Sudanese Refugee Camp, Northwest Uganda
I. Our drivers gun insanely over the dusty red roads, lurching from pothole to pothole. Caravan of slick, adrenalized vans tattooed with symbols of Western aid, Will on my lap, trying to nurse between bumps, my hands a helmet to his bobbing skull. A three-legged goat hobbles to the side, and though we imagine we are a huge interruption, women balancing jerrycans on their heads face our wake of dust and rage as they would any other gust of wind. We arrive covered in orange dust, coughing, our fleet of SUVs parked under the trees, engines cooling, cockpits flashing, alarms beeping and squawking as we lock them up and leave them, black-windowed, self-contained as UFOs. Behind the gate, we stumble through the boiling sun, Will and I trying to play soccer as a trickle of Sudanese kids cross the road and hang against the fence, watching the chubby white boy I’ve toted around Africa like a pot of gold. Three years old, he knows they’re watching, so he does a little dance, his Spider-Man shoes lighting up as they hit the dust. II. We’re based in Arua, grungy, dusty frontier town, part African bush, part Wild West. Giant diesel trucks barrel through, obese sacks of grain lying like walruses inside. I chase Will from malarial puddle to puddle, white blouse frilled like a gaudy gladiola, my lavish concern for my chubby son suddenly rococo, absurd. III. Seven-foot giants of the people’s liberation army gather together, drinking, talking politics, repatriation, the New Sudan, while wives, lanky as giraffes, set food on the table and move away. In candlelight the men’s forehead scars gleam — I flutter around them, acting more deferential than I’m used to. Slowly I’m learning Sudanese grammar: men are verbs; women, the conjunctions that link them together. In the thick of rain we walk home, Ugandans huddled under their makeshift bird cages, Will now pointing to the basic vocabulary of this road: dead snake, prickly bush, squealing pig, peeing child. Three drunk men beside a shack scrape the whiteness off us as we walk by. Though I don’t want to hear it, though I love Africa, my mind quietly repeats the story of my son’s lucky birth, his rich American inheritance. IV. My husband drops into bed, dragging a thick cloak of requests. All day I’ve labored behind him, toting our son, watching this dogged Dutchman in his rubber clogs climbing the soggy hills of Kampala despite the noonday heat, a posse of hopeful lost boys following him, he afraid of nothing, really, not even death, me afraid of everything, really, most of all his death. In the distance, trucks rev up to cross the bush, where Sudanese families perched like kites caught in trees wait for the next shipment. But it’s night now, the three of us inside the cloud chamber of our mosquito net, the two of them breathing, safe. Will’s nursing again, although he doesn’t need to, swelling like a tick, and though I don’t want to love the sweet mists of our tiny tent home, the lush wetlands of our lives, its thick rope bridges and gentle Ugandan hills, the fat claw of my heart rises up fertile, lucky, random, pulsing and hissing its victory song.