It’s late in the day when we get to the Red Chilli Camp at Murchison Falls, our minivan rattling over the gravel in the parking lot while a few warthogs munch industriously on the grass. It was a rough, dusty drive from Masindi – close to two hours for the 80km haul – and it wasn’t until we reached the park’s outskirts, where a cool green canopy spread over the road and the baboons watched us with mute inquisition, that I began to feel that I’d left hot, sun-scorched Gulu far behind.
By sunset I’ve worked through two stiff Niles (5.5% abv.) and a gin and tonic while a dusky half-light settles over the park. My bare feet are crunching through the grass and my thoughts are galloping back to Kenya, to those boundless skies and tree-speckled plains. At night, in my stuffy tent, I have a hard time getting to sleep. I listen to the hippos croaking outside and the small night critters skittering over the ground, and before I know it my alarm is beeping and there’s the sound of footsteps drowsily shuffling through the pre-dawn darkness. Headlamps glow in the parking lot; a conversation gets muffled by the bathroom walls. Someone asks someone else for toothpaste, and before long we’re rubbing our eyes and drinking coffee and staring quietly at the early light on the horizon.
By the time we leave the camp the sun’s broken over the savannah. It’s a cool, misty morning, and the wind rips through the minivan while we puff into our hands. There are six of us in the car – a young Dutch couple, Mai and Toon, and on older pair from England, Dave and Ruth, along with me and the driver – and for the first half hour we munch silently on our breakfasts, keeping our eyes trained for any movement in the tall grass. The sun rises above the treetops, and the temperature climbs quickly. We’ve pulled off our sweaters and fleeces and we stand in the back, cameras at the ready. Soon we’re passing great herds of buffalo and giraffes nibbling at the limbs of the acacias, and kingfishers that stitch their bright threads of color through the trees. We scare a young elephant from the bush – its ears flapping, its feet stomping in defiance – and we stop to watch a half-dozen lion cubs playing in the road.
It’s a beautiful morning. After lunch we take a boat launch down the Nile. A group of drunk Ugandans shout and laugh and throw their empty soda bottles overboard. Hippos wallow along the banks; crocodiles bask in the sun with their jaws locked open. A few stout buffalo plow through the grass onshore, little birds perched on their backs and horns. We get to the waterfall and there’s a great jockeying for pictures. Everyone poses while the water crashes in the background, and more bottles tumble overboard. It’s a long ride back to the jetty. We’re quiet and drowsy and baked by the sun, and we didn’t bring nearly enough water. Back at the camp we play cards and drift off into our beers. It’s an early night. The next morning we take a short hike beside the waterfall and watch a rainbow bending through the mist. By mid-day we’ve had a quick lunch in Masindi and continued briskly over the tarmac back to Kampala. It’s not until we’ve reached the city’s outskirts that traffic forces us to a crawl; and it’s here that I’ll get an enigmatic text message – “My stanbic bank A/C 0121074905401 Masindi branch” – that bears a bit of explaining.
I’d met Fredrick just after arriving in Masindi from Gulu. I had a day to kill before continuing on to Murchison Falls, and I bumped into him outside an Internet café, looking earnest and perplexed. He was wearing a pair of neat black slacks and a lilac-colored shirt buttoned all the way to the collar. He asked for a second of my time – “Perhaps you can give me some advice” – and I decided to give it to him.
He explained that he’d applied to Redcliffe College, in the UK, for a voluntary worker’s program. The man he’d been corresponding with, who he described as the “General Secretary,” seemed excited by his application, going to great lengths to show his eagerness to accept Fredrick into the program. A friend of his – a pastor in Masindi – was already working on a Master’s Degree at the college. Fredrick was hopeful that, within a few months, he’d be able to join him.
He showed me a brochure for the mission college, then thumbed through a few pages of the application form. His hasty, scribbled script covered the pages; he’d taped a passport photo to the application that looked like it’d been taken with a Polaroid in the ‘70s. He pointed to the questions that had left him stumped – “Why do you want to join the voluntary worker program at Redcliffe College?”; “What are your hobbies?” – and I offered to meet him for coffee that evening to work on his answers. He was smiling, effusive – embarrassingly grateful. And I had a small spring in my step as I left him outside the café, eager to do great things, so help me God, before the day was through.
That night I met him in my hotel restaurant; inspired by my warnings to meet me “on New York time,” he was five minutes early. My heart was already reaching out to him. He shuffled through the papers on the table which he withdrew gravely, one by one, from a battered manila envelope. We talked about his hopes to become a pastor so that he could “become more vibrant in the community”; he told me about the volunteer work he had done in local parishes, helping impoverished area widows get loans from the bank so they could start small businesses selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road. He leaned forward and showed me the place on the application where the different duties for workers in the volunteer program were laid out – laundry and cleaning and kitchen work, in a neat little table where he could check off his preferences. He shook his head with disapproval when we got to machinery.
