From Masaka to back to Kampala: Unexpected Turns & Tastes
David R. Weiss, March 27, 2013
At the equator nights falls promptly at 7 p.m. year round although the warmth lingers late into the night. Going out for a beer with Mark around 8 p.m. after our day at his school in Masaka it seemed later than it was. In Minnesota when it’s this warm at night (maybe 75 degrees) it’s July or August and the days are much longer. We chatted over beer (me) and whiskey (him) and fries (called “chips” here). It was a fitting end to our three days together.
Mark’s brilliance, if you ask me, is threefold. First, he is profoundly progressive in his own theology, but in his parishes and at his schools he is profoundly patient. He knows his parishioners, teachers, and children have all been shaped by a very conservative, traditional Christianity. So the content of his preaching and the style of his administration are progressive in subtle but unmistakable ways. He isn’t out to change Uganda overnight, but over lifetimes – because that’s the sort of change that comes with deep roots.
Second, he has powerful gifts at visioning, planning, budgeting, and bringing things to fruition. Trained as an electrical engineer he thinks the details and the dollars while also seeing the dream – and honoring the people. “It’s all about understanding people,” he told me several times. At both school and church he’s built teams that share his dream and own the vision. Both churches and schools (Kawanda and Masaka) have faced challenges, but the communities that Mark has fashioned have faced them with determination and spirit, guided by Mark’s practical wisdom.
Third, he has an uncanny ability to be a presence to empower others, especially those whose access to power is limited. He’s worked to catalyze the youngest of Kampala’s LGBT activists foremost by offering safe space for them to gather, to get to know each other, and to get a bit of mentoring from him. But, as far as I can tell, even the mentoring comes through in subtle ways. He simply recognizes and honors the passion, experience, and gifts of these young activists in a way that big funders and even the power-centers in the LGBT community don’t. And that genuine trust – while it cannot substitute for actual skills training for organizational leadership – does this: it brings young voices to the table. It builds confidence and supports mutual creativity. It fosters networking and affirms the work being done by these activists most deeply embedded in the trenches of Uganda’s LGBT life. And it allows them – not him – to be the growing edge of change.
But the other thing about Mark is his buoyant humanity. Our conversation ranged widely. He comes to the U.S. for a couple weeks this fall, so we brainstormed ways to get him to the Twin Cities again and things he might do. As fathers and husbands we talked about our families and the way our work as Allies impacts them. When Mark confessed his love for American beer – especially Sam Adams – I shared that my son, Ben, enjoys home brewing and does a fine job of blending ingredients to get a flavorful beer. At this, Mark’s eyes lit up, and this man – who has had to fear for his life, who has driven his own projects to succeed, and who is gently nurturing the growth of some of Uganda’s most endangered activists – looked at me through the dark warmth of the evening and announced with exuberant earnestness, “David, when I come, I must have a beer with your son. Tell me about him. This will be wonderful!” That may be Mark’s deepest grace – that he finds such joy in something like the prospect of a good beer in a distant land while expending his energy and risking his life to reshape the land he calls home.
Tuesday morning Mark put me on a bus to Kampala because he had work to do that would keep him in Masaka the rest of the week. Now this is not as simple as it seems. Just two weeks before coming to Uganda I’d heard a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer recount the perils of bus travel in the country, of seeing accidents with injured bodies laid out along the roadside. Having spent just a few days on Uganda’s lane-less, shoulder-less, and pot-holed roads I could understand why. But who was I to protest? There is a world to change. And Mark’s work for that change continues in Masaka while mine needed to get me back to Kampala for Wednesday’s trip to Mbale.
So I allowed him to drive me to Masaka’s bus depot and get me a prime seat on one of Uganda’s “safest” buses (although I’m sure that “safest” is a very relative term!). Now this also is not as easy as it seems. When we pulled into the “depot,” which is really a large chaotic gravel parking lot with a multitude of taxis (what they call buses here) scattered around in different areas heading out in different directions, I suddenly found myself the center of an argument – punches were nearly thrown! You see, each taxi driver competes to fill his bus, and they do so by descending on every car or boda-boda well before the vehicles stop, reaching through windows to get a hand on your shoulder or, if they can, to grab your luggage and start off to their bus. Thankfully, Mark had already decided which bus I would ride to Kampala, a 29-passenger bus (the others were 12-14 seat vans) because “these drivers are the best.” So we bitterly disappointed several other drivers and headed to the big bus.
Mark told one of this taxi team (they seemed to have 3-4 persons working together) to be sure and give me a good seat. So he put me in the very front row – as in 12 inches from the windshield and right next to a window vent on my left. I was glad for a good seat. This would be a three-hour ride in an un-air-conditioned bus on a hot day. It promised to be a ripe ride. Mark came to the window, shook my hand one last time, thanked me profusely for coming to see him, and left me in the good care of one of Uganda’s safest taxi-buses. Now this also is not as simple as it seems. In Uganda the buses do not run on schedule; they depart when full. So there are now six people on my bus, and there are two smaller buses also aimed at Kampala. And all three vehicles are chasing down every passenger. And we need to find twenty-three more, and we are not leaving with any seats empty.
