The Milky Way
Updated: Jun 21, 2021
To buy a car, I hired a lawyer and a mechanic. To register it without a permanent resident card, I bribed government officials. I was ready to leave.
I loaded my 17-year-old, two-door RAV 4 with a 100 kg bag of biochar, two dusty suitcases, and Sammy. Sammy, a master’s degree student at Makerere University, conducted agricultural research in Masaka District in collaboration with ISU. She was going to introduce me to the Agricultural Office in Masaka and make sure I was comfortably settled in my new guesthouse.
I was excited to leave Kampala, but I also felt sad leaving Jackie—I relied on her for my survival in Uganda. She stoically stood outside as I instructed our apartment building’s guard to load the biochar. After hugging and promising Jackie to come back, the guard opened the gate releasing my RAV 4 out of the barbed-wired compound and onto the dirt road filled with plastic and children.
Alas, I was free.
After the never-ending round-abouts, we reached the Kampala-Masaka tarmac—the deadliest road in Uganda. It all started there: the beauty of Uganda came before my eyes. The papyrus swamps, the forests, the highlands, and the peacefulness. I saw the vastness and wideness I never knew before. The changes in elevation presented the views filled with time’s fluidity and human inconsequence. The natural transitions between the lowlands and highlands served as the living evidence of how the earth looked ions ago. Nothing had changed and it was incomprehensible. My chest moved fast from the tears inside of me.
Our almost four-hour journey went too quickly. In Masaka, we drove to the Agricultural Office located in a dilapidating colonial building in a part of town known for pork and Muslims.
“Mr. Mutesa, Nataliya came to conduct research in the district,” Sammy said.
“We shall see what we can do,” Mr. Mutesa responded.
He was the main district official in agriculture. A man of a short statue, he was welcoming and reassuring. We briefly talked about my research and the help I required. Mr. Mutesa would become my biggest supporter and mentor. His limitless knowledge on the country and agriculture helped me connect with the culture and farmers.
After exchanging phone numbers and scheduling another meeting with Mr. Mutesa, Sammy and I continued to Villa Katwe, a guesthouse where I would live for the remainder of my stay in Uganda. I tested the limits of my car driving up the hill on top of which the guesthouse stood. I had no idea it was just the beginning of my driving Odyssey in Uganda.
We pulled up to a grassy compound and exhaled. The compound consisted of two one-story buildings, a fire-pit surrounded with wooden benches in the middle, exotic vegetation around the buildings, tall and solidly cemented walls with barbed wire running on top and around the periphery, and two hammocks tied to royal palm trees. It looked like a paradise after a month in congested and noisy Kampala.
“Welcome to Villa Katwe,” a staff member said. He wore a brightly patterned African shirt and black pants. “What is your name?”
He disappeared with my name.
“Please, let me help you with the luggage,” he said after coming back.
With a smile, he carried our suitcases to the apartment.
“Please, let me know if you need anything,” he said.
“Some tea?” I asked.
The apartment was simple yet intricate—skinny African women on the walls, wooden furniture, a handwoven basket on a table, and tightly tucked bed sheets. After taking a hot shower and changing out of my dusty clothes, I joined Sammy by the fire. I drank my tea staring at the burning wood. Sammy was quiet. Wrapped in a shawl and staring at the fire too, she was deep in her own thoughts. I looked up and saw the sky I had never seen before. The Milky Way was so close I could almost touch it. In the midst of countless galaxies and worlds, I was there, in a small town in East Africa completely alone but already happy.
In Masaka, every noise and smell was filled with radiant energy. I felt it on the foggy hills in the early mornings. It came from the bleating goats, crying children, and women sweeping mango and avocado leaves away from their compounds. It came from the barking dogs and men on bicycles. It came from the school next to Villa Katwe where children drummed, recited in a unison, and chased each other. It came from banana vendors down the hill who played Ugandan pop and talked loudly. It came from hungry bodabodas who delivered passengers back to their homes late into the night. At night, the energy ran even with a greater intensity. People cooked, socialized, prayed, and rushed. Life never stopped in Masaka.
In Uganda, I had no wax in my ears and no blindfold over my eyes. My heightened senses made me fully present. I started blogging, running, and gardening. I planned proposals to restore native ecosystems and traveled within Uganda. My mind and body became stronger from yoga and meditation and local food. I felt on top of the world.
I read profusely on the subject of Africa—Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, Karan Blixen’s Out of Africa, Ishmael Beah Long Walk Home, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. I tried to understand what drew others to Africa and why they stayed or didn’t. I wanted to know what compelled a Dutch woman who owned Villa Katwe to stay. I wanted to know why the owner of my favorite restaurant, Plot 99, also chose Uganda.
These women didn’t come to Uganda with an intention to stay. They came temporarily but ended up never leaving. Did they feel what I felt about Uganda? Their stories fascinated me, and I found comfort in them. Their uprooting and transplanting was familiar to mine. I related to their struggles of adjusting to a new country when everything about them stood out like a sore thumb. They made me realize that uprooting was not always about increasing comfort in life. It was the opposite that made them feel alive. And that was difficult to come to terms with knowing that all their lives my parents chased after comfort as the only sign of a good life.
Only years later, did I realize that going to Africa had little to do with my doctoral research and a lot with learning to learn about myself. It was then, in my late twenties, that I started to form my first adult opinions of myself. I started to notice my privilege and how it led me to Uganda. It became uncomfortable to continue to believe I was victimized, disadvantaged, or deprived. I was the luckiest girl to have an opportunity to exchange a comfortable living for a happy one.
I felt like I had finally come home. But because I knew nothing about it, I spent whatever free time I had on learning. I arranged interviews with town officials; visited the same farmers over and over again to get to know them deeper; asked Mr. Mutesa what others couldn’t answer; and questioned my friends about their own experiences of living in Uganda. I needed to understand how the country was structured and functioned, metaphysically and socially. Perhaps I needed it to make sense of my own story that still wasn’t clear in my head.
I saw Uganda as a blank slate that I wanted to watch progress into something familiar. But it was nothing like the U.S. or Belarus. It wasn’t as institutionally complex as the U.S. or Belarus, but it was more socially complex than both countries. And it was this aspect of Uganda that intrigued me the most. I wanted to get into people’s heads to understand why they believed in witchcraft, practiced child sacrifice, and smiled even when life was at its worse. I wanted to know why they were happy, and I wasn’t.
I couldn’t be passive or indifferent to the people and problems around me. I felt a tremendous sense of urgency to be useful to Uganda even though there was no time or money for any meaningful impact.