The last few weeks bred a phase at home in the bush: muffins. A while back, I went hunting around Kampala for a muffin tin. It took me nearly a whole day but I found one at the Embassy Supermarket. After a slim-down at the village welder, life turned heavenly. Cinnamon spice. Peanut butter. Oatmeal raisin. Honey nut. Chocolate. Coffee. The best part: the recipes yield 12, or enough for 1 person and random houseguests. (Note: The presence of muffins increases the presence of random houseguests.) Each time I stand over the batter, mixing necessary ingredients until a cement-like mixture forms, I take time to ponder my Peace Corps experience. Strangely, muffins and village life have some things in common.
One bad egg can spoil a whole batch…
I awake with a headache—a sign ignored. It’s probably best to stay in bed and let the whole day pass but, where I come from, a headache is a lame excuse to take a sick day. Rolling out of bed, I walk to the kitchen where I fill the kettle half way, put it on the stove and scoop three spoonfuls of Steep and Brew coffee into my French press. Maybe caffeine will do the trick.
As I click BBC on the radio, I hear a traffic jam in the bedroom—my cell phone ring is car horns to remind me of home. I didn’t bother to look at the caller ID, “Ajai. I am.”
“Omoding, yoga. Ajai eong osomero. Ai bo ijai ijo? Hello. I’m at school. Where are you?” The head teacher, my namesake. In Uganda, head teachers often have second businesses, which causes their truancy in school. It is a national phenomenon so common BBC Africa featured it on their morning show a few weeks ago. The fact that he’s at school surprised me.
“Ajai eong. Kanukainyo bo? Inyo bo ikoto ijo? Biao bo acie? I’m here. Why? What do you want? What is the problem?” I respond as my kettle whistles and I move it to the alternate burner to cool. My headache pulses and I move the phone from my right ear to the left.
“Ejai airiamun nuikamuntios thematic. Ebeit ijo alosit ngina. Iswamai ijo imwalimun luka thematic, cuti? Inyo bo iwolio ijo aswam? There is a thematic workshop. You must go there. Don’t you work with thematic teachers? Why are you dodging work?”
I place my hand over my face to shield the morning light while my head throbs and my vision blurs. “I think it is extremely disrespectful of you to call me and disturb my morning. The children are in exams so I have nothing to attend to. My counterpart does not work with me so I don’t follow his program. Furthermore, how dare you have the nerve to call me and accuse me of dodging work when you can barely show your face at school. Do I call you to inform you of your absence? No.” In moments of frustration, English thankfully dominates. Waiting for a response, I sit down and pour the hot water onto the grounds of my coffee.
He chuckles on the phone. “You cannot talk to me like that. I am a head teacher!”
“And you have no affiliation to Peace Corps, so there is no reason for you to call and give me orders. Please refrain from doing so in the future.”
Another giggle. My head pounds. “I can do what I wish. I am your superior.”
“No you are not. You do not own me. And if you can’t respect me as a professional and have a civilized conversation with me then I will terminate the conversation.”
Another giggle shoots into my ear and I hang up the phone, putting my head on the tablecloth.
Mix only until moist, do not fully blend…
Sitting at my kitchen table, head down, I take deep breaths to quell my anger. I push my knuckles into my eye sockets to dull the pain. Even the saturated smell of strong Madisonian coffee fails to change my mood and I breathe deeper and push harder. Stars flood my field of vision and I get light headed: artificial relief. The truth is: no matter how much work I do, how well I speak the language, how long I stay in the village, I will never fully integrate into my community. It is impossible. True, it is worthwhile to go out and make the effort. To work. To speak. To fetch water. To fall into the Peace Corps category of “gone native” instead of leaving my village every weekend to find solace with other volunteers. However, on days of exhaustion and turbulence, it is best to stay in bed, which is what I proceed to do for the remainder of the day. Sometimes signs are best acknowledged instead of ignored.
Baking muffins takes endurance, especially with only 4 cups in a tin…
Awake before the sun rises, I am ready for an adventure. I jump on my bike and start pedaling to escape the village. Not exactly sure where to go, I set off in the direction of the lake. I pedal for five kilometers when I pass a friend, Okwii, who rides to and fro the lake every day to transport fish. “Okwii! Eyalama awanyun. Ikwenyunit biai? Happy to see you. How did you rise?”
