He called me at 7:30 AM telling me he was on his way. I knew it would take him about an hour to get to town so I set my alarm and went back to sleep. He called me again; he made it to town. My alarm still had a few more minutes to cook. Crap, I overestimated his travel time. It’s not that I wasn’t excited to go. It’s just that usually I get to sleep in on Saturday mornings. I rolled out of bed poured some granola into a bowl and started packing for my overnight trip to Cossi’s village.
Olupot Cossi is the inventory man for our construction site. He keeps an eye on tools and material, making sure nothing is stolen and broken things get replaced. He has a soft, almost patronizing voice with whistling “S’s”. Cossi has worked on EMI construction sites for over four years. He’s loyal and trustworthy…almost annoyingly so. If a big delivery of materials comes by he pesters me for the receipts to be sure everything is accounted for. Cossi and I have a game we always play. He comes up and starts talking to me in the Lugandan language. I nod and pretend to understand everything he says and then, in my reply, I exhaust all of the Lugandan phrases I know in a single strain: “Thank you for cooking. Will you give me some candy? How are you? Sleep well. I’d like a woman. Mind your own business. Thank you for coming. Well done!” The other guys all laugh at me.
Cossi invited me to his village many months ago and my answer had always been, “I’m busy now, maybe next month?” Our project at Good Shepherd’s fold was wrapping up and we had no other work for him to do. This trip would be a homecoming for him and possibly my last chance to take him up on his offer. Usually my weekends are for catching up: on work, on sleep, with friends. The other projects were making good progress so there wasn’t much catching up to do over the weekend. The timing was excellent.
Not long after finishing the granola I met him in Jinja town and we found a public taxi van that would take us to the north-central part of Uganda. We crammed into the front seats and watched the miles pass. I pulled out my MP3 player and introduced Cossi to the musical stylings of Tower of Power. Surprisingly he recognized one of my favorite Tower of Power songs: “Willin’ to Learn”. I noted May 19th 2012, as the day Africa was no longer a lost and forgotten continent. They have Tower of Power and they like it.
The taxi dropped us off at a trading center and Cossi negotiated some boda drivers (motorcycle taxis) to take us the rest of the way. For Forty-five minutes the dirt road got narrower and narrower as we got closer to his village. Our journey went much farther than the electricity poles. On the way I couldn’t help but remember just how densely populated Uganda is. We were in the middle of nowhere but still the roads and trails were lined with people walking. Eventually our trail ended in a cluster of huts and farm animals.
It was a sweet reunion for Cossi. He hadn’t seen his wife and his toddler son in over a month. Traveling home every weekend is prohibitively expensive for him. He would need to work two days to pay for the round trip. His family ran to him hugging him tightly. This was my first impression of his family but in a way this was my first impression of who Cossi really is. For the rest of the weekend I continually saw just how much he cared for his family and how much they cared for him.
Cossi’s mud-brick house is surrounded by the thatched-roofed homes of his extended family. His mother and father, a few uncles, and Cossi’s seven siblings all have huts within shouting distance. Most members of his family clan are subsistence farmers raising everything from turkeys to sugarcane.
Following a late lunch and an afternoon rainstorm Cossi began introducing me to his brothers and what seemed like 40 nieces and nephews. Donning rubber boots we walked through his muddy fields. He showed me his hopeful shade-tree saplings and his budding soybeans. We were followed by just about everyone in his clan. I was something of a rarity in these parts. The girls giggled. The boys laughed. The mothers were curious. The men cautious. The sun was hot and at one point I pushed up the sleeve of my t-shirt to check on my sunburn level. The crowd around me was already shocked to see me but when I showed them my tan lines it put them over the top! Sunburn was a part of anatomy they could never have imagined.
Cossi brought me around to meet his neighbors who by now had heard about the strange white man. The smallest kids were afraid of me and ran crying to their mothers. It is likely I was the first white person to visit this village. Cossi’s father moved the family into this area in 1991 because of conflict and famine in another part of Uganda. They told me since the move they have never seen a white person in their village.
The hospitality was humbling. For all of the meals I was served chicken (a very expensive meal for them). They gave me their bed to sleep on while they slept on a thin foam mattress on the ground. I am egotistical and selfish but there were more than a few times where the incredible generosity made even me blush. Denying the signs of respect and tradition would have been extremely rude so in all of those circumstances I tried to swallow my 27 years of living one way and adapting to something completely different.
