PADER, UGANDA — As I silently pick at my whole fried fish, I realize that what I see and hear on the patio in front of my hotel is unlike anything I’m liable to ever experience again.
I hear no human noises, at least initially. I do detect loud, almost distressed mooing mixed with distant rumbles from threatening but ultimately impotent thunderheads. I set down my water gingerly on the table, careful not to make any noise that might disturb this aural simplicity.
I’ve read that in the 21st century, as the world gets more and more crowded, that man’s most desired luxury may be silence. Sitting here alone, that’s not hard to believe.
Unfortunately, the silence and the calm it inspires is broken as a sputtering motorbike staggers in front of the hotel. The motorcycle (boda boda) driver and his paying passenger slow as they approach me, trying not to stare but finding themselves unable to resist. Here in very rural, remote northern Uganda, a muno (white person) is as rare as a humble Texan.
After the motorbike saunters by, the kids playing in front of the ramshackle grass-thatched hut across the road finally notice me. These little kids look at me like I’m from Mars. Of course, it’s a rare treat to for them to see a muno. After a minute or two of jaw-dropped fascination, they finally screw up the courage to wave to me. One Ugandan friend said that when she was a kid, seeing a muno and waving to him was a really big deal—something to tell your friends and family all about. Though I immediately saw the boys wave, I thought I’d make them sweat for a few seconds. Finally, I raise my hand high, and give them the biggest Midwestern “howdy neighbor” wave I could muster. The kids giggle and quickly run off, presumably to spread the news that there’s an animated muno in town.
A few minutes later, one of the youngsters, a skinny, barefooted boy wearing ragged, stained clothes, reappears near the road. The boy had noticed a group (herd? gaggle? pride? ) of bleating goats jogging down the rutted dirt road. You could almost see the devilish horns appear above his head as he moves to intercept the goats. He succeeds, cutting off half from the rest of the troupe. The intercepted goats are beside themselves, partially afraid, partially irritated. As the goats move to outflank the boy, the boy shifts, sending the goats into a frenzy of confused, angry retreating. After about 5 minutes, this game ends in a stalemate. Once the boy clears out, the goats gallop down the street at stallion speed. Their goat buddies were already out of sight. I wonder if the stragglers got lost. A lost goat here, by the way, ends up in a stew pot with some root vegetables in just a few seconds.
Another rumble of thunder greets the goats’ departure. The wind starts picking up, carrying with it the smell of nearby cooking fires. In impoverished Pader, unlike most other Ugandan towns, small huts are scattered throughout the town, even near the center. These huts don’t have kitchens, so all the cooking is done outside on wood or charcoal fires.
The goat tormentor’s hut is across the road, and eight more huts are clustered about a hundred yards away near some ramshackle, abandoned-looking buildings. If you spend enough time in modern Kampala, you can sometimes forget the pervasive poverty in Uganda. However, that reality slaps you in the face here as you smell the cooking fires and see the skinny children running around their tiny huts, which, an hour before dusk, are already eerily dark inside. Electrical lines found their way to Pader just a year ago. However, here in my temporary neighborhood, no huts or buildings (including my hotel) are connected to the shiny new transformers because few here can afford to hook up power or pay a monthly bill.
Underneath the new power lines, a tiny, smiling boy makes his way down a side road carrying an empty 10-liter jerry can used for toting water. He spots me, and stops in his tracks, frozen as if gazing upon a lion. Suddenly, he grins big and waves energetically with his free hand. I make him wait a few seconds, then enthusiastically return his earnest greeting.