Tongolo, Uganda. Fall 2009.
Elizabeth says we need to go up the mountain to Galema before we go back home. The wife of the village's LC has a lump on her leg that he wants Elizabeth to look at. There's really nothing she can do if it's anything more than a bruised bump, but the people here trust her. If she tells them to go down to the doctors at the aid station, they will.
She says it's an hour walk from Tongolo to Galema, and Elizabeth is fully prepared to hike up the mountain. The rest of us, less so. Malia is sound asleep in her baby sling across Judy's back - I wish I were that small. It's late in the afternoon, but the sun is still high enough to burn mercilessly. It sounds silly to say so; It's Africa, I knew it would be hot, but I never thought it would be so relentless. I've got a hat and plenty of sunscreen, and I can still feel the skin on my nose burning pink.
Lillian reminds Elizabeth that we have to walk past the car to get to the path to Galema, and we do have a baby with us, after all. Elizabeth wants to resist, I can see in her eyes she doesn't want to drive up the mountain. I don't say anything. None of us do - we are very obviously not complaining in this battle of the wills, and if Judy points the baby in Elizabeth's direction, it's totally coincidental.
Five minutes into the drive up the mountain, I can see why Elizabeth wanted to walk. I can't say definitively that this is the worst road in Uganda, but it is without a doubt the worst road I've ever been on. The dirt has almost completely eroded away, leaving deep crevasses on either side. The bit of drivable road left is only just barely wide enough for the car - in most places we're driving half on the road, half in the crevasse, with both hands pressed against the ceiling, trying to keep our balance, wincing when a big bump knocks our elbows together.
At the top of the hill, Elizabeth and Lillian cheerfully greet the LC, then disappear into his home to examine his wife, leaving Judy and I to stand by the car and admire the view. Lake Victoria rests at the bottom of the mountain, the Victoria Nile stretching out like an arm into the horizon. Children from around the village who came running at the sound of the car stop short when they see us - we are clearly not who they expected. Some of them run away when I wave, the others just stare. Not in a hostile way, but not in a purely curious way, either. I try not to stare back, but I know that I am.
When Elizabeth emerges from the hut with Lillian and the LC she is smiling, but it's tight across her face, and I can tell she doesn't mean it. The lump must be more than your average bruise. The children flock to her with their hands outstretched, crying "Sweetie! Sweetie!" Elizabeth shoos them away, finally turning out her empty pockets to prove she hasn't brought any candy, and she becomes infinitely less interesting in their eyes. Though they do still crowd around the car to hang off the doors when we're all ready to leave, and won't let go until she leans on the horn. They run off, delighted.
If I thought driving up the mountain was stressful, sending the car back down half-cocked with gravity pushing us faster should have killed me. Driving out of the village is like a sigh. We roll the windows down to let the air run through us, cooling the sweat on our skin. The sun won't set for another three hours, but all I want to is crawl into bed and sleep for days. Gently, though; I'm lucky to be unburned, but I'm still pretty pink around the edges enough to know that tonight will be an uncomfortable one.
We still wave at the children who run along beside the car, but our smiles are tired and our hands are heavy. The happy cries of "Mzungu! Bye!" follow us all the way back to town.
Post Script: Two days ago, after several long, uncertain months full of suddenly appearing family members, lost money, and disappearing judges, Judy contacted all of us with the news that she was officially Malia's legal guardian! She hopes to return to America soon, where she will be able to complete the adoption process.