Thursday, May 29, 2014

Waltz with Bashir

When I first spoke with Nyaka’s founder, Jackson Kaguri, about coming here to volunteer, I raised what I thought was a pretty important point.

“I don’t have any skills,” I said.

Obviously I didn’t mean it in an absolute way, but in the sense of skills they might need in a developing country. I don’t know how to build houses or cure diseases. But was I really going to come over here and do good, just because I’m… educated? Liberated? White?

Jackson explained that the Nyaka blog needed more stories about the school, the people who run it and the community members it affects, and that they’d love to have a writer here to do that. I was happy to oblige. 

"Was there anything else you'd wanted to do while there?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "I kind of thought I could… read. To the kids."

The truth was, I had this fantasy of myself turning pages to rapt audiences of students, igniting their imaginations and inspiring them to tell their own stories, just as I was when my teachers and parents read to me. But I also knew that these kids were dealing with problems that, at that age, weren't even close to my radar: losing parents and family members, poverty, disease, unimaginable obstacles. It was hard to believe that story time is what they really needed.

Jackson explained that Uganda isn’t really a nation of readers, and that bringing my love of reading to the kids would be of huge benefit. I still wasn’t convinced, but in the spirit of my “skill,” I packed a huge suitcase full of books for the library, all donated or paid for by friends and supporters. I chose some of my favourite childhood books, as well as a bunch written by African authors that discuss issues facing African kids. I also brought the first four Harry Potter books. I’d read the testimony of a teacher who read the first HP book to her students, and how, when Harry made Gryffindor win the Quidditch Cup, the kids cheered and hugged each other. The story brought tears to my eyes. But also: Hogwarts? And Nyaka? How do you put those two ideas on the same planet, much in less the same library?

Last week, I went to meet the Primary 5s and 6s, who are between about 11 and 14 years old. Armed with what I hoped was a worthy literary selection (no Potter included,) I nervously made my way to the front of a classroom. The kids welcomed me, in unison. Then they looked at me as if I were from outer space. One of them handed me a piece of chalk. I wrote my name on the board, and then, "CANADA”. We all looked at each other some more.

Finally, I pulled out the books, described the plot of each one to the kids, and asked which one they wanted me to read. They chose a story about going to hunt monkeys, and another about a Ugandan girl whose family receives a goat. I humbly report that both were a hit. Every time I turned a page and showed them a new picture, they were riveted. I mean video game, iPhone, IMAX 3D riveted, even providing enthusiastic sound effects. And after I finished each book, they clapped. Which is a tradition here, but still made me to turn away and wipe my eyes, which obviously had gotten some dust in them or something.




The P6s were much more advanced than the P5s (proof of what an incredible job Nyaka is doing,) and wanted to read for themselves, so I had them form small groups. Watching them pour over each page, reading in unison, making notes and then eagerly summarizing the stories afterwards, was one of the happiest hours I’ve spent here so far. I'd forgotten that stories can hold just as much power as reality. Maybe, sometimes, more.



*

But Harry Potter still flew in on his broomstick, all the way to rural Uganda.

When I was working with the high school students during their holidays, I did a video blog with a 17-year old boy named Bashir. Bashir shared, as many of the kids did, his educational aspirations, and the obstacles he was up against. But in the middle of shooting the video, he paused.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m not sure how to say this.”

Bashir explained that he wanted to tell the story of how I came to Nyaka, and talked about how I was a writer and filmmaker. Because, he said, he also wanted to be a writer and filmmaker.

"Will you give me some advice?” he asked, shyly.

Naturally, my Imposter Syndrome set in right away. 

“I haven’t published a book or written a film that’s actually a film yet,” I warned him, as if there were a selection of celebrated screenwriters at a bar just down the street.

“That’s okay,” Bashir said, cheerfully.

High school students in Uganda always board, so we only had a couple of opportunities to speak before he returned to his studies. I started with a big pep talk about how, even if he didn’t make it to film school (which isn’t looking promising, given his financial situation,) he should try his best to get a camera and something to edit it on. I told him about YouTube, and Indiegogo, and how so many filmmakers these days are starting from nothing.

“You might have to back up a little bit,” he said, “and explain to me how the Internet works.”

