African rhythms, laundry and Mzungu

August 9, 2010



In a literary essay on the arrival of the European Common Market, Jane Kramer writes of the french land owner Fernande Pelletier that, "when a farmer like Ferdenande - when anybody French - talks about France, that person is talking literally, talking about soil and trees and vines. The idea of La France, which is held so fervently here and mocked so insistently abroad, is drawn from that experience of the countryside. Strangers are astonished at this."

In Africa, I've found that when the locals ask, "how do you find Uganda?" what they are talking about is not the land, as it is, but the rhythm of things. They want to know how you find the taste of jipate, and the manners of the locals, just as much as they want to know how their weather fares with you. 

They want to know if you've found it odd that you buy a chicken live, put it in the back of your vehicle, and eat it the same day. They want to know if the roads make you nervous, and how you like riding on the back of a boda. Do the farmers in your country dig their land like ours do? Do your women cook casava and matoke, and have you ever eaten posho before today? 

I've found that there is, indeed, a rhythm to Africa. It is as clear to me in the overloaded trucks and boda bodas that play chicken on the Kampala Gulu highway as it is in church, where the congregation keeps beat with their hands and feet. It's in the song the children sing as I walk, "Bye Mzungu! bye Mzungu! bye Mzungu!" - always three times together, until their friends do it with them, and they skip along the side of the road singing it back to me as I wave. 

It's in the hands of the women in the shops as they plate, thread and curl hair. It's in Isaac and in Esther, as they skip in and out of the schoolroom, and in the sizzle of posho as it cooks on a fast boil.

It's in laundry, and the way your left hand is to rub against the fabric held in your left. Afterward, it's in the flip of your wrist as you wring out the soap and move it to the next bin. 

It's in the water that runs across the courtyard when it gets dirty enough to re-fill.

I tried my hand at it this morning, and was told that I should probably practice every morning when I bathe. 

...guess Mzungu's still a little off beat.


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