Some advice I gathered early in my time in Uganda was to take the best parts of my culture and blend them with the best parts of Ugandan culture. This advice most clearly represents itself when I’m driving. I (usually) use my turn signal, I tend to allow merging cars in front of me, I give motorcycle drivers their space, I don’t litter… But walking through this village and being greeted by women kneeling to me was something else entirely. I see one of the best parts of my culture is the way women are treated equally. Cossi’s wife would kneel every time she entered the same room as us, and again when she set food on the knee-high table. In this village setting and within the timeline of my visit, there was no respectful way to blend in my culture’s view of women. Instead this was an immersion where my main activity was to observe and try to understand a different way of living.
My reflections while falling asleep that night were full of contradictions and questions but there was one thing that my thoughts settled on.Yes, it is a hard way of living. It takes a lot of labor to grow your food. There are risks of famine and debilitating illness. Every week the floors of the huts are spread with cow manure to keep the dust down. But there is a depth of relationships with neighbors and with the land that is incredibly beautiful. The mothers and fathers are proud of their homes and their fields. They are proud of the children. They may show love differently but it is still love and it is still beautiful.
The next morning we had breakfast and started the long walk to church. All the way we met others and stopped for introductions. On this walk the connectedness of the community came alive to me. Everyone knew each other and they would all stop and greet. I met Cossi’s in-laws, his friends, his old classmates, his primary school teacher, the village drunks, the medical worker, the protestant pastors and the catholic priest. In my cynical mind they were all superficial, had unresolved conflicts and hidden agendas but I never saw any evidence of this and Cossi never hinted at a difficult relationship or talked badly of any neighbor. I’m sure those things exist but they stay private. The infectious friendliness of these Ugandans is definitely one of the best parts of their culture that I want to mix with mine.
We were late to church, which was fine with me because the length of African church services is legendary. We came in for the last 45 minutes of worship followed by introductions. Whenever someone started an introduction they would yell “Hallelujah!” The crowd would reply shouting back “Hallelujah” like we were at a Boy Scout campfire. Then they would proceed with their greeting. When it came to me they called Cossi and I up to the front of the mud-brick church. I yelled at the top of my lungs “HALLELUJAH” and everyone laughed. Cossi translated my introduction. I gave them greetings from the Church in America and they celebrated. The pastor asked me to send their greeting back and then he sat Cossi and me with the church elders in the front.
As it might be expected the service had a distinct agrarian theme to it. It was about working hard and reaping what you sow. One of the things that encouraged me about this church was that their way of giving was not only a monetary offering but also giving by working the small field owned by the church. Their plan was to use the profits from the next two harvests to pay for installing a concrete floor in the church. I love this example of using assets within the community to accomplish a community goal.
After church, on the walk home there were more people to meet. One of Cossi’s friends made us chicken for lunch so we stopped and ate. Continuing home, we met some more people and Cossi taught me some more phrases. Cossi’s wife had another lunch ready for us. I was stuffed, but I had to eat to show my appreciation for their hospitality.
After second lunch I loosened my belt and packed my things (including a live turkey I bought from Cossi) so I could get back to Jinja by Sunday night. It was sad to be leaving. The Olupot Clan was so genuine and my short time with them had been absolutely beautiful. I’ll never forget the depressed look on the face of Cossi’s mom as I got on the back of a boda. She spoke to me, and Cossi translated, “We barely got to talk to you. Come back again.” I thanked her for raising a wonderful son. I told Cossi’s wife how much I respected her husband and I thanked her for all of her hospitality. I hugged my friend and I waved goodbye.
A few of the men I met during the weekend introduced themselves and shattered our differences by saying that we have the same blood. It was an incredible icebreaking- a racial, economical, cultural icebreaking that is simple in its science but profound in its meaning. These men and women have different lives. They look different. Their interactions are different. Many have different religions. Some of our values are different. But when they reminded me we have the same blood it led me to look to other similarities. They swap jokes. They cry. They are curious. They have the same needs of love and affection. We may have different tastes, traditions, and temperaments but we are all made in the Image of God.
For most of my visit I saw just the differences- and how could I not when the variation from my own culture was so extreme. I would love to visit another village but the next time I hope to focus my curiosity on what makes us the same more than what makes us different.