The next time we met, we talked about how important movies are, especially documentaries, to tell stories that might not otherwise be told. I told that lots of people who make films, even famous people, didn’t finish school or even go to school. We talked about how many stories in Uganda need to be told, and I told him about 5 Broken Cameras and War Dance, both of which really impressed him. I explained, as best I could, how festivals work, and we discussed what kind of films he wants to make. 

“I like stories where the ending isn’t predictable,” Bashir said. “I was in the library, and I saw those Harry Potter books. I loved those movies so much. I wish I weren't going back to school right away, so I could read these books.”

“Well, maybe you can find them at your school library,” I suggested.

He looked at me a bit strangely.

"This is the only library in the district," he said. 

Which means next closest one is 4 hours away by car. If you happen to have a car.

He told me that his father had decided, just that morning, to stop paying for his school feels after this year. He wasn't sure how his mother will pay, but he was pretty sure they’re going to get divorced.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said, in that same, uncomplaining way I'm starting to get used to, here. “I’ll get over it.”

It was then, as strange and unlikely as the words seemed, that I knew what I had to say. Because I was no longer the 37-year old white woman who writes and knows-some-things-but-not-other-things. I was the kid whose parents also split up. The kid who was told for so long that she should be so many other things, but who really just wanted to write and make movies.

“Bashir," I said. “You must never, ever give up. I know that sometimes it’s hard to when you don’t have people who believe in you. Sometimes people would rather believe in someone who wants to be a doctor or a lawyer, but filmmaking and storytelling can be very important.”

Bashir looked down. "It's true that I don't have someone to believe in me," he said.

“Well, you’ve got me,” I said, and meant it. “And you’ve got my husband.” (Bashir knew by now that Tony is a filmmaker.) “And he believes in you, too. So now you have two people.”

He went quiet for a while.

He said, "Life is amazing. Last week, I was just a lonely, only child, with one parent who works and the other who’s always away. I didn’t have many people to talk to. Then, by chance, I come here to spend the holidays with my grandparents. And I found this library, and I met you. And now I have a vision.”

He looked away.

“I want to say thanks, but that doesn’t seem like enough.”

Since I had something in my eyes again, I told him that I was the one who was honoured to have met him. And how now it was his turn to go make a difference to other people.

“I don’t know if we will ever see each other again,” he said.

So we made a plan. It might not be in a year or two, I said, but in five or even ten, he’d be at a festival and I’d be at another festival nearby, and we’d meet up. I know how far-fetched that, and any of this, might sound to anyone who knows anything. But I also knew that Bashir has no choice but to believe. And maybe, neither do I.

We shook on it, and then he walked off down the dusty road, back to his life and his school, where there’s no library, and no Internet, and no Harry Potter. And I sat there, knowing that if nothing else I do on this trip makes any difference at all, this last hour had been worth the price of admission.

And being very glad I was wearing sunglasses.

*

Postscript:

I promised Bashir that when I get home, I'll mail a copy of Harry Potter to him at school. 

But that won’t be for at least another 6 weeks. If any one of you has an extra HP lying around and feels like making a huge difference in an awesome kid’s life, let me know. I’ve got the address, if you’ve got the postage. 



Wednesday, May 21, 2014

White Girl Problems

I’m not at all proud to admit this, but a few days after I landed in Uganda, I was feeling sorry for myself.

That’s right: the white girl living in the guesthouse with windows and floors and someone bringing her food - the Canadian without HIV or AIDS and with access to education and free healthcare - was moping.

Even more embarrassingly, it started after we went to visit some of the grandmothers. These women are supported by and given micro loans from Nyaka, to increase their crop yields or buy farm animals, and to make additional income to pay their grandchildren’s school fees. I rode out to see them on the back of a motorbike, driven by a lovely guy named John, because that’s the easiest way to get around these parts. At first, while a bit white-knuckley, it was pretty awesome: zooming past lush, rolling valleys and fields, waving at kids who yelled, “Muzungu!” (translation: white person, in the most un-racist of ways,) the wind in my hair. (Nope. No helmets. I’ll pause here and let my father pour himself a drink.)

The grandmothers were amazing - so resilient, and so determined. One of the granddaughters ran out to meet us, grabbing my hand and dragging me towards the house as if to say, “Finally! What took you so long?” I wanted to pick her up, jump on the motorbike, take off and not stop until I got to Montreal. 




Her grandmother told us how Nyaka gave her training to take care of this little girl and her 3 siblings, all of whom are “vulnerable.”

