It’s funny. I was sitting on a little grassy hill in March 2009, on an island in a crater lake in Uganda when I realized this peculiar truth, both big and small: I would always be a person who had lived in Africa.
It’s big and little because now it was so long ago — almost ten years, three kids, two states — and yet those six months retain a vividness and carry an impact beyond their scale. It’s where we lived out those tender, tentative newlywed days, where I learned to cook, where I tried my hand at librarianship, where I first read Wuthering Heights and Elizabeth Gaskell.
So much of that year after college dictated who we’ve become. It started as a lark. We didn’t have any college debt. There really didn’t seem a good reason not to go. We traveled to Kampala with an Anglican medical mission and worked for the diocese of South Rwenzori. I felt and still feel such grateful love the church who sent us and the church who welcomed us, but the Bakonjo we met, cheerfully welcoming new births as they came, carried the seeds of our defection back to Catholicism. Even as we applied to grad school after grad school on tenuous wifi and the economy back home crumbled, my days of leisure began to shape new ideas: a domestic life, a focus on caring for others, a career path that didn’t have to be so single-minded. When I learned I hadn’t gotten into any English doctoral programs, I didn’t reapply. The impact is big and little: we probably have one car and three children because of the time we spent there.
So we lived on a hospital compound near the Congo border, in the cool of the mountains, near a tiny village called Kisinga. John helped with the hospital computers. I read what books I could find, visited school libraries, read to the children who clustered at our jalousy windows to whisper “Mzungu! How are you?” We thought and we slept and we ate this delicious peppery pork dish even after we discovered the bristles. We made friend with expats and tried to befriend our Ugandan neighbors, often finding our differences too much to bridge. We ate hot mandazi wrapped in exam notepaper as we walked in the morning breeze to chapel, took naps when the power failed, painstakingly downloaded The Office in 30-second bursts. We swam in the stream that fed the hospital generator (expat wisdom swearing the moving water prevented schistosomiasis) and went on safari down in town, in the Great Rift Valley, where we felt as shabby and dazzled as the country mice we were becoming. We picked our own turkey on Thanksgiving, watched the sun rise over the valley on Christmas morning, went to a ceilidh dance on New Years Eve and watched the bonfires go up on the dim mountains all around.
In nine years stateside, I have never met a person conversant in Lhukonzo, but I encounter, from time to time, the picture book Beatrice’s Goat, a rare outlier of the culture we left behind only half-understood, set in our tribe, our village, even. A missionary from our hometown had a big box of copies when we were there, and I’d read the story again and again on my concrete front step to the kids who clustered there, beside the bougainvillea. Later, working a library job I hated in New England, the sympathetic children’s librarian gave me first dibs on a copy when he weeded it; when a nurse from our mission trip had a baby, I bought her a copy, too. And the other day, it came up on Instagram, and I mentioned my history with the book, and Ashley at @bigwhitefarmhouselearns asked about it.
It all seems so long ago now. Cameroonian missionary friends recently recognized our cloth napkins of batik fabric and there’s a fading scar on my calf from my twenty-third birthday, when I dismounted the motorcycle on the wrong side and burnt it. (Typical Katherine, and also someone so utterly different.) We’ve never been back, and I’m not sure I can envision us ever doing so. Perhaps with enough money to travel safely, for a shorter time, once the kids are bigger — or so I prevaricate. But what good would that do the people we left behind? Better, maybe, to sponsor our Mukonjo Compassion International child, to make Kiva loans in our old district, to check my materialism with memories of our life of Ugandan simplicity, to wake from a dream of the Rwenzori mountains and offer a prayer for the people we once knew there.