“When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.” –Rumi
We spent mornings sitting together on her banana-fiber mat in the July sun, speaking pleasantries in our respective languages and beaming smiles at each other as we held hands. Maryam was a sixty-year-old patient at the Uganda Cancer Institute in Kampala, living on the facility’s lawn for weeks awaiting the repair of the sole radiation machine because she could not afford to go home and come back.
Where is she from? I wondered. What has she left behind?
The Luganda phrases I learned fell short of even asking such questions. But the conversation itself was irrelevant. Our communication was not with words, but with intonation and intention. It was through this language that we developed a friendship. A friendship that traversed culture, ethnicity, generations, and even words. I felt a steadiness in her grasp despite, what seemed to me, the urgency of her condition. And beyond this steadiness sprouted an optimism from the center of her palms into mine.
Maryam’s strong face, the glances we exchanged, the mango juice sold by a nearby vendor, the auburn dust of Kampala’s streets… these snapshots, close to the forefront of my experience, comprised a transparent sensory experience. But the amalgamation of these snapshots, the less tangible impact of the culmination of all these moments, set in gradually. In some ways, it is still setting in.
It began with almost inaudible rumblings. A subtle vibration or an unidentified feeling that I did not even recognize as worthy of investigation. I was surprised to feel, despite the relief of returning home, an unfamiliarity with the place I had known so long. Nights spent in my room were bereft of geckos to keep me company. It was harder to fall asleep without the delicate nestling of the mosquito net. My body was home, but my spirit was elsewhere. I caught myself saying prayers during my nightly candle lighting ritual for the infant of a taxi driver who had suffered third-degree burn. I somehow seemed to be living in two spaces at once. As my body stepped out into the hallway each morning, slowly waking, my mind dreamt of the village morning air, and the beautiful moth I saw with the broken wing that miraculously flew.
Rainy days drew my mind’s eye to the girl in a pink dress twirling through the littered, muddy paths of a slum. A constant, somewhat unconscious awareness of the world’s expansiveness inhabited the back of my mind, along with the variegated ways of life within it and the contrasting ideas of how it should be lived. Sometimes I felt the wise gaze of the girl who sat in between the bunk beds in an orphanage, poised like a queen, the whites of her eyes like marbles in the dark. The contrast between these rumblings and my physical surroundings was hard to reconcile. Returning home was a more difficult transition than living in Uganda.
The words of a Ugandan intern about his time in the United States resounded in my head when I returned to life with my housemates.
“I don’t understand,” he had said. “Everyone is so alone. You get home, go into your rooms and close the doors, shutting everybody out. People living in one house, all with their doors closed! Why?”
I began to see his perspective. I missed seeing friends walking arm-in-arm on the street. I missed huddling by a kerosene lamp in a tiny room with my two companions, their newborn baby, and all assortment of insects while the rain heaved. I missed drinking chaiwamata, milk tea, with my host sisters who openly showed me their Ugandan ways. I missed the vivacity of expression in Luganda, the “ahs” in so many different pitches that each express their own unique feeling.
And alongside that lack of intimacy, I felt an excess of everything else. The overwhelming abundance of brands of butter to choose from at the grocery store. The preponderance of advertisements and billboards. The weight of restaurant menus, dense with lavish variety. The fog of commercialism. I missed the stillness of the village. The strength of spirit I felt waking each morning to a symphony of birds, with nothing in my possession other than a backpack.
I found myself following news in East Africa. Elections. Political groups. After the 2014 terrorist attack in Nairobi, I sent a frenzy of emails. I knew people in Nairobi. My world had become bigger. I read about the history of South Sudan.
“Did you even know that Africa has a new country?” the son of a patient had asked me. My experiences had changed me, and I had to realign my life to syncretize myself with those changes. I could no longer live selfishly, or narrowly. My choices held weight—not only for myself, but for others. I could make use of the privilege I was given to my own benefit, or I could use it to the benefit of others. I no longer felt right using that privilege for any other purpose. It felt like the only purpose.
Four years after my first trip to Uganda, part of me is still living in that village. I struggle for words to describe the feelings that sometimes seize me… sometimes familiar, other times entirely new.
I am not as enamored by comfort as I used to be. Discomfort is necessary for growth, a lesson I constantly try to remember as I continue along this path that I do not expect to get any easier. I am still trying each day to live less selfishly, to learn as much as I possibly can, and to happily make the sacrifices that, in the greater perspective, are minuscule in light of their purpose: to strive for a world in which everyone has access to the basics.
In a certain way, I feel more isolated as my commitment to this mission grows stronger. But in another, I feel more connected than ever. I remember my friendship with Maryam that developed across culture, generation, and language. When I feel discouraged, when my goals seem unattainable, when my determination wanes, I remember Maryam’s beaming smile under the July sun on her banana fiber mat, and I feel her steadiness and optimism sprout from her palms into mine, and from mine, outwards.