“What does she mean by vulnerable?” I asked John, fearing the answer.

“She means HIV positive," John said.

We visited 6 grandmothers that day. Some still have living sons and daughters, others don’t. One gave birth to 16 children and lost 15 of them.

They showed me their homes, their kitchens, their toilets. And by the way, I'm using flash in the first two photos. Not much light gets into these places.



(Yup, that's a bathroom.)


On the way home, my mind went to Martha Stewart Living, and Better Homes and Gardens, and Design Sponge. I didn't know what to think. Nothing made sense. When I got back to my room, I googled flights back to Montreal.

Not in a serious way. I really can’t tell you why I did it - I didn't intend to follow through. Compared to the people I met that day, I might as well be Marie Antoinette. But, as ashamed as I am about it, that I night, I just wanted to run away.

*

The next day was Friday. A whole weekend ahead. Time for the fog to lift, and for me to get some perspective. Right?

A guy I had a meeting with when I arrived in Kampala - let’s call him George – was in “town” that night, and had asked me to meet up.  I checked with the woman who runs the guesthouse, and it turns out that, since I’m the only person here, I can’t actually be out past 8pm or there won’t be anyone here to let me in. I told him this by text, and invited him to come by for dinner instead.

Well, George got pushy. Like, inappropriately pushy. Like, suggesting-I-spend-the-night-at-a-nearby-hotel pushy. “Be adventurous,” he texted. “Be open-minded.” I told him that being on my own in the middle of nowhere, rural Uganda, was adventurous enough, thanks. He wouldn’t let it go. It got dark and he got pushier, and I started to freak out, especially as there really was no one I could call and say, “Hey, some dude from Kampala is being kind of creepy, would you mind coming over?”  

I texted him and told him, in no uncertain terms, not to come to the guesthouse tonight. While he's not affiliated with the organization I'm working with, George knows the people who run it. Plus, every other man I’ve met here so far has been nothing but respectful. I couldn’t imagine he’d insist after that.

I was wrong.

It got creepier. I started sending him texts in capital letters. I called a woman in Kampala, who works for Nyaka and whom I’ve been in contact with since the beginning. She was stunned, completely apologetic, and called George immediately. She called me back and told me that he wouldn’t be bothering me again. She must have called some other people too, because the cook came by and informed me, to my great relief, that there’s a security guard on duty outside the guesthouse 24 hours a day. 

Still, I put down the phone, and started shaking. As some of you know, while traveling alone in Greece 9 years ago, I was raped. What followed were the loneliest, most horrible few days of my life, and I was right back there again, feeling utterly insignificant, unhinged, furious, helpless. And with no one to complain about it to. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I had dinner, and put on a Hollywood movie about a happy blond family living the American dream. (Hint: if you ever find yourself freaked out in middle of Africa feeling homesick and dogsick, never do this.) But I couldn't stop shaking. I want to jump on the next flight home, but knew that even if I did, it won’t change much. That’s the thing about solo travel that’s so awesome, and so shitty: you’re totally free. And you can’t escape.

*

Saturday, I learned that going for a walk around here means the little kids hollering “Muzungu!” and “how are you I am fine!” as I pass, and the adults staring. 

It’s not personal. Seeing me here is the equivalent to residents of Idaho seeing one of those blue Avatar aliens land in the middle of town, but as a dyed-in-the-wool introvert, I really just wanted to disappear. I smiled and waved, and they'd smile and wave back, which sounds really nice but just made me feel more awkward.

A rare stretch of road with no one on it


Sunday, I tried to escape by spending the afternoon at the nearby hotel pool. I'm sure you can guess how well that worked. More smiling and waving, then the pool boy asked me to sponsor him, which I’m actually not to allowed to as a volunteer, but that didn’t make me feel any better about saying no. Walking home smiling and waving, and also now wet-haired. I kept seeing myself through their eyes: the muzungu who’s here to “help,” coming back from the fancy pool in the fancy hotel we can’t afford to visit. Coming from a place with paved roads and flush toilets and rap videos - a place where, if everyone spent a month or two not buying laptops and $200 shoes and 3D television sets and going out to restaurants that have waiting lists, could pay to educate their entire country. A place where most people feel that eating the same meal twice in the same week is “boring.”

“Why her?” They must be thinking. “Why not me?”

Why did they want to say hi to me at all?

