Archive for April, 2010

Illegal Immigrants, For a Few Hours

April 29, 2010

Lonely Planet said it was an official border crossing. Michelin made it look like a road, at least. But this, these two sandy tire tracks in the savannah, with a little row of tall grass growing wildly in between, this could not be an international highway. Where are we?

There’s a police officer ahead, two of them actually. He’s waving at us, better stop. Damn, I hope he doesn’t give us a hard time. We probably do look a little suspicious crossing the border this way. He probably thinks we have a car full of gems or rhino horns.

“It is very lonely here, you know. I haven’t had a soda all day.”

Is he asking us for a soda? Is that all he wants? Maybe he can tell us where the border is.

“Yes, it’s that way. Not far, you go.”

A conspicuous and incongruous metal sign is barely visible above the tall grass on the right side of the road. Tanroads, it says at the top, like a header, and below it lists four cities and the distance to each. Are we in Tanzania? Did we cross the border? And what is a mileage sign doing here? There isn’t a single mileage sign in all of Uganda, and now here there’s one where there are no drivers to read it.

At what looks like it might be an official border a log has been laid across the road, and a sign is propped on it: Police Checkpoint. To the left of the road is a house of cards, several rectangular sheets of scrap metal stacked in a way that just barely keeps them all standing. A thick, balding, jovial man in a purple soccer jersey sits on the dusty ground outside, plucking a chicken.

Najua Englisy?

“I only speak Swahili.”


“Kyaka, you go.”


“Yes, you go.”

With our tenuous claim to legal entry we drive to Kyaka, about a hundred kilometers away if the unexpected road sign could be believed. What happens if you get arrested for sneaking across an African border? In a car you never bothered to import? Without insurance? Can’t be good, can it?

The only people at the immigration office in Kyaka are a very large, underdressed housewife and what are presumably the children she and the absent immigration officer have parented. We sit in her living room and watch a Mexican telenovella while she phones her husband for us. She passes her phone.

“You come Monday. I am at the market.”

But we are illegal – shit, can I say that to him? that we’re illegal? – but we just crossed the border and we need to buy our visas.

“I am coming.”

In his office, which was separate from his living room, he is friendly but suspicious of our irregular movement.

“You must drive to the official border.”

But it’s an hour away, and we’d be illegal the whole way. The car doesn’t have insurance. What if the police stop us?

“I can’t stamp you in until Uganda stamps you out.”

But now that we’re here we can’t get out of Tanzania until you stamp us into Tanzania. They won’t let us back across the border. It was an argument we would win, though he quickly refuses when we ask for a multiple entry visa. Suspicious in his own way, he does not issue a receipt for the money we give him for our visas.

“You have seven days.”

Having legalized ourselves, we have to import the car. The nearest office doesn’t have the right papers – but does have a large heap of delicious dried pineapple sitting on the dirty counter – so we have to drive to another one, all the way back to the official border crossing that we talked the immigration officer out of sending us to. We are fearful that every police officer along the way might notice our illegal, uninsured car. We pass through several roadblocks, but no one stops us.

The customs officer requires a copy of the car’s registration, and the nearest copier is in Uganda. After struggling to get our visas in Tanzania, we now sneak down an alleyway back into Uganda, just to use the copy machine. Back at the customs office in Tanzania, the paperwork is perfunctory. As we are leaving we ask where to get the car insured.

“Why do you want to do that?”

What if the police stop us?

“What is this sticker here?”

Our insurance in Kenya.

“You just point to this one and you tell the police it is for Tanzania. They cannot read.”

Are you joking? Is he joking? We chuckle in a way meant to show we are either laughing with him at the absurdity of a government official suggesting we break the law or laughing with him at the idiots over in the police department, whichever one he means.

“You just look very serious. You don’t laugh, you look serious. They will let you go.”

We drove away. Do you think he’s phoning his police buddies at the next roadblock to tell them to be looking for a white couple in a Suzuki without insurance?

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Little Africa

April 16, 2010

Like all elders, my mom likes to make her childhood – “back when movies cost a quarter” – sound dramatically old-fashioned. She grew up “on a farm,” and she and her brothers and sisters had to walk “for miles” through “a jungle” to get to and from school. They called their jungle, probably an unweeded vacant lot, Little Africa. For years my dad listened to stories about Little Africa. At every telling my mom thought she was talking about overgrown plants, but my dad thought he was hearing about a neighborhood of black Americans.

I used to laugh at my dad’s perspective, wondering how he ever imagined a black community in Kentucky in what my mom would call, with only a little exaggeration, “the country.” But at least he had the logic of analogy on his side: if Little Italy is full of Italians rather than grape vines and olive trees then why wouldn’t Little Africa be full of black people?

