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The Auntie Brigade

I went to see where Elinah stays today (Ugandan english for "where she lives"), and my first thought when I got off the moto taxi was that I shouldn't have worn my one clean pair of shoes. Roads up the grinding hills in the poorer sections of kampala follow a progression from paved, to relatively hard packed dirt and gravel, to muddy ruts. As I ride up, I see a man with a faded jacket saying "Keep Kamapala clean of mud and dirt" picking his way through ankle deep reddish mud on the side of the road.

Elinah picks me (again Ugandan English) at the MTN stand at the edge of a semi-paved street, and apologizes for how messy the road is. We walk slowly, holding hands, hunger flickering to life for me at the smell of chapatis being grilled in street stands, despite my big breakfast. I remember how unnerving all of this felt the first time I came here, how after a week in Kasese I fell upon the sheraton as an oasis. I've adjusted to travel in rural africa, just a little grossed out still by how filthy my sandals are from tromping on the rather mucky floors of latrines. Now I've adjusted. What is here is here.

As we turn off the road and make our way over rocks and mud toward her home, Elinah asks me if I know the word "ghetto." I smile a bit, realizing how this would hit me if I were seeing it for the first time. A banged together tin shanty off to one side, chickens and ducks wandering. Baby chicks running madly around. There is a little girl, probably less than 2, in a red dress. I smile at her, and Elinah says, "she lives near me -- she's travelling." She firmly grasps the little girl's arm and wordlessly leads her with us. When we reach the baby's home, she hands her over with a slightly sharp comment I assume means "she got away."

We navigate concrete troughs in narrow spaces between the crammed dwellings, and Elinah reaches inside a metal gate. Her place is shaped in a way I've come to understand is fairly typical -- a gate protecting a kind of narrow outdoor corridor, people's rooms along the sides, communal latrine and water in a central space. People bring out their small stoves and cook on the steps in the central corridor.

Elinah's place is more solid than I expected, clean tiled floors, two rooms. THe front one is almost empty, cooking supplies on a little stand covered by a cloth, a bucket and basin stacked neatly in a corner. No other furniture. THe little figure of a woman with her arms around another woman I've given her hanging high on a hook, no place to place it.

"I have not got a table, Auntie," she says. "I study on the mat." She takes out her mat, and I joke that I could buy her a table, but that people in Canada are very awed by her dedication, so determined to go to school that she works on the floor. I take her photo, and she poses for me, reading studiously.

She bounces up to show me her hijab, to ask me to take her picture. SHe's not muslim, but she goes to an islamic university and must nwear it. "I wasn't comfortable at first, but now I know how to tie it better than the other girls." She demonstrates, posing model=-like for me. I tell her she rocks the hijab, and she does. Somehow she brings flair to it.

We giggle and I try on the embroidered robe, try to tie the headscarf. She takes my picture, laughing. Later, we talk about what I study, and I talk about how making shared stories is about things like both of us trying on something that belongs to a culture neither of us know. Now we know what it feels like inside hijab -- hot, anonymous, envelopped.

She introduces me to her landlady -- "greet her," she bosses -- and I meet two other students who live in this space, the children of the landlady. One has some kind of brain defect, a deformed ear draining some fluid that makes me uneasy. Edmund. He's entranced by my camera, and I take photos of the girls peeling cassava, the socks flung on the pocked wall to dry, sticking on the rough surface of their own accord. I show him each shot, and he smiles hugely, uncertain teeth awry.

One of the other boys asks me suddenly if he can ask me a question. "Sure," I say. "What's an equinox," he asks. My mouth drops open as I realize I don't know how to explain it, something about the relationship of the sun to the earth that happens in spring and fall, but I can't say anything more certainly. I answer as best as I can, and ask him what it is, assuming this conversation was a way for him to display his knowledge. "I don't know," he says impatiently. "That's why I asked!"

Edmund follows us back into Elinah's place where we look at photos for a while, and tries to get my phone to play music. I disappoint him. I ask Elinah twice what the future for a boy like this is, and despite her excellent english, she hears me asking how this happened to him. I have my answer.

"He is the best friend of Annet," she says. Annet is the other girl who lives here sometimes, one of our kids who is studying hairdressing but has been gone for holidays for a while. "He calls her Comfort." I look at her. "He calls me Auntie Comfort. THe girl who lived here before was called COmfort, so now everyone who lives here is Comfort."

We sit cosily together, looking at photos on my camera and eating raisins. We talk about how happy she is, and what my African name should be. Kavara, she says. It's a rwandan name.

What does it mean?

She thinks. "I don't know. BUt it was my mother's name. And you are like a mother to me."

Later, she sends me a text saying how happy she feels to have me with her, a mother she's not had. I hate that our time is limited to this, a few hours once a year, a few emails. But it's time that matters.

Earlier this week, I was listening to an audiobook of Elizabeth Gilbert's sequel to Eat Pray Love. I found the book a little limp as a whole, but I loved her rhapsody on The Auntie Brigade -- how historically, the world has depended on childless women (nuns, teachers, nurses, aunties who raise their siblings' children) to be the aunties of the world, to fill in the mothering gaps. I'm a little surprised at how readily this fit me, as I never sought it. I love being Elinah's auntie, a thin strand of mothering tethering her to the earth in her moments of doubt and fear.

As we walk out, I ask if I can buy some airtime for my phone, mostly because I need change for the boda driver. I buy 5000 shillings worth -- about $2.40 -- and suddenly offer it to Elinah, confirming that it's the right carrier. "Auntie -- I've never had this much on my phone before! The most I've ever had is 1000 shillings!"

She puts me on a bike and bargains with the boda driver on the price, tells him to treat me well. The driver waits patiently as we hold hands, unable to let go. We squeeze again. Ndagukunda chana, I say. Chana chana, she answers. I ride off through the kampala streets, my driver careful not to do anything that would splash too much.

Posted by CateinTO 07:52

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Cate, this post made me think of the book "Aunties: Our Older, Cooler, Wiser Friends" that I read years ago. I've had women like this in my life who helped me through some tough times.

by Jacqueline

Cate, I loved this. As I have loved reading all your posts from Uganda and Rwanda.

by Aine

Cate, I am so struck by the power of your presence in Elinah's life. So much that I know from my own life, and what others have written much more eloquently than me, confirms the power of having someone to "mean to"(Kegan, I think). Who would any us be, what could any of us become without someone to mean to? Even in these few hours you share with Elinah each year, you provide so much meaning and meaning-to-ness. I am convinced it makes all the difference. To her. To all of us. Thank you.

by Pamela Meyer

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