The room was hot the night before, so I left the windows open, but in the morning, it was too cold for me to remain asleep. My mind routinely acknowledged the fact that I was waking up in Kampala, Uganda. The air coming into the room from outside smelled like something was always on the grill — but it was really just the trash being burned on every street corner. There wasn’t a reliable trash collecting system in Uganda, so people burned their trash in their backyards. My old friend, Yasi, and I shared the two-bedroom apartment during the summer of 2017. Next to my bed was a big window that gave anyone who walked by on the second floor of the apartment complex a great view into the room. I covered the window with the curtains at night, but the sun still crept through the blinds every morning to wake me up. If not the sun, the rooster next door made sure.
But that morning the cold woke me up, before the sun rose and the rooster crowed. I dragged myself to my feet and gingerly stepped to the bathroom, not to wake Yasi up. As I stared into the mirror and did my routine, I was almost relieved that the cold woke me up. The weekly malaria pills I had to take were giving me the worst nightmares. Most of them took place back home or at school; nightly accounts of my horrific first year of college. So, opening my eyes for the first time each day was a breath of fresh air despite the trash burning next door.
I sat on the couch and opened my laptop, trying to plot my schedule for the day. Yasi and I were in Uganda because of opportunities we found through a family friend that has been doing medical research in the country for almost 30 years. I had the opportunity to work with local entrepreneurs on their project to start an educational farm. Yasi was interning at an NGO, Baylor-Uganda- a local HIV/AIDS clinic and research center, that our family friend helped establish in the early 90s.
In Uganda, Yasi and I were mzungu.
That’s what the local people called foreigners, or pretty much any white-looking person. Mzungu directly translates to “someone who roams around” or “wanderer”. We would hear it when walking through a street filled with kids, as they yelled “mzungu, mzungu”. Or even in conversation with the friends I made there. But I could never pinpoint the connotation of its use. It was usually stated as a matter of fact that I was a mzungu, sometimes with a touch of humor. Sometimes a touch of resentment.
As I started to fill out my calendar, the door opened and Anita, our cleaning lady, walked in. It was probably 7:00AM and she was already starting on the job. Her along with a few others maintained the rooms in the apartment complex every day. She typically popped in at a different time each day, but it looked like she was starting with our apartment that day.
She was pregnant and it was clear that she was due any minute, yet she walked around the apartment with grace. Her braided hair was tucked back behind a bandana that matched her dark green apron. I tried to keep my eyes locked in on the laptop to give the appearance that I was busy at work. As if I was doing something valuable with my time while Anita cleaned up our mess from the day before. I didn’t expect to see her this early in the day. The apartment was always clean after a long day. Our clothes that are tinted reddish orange from the dust that blankets the streets, clean and fresh. The stove, that’s typically covered in charcoal from us trying to cut a good piece off for the hookah the night before, would be spotless.
A feeling of guilt crept on me, as if it was inappropriate for me to sit there while Anita cleaned the apartment with a baby on the way. That guilt turned into embarrassment as I knew that even my guilt came from privilege. All the while I stared aimlessly at my screen. When is Yasi going to wake up?
Soon enough the bedroom door creaked open and Yasi emerged. She showed her kind soft smile that she always manages even so early in the morning. People often mistook us as brother and sister because we share the same off-white skin tone. From a distance, her full and nicely arched eyebrows would let you know that she was Iranian.
“Good morning, Anita.”
“Good morning, Yasi,” said Anita as she turned to face her before heading out, “Have you been thinking of a name?”
Yasi gave Anita a warm smile but having known her, I could sense some discomfort in her voice, “Yes I have.” Anita smiled back and made her way out to the next apartment.
“A name?” I asked, as I looked at Yasi with my eyebrows raised.
She looked back at me with helpless eyes, “She asked me to think of a name for her baby.”
A few days later, a different woman walked in to clean our apartment. That meant that Anita had her baby. Our family friend advised us to call our driver, Sowedi, to take us to the grocery store and help us deliver a list of bread, flower, and other standard supplies to Anita’s home.
“Sowedi’s outside,” said Yasi as she made her way to the door. Both of us fully dressed and ready to leave.
We climbed into Sowedi’s maroon off-road SUV that we had become quite familiar with. Sowedi is our family friend’s driver in Kampala who we payed to help us get around during our time there.
After we got the groceries and were back on the road, we began to drive past the outskirts of the city. The city had many new buildings that showed proof of progress, but as we kept driving, buildings became more sporadic. It took less than ten minutes for us to look out the window and completely forget that we were in a city. The buildings were replaced with small strips of shops. Then the shops became more sporadic. Dispersed in between the shops were small huts and villages built alongside the main road. Every ten minutes or so we’d pass by a pile of trash. Most times, trash was dumped in hidden areas, but all too often local people placed their garbage in public areas. Most of the roads looked like they were paved a while ago, with the reddish orange dust blanketed over them. Driving with Sowedi was like driving with a NASCAR driver, weaving and speeding through traffic yet we always felt safe. In general, the roads in this country were wild. Stop signs bared no significance, and the sidewalks were often a third lane for cars to drive on. But even implying that there were driving lanes was a stretch. Among the taxi vans and the cars were the motorcycle taxis, the boda bodas, zipping by on any drivable surface. Kampala’s Mulago hospital found that 40% of its trauma cases involved a motorcycle taxi. Just a week into our stay we saw one of them crash on our walk home. The trees looked like palm trees on steroids. Even the birds were different. At home it was a novel sighting to see a large bird perched by a riverbank — here these large birds nested and crowed across the city, flying through the air like dragons. Uncollected garbage and slaughter-house refuge have led to a population explosion for these Maribou Storks. I bet they breathe fire.
“Sowedi, we’ve been driving for a while,” I said after a good 40 minutes of daydreaming through the window, “How far away does she live?”
“About half-way there.”
Yasi gave me a look from the front seat with a mixture of concern and confusion.
“How does she get to work?”
The subsequent 40 minutes passed in similar fashion until we passed by another small strip of shops and made a right turn onto a dirt road. Directly behind the shops was a small village with huts made of brick and clay. The huts almost had the same reddish orange color of the dirt, but the color was fading. Likely from rain during the monsoon season. We approached a hut that was almost the size of the room I slept in. In place of a door was a long curtain that marked the entrance into Anita’s home. Clothes were hanging on a line outside. Apart from the noise from the road, giggles filled the air as three kids ran around hut. Yasi pushed the curtain aside and we walked into Anita’s home.
“Hi Anita, we brought you some stuff,” Yasi said as we placed a few bags on the floor.
Anita was holding her newborn baby in her arms. We stayed and talked for about half an hour. Her husband left her when he discovered she was having a fourth baby because money was tight. She was alone in the hospital, but she felt close to God. She said that she knew everything happened for a reason, because God was with her. I struggled to believe in God but the hope her faith brought her gave me perspective.
Yasi and I felt like we were listening to a tragedy, but Anita just smiled at us. She was strong.
She had a girl, and she wanted an American name that started with a C. She already had three kids, Carlos, Christian, and Catherine.
“So, what name have you chose?”
We told her that we felt that she should name her. As if our privilege had granted us power. We were just two wazungu that she met along the way. But Anita insisted, and handed Yasi a blank piece of paper to write down the name.
C E L E S T E.