Thursday, June 11

The People in the Neighborhood

The Christmas songs string together like lights on a tree. Jingle Bells… Here Comes Santa Claus… They come eight bars at a time, the refrain from one substituting as the verse for another.

The lyrics are missing, too complicated for the simple computer chip that chirps out the melodies to replicate. This is okay; I do not need them. I know the words and what they represent. They represent ice cream.

It is 82 degrees out, it is June, and the sounds of Christmas do not signify the coming of Christ or even of old Saint Nick. Instead of eight tiny reindeer pulling a right jolly old elf and a sled full of toys, there is only a thin Muganda (a person from Uganda’s Buganda region) peddling a bicycle with a worn cooler lashed to the back. The orange cooler is full of a thin pink slush that passes for ice cream in these parts. It is far from the strangest thing that Baganda lash to the back of two-wheel vehicles. For sheer shock value and calorie content, nothing can compare with the two live hogs I once saw strapped to the back of a motorcycle.

The ice cream man is a fixture in Nkokonjeru. He is one of the people in the neighborhood.

When I was a kid, Sesame Street had a bit called “People in the Neighborhood,” wherein a rainbow of Muppets sang about the various people one could find about town.

The fireman’s a person in the neighborhood,
In the neighborhood, in the neighborhood,
Well, the fireman’s a person in the neighborhood,
He’s a person that you meet,
When you’re walking down the street,
He’s a person that you meet— each— daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy!!!!!!!

Somehow, it always seemed to be civil servants that you’d meet in the neighborhood. There was never a corporate lawyer or millionaire CEO, which seemed odd when you grew up in a wealthy bedroom community like me. One time, I vaguely recall they had on Martina Navratilova and sung about how the tennis star is a person in the neighborhood, but that didn’t resonate with me either; I was a Chris Everett fan.

If the song failed to describe the experience of walking down the street in Belmont, Massachusetts in the late 1970s, it captures the experience of strolling in Nkokonjeru in 2009 even more poorly. Thus far, I have yet to meet a fireman, a mailman or even a tennis star while walking down the street each day. If I were to retrofit the song for Nkokonjeru, the first 50 verses or so would be about how the shopkeeper is a person in the neighborhood. Walking through the heart of town, one moseys—it is the only way to walk in the equatorial heat—down the red-brown dirt of Main Street, between through two rows of concrete shops. The shops represent what Adam Smith would call a state of perfect competition. Each of the dozens of little shops carries identical goods at identical prices. Contrary to what econ 101 might lead you to believe, it is no basis for a healthy economy. An economy cannot grow when it consist almost entirely of people selling bottles of Coke and three foot lengths of fraying rope to each other. The theory is that under circumstances of perfect condition, with profits reduced to a “normal” rate, people will divert their investment to other avenues, to innovation. That is not how it works here. Instead a profusion of small shops leads to even more small shops. Call it a bodega, a canteen or a general store, but owning a shop seems to be the Ugandan Dream.

And why wouldn’t it be? Talk to any shop keep, and I talk to a lot of them, and it quickly becomes clear that he is doing okay. He is not the richest man in town, but he has a full belly, strong concrete walls and a sturdy iron roof. He is not complaining.

The other people in my neighborhood, the people who have skills and trades rather than shops and trade, do not do as well.

The carpenter is a person in my neighborhood. He’s a person that I meet, when he’s knocked out on his feet.

Before a stack of newly made bed frames and amidst the spicy bouquet of fresh cut wood, signs I would expect of a thriving business, he laments his poverty. In the past year, there have been 10 months where his family has been hungry at least one day. His savings have been reduced to 5,000 shillings per month, about two US dollars. At the same time he aspires to more. When I ask him, as part of a study on the local credit union, what he would like for a loan, he suggests that USh 1,000,000 would be the right sum. He could work his whole life and never pay it back. He will not get the loan. Too bad that he didn’t ask Bank of America for US$ 500,000 to buy a house in Florida in 2007. That loan he could have gotten

The teacher is a person in the neighborhood too. He is more educated than the shop keep, better dressed and more respected. He is also poorer. While Uganda, with its school uniforms and O-levels is more an imitation of British education than American, it has borrowed a few features from the States—poorly paid teachers lecture to classrooms filled to bursting. Whereas the shopkeepers speak confidently about their ability to save 100,000 a month, teachers struggle to save even 10,000. While shopkeepers nap between customers, teachers grade piles of exams written on wafer thin paper between classes.

