Thursday, April 24, 2008


Dad-deee! cried the little girl with the red dress and the huge smile, toddling towards me with her arms up. I smiled back, knelt down, and wrapping my arms around her to pick her up and give her a big hug, said “Hi, Angelina!”

Her mother sat on the sofa just a few feet away, watching and smiling. I smiled back and walked over to her, still carrying the little girl. I bent down and gave her a kiss. “Hi mommy!”

I put Angelina down. She kept smiling and making noise and proceeded to do her marching dance around the little living room, which she often did when she was happy. She was just over 2 years old, barely more than a baby. Just big enough to actually be a little person. She was absolutely adorable. Not a care in the world, except maybe that I watched her do her dance/march. I wished she was mine, although our different skin made it obvious she wasn’t.

Angelina was the offspring of my young girlfriend Brenda. Brenda was a slender Ugandan girl with a beautiful smile, perfect skin, and a sexy body that only a 19 year old can have. Many African women are single mothers because of HIV and other hardships that are just a part of the reality of living in Uganda. But Brenda’s ex just wasn’t interested in having a kid. After he tired of beating Brenda he left. If he could see Angelina now, looking up with those big brown eyes, showing me the flowers she had picked today. Would he have left?

I had never had a kid, so my new role of Angelina’s daddy was also a crash course in the fatherhood stuff. Maybe it was because I had avoided it for so long that I actually found amazement in it- “I am actually changing a diaper!” Brenda was quietly amused at my learning and excitement. Surely she was happy to be having help. Surely she was surprised, this is the kind of work that most Ugandan men simply will not do.

As far as I could tell, Angelina was a good kid. That probably made some of the less desirable tasks of fatherhood more tolerable. Most things were just fun, even little things like taking her to the store to pick up a few things. I enjoyed watching her look of amazement at just about everything. I realized that her mother probably didn’t get many chances to take her out much, so little events like this were probably big adventures. I tried to include her in such things whenever possible.

These things all made me ask myself: Am I finally, really ready for parenthood? Angelina helped get me over my fear of that. I was also well beyond the stage of wanting to be at the bar with my friends instead of home with the kid. I started to think that yes, I could actually be a daddy.

I took this news calmly and started looking at the future. Could we be a big happy family? I thought yes we could. We had only been dating a short time, but things had been pretty good so far. Of course, I would like to have another kid, in addition to Angelina. I thought about the need to avoid favoritism between the kids. Thinking about the feelings I was already having, I was quite sure that wouldn’t be a problem. I thought about other trivial, logistical issues such as watching the kids, taking them to school, doctor, etc. These wouldn’t be problems either, Brenda could very easily be a stay-at-home mom. I would love that for my kids.

There is a sad reason she could so easily be a stay-at-home mom. She’s had no education at all. Her mother left her when she was very young and her father was very poor. It is a sad injustice that in Uganda, one of the world’s poorer countries, parents must pay school fees. So, Brenda did not go to school. She could not read or write. She spoke English, but had a very simple vocabulary. I did not mind that she wasn’t educated. I started teaching her to read, very slowly, very basic letter combinations- cat, car, can. She struggled because it was so new, but she kept smiling and tried hard and was starting to put it together.

The differences in education, however, did lead to problems. For example, Brenda likes to smoke and drink. I don’t mind that she does, but I did tell her that if we were to have a kid she couldn’t do that while pregnant. She shrugged it off, and pointed to her kid saying “I did with her, and she’s fine.” Comically, at that moment Angelina had a big silly grin and was busy using her fingers to smear a handful of mashed bananas into her mouth. I realize that Angelina was probably not adversely affected, but I still would rather not take any chances. I have a degree in chemistry and a very strong biology background, and can envision the effects on a growing baby… Brenda does not have this background. But, she was convinced it was harmless, and the language barrier was enough that I could not explain why I felt it would be better to just quit for 9 months. I had the feeling that when I wasn’t around she would do things that could possibly affect our kid. It sounds silly because she wasn’t even pregnant, but just the thought still scared me.

