In the spring of 2007, I was noticeably a stranger in town. I was volunteering in Uganda for a month, and aside from the two girls I was with, there were no other foreigners in the area. I could take a bumpy bus ride into Kampala where there were other white people, and a mall, and toilets that flushed instead of squatters. But when I was around home, I was as foreign as snow.
My long dreadlocks also made me stand out. In the villages, Ugandan women wrapped scarves around their head or wore their hair short. But in the cities, they had carefully treated hair, parted, combed and curled meticulously. No one had dreadlocks.
Stephanie, Sarah and I were all staying with Gerald and Rose. They were gracious hosts, providing us with fresh fruit and eggs in the mornings, and a large, filling dinner at night. We had to leave early every day for the commute out to different rural villages.
The three of us would wake up and wash up every morning. There were two options for showering: using an outdoor stall and standing below a showerhead that released rainwater, or heating a kettle of water, mixing it in a basin with cold tap water, and standing in a bathtub and use a loofah to rub the warm water and soap over our bodies.
In the mornings, I usually opted for warm water washing. But by the end of every day, we were all coated in dust and sweat, and often I’d rinse off in the rainwater, delighted by the cold shock to my skin.
Besides the cows and food stands, our street also had several video stores and seamstresses. Ricky worked in a video store, and saw us passing every day. He ran out to talk to us often. “Come rent a movie,” he’d say. “Have you seen ‘The Last King of Scotland’? It’s about Uganda. We also have many good Nigerian films.”
One Saturday, we stopped in the video shop to peruse the selection. The western movies were all burned DVDs that would infringe on so many copyright laws had we been in America. While we looked, Ricky stood close to me.
“Your hair is amazing,” he said. “My sister is a hairdresser, and I told her about your hair. Will you come with me to show her?”
Our only plan that day was to ride the bus to Kampala and eat westernish food from the restaurant we’d discovered in the parking garage of the mall. We had nothing but free time.
“Sure,” I said.
Ricky led us out of the shop, leaving his friend in charge. We followed him down the hill to the main road, and then a block over, past the internet cafes, and up another street. “We just have to stop here for a second. This is where I live,” he said.
He ran into his house and we stood in the yard, surrounded by plants and chickens. I bent to examine the plants. And then I froze. “Hey, you guys, look at this,” I said.
Stephanie and Sarah were already looking. We were surrounded by bush after bush of a very familiar green plant. “Oh, my God, is that marijuana?” Sarah asked.
Ricky came back outside. “Okay,” he said. “We can go now.”
“Um, Ricky, what is this plant?” I asked.
“Oh, this is a plant for the chickens. It makes them very healthy when they’re sick,” he said.
We exchanged looks behind his back, smiling. Then we followed him again.
His sister’s shop was nearby, and it was filled with women, men, magazines and the sound of razors. Ricky’s sister stepped away from her customer long enough to glance at my hair, and then she returned to snipping her scissors.
We left together, walking to a bus stop and listening to Ricky who had been talking nonstop since the video store.
“I’m sure you have many Ugandan men who like you,” he said to us.
We all nodded, thinking of our separate encounters with Ugandan men. I’d met an art student named Dennis who had shyly asked for my email address, and then filled my inbox with long, love-filled messages.
“Ugandan men always want white women,” Ricky continued. “They will try so hard to get a white woman, because they think that after they get one, they can become lazy. I’m not like that, you know. I think women are like Christmas trees.”
“Christmas trees?” Stephanie asked.
“Yeah, you know. You have to decorate them real nice. Buy them nice clothes and jewelry, so they can look good. That’s how I treat women.”
We all laughed a bit, and then waved goodbye as we boarded the bus. We squeezed into a back seat beside over-dressed Ugandans who waved their fans and stared at us.