“Ejokuna. Iyogai aiwalar. Ai bo lolo? Well. Greet the dawn. Where to today?”
“Akoto eong aite ecor konye mam eong ajeni eipone lo alosit. Aticepak ijo aingarakin eong? I want to see the lake but I don’t know the way. Is it possible you could help me?”
“Mam acie. Aloto. No problem. We go.”
The minutes turn into hours on my bike. One hour passes as the sun rises into the sky and the heat of the day brings sweat down my brow. Two fly by as Okwii and I converse about America, football (soccer), digging in the garden and why I’m not married (always a favorite). Three hours come and go as our conversation dwindles. By now, I’m covered head to toe with dirt as a result of sweat mixing with cattle trucks speeding by, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake. I’m like an Orbitz commercial: orange in color save for my smile. **Ching**
The guidebooks that list my village as a “fishing village” are full of bullocks. The lake, while near in proximity, takes three and a half hours to reach (by bike) because of the poor roads that zigzag feebly to honor land titles. Thank goodness I started running; my legs wouldn’t hold up otherwise. Okwii sees fatigue setting in and offers encouragement, “Elemuni oni abunere. We are nearly there.” As he finishes his sentence, I can see the lakeshore emerge on the horizon.
It is a breathtaking view. Okay, in reality it is just another lake found in the world but to a man who grew up in a place known as “Lake-City-Lake” and now lives in one of a small handful of landlocked African countries, I felt curiously calm. I threw my bike down and ran to the shore, fully conscious that I was banned from jumping in on account of Bilharzia. Strangely enough, the three and a half hours of dust-filled journey to stand at the brink of water were totally worthwhile. I had changed my mood without coffee.
A good muffin can go a long way…
I stand at the lake and gaze towards the unending water for a few moments before fisherman shout at me to join them in a small thatched hut. Now nearing midday, the sun is high in the sky and the workers take break until the heat gives way to late afternoon breezes and cooling temperatures. The shouting continues until they see me turn from the lake and make my way in their direction. Unsure of what welcome I will find, I take my time and brush dust from my clothes.
“Inyo bo ikoto ijo ocor? Ingai bo irai ijo? What do you want at the lake? Who are you?” I often hear from people in my village that lake dwellers are suspicious people. The government enforces fishing laws rigorously on Lake Kyoga and fisherman often mistake visitors for government spies. I sit down in the middle of the hut on a wooden stool that rises only a few inches from the Earth and take a breath. It feels like a police questioning.
“Arai eong Itesot, da. I am an Itesot, as well.” I figure it best to start with a joke, which works. Instantly, everyone doubles over in laughter when they hear me speak Ateso. I continue with my introduction and soon the men seem relaxed and begin asking questions not resembling a cross-examination. I realize it is after lunch and I left in the morning without breakfast, so I pull a Ziploc (thanks Mom!) from my Jack Spade (also orange, originally black) and offer a few muffins for the men to share. They seem weary of the food so I show them it isn’t poisoned by taking a bite. Moments later, crumbs litter the dirt floor of the hut.
The fishermen of Mulondo were extremely warm and welcoming. I spent the majority of the day with them and went on the lake to experience their work. Half the canoe filled with water the moment it went into the water. I sat on the other end, away from any chance of schisto. After a quick how-to, I bid them farewell and started pedaling my way back from whence I came. Not two minutes passed before I heard someone shouting my name. “Omoding! Omoding! Idarak. Wait!”
I skidded to a stop and turned my bike around to find the secretary of the landing site running towards me with three great fish the size of footballs. “Koyanga agaria ngun orekon. Ejijim kwa ekonmugaati. Take these fish home with you. They’re delicious like your muffins.”
And so I continued my ride home, three and a half hours, orange with dirt and smelling of fish but happy all the way.
Muffins don’t make themselves.
The ride home (alone, Okwii made the journey earlier to get the fish to market) gave me time to reflect. Good and bad days happen no matter where we live. People are good and bad all over the world. If we let life be a reaction to things and people, we let others control our happiness. If we wait for happiness to come, we’ll probably wait for the better part of our lives, if not all. We must take control of our destiny and identity (however difficult) to find happiness. Without work, muffins couldn’t be delightful, so why do we expect life to magically become happy? So, yes, maybe muffins and Peace Corps (and beyond) are closer than I first thought.
Countdown to Home:
Craze: More so than anyone thought possible.
**ys: Yes, please.