We also encountered the predictable problem of not having much to talk about. The language barrier was part of it, the complete differences in education and background also contributed. In the highly passionate days of a new relationship this never seems to be a problem. However, it became evident after I had eaten something bad and was sick for a few days. During this time I wasn’t at all in the mood for sex, although I still looked at her smile and her body with great admiration and appreciation and greatly looked forward to getting better. But it made me realize just how physical our relationship was. During this time I also realized that at the end of the day I looked forward to seeing Angelina as much, if not more, than Brenda.

Angelina often woke up crying in the middle of the night. Usually she had kicked all her covers off and was cold. So I would get up at least twice in the night to hug her to stop the crying and wrap her blanket around her. I had been sick and really wanted to sleep, so when she cried the second time one night I asked Brenda, “can you check on her?” and she said no. I was in shock. No? Her child? I’m working tomorrow, and I’m the one always getting up to check? How many things are wrong with this?

So I got up and put Angelina back to sleep. But me, I was awake for a long time after that.

The next day I told Brenda I was quite upset that I asked her just one time to take care of her kid and she refused. I said she needed to go back to her place for a day or two, because if it happened again I would lose my patience- it was already worn very thin. She got very angry and packed all her things. I said “no, we’re not splitting up, I just want a night or two to myself.” But she did not listen, she was so angry about being asked to leave that she was convinced things were over- and she acted that way. The next day I got a text, she said she had gone back to the village and had taken Angelina to stay with her relatives there.

She came back to the city without Angelina. I told her my feelings- that Angelina should not be dumped in the village, and she told me her feelings- that she couldn’t keep her. We still have not been able to work it out and Angelina remains in the village.

Angelina has been caught in the middle our short, passionate fling. For Brenda, I’m not concerned- we’d dated just a few weeks. Sometimes things don’t work. But for Angelina? I feel bad, I miss her. I’ve been told that according to the culture here, when a woman with a child meets a man, the child goes to the grandparents (or aunts-low life expectancy means many kids don’t have grandparents.) A man does not raise someone else’s kid. I think that is a terrible tradition. It saddens me for Angelina, that against all odds her mother found a mzungu who would break that tradition, and even help with things like diapers. And yet now Angelina is in the village, away from her mother- after the relationship. Brenda did finally say that she would take her back, I am happy to hear that. I hope it’s true.

I am sure things between Brenda and I are over. Angelina will surely forget me- she’s just 2 years old. Will it be better to just let her forget? Probably. Or should I visit? I struggle with that, and am still trying to figure out what to do.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mugged (almost) on my first night in Kampala!

This is a short story about my very first night in Uganda…

I was very excited when I arrived in Entebbe. I had never been to Africa, so stepping off the plane into the warm, humid Ugandan night was the beginning of a great adventure. After clearing immigration and getting my bag, I stepped outside to see a throng of drivers waiting, one holding a sign with my name. I introduced myself and he handed me a note from my new boss, whom I had not yet met: “…Sorry we can’t pick you in person, but we all have other commitments. We’ve put you up in a hotel near where we stay. Get some rest, we start work Monday!...”

The driver dropped me at a small but nice hotel in Makindye, a suburb of Kampala, at around 11 o’clock on Saturday night. Although I was quite jet-lagged from my flight from the states, I was just too excited to sleep, and was also hungry. The man at the hotel told me the kitchen was closed and that there was no place nearby to eat at that hour. I knew that there was, because I had seen many small bars, street vendors, and so forth on our drive to the hotel. What he really meant was that there were no proper restaurants for mzungus (white people). But I didn’t care if it was a fancy place, so I went for a walk.

People looked at me a bit funny, bein’s the only white person out walking around at night. But they were just looks of very mild surprise, and everyone was quite friendly. I came across a young man cooking meat skewers on a grill set up on the side of the road. Lucky for me, English is the official language here, so I could ask him what he was cooking. Unlucky for me, his accent was very unfamiliar, so the only meat that he listed that I recognized was “goat”. So I ordered a stick of goat for 2000 shillings- about a dollar. It was damn tasty goat.

