#dignity2012 – On the way Agnes Changed my View of East Africa and, with it, the World
April 14, 2012 § 5 Comments
I took Agnes to the pacific last week. We’ve been business partners for over a year now – her running the Ugandan side of our business, myself working stateside. We’ve worked together in East Africa. But, now it was her turn to enter my world.
We spent time in Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Santa Monica, introducing Agnes to shop owners and re-stocking locations with our new spring line. We found out she loves mango smoothies the way I love matooke. She loves coffee the way…I love coffee. She loves sandwiches the way I love chapati. In my world, we talked about my childhood the way we’d talked about hers during my last visit. We discussed my breakups the way we’d talked about her relationship with Patrick after she’d met him in grade school. We talked about the way I was born in San Diego and grew up in the Sierra Nevadas the way she’d talked about growing up in Kampala. And, after she met the head of the journalism department at my alma mater, we discussed our degrees – mine in journalism, hers in business.
She laughed through my dating stories. She told me she’d waited to get married on purpose to finish her education. We discussed Patrick’s views on women – his support of her. I nodded. I’d seen it – him waving goodbye from the veranda, watching their three children while we worked on our company. We traded stories about our cultures on the way into boutiques – the way Ugandans say Americans make love in the streets, the way Americans claim Uganda – and all of Africa, at that – is full of people defecating in the streets.
At the stop light on Broadway, we laughed so hard it hurt.
It was 3:30 pm when we were done – prime traffic time in LA, and I warned her we’d be late home. But Agnes had been smelling the ocean air for just about as long as she could stand without being properly introduced, and I caught the desperation in her eye.
“I’ve never seen it!” she pleaded.
I thought of myself asking to visit the Nile, and nodded, putting the truck in drive.
I’ve never introduced anyone to the pacific for the first time – let alone the ocean itself. The practice felt sacred to me, taking off our shoes on the edge of the boulevard and walking across the sand in our bare feet. I pointed out ships and surfers as we walked.
Agnes hesitated at the edge of the water, the way I’d hesitated when I’d first shared a pathway with a herd of Ankole cattle on my way through Wobulenzi. I laughed at her hesitancy the way the cattle herder had laughed at me, crouched at the edge of a herd of long horn cattle. I waved my arms – “come on!”
I watched Agnes and the ocean feeling each other out for the first time, and I thought about how many things this woman has introduced me to.
I met her when I was 21. It was my first day in Kakooge. Agnes greeted me with a loud voice and open arms. She gave me a hug and three kisses – left, right, left. She waved her arms around – “welcome to our home! You are so welcome.” By “home,” I soon learned Agnes was referring to the entire village – not just her half acre plot in the midst of it.
Skirt wrapped around her waist and an arm of bracelets, Agnes walked me through every part of town, little blonde NGO reporter that I was. We went to the outskirts of Kakooge, to the main street of Kakooge, to the village’s only indoor restaurant, to the east, where most of the children gather to play and, finally, to the bars, where drunken men recognized Agnes, and exclaimed over the Mzungu. I watched them, sitting on a wooden bench offered to the white girl, and I thought about the woman I’d just met.
She spoke about Jesus and women’s rights in the same sentence – often in church. With a booming voice and an out-streched arm, she regularly preached alongside her husband to a local congregation on wooden benches. And yet, here she was, a public figure in her village and a respected woman in her culture, laughing with the men in the bars and, later, I’d learn, with the prostitutes. Turns out, Agnes is not only progressive, she’s a bit controversial.
By controversial, I mean Agnes swims against the ancient wave carrying respected society away from anyone engaged in less than admirable activity, and pulling the religious and dignified away from issues like birth control, safe sex, AIDS, family planning and a woman’s right to express herself freely in every room in her home. Jesus doesn’t talk about condoms, does he?
Agnes seems to think he does.
After my 22nd birthday, she threw in her livelihood with me, and hired 40 women she handpicked to partner with us after meeting me once. That same year, she began to change my view of Uganda. She brought me into East Africa as a part of the woodwork, insisting that I wasn’t a visitor anymore. I had a place carved out in her home along the Kampala to Gulu highway, where the trucks run through to the West of my bedroom wall in the night, and the roosters crow on the half hour just before dawn.
Agnes must have known that any person transitioning into a culture needs to be taken in with their background, and taught new ways, instead of expected to know them, because she told me she saw me the third time I returned to Uganda. I was deep in a half eaten plate of matooke when she said it. I was struggling with a culture that I didn’t fit into – checking my iphone in between meetings running an hour behind schedule, and lying awake trying to teach myself to slow down. I was embarrassed by my white legs, and the way I kept cutting myself shaving in my bucket shower.
I stopped eating and stared. “Yes,” she nodded. “I see you. I see your heart. I get you. And, I believe in you.”
Her words, in the midst of a sea of misunderstanding, became my lifeline.
Later that week, it was Agnes, again, that gave me permission to have a large vision for my work in East Africa. She walked into a room she’d transitioned into mine for the two weeks I stayed with her. “I want you to open your heart,” she told me. “We’re going to be big. Big beyond Uganda. I have plans for Kenya, Rwanda, and the Congo. So, you let me know when you’re ready, and we’ll go.”
During that visit, I discovered that Agnes’ willingness to be controversial – to speak up, to speak out, and to go places where other women were not willing to go – had taken me to those places with her. She’d silently understood my desire for integration into her village, my desire to do business directly with the women in at, and with it – quietly been creating a place for me in Uganda – in the way she spoke about me, the way she helped me understand her culture and, now, the way she brought the two together.
She’d created a profile of my work, and my character. She’d been prepping the women working for me to meet me again. The woman she once went to visit in the bad parts of time were coming to greet her – and to greet me. Women that we’d gone to take pictures of in huts were walking across town to kiss me three times – left, right, left – and talk about our work. The prostitutes that had once pursed their lips at me were greeting me in English.
Six months later, at the age of 23, it was Agnes that gave me the grace to allow our plan take longer than expected, and for funds to come through more slowly than I wanted them to. After sales tax stripped our January bank account, I got an email from her quoting a scripture passage from the book of Zechariah. “Don’t despise the day of small beginnings,” it said.
More than matoke or Ankole cows, Agnes has taught me about the way a relationship with a person can change everything, as she’s staked her reputation on my ability to come through for her and the women she’s hired to work for us – taking months to explain cultural customs, work out our accounting on the ground, gather items and, now, to come and learn my culture so she could better integrate the needs of our customer base into hers.
As we walked on the wet sand, I pointed out kelp and washed up shells and explained crustaceans. I picked up different size shells. I pointed out the way the tide moves. But Agnes wasn’t interested in that. She was interested in the way children interacted the way with the water, and kept pulling on my arm to laugh and point them out.
I’d never seen the ocean that way – through children. One ran away from the ocean – terrified – and made a muscle, smiling at us, once he’d safely escaped the surf. Another was rolling himself in the sand and grinning underneath his gritty, gray hair. A third ran into the surf squealing with delight over waves that were too cold for me.
“I love the way they love it,” Agnes said. And, it was in that moment, watching a little girl dance the sand out of her polka dotted suit, that I realized Agnes had done it again – she’d changed my perspective on the world and, with it, the way I view the people around me, and my place in it, alongside them.