The nun is a person in my neighborhood.

She is my landlord. I live in a convent. This was not something I ever saw coming. Of all the certainties in my life, the fact that I would never sleep behind convent walls seemed like one of the surest.


When I learned I was going to live in a convent, I asked my mother’s friend Joannie, a former nun in training, what happens when one lived in a convent? From the stories, I had heard, it mostly involves sneaking out to meet guys, which isn’t really my scene. Thankfully, that has not been among my activities thus far, though I have had to jump the gate a time or two.

To say I live in a convent is a bit misleading. I live at a convent, in a guesthouse, safely away from the judging eyes of the penguins. Still, there is no mistaking where I am. Most rooms are decorated with a suitably gruesome crucifix and a piece of construction paper with the recommendation to “Be Still and Know that I am God” or both. And then there is the Library, an old hardwood cabinet, filled with books with names like The Eucharist in the New Testament and copies as far back as 1981 of the periodical God’s Word Today.

It is not by normal living situation, but it is comfortable, dry, electrified and has not only a flush toilet, but half a toilet seat. It is a good setup.

The nuns, each of them a Little Sister of St. Francis of Assisi, are charming. I am glad they are in the neighborhood. They are not, as I intimated earlier, the penguins despised and feared by Catholic school students everywhere. They are kind and clever, and do not even wear black and white, instead sporting beige habits that hide the smudges of Ugandan dirt beautifully.

They are here, 111 years after Catholicism came to Nkokonjeru thanks to Sister Kevin, a tenacious Irish nun, who defied the local witchcraft, thereby winning converts, and fixed much of Nkokonjeru in the Catholic camp. To this day, there are dozens of girls and women in Nkokonjeru named Kevin. Don’t tell them it’s a boy’s name.

The policeman is a person in my neighborhood.

This one might actually fit on Sesame Street. Of course, I don’t see him each day. I have seen him exactly once. As I returned two empty bottles of President beer to one of the many shops on the main drag, a policeman whose great round belly barely fit into his khakis, emerged from the dusty police station to ask if I had any beers for him. I turned the bottles upside down.

“All done,” I said with a shrug.

He burst into laughter. It is possible that if I had offered him a full beer at nine in the morning he would have taken it. One of the police officers, a man with a bad habit of drinking heavily and sleeping with other men’s wives, had gotten himself killed while drunk. After a few too many in a nearby town, he had responded to a request to stay away from another man’s wife, a woman he had known in the past, with a stark drunken refusal. He was ambushed later that night while riding home on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle) and was gutted in a drive by knifing. He did not survive.

These are the people in the neighborhood. Livingstone had it right, Commerce, Christianity, Civilization, shop keeps and carpenters, nuns, and teachers and cops. It’s all right here in my neighborhood. What there isn’t, however, is the prosperity Livingstone imagined. The slave trade, the primary focus of the great missionary’s campaign is long gone, but is that all we can expect?

Nkokonjeru has the three Cs, but that is not enough. For the people of Nkokonjeru to not only survive but prosper they need different people in the neighborhood. The doctor has to be a person in the neighborhood. The factory owner has to be a person in the neighborhood. The lawyer has to be a person in the neighborhood. God help me, even the tennis star could be a person in the neighborhood. The shop keeps are decent people, and then nuns are holy and even the police are cheerful, but this town needs more.

It had more once. There was one shining star to come from Nkokonjeru, a singer named Paul Kafeero, who was perhaps the most famous musician to ever come out of Uganda. His music and videos still play relentlessly around town. The themes of his songs, all of his songs, are girls and his fear of death. He complains that Ugandan women have more lust for chicken and chips than for men, and then explains that this is why he likes white girls. Apparently, white girls don’t like chicken.

After a lifetime of singing about sex and death, he died of AIDS a few years ago. The resulting funeral crowds led to the first traffic jam in Nkokonjeru history. Perhaps, for once, the traffic cop was a person in the neighborhood, though somehow I doubt it. His grave, still lies not far from town. He is Elvis and Graceland, Morrison in Paris; he is the no longer a person in the neighborhood.

Still, I’ll take the dead pop star over a tennis star. I’d just really prefer to have a doctor in the neighborhood.