I couldn't get it out of my head that I shouldn’t be here. That I should just have sent money. That’s what they really need, isn’t it? Money for schools, money for education. Not another muzungu.

I googled flights again that night, wondering if I could leave after 7 weeks instead of 8 and not feel bad about it. And then, finally, the realization finally came. 7 weeks or 8, I’m the one who gets to fly out of here. 

I’d been making it all about me.

The fog began to lift.

*


My “bosses” requested I have the high school kids write posts for the Nyaka blog. So, after explaining to a group of them what a blog is, and then what the Internet is and that it can be used for more than just Facebook, they started putting up their hands and volunteering to write. They wanted to write about Nyaka, about their lives, about the problems facing Uganda. I thought they’d bring me a handful of ideas the following day, but within a couple of hours, I had a stack of handwritten pages. Some of them submitted 2, 3, even 4 pieces. There were poems, odes, reports about Nyaka’s use of solar energy, and stories so heartbreaking I was at a loss for words.

I sat with the students one by one, and we discussed and edited their submissions. One girl wrote about how first her father died of AIDS, then her mother, and how her grandparents likely won’t be able to continue covering the costs of her school fees. A boy wrote about how his dad kept marrying other women and abusing his mother, who finally ran away. He doesn’t know where she is, and his father threatens that if he goes looking for her, no more school fees for him. Another girl’s father married a second wife, who then poisoned the girl’s mother, and her older siblings.

Yes. Really.

Correcting grammar and spelling on these stories was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever done. I kept saying, “I’m so sorry,” which seemed absurd, and they’d lower their eyes and nod, like, Hey, what can you do? Then, the girl who lost both her parents handed me another piece of paper. It read:



Dear Natally!

Hope your feeling good with the situation in Uganda.

I am greatly very happy on behalf of all of us you’ve tried to approach. I rilly thank you because you coming into Uganda shows that you rilly have love for the people of Uganda.

I personally kindly request you to become my role model because I have at least observed that you’re a caring, loving, mindful and a time manager (editor’s note: ???) of which these are characters I want my role model to be having.

Natally I pray to God the Almighty to bless you abundantly. Thank u.

N.B.: Greetings to all your friends and parents.



I got home that night, and went for a run around the basketball course in front of the guesthouse – something that never fails to elicit strange looks from passersby. Some of the kids actually climbed trees to laugh at me. To people who walk barefoot through fields all day, this white lady running around in circles must be beyond ridiculous. But I laughed with them, and waved. 

Later, I turned out the lights and couldn’t figure out why it was so bright outside. I opened the curtains and saw that the moon was almost full, so I went outside and sat on the porch, something I’d been to paranoid about malaria to do so far. You could almost have read a book by the moonlight, and the sounds of the birds, the crickets and the cow across the street, who apparently sees herself as the town clock, were otherworldly.


This doesn't do it the least, least, least bit justice. 

I tried to think of a word for how I was feeling. It wasn’t giddiness or elation, like being in love.  The closest thing I could come up with is “full.” Like I’d stepped beyond the borders of myself. It was such a gratifying, intense feeling that for a second I caught myself wondering if it should be legal.

I know the fullness is going to come and go over the next two months. I’m just grateful to have found it at all. I will still feel lonely, and probably like I’m not making any difference, and sometimes, though I really hope not, sorry for myself. 

And then, in a flash, two months will be over.

We time managers know about such things.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sex and Rural Uganda


A few hours after the elephant-spotting incident, we pull into what will be my home for the next 2 months. It’s past midnight, and I assume everyone will crawl into the house and fall into bed.


It’s pitch black out, so all I can hear is the sound of a million strange birds, including one that sounds like a ray gun from a 1980s arcade game. I drag my bags to my room, which is a dorm for four, but it’s only me in there for now – and, as I discover, Rocky. Rocky scared me at first, when I saw him out of the corner of my eye, but it turns out he’s a pretty friendly dude, and most importantly, he doesn’t snore.




                                                   In fact, he's generally pretty introverted.


I wake up the next morning, walk out onto the front porch, and see this. 



Talk about Dr. Who. Or maybe Star Trek. 