“I fear machines,” he said gravely. “They will disturb my head very much.” He made some loud, machinated noises that rumbled in his throat. Then he added, “I do not fear gardening.”
I took the application and read through some of the other sections.
How did you hear about our Residential Volunteer Programme?
I heard about this through our pastors, especially canon George who is with you & others.
What languages do you speak (in order of fluency):
1. English 2. Kiswahili 3. Runyakitara
Then I read through the blank sections and asked, “Why would you like to come to Redcliffe College as a Voluntary Worker?”
He folded his hands on the table and sat in quiet deliberation. “I have lived in Uganda my whole life,” he said. “I have only been to Kenya, once, for two hours. I would like to see what life is like in the developed world.” He unfolded his hands and sat up proud and erect. I gave him a thin, non-committal smile and said,
I suspected that the last thing Redcliffe College wanted was a tourist in pastor’s clothing, and I explained to Fredrick that he should tailor his answer to Redcliffe itself: why this college, and not some other? What skills could Redcliffe give that would make him a better person and, by extension, enable him to better help his fellow Ugandans? Maybe even, I suggested, throw in a few words about God. He nodded thoughtfully, his eyes slightly misty. Then he made a few inscrutable notes on the back of the manila envelope and squared his shoulders toward me, pen poised.
I picked up the page. “What are your hobbies?” He sat and considered for a moment, then smiled slyly, as if about to let me in on a guilty secret.
“I very much like to walk and have friends in other countries,” he said.
I scratched my head and offered: “‘I play football and exercise regularly, because I think it’s important to remain physically active and maintain my health. I like to exchange letters with friends in other countries, so that I can learn about their cultures and share my own culture with them.’”
He held his pen dubiously above the table while I implored him with my eyes. I tried to explain that they weren’t asking about his hobbies out of idle curiosity; that these hobbies – so innocuous on the surface – were his chance to show how eager he was to wring each drop of value from every fleeting minute of his life. It was a chance to show that he was bold, worldly – even heroic – and to not just show them who he was, but who they wanted him to be.
“You don’t have to lie,” I said, noting his growing alarm. “You just have to be selective with the truth. If you like to spend six hours lying on the couch, playing video games and scratching yourself, it’s a hobby you’re better off keeping to yourself.”
He nodded gravely. His eyes were mildly astonished, and he took the application in his hands, as if he wanted to make sure we were reading the same thing.
It was around this point that I realized what a disadvantage Fredrick was at, trying in his guileless way to navigate the choppy, duplicitous waters of the West. What are your hobbies? Could there be a question so simple, so direct, so lacking in cunning? And yet here I was, groomed in the shadow language of college applications, decoding that mysterious cipher and bringing to light the all-important subtext lurking just below the surface. Walking and having friends, I implied, were setting the bar too low. “When I’m not building orphanages, I’m saving the gorillas” – that was a good start. “Raising the dead and turning water into wine” – that was getting warm. He nodded and shifted in his seat and blinked abstractedly toward the street. Then he turned and made a few more scribbles on the back of the envelope, shuffled the papers with a flourish, and finally folded with exhaustion over the table.
We finished our coffees and the sunlight died and a waitress with thick haunches leaned across the counter, looking at nothing. With all that hard work behind him, Fredrick loosened up. He told me about the difficulties he’d had to overcome in putting the application together: just the week before he’d gone to get his pastor’s signature for a referral, but the pastor had already left for the day. The next morning Fredrick was up at five, walking the two-and-a-half miles to church, but again, the pastor was out, running errands. He waited for three hours until the pastor returned, getting the vital scribble and stamp that would, he was certain, impress the officials at Redcliffe.
It wasn’t long, though, before he encountered more problems. He’d scanned the first part of the application and sent it to the admissions office, but he couldn’t afford to scan the rest. He explained that he only worked small jobs, on and off, for whatever money he could scrape together. He’d spent the past week running around, trying to borrow a few shillings from friends, inventing all sorts of false pretexts. He was embarrassed, he said, to admit what the money was for.
“If I told them I was applying to a college in England they would look at me and say, ‘What is he, crazy?’”
He scraped together enough change to check his email, afraid that some vital correspondence from Redcliffe was waiting in his Inbox. Sure enough, there was a message from David Marriott, Conference & Facilities Manager, asking him to send the rest of the application. It was after reading that distressing note that I’d found him earlier in the day, weighing his options, wondering if some sign from Providence would light the way. My sudden, miraculous appearance was perhaps slightly misconstrued under the fever of desperation.
I asked how much money he needed to send the rest of the application. There were six pages to be scanned, at Ush1,500 a page, along with Ush1,000 or so to use the Internet: a total of Ush10,000 – or less than six US bucks – standing between him and a new life.
