Sunday, July 24, 2011

Our Smirnoff Angel

People drink in Africa. I’m not out to shock. Drinking is inescapable, borderless, global. At the same time that I was surprised how relatively little people drank in Rome (this coming from a junior at Madison), I was even more surprised to see how much people drink in Uganda. Not everyone does, but the ones who do certainly make up for the teetotalars. This is not a lecture on alcoholism in Uganda, although it is an issue often close to my mind, it’s just intended as more background- to provide a backdrop for my rural life here; the beautiful savannah scenery is sometimes and rather often occupied by at least one fantastically inebriated villager. I could say the same thing about Madison- it is not a condemnation, rather a casual observation, such as “there are many conifer trees by Lake Mendota”, or “at least once a day the staff at the Essenhaus has to mop vomit off the bathroom walls.”

I actually have great experience dealing with drunk people. Don’t worry, grandma. I’m resourceful. So there, the background is filling out slowly, despite a lack of pictures. I’m sure one of you is now envisioning The Lion King, except that Mufasa is embarrassingly drunk and doling out terrible advice to Sumba, like “always wine and dine the hyenas” or “there’s much pride in a lion…pride.” And hey, that’s a good start. It’s a good backdrop to the drama I’m about to recount.

To begin, a few weeks ago after watching part of a school soccer match (in which I was supposed to play but was gently encouraged not to and in which I watched as the national team of Uganda disguised as 14 year olds, played), Tom and I walked to the big market by the border where we often go. It’s about a 15 minute walk, usually peppered with many lively encounters and filled out by a terror-striking session at the market in which we scramble around in a tomato-buying trance, as all of Ugandan follows and watches. It’s quite exciting for an event that we must do daily. It’s often emotionally draining and makes me physically ache for a Byerlis or Copps on those days when I want to disappear into a corner instead of buy vegetables as the entire community watches.

Anyway, we had steeled ourselves for the nightly battle and were walking towards the market when we ran into the most likely candidate for our daily market-angel. Yes, we have market angels. They are sort of like the floor attendants at Whole Foods who ask you how your day is and whether they can help you find the newest brand of ultra-organic pineapple, except that they aren’t at Whole Foods, and they are wasted. Maybe when people get plastered, they can only focus on one objective of utmost importance, it’s sort of like their battle cry: I.Must.Help.These.Mundus.Buy.Vegetables.And.Protect.Them.At.All.Costs.From.The.Many.Dangers.Of.The.Village.Market. Why not? Frankly Tom and I are tickled by this. Our market angels must fit several criteria:
1. They must be Lugbara men
2. They must be dangerously intoxicated

These angels materialize in the most ordinary of ways. Sometimes they grab onto us the minute we enter the market. Sometimes they come out of the woodwork. They ALWAYS stay with us for the duration of the shopping- guiding us to the onions, arguing bitterly with the women about prices, sheparding us through the crowds.
This time we met our angel on the way, wobbling along the road with a bag (yes a bag) of vodka pressed to his lips like a sacred secret. Upon hearing where we were going, he grabbed our hands and we walked together. He spoke in an enchanting vodka-infused language that managed to combine Lugbara, English, and Vodka into one tongue. At the market, he lead us fearlessly through the crowds, and became a bit fierce at times. There was nothing more important than ensuring the safety of our green peppers, the integrity of our endives. Although at this point, Tom and I both knew exactly where everything is at the market, he let us there; shouting at everyone in our way. These people WILL have their bananas! And at a non-mundu price! -He seemed to tell them. Upon finishing our food quest, our angel left with us, making a vulgar gesture at the men who patrol the market space. Before heading back home- this angel happens to be a neighbor!- our angel took a quick but spirited detour to the nearest dukka to buy another bag of vodka, ordering it in his almost elven language. Spirits were high and rising on our journey back, and to our sweet angel, the enemies began to emerge from many unlikely places. THEIR VEGETABLES ARE NOT SAFE UNTIL THEY ARE HOME!- he seemed to cry out into the night, warding off friendly greetings with harsh words and hitting passerbyers indiscriminately with his broken sandal. Tom and I felt uneasy. Despite his good intentions, our angel was coming off aggressive. When the road became empty in front of us, devoid of all the threatening pedestrian villagers, we all felt a little better. Our angel’s vodka was nigh gone- he lifted it to his lips to chug the rest. We had not known until then that our angel has a tendency towards song and dance, but for the rest of our odyssey home, we danced down the dirt road, carefully following the lead of our angel to the one-phrased song, “My friend, how are you?” over and over and over. Our angel would interrupt our joyful singing once in a while to say, in a moment of sobriety, “I’m a proud man” before going back to his two-step. We really found our stride when we formed a Congo Line, and this was the means by which we reached our homes safely. For a few minutes there, we were all speaking the same language- that of a person with too much drink and good intentions.


  1. Yikes...heck of a story...stay safe!

    Hope yer good! Saw the Roe Family Singers last night, we talked about you and even danced a little bit.

    Cheers from Dunn Bros!


  2. Ilse - once again, a vivid portrait! Is there a way to dissuade the children from drinking or is the problem just too immense? I love the image of dancing home with your endives, but my heart aches for the Ugandan people, Love, Mumsy

  3. Ilse,

    You're a great writer!