A walk through the slums
The sun is up and the birds are singing their loud morning songs. It's day one in Uganda, and I have no idea what to expect. Our African friend "Tank" is up already conducting his morning routine. The plan for the day was to meet some of Tank's childhood friends and to see where he grew up. While we were walking through the Kamwokya slum of Kampala, we were getting looks left and right, especially when my camera was out. The children were either excited to see me, screaming "Mazungu! Mazungu!" (White-man! White-man!) Or they would flee nervously to their homes. If they decided not to run away, many would laugh, show peace signs, smile, pinch my arm and leg hair, etc. Boxing is popular in Uganda, so a lot of kids pretended to throw some punches my way.
We stopped to meet a lot of people that knew Tank: The head of local security and fire prevention, an old boxing coach, a former school teacher, the local elder/ grandmother that helps watch over dozens of kids, a rabbit store owner, etc. We even tried Malwa- also known as millet beer- with some strangers in a shack we strolled by. Malwa is an alcoholic beverage that has been in some of Africa's cultures for thousands of years. Every village puts their own unique spin to the recipe. The thick, warm, and seedy beer is traditionally brewed in the ground for a few days and then enjoyed by a group of people sitting in a circle drinking from long straws. They offered us to try some, and since we're guests in their lands, we couldn't refuse. I shut off my gag reflexes and took a swig. I don't remember the initial flavor, but it left a taste in my mouth similar to wild nuts and copper.
After we shared a taste of home-made local village beer, we shuffled on towards a school. Tank knew I was curious to see how the education system works in a place like this, so he took us to meet a teacher at Saint Maria Durgan Primary School. The two story building is in the heart of the ghetto, and hosts roughly 300 students from ages 4-15. All around are make-shift shacks with metal or wooden rooftops; I was amazed at the scenery before me. Then, Tank opens a door and signals for me to walk inside, so naturally I did. What I wasn't expecting was a whole classroom full of kids in the middle of an a math lesson! At this point I was a bit overwhelmed; the kids in the classroom were just as shocked as I was. The last thing these kids were expecting to see were visitors from America. After we briefly introduce ourselves, I start snapping a few photos of the students. At first they were nervous, but after I show them the screen on the back of my camera smiles start to appear. After about 10 minutes, we give our thanks to the classroom and continued our stroll through the vibrant and lively streets of the ghetto.
The deeper we go into the slums, the poorer the living conditions become. The smell brought me back to Iraq in an instant. Trenches flow through the streets like creeks on a hillside. Bridges made of scrap parts and trash are constructed throughout the neighborhoods. However, even though the area smelt of trash, sewage, and human excrement, people's moods in the ghetto appeared to be quite normal- in many cases even happier than the average American's mood. It was bizarre. Even more bizarre to witness was people playing pool in a random shack next to a sandal maker's shop. It looked so out of place- Everyone we met greeted us with sincere warmth and gratitude- something unexpected once again.
My first day in Africa was full of unique sights, smells, and situations. I met some incredible people, tasted new substances I had never tried before, joined a classroom for a quick math problem, fist-pumped about 200 children, and left the ghetto without a scratch or illness. As the sun fell, looking down on the city from Tank's house, I couldn't stop thinking about what I just experienced- and that was the first day! This was one of the most interesting 24 hours of my life, and I'm grateful to have lived it.