A great knot caught in my throat. For the past weeks, I’d felt myself on the verge of some emotional cataclysm – an impulse to do something, anything, for someone who needed it. To help Africa was too much to imagine, too much to bear; but to help one man, a single soul in need: if I couldn’t find it in me to do that little good, exactly what was I doing here?
I told him to meet me the next morning at the Internet café, where we would scan the rest of the application and email David Marriott, Conference & Facilities Manager, setting in motion the process that would hopefully, in a few months, bring Fredrick to England. I was giving him a chance, and for the rest of the evening, in that inspired air, anything seemed possible. He talked about the projects he would start when he returned to Masindi, great, noble organizations handsomely funded (with a coy hint in his eyes) by friends from abroad. We made plans to meet some day in England – even America! It was a wild collusion, and we worked ourselves into riotous, hopeful fits. Why should six dollars stand between a man and his dream? Why should anyone fear machines?
The next morning Fredrick was waiting, five minutes early, in a freshly pressed shirt. His smile was wide, monstrously bright, and I tried hard to fight the sinking feeling that for me, the frenzied spell of the night before had already been broken. Once the day’s inspiration had worn off, I’d started to worry about practical considerations – the potential roadblock of the visa process, the not-inconsiderable problem of airfare to the UK, which, as the college took pains to note, Redcliffe wouldn’t provide for. A day before the whole world had seemed possible; but now that world was tightly circumscribed, and I saw in Fredrick – in his earnest eyes and scuffed sandals and dark slacks frayed at the bottom – all of Africa’s failed hopes.
We sat in the Internet café and went through his application again. He methodically counted out the six pages to be scanned, but there were problems: first, with the scanner, then with the Internet connection. We tried a different café, and I could feel my dark mood casting a pall over the both of us. For a few hours I’d managed to convince myself that I could be someone different – someone good – but now, rudely jarred back to reality, I’d become exactly who I was before: slightly moody, anxious, eager to be left alone. I dutifully helped him tap out an email and attach the documents and send a hopeful prayer to the gods of admissions. I even clasped him on the shoulder and said something stupid, like, “England, here we come!” I didn’t believe it, but I wanted him to believe it. And what bothered me most is that, in his heart, he probably did.
Afterward he asked me to look over the email he’d received the week before. It was the email that had sent his hopes soaring, the email addressed personally to him, encouraging him to apply. I read through it and felt a surge of distress. What I saw was a form email sent by some college bureaucrat, a canned letter as blandly impersonal as any of the dozens of rejections I’d gotten through the years from deans of admissions, from prospective employers. Thank you for your email and sorry that it has taken a while for me to respond. Fredrick’s eyes sparkled at the warm tone. He traced his finger along the bottom, where David Marriott hastened to add, “We do have vacancies now and also during 2008.”
“We do have vacancies now,” Fredrick repeated, as if to impress upon me the urgency of our task. “That is a good sign, isn’t it?”
I said that it was, and that there was nothing in the email to discourage him. I said the best he could do, now that the application was sent, was to sit and wait for Redcliffe to respond. “Wait for the good news,” was how I put it. I chose to ignore what sounded to me like a dire warning: Please be aware that it is generally difficult for non-EU nationals to obtain a visa to come here as a voluntary worker. I hated myself in ways that, even after all these years, was surprising.
Outside Fredrick took my hand and pressed it warmly between his, telling me how glad he was to find someone who would help him and guide him through life. I didn’t say any of the things I wanted to say, like, “I’m not even sure how to guide myself.” I said over and over how glad I was to meet him, how excited I was for his future, how happy I would be to meet him in America someday. And in a terrible, miserly place in my heart, I was glad: not because I wanted to see him fail, but because in his failure, I wouldn’t have to fret about visas and airfares and all the other problems that were bound to pop up. I was glad because I’d be let off the hook.
Back in Kampala, stuck in traffic, I get another message: “Dr said ihave Typhoid malaria need money for treatment, fredrick.” Suddenly it’s more than just miles of tarmac stretching between us, and Fredrick’s message feels like a terrible reprieve – an excuse for me to turn my back on him. Maybe the help I offered in Masindi was just a way to feel better about myself; maybe I did want to help in some small way. But how do you offer a little help to someone who needs so much more? By offering those first few bucks, wasn’t I offering Fredrick a lifeline – a hope that I would be there to help him other times, too?
How does anyone justify anything in a place like this?
I apologize and say I’m in no position to pick up his medical bills. He writes again: “Ihave aquick question can intermarriage be accepted by american to us? ys fredrick.” He asks if I can help him find an American wife. Everything feels hopeless. I don’t think I’d behave any differently in his position; how can anyone really understand another man’s desperation? But I’m distressed all the same, and I don’t know what hope to offer him. And later that night, on a couch at Backpackers, I have a few beers and cry for me and him and for all of us.