All that we are, all that we strive to be, should be about the child that peers towards us from every corner of this massive world; especially corners we neglect to look towards. Because of this willful neglect, we are all guilty of leaving our children to cry alone in terror, in the darkness of the night.
Book 2: Beyond the Red Lipstick Uganda Style!
There are 2 seasons in Africa: the rainy season and the dry season. Mid-March through the end of May, then again mid-September through the end of November, are considered the “wet” months. It is on one of those wet October mornings, as the rain fell in torrents that split the dirt roadways into precarious crevices of amber muck and sugar cane, that my plane wearily set down on the runway at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda. We had traveled long, from one side of the world to the other. At last, after interminable months of delay due to the pandemic—months when my mind imagined and created, constructed then deconstructed, the many stories that naturally arise with any prolonged anticipation, I looked out the window towards my new world and whispered, “Welcome home.”
My travels began on a brutally early Nashville morning—a morning after I had dinner with my 2 sons and my daughter in law, while simultaneously Face Timing with my daughter at school. Sharing time with my children IS my bliss—an integral part of my love language. Familiar rituals, as simple as a candle set between us on the dinner table, or a favorite cake slathered with ice cream and shared with laughter and relaxed communication, is all my soul needs to create the vital memories that sustain me through those weary days when loneliness becomes a relentless visitor.
As the last night at home faded, and the inevitable parting stood between me and the door, I refused to mutter the word “goodbye” to my children. The word seems too final, tinged with an aura of doom that incites panic and horror in my momma heart. I disdain the awkward and often tense moments that accompany goodbyes. Inevitably, time decides to slow down and dish up a mighty serving of awkward and desperate silence, as if Father Time is judging the transaction on a scale of “just right” to “desperately lacking and inadequate.” I prefer the open ended, “see you soon,” …followed by “I love you.” Parting is never easy, regardless of what is said or left unsaid. I would rather skip it all together. But that may seem rude.
The first leg of the flight was a quick hop to Washington, DC. After disembarking the plane, I was left with just enough time to sprint to the international terminal. Within a fast-paced 12 minute gallop, I arrived at the Ethiopian Airlines desk trying not to look as winded as I felt—heart pounding and sweat soaking my back from a tightly strapped back pack. There is nothing pretty about sprinting through the airport—fear and confusion pulsating through the body as I struggle to find a monitor to point me in the right direction, while the insufferable cadence of the second hand screams “you’re not going to make it!” Yet this freneticism seems to be a regular and inescapable part of my travel docket! All good intentions and work to beatify myself in the morning melt down my face and body with horrifying results. I really should become more comfortable going without makeup…who am I trying to impress? But a dollop of tinted moisturizing and the required cover up stick, (ok, and a swipe or two of a good mascara), does give me a bit more pep in my step; however short it may last.
Disheveled and slightly mad in appearance, I slid into the Ethiopian gate area just in time to take my place as the last person in a very long line of obviously pissed off travelers. Anger beyond discontent steamed the air, and the ear piercing cacophony of sparing languages and flailing hands swirling alongside the extremely unpleasant body odors, was all the warning I needed to alert myself that battle was ahead.
I’m good at this! Battle preparedness is one of my default modes, ready at the wait. I can morph into a self-righteous ball of fire at the slightest scent of injustice! It’s not always pretty, and more often than not I embarrass my loved ones as they witness my transformation. But I get the job done, regardless of the damage incurred. Invariably though, once the fire has simmered and I find my breath and move back in to my body from this out of body transformation, I tend to feel some regret!
Piecing together the fragments of broken English and expressive body movements from my fellow passengers in line, I discovered the cause of the fire bubbling over this crowd. We were standing in a que, cattle waiting for their turn to show their papers that indicated a Covid free test taken no more than 72 hours prior to departure. Seems like an easy exercise, right? We were informed of this process when we bought our ticket. Whip out the form, board the plane. However, the airlines failed to mention that a specific COVID test result was required. Hence the painfully slow and contentious line.
