It was 1997 when my 12-year-old son and I moved to Kampala, Uganda. I had accepted a job teaching in a mission school and after a year of consideration we found ourselves residing at a guesthouse owned by my employer. This man was a Presbyterian minister who came to my home town of Anchorage, Alaska with an offer I couldn’t refuse. My dream to live in Africa had finally come true and I was filled with joy and the confidence it took to pull up stakes and make the move.
Early on this minister advised me not to bring travelers checks to Uganda, for the banks were having difficulties at the time. Following his lead, I brought several hundred dollars in cash, enough to tide me over for a year. In addition, the reverend had me send money to build a house by the school where we were to live. During my year of preparation, I had complied and by the time we reached Africa I had spent over $3,000 building that house.
As it turned out, during those initial 10 days after arrival I contracted a severe case of cerebral malaria and had to be hospitalized. The minister’s house girl assisted us during this trying time, which seemed nothing less than an answer to prayer. However, when it was time to be released from the hospital, I had the girl travel back to the guesthouse to retrieve money needed to pay for my care. When she returned several hours later it was without any money. All she said was, “Sorry, sorry I could not find the money.”
A short one hour later found me back at the guesthouse screaming and crying, for all my money had been stolen. The police were summoned and the house girl was arrested. It was all to no avail, however, for the girl was released and the stolen money was never accounted for. That didn’t stop my private investigation though, and I worked feverishly to find the culprit. Unfortunately, my dedicated search was cut short, for the minister issued a contract on my life and I had to give it up and accept that I was out $11,000.
Life following the theft was nothing less than an existence of pain and anger. Many told me to give up and return to America, but I went into hiding instead. After six weeks or so, the minister let the contract go and I returned to an almost normal existence there in Kampala. I accepted a job as a radio presenter on a top 40 station and made every effort imaginable to get past the robbery. But, that was a tall order and one I wasn’t able to attain on my own.
After the passing of several months, my son and I made responsible arrangements to take a road trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania. We owned our own car, so the plan was to drive there with our dog and somehow lick our wounds, cancelling the anger that had taken a grip on my heart. This sojourn was not the leisurely experience we had imagined and we had many emergency stops along the way. Our car was old and hours away from our Dar es Salaam arrival the radiator sprang a leak. We were forced to stop frequently and fill the car with water after it all sprayed out.
The eventual arrival in Dar was a blessing and we quickly found our reserved room, ready to readjust and laugh off the trauma we had endured at the reverend’s guesthouse. The following day we were up bright and early, ready for the second leg of the trip. I remember the boat ride to the island being particularly enjoyable. Zanzibar was less than two hours away from the main land and the trek was nothing but pleasant. Still, I harbored intense hatred that I never spoke of and instead kept it a secret buried in my heart. Oh sure, it was great to experience the island and I made every effort to let the past go and just have fun, but I just couldn’t shake the hatred.
Once arriving in Zanzibar, we found our guesthouse, checked in and then we took off for footing around Stone Town. We had not been walking long when a Tanzanian stopped us in the street. He was atop a wee motorbike and halted us in our tracks, all at once, inquiring about our immediate intentions. He introduced himself as Ola Ola Coca Cola and asked if we were lost or if he could help us in any way. Believe me, I was in no mood to comply with whimsical African needs, nor did I have any intentions of conversing with the man.
He began to follow us and just as I turned to ask him to take leave, he uttered these words: “You are a scorned American. Please, may I help?” It was as though the gates of separation had burst wide open and we had a friend from the other side.
I made no nonsense and replied straight away, “Yes I am and I have good reason to be.” That was the beginning of a lengthy conversation in which I spoke of the minister and the money he had stolen. After that, I continued with: “I’m sick to death of the constant attempts to steal my purse or any packages I might carry. Why, I can’t even wear sunglasses for fear someone will pluck them from my face.”
“I’m sick of the beggars everywhere!” Peyton added.
“Yes, that too,” I agreed. From there I described the many duplicitous people we had been forced to live with; the knavish churchgoers and rogue spokesmen for God who whipped their congregations into a frenzy.
Obviously, I was overwhelmed with grief and delivered my tirade with uncommon expletives. Moments later I tired and stood mute. “It’s alright, madam. I can help you,” the little man offered. This poor, innocent soul was forced to hear more than an earful of bellyaching, as he stood subject to my insatiable desire to be heard. Later I surmised that this might have been the rant I longed to hurl at the judge back in Kampala during the trial. But now it had been unabashedly imposed upon this charming and considerate stranger. Amazingly, he returned my mouthings with understanding and even humility, never giving reason for me to feel embarrassed or ashamed.