My son will attest that at 53 my bladder is not what it once was; he mocks me for needing to relieve myself more often than every four hours. Well, we had breakfast at 9:30, changed the money at the bank, and loaded me on the bus at 11 a.m. I’m sure there are latrines somewhere at the edge of the parking lot, but I really don’t need to go (yet), and I’m not about to lose my seat, but this is a big bus. Seventy-five minutes later, still sitting in the lot, I still don’t need to go, but I am starting to worry about the 3-4 hour drive to Kampala. There is road construction, plus potholes, no shoulders, etc. I am not drinking anything. Finally shortly before 12:30 we are full: all of the twenty-nine seats are taken and we have 4-5 babies on board to boot.
So we finally head out and lurch (I do not use that word lightly) around the corner onto the ruts that pass for an exit alley and are on our way to Kampala. However, this is still not as simple as it seems. When we reach Kampala the bus will begin dropping people off at various places along the main road. It will not go all the way to the Guesthouse. I need to get off at the Sanyu Babies Home (an orphanage) that, as Mark puts it, is “really quite close – just a short walk – from the Guesthouse; I can have a friend of mine meet you there and guide you home.” I am great – superb, unsurpassed – with maps. I even have a pretty good internal sense of direction. But fly me to the equator, put me in a city unlike any I have ever seen, and promise me that a stranger will meet me (granted, I do pretty much stick out in a crowd) at a drop point that has no scheduled time, and I am not without a little anxiety. So I opt to call my driver, Moses, and see if he is available to meet me there. Moses, alas, is out of town. It’s his day off, and he had a chance to pick up a day’s work elsewhere so bully for him. However, Moses does say that he is certain that his friend, Agnes, a young woman I met on Friday, would be happy to meet me and guide me home. This way, despite the lack of a schedule, the presence of potholes, the lack of shoulders, the possibilities of an accident, the unpredictability of construction, the heat of the bus, and the bladder-factor, despite all these things, I can look forward to a familiar face at the end.
And, long story short, we made the trip without incident. The fine gentleman seated next to me made sure the driver knew to stop at the orphanage, and as we pulled up only one person was there: Agnes. And our eyes met before the bus even stopped, and she smiled at me and I smiled at her, and if I were single I might have proposed on the spot. In that moment she looked beautiful to me and our meeting was one of great joy. (In fairness to Agnes, she is quite beautiful, so do not think that my trip made her so. It simply made me notice it all the more.) Indeed, the Guesthouse was just a 7-8 minute walk from the orphanage. And when we reached my room I peed like a Derby racehorse giving thanks for a bladder that proved itself worthy that day. I paid Agnes for her time and thanked her from the bottom of a heart that has grown very deep these days.
Back in my room I treated myself to a shower. Who knew water could feel so good? Combined with soap, shampoo, conditioner, and the combined sense of relief and accomplishment that might seem silly to you but are utterly authentic feelings in me, and afterwards I felt like a new man ready to take on the world.
Instead, I simply took on some incredible Indian food. When Robbyn, a woman about my age that I’d met in the Twin Cities a few years back, learned last summer that I might be going to Kampala she was excited. Her college roommate had married a Ugandan man (a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology and now chief of his clan in the Gulu tribe) and moved to Uganda thirty years ago. Robbyn was sure Rita, director of an NGO devoted to agricultural research and living in Kampala would be happy to meet for dinner. That was an understatement. Rita took me to Khana Khazana, an Indian restaurant that was sumptuous beyond words.
Indians came to Uganda just before the turn of the last century. From the late 18800’s into the early 1900’s they built the railroads across the Uganda. They stayed until Idi Amin decried them as a leech on the Ugandan people and expelled them all in a 48-hour period in 1972. But families had roots here, and when Amin fell some years later, families returned. Whatever family runs Khana Khazana has very tasty roots in Uganda.
Rita and I spent two hours beside a gorgeous Indian fountain, getting to know each other over a meal that made the entire day’s ordeal seem like a short prelude to this leisurely feast. First they brought us thin sliced carrots and cucumbers with assorted masalas to dip them in. I melted. We ordered an appetizer made with potatoes, red onions, and green peppers in another masala sauce. But besides tasting divine, this dish included whole red onions, golf-ball sized pieces of heaven. Rita warned me when I picked up the first one, “That’s not a potato, that’s an onion.” “Oh my,” I said with quiet delight, and to myself I thought, “God is so good.” And so was the onion. For our meal we shared a bowl of mushrooms and sweet corn in a royal cream gravy and a bowl of cubed cottage cheese in a spinach puree, both eaten with pieces Naan (Indian flat bread) made with garlic or filled with cheese. When we were finished eating they brought us a small spice box with little compartments and a tiny spoon inside. We took turns putting tiny spoonfuls of fennel and sugar crystals in our hands and nibbling them together. I do not ever remember relishing a meal as much as this one. The depth of my experiences so far, the day’s adventure, the joy of a new friend, and the unexpected ecstasy of Indian cuisine made this my own Babette’s Feast.
David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, Langdon Street Press). He and Margaret have a blended family of five children, five grandchildren, and assorted animals that approximate a peaceable kingdom. A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at http://www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”