I have a story to tell. Please, stay for a while.
I’ve been told that a writer should never directly implore her readers to stay. That something about my language, my style and my story should be adquate. Begging is the artistic equivalent of suicide, I’ve been told.
Nevertheless, stay. Please.
My five favorite towns in Uganda are:
- Fort Portal
These are towns I can live in. In these towns, I can make my home.
Today, I’m in number three: Arua. The town where bicycles rule the road and the streets are filled with the endless roar of Senke motorcycles. The days are hot and dry. At night, I swim in my own sweat, beating off the mosquitoes that buzz lazily, drunk with my blood.
Arua – two towns in one.
I wish I could show you Arua, but I can’t. I’m an outsider at a disadvantage. If I had a camera, maybe I could take a picture and you’d be delighted, disgusted, angry or amazed.
The main road is just a step up from the village. Crowded, dusty, loud, shabby, noisy. Just a step away, the green of the golf course is a shock. It is surrounded by narrow roads with foreign names – Wisteria Street, Weatherhead Park Road – lined with beautiful jacaranda trees, gardenias and teak.
It would be too easy for me to live in Arua. I could take a house in the pleasant surburb near Mvara. I could shop at the numerous all-in-one grocery stores on the main street and walk a few meters away for a meal at one of the best Indian restaurants in the region. If I tired of the urban craze, I could go 10 minutes out of town for a walk through the vineyard at the Catholic Media Center or maybe visit a friend at her family’s anscestral home for a meal of pounded cassava, greens and groundnut paste. When it’s all done, Kampala is just a flight away.
Are you still there? Did you stay?
I’m typing this at the ‘conference room’ at Hotel Pacific. My friend, brother and comrade-at-arms, Sam, is at the front speaking about media ethics. I’ve heard this talk before and will hear it over and over again in the future, but I never get bored. This afternoon, however, it is too hot for me to concentrate. In the distance is the persistent drone of a chainsaw at a timber workshop. The noise was disturbing at first, but now, it’s drilled into my brain and now it numbs me and I cannot think. Perhaps that is why I beg you to stay. I’m struggling to stay inside my own head.
An hour ago, I left the room to pleasure myself.
(No, not that way. Sheesh!)
I was given the best room at Hotel Pacific. Someone thinks I’m important. Although it’s the ‘presidential suite,’ it’s a basic affair. The only addition is that I have wall-to-wall carpeting, a dinning table, a sofa set covered with faux leather and bathtub that last saw a scouring brush and Vim a decade ago.
Oh, and cockroaches. Many, many cockroaches.
I stood at the balcony of my room, an hour ago (pleasuring myself, but not in that way) and contemplated my life in Arua. Just below the balcony are a row of wood and papyrus shacks. About 100 women and men sit under the shacks hoping that passersby will stop to look at the second-hand clothes on display and perhaps buy and item or two.
The shacks are a work of art.
No, the shacks are the art of survival.
The first shack has belts of all shapes and sizes. Next to it are rows and rows of old socks, stockings and underwear. A garter that lost its elasticity ages ago, hangs limply on a nail.
Under shack number three are a group of four men have abandoned their business for a game of cards. Matatu, the game is called. The rules are elastic and the stakes always change, but they play on and on and on. The concentration of the card players is broken just for a moment by a young woman covered from head to toe in Muslim garb. She brings them mugs of steaming maize porridge and they applaud in appreciation. One of the men smiles knowingly at the porridge lady – a husband maybe? A lover? She laughs playfully and saunters away, expertly balancing the tray of the remaining porridge mugs on her head.
The card game continues in earnest. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. The short, sharp distribution of the cards. It’s up, it’s going, it’s done. Another card game.
Suddenly without warning, an elderly man walking by touches the right side of his nose. From his left nostril a blob of yellow mucus flies out, landing in the middle of the card game. There is an outcry and the card players jump up. The elderly man notices his mistake; his face is filled with fear and with the agility of a much younger fellow, runs away. The card players follow in hot pursuit, yelling at him in their beautiful, lyrical language.
I wish you were here. I wish I could show you the essence of Arua. It’s mad and maddenning. It’s lovely.
Behind Hotel Pacific and the Arua One FM building is a growing heap of garbage. When the wind blows, the millions of bottle flies are stirred up, hovering over the garbage like a cloud. The rot fills the air. I can barely eat a meal at the hotel because of the stench. I can see the garbage from my door and I’m sick.
I wish I wasn’t here. I wish I had the money to stay in White Castle Hotel on the Arua-Nebbi highway. It’s beautiful, surrounded by lush gardens and crop fields. Once you enter the gates of White Castle, you could be anywhere – Nairobi, Johannesburg, Addis, Bamako. The waitresses speak good English, the menu has meals that my tongue knows, the swimming pool is clean and the rooms are heavenly.
But if I wasn’t here, at Hotel Pacific, in the middle of the Senke’s, the garbage, the noise, the dust and the craze, I wouldn’t be in Arua. I wouldn’t be in the Arua I love.
That’s my story. Thank you for staying.