Now, it’s hard to say which stereotype is funnier. We do think of Africa as deepest, darkest jungle, even though a third of the continent is desert, and much of the rest is savannah. On the other hand, we continue to call black Americans African even though most have had nothing to do with Africa for centuries. A black American is as plain old American as a white one. There’s no need to qualify.

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Getting Married

April 11, 2010

I was thinking about my options. Three trucks were parked outside the party, all of them full of gifts to be delivered to the fiancée’s family. The refrigerator, wrapped in gold, looked heavy. So did the stove. The bags of rice and floor seemed a little more manageable, but they were dusty and I was in a black suit coat I had borrowed from the fiancé. I grabbed one of the dozens of crates of soda and beer, and I took my place in the queue.


Before you get married, you have to get engaged. Some rushed or unfussy couples might eschew the pomp of a formal engagement but insofar as there is necessarily some period of time between the moment they decide to get married and the moment they actually do, they were engaged. We think of an engagement as a private decision, however anticipated it may be by others, that is later communicated publicly, ideally to cheers and congratulations. Among the Buganda though, an engagement is a family affair, a ceremony just as elaborate and meaningful as the wedding itself.

In the local language, the engagement ceremony is called an introduction. Traditionally, it is the day when the two families meet to negotiate a dowry. We, those of us on the man’s side, had met earlier in the afternoon at a hotel not far from the house where, in more conservative times, the young woman would still be living with her family.

There is a uniform costume that all guests are expected to wear to an introduction. For the women, it is a colorful wrap reminiscent of an Indian sari. For the men, it is a long white robe called a kanzu and, on top, a black suit coat, a local twist on the lore which advises something old and something new. I had borrowed my outfit; my girlfriend had rented hers.

We entered in procession, men and women in two parallel lines. It was a lawn party, with two large tents facing each other across a short court of grass. Her extended family, about one hundred delegates, was already seated under one of the tents. He and his guests, an envoy of another one hundred emissaries, were ushered to the seats under the other tent. It looked like a scene of medieval battlefield negotiation. A third, equally large tent for unrelated guests had been erected on the slightly elevated driveway, like stadium seating for the jousting competition. Immediately when we sat down, friends of the bride delivered cold drinks and snacks from baskets on their heads, part flight attendant, part circus trick, part chorus line.

Negotiations began promptly, and it seemed like they would never end. In Africa, endless insipid speechmaking is the feeble child of the oral tradition and historiography of preliterate elders. Every gathering, no matter how small and informal, begins with a succession of hollow speeches, most of them no more than platitudes. An introduction, at least, is a little livelier because it is a negotiation, however stylized.

The deliberations were conducted in the Buganda language, but the friendly flow of banter and theatrics was easy enough to follow. The fiancée’s family enumerated the many reasons why their daughter merited her high sticker price: her beauty, her education, her connections, her lineage, her job. The fiancé’s family haggled, pretending with a smile to look under the hood for manufacturing defects. The fiancée was kept in hiding until the deliberations stalled, at which point she made a dramatic musical entrance. Immediately, the fiancé and everyone else exclaimed that she is indeed worth everything her family had demanded, which, by convenient prior arrangement, was exactly what we had brought with us to give them.

We, the fiancé’s entourage, went to fetch the gifts. We were a small army of movers in formal wear, like the opening scene of an orgiastic pornographic film. On our first trip, the women carried towering baskets of party foods on their heads, the foreigners discretely using one hand to balance their loads; the men made a chain and carried crates of beer and soda, looking like elephants walking trunk to tail. On our second trip we carried more practical foodstuffs: eggs, sugar, flour, and boxes of water. On our third trip we each carried a small wrapped gift, labeled explicitly for a particular member of the fiancée’s family. There were a few exceptional gifts too: the refrigerator, the stove, the carcasses of one goat and one cow, and several live chickens. Most of the presents were obviously intended to help offset the cost of the party; but others, like whatever was inside the dozens of handwrapped boxes, were clearly meant to begin forging a bond between the extended branches of the two families. Ironically, by the time we finished our delivery a wall of gifts had been built in the small grassy court between the two families. Sometimes generosity just gets in the way.

We were hoping that the program would relax once the deal had been sealed with a kiss, but the formalities continued. On the equator, direct sun feels like a red science fiction laserbeam that incinerates any human it hits. You can almost smell your hair burning. What is rarer on the elevated plains of east Africa is hot air temperature. On a glaringly bright afternoon, the tent trapped the warming air, and we sweltered in our layers of borrowed and rented polyester clothing. As the sun dropped from its zenith its rays angled into the side of the tent where we were seated, and our exposed skin withered and cracked like old autumn leaves. By the time the party ended in the late afternoon we felt like leftover beans that had been simultaneously baked and fried for hours; we were crusty on the outside and mushy on the inside.

Back at our cheap hotel, the air conditioner was broken. But thankfully the shower water was cold.

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