It was time to get out of Kampala. During the week leading up to Easter, I asked a man who cut in front of me at the grocery store if he was stupid. When he assured me he was not, I proceeded to call him a series of words that would make an etymologist blush. On my walk home, I boldly asked passive starers on the roadway, “What the fuck are you looking at?” Walking through my front door, I yelled at the neighbors’ abandoned barking dog innumerable times to “shut the fuck up”. There were a lot of fucks in my life.
The longer I lived in Kampala, the more frequent these bad weeks became. The traffic, the corruption, the nonexistent customer service, the blackouts, the complacency1—they all ate at me.
On weeks when my temper got the better of me, I would drive up to “the Haven”, a nice little lodge near some rapids on the Nile. It had cozy rooms, but I’d just bring my tent and spend a day on the porch drinking a cold Nile Special and watching life-vested tourists rafting down the river below. I needed to get away from the little stresses that abounded in a city not built for me. With a four-day weekend on the horizon (thankfully, Ugandans still “celebrate” Good Friday and Easter Monday), the Haven was calling my name.
Alas, the first few hours camping up the road in Jinja, self-proclaimed “Source of the Nile”, seemed to be no different from the capital. I took a shower as a group of what must have been 500 children pretended as though they had never seen water before and made a game of turning the taps on and screaming. The mutterings under my breath grew louder. These mutterings continued into the evening as I watched a cocky hustler leave his expat girlfriend at the dinner table as she was still eating so he could play pool inside. He remained comfortably within earshot of the girlfriend, but opted to talk loudly for everyone else’s benefit. The girlfriend mimicked everyone else’s internal reaction by holding her head in her hands for five minutes until finally getting up to join him. He showed his chivalry by first ignoring her, then getting her a chair so she could watch him play. The same people I wanted to punch in Kampala had followed me here.
But it was all forgotten by breakfast time. An endless procession of coffee, eggs, fruit, pancakes, meat, cheese, and bread with honey, butter and nutella awaited me as I looked out onto a particularly scenic bend of the Nile.
It was at this point, living the life of Hemingway, that I wondered what people in the US were doing with their day. Their Good Friday couldn’t have been very good—they were working, after all, probably in a suit and tie in a stuffy office, whereas I could saunter into my job in jeans and flip flops and hold meetings on the patio. They would come home to a messy house and wonder what on earth they were going to make for dinner; I would return home to find my housekeeper had been and gone, leaving a cooked supper for me on the stove.
It was at this point, living the life of Hemingway, that I wondered what people in the US were doing with their day.
For many, life in Uganda—life anywhere in Africa—remains incomprehensible. Not that I can blame them. Westerners have few resources apart from out-of-date National Geographics and the handful of mainstream movies set in the region (namely Hotel Rwanda and The Last King of Scotland)2, with which to form a mental image of an expat’s daily life. For anyone not living through a genocide or during Amin’s rule3, Hollywood isn’t very helpful.
In fact, I realized, by living in Africa I had managed to trade away many of the downsides of Western living while retaining most of its upsides. So, it was times like these, when I sat next to the Nile rapids with a good cup of coffee (which comes from Uganda, by the way) and a book in my hands, engrossed in something like serenity, that I decided it was best to lie to my friends lest they become jealous. It’s much better for them, I’d think, to continue assuming I have taken a vow of poverty and adopted the life of an ascetic. “Life is so hard here without electricity and running water,” I’d moan over my crystal-clear Skype connection. “I need a holiday.”
There was a small window at breakfast before other guests descended on the restaurant. A group of horrible, enlarged expats treated the waitstaff with contempt. They were too busy being rude to enjoy their breakfast and the view it came with. Unfortunately, they reminded me of myself. There were too many fucks in their lives. And they too easily focused on the negatives when so many positives were in clear view. Perhaps, I thought, they will be different when they leave at weekend’s end, more thankful, but probably not. I didn’t believe a single weekend away could cure me of my antipathy for the world—nor did I think it could cure anyone else. Entitlement and dissatisfaction are difficult viruses to shake loose, especially because they so often strike in tandem.
They were too busy being rude to enjoy their breakfast and the view it came with. Unfortunately, they reminded me of myself.
Over beers the next night, I shared with a friend my fear that Kampala was turning me into someone I didn’t like—that I needed to leave and break away from these silly stresses to avoid getting so frustrated and angry. “Then again,” he said, “you may just be a wanker. And then it doesn’t matter where you go—you’ll still be a wanker.”