“Please call me Ola and don’t worry about going on so. I understand,” he said through a huge grin.
“You are most kind, sir and I would like to know about you,” I said.
“Well, there isn’t much to tell. I just live around here and love to help tourists.”
As it turned out, this one was an intriguing resident of the Stone Town area. He was well-known and eventually street talk would disclose that he was everything he claimed to be. For starters, Ola was married to a Maasai woman who was recognized to be a wizard when it came to traditional foods. It was his usual business to approach tourists and offer a classic African meal in his home, touting his wife as the “wonder chef.” By the end of our discourse Ola extended an invitation for us to have a meal the following day.
“Sunday is a perfect day for us,” P chimed in. “We would like to come to your home.”
“Well, this is rather sudden, but the whole thing sounds delightful,” I said.
“Fine; then you will come tomorrow afternoon, yes? I will tell my wife we are having guests. This will make her very happy.”
I agreed and we made the deal. We were to purchase the preparations and bring them with us. He handed me a shopping list and explained the importance of each item. After my culinary lesson of sorts, I was pumped and ready to locate the items. Amazingly, we were more than up for the idea and felt some minor trust in Ola.
“Good. We will see you tomorrow,” he said. After, Ola secured the arrangement and detailed the location of his home. Then he added, “The dinner is certain to be a delight, but the invitation features a lesson in forgiving Africa.”
On that one, I just smiled and bid farewell. From there P and I hunted for the open market where we were to collect the ingredients needed for the meal. Just as Ola said, we found the market in the heart of the commerce area opposite Stone Town, by the bay. We had no idea of the going rates for anything and the whole endeavor was a crash course in Swahili, math and patience. Between the two of us we were able to calculate each required amount and after thirty unenviable and nerve-twitching minutes we had the bounty.
Sunday morning was soon upon us and this time when the five o’clock temple chanting began we only slept about an hour longer. As soon as first light hit our faces we were up with great anticipation, gathering our belongings and preparing for our special day. We hurried about as though we had the most pressing engagement to attend. Both of us wore our most distinguished clothes and made every effort to sport a proper presentation. We skipped breakfast, for we only cared about making our way through the Stone Town corridors, traveling by way of the back exit, making sure to avoid beggars on our way.
Ola and his wife lived many miles from city center and it was too far to just foot. We hailed a private hire and managed to follow the crude map we had been given. The journey involved a short distance of walking among mud and manure huts and a few houses made of tin. It was early, but the sun was brutal and I worried about the heat. As we hurried along, I prayed Ola’s house would somehow be cool.
Exactly as described, the house was found at the end of a long and dusty red-clay road that was practically impossible to drive, due to the bottomless potholes. By the time we hit Ola’s front doorstep, both of us were beginning to produce a bit of moisture on our faces. I hated that. Since forever the threat of smeared make-up evoked uneasiness in me, and this occasion was no exception. Should I rub my index finger across my upper lip and discover moisture, it would cause agonizing discomfort. No doubt, this was one of those times.
Fortunately, once we stepped into Ola’s home it was instantly cool and provided the rescue I so desperately needed. For now, the torture of the sun mattered not, for inside it was shaded and the night’s gentle breezes had afforded an acceptable temperature for most of the day. In addition, the warm welcoming extended to us was gratefully appreciated and something we had not received for some time. It was strikingly obvious that among the dozens of dinner receptions we had encountered, this one would stand apart. These two were greatly honored by our presence and could not do enough to prove it. Even more significant, their general message of sympathy and understanding was rapidly perceived, encouraging both P and I to make ourselves comfortable.
The house was more than a hut. Walls of clay were mingled among the wooden ones, while others were covered in corrugated iron. No matter what kept the structure sturdy and straight, it was a cozy, simple, elegant home that was something to be proud of. There were photos of their original villages and family members spread about on the walls. Separate was an area comprised of a collection of the wife’s treasured Kenyan jewelry. One backdrop was created from books...many, many books about Africa, America, the Maasai and all kinds of African creatures. It took more than a few minutes to view the expansive exhibition and they accommodated us with adequate time to absorb our surroundings. As we meandered about the room touching, reading and ingesting, they were off conversing quietly in another part of their house.