I’ve been asked to photograph and write about the Reach a Hand camp, which I’m happy to do. I’m even happier when they invite me to get involved in the activities. There are few things I love more than frank, open talk about sexuality and sexual health, and the kids are amazingly enthusiastic - some of them probably know more than I did at their age. I’m normally not so outspoken in group situations, but every time I’m about to bite my tongue, I think about how this particular piece of information could save a life, or a future – literally or spiritually. And so I speak out, explaining the difference between  being transsexual, homosexual and a drag queen, discussing how condoms don’t prevent all STIs, telling one boy that no, having sex while a woman is menstruating will not damage her uterus. By the end of the day, I’m high off the positive energy.



The second day of the camp is harder – for me, I mean. They’re still loving it, while I’m realizing that, while these kids are probably miles ahead than most of rural Uganda, we’re still operating at around the 1940s or 50s. Abortion is off the table completely, as it’s illegal here. The general agreement is that “men always initiate sex.” Thankfully, there is discussion about how if a woman dresses sexily, she’s not “asking for sex,” but there are also words of advice to the girls to “dress decently,” which I understand, but still makes me squirm.




I realize I can’t barge in here and fast forward through 60 years of sexual revolution in 3 days, nor is it my place. But that doesn’t make it easier. One student asks what to do if someone propositions you or “brushes up against you in a sexual way.” Another asks what you should do if you’re married and accidentally get pregnant. The response to the first: politely ask them to stop. The second: well, have the baby you’re married, after all. This in a country where the average birth rate in still at about 6 children per woman. You’ll never recover emotionally from an abortion, one facilitator says. You have a 75% of ruining your womb for good.

I have to hold myself from getting up on the table and yelling, “Fuck politeness! We’ve spent too long being polite! Where has it gotten us?" I want to rally them to fight to bring safe and legal abortion to Uganda. I want to mention that, while I know it's not true for all women, many have recovered emotionally from an abortion, and have gone on to have healthy pregnancies and children. I want to talk about overpopulation and its effects on the planet. But I can’t. In fact, it would probably take away any credibility I’ve earned in the past 48 hours.

On the final day of the camp, we discuss the menstrual cycle and fertility health. Who woulda thunk that trying to get knocked up for 2 years has made me an expert in this subject. Ovulation, cervical mucus, menstruation: I’m the freaking Alfred Kinsey of Nyaka. Then one girl stands up and asks if “barren” women menstruate.

“Yes, we do,” I want to say. But we’ve just spent 2 hours explaining to these kids how easy it is to get pregnant. Still, for a second, I can’t breathe. Sometimes, irony really sucks.

That night, I open up to one of the facilitators, who’s actually a minister, about some of the things I’d wanted to say during the discussions about abortion, and homosexuality, gender equality. To my surprise and delight, she’s completely on board.

“We’re just not there yet,” she explains. And the truth is, when I step back and think, many of these same issues would likely have come up in rural Alberta, and certainly in some parts of the States. In this country, these kids are leading the way. I love talking about this stuff, but I’ve never really thought about how, in places like this, this knowledge can be a matter of life or death. It’s crucial for moving forward. It’s everything.

The RAHU peeps leave the next day, and later, walking home, I encounter one of the students who was at the camp. I ask him what his favourite part was.

“Meeting Miss Uganda, right?” I say, jokingly.

He shakes his head, earnestly. “It was learning about the reproductive cycle,” he says. “We wanted that part to last forever.”

Sometimes irony sucks. But sometimes, after irony, come the moments that knock you off your feet.

Post-camp dance party. The best. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Uganda, Part I


I’d forgotten how time changes when you travel. How seemingly more than 24-hours can be packed into a day, and how morning can feel like another country by evening, even if you haven’t moved. I’d forgotten, too, how much more aware you are of the unexpected - how one event can impact everything that follows. How when you look back, the best parts of the trip were the parts you couldn’t have possibly planned.

For example, it’s my second day here, and I’m crossing the equator with Miss Uganda.

I arrived in Kampala late at night, less than 48 hours ago.  The taxi driver was waiting for me at the airport, holding up a sign with my name on it. We drove through dark streets lined with shops that looked like they were on a construction site - everything seemed corrugated, and many of the business names were painted or spray-painted right onto the wall. There were bars full of men, sitting around at tables lit only by candles. Some barbershops were up and running, even though it was midnight, and the air smelled like India: that burning smell which always takes me back there, and will now take me here.

