Published: March 3rd 2008December 19th 2007
The commotion at the Gulu bus station has already hit full-stride by 8am, when I arrive like a pack mule, weighed down by my bursting bags and set for the bumpy drive to Masindi. Young guys are perched atop the buses and minivans, strapping down bags and baskets and basins, bed frames and seat cushions, boxes straining at the joints, spare tires, colorful plastic chairs. Schoolkids in rumpled uniforms sit in idling buses, their faces pressed to the windows. Guys are circling through the crowd, scribbling on little ticket pads; in fact, so many of them are selling tickets and calling out "HoimaHoimaHoima!" or "MasindiMasindiMasindi!" that I get the feeling no one ever leaves Gulu, they just go to the bus station and sell each other tickets. Boda-bodas
bump past with dead chickens hanging from the handlebars. A line forms beside a rusted water pump, barefoot girls and bare-chested boys and old women squatting beside dozens of plastic jerry cans in the shade. There’s a dirty old deck of cards on the ground, kings and queens and one-eyed knaves scattered among piles of trash. A young guy in sunglasses and a sleeveless tee leans against a dusty van. His shirt reads:
"You’re invited to a party! Come celebrate the 150th Indiana State Fair!"
It takes more than an hour for the matatu to Masindi to fill. The temperature’s beginning to climb as we wait for two more passengers; an old man leans out the window and implores me to reach into my white-man’s pockets and pay for the remaining seats myself. Suddenly a crowd surges toward us, a swarm of hands lunging for the door, and the conductor struggles to restore order. In just a few seconds, he’s gone from a desperate search to fill the last two seats to a frenzied crowd that resembles the final rush for lifeboats aboard the Titanic. Bright little shilling signs flash in his eyes as he packs them in: broad-shouldered women with babies slung to their backs, little girls in colorful Communion dresses, serious men with battered briefcases clutched to their chests. Close to twenty-five of us have wedged into the minibus by the time we leave the station, a desperate commotion of arms and legs and little braided heads snapping at every bump in the road.
Fortunately, I’ve been spared most of the unpleasantness: I’m sitting in the front
seat, beside a tall, lanky Sudanese kid whose long legs are folded up against his chest. While the so-called "seat of death" isn’t without certain perils - thanks to the terrifying frequency of head-on collisions in Uganda - we’re both of us grateful for a bit of leg room. Deng shifts his feet around and rests his hands on the great knobs of his knees. He has a broad, toothy smile and spongy tufts of hair beaded with perspiration. He’s wearing neat brown slacks and a pinstriped shirt and a pair of bright white sneakers that practically gleam - a few frayed seams around the Reebok logo the only sign that they were probably stitched together by a six-year-old in some dank basement near Mbarara.
We drive down a rust-colored ribbon of road, carving a path through sunburnt plots of maize and clusters of broad-leaved banana trees and fields of sunflowers with their wilted heads drooping, as if in prayer. We pass rows of thatched huts and derelict schoolhouses and brick churches with crosses slightly askant atop their rusted roofs. Kids scoot out to the road, waving and chanting "mazungu
" when they see my white arm dangling from
the passenger side window. I feel like a war hero returning from the front, a man whose great and noble deeds will be sung of for years to come. In dusty towns baked by the equatorial sun, men sit in the shade in front of brick storefronts, their heads swiveling in unison and staring long after we’ve disappeared into a cloud of red dust.
Before long I strike up a conversation with my neighbor. Deng left Sudan eight years ago; because of the traumas inflicted by a war that began before his birth, he doesn’t have many opportunities in his homeland. He moved to Kenya to finish his secondary school studies in Nakuru, learning Swahili and renting a small room that he pays for with money earned from whatever odd jobs he can pick up around town. When there’s enough money to pay his school fees, he continues his courses in biology and chemistry, hoping to someday become a chemical engineer. When there’s not, he withdraws from school and looks for more work, struggling until he has enough money for his fees.
He slumps into silence. An endless procession files along the road’s rocky shoulder: women in
bright, billowing dresses; men in church clothes pedaling wobbly bicycles; kids carrying plastic jerry cans or balancing earthenware jugs on their heads. Bare-chested men hack at sugarcane or stack mud bricks in disorderly piles, the hard knots of their arms shining with sweat. Deng counts off the legs of his journey on his long fingers: from Nakuru to Nairobi, then to Kampala, then north to Gulu, before continuing on to the border and, finally, to his home in Awan: close to two days each way, just to spend a week under his family’s roof. Now he’ll return to Kenya to pack his things, lock his door for the last time and return to Sudan: with no money to continue his studies, he’ll work and apply for scholarships from the government. Studying in Khartoum would be cheaper, but the schools in the capital only teach in Arabic. He asks if I know of any aid agencies in America, if I have any friends looking to sponsor a young African student.
"Now that I will finish my studies, I have a lot of time, and I am very bored," he says with a sigh, looking out the window toward a
motley school buried in the bush. Girls in uniform pour from the doors, their purple dresses dotting the field like wildflowers. I hand him a book - One Hundred Years of Solitude
- and his eyes brighten. He studies the back, then tentatively opens to the title page, where Garcia Marquez's avuncular mug stares back from the inside cover. I watch his eyes narrow as he scans the author biography, then turns to the first page and reads of the day when Colonel Aureliano Buendia was taken to see the miraculous discovery of ice. His forehead puckers; after some solemn minutes, he turns the page. For the next hour he reads intently, wrapped in his own solitude.
Later, when we arrive in Masindi, I tell him to keep the book. We exchange email addresses and he shakes my hand, saying with great gravity that with hard work, he hopes to finish the book in six weeks. I picture him back in Sudan, hunched over the pages, studying those florid sentences and hoping for good news from the capital. And I think of the farmers he told me about, waiting for the start of the rainy season - their dark eyes watching the sky with patience and hope and sorrow.