August 30, 2010

A school boy was shocked to death when I was living in Wobulenzi, a few weeks ago.

He was trying to steal power from a line at the edge of town. Maggie, a 17 year old girl who used to come to church and hold my hand every sunday during service, told me that she went to school with him. "He was my classmate. He was killed by the power lines," she told me. "It was last Thursday, before final exams."

I was struck that he had died around the time I was taking my first sip of coffee. I've made several of the same comparisons since, and am oft reminded that my regular routine runs parallel to pain in the lives of people that I didn't know I would meet, and learn to love.

Cesar says my name, "Sanley." It's a half joke - we spent hours cramped in matatus and riding three to a boda finding words that have an "Sh," in them, so that we could say them like they do in his native tongue.

"Sanley, are you sinking we sall be there soon?"

"I am sinking like you are sinking - I sink we are sinking together. Sall we continue doing so?" and we would continue on that way, laughing hysterically at every new word found.

Bonding cross culturally teaches versatile communication. I never knew that turning my "sh" sound into an "s" sound, and imagining out loud that reheated beans were roasted chicken would turn a group of people I had never met into some of my best friends.

Cesar (or Olap, depending on which name you choose to put first), was born in Lira in 1982. His father, the oldest of 20 children in a polygamous family, was a man of great means, until 1986, when the Kiramajong raiders swept into Lira and took 300 heads of cattle from his land. After that, he moved from one occupation to another, trying hard to make ends meet through raising cattle, selling clothing and gardening with a grandfather Cesar says was like a "mammoth" when it came to gardening. "He would leave in the morning, and not return until after the moon rose," Cesar said.

I spent the summer of 2,000 in the back of my parent's royal blue expedition, taking a two month trip across the United States. Cesar was 20, then, and spent spent at least three nights a week hiding from the Lord's Resistance Army in bushes and river beds. While I was complaining about the heat at Hoover dam, and sucking down Dr. Peppers on the way to Colorado, he was watching purple machine gun fire spread shadows on the wall of his one room home in Patongo.

In the midst of telling me about it, Cesar asked if I had ever heard the sound of sim sim being roasted.

"Sim Sim?"

He turned to a housemate, and discussed Sim Sim in Kiswahili, before telling me that it's a tiny seed used for seasoning. I later discovered that it's what we call Sesame.

"The shooting sounds like a sim sim pot when the seeds all begin to pop."

The first night the LRA arrived, Cesar had just hung his only shirt pair of trousers to dry, and was sleeping in an undershirt. "The only thing I owned was my school uniform, and I couldn't wear it by law."

These are the things we don't think about - the way quick gunfire can be likened to a shaken glow stick visible through the cracks of a hut, or the frustration in running into the night without proper clothing.

I love the way Cesar speaks. It's poetic in a literal sense. Talk of the way gunshots sound like sim sim, and the bent shape of his grandfather lit by Uganda's full moon were descriptions I couldn't have known to ask for. Four years of running from soldiers taken and sent back to kill their families and Cesar was moved to tell me about the pressure to breathe quietly, while he watched the light of gunfire reflect off the walls.

"Someone would say, 'you are breathing too loud! you're breathing too loud' (he paused)...'you're breathing too loud!'" Cesar breathed deeply as he remembered. "When such situations come, even if you have to cough, you don't cough."

I have always wondered if fear provided people with the sudden ability to keep from coughing. Cesar told me it did.

He found humor in telling me about his experiences. I suppose that finding humor in running for one's life is part of running becoming normal. He told me that. He said, "It was always the same story. it became normal. We would be told that they were coming, and we could continue normally, playing and what what, waiting for them."

One night, Cesar and his family were actually taken captive by a group of rebels. He laughed when he told me that the soldiers left abruptly in the morning, without harming them. "The soldiers all walked away without a word, like 'oh, thank you for sleeping,' or what."

The children around us grew restless, as Cesar and I were talking. They started asking questions, "but were you scared? did they leave then? What did you do?"

He tackled one of his cousins, then, and said "The soldiers came after me when I was little, but I killed them all for you. Don't be afraid!"

There was laughter, then, and I got up to serve myself posho and beans while Cesar assured the children that there was no reason to be afraid of the men in his stories.

I thought of the redemption in his life, now - the way he's working as a headmaster at Donela, the meals I watch him eat and the way we would laugh, driving back and forth from anywhere, about the "s" sound in his native tongue.

He spent his college years running, still - sometimes leaving at night and coming back to classes later, when things were safer. He tells me his story like it's normal, and I know from the way he told it to me that it is. I didn't expect that, in Uganda - to come home carrying with me a place where sorrow is normal, and stories about war can carry a humor innate in life as it is for all of us: the common threads of irony and consistency in the patterns of our own experience, however different they may be.

Cesar began to sketch for me, after we spoke. Beside the maps of Patongo and the scribbles of where he slept as a child, he drew my face. Last night, we wrote on facebook to ask if I was, "still sinking I sall return."