Trying And Failing To Connect On A Ugandan Road Trip
As I pulled onto Kampala Road, that madhouse stretch of tarmac that connects Gulu and Uganda’s capital, I shifted into fourth—my bike’s highest gear—and pulled hard on the throttle. Air whizzed into my helmet. The greens of the head-high cassava plants and stalks of sugar cane at the road’s edge began to soften and blur.
Zigzagging down quiet dirt roads through the Ugandan bush, I traveled for two hours without seeing a motorized vehicle. Everywhere around me, lean Ugandans were slamming hoes down into the rain-softened earth, preparing their land for planting. I putted along on my tiny ride, swerving around puddles and potholes as best I could, but crashing my bike twice into ditches lining the road.
Having never set off on any sort of motorcycle trip before, and with my past riding experience limited to quick runs into town, I struggled that first day. My bike felt clunky and slow in the mud; my wrists were sore by lunch. I knew nothing about motorcycle maintenance. I had no planned route, no map. All I knew was that I wanted to head south, and I knew I only had four days to work with.
Tired, sunburned, and dusty, I pulled into Lira six hours after leaving Gulu, happy to have my first day behind me. I found a cheap hotel room, showered, and took a bicycle taxi to a small bar outside of town to meet Mark, a Ugandan friend and co-worker of mine.
When I entered the joint, I spotted Mark, a married man, sitting with six girls in their mid-twenties. A bunch of beer bottles were huddled together at the center of their table like penguins waiting out a blizzard. “These are my friends,” Mark said, nodding to the girls. I ordered a beer, and Mark introduced me to the girls—university students mostly. We made small talk and half-danced in our seats whenever a club hit thumped through the speakers. At one point the owner of the place, a stocky woman with braids named Anne, sat down with us. She did this thing where she would clutch her breasts every time she laughed, as if any good joke could trigger her body to jettison her breasts like a space shuttle ditching used fuel tanks.
Anne was warm and talkative, but pushy when it came to advertising her guesthouse next door. “Many whites have stayed here already. You’ll like the rooms, I’m sure,” she said, patting me on the shoulder. After a few rounds of beers, and despite my explaining that I already had a room secured in town, she insisted on showing me the guesthouse, on running through the peculiarly high prices of each of her rooms.
As we walked from room to room, I felt uneasy. I began thinking through the laughs we’d shared just 30 minutes earlier, how Anne almost went out of her way in the bar to make me feel comfortable. Was all of that genuine? I wondered. Or, was Anne simply priming me for a pitch at the end of the night?
I hit the road early the next day, only to be handed a two-hour delay after heading out of town. The culprit was a two-inch nail that had shredded part of my rear tire. Mark helped me track down a mechanic who came out to meet me by the roadside, a scrawny guy with dirty fingernails. I had two choices, the mechanic explained: one basic tire that would get the job done—the kind most motorcycle drivers use in Uganda—or a high quality, more expensive tire that would last longer.
Before I could even think about my options, the mechanic said, “I think you will want the more expensive tire, right?” At the time, his assumption didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until I was back on the open road—back with no distractions and a head full of thoughts—that I worked through what the mechanic had said.
He, like Anne the night before, assumed I was wealthy because I was white. Without knowing if I was a broke student or a volunteer spending a few months in Uganda, he judged me. Simplifying me, he pegged me as just another rich white guy. I’m sure most white people he had seen in the past had been development workers, people living in the North to help the region recover from its decades-long struggle with Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels, and yes, some of them were probably earning good salaries. But I wanted to tell him I was different. True, I worked for an NGO, but I made next-to-nothing; I wasn’t one of those UN fat cats.
I hated the invasiveness of his assumption, the way that judging me left him feeling like he understood me, like he could read me. This assumed understanding simplified me in a way that I found frustrating. How would he feel if I made similar assumptions about him? I wondered. I could assume from his tattered shirt that he was materially poor, but absolutely nothing about his appearance hinted at what he valued, at his morality, at what his history was.
In the afternoon, flat plains gave way to rolling hills with a backdrop of jagged, shadowy mountains on the horizon. When I reached Mbale at dusk—sore from two long days on the bike—I found my way to another cheap hotel, dropped my bag, and headed to a restaurant that a taxi driver recommended. All tables in the place were full when I arrived, but just as I was about to turn to walk out, a young man wearing a bejeweled baseball cap waved me to his table. “Please, no one is sitting in this seat. Join me, it’s no trouble.”
