All I desire today is to go to Oasis Mall and tap into the free wifi at Café Javas. I’ve heard raves about Café Javas… how it’s the place to go when craving some Western style food and reliable internet.
I can’t wait.
My Uber app isn’t working so I get a ride with a matatu (mini-bus taxi). It’s a National Muslim Holiday so the taxi is very empty. As I tell the connector* where I want to go, he looks a little confused, but I don’t yet know the importance of having him repeat back to me where he thinks he’s taking me. I decide to just go with the flow and hop on.
(*For each matatu there is a driver and a connector; the connector is the guy who gets out at each place they stop to draw people in for a ride; he finds out where they’re going; he takes their money towards the end of the ride; he waves to people we pass in the street to see if they want a ride; he’s a connector!)
This guy knows how to work things and before long the taxi is overflowing at 17 people (maximum capacity is supposed to be 14). He’s determined to make his quota today, holiday-shmoliday.
We’re traveling for a long time. Finally, I speak up and ask the connector, “How far till Oasis Mall?” He looks at me and then looks at the person next to him. The woman next to me repeats, “Oasis Mall,” as do a couple of other people. The woman next to me says, “It’s up there just a little ways.” I thank her and relax… ok…he knows where he’s taking me.
A few minutes later the driver pulls over to a busy street corner that does not look like where I was told by a team member I’d be dropped off, but again, I’m going with the flow and get out when he says this is where to get off. The young woman sitting next to me hops out and says, “I’ll show you where it is. It’s on the other side of these buildings.”
I realize that I’m in downtown Kampala. The awareness that I’m the only white person here and that I have no idea where I am (except that I’m in the central part of the city) puts me on alert. I hold my bag closer and follow the young woman. I’m filled with a mixture of gratitude and skepticism. Why is she offering to walk me there? What’s in it for her? She tells me she’s heading this way anyway. We walk through a bunch of boda boda drivers; we navigate through a tight path between some other parked matatus. I ask her name. It’s Terry. She’s a student, studying finance. She wants to be a teller at the bank.
Her genuine kindness almost brings me to tears; that she would get off at my stop to show me where to go and make sure I don’t get lost is almost beyond what I can receive right now. I breathe in. I remind myself I’m ok.
We get to another corner of busy traffic and she points across the street. “There is it,” she says, proudly, “Pioneer Mall.”
Gulp. I look over and there’s a gray grungy building that looks nothing like the oasis I was picturing and it’s most definitely not Oasis Mall. Oh, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
I feel vulnerable. Close to tears. My usual adventurous spirit of, “What else is possible?” and “What grand and glorious adventure awaits?” is way in the background. What is in the foreground is fear and all the stories other people have told me about how it’s not safe for me to be downtown alone. My backpack contains all those things I deem valuable: my laptop, phone, money, and a credit card. And now here I am, basically lost (except that I do know I’m at Pioneer Mall, so can I really be lost?), with an Uber app that isn’t working and a kind woman looking at me expecting to see a smile of gratitude.
“I was looking to go to Oasis Mall,” I say to her.
“Oh… You’ll need to get a boda boda to get over there,” she says.
My fear of riding a boda boda kicks in. I read that there are FIVE DEATHS A DAY here caused by reckless boda boda drivers. “What are my other options?”
She strongly insists a boda boda is the best way to go. We’re standing on the busy street corner having this conversation. People are passing by, looking at us. She asks a boda boda driver how much to the Oasis Mall. I don’t want to ride with him. I want to cry. I don’t want to be afraid. I pull up my big girl panties and remind myself I’ve got this and that everything is ok. I’m just lost as all and will work it out.
I tell her I’m going to head over to the Pioneer Mall and will figure out what to do from there. She guides me across the street and delivers me at the entrance. I thank her, this time almost in tears from her kindness, and we part ways.
The Pioneer Mall isn’t what I think of in my Western mind as a mall… but it does have lots of little shops and alleyways that lead back into other shops that I don’t want to go venturing through. I sit down at the corner of a little shop that I can’t even tell what service they provide except that they do have coke in their fridge out front. I get a coke… everything will be better with some sugar, caffeine and a moment to just get myself together.
I send Monica (co-founder of Girl Up) a message via WhatsApp. I tell her briefly what’s happened and ask her what she recommends. She suggests a boda boda: it will be quick and take me exactly where I want to go. I tell her I’m nervous.
Meanwhile, I begin talking with the people in the shop. The two women don’t say much but the two men offer to get me a ride, first a boda boda and then a private taxi. I hesitate… I don’t like the sound of that.
I pass this onto Monica. She says not to trust a private taxi. Then she says she’s going to see if she can get someone to come take me. OMG… I do not want that. I do but I don’t. I want to be braver. I want to overcome my fear.
I’m sitting next to one of the women in the shop. I lean over to her, “What would you do?” she takes her headphones out. “Take a boda boda.”
“I’m nervous though… 5 people die each day on boda bodas.”
She surprises me and says, “It’s not a requirement that you die riding a boda boda. You can die all different kinds of ways.”
I laugh. She wakes me up out of my fear. I have the courage now to take a boda boda.
“I can get a ride for you with one of the drivers we use all the time,” she says. “Want me to do that?”
OMG I’m about to cry again. Yes, please, I tell her, after asking her name. It’s Betty. My dad’s mom was called Betty.
She goes out and I follow. She talks to one of the boda boda drivers outside of the shop. I can ride with him. He’s got a kind face. I thank Betty and we say goodbye as I get on the seat behind the driver. Before we take off I say into his ear, “Please go slow and be safe.” He nods. He drives slow and safe.
We drive through downtown… I can breathe again. Tears roll down my cheeks. I’ve got my backpack strapped in front of me. I’m holding onto the guy’s shirt at his waist. This is fun. This is easy. I can do this. I’m not lost anymore.
He drops me off in front of Oasis Mall. And oh, yes… this looks more like what I was picturing. And there is Café Javas right at the entrance. An oasis.
I walk inside and am delighted to see the polished tile floors, the wide open rooms, the wood tables and chairs, the leather booths, the two-person booth that’s open and beckoning to me to come sit down. I haven’t been in a place like this since I went out to eat in the small touristy area in Durban, South Africa. I order a salad. It’s been way too long since I’ve had fresh greens. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier eating a salad. I sit there, savoring each bite, enjoying how it goes oh so well with my passion fruit ice tea, and let the leather seat embrace me.
Rather than being embarrassed or ashamed by my fear and tears, I give myself a ton of love and kindness. I get it. This is me finding my way, way outside of my comfort zone. This is me navigating through the inner points of views I have about what’s safe and what’s ok and what to do. This is me acknowledging and appreciating I desire the familiarity of a salad and a posh café to hang out in for the day to re-group.
I’ve got this.