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Marabou Stork

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Marabou Stork |

It’s 2014. I've had the yellow fever vaccination, I've started my course of antimalarials and I've watched The Last King of Scotlandfor some terrifying ‘research’. The risk assessment is complete, the parents have asked all their questions and now I am in the air, somewhere above northern Europe, in charge of twelve students, all on our way to Entebbe, Uganda. I’m used to having more experience than my students when we are studying in the classroom, but travelling to Africa is an entirely new adventure and, up here, I’ve never felt so out of my depth.

We soar first above snowy Alpen peaks, then cross time zones while consuming American films - before plunging into red, African earth beneath. That's my first observation: this continent, from the air, is so very red. Miles and miles of redness, when I have come from green. There's a six-hour stopover in Addis Ababa - a side effect of doing this as economically as possible in order to make it affordable for the students. Unsurprisingly perhaps, since East Africa is in the grip of its worst Ebola epidemic for years, we must proceed through a ‘disease control’ checkpoint. Most pass through without incident, but one of our party is evidently carrying a slight temperature and is pulled to one side. The removal of a few unnecessary layers of clothing combined with some anxious gulps of water see her through at the fourth attempt. Most people wear facemasks as they cross through the airport. In pre-covid years the sight is intimidating. Ebola fear is real for the authorities and passengers here.

There is a welcome party at the airport, a mixture of Ugandan students and teachers to begin this new exchange between our two schools. It is only just dawn and only three hours different from home but time itself has changed. Hours split their hoary husk and I am in a liminal place between worlds.

We make a short stop on our bus journey from Entebbe to Kampala to watch an otherworldly sunrise on Nalubaale, the local name for Lake Victoria. The red sun matches the soil, and sits giant and heavy on lapping waters. It is the same sun I left behind but it behaves differently here.

The mists clear a little to reveal the bounty: avocados the size of melons ripen on the trees. Colour dances in every blink: across green hilltops, red roads, and blue sky. Everything is coloured-in more deeply, as if a child is pressing harder with their felt tip in this corner of the page of the world. Black cormorants seem rainbow-inked.

A marabou stork approaches, majestic in spite of its ugly craw; bold and unflustered by our presence. Like the sun, it is on a far grander scale than I'm used to and I'm fascinated. It is quite unreal-looking in comparison to the sparrows in my cottage garden: it might be prehistoric or from a fantasy novel.

But the Ugandan teacher is disgusted. They are filthy, opportunistic feeders who ‘forage at rubbish dumps and feast on carrion,' apparently. Things are not quite as they seem and my ignorance is as vast as Lake Victoria.

© TedGooda 2021-07-23


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