By Marie Javins
Marie Javins is a longtime GoNOMAD.com contributor who fell in love with Africa when she traversed the continent by surface transport as part of MariesWorldTour.com. She returned to Africa in 2005 to write Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik, a Seal Press book about her Cape-to-Cairo overland journey, which included challenges, inevitable mishaps, and more than a few debacles.
Chapter 10: Hakuna Matatu
The Busscar conductor grinned devilishly as he pranced around the Kampala bus terminal while wearing my backpack. I’d been delayed behind thirty-seven other passengers who had taken their time leaving the bus—there’s “no hurry in Africa”—and he’d gotten bored while holding my bag. I laughed, relieved him of his burden, and walked alone out of the bus-park gate.
What a sight awaited me! The Busscar garage overlooked Kampala’s “Old Taxi Park.”
In the countries of East Africa, as in many countries all over the world, public transport is in shared minibus taxis—matatus in Swahili—that run “when full.” “Full” means fourteen passengers, one driver, one conductor, and countless babies and toddlers. In Uganda, passengers are legally required to wear seatbelts. In reality, this law is usually enforced only on long-distance routes and even then, often only the passengers in the front seat buckle up.
Kampala has two taxi parks. One—the new taxi park—serves destinations to the south and west. The other—the one I now looked at—serviced the north and east. Neither of them looked especially new. They might be more aptly titled “Old” and “Older.”
Hundreds of blue-and-white minivans lined the big, dirty city block in front of me, while conductors hollered out destinations. A thick smell of diesel permeated the air. Vendors carrying an assortment of items—socks, watches, bottled water, pens, flip-flops, keychains—plied their trades as they circled constantly through the maze of taxis, shoving products through any open window.
Dazed from both lack of sleep and the onslaught of diesel fumes, I turned right and aimed for “Tourist Hotel.” At $25 a night, it wasn’t cheap by my standards, but it featured standard-hotel quality in a central location. I was in Kampala for only a few days, just long enough to get the permit I needed to see the mountain gorillas in the southwest of the country.
After checking in, I headed to a small café for a banana muffin and coffee. The walls there were covered with newspaper articles about coffee exporting.
Coffee prices were at an all-time low. Farmers were putting the blame on Vietnam, which they said had flooded the market, and on three multinationals for making a fortune but passing none of the proceeds back to the farmers.
Why, at a time when a cup of coffee would often cost me $3 at home, was none of this profit making it back to the growers? Consumers paid a lot while growers got practically nothing. I was missing a large part of the puzzle.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” Christian radio played in the café, an incongruous soundtrack for my Ugandan coffee revelation. A man from the American West could be heard detailing the events leading up to his personal salvation.
“Hello. How are you?” A quiet voice intruded into my reading of one of Uganda’s two daily newspapers.
I looked up to see if I were being addressed. A college-age Ugandan woman in blue jeans and a T-shirt sat down across from me. It is considered polite to speak quietly in Uganda, which means that not only was I, like most foreigners—mzungus—considered rude, but I was then doubly rude when I would loudly say, “What? Can you speak up?”
“Fine. How are you?” I responded cautiously.
She smiled and said, “I am Regina,” as if I knew her.
“I am Marie.” This often results in some interesting responses, as the name Marie is unknown in Uganda and is instead pronounced as Mary. Sometimes people respond with a sage nod and the words: “Mary, mother of God.” One woman had broken out in a chorus of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Regina didn’t seem too worried about how to pronounce it.
“I would like to be your friend,” stated Regina.
I pondered this for a moment, without responding.
“How long have you been in Uganda?”
“Not long. I’m a tourist.”
“Oh. Where are you from?”
“United States. Do you live in Kampala?”
“Yes. I have been here my whole life. I have never been outside Uganda. I have not even finished secondary school because I do not have the money for school fees.”
Ah. So she was looking for a sponsor. I felt put on the spot and uncomfortable. Here I was, about to spend $250 on a gorilla permit, while this girl was asking me to pay for her education.
“I have the same problem,” I responded. “I would like to finish my schooling and get a master’s, but I cannot afford even the cheapest school.”
Our worlds were so different. I was talking about not being able to swing thousands of dollars while she was dealing in hundreds. But for both of us, the education was unreachable.
