A Mzungu Heart
"Mzungu." Etched into the worn leather bracelet I wear around my right wrist almost daily, a bracelet I bought on my first trip to Uganda in December of 2013 and have worn since. "Mzungu" is a Bantu term dating back to the 18th century, used by the people of Uganda to refer to those of European descent. Literally translated it means, "someone who roams around" or "wanderer." It is also the word hollered by barefooted children who greet us along the roads outside of Masindi as our caravan zips by. To them it means, “the white people.”
Each year, I join a medical team from the Charleston-based OneWorld Health to serve remote villages outside of Masindi, Uganda. Masindi Hotel, built in 1923, serves as our home base for the week and lies 140 miles from the capital of Kampala. With our team of doctors, nurses, pharmacy students, physical and occupational therapists, dental hygienists and non-medical ground support, we spend five days setting up mobile clinics in church buildings and schoolhouses. Four weeks ago, I turned the key in my front door after my fourth trip to Uganda and 38.5 hours of travel.
Each year, I sink into a denial spell post-Uganda. The experience feels heavy, heavy with joy and heavy with tears and heavy with responsibility for circumstances so much bigger than the island I live on and the sofa where I do most of my writing and the day spa where I work part-time as a massage therapist. So I retreat and avoid because unpacking my suitcase is easier than unpacking Uganda. My friends inquire about my trip and I say, “I’m not ready,” knowing I never feel fully ready.
This year, I returned to my side of the globe with a viral infection I caught at our fourth day of clinic, and spent four days running from my sofa to my commode thanks to a parasite or travelers diarrhea or “jet lag of the ass” as my world-traveling Wall Street friend calls it.
When my plague subsided, I resumed my normal work schedule and life commitments, but found Uganda tapping me on the shoulder everywhere I went. “Hi. Remember me? Put on some coffee or pour some wine and pull up a chair. We're not finished yet." I cried in my car. I teared up during sessions with my clients. I moved through the days like a numb robot until something propelled me back into emotional disruption. I realized that after a week of illness and Netflix binges and general evasion of all first-world life, I still needed to process the journey. I needed to sit with it. I needed to remember.
On August 6th, about two hours away from our layover city of Addis Ababa, I sat in a window seat on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that departed D.C. the day before. I watched the sunrise from our 777-Boeing, the dim light stretching its arms over the horizon, burning up up up until it erased the night sky. My calves throbbed over my paunchy ankles and I cursed myself for packing everything but my compression socks. Amateur. I laid my temple against the frigid window, sipped my coffee and eyed the continent 35,000 feet below as our plane cut through the dawn. Four, I thought. The number of times I had now set sail across the Atlantic and the globe to brush the air of East Africa.
That week, our team of 48 served 1,136 patients in five days and four different villages. I peed in more fly-infested latrines than I care to remember, and gave all the thanks for wipes of every function and every level of antibacterial. I ate pounds (probably) of African chapati bread and reveled in strong, black African coffee at 6:00 a.m. I shrieked with the rest of my friends as Joseph, our van driver and beloved Ugandan, chased after livestock and hoisted a goat onto his shoulders after clinic on day four. I sat with my interpreter, Pastore, as he told me about his job as a math and literature teacher in the local school, his four children, and his son the builder who helped erect the church where we held clinic on day three. I held my breath and my stomach as Dr. Randy applied manual debridement to an infected burn wound. I watched as Janelle, our physical therapist, taught a young mother how to soothe neurogenic crying in her son with cerebral palsy.
The thing about Uganda - it’s rich and full with joy, and rich and full with brokenness. Just like me. Just like you. It’s joy over Frank, a young man with polio, who walked into our clinic on all fours and left at the end of the day on his own two legs with the assistance of a walker. It’s grief for the woman with tears in her eyes and elephantiasis in her right leg, holding her sore-covered baby and speaking in a rare dialect. Later, after our church team sought out an interpreter in her language, we learned that she lost her husband the night before and came to us seeking food.
Sometimes I wish I could package all of Uganda into one neatly-sewed story and place it on the shelf, pulling it occasionally for reference. I’m an avoider. Even as I wrote this blog, I stepped away after 10, 20, 30 minutes to load laundry, clean my makeup brushes and rearrange my closet. Major major avoidance. I don’t feel big enough, or maybe just enough in general, to share the story of a country and her people.
But Uganda flourishes in the small places. The truth is, I need her voice and she needs mine. Maybe we’re both seeking liberation.
I walked into my apartment on August 15th after a day and a half of travel and it felt off, like someone moved things around ever so slightly. Maybe shifted the furniture, or refolded my blankets, or relocated my houseplants. Of course, none of those things were true and my home stood just as I left it. I knew I had changed, and my heart had been visited, shuffled around, shaken out. And maybe that’s why coming home holds just as much importance as the leaving. The comfort and familiarity of home exposes those new sprigs of growth and becoming in my heart, those tiny buds that I miss while I’m caught up in the rhythms of adventure.
I think we were all created to wander in this life, but also rest in the places that allow us to unpack in between. So I rest here, in these 800-square foot walls that I call home, and let Uganda fill the small places.