I watched as no less than a quarter of the passengers in the line ahead of me were escorted to the “rejected” area, left to rectify the situation through some sort of miraculous intervention. Oh anxiety! That feeling of panic was rapidly escalating as I re-examined the print off of my test, totally oblivious to why a paper saying COVID negative was not good enough. The clock was speeding towards departure time. I wiped my brow—the incessant “what if’s” bombarding any modicum of rational thought I had left. My eyes began to sting as I begged the tears to remain on stand-by.
A bad sign. The gate agent didn’t look up at me when I handed her my results. Ten minutes prior to where I was standing in that moment, I experienced a few seconds of pity for this poor soul forced to play keeper of the gate. She looked brow beaten for God’s sake. I wanted to defend her, yell out over those ahead of me, “hey jack asses, she’s not the one responsible for the policy!" Yet, that empathetic flicker vanished quickly as she handed back my test results with an exasperated look and a terse “wrong test.” In that moment, she became enemy number one.
“What do you mean, wrong test?” I quipped, matching her terse tone with mine. With heavily accented and broken English that I strained to understand because her mouth was hidden behind a red Ethiopian Airlines face mask, she stated in no uncertain terms, “you need a negative PCR test.”
“A WHAT TEST?” I yelled back as my mask slid down to my chin, amplifying my voice to an obnoxiously loud level.
“PCR…PCR test…a PCR TEST,” she screamed back at me in a chillingly exasperated and a bit out of control tone. I stood firm as she attempted to move me to the “reject’ pasture, heat rising as the passengers behind me began encroaching on my 6 foot mandated safe space, breathing fire down my neck.
I pulled out my phone and scrambled to find the email containing my full test results from the Dr.’s office, not knowing what the hell I was looking for exactly. I needed to find anything that had the letters “PCR.” I was unswayable as she continued to motion me aside while frantically looking around for back up assistance. This was life or death! I had entered a battle zone and I could not retreat. I had waited months for this move and NOONE was going to stop me from getting on the plane! Oh, and that American arrogance I complain so much about….well, there it was pooling at my feet!
“Bingo!” I found the letters PCR followed by negative, and thanked the cosmos that I had just enough hot spot left on my phone to use the WIFI. “Here,” I said in an overly gleeful and assertive tone. I shoved the phone in her face, “here it is,” words oozing with the undeniable tilt of, “I dare you to deny me now.”
After no less than 5 beats longer than I felt she needed, she pointed towards the jetway and said, “you are free to board.” Once I reached the seat, wiped my brow and caught my breath, I felt sorry for her all over again.
It was a long flight from DC to Ethiopia, my next stop on what felt like an interminable journey. Yet in the last hours of the flight, as we rounded the curve from one side of the world to the other, I witnessed the distinct line that separated the night from the day, as if witnessing someone turning on a light switch. “AND THEN THERE WAS LIGHT.”
As we moved toward the brightness, I was treated to the most magnificent and electrifying view of the sun I have ever witnessed—sizzling bright red with pulsating tentacles reaching towards heaven and earth. I held my breath as to not disturb the moment. I have witnessed miraculous sunrises and sunsets before, mainly those that dance along the lake in Northern Minnesota, where I spent a great number of my summer days since I was a child; yet this vision of the African sun felt sacred, as if this ball of fire held the garment of the Divine.
During my layover in Ethiopia, exhausted yet etched with the excitement of adventure, I opted to celebrate my first 24 hours and 7,000 miles away from everyone and everything I knew and adored with an icy cold beer and fries ladened with ketchup. Sure, it was 7 am local time, but it was 11 pm according to my bodily rhythm—making this a sensible indulgence. Whenever I am fatigued, I gravitate towards carbohydrates and flannel pajamas—comfort and familiarity. Of course, I did not pack a single piece of flannel clothing, (I am heading to a tropical climate!)—but a mound of greasy, salty potatoes and a cold beer chaser fit the bill nicely. And the airport bar was open!
