It was one of those days. Coming back from a lovely weekend with friends, we all knew we had a long day of traveling ahead of us. The roads in Uganda aren’t simple to navigate, and there was no easy direct route from where we were back to Gulu. So we resigned ourselves to a 5 hour matatu (taxi-bus-thingy) ride back to Kampala before catching the 8-ish hour bus back north. The matatu ride went shockingly well, but we hit a few speed bumps in Kampala when we couldn’t find any buses leaving for Gulu before 7 pm. Thanks to the ingenuity and incredible likability of my friend Julie, we finally finagled eight tickets to Gulu leaving at 5:30 pm instead, and our day was back on track. The ride began happily: chatty, friendly neighbors, only leaving 20 minutes late, pretty smooth ride.
Things got weird about three hours from Gulu.
A woman’s scream pierced the night was a suddenness that jerked me from half-sleep. It was a terrible, terrified sound. She screamed again. I jolted again. She launched into continuous hysterics, and I looked around with wide eyes into the faces of equally baffled and jarred friends. The bus driver finally pulled over and turned on the lights. Our group was sitting near the very back. We couldn’t see much of what was going on, but we were anxious to know what was happening at the front to cause such pain and fear. Hushed murmuring filled the bus as whispering lips passed the story backward, discussed, and speculated. It was decided by the general audience that the girl, not more that 14 years old, must have a demon in her. Thank heavens there was a priest on board who valiantly stepped forward to take control of the situation. After a brief tussle, more horrified, terrified, hysterical wailing from the girl, the exorcism began, and the bus, to my extreme surprise, casually resumed it’s journey. The lights went back down, people chuckled, and our previously peaceful journey resumed – it was the emotional and spiritual version of a shrug, but something was different. The usual lullaby – the rush of the wind, the grumble of the engine, and the soft breathe of many people in close proximity – was replaced by terrified wailing punctuated by a forceful male voice and screams of mental anguish. An utterly bizarre and horrifying soundtrack on an otherwise totally normal night. I’ll never forget sitting back in my chair, breathing in the sweet air rushing in at my face from the cracked window, looking out at the moon-soaked landscape, and feeling my soul cringe as the air was rent by the terrified wailing of a woman completely out of site in the darkness at the other end of the bus.
I’m not sure what it was – mental illness, an anxiety attack, some previous trauma, or spiritual demons – that caused the woman’s episode of panic and misery. I’m not sure why so many people on the bus felt ok resuming their trip and conversations as if they weren’t cloaked in the shadow of whatever terror this woman was facing. Maybe they just realized there was nothing they could do. Maybe they realized the only thing you can do sometimes is keep going. Whatever it was, it was an experience that will stay with me for a long time. The night my normal, peaceful, calm, albeit bumpy, bus ride back to Gulu was set on a stage of invisible horror, given a soundtrack of pain and fear. Eventually the girl calmed, whatever demons were plaguing her subsided, but the sounds of her misery revisit me often.
alternate title: how is life?
Rewind approximately three days. We’ve all arrived in Fort Portal, Uganda, and everyone is walking around in varying states of bliss. Whether you’ve been to the area before or not, coming from Gulu to Fort Portal is a remarkable transition that tends to leave you reveling in the beauty. Fort Portal is different than Gulu in many ways – more paved roads, bigger homes, more solid structures, more restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. Ringed by the Rwenzori Mountain range and close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. They even have a statue of a lion at the city center with an incredible amount of real-looking hair. We were all there for one of two purposes: to participate in a triathlon or to support the people participating in the triathlon. Due to earlier ankle injuries, I fell into the second group, and I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. The location was breathtaking. For the swim: a crystal blue, freshwater crater lake. For the bike, a grueling 18k along red dirt roads and up rocky hills. The run: the hills and forests along the crater’s edge. We watched it all from a lodge resembling the African version of Hogwarts perched at the perfect vantage point from which to commit the surroundings to memory. It was quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Surrounded by such natural beauty and the equally incredible beauty of the kind souls and laughing eyes of my friends, I felt very at peace.
The people in Fort Portal, at least those that I encountered personally, don’t ask “how is your day?” or “how are you?”. Instead, upon greeting someone, they ask: “how is life?” I was struck by the question, lovely and sincere, and I realized it was pure truth when I answered: wonderful. Sometimes it really can be as simple as that if we let it. How is life? Wonderful. Really, truly, peacefully, in the golden light of sunset, with a backdrop of mountains, on a carpet of lush green, surrounded by kind people, wonderful. Wonderful.
For those three days, that was more than enough. Wonderful.