Sunday, April 7, 2013

Kampala


A grab bag of memories from my time in the dirt-red city.

Weekday nights, we played basketball until dusk, and played harder as the sun sank lower -- cut hard, crashed hard, ran harder -- not because of the competition, or because of pride, but because if we ever took a play off and just stood on the court, watching everybody else move, the mosquitoes would alight on us and start sucking. Playing hard meant no sucking.

A graduation party for a white man, in the front yard of a black man’s house. The torches lit up with electronic orange embers. There was a whole goat, he said. We’re roasting it all. When it arrived on everyone’s plate, the meat was charred black – at least it looked that way in twilight – and so tough that chewing wasn’t possible. Rather, it sat in the pocket of one’s mouth, stewing in saliva, subjected to periodic attempts at mastication.

It was a celebration, I think, of Australia Day. What that meant I’m still unsure of. But on the rooftop in Ntinda, we saw the Nakasero hills, dotted with evening lights, before darkness swept over the sky, and then all there was to look at was an inflatable pool in the middle of the rooftop, plastic and rubbery and drained of almost all its water. There was maybe 12 inches left. It’s a party, right? Want to step in, wet your feet? Why not? As we ate hot dogs and hamburgers and talked vermiculture, the guests radiated outwards, towards the edges of the roof. 

Another party. This time a housewarming, or maybe just an overdue get together, in a front yard of a house on top of a hill, where the grass swept down and down and down back into the city. There was a vegetable platter. A burger was dropped on the concrete. A woman talked about her months living in the Congo. The only lights outside were candle lights, which lent all conversation an intimacy not wholly undeserved. The end of the night ended as it could only have: with a German drinking game.

Monopoly. At 9pm. We had finished dinner, the three of us, on a foldout table, and, with no plans, no events in the city, no desire to leave our gated apartment complex, we brought out a ragged Monopoly set and laid out the pieces. Within 25 minutes, we had our properties: orange and light blue vs. red and yellow vs. dark blue and the railroads. Money exchanged hands rapidly. After an hour, there was a winner, but nobody remembers who. The point was, after the game, after we packed it back in, after we brushed our teeth, after we tucked inside our mosquito nets, all of us thought the same thing: I haven't played that in years. 

I went to this roadside nursery yesterday. The seedlings and saplings were sequestered in black plastic bags, arrayed along the ground in formations that reminded me of Minesweeper. I tiptoed between them. Do you have any herbs? I asked the woman. She did, but only rosemary. Were there any other plants that were edible, or might produce edible fruit? She shook her head every time I pointed, and said, "No eat." The final accounting: 6 rosemary suckers and a clay basin for 12 dollars. The next day, I walked to a construction site along the road where a Pakistani had hired a crew to dig ditches for fiber optic cables. We asked him if we could take some of his dirt, then carried a 60 pound bag back to the apartment complex. The dirt was orange, nearly red, mud-water-and-scorched-earth. I plucked the rocks out of the dirt as I poured it into my clay basin, and then set the six rosemary plants. Postscript: They all died two weeks later.

I tried to learn how to cook, because when it got dark, I didn't feel comfortable walking outside, on our road, without lamp light, for fifteen minutes to the nearest restaurant. I made spicy pasta every day. On one heater, I poured water in a pot and set it to boil. On the other heater, I poured oil in a skillet and set it to simmer. When each was ready, I put pasta in the water and chopped garlic and pepper flakes in the oil. I moved the pasta from the pot to the skillet, and stirred it together. After dinner, I drank the leftover pasta water, and bottled the rest.

The move. We piled it all into the car -- kitchen appliances, backpacks, yesterday's plantains, books, something so fragile I needed to hold it between my legs -- and drove down the road, a five minute drive, if that, to the new house. The one with the capacious kitchen. The commodious living room. Two bathrooms, two bedrooms, enough space outside for a lopsided, uneven basketball court, and a backup generator that powered the lights, even when the rolling blackouts arrived. The house was different. New. More intimate. We had to wear slippers for the linoleum floor. The closet wood was a dark liqueur. There was a refrigerator!

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