As we drove along, passing high aluminum fences with barbed wire and dark hillsides, I wondered how many people died along those roads, or in those ditches. I know it happened, yet it seeĆ„med impossible to imagine. How was this city, even what little of it I’d seen so far, on the same planet as Montreal and my house and my Greek takeout place and Tony and Ruble? Humans can’t be meant to cross such enormous distances in such little time. It’s like being on Dr. Who.

The next day I met with a guy associated with Nyaka, who works for Uganda’s equivalent of the BBC, but in newspaper form. The paper has a weekly section by and for kids across Uganda, and also encourages kids to use media as a platform for discussion and learning, which has the added bonus of improving their English. Some of the articles were impressively open, like why not to use old clothes as maxi pads (which are prohibitively expensive here, where many families earn less than $2 a day,) and a letter from a student about how her father was trying to sexually abuse her. Can you imagine something like that being published in a paper in our so-called progressive country?

I was supposed to take a bus to Nyaka the following morning, but instead got hooked up with a group traveling there the same day, who had an extra spot in their van. They run an amazing organization called Reach a Hand Uganda, educating youth about HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, sexual health and empowerment. The team was joined by Miss Uganda, and a famous Ugandan musician, Maurice Hasa, whose songs also empower youth to make a difference.

I was told one of the things to expect in Africa is that schedules don’t operate the same way. Case in point: my taxi driver got lost and we got to the meeting point at 10, panicking because that was the time I was told we’d leave. We left at 11:30. We then stopped, no exaggeration, 6 times before we even left Kampala, finally getting on the road at 12:30 for what was meant to be a 10-hour drive. This didn’t seem to bother anyone, which I loved. In fact, it’s possible I was Ugandan in a past life.

I napped and daydreamed as we drove, staring out at the countryside and small towns and their ramshackle shops and overloaded motorbikes, sometimes carrying entire, helmet-less families, including young babies, which made my own lack of seatbelt sit slightly better. (I will pause here for my parents to pick themselves up off the floor.) And now, we’re crossing the equator. Just like that. If the equator ran through North America, there would be theme parks, t-shirts, stuffed equator mascots, those weird dried ice cream pellets and a fucking marching band and a yearly festival sponsored by Molson and some energy drink.  Here, there’s just this:



We stop at an outdoor market, and are besieged by desperate-looking vendors brandishing plates of bananas and sticks of entire, very small chickens, and (as Maurice explained) goat’s meat. I try some goat. It costs $0.40, and is tough and utterly delicious. Suddenly, I notice that one of the vendors, a young woman, is wearing a Montreal Canadians toque. Stunned, I ask our driver to ask her if I can photograph her through the window. I post the photo on Facebook, with the caption of how here I thought crossing the equator with Miss Uganda was the craziest thing that was going to happen to me today.

A few minutes later, we pass a herd of zebras by the side of the highway.




We drive on. And on. We stop at another town because the van has an engine problem, and I continue to enjoy how unconcerned everyone is about this, too. I use a hotel bathroom and catch myself greeting some Americans with, “Hello, white people!” which is the sort of thing you really can’t get away with in many other situations. We get back on the road, it gets dark, and I fall half-asleep while they watch a Hollywood movie with the film’s actual sound cutting in and out and one guy translating the plot and dialogue in Luganda, yelling excitedly and even laughing when outrageous things happen on the screen. It’s charming at first, but gradually starts to grate on my nerves. The big question has started gnawing at me again: how far I am from home, how long I’m going to be here, how I have no idea what I’m in for. I don’t like it, this question. It’s uncomfortable at best, and right now is not best. My bum hurts. The roads are getting even worse, lunging us forward and backwards, the van shuddering and lurching, the floor beneath my feet almost too hot to touch. I try to remind myself how privileged I am compared to most of the people we’re passing, but this just makes me feel like an asshole.

We enter a national park, and our driver points out some hyenas. I sit bolt upright, my face pressed against the window. Another hyena. Then another. Then, a hippo crosses the road in front of us. I am ecstatic. A HIPPO. It looked just like the ones on TV. I’m in Africa, I think. I’m in –

“Elephant!” our driver calls out, slamming on the breaks.

There are two of them, about 40 feet away, ambling along like it’s totally normal. I’m beside myself now. I look up at the stars, and think, I’m in fucking Uganda. I still don’t know why, but somehow, those great giant beasts with their tusks and flapping ears and huge bums are enough of a reason for now.