Under shade of a thatched-roofed schoolhouse, a young Ugandan girl stood among her classmates and addressed the group of newly arrived mzungo (white) women. “What do you herd?” she asked us in English. Our frozen smiles tried to betray our confusion. The translator clarified: “She wants to know what animals you keep,” he said.
I didn’t think I herded anything other than my children, who seemed at that moment even farther away than the thousands of miles of desert and ocean that separated them from this open-air African schoolhouse. In fact, Uganda is far enough from Connecticut that you have to tilt and twirl a globe in order trace a line between the two. A landlocked country crossed by the equator, Uganda lies between the two East African Great Rift Valleys and is roughly the same size as Great Britain.
One of my fellow mzungos stood: “I have a horse,” she said. The child shrugged her shoulders. The translator intervened; the child responded quickly. “She wants to know,” said the translator, ‘what is a horse?’” The mzungo woman was quick with a reasonable clarification. “It’s like a zebra,” she said, “but without the stripes.”
The barefooted girl from the small village in the remote district of Nakasongola in the middle of Uganda, asked the translator a reasonable question in response: “What’s a zebra?”
I stood among these children, parents, teachers, New York-based donors and volunteers and my then colleagues from Save the Children, slightly woozy from the midday African sun. I was overwhelmed by the aroma of melting layers of cow dung coating the dirt floor to keep the dust at bay, but I realized my perceptions of Africa had been shaped as much by The Lion King as they had by Isaak Dinesen or National Geographic Magazine.
I was almost delirious with fatigue after having flown more than 27 hours from New York to London and then Kampala. Soon after arriving, my group and I loaded onto an old Land Cruiser and headed, on a crowded two-lane road with no markings, lights or discernable traffic rules, toward Nakasongola District to visit Save the Children’s education programs there.
I already had been duly vaccinated, sun-blocked, hydrated and DEET-ed. I donned micromesh breathable clothing, all-weather shoes and Cipro pills in case of a bacterial emergency. As overcautious as any sheltered individual could be and protecting myself from everything I didn’t know and was afraid of as a result, I would have thrown in a Hazmat suit for good measure if it had been available in a handy travel size.
Pastoralists (keepers of cattle) fill the communities of the sprawling Nakasongola District, where there are few traditional primary schools. Bonita, one of the Uganda-based staff members accompanying us, was among those who had helped implement education programs there in the late 90’s, when she and her colleagues ventured with maps and word-of-mouth directions and drove into the bush to seek out parents and village leaders who wanted to help Save the Children bring schools to their communities. In Nakasongola District, families’ incomes are centered on their livestock and they travel seasonally with herds to follow food and water sources. Children are vital components of sustaining a family’s income and have critical and lengthy chores to accomplish daily. Regardless of their long hours they are exuberant about attending school and hungry for knowledge. Using sticks as calculators and dirt floor as workbooks, their joy in learning is palpable as it is unforgettable.
At each community we visited, Bonita was greeted with great reverence by children, teachers and parents. She waved off the praise with a dismissive hand and continued the business of overseeing her schoolchildren.
Travel to and from the programs was slow. Bonita pointed to an opening in the dense forest surrounding the main road and told the driver to turn. We traversed the muddy, hole-ridden dirt road, stopping occasionally for herds of long-horned cattle to amble past us. Navigating through the dense woods, the lead caravan driver took a wrong turn onto one of the smaller roads that interwove the dirt one on which we thumped along. The drivers conferred then pointed in opposite directions at the same time; the sun was setting and the malaria-rich mosquitoes were poised, I was certain, to feed on me at dusk. I became agitated at the thought of being hopelessly lost.
But Bonita continued to thumb through her local newspaper whose headlines of violence in the north of the country were interspersed with American tabloid phrases such as “Britney’s romance gone sour.” From the front seat she turned and calmly told us not to worry. “We get lost all the time out here especially during the rainy season when the roads wash away,” she said, then continued her reading. I wanted to be like Bonita: unprotected by oral prophylactics and bug repellant. She was an intrepid and unassuming hero.
The world of the young schoolgirl from Uganda was a few square miles of countryside where her parents grazed cattle and where she was learning to read and write. That she did not know what a zebra is should not have surprised me; that we assumed she must know what is a zebra is because she lives in Africa was more disturbing. I’d arrived in Uganda shielded from its world by the conveniences of my own, making large assumptions that were based on a small amount of knowledge. I realized that just because I was able to cross the world I was no wiser than anyone who hadn’t ventured farther than her own village.
Besides, the only zebra I’d ever seen was in the Bronx Zoo, which was in the village right next to the one in which I’d grown up.
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