blocking something. To my right another small curtain hangs, blocking something else. There must only be a foot or two maximum between the other side of the curtain and the wall. What are they hiding?
I look up and touch the ceiling. I want to say something profound, something that shows how thankful I am to be brought here, to be shown this, to have this shared with me, a stranger who is opposite in every way. The old woman says something, pointing to each area – the bench, the first curtain, the second curtain. The woman with the baby translates for Noah. Noah translates for me. He says, “This is her living room (the bench), this is her bedroom (first curtain), and this is her kitchen (second curtain).”
The only decorations are four pictures of Jesus hanging on the wall in the living room.
I don’t know how to feel. Sympathy? Pity? Envy? I reach out my hand and take hers. Her skin is paper-thin and she feels like an autumn leaf. Our hands are so different. Young, old. Black, white. She’s spent year doing heavy work and I’ve spent my time sitting at a desk and writing. Our fingernails tell the story of our lives. I stare into her eyes and say, “Your home is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. I will never forget this moment.”
Noah translates to the lady with the baby, who translates to the old woman. She gives me a tender smile and speaks a simple sentence. The lady with the baby translates back. Noah smiles and says to me, “You are not like the other mzungus.”
Outside, the same rain that falls on Los Angeles, falls on everyone.