Returning From Uganda
Our friend Dave rolls the dice one more time. Square white faces betray their round black dots; one, five, four. A small tower of chips stacked on the sidelines are swept from the yellow 9 to temporary safety in Dave’s palms, then piled atop a small, growing mountain on the table’s edge. Not a win big enough for another Kah-bingo, but enough to keep us playing another round. We’ve already made double what I make on a daily basis at my entry-level job; I feel even better about spending one of my valuable Vacation Days.
The drinks are rolling too; the men, downing seven/sevens; for me, another “fleur de lis.” The cocktail waitress recommended it; she’s maybe one year younger than me, three cup sizes bigger. “Do you know you can buy those for half the price in Africa?” I want to ask her. They probably wouldn’t look as real, but it could be worth it. Instead, I decide to drink quickly, not wanting to spill the sweetness over the glass’s delicate rim.
Dave wins another round. “Kah-bingo!” The chips tumble across the table, clatter against each other. Like some sort of rain we’d all been wishing for.
A week ago, I was wishing for rain. But the real kind; the drops that fall from the sky, sink to the earth, rise up and nourish plants, quench the thirst of cattle, men. The kind that Ugandans pray for on a daily basis, as they plow un-irrigated land with hand machetes. I was in the midst of that actually, interviewing Joseph Anewa, a 24-year-old father of three. This season, he told me, he’s hoping to grow some peanuts alongside the beans he’s growing. We pause, gaze at his plot of land which is only slightly bigger than my studio apartment in DC. If the rains come, God willing, maybe he’ll have enough to buy a goat, pay his kids’ school fees. As we speak, dry winds blow dust across our faces, our eyes. He barely blinks.
Here, the air is wet, walls and carpets drenched in wealth, greed, addiction. I’m teetering along, crisp bills dry and safe in my wallet. My cash feels light and almost meaningless; last week, the bills hung heavy in my purse. How much would $500 be in Ugandan shillings? Dave rolls again before I can finish the math, and the dice take off against the deep green cloth. A loss; but only a small dent in his stocks.
Anthony is holding my hand, and I lean into him. The drink level is low enough to where I can pause for a moment and redistribute my weight evenly amongst my pinpointed high heels. I curse myself for wearing them, but simultaneously revel the beautiful, painful excess that is only the norm here. These shoes were not possible a week ago, I tell myself. Dave wins another round, enough to buy at least three pairs of shoes.
I try to play the part. I ask about the rules, the strategies, the lingo. So you can bet on a certain number, and you can bet on the dice not being a certain number. Interesting. You can bet a little money on a lot of numbers, or a lot of money on a few numbers. You can bet on someone else’s numbers, or the dealer’s numbers. You can bet on a bet. I ask more questions, and the answers make me dizzy. I lean a bit more into Anthony – are people betting on us, too?
I bet it’s raining in Uganda. I played the part there, too. I started, “Do you have enough money now to buy shoes?”
No answer. Rephrase.
“Do you have enough money now to buy…” I couldn’t think. My interviewee looked down at the bag of grain, a large gift from the American people plopped right between us. “I have enough money now to buy soap,” she said, still concentrating on the bag. I concentrated on my notebook, wiped a heavy tear in a quick stroke and nodded vigorously to reassure her, myself, the translator. “Sometimes, soap,” she says again. I asked more questions, then, backtracked, rephrased. You can have a family, but its members may not actually be related. You can be starving, but sell your crop to buy medicine. You can have a house with no furniture, a computer with no electricity, a sink with no water. You can have a sink without water, but still have four cell phones.
I don’t get it. Where was the rural living course, or the gambling course, in my undergrad education? I’m an adult now, and lack the skillsets to survive. Do I speak Bugandan, know the right climatic conditions to grow cassava, or have political and/or international connections? No. Do I have excess money to toss around, a straight poker face, and/or wealthy connections? No. Not unless you count Dave, who just won another $500.
But the world has recruited me for both jobs, back to back. The rural fields of Uganda to the rural riches of West Virginia. Sometimes I lose myself trying to sort X, which led to Y, which brought me to Z. In the end I have to admit that my early 20’s are more like an alphabet soup, B’s and X’s and broken letters. I’m being spoon-fed these disjointed letters by some older, wiser hand whose strategy remains a mystery. When I actually ate alphabet soup, it was my mom’s hand who made the decisions. Now, my life is so mixed that I can only believe it’s God. This is far too deep a thought for a casino. I concentrate on my sherbet-colored cocktail.
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