“I understand,” said Regina.
We sat in silence for a minute. I was hoping she’d leave, that my remark about not being able to afford my own school would tell her that I wasn’t going to pay for hers.
I always wrestle with questions of aid on the road. I believe in spending money in local economies, but I also believe that direct handouts are not productive.
The idea of the tourist as Santa Claus seems wrong to me, designed mostly to make the tourists feel good about themselves as they hand out candy, while the local kid gets rotten teeth out of the deal. But education? Was that different? I felt squeamish.
“I’m going to read my newspaper. OK?” Maybe she’d take the hint.
“OK.” Regina sat and stared at me until I offered her part of my Daily Monitor. She studied it, reading the newspaper carefully.
I finished the paper and the muffin.
“I’m leaving now.” I stood up. Regina rushed through to the end of my paper and handed it back to me.
“I have a question,” she said.
“Come outside. I will ask you outside.”
That was too much for my self-protection mechanisms and I didn’t even think before the words were out of my mouth.
“Whatever it is, I am not interested,” I said firmly.
Regina nodded and left.
I gave her a few minutes’ head start and then trailed her for a bit. Where was she going now? What had she wanted? Was she a con artist or was she a student willing to try anything to finance her education? Was I wrong to not help people? Was I a walking ATM? Should I be sharing my puny income with Regina? Should I be accepting personal responsibility for slavery, the price of coffee, and colonialism? Who should be accepting it? Was my plan to travel and spend money in local economies as my own small way of helping delusionary? And on a more global scale, were aid and development helping or hurting Africa?
I wouldn’t know the answers to these discomforting questions today. Perhaps I’d never know the answers. Scholars with far more awareness of the complexities of aid and development have never come up with satisfactory answers, so I didn’t expect to state a simple one-size-fits-all solution today. My personal philosophy has always been the same: Each situation must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Aid and development are not universally good or universally bad. Blanket statements that I have heard about all aid and development interference needing to “get out of Africa” are naive.
Abandoning my ethics questions, I headed out to Kampala’s outskirts to check out a backpacker’s lodge. I was running low on funds and didn’t think I should stay in the Tourist Hotel when I returned to Kampala.
I boarded a minibus taxi in the New Taxi Park. We drove about fifteen minutes west.
“Stop!” I said when I saw the lodge up ahead.
We went sailing by my stop.
A young Ugandan woman noticed my distress.
“Mah-sow!” she said. The driver pulled over immediately.
Like all children of the television generation, I know a few words of Swahili. Uhuru means “freedom.” As in Uhura, the miniskirted communications officer on James T. Kirk’s USS Enterprise, responsible for the first interracial television kiss. Later, Disney and Elton John taught us in The Lion King that hakuna matata means “No worries.” And of course everyone knows the word safari, which actually means “journey,” not “look-at-animals.”
But Swahili is spoken in only part of Uganda, with Luganda, English, or tribal languages spoken in the rest. And mah-sow (spelled “maso awo” in Luganda) seems to mean “just ahead” no matter which language you actually spoke. Everyone (but me) knew the word mah-sow, and now I knew it too.
On the return trip, I inadvertently boarded the school bus.
The minibus was nearly empty when I flagged it down. A few minutes later, we stopped in front of a small private primary school. A teacher gave some coins to the conductor and ushered six uniformed children onto the bus. The smallest child could not step up to board, so the conductor had to lift him onto the front seat.
The six children took up only two seats, as they sat squished together. We drove along for a few minutes, and then a medium-size kid squeaked.
“Mah-sow!”The driver pulled the taxi over and the conductor opened the sliding door. A mother was waiting in front of a three-walled butcher shop. Her two children hopped out of the minivan and she smiled at them as she took their hands.
We proceeded until the other kids said, “Mah-sow.”
The rest of the children disembarked. The other few passengers helped to lift the kids to the sidewalk. Several walked together off down a dirt road. The conductor took two kids by the hands and walked them across the street before returning to us. No one complained about the delay. It’s all a part of a typical shared taxi journey in Uganda.
Excerpted from Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik: One Woman’s Solo Misadventures Across Africa by Marie Javins © 2006. Used with permission from the author and Seal Press. All rights reserved.
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