I walked out of the internet café and looked down the road for a boda boda. It was hot out, probably over 85 degrees, and I did not feel like making the 25 minute trek on foot back to the house. I squinted as I looked down the road do to the sun piercing its rays in between rooftops. Finally, I saw a boda boda driving towards me and I waved him down. “Apwoyo my friend,” I said to the man in my best Acholi accent. “I tien neni?” (How are you doing?)
“A tiem mayber,” (I am good.) the driver responded. “Where are you going today, Boss?”
“Do you know the Tak Center near Acholi Inn?” I asked. “My residence is right there.”
“I know it…four thousand,” he demanded.
“Four Thou?!” I answered in an astonished tone. “I have ridden from here to my house some many times and I only pay one thou, no more.”
“The petrol is finished, four thou or no ride,” he said sternly.
Even though four thousand shillings was the equivalent of $1.63, I was not about to pay him that much for a ride that should cost me a quarter. “One thou five hundred, because I am in a good mood today, but I will not pay anymore,” I returned.
“Three thou five hundred or find another, the petrol is done!” the driver responded in growing irritation.
“I will walk or find another then, apwoyo,” I said as I turned and walked away. Usually after taking a few steps in another direction a boda driver would stop me and lower his price. On this particular day however, that was not the case. I turned around as he started his engine and watched him zoom off in a cloud of red dust. Well, I guess I am walking, I thought to myself as I buckled the front strap of my backpack across my chest. Ten seconds later another boda boda stopped next to me and offered to take me home for one thousand shillings. The petroleum finished…now that is a clever excuse to jack up the prices on a mzungu!
Little did I know that the petroleum supply in Uganda was actually finished for several days.
Sit back and think about the next couple of paragraphs and imagine if it happened where you live:
Earlier this week, the central petroleum reserves (gasoline) in Kampala went dry, hindering the entire country of Uganda without gasoline. Apparently this is not all that uncommon in Uganda as they import their fuel from the Indian Ocean through Kenya. The lack of petroleum however, has had an immediately effect on everyday life in Gulu. I noticed it right away when all of the boda boda drivers began to triple their prices in negotiations for transportation.
The inflation in prices is not a huge deal in town because people can walk pretty much anywhere; trying to get to school for many of us however, is a greater issue. Sir Samuel Baker School is a twenty minute boda ride from town, which usually costs me about 2,500-3,000 shillings. I was not willing to pay more than four thousand shillings even with the gasoline issue. One afternoon, I walked in on a conversation between Ashley and a few other girls as she was telling her audience how she had to pay eight thousand shillings for her ride to school this morning at St. Mary’s. “I hope we are able to afford enough petrol to go on safari this weekend still!” remarked one of the girls. “I heard this could last up to a week.” This could be one long week then…
I know that in America when fuel prices spike, usually the prices of other goods will shortly follow in the price hike. What would actually happen if the fuel supply ceased to exist for a week? How would people handle it? How would people get to and from work? Would people even go to work? I am not sure I know the answers to any of those questions…nor do I ever want to find out. It is amazing however, that in Uganda, life simply still goes on…even in the midst of a fuel crisis.
In order to avoid being over-charged by a boda boda, Sarah and I decided to hitchhike in an actual SUV one afternoon on the way home from school. The old, black Toyota 4Runner was leaving Sir Samuel Baker School and the driver offered us a free ride into town. I jumped in the front seat and began making small talk with the driver as Sarah sat in the back. About a half a mile down, we pulled up next to a man walking alongside the road with his young daughter, who was probably about three or four years old. After speaking with the driver for a moment in Acholi, the man and his daughter hopped into the back of the SUV with Sarah and we were driving towards town again. The driver’s willingness to help is an example about the great thing about the people of northern Uganda…they are so willing to help each other out.
As the 4Runner slammed into seemingly every rock and pothole on the dirt road the man in the backseat began telling us that he was on his way to town in order to take his little girl to the hospital for treatment; she had malaria. The malaria parasite has been ravaging various parts of Africa for several thousand years, thus making the mosquito the most potent killer on the African continent. The parasite is most effective against young children who have not had a chance for a fully developed immune system. According to several reports, including one from the C.D.C. and World Health Organization, a child dies every minute from malaria. If someone of my age and health condition were to catch malaria, he/she would be fine with a couple of treatments and rest. The same cannot be said however, for a young child. Even with treatment, if a child like the one in the back seat of the SUV were to catch malaria, it is almost certainly a death sentence.
I looked back over my shoulder for a moment and connected my eyes with the little girl’s eyes. She was resting her head on her father’s shoulder. Her eyes spoke of pain, discomfort and fear. I smiled lightly in an attempt to cheer her up but her hopeless gaze did not change. There was nothing that I could do to help other than pray for her safe recovery. We pulled over on the outskirts of town, the man and his girl stepped out of the vehicle, said thank you and goodbye, and were off on their way to the hospital; off to try to salvage her innocent life.
Only a few days prior did I come to school to teach computer lessons only to be disappointed with the lack of presence of my co-teacher, Geoffrey. I asked around to my other colleagues at school in order to see if anyone had seen or heard from him, but everyone was in the dark about his location. I had spent several hours planning a lesson for PowerPoint and he was selfishly not there to open the lab and teach it with me. Frustration quickly sat in and remained with me throughout the evening as I wondered what possible reason he could have had for missing and not notifying me… …until the next day when Geoffrey came and greeted me in the staff room at tea time and I could tell something was not right. “Joshua, my dear friend,” he said to me in a soft voice. “I am sorry I have missed our lessons…I was at home ill with malaria.”
I was immediately angry with myself. I had become upset and frustrated because Geoffrey was not at school to help me teach a basic PowerPoint lesson; I was angry because I felt my time had been wasted. Yet, come to find out, he was fighting off a terrible parasitic disease and still only managed to miss one day of school. I was the selfish one. I was the one who lost my perspective on the fact that I can take a pill and sleep under a net and not have to worry about malaria, yet many of my colleagues, friends, and all of their families do not have either of those luxuries.
Yesterday, I decided I wanted to take some time and just think about the week…about how everyday life seemed to always go on in Uganda even if it was being threatened by lack of fuel or malaria. Dark, ominous clouds began rolling overhead while I ate dinner, so I decided to take the opportunity to go up to the double-decker hut and lay in the hammock in order to listen to the storm. I grabbed a book, jolted up the stairs of the two-story structure, and comfortably wrapped myself in the hammock. As I was waiting for the sky to break open, my friend Jane decided to join me. I had left the house in search of peaceful serenity and she understood that. Therefore, she simply opened her own book, shoved in her ear buds and relaxed herself in a chair several feet from where I was stationed in the hammock.
Shortly after Jane’s arrival the sky torn open with rain. The clouds had blackened the sky to the point that it seemed as though night was upon us. Those clouds sent lightening crashing down in every direction. The lightening was followed shortly by enormous roars of thunder that echoed throughout the sky. As the storm persisted, I simply sat in the hammock listening to it and processing everything that I had experienced throughout the week. Sometimes it is easy to forget that I am actually in Africa, teaching and living in a developing nation; I am experiencing true poverty and day to day struggles to survive. These thoughts resonated in my mind as I thought about the small girl who was deathly ill with malaria, and how Geoffrey only missed a single day of work even with the terrible illness. It is very easy to lose perspective on how hard life truly is in northern Uganda…as soon as my perspective is lost, this country always seems to have a curious way of reminding me of it again.