American Culture

Uganda Journal: the sunrise

KyoteraSunriseI know it seems counter-intuitive to put a disco on the first floor of a hotel, but someone in Kyotera apparently thought it was an excellent idea. I have a corner room, and one of my windows opens on the same side of the hotel as the disco, three floors and a thousand thumping beats below me. There’s little sleep tonight—at least not until the music quiets down sometime after two a.m.

Which is just enough time to let me get three hours of sleep before morning prayers blare through town on some tinty loudspeaker. First it’s an entire Christian service, complete with 50s-style church music and a long, long sermon from someone preaching in Luganda. Then dawn breaks, and the mosque next to the hotel starts blaring prayers of its own, heedless of the Christian service already being broadcast. Between the discotheque and the dueling religions, I pray for a sudden noise ordinance, but there’s none in coming, so I pray for more sleep, but there’s none of that, either.

The relative brevity of the Muslim call to prayer gives me a new appreciation for it, though. The Christian service, meanwhile, goes on and on. It’ll be nearly an hour and a half before someone’s satisfied that enough souls have been saved to turn off the loudspeaker.

I pull back the curtain and look eastward, where the overcast obscures the sunrise. Orange light lances through a break in the clouds, and yellow light splashes across the underbelly of others. Below, a gauze of fog sits among some of the buildings a few blocks away, although the air immediately around the hotel looks clear.

Stork02In the lot outside, a stork sits atop a utility pole. I never realized just how ugly they are—although that just might be my mood after a sleepless night and have nothing to do with the bird at all. But a second look confirms my initial assessment: still ugly. The thing is four feet tall and, rather than bring a baby to an expectant mother, it looks ready to carry one away. They’re black-feathered, with tufts of orange feathers between their shoulder blades, but their necks and heads are turkey-bald and wrinkly. Gobble, gobble, I think—except they’re carrion eaters, so I don’t want to know what they gobble. Not around here, I don’t.

Kyotera has come to life sometime between the first prayer and now. Trucks begin the noise as they rumble up and down the hill outside the hotel. I hear a few voices. Someone eventually starts up a stereo, but the electronica it plays is relatively quiet. Otherwise, I’d fear a disco flashback. There is always music coming from somewhere—or, more often, somewheres—in any settlement in Uganda. It’s a sign of vibrant life.

I know my grumpiness will evaporate as soon as I re-immerse myself in Uganda’s rhythms. Tucked in my hotel room, trying to sleep, I’m trying to cocoon myself in my own rhythm—but Uganda doesn’t sleep just because I want sleep, and unlike at home, there is no place for retreat. This is full Uganda immersion.

Concepts of time here are vastly different than the Western perspective. Deb and the Freds all talk of “African time” in the way I’ve heard people talk of “Native American time”: to say “9:00 o’clock” might mean anywhere between 8:01 and 9:59, with things usually leaning more toward the latter than the former. This is especially jarring to me because of my to-the-second sense of time regimented by my former days working in radio.


photo by Justine Tutuska

I’ve been stripped of myself in other subtle ways, too. For instance, most Ugandans have had trouble with my name. The single-syllable “Chris” becomes “Ka-wreese” in most instances or sometimes just “Kweese.” Some of the students at the school call me “Professor” and members of the women’s group call me “Uncle.” When I’m walking in the market or riding in the van, the children along the roadside cry out “Mazungku!” It means “White person!” I wave, and they all break into smiles. I’ve been taught not to wave with my fingers, only a flat palm, because waving with the fingers means “Come here.” “You don’t want a pack of small children suddenly swarming you if you’re not expecting it,” a colleague joked.

Adults stare at the mazungku unabashedly with eyes like icicles—it’s not impolite here—but a wave and a smile usually brings quick, full smiles to their faces. The warmth here, I’ve discovered, has nothing to do with the equatorial climate and everything to do with generous spirits.

I watch the morning brighten, and I think about the changes Uganda is affecting in me. I can’t articulate them yet, but I can feel the poles shifting somehow. I have more time here to let the change sink in and affect me more deeply. There’ll be time enough at home to let the full effects percolate to the surface. Time now to meet the new Ugandan morning.

6 replies »

    • Glad to share, Tina. I’m privileged enough to be here, whereas most people won’t ever get the chance, so I figure the least I can do is act as a remote set of eyes and ears for folks.

  1. They’re Marabou storks, and they are gruesome. I’m loving your blog! I think I’ll write something reflecting on your last post (and the comments below)… thanks for the ideas.

    Nicki (PhDer in Juba)