Thursday, 19 September 2013

The Ugandan Adventure: Part VII: Mzungu and his band of followers

I happened to be reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this novel, there’s a character called ‘Mad-Eye Moody’ who has a magical eye that can see almost anything. And so, whilst I’m reading about this character, I get the sensation I’m being watched. You know that feeling, when the hairs on your back and arms seem to lift? I thought, ‘It’s my imagination, nothing else - of course Mad-Eye Moody isn’t watching me.’ Nevertheless, the feeling continued.

And so I looked up.

The ever-staring eyes
And before me were about twenty-five children. And they were simply staring at me. Nothing more, nothing less. They were standing there, bewildered by this strange phenomenon in front of me. Many of these were younger children, from a village in the Palissa district. They had heard of ‘Mzungu’, white people, but they had never seen them face-to-face, nor by television. And when I reached my hand up to wave and smile, a few even shrank back. One brave child walked over to me and poked my arm. She was fascinated: for some reason, my browning skin would turn even white when she touched it. She laughed and showed her friends. Next thing I knew, I had a dozen children poking and pinching me to see the reaction of my skin. Their skin, on the other hand, dogmatically remained the same shade.

There is no escape from the
staring eyes...
Playing cards on my porch
I’m used to this by now. I will sometimes be writing this blog, and notice about ten children peering through my window, looking for me. I will often walk down the street and children simply stop and stare. They sheepishly raise their hands to wave, and when I wave back they run away in fits of giggles. If I’m riding a boda-boda (Ugandan taxi service… via bicycle), I will hear delighted squeals of ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ It does elevate one’s opinion of oneself somewhat to be an automatic celebrity. Occasionally, I will be simply standing still, and I will feel a tiny little hand tentatively grasp my own; when I look down, I see a little child beaming at me, as if holding my hand was the most wonderful thing that can be conceived (mind you, a good case can be made to say that it really is…).

'The most wonderful thing
 in the world...'

The children here love bubbles - they will happily spend hours chasing after them. I’ve never heard search a mass of delighted high-pitched squeals and giggles. The older boys, however, have found their love in football. I bought a ball in Soroti so that they could play, and at first I happily joined in with the game. After all, they were only six and seven and eight. They were very good as well; when I wasn’t concentrating they could make a swift tackle and get the ball from me. I didn’t mind, and could only laugh.

And then some of the older boys joined (nine, ten, eleven, twelve). They, you could say, were just a little bit better. Indeed, they even got the upper hand of a fantastic football player like myself… at about every encounter, tackle and pass. For some strange and mysterious reason, I decided at that point that what the game needed most was a referee, and that I would be more than happy to take up that role. By the time the teenagers were involved, I had no chance. A depressing thought: nine year olds were considerably better than myself at the beautiful game…

I’m often given toddlers and babies to hold. I’m still not used to being passed one after they had been publicly breast-fed, but nevertheless, it is wonderful to be surrounded by all these beautiful children. I was given a toddler to hold yesterday. He was waddling about like a little penguin, excited by almost everything. On my lap, he poking me in the face (what is it with all the poking???), and making gurgling sounds.

And then I realised that he had a growth protruding in his stomach about as big as both my fists put together.

And then, the other day, I was passed a newborn girl so utterly tiny, weak and fragile that I was suspicious that she would not last the month.

And then I hear of yet another burial of a child, this one of a four-year-old; on another occasion that of a newborn.

The infant mortality rate in Uganda is 62.47/1000 (in the UK it is 4.5/1000; in the USA 5.9/1000. Information from Whilst the annual number of births is 1,545000; the average mortality rate for those children under five is 131,000. (Compare that to the UK’s 761,000/5000, or the USA’s 4,322,000/32,000. Information from

There is a sickening feeling that overcomes me on occasions when I realise that many of the younger children I see and play with will not survive beyond their fifth birthday. It is something I cannot escape as I stay here: not a day has gone by since I have arrived in Uganda in which I haven’t heard of a bereaved parent, or a very ill child, or yet another child’s burial. There is a sombre sense of pathos to those bubbles.

No comments:

Post a Comment