I settled onto the blue tarp that Joseph, our van driver and Ugandan friend, had spread out next to the van for our lunch break. The equator sun broiled just beyond the tree above my head. I wiped my forehead on the sleeve of my t-shirt and flicked a large African ant that scurried into my personal tarp space. Our team of 48, along with our van drivers and security personnel, left our hotel in Masindi, Uganda early that morning and drove one and a half hours to set up a mobile medical clinic in the village of Bweyale within the Kiryandongo District. Today was our second day in Bweyale and our third of five clinic days. The midweek slump and jet lag had caught up with us by day three, and we swiveled between exhaustion and giddy delirium.
“Joseph, you look handsome today!” He smiled at me from the trunk of the van. “This is my safari suit,” he said, brushing his hand along the heather fabric of his shirt. He handed me a Tupperware container, a banana fresh from the stem, and a warm Novida pineapple soda. I eyed the inching line of patients outside of the church where they waited to be seen by our physicians and the rest of our medical staff. We registered 200 patients each day, so our lunch breaks were quick. I popped the Tupperware lid and removed the napkin that our lunch lady always folded over our meals.
Rolex! My favorite Uganda staple.
Before you think that Ugandans hand out $20,000 timepieces on the regular – a Rolex, local to Uganda, derives its name from “rolled eggs.” In the city, street vendors whip together eggs, peppers and tomatoes in a mug, season and fry them. The resulting flat omelette is rolled up in a circular piece of bread called “chapati,” an unleavened bread similar to a soft tortilla and fried until it shows flecks of brown.
My Rolex that day felt warm still as I sat cross-legged on the ground with my teammates. Janelle, one of our physical therapists, discussed a patient she’d seen that morning as the rest of us listened. A group of schoolchildren in their royal blue uniforms herded our attention away. They edged up behind us, giggling and curious. A few of us slipped our phones out, attempting to capture secret selfies with our nosey little entourage. The older kids figured out what we were doing and posed for the camera, hands on hips, faces contorted. The whole of us burst into laughter and Joseph, always watchful and protective, stood from his chair and shooed the children off into the field so we could finish our lunch sans an audience.
I inhaled the last bite of my Rolex, gulped the remaining Novida and passed my empty cartons to Joseph as I walked back into clinic, waving to my interpreter and his wife on my way.
It’s been six weeks from that day. I’ve since returned to my side of the globe and the island I call home in Charleston. I ate Chickfil-A and drank a Holy City Pluff Mud Porter for dinner tonight after a bizarre workday. While the Lowcountry cools and drifts into Autumn, I think long and often of that afternoon, that lunch, under the tree that I only know as “the Lion King tree.” Especially now as we head into this new season – one of family and community and giving thanks – that third day tastes ever so sacred in reflection. My Uganda days began and concluded with community. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for 48. Each meal rich with laughter and tears, praise and thankfulness.
Few things hearten me as much as breaking bread with my community. In Uganda, it was my American teammates, Joseph, and our other Ugandan friends and supporters who helped us serve villages during those five days. In Charleston, it’s my beautiful, motley crew of friends, my church of less than 100, and my coworkers with whom I share a break room during the week. Some of my sweetest moments and deepest friendships grew over a cup of coffee and a croissant, or a plate of spaghetti at 9:00 p.m. Sustenance and community – two of our most basic needs. It only makes sense that they should sit at the table together, or under the Lion King tree.
As summer folds its beach chairs and brushes the sand from its feet, I fasten that third Ugandan day into my heart space and tuck it into the shelves of my memory. I flip to that chapter often to revoke the sweetness of a dessert banana and break warm, African bread with my friends. I remind myself that thankfulness is not just for this season of pumpkins and sweaters and turkey comas. My life is full of opportunity to commune and give thanks, whether I’m eating Rolex 7,500 miles from home or munching frozen DiGiorno’s over my coffee table with a friend.
But, for the record, I’ll take a Rolex for 2,000 shillings any day.