They sometimes change your life

A day through the streets of Kampala

Sometimes, some things can change your life. Right there at that moment, you’re not really aware that what’s about to happen is going to have such a big impact on you. And it’s only following a careful examination of the event that you slowly begin to become aware of those signs which allow you to claim with certainty that, from that moment on, something had changed. Events like these aren’t always positive. Other times they are: for example, meeting a loved one or an unexpected friend. But they can also be negative: the death of someone dear to us, an accident, or being badly let down by someone else.

What I’ve experienced during these first months in Uganda has to do with such life-changing events, the de-structuring impact of which cannot simply be measured in the long term. There’s one thing I can’t doubt: that from a certain moment on, something had changed.

And it’s precisely the story of this encounter I’d like to tell you about. An encounter which changed my way of understanding, my way of living, both in daily life as well  as in in extra-ordinary circumstances. An encounter which opened a door.

The choice of one particular door necessarily excludes others. Crossing the threshold of the door is, in and of itself, deciding in favour of something, avoiding the impasse of eternal indecision. And one afternoon, I decided to cross that threshold which would take me out onto the life-filled streets of Kampala.

I’m staying at a convent with some sisters. I move my feet over the doorstep. It’s a hot afternoon. The sun heats the thirsty ground, streets of compressed earth. The children play in threadbare clothes in between the ditches at the sides of the road, ditches which the rain transforms into powerful streams redolent with human waste. I walk along timidly, both fascinated and fearful. Young men wait for clients, leaning against boda boda, their name for these Indian motorbikes they use. They run round the city in their thousands, practically the only rapid means of transport in a city otherwise suffocating in traffic. A young woman, squatting on the doorstep of a house, grinds millet-flour for her evening posho. Other women, with admirable prowess and equilibrium, carry the weight of a day’s work on their heads. Jerry cans of water, bunches of bananas and coal rise up like towers above their heads. Others work away in the many small shops selling all that’s necessary for the life of the neighbourhood. Feeling uneasy, I enter this new world, heading down from the verdant hills towards Kabalagala, the living, pulsing heart of Kampala. The shopping and nightlife district.

I find myself blocked at the crossroads. Traffic is piling up on all sides. Unending rows of cars take it in turns to try and overtake the steel wall formed by other vehicles pottering along at a man’s pace, while clouds of motorbikes duck in and out between them like shadows, snaking along in daring wave after wave. A few risk-takers throw themselves in among the traffic trying to reach the other side of the road. Other pedestrians, that is, the majority, crowd around in their hundreds as they walk over ad hoc pavements at the sides of the road. I follow the crowd.

I take a look up. I allow myself to be moved by the colours of the evening sky. Above our heads dance the gigantic Marabou, birds which watch over the flow of events in the city like sentinels.
A few hundred metres from the centre of Kabalagala, the ground on my right plunges downwards into a slope of narrow roads of beaten earth between poor houses built of corrugated iron. It’s the poor who live here, just some of those who call the many slums of Kampala their home.

Just a few steps ahead, in amongst the ordered crowd travelling in all directions, a young woman sleeps, curled up on the pavement. The concrete’s her only shelter, her pillow, sandals. A young girl sits in that safe space that takes shape between the woman’s stomach and thighs. She can’t be older than a year, and perhaps she might be even younger. Who knows? She’s silent, sitting on the rough concrete. Her eyes are restless, anxious even. Their gaze penetrates the crowd. Isn’t she frightened? I ask myself.

The fear of a young girl seeing the world from the lowest point possible. She sees an indifferent world, a world which passes by, head held high, indifferent and self-obsessed. She looks at me. She doesn’t ask for anything.

It’s her silence, as she sits next to that young mother who sleeps consumed by her troubles, which interrogates me. What to do? What can I do?
It’s her small eyes that whisper words to me. Are you frightened? Don’t be frightened any more. Get up and walk. Don’t stop. Allow yourself be moved. The greatest sin is indifference.

A lesson. The most important gift it’s possible to receive is not being afraid of the responsibilities which have been entrusted to us, of those talents we’ve received. They can’t be buried because of fear.
Something can be done. Perhaps not everything. But it’s a start.

Thank you, child, whatever your name may be. It’s too soon, perhaps, but you’ve already understood everything, the wisdom of this world. In the meantime, I’ll get up and walk, I’ll allow myself to be moved. And I’ll remember your young eyes as they ask questions of the world.

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