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A Very Poor Man
by Darren Stewart

I struggle to keep up with the line of men. The air is rich and cool like butter and my backpack covers a sweat-soaked t-shirt. I long to sit, take it off, drink clean water, eat something and fall into a deep sleep.

The men look back occasionally. They probably wonder why four tired white travelers follow them, but they don't speak to us. The man in front of us pushes a bike with a car battery strapped to the seat and we still don’t know why. We're in Uganda, some time past midnight, walking through a dense, remote island forest.

A jungle.

I'd been on the beaten backpacker trail since we arrived in Africa and wanted to get out of the bus and hostel routine. I decided to go to the islands and the big lake. Lake Victoria is as prominent a geographical feature on the African continent as Mt. Kilimanjaro or the Great Rift Valley. The second largest inland body of water in the world lies in the center of the continent between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. It feeds the two great African rivers, The Nile and The Zambezi.

The Ssese Islands, a series of 84 tiny islands, many of which are uninhabited and unexplored, are in the Northwest corner of the lake. None have running water, electricity, restaurants, pavement or hotels so tourists ignore them. A lucky few island residents own motorbikes but none own cars. There is no point. The island communities are small and the dirt roads between them are loose packed and poorly kept.

According to my Lonely Planet guide, a German ex-pat couple live on Buggala Island and allow visitors to pitch tents on their land. I set out from the capital city, Kampala, with three willing companions, to find them.

We get in a car with an unreliable cab driver and are dropped in the wrong lakeshore village. We arrive amid the bustle of a tiny fishing community—impossibly small for the port village we were looking for to catch the ferry. Merchants pack and sell fish from large slimy stacks piled on broad and lush banana leaves or in rickety wooden boats. People haul nets with newly caught stock off boats at the shore. Some villagers sit on crates and repair the nets with thick cord. Women wrapped in bright fabric carry water bottles on their head and hawk dried fish. It's a clear day and the whole scene is a crisp foreground for the massive blue lake.

We four white people hop out of the car and keep our eye on the chaos. The town freezes, as though somebody shot a gun in the air. Everybody turns, points and looks back. Suddenly we are surrounded.

"Mzungu!" (the Swahili word for white person, used all over Eastern Africa), erupted from a hundred voices. We laugh nervously and try to speak to the people.

"What town is this? We want to go to the islands," we say pointing to the lake. "Ssese islands."

They laugh back, shake our hands and speak in Swahili.We speak slow and smile, realizing that they can’t understand us.

"Where can we catch the ferry?"

The town's dock manager, who speaks English, emerges. We explain that we might be in the wrong place, and that we want to go to the islands.

He introduces us to another man, who doesn't speak English, and says that he will leave for the island in several hours. We arrange to meet at his wooden boat in several hours and pass the time watching as the commerce winds down for the night.

The boat turns out to be a large dingy with room for 15 people. I lean on my backpack in the rickety bow and look out onto the glassy lake. The sun goes down and the warm night sky fills with an impossible number of stars. Ten men sit in the boat with us but none speak. The man with the car battery sits at the front of the boat.

With the tiny outboard motor the 20-km trip takes two hours and eventually we pull up on a beach below a dark and dense forest.

We expected a town, a settlement, a road, pretty much anything but a dark wall of trees.

The group from the boat wordlessly gathers their things and wait as the man pulls a bike out of a bush and straps the car battery to the seat. We walk single file through a gap between lush mangrove bushes, up a hill in dim light to a path through the darkness between gnarled tree trunks, below a dense network of vines.

We walk for hours without stopping, not knowing what else to do. Silver tendrils of moonlight filter through the dense canopy and catch the whites on the Canadian flag sewn to my friend's backpack in front of me. I stare at it for a few minutes, hypnotized. I reach out but touch only air and almost lose my balance. I hear my friend 20 feet ahead on the trail, shake off my tiredness and keep walking.

One by one our group shrinks. Men whisper goodnight and veer into the bush. We are left following the man with the car battery. We chat with him in slow, broken English.

"My friends and I need a safe place to sleep. Can we sleep in our tents outside your place?" I ask him.

He misunderstands and picks out the word "place," but hears it as "police."

"No police on my island. Very safe. No thief. Snake and heeppos, though. They dangerous. You watch."

"Oh. We understand," my companion says, nodding approval. "Do you know where we can sleep? We are tired."

"You come. My house," he says with a broad smile that gleams in the dark. "But I am a very poor man. I sorry."

We tell him again we can sleep in our tents but he doesn’t understand. We ask him about his life on the island and he tells us again that he is a very poor man. There are no airplanes and cars on his island, he continues, and his life is more difficult than ours.

As we chat, the forest thins and the path widens into a road. We pass huts made of cow dung at the edge of small coffee fields. A brick house with glass windows stands in the middle of a settlement of huts. This is the man's house. As we shuffle in he lights a few candles and a lamp. He introduces us to his wife and two daughters who had waited up for him. The daughters, both under 10 and shy, giggle when we shake their hand, and said, "howareyou" (pronounced as though it was one quick word, which was typical of East-African school children).

The room is furnished with simple chairs and a coffee table. We put our packs on the hard-packed dirt floor covered in throw rugs and linoleum scraps.

His wife, who speaks no English, serves us hard-boiled eggs that even my vegan friend accepts, in part to be polite. But we are famished and it was the best tasting egg we’d ever eaten.

We speak to the children with actions and simple words as the man looks on fondly. He eventually looks at his watch (a rare luxury for a rural African). At first we thought he would let us sleep and put his daughters to bed. He picks up the car battery, which rests on the floor, and finally answers our unspoken question when he attaches it to the back of an ancient black and white tv that sits in the corner.

He fiddles with the aerial as we exchange glances. The set pulls in one fuzzy channel and we watch the final few minutes of a newscast out of Kampala. The children, giggling, look at the screen, then at us, then back at the screen.

A familiar theme comes on, the theme to Dallas, the eighties drama about rich oil tycoons and American excess. We can feel the family’s eyes on us. They wonder if this lifestyle is familiar to us. Is this the standard we left behind? In comparison, the man and his family are poor and we want to tell them that our lives back home do not compare to the oil tycoons on the screen.

But language poses a gulf that is too wide.

A few hours from dawn on a remote African island we watch an episode of Dallas (the only full episode I've ever seen) with our new friends.

Before we leave the next morning we give the two girls a deck of playing cards with the maple leaf on it and a several ballpoint pens (another Lonely Planet tip), thank the man and say goodbye. Before we leave we have a whispered conference.

"Should we pay him for putting us up for the night?" I ask my friends.

"I suppose it would be polite to offer. He keeps mentioning his poverty. It doesn’t make sense with this enormous house."

We offer the man some money for his troubles.

He accepts, bows and reminds us, earnestly and in broken English, that we could send him money when we returned to Canada, because, as we could see, he said, he is a very poor man.

Darren Stewart is waiting for you in Victoria. Me too.


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