Richard was a university student at Makerere University, Uganda’s most famous and competitive post-secondary institution. Intoxicated with a potent mix of hope, knowledge, and greed, Richard talked incessantly about the potential wealth and excess his future held for him in Uganda. He was studying tourism at school, he said, so he could run his own business and get rich one day. According to Richard, Ugandans needed to learn to help themselves, to figure out a way to stop relying on foreigners and NGOs to swoop in and save the day.
“What type of business are you interested in starting?” I asked, cutting through a soft mountain of matooke with my fork.
“Anything. I want to start a business that attracts whites,” Richard said.
Only minutes later, Richard was asking me if I’d be interested in working with him to start a hiking business in southwestern Uganda. I told him I knew nothing about hiking in southwestern Uganda. He protested, saying that surely I knew the type of information he needed to keep the business afloat.
I was confused. “What do you mean? What type of information do you think I know?” I asked. He explained that I knew enough ‘whites’ to make the business bloom, with the logic being that all of my white friends could frequent the business enough to keep it profitable until word of Richard and Andrew’s Famous Hiking Spot in Southwestern Uganda spread throughout the White Universe. He was serious; I wasn’t sure what to say.
Again, I felt like I had been judged, like I’d been tagged with a label I didn’t have a chance to earn for myself. In Richard’s eyes, I was qualified (and colored properly) to be a responsible business partner. My whiteness, somehow, had made me eligible for space in Richard’s dreams. I didn’t even know Richard. He licked bits of chicken and stew from his thumb and forefinger, and an awkward silence settled in over us.
“So what do you do up north in Gulu?” he eventually asked. I told him, explaining the types of development programs that Invisible Children, my employer, worked to implement. “How can a guy like me get a scholarship with your organization?” he asked frankly.
“I’m sorry. We only give scholarships to students who are from the North. We’re trying to help students who have been affected by the LRA conflict.”
Richard said nothing at first. His eyes went steely and still, carrying a new tension that wasn’t there before. He looked at me and then picked up the scrawny chicken leg floating in his bowl of oily broth. In between messy bites, he said, “So wait,” chewing, chewing, chomp. “I want to understand: Do you give scholarships to students who are HIV positive?”
I told him we did.
“See I don’t like that,” Richard snapped, shaking his head and reaching to wipe broth from the edges of his mouth with the back of his wrist. “No, I don’t like that. I don’t think you help Ugandans much by investing in people who are just going to die in a few years. Healthy students like me could actually do something with a scholarship.”
I awoke in the morning to metallic skies and pockets of cold fog that had puddled at the bottoms of hills. Just as I headed out of town, my cell phone rang: it was Richard. He didn’t waste time with pleasantries and cut right to the point: “I…uhh…lost my bus money and don’t have enough to buy another ticket. Where are you?”
I didn’t tell him where I was; instead I told him I was insulted. “How dare you call me and ask for money after the conversation we had last night? I thought you want to try to help Ugandans help themselves. Didn’t you say that last night, that Ugandans have a problem relying on whites?” I asked, incredulous.
After a few seconds, Richard said, “It’s not like that,” and the call went dead.
Furious, I thought about how Richard had now judged me twice—first thinking I was business savvy and networked enough to help him run a business, and then assuming I was naïve enough to believe his ridiculous bus fare story.
Ominous clouds overhead opened up and started spilling raindrops the size of dates all over the place. I took cover under the tin veranda of a closed shop by the roadside. Alone and hypnotized by the din of the downpour, I thought about being white in a place where whiteness was a signifier for more than lineage, where ‘white’ and ‘rich’ were synonyms. Sadly, I realized I had no secret for circumventing stereotyping, at least when it applied to meeting new people.
Things were never awkward between me and my Ugandan co-workers and friends—we knew each other well enough—but I still fought against my whiteness when first meeting strangers. For someone who believes in travel the way others believe in prayer, someone who feeds on the raw, revealing conversation only two strangers can yarn, realizing that white otherness will always plague me in places like Uganda left me deflated.
