The Good People of Jinja

 Kampala was getting too big and crowded so we spent the weekend in Jinja, the next biggest city in Uganda. Jinja had more sun and less fume, and there was something more simple about it.

The Nile

Jinja is the Mecca of whitewater rafters, and I turned the idea over in my head for days before coming, considering every aspect and weighing the pros and cons, the  kind of useless thinking that seems crucial, of which I am capable of wasting a large portion of my time on. The verdict was “not this time.” Being me, I still have to leave my options open.

Instead I got a map of the area and rented a bike. I was a little hesitant because I had run a very hilly, very hard, and thus very slow 10 k the day before (but it was free and I got a free t-shirt so it was worth it) but I knew that if I wasn’t going to go whitewater rafting with my friends, I would have to have something that was at least somewhat exciting to tell them when they got back, all high with adrenaline and soaked with exhilaration.

The ride was on asphalt at first (Jinja is the second biggest city in Uganda), but after plenty of potholes the road turned to dirt (Uganda is still in Africa), and the homes turned to mud and straw. I heard sweet singing coming out of one of the mud homes which served as a church, and plopped down nearby to rest. There were some kids outside who looked at me curiously and eventually invited me in. The whole congregation turned to look at me. Everybody smiled and shifted around to make room for me on the wooden planks. A woman who could translate sat next to me and a woman who saw I was uneasy moved my bicycle inside. The girl who had brought me in continued to look at me.

I was sweaty and smelly but the service was beautiful and uplifting. As with everything here though, it dragged on and on with no sense of time, and I had to get going if I didn’t want to spend the whole day hearing about Jesus in Luganda.

Webale,” I thanked them, and got on my way. I rode on, in between banana trees, women washing, and glimpses of the Nile. I was craving a jackfruit – the biggest most exotic fruit I’ve ever come across – and started asking the people around if they knew where I could get one. “You want a jackfruit?” asked a young girl, whose shirt was all ripped in the back. I nodded.

“I have in my home. Come.” And she led me through the lush green grass and trees to a mud house. She brought out a stool for me to sit on and a bowl of water to wash my hands, and walked off to cut the jackfruit. All the kids sitting outside the house stared at me excitedly and even the father seemed quietly honored to have me. The girl came back with a hefty chunk of yellow fruit and sat down next to me. She asked me questions about where I’d come from. She had never been to Kampala, which was a two hour drive from there. Her father was poor; she explained when he had walked away. I asked her about school; she liked it but didn’t know if she’d be able to continue, for the same reason.

After opening each others’ worlds for a few minutes, and ripping out pockets of delicious jackfruit, I asked her how much it was. “I have given it to you for free,” she said with a smile. This is a girl who doesn’t have the two and a half dollars it takes to get to Kampala, and who, no matter how cut off she is, knows I have money. And yet to her I was a guest, and she treated me with respect.

I gave her money, more than I would have given to any vendor, and thanked them all. She asked me where I was going and if I would come back.

I pedaled on, past cries of “muzungu!” and wide eyes, until I got back on the main road. Once again motivated by my stomach, I began a quest for a cheap, authentic lunch. I saw a wooden shack with a sign “Double O Restaurant” on it, and parked my bike outside. There were a few large pots outside, and Nitie explained to me what each one contained. There was Kalo, a type of porridge made out of cassava  Irish potatoes (?) and of course the inevitable beans, rice and matoke (the unripe banana mashed like potatoes). It was the yummiest meal I’d had in Uganda (which was still not saying much; this country is not known for its cuisine) and again I felt that everyone was happy to have me and keen on showing me new things.

Everything about that day felt good (except for my ass, which was not going to be able to get on a bike again for a month), from the radiant black faces to the shining water of the river. Every person I asked for directions from was a friend waiting to be made. There was a good vibe, and an underlying happiness that is so typically African.


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