Today we go to Tongolo, the part of Africa you would expect to find in a National Geographic spread. My Aunt Judy must go to this village to appeal to the chief, hoping that he will fill out the paperwork she needs to begin the process of adopting her daughter, Malia. Normally these papers are signed by the child's parents, but Malia's mother and father are no longer around. They aren't dead, just "away," - there's the unspoken understanding that the people of Tongolo know exactly where the child's parents are, and are keeping quiet for their protection. Abandoning a child is illegal, and if either parent is found, they would absolutely be jailed for it. There is a man who claims to be an uncle in the village, and we will need his signature as well.
We drive to the village on what must be the second worst road in Uganda*. It's a holiday, a holy day, and the villagers we pass are dressed in their finest, walking to and from their worshiping places. "Most of the children in the villages have never seen a white person," I am told before we leave, "so they will either run away from you, or they'll run at you and ask you for something." None of the children have run away, yet. They run alongside the road in their dresses and slacks, smiling and hollering and waving at our car. One little girl wears a red dress two sizes too big, and she can hardly contain herself when she sees our car. She can't be older than four or five, and she runs the way a child does; she's so excited she can only just control her limbs, and she's picking her knees up higher as if that will make her go faster. She waves her arms as hard as she can as she cries, "Mzungu! Jambo!" Mzungu meaning "white person," Jambo meaning "hello."
(A note about Ugandan roads and traffic from an American perspective. In theory, they drive on the left. In reality, the dirt roads have been so damaged by pot holes and erosion that they drive on whatever side is going to do the least amount of damage to the undercarriage of their cars. Sometimes that's the left side, sometimes that's the right, and sometimes that 's right down the middle, oncoming traffic be damned. The more metropolitan areas may be in better condition, but are no safer to drive on. Traffic laws are little more than courteous suggestions, and there's no right-of-way privilege for pedestrians or cyclists, just the assumption that they know better than to get hit by a car. But I didn't see or hear of a single accident in the time I was there, so they must have found a method to the madness.)
We've been led to the village by Elizabeth, the woman who found Malia and placed her into my aunt's care. Elizabeth acts as a social worker for Tongolo and the surrounding villages, an America woman who's made it her job to help floundering villages prosper. Her visit today has two purposes - to join our visit with the chief, and check in on the progress of her work. She's been showing the villagers how to plant and care for personal and communal gardens, teaching them to grow vegetables that they can either eat or take down to the market to sell.
Elizabeth speaks little Lugandan, and the villagers speak little English, so her friend and co-worker Lillian has come with us, and when the villagers come to see us, she makes the introductions. I say they came to see us, but really, they came to see Malia, and some can hardly believe their eyes. How different she must look from the little girl with stick-thin legs and the crooked back who left them only months ago. Now she looks healthy, and happy, and most importantly, loved. And when I say everyone comes, I mean everyone comes. Mothers, children, men who may or may not be uncles, and they all touch her face and hold her hands and try to make her smile, and I think, "Where was this warmth when she was thrown to the street and you heard her cry?"
Some of the houses are square and made of brick, some of the houses are round and made of mud. Some have painted pictures on the outer walls, telling you who lives there with some decorative flair. We saw at least one herd of cattle (I still don't know if we saw more than one herd, or the same herd more than once), many people had goats (and some baby goats) tied up outside of their homes. My aunt and I have taken Malia down the hill a ways to see where the pigs are kept, two huge, muddy beasts fighting for shade under the trees. There is an engine roar above us, and one of the might-be-an-uncles calls us back up the hill. The chief has just arrived on his motorcycle, and now it is time to talk.