I sipped my beer as I rocked in the swiveling bar stool, allowing my mind to unravel with every slight to and fro of the bar seat. Back and forth, I gently swayed like a baby, the coils of control needed to get me from there to here so many hours ago, releasing. The sensation the few gulps of beer afforded my tired body felt like heaven!
In the back of my mind, I knew I had to remain mindful that I had one more short flight and immigration to get through. I find this juncture—the one where my mental self is unabashedly bathing in self soothing relaxation on one side, yet the other side is fervently tapping the warning bell of responsibility—is a pivotal one for me. If I am not careful, I can easily succumb to the call of the wild and the free—the yin to my responsible and demanding yang. As responsible and “get it done girl” that I am 93% of the time, my “free to be you and me” lack of sensibility—carefree and “live in abandon” self— is full of unrestrained pleasure seeking. I adore it when I allow myself to step in to this playful side—when I seem to love everything and everyone; albeit, this mood can devolve into recklessness if I am not careful, even in my older years. But I do crave these stolen moments!
As I sat on my swivel stool in the Ethiopian airport, my mind wandered, drifting back through the mental fog that fatigue accompanied with a few sips of beer can bring. I stretched back to a vision of my childhood dinner table— during the month of a particular December—when I was in second or third grade. There is a small cardboard box situated atop a green and red gingham placemat—a place of importance and focus. Every year in our Catholic grade school, all 5 of us children would receive one of these boxes on the last day of school before Christmas holidays. Only one made it to the dinner table. I can’t remember how the box that sat as the centerpiece was chosen, and if it really mattered whose it was. But I do distinctly remember the purpose of each box, imprinted with pictures of sad looking black children, underscored with the sentence: Feed the Starving Children in Ethiopia. It was both foreign and moderately horrifying to my 7 year old self.
The box was our yearly lesson on have and have nots—a reminder that we should not selfishly keep all our candy money. The story went like this: you get so much for Christmas, it is the least you could do...drop some change in to the little box. A healthy dose of Catholic guilt for the holiday season!
The irony in the present moment was not lost on me, as I popped another fry in my mouth.
Blurry eyed, I landed in Uganda an hour or so after my bar visit, regretting drinking that second beer. Moving through immigration was thankfully benign and quick. In the baggage area, I was met by a very serious looking security detail that I later found out worked not only for our organization, but for the Gates foundation, the Frist family and other philanthropic organizations that provide millions to build programs in Africa. It was awkward—like stepping into the wrong size shoes as I was heading down a runway with flashing lights! At least my friends and children would be happy with this amount of security!
I decided if I had to have this intense security, it might help to channel my inner Adelle or Rhianna and not act like a complete Bozo. In truth, I wanted to roar with laughter (remember, I am beyond tired and a little hung over) and say, “you know I can’t sing or dance or do anything outrageously important, right?” Putting on my big sunglasses helped, even if it was raining!
I was escorted by this very serious security team to a beautiful resort in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda—where I was to remain while I awaited permission to travel, pending another negative COVID test. After months of a successful lock down, the Ugandan government had just opened the airport the day before I arrived. Needless to say, they wanted to make sure COVID was not brought in from other countries. Being from America, where the COVID pandemic is treated by our leadership like the common cold, I was surprised that I did not default to an immediate 14 day quarantine. But it’s about who you know in Africa. And I happened to be with people who knew the right people.
Once settled in to my room at the resort (after the security person looked behind all the doors and under the bed), I took a long and luxurious warm shower, using as much of the lovely body gels, shampoo and lotions I could possibly slather on my body. I crawled under the cool, pressed, sheets and began the long process of time readjustment, a loathsome task on any aging body. I remained at this resort for 3 glorious days—using the gym, taking walks on the luscious trails stretched with a tropical canopy of new colors and sounds, all the while eating fabulous fresh foods from the region and drinking more wine than the time adjustment training recommends!
