There are over 500 people gathered at the three central gas stations serving Gulu town this morning. They’re jostling, jockeying, and most of all waiting a long time to fill their tanks with the ever-dwindling petrol supply. The source of the shortage is a mystery to everyone I’ve talked to. This alone is odd – Ugandans almost always have a theory. It started last week when the power supply was particularly bad and everyone was running their generator, but the shortage has persisted long past when it should have been alleviated. Boda drivers are scarce, and the ones that are running are charging 2 – 3x what they normally would. Field work has ground to a frustrating halt. People are running out of gas and propane for cooking. It has been this way for nearly a week, and yet people line up at the gas stations en mass each morning, hoping that there might be a few available drops to be squeezed into their tanks. Most of them are turned away disappointed.
Dry season trudges determinedly on. Dust has become omnipresent…collected on floors and tabletops within minutes of sweeping, invading your eyes and nostrils, setting up camp on your cheeks, knuckles, and toes, nesting in your hair, burrowing under your nails, and wafting through the air in great clouds after passing cars. The heat is pressing, as if you’re trapped in one of those easy-bake ovens we so loved as children, and it seems to sap your limbs of willpower. Even when my hair is up, the stragglers lay damp and listless on my neck, and my clothes cling to my skin like needy children seeking constant attention.
They just killed two chickens out back. I think they’re going to be eaten at the luncheon celebrating my time at GWED-G. Like nails on a chalkboard, the sounds of their final moments run along my skin and raise goosebumps, making me cringe and my heart beat faster. It’s ironic that they’re dying for me and my leaving, and I make the mistake of glancing out the window…I can see one running around headless after escaping the confining grasp of his executioner.
It is from this stage that I soon take my leave. Tomorrow, I’ll take the morning Post Bus to Kampala, spend the night with a friend, and finally fly homeward on Wednesday. After 6 months, many kilos of beans and rice and posho, countless hours on the back of a motorcycle, one motorcycle accident, 3 exhaust pipe burns, 164 cold showers, 51 days without power, and hundreds of mosquito bites, I finally turn my eyes home…at least for a while. I’m leaving Uganda. Such a strange thought when most of my dreams have begun and ended with this internship for nearly a year. I’ve accomplished many things in my time here – both personal and professional milestones have been reached, lessons have been learned, and realizations have been come to. And now it’s time to go.
Particularly in the last four months, I’ve made friends here in Gulu. Good friends. If I’m being perfectly honest, better friends than I expected to find. People who have accepted me, bruised and imperfect as I am. People I genuinely love being around, who make me laugh and help me cry. Men and women who are, in the ways that matter, kindred spirits and beautiful souls. I am so incredibly lucky to have met them, and I am grieving our coming time apart. They have made me better for knowing them, even in such a short time, and their absence will leave a hole. I also have a dog now! Tucker. A thoroughly Ugandan mutt who doesn’t understand how to politely walk on a leash but can ingest pretty much anything without so much as batting an eye. He’s endlessly sweet and snuggly, and he’s been a perfect companion for stressed evenings and quiet mornings. Though I know he’ll be in good hands in my absence, I’m still mourning the loss of my new shadow. I’m sad for the loss of other things, too. Cool mornings quietly sipping coffee and making to do lists as the sun comes up in that slowly, slowly, then all-at-once way it has here. Boda rides with the wind whipping in your hair. Lazy days by the pool. Challenging but fulfilling days at work. Passions, a fire stoked.
More than anything, I think I’m grieving the days when leaving didn’t always feel like a division. When my heart belonged only to one place, one home, one state, one country, I could successfully return from a new destination and not feel as if I’d left part of my heart in transit. Not so anymore. Whether it’s the people or the work or the land itself, part of my heart will always be here, in this time, with these friends and colleagues. Just as part of my heart will always be home, with family and dogs and soft mattresses. Maybe that’s a sacrifice we make when we choose this life of wandering. Maybe it’s the price we pay for freedom and wings. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, but it doesn’t make leaving easy. No matter where you’re leaving or where you’re going, there’s always a slight tearing.
So there’s grief for sure. But behind the grief is a deep cool well of refreshing belief. I might be leaving Uganda, but I’m also coming back. I’ve extended my contract with GWED-G until March, 2015. So I’m coming back to the land of gas shortages, power outages, dust, poverty, frustration, corruption, disappointment, long waits, bumpy roads, and hungry eyes. I’m also coming back to lovely friends, wonderful colleagues, work that drives me and fills me and follows me, generous spirits, great music, good food, warm handshakes, long greetings, belly laughs, nourishing sun, and quiet mornings. When I get back, I’ll be moving into a new house and taking on a new role at work – Livelihoods Manager, working with the livelihood components of multiple projects to help get vulnerable women and youth back on their feet economically.
Like the people in line at the gas station this morning, I suffer no illusions about where I’ve chosen to leave a piece of my heart, the place I’ve chosen to return to. I know that there are times I’ll be turned away empty-handed. But hope and belief are a powerful team, and I have both in abundance. It’s hard not to when you walk out of your gate in the morning to the sight of a slight woman – carrying a baby on her back, firewood on her head, a jeri can in one hand, and a bag of tomatoes in the other – singing in a high, clear, beautiful voice about the glory of God and the beauty of the coming day.
Goodbye Uganda, but only for now.