Mornings in Uganda are first the color of periwinkles, then roses, then suddenly a shot of brightest marigold. I watch it from my doorstep, listening. The caws of bright equatorial birds punctuate the blanket of wet air, and then, from the top of the hill, I hear the roll of monkeys. In clusters, they run down the rocky red dirt road to campus, leaping from trees and one side of the path to the other. Every morning, they run down this hill where the white people live to the campus where the African students study and African professors lecture and African cooks prepare curry and samosas. They don’t run past the garbage dump reeking of rotten potato, but instead keep running down to the old brick chapel, circled in flowers and benches. Later I will sit on one of these benches, a study in self-consciousness, as the bell clangs and the monkeys tumble in the shrubs.
At 6:00 a.m, the mosquito net around my bed hangs unmoving in the thick air; the black and white cat curls around my ankles as a lizard runs under my door. I am sweaty, March pale, the only person on this campus in leggings, but I am going to go for a run. I am fortunate that I am on a campus where I can run without fear of oil trucks and taxi bikes. The woman who helped me arrange my visit told me I could run here as long as I didn’t wear shorts or too-tight leggings. I look at my butt in the mirror, shrug, lock my door.
I follow the road down to the cafeteria where women peel endless piles of potatoes next to a charcoal fire. I pass a woman who is carrying a small load, but not the ubiquitous marigold-yellow water container that resembles a gas can. Running water seems to exist everywhere on campus; no need to carry it. Bathrooms too have running water; they are small, and located in outbuildings that are locked with a key, but clean. After my travels in China, Uganda has been a kind surprise in terms of restrooms. I keep running, speeding up when I smell garbage and sewer potatoes. Then I pass a pair of men. I don’t know if they stare at me or not, but despite wearing the loosest running capris I own, I feel like I’m running through the Vatican in a bikini.
I decide to turn around.
I would like a few more miles, so when I reach my lodge I continue to run intervals uphill as groups of monkeys run down. The only other human I see is a woman walking up to one of the houses. She smiles at me when I pass. Later, when I eat dinner with a white family in one of those houses, I’ll recognize her, swinging the white children on the playground. The young couple will feed me pumpkin, greens, grains, and watermelon. Their small children will giggle and run screaming across the tile floor. This house, like all the others up here, will have running water and a Land Rover and no yellow water cans.
That afternoon, I sit on the chapel bench and watch the monkeys tumble in the shrubs and write in my journal I could live here. I know it’s a lie. Because the women outside the gates carry water jugs the color of sunflowers and marigolds, but if I lived in Uganda I wouldn’t have to do that. I could be a tourist forever, wrapped in long skirts and dripping skin, living a separate, almost comfortable life if only for the monkeys racing me down the hill each morning, if only for the sudden sunrise, reminding me where I am.
Katie Karnehm-Esh, professor of English at Indiana Wesleyan University, graduated from the University of St Andrews, Scotland, with a Ph.D. in Creative Writing. She has published creative nonfiction and poetry at Fourth Genre, The Other Journal, Topology, Whale Road Review, and Windhover, and writes regularly at annesleywritersforum.com.