(Looking back from where I sit right now, I believe the organization keenly planned my stay at this glorious resort. Had I started in the remote village of Masinda, my new home, I would have given some serious thought to jumping on the next plane back to civilization).
Kampala is a bustling city, much like New York as far as density and movement. I love New York for many reasons…my heart longing for a visit once the city revives its pre-Covid glory. But like my stay in Nairobi during the early months of 2019, I find the bigger cities of Eastern Africa cisterns of chaos and frenzy—deficient of any semblance of order and precision mandated in the Western World. Most acutely, these cities lack the dividing yellow and white lines on the roads, or the strategically placed stop lights or yield signs needed to bring order to otherwise intolerable mayhem and injury. The large cities of Eastern Africa are noise without logic—like a piece of art woefully left unfinished.
Regardless of the mayhem and the strangeness of living in a third world county, I believe that I am connected to Africa on some sort of cellular, or “knowing” level. It’s hard to explain. But nestled somewhere in my genetic make-up is a filament, or a residue, of this place —embodied familiarity and ease. I fantasize that one of my brave foremothers, (and there were many in my lineage who broke the mold of appropriate gender sensibilities with incredible elegance and in magnificently sagacious ways), fell in love with Eastern Africa as much as I have. Maybe I will eventually discover her.
When my feet plant on the red and dusty soil of this continent, this knowing I have described quickens—and belonging bathes over me. Belonging is an entirely different sensation than that of fitting in (thank you Brene Brown for this great revelation! For more on belonging please read the invaluable book: The Gift of Imperfection). I have spent most of my life caged inside the electrostatic field where love and support is dependent on adhering to preset norms and expectations that are most often dictated by religion and socioeconomic placement. I was 50 before I realized I could leave this cage of unworthiness that comes in the relentless pursuit of fitting in. Unfortunately, there are always consequences for claiming your truth. But it is worth it…to live into the unique and beautiful design of the Creator.
Welcome to Book 2 of Beyond the Red Lipstick: Uganda.
As I lay here in my small bed in the remote village of Masindi, fancy security long gone, surrounded by mosquito netting and smelling like eau du Off bug spray, I feel like I am home. I thank the Divine Universe for this!
PS: I wrote the above weeks ago. I have lived through 3 weeks of torrents—the rain, of course, but also the torrents of change. I have not been able to publish any of my writing because I have been working 12 hour days, 7 days a week and exhaustion is my constant companion. I took the job as Director of Love One in Uganda whose mission it is to rescue malnourished children, get the medical help the child needs, rehabilitate them, and resettle the children back with their families. If you are not familiar with this incredible organization, you can look them up! But it has been a HUGE challenge—attempting to introduce some Western organizational flow needed for growth, while remaining culturally sensitive to how Ugandans have been working in the organization up to this point. It’s about balance, and I have to remind myself of this daily!
But we have plenty of time to catch up! I have so much to tell. I have seen horror and I have seen joy. I have seen glimpses of a world many people will never know. I have to share these things with you—because I am here, and there is a need to know. I share not only for my own sanity, but to help others bear witness. I have a goal to publish a new story at least once a week. Hang with me please. I need you…Nkwagala
Mary - looking forward to riding along on your journey! With prayer and determination and love, you will amaze and enlighten us all. Thank you for serving! Tami ❤️ReplyDelete
Delighted to see the first installment of Book Two. I felt I was on the journey with you. Stay well dear friend. We need you too!ReplyDelete
It's Mary St Onge in case you didn't recognize email address.Delete
God bless you Mary!!ReplyDelete
Loving your experience and your writing. I hope the balance tilts way more toward joy than horror, though I honor both as your story unfolds. So glad to be a new subscriber!! :)ReplyDelete
Thanks for your inspiration, Mary! It's a special gift to watch your human spirit journey!ReplyDelete