On my way back to the hotel I was feeling quite satisfied. I’d been walking for about 2 hours, had found something tasty to eat, and felt comfortable and safe walking alone at night. So complacency had set in as I walked into a dark, deserted stretch of road. A man was walking in the other direction, I smiled and said hello as you would expect to do. But as he was just past me he turned and swung and hit me hard on the side of the head! It was a hard enough hit that in combination with the surprise it knocked me to the ground. My mind ran very fast as I was falling. My first thought was “fuck me, I’ve been here two hours and am getting mugged!” My next thought was that I had taken all my cash with me, thinking it was safer with me than left alone in the hotel with 19th century locks, and that I now wished I had left it in the hotel. I realized I had some choices- 1) just give him my money, 2) run, or 3) fight. I’m normally not a violent person and can’t remember the last time I’d been in a fight. But, I wasn’t going to give him all my money, I didn’t know if people would help if I ran, and he didn’t appear armed or that big. So fight it was.

After I hit the ground I jumped up to face him, took a step forward, cocked one arm back and yelled “come on, fucker!!!” Of course I didn’t want to fight, but hoped I might intimidate him just like he was surely hoping to do to me. He hesitated, then took a step back. I took a step forward and yelled again. At this point he took another step back, looked at me like I was a crazy mzungu, and ran away. I was so excited by this that I almost chased after him, which would have surely been a bizarre sight for any spectators- after midnight on Saturday, some crazed mzungu chasing and screaming after a Ugandan man, who’s now realized that he’s picked a fight with a lunatic… As comical a sight as that would be, I was happy just to see him running away while I still had my wallet. So I watched him for a moment, then continued on to the hotel, just about a quarter mile.

Obviously, this could have happened even in my old hometown. I was out walking around late Saturday night near the bars, was obviously not a local, and my color meant I was rich. I was lucky that I learned some valuable lessons: don’t carry a lot of cash, and when in doubt- act crazy. The second part comes easy if you already have a bit of crazy in you.

I am very happy to add that I’ve been living in Uganda for over a year and have never felt threatened or unsafe since. I go out alone at night, I date Ugandan women, and I’ve been in many places and situations, both in the city and the villages, that tourists never get to see. So when people say Uganda is the friendliest country, I believe it is true.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Gulu flight

Today I flew a news crew from Moroto to Gulu in the islander. We usually load the islander with the passengers seated in back and the copilot seat empty, leaving the pilot to enjoy the view in peaceful solitude. But sometimes we make exceptions. For example, if a passenger seems interesting to talk to on a long flight, or if they happen to be attractive. Today I had a passenger that met both of those criteria. For some silly reason I feel that automatically assigning the copilot seat to the pretty woman is an abuse of my authority as captain of a small aircraft. Therefore, I asked for a volunteer- "So, anyone want to be copilot?", thinking to myself “pretty lady, pretty lady…” and my wish was granted when she said "Yes, I'd love to!"

It was just a one hour flight. We began talking about jobs. She thought flying a small plane around Uganda was the coolest thing and wanted to know all about how I became a pilot, and how I came to Africa. So I told her my life story, which took about three minutes. Meanwhile, I was quite fascinated by her job- traveling around the world as a television news correspondent. I found it funny that we both thought our own jobs were nothing extraordinary but were fascinated by the other’s. So although were each very interested in the other’s profession, she won and we ended up spending most of the flight talking about airplanes and aviation.

I did the usual basic teaching stuff- a thumb and two fingers is all it takes to move the stick, gently pull on the stick and the nose comes towards you, pushing moves the nose away, and moving the stick left and right rolls the aircraft in and out of banks. I demonstrated each of these as I talked about them, then gave her the controls. It is amazing, I’ve probably done that a thousand times in my 7000+ hours of flying and instructing, yet it is still such a great thing to see someone fly an airplane for the first time! Her response was typical- her eyes were full of excitement and her smile was huge as she saw the airplane gently respond to her small control inputs. I still remember the first time someone let me do that, so I can understand people’s amazement with their first experience of flying an airplane.

She flew for quite awhile while she asked many other questions- how do we navigate, what causes turbulence, why do planes crash, and so on. Soon we were descending into Gulu. I took the plane and explained what I was doing as we went through the approach and landing. The runway is huge, so even after landing long we still had a ways to go to reach parking. So I kept some power in the engines to give us just enough speed and airflow to keep the nose up as we rolled down the runway for a few thousand feet. She asked “when does the nose come down?” just as we got slow and the nosewheel gently touched.

After landing, she was on the phone immediately- they had a lot to coordinate for their story. But I also overheard her saying “I flew the plane!” When she was off the phone she went on to say she no longer feared flying and wanted to learn to fly herself.

That was a good flight!