On the way back to Gulu the next day, I stopped at a small cluster of mud-brick stores by the roadside to let the bike’s engine cool. I bought a bottle of water from one shop and nodded to four or five men—all drunk and smiling—who were lounging on benches nearby.
“How are you? Hello, how are you?” A tall, lanky man with his shirt unbuttoned to his navel stepped into my line of sight.
“I’m OK, thanks. How are you?” I asked.
Without answering, he launched into a rant of compliments, telling me how nice my motorbike was, how I looked like a skilled rider when I parked the bike, how shiny my helmet was. I knew what was coming. Finished with his flattery, he waited for my response.
I said nothing. Instead, I gave him a deadpan, stone-cold look of indifference. I was too tired to defend myself. He leaned in close to me—less than six inches away—propping his hand on his knee. His breath was stale and spoiled with alcohol. “Five hundred shillings for me, for some nuts or crisps,” he whispered.
I stared at him.
“Just five hundred,” he repeated. He raised his eyebrows at me, as if to say, that’s not too much for a white person, is it?
I looked at the other men sitting around me. They were consumed in their own conversations and didn’t take notice of the man and his proposition.
“Why?” I said, turning back to him. “Why should I give you money? Why?”
“We’re friends,” he answered.
“No we’re not. No, you don’t even know my name. We can’t be friends yet—we just met each other,” I objected, frustration hijacking my words.
The man smiled and shook his head in disbelief. “No, we’re friends. We talked much just now. We’re friends. Only five hundred,” he pleaded.
“You give me something, then I’ll give you something,” I said. “Give me five hundred shillings first and then I’ll give you five hundred shillings. Friends should help each other out, right?”
The man turned and walked away.
Not but five minutes later, an even drunker man approached me, and without any introduction or conversation of any kind, simply said, “Some small money. Small money?” The man held onto a bench to keep from falling down and extended one shaky open palm to me. His eyes, watery and tired, were the color of plaque.
Without hesitating, I said “No. Why? Who are you?”
The man just grinned. It was clear he couldn’t speak English.
His loose, drunken smile, for some reason, made me both furious and perplexed. I turned to the other men relaxing in the shade on the benches across from me. “Excuse me, can you please ask this man why he’s asking me for money? I don’t know him. Ask him what he’s doing.”
The men laughed. They said something to the drunken man in Luo, one of Uganda’s dozens of dialects, something that made him recoil, made the smile dissipate from his face. He barked something to the group.
“He thinks you should help him because you’re white,” one of the men explained, laughing. “White people have money, so you should give him some. That’s what he said.” The man paused. “But don’t worry, he is just drunk. It’s OK.”
It wasn’t OK. The drunk was yet another person reading me, and worse yet, he was misreading me: part-time waiters back home earn more than I do. “No, wait,” I said. “I want you to ask him something more. There are lots of big Ugandan men in Uganda, lots of men with big fancy cars and nice clothes. Why doesn’t he ever ask the big Ugandan men for money? They have a lot more money than I do.”
The man translated for the drunk. The instant he grasped the meaning of my retort, he again recoiled and snapped.
“He says that with you it’s…different. Of course those men would never give him money. With you, the chances are good.”
I made it back home to Gulu by the end of the day and headed straight for my favorite local restaurant. As I worked through my plate of rice, beans, and malakwang, I thought about the last four days, the last 1,000 kilometers. I had set off hoping to reconnect with Ugandans, to learn about new sides of the culture I had never experienced before. High on idealism, I imagined having long, illuminating conversations with strangers over drinks or meals. This didn’t really happen.
My whiteness had, like some sort of blinding force field, repelled the types of genuine, unifying experiences I had sought. It had lured people into judging me, into being less curious about me. I couldn’t bond with strangers over our common interests because the people I hoped to bond with constantly reminded me of how different we were.
The owner of the restaurant passed by my table and saw the dusty backpack by my feet. “Where have you come from?” he said, smiling.
“Mbale and Kampala.”
His eyebrows shot up. “On that thing?” he asked, pointing to my mud-caked bike out front. Before I could answer, he shook his head and, laughing, said, “You whites are crazy, you know that? Really crazy, honestly!” Still shaking his head, he dropped my bill and walked back to his perch behind the front counter.