Day 14: On Africa Time

I could be super frustrated. I’ve been here two weeks and still haven’t gotten the internet sorted on my computer. And yet, miraculously, a wave of grace flows through and dissolves the edges of annoyance, leaving laughter in its wake. How does it get any better than this? Life just moves at a different pace here.

Before I left for Africa someone warned me about this, “Don’t expect things to move at the pace you’re used to. If you get one thing done in a day, consider it an accomplishment.”

I want today to be the day I finally get internet on my computer. It’s been a funny string of mishaps: the hot spot I got from America doesn’t work here for some strange reason; all the stores in the city were out of “mi-fi’s” (the equivalent of a hot spot) when we checked last week; and the other equipment loaned to me worked initially but then decided to stop working after a day. Well, it kind of worked… if I want to uninstall and reinstall it from my computer every freaking single time I want to use it. But even then, it still had other quirks.

Okay Universe… show me what else is possible here?

So when the MTN Network guy told me over the phone that they have a mi-fi and I can come pick it up today, I’m ready to go. This is it! This is my answer, so I think. The only thing is I have to be there by 5pm. It’s 3:30. Time doesn’t need to be an issue, except, as it turns out, it is…

I didn’t follow my intuition this morning to put my credit card in my bag, so I have to speed on home to pick it up. No problem, I figure. I’ll walk home, get an Uber, and be on my way…

Easy, right? Yeah. One would think so. But the thing is, there isn’t an actual address for where I live. It’s not an easy, “245 Kampala Road.” So although my Uber app says the driver is just 6 minutes away, I can’t figure out where the pickup spot is. ‘Cause to add to the mystery of location, there aren’t street signs here, and although I’ve asked repeatedly the names of these streets right around me, and have been told the road I live on is Kampala Road, that is not the road that is showing up on the screen. Where the heck is this guy planning on picking me up?

I walk down the red dirt road with my phone in hand, trying to decode the pickup mystery. A boda boda driver comes by, “Miss? A ride?” No thank you. I walk a little further, looking behind me to see if the Uber is showing up at our drive and then gazing into the little phone screen… I have a sense the pickup might be a half mile down at the end of this road or another half mile further down at the end of that road, by the other boda boda stand.

Do I cancel the ride? Take a boda boda all the way over there? Jesus (as Gloria would say), what’s it gonna take? I just freaking want to get a ride and get over to that part of town before 5! And to top it off, as though it just couldn’t get any better, tomorrow is a National Holiday and the offices are closed all the way until MONDAY. So if not today… I have to wait 4 more days…

Just then I look up and – no kidding – see Don, the only boda boda driver that I’ve been introduced to as a safe, trustworthy guy to get rides from. This is not super surprising because just down from here is where he often hangs out with a group of boda boda drivers, but still… he’s here! I get excited. Maybe he can decipher the map for me. Maybe he can take me to Garden City where the MTN offices are closing in 23 minutes.

He’s taking a break from his boda boda and hanging out with a woman who is roasting corn and holding court with her small selection of produce. I ask him if he can take me to Garden City. He makes a few different sounds and head gestures in a matter of seconds and I have no idea what he’s just said. Yet it’s quickly apparent that we will not be communicating with each other in English. I ask again. This time it seems like he’s leaning towards no. I don’t understand why he’d turn down a trip worth at least a few thousand shillings but I change tactics, “Where is Royal (something) Estates?” That’s the landmark I see on my screen; it looks like the pickup location is somewhere near there.

Don recognizes the name. He nods his head. The next thing I know he’s standing on the other side of me with his boda boda ready to give me a ride. In that way that communication gets inaccurately accomplished without a shared spoken language, and in the way that we can delude ourselves, I get, simultaneously, that he’s going to take me to the Royal Estates and I delude myself into thinking he’s understood, like I have, that my Uber driver is NEAR there but not actually THERE.

I use what street knowledge I have… I ask him how much for the ride. $1000 shillings. ‘What?’ I give him a hard time, thinking he’s just taking me a mile away. ‘You’re stealing from me,’ I say, using a line that a shop woman said to me last week when I offered her $1000 shillings for something she wanted $1500 for. I shake my head with mock disapproval, while the smile on my face communicates, ok, you f*cker, let’s do this.

I straddle the seat behind him. As he starts to pull away the woman holding court with her produce calls out to me, ‘Sit proper!’ I look over at her, ‘You mean sideways?’ but we’re off and I’m straddling and holding his shirt, praying for a safe short easy ride that leads me to my Uber driver.

Don drives down the road and takes a left… no cars parked here… no obvious Uber drivers… ok, this is all right, let’s keep going, I think to myself. We get to the end of this street where the other boda boda stand is and there’s no sign of a car parked that could possibly be my driver. Don turns left. Where is he going? I wonder. In our non-spoken exchange I figured he was going to bring me down here and my driver would be here waiting for me. Now what? Where the heck is he going?

That wave of grace kicks in again… just wait and see… and that’s when I remember and realize he’s taking me to Royal Estates, wherever the hell that is. As it turns out, it’s just another mile or so ahead.

We pull up in front of the big gate and I’m like, ‘Oh, no. This isn’t where I want to be.’ I try to explain to him what I’m looking for but again, he’s not understanding anything I’m saying. What’s clear is that he’s not going anywhere till I pay him so at least I know he’s sticking around till I can figure out where to next.

I look at my phone. Now it’s not showing any pick-up location at all. And Don’s not going to take me to Garden City. It’s now 4:50pm. ‘Just take me back,’ I say and somehow, he gets this.

I get on the back of the boda boda and we’re off again, retracing our path. It would be easy to fall into more annoyance and the story of how hard it is to get things done in a new place; how hard it is to just get the simple things taken care of. But I see the trap of that story and fuck if I’m going to let it pull me in. So instead, I smile into the wind. He starts to slow down near where I first found him on the road but I ask him to take me all the way to the house. Now how the hell did he understand that and not what I was trying to communicate earlier? Oh let it go, I tell myself; at least I’m getting driven home.

I laugh as he revvs his engine to gather speed going up the awkward drive full of potholes that have become valleys. I hold on tighter. He drops me off at the gate. ‘How much?’ I ask. ‘$2000.’ How funny is this? $2000 shillings (less than $1 USD) to go on a little Uber chase only to end up where I started from.

Although there will be no internet today… there is a lesson being learned: Africa has its own timing for everything. I can choose to get annoyed with its pace or just get over myself and enjoy the ride.


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