10km outside of Kampala the bus shudders into what feels like a final, terminal cough, and we are all stranded.
This is my first visit to Africa, and my students', and this definitely wasn't on the itinerary. We've been travelling for many hours due to the budget restraints that have caused awkward flight times. Dazed and disgruntled, we have no choice but to disembark onto the roadside while emergency repairs are attempted. An assortment of inquisitive street sellers come to support our unexpected interlude and we pass the time eating. First we become acquainted with matooke: the sweet local banana, cooked to soft ambrosia. It is both a staple and a speciality: a soul-warming food. As a vegetarian, I pass on the locusts. Pudding is jackfruit, and I don’t worry about the juice that now sticks to my hands and face.
An assortment of locals of varying ages, with even more varying degrees of mechanical knowledge, attempt to fix the leaking radiator. It takes three hours, and nobody is unduly concerned. We are dancing to new tempos here. This rhythm gives me long enough to make acquaintance with army ants, to observe the armed security guards who patrol a nearby shopping mall, and for the sun to begin to darken my pale skin, caressing like an old friend.
Outside of the city, language is a barrier. But it doesn’t matter, because there is welcome in the collective smile of everyone we encounter. If there is a national characteristic it must be this grin, broader than the Nile. I sit on reddened earth, that has already clung to clothes and skin and return the smiles. I have learned that you can’t be cross if you are smiling - even if you are very tired, fruit stickiness is attracting the ants, there is an unpleasant film over your teeth and your bus has broken down.
As daylight begins to fade we are introduced to ‘ajon’, the acrid tasting alcoholic beverage that I later learn is produced from finger millet and widely consumed in rural areas during after-work hours. Consumed through a long drinking straw from a central, shared pot in the middle of a hut given over specifically to this purpose, some locals call it ‘malwa’. It seems a predominantly male activity, and I have brought mostly teenage girls on this trip. It feels a little seedy; though the local teacher assures me that ajon is known to be highly nutritious as a source of vitamins, calcium and iron. Nutritious it may be, but hygienic? Possibly less so. And it isn't on the risk assessment. What am I exposing my students too?
‘Don’t worry, Miss. Instead, think of all the things we've seen and learnt today that we wouldn't have if we'd reached our destination on time,' counsels one wise student.
Suddenly those worshipping at the radiator find their patience rewarded with a second coming - and the bus bursts back into life. Instead of a round of applause, our Ugandan fellows make fanned out flowers with their hands in a gesture of thanks. My students join in, making grateful bouquets of blossoms that will never fade.
© TedGooda 2021-07-23