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Uganda Update #10: The Boy

The boy lies the way I love to - curled up on his side, head in the sunlight. But rather than a bed or a couch or even a carpeted floor (sometimes I love the floor), he is sleeping in the dirt.

I turn the corner and he is there, mid-footpath between the low parking lot wall and busy city street. I will walk past him in less than ten steps. I slow down as I approach, checking for signs of breath or movement. What if he is dead? What do I do? Who would I call? Would anyone care?

It is unclear to me if he is, in fact, alive, but I reassure myself that he must be and keep walking.

This is the first time I have ventured out alone in Kampala – if you can call walking from one mall to another “venturing.” City planning is not a Ugandan forte; the capitol has two malls, approximately 250 metres apart. Walk out of the Garden City parking lot, turn left, and there are three driveways before you reach the Oasis Mall entrance. 

I step onto the patio at Cafe Javas. Do I seat myself or wait for help? I am ultra-aware of my cultural ignorance when I travel somewhere new. And I prefer not to make mistakes, watching locals and other travelers for cues before attempting, well, pretty much anything. I look around at the mix of people here, and a staff, stationed by the door to the inner cafe, catches my eye.

“Hello, you are welcome,” she steps towards me with a menu in her hand.

“Can I sit outside?” I ask, “Just a table for one.”

She gestures towards an empty table nearby, “Outside there is smoking. Is this alright?”

“Oh, that’s fine,” I say, and seat myself.

“Enjoy your breakfast,” she tells me as she places the menu. Breakfast? Do people eat this late? Is brunch a thing here? It is 11:30, and I look around again, trying to notice what are on other tables without any of their occupants noticing me.

Two ex-pat couples behind me are waiting for their food. I cannot hear their conversation, and am curious to know if they are NGO or corporate workers or on holiday. Ahead of me and to the left is a table of middle-aged Ugandan men. They are well-dressed, wealthy. They must be, if they are eating here. Another table of business men straight ahead, smoking and drinking juice. To my right, three European kids settle in with their laptops. Travelers. Safari or volunteering abroad? 

I wonder if any of them passed the boy in the dirt. Did they notice? Does it even matter? I saw him and did nothing. Can I blame them for being just like me? 

I order a pot of masala tea and open my journal, turning my thoughts inward and becoming absorbed in my own life problems. About this job hunt...when I get back to Canada...what will I say to her...I hate that I feel this way... I write and I drink until the pot is empty, my mind fatigued and my fingers cramping.

It is time to go. Do I ask for the bill? Is it called a bill? A receipt? Do I tip? How much? I have only a 50,000Ush bill. Will they be irritated to make change for me?

The European kids are digging into thick sandwiches. The salads look delicious. Half past noon – I almost wish I’d ordered lunch.

I don’t know which one is my server. I should have checked his nametag. It’s not that they all look alike – I just didn’t pay attention... Are they even assigned to specific tables? Someone has taken my empty teapot. Not the same person who took my order. Did the same person bring my pot? I am over-complicating things again. I find the eye of the girl who sat me.

"Could I have my bill, please?” She nods, and I hear her speaking to another server behind me. The bill arrives, I place my money, it is taken, and I wait. It seems to take a long time for my change to return. I knew it, I think, They’re all rolling their eyes in the back – “That mzungu lady, can you believe it? Paying for a pot of tea with 50,000 shillings. So rich, these people.” 

I am rich, in this country. 

I am at Cafe Javas, in the mall. I am here on holiday, sleeping in a house with four flushing toilets, a room to myself and a gated, locked yard.

When a waiter (my waiter? I am still not sure) returns with my money, I fish out my only two coins and leave them on the tray. A ten percent tip. I hope this is enough.

A boda-boda driver starts his bike while I'm still 20 meters away.

"Sister, I will take you!" I shake my head, smile and walk past.

The boy is gone. I exhale, relieved.

Then I notice him, in the shade of the parking lot wall. Balancing on his heels, he squats, looking down at something in his hands. I hope it is food, but I know it won't be. It looks like old plastic. I think of my tip - a tiny tip, hardly even a single coin in Canada. I wonder what it would buy for this boy.

I wonder all the way past him and back to my waiting friends.

I wonder the next day, as I walk around the neighbourhood, passing a schoolyard of shouting children, a pair of girls playing in the dust of a street corner, a small boy crouched, waving flies off a display of fresh pineapples.

I wonder, as I get on the plane home, if and how the boy in the dirt gets help in a place like this, a place of smiling people and rampant poverty, big hearts and mistrust, foreign aid and corruption. I wonder what his life would be like if he were a Compassion child.

I wonder, as I watch people shop at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, if my money doesn't help the boy in the dirt, what will?

I wonder, as I drift off to sleep, curled in a ball under my own sheets, where he is sleeping today, if he has had anything to eat, and why I just kept walking. Twice.

Two weeks later, I read of a Compassion visit by another Canadian to another country, and I wonder, Will we forget? What will we do? Where do I go from here?

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