I cannot sleep on planes. I have no explanation, it is just an inconsequential truth I have come to accept. Whether due to the near-arctic temperature, disregard for personal space, or chatty women who always find their way to the seat next to me, I simply cannot drift into that blissful state. And so, after two successive nights on planes crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Sahara Desert, I was near exhaustion when I debarked in the capital city of Kampala, Uganda from a plane seemingly larger than the airport itself.
The sleepless days and six-hour time difference had so drastically skewed my sense of time that I surrendered to the moment. Unaware of the day, hour, or next mealtime, I was truly on Ugandatime, a pace of life in which clocks are scarce and time is measured by the lazy trail of the sun and the hunger of an empty stomach. Embracing this relaxed lifestyle, I left the security of the airport and ventured into the African wilderness.
On the dusty ride to Kaboa, a slum outside the city, I sat in the rear of the worn, five-passenger car amid my mother, three other women, and eleven overpacked suitcases. We had traveled here to bring medicine, school supplies, and hope to the children of five poor schools. My own belongings for the two-week trip were organized in my backpack, which I guarded like a child. Its waist straps had found their way into my anxious hands. Click. Unclick. Click. Blocking out the hushed conversations of the others, I absorbed my first sights of Africa: Seven abandoned United Nation helicopters. An elderly, toothless man playing checkers by himself under a tattered Coca-Cola umbrella in front of a pizzeria. A line of boys with plastic bags at a petrol station, waiting to scrounge for extra oil.
My visual perception, normally a continual stream of sensation, had stopped. Forming a camera, my mind composed 5x7’s of impeccable clarity, texture and saturation. My vision came in snapshots, freeze-frame images. Click. Unclick. Click. Four men and eight armloads of bananas balancing on one bicycle. A schoolboy in oversized women’s pumps - each of his laborious and humiliating steps etched another mental photograph.
As the car engine revved, I was propelled faster, faster through images that became a flipbook of differentiated and simultaneously continuous freeze frames. Rest in Peace. A slate slab. Click. Two slate slabs. Unclick. Rows of slate slabs. Click. A coffin sale. And the straps kept meter.
Soon, the continuity of images dissipated and whole snapshots re-emerged. We were slowing. Three hundred children in faded blue jumpers. Three hundred children with shaved heads and raw eyes. Three hundred children crowded the poverty-stricken streets of Kabowa. The schools had come to welcome us.
As the car came to a halt, I reached for my camera - this was a true Kodak moment. As I paraded with the villagers, surrounded by the beauty of their country and people, I handed the camera to a young girl in a blue jumper with a shaved head and raw eyes. She accepted and bent awkwardly at the knees in an attempt at a curtsy. I smiled in response; I had the only camera I would ever need. Click.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.