The first order of fare was the offering of juice. As requested, we had purchased all the foods, but much to our surprise they had attended to all the drinks and fresh fruit. We were offered cooled papaya juice, followed by Jackfruit. As I struggled to take the Jackfruit, Yenetta, the wife, recognized my hesitation and inquired if there was a problem. Any other time I would have suffered through and just gotten it down, but she was so gracious I felt it was permissible to tell the truth. “No, sorry but this isn’t one of our favorites,” I muttered. She was quick to remove it. “Thank you. We have tried to like it without success.”
Soon after taking of the fruit, the wife stood and glided out of the room. It was then that I recognized what an unusually lovely woman she was. Towering over six feet, Yenetta appeared to levitate as she crossed the hardened earth floor. Her neck was long and graceful and her eyes held such an expanse they could have made four of mine. Her hair was short and kept close to her head with exotic, dangling earrings resting upon her shoulders. She was clothed in orthodox wraps of extraordinary cloth.
As stated, Ola was a small man and when he stood next to Yenetta he only came to her upper arm. Indeed, together they were something to see. Not that Ola wasn’t a nice looking individual, for he had a handsome appearance, accentuated by gleaming white teeth. His head was shaved and his face had no traces of hair. He was adorned in ceremonial clothes of his own, and together they created an air of elegance. I easily remember feeling touched by the palpable love between them. This was a red-letter day and every moment would be cherished--every single moment. While Yenetta prepared the meal, Ola held us in rapt attention with enthralling tales of tourists and excursions he had organized for people from all over the world. He was eager to show evidence of other visitors, like us, who had come for a traditional meal. There were photos and a guest sign-in journal with inspiring remarks. We exchanged opinions regarding the polity of the day and comprehensively investigated each other’s personal history.
Ola’s storytelling was engrossing and his delivery was sophisticated, as he welcomed the opportunity to paint visuals with his tongue. As I watched this slender, less than five-foot-tall black man recite his glories, I came to realize that this man was Africa. Ola truly had the heart of the land. Moreover, after a few tales had been related I knew that he also had the heart of a lion. While in his presence, enveloped in his castle, I finally met who I believed to be an authentic African. Yenetta, too, was true African and her languid grace captured more than just the eye.
That day I talked more from my heart than from my mind. I disclosed sensitive information and even admitted that I felt put upon, making me resentful and heartbroken. “I wonder what would happen if I began to ‘talk down’ to Africans, as many mzungus, or white people, do? And what if I can’t help but view everything through this cloud of bitterness from now on?” I asked.
Ola’s reply was instantaneous: “You can’t change who you are, Penny. You have always had a heart for Africa and your pain is from disappointment of what you originally believed. You have been wronged and you haven’t healed. But, I promise, you will.” After that I explained my idea of becoming African and what it meant to me.
“If I can think like an African, I won’t be stolen from and I’ll win at the game that only they play. I want to read their minds and be one step ahead.”
Ola peered deep into my eyes and asked, “Do you truly believe you can think like an African...become African? You can be receptive, but African?”
After thinking it over I admitted that I probably would never think like an African, but at least it was a step in the right direction. “I can try and I can scrutinize their behavior. I won’t give up.” As he sat holding my hand tears began to fall and eventually it was established that I did still love Africa and in time I would find my way back to the land and people I originally held so dear.
After a feast of meats and vegetable dishes tailored especially for us, Yenetta and Ola took us to the back of their house and into what they called “the video room.” There we sipped on Tanzanian dripped coffee and watched three National Geographic movies about Africa. Either Ola or Yenetta narrated each video and Peyton and I made every effort to memorize the words they shared. The mini-course on Africa that they provided was like nothing I had ever seen or heard, and in the end, we were both brimming over with new facts. Beyond basic history, we were introduced to cultures we didn’t know existed. After the presentation it was obvious we had so much to learn about what it meant to be African.
Evening came before we knew it and we were forced to take leave. Upon extending our thanks, Ola delivered a grand farewell in front of his house with Yenetta at his side. He must have spoken for ten minutes, or so it seemed. He made constant reference to our hearts and he thanked God repeatedly for our meeting. He spoke directly to Peyton and told him how fortunate he was to be raised in Africa and that he would end up owing a debt to the people. “Africa needs you, young man.” Ola would articulate. “Don’t stop loving Africa. There is a reason you are here and it has yet to be revealed.” I agreed; we all four hugged and Peyton and I were off to Stone Town with a happier heart and the beginnings of true and lasting forgiveness.