I knew that I deeply missed my second home, Uganda. I missed my quiet house, my friends, the Project Have Hope family and the Acholi Quarter in its entirety. I missed matoke and gnuts and Dancing Cup’s banana and nutella crepes. I missed things and people, objects. I didn’t realize how much greater the loss was and how much Uganda nourishes me, until the COVID year of separation.
In 2020, I returned to the States mid-January and promptly booked a flight for May. Enter Covid. Uganda shuttered its airport, closed its borders and did its best to keep the virus from decimating its population. To that end, it has succeeded so far, with only an estimated 36,000 infections and 290 deaths.
Nearly a year passed and I couldn’t return “home.” When the government finally reopened the airport, a 14 day quarantine was mandated. And not the flimsy kind of quarantine imposed in the US where it’s the honor system. In Uganda, a bus transports you directly from the airport to a nearby hotel in which you cannot leave for the duration. Meals are brought to your room, at your expense, and you are held captive, Hotel California-esque.
In November, Uganda implemented a new policy allowing in travelers who presented a negative Covid test upon entry and departure. I immediately booked my flight.
Although excited and eager to return finally, I was cautious. Would they ramp up their restrictions? Would Amsterdam ban Americans? Would I be able to secure a negative Covid test in the short mandated time frame of 72 hours? Once I arrived in Uganda, would I have a temperature and be shuttled off to a two week quarantine? Despite my uncertainty, I knew I had to try. I’ve spent 13 New Year’s Eves in the Quarter (missing only one when my beloved cat was diagnosed with a heart condition and given three months to live). Uganda is truly the only place I want to be at midnight as the new year beckons its promises and hopes.
I boarded my flight from Boston without a hitch. When I arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, it was a ghost town. My usual Irish pub where I satiate my craving for mushy peas and chips was closed, as were most of the shops and restaurants. Covid was alive and well.
Excitedly I boarded my connecting flight to Entebbe, Uganda, which first stops in Kigali, Rwanda. The plane was mostly empty. As the flight touched down in Kigali, I chatted with a Dutch traveler who was disembarking. “You’re not getting off?” he questioned me. “It’s too difficult to enter Uganda. They’ve closed their borders.” An ominous feeling came over me as I sat on the plane with a couple dozen fellow passengers. I had the same eerie feeling I felt back in 1997 when my flight was landing in Kinshasa, Zaire (a country at war with itself) and I was just one of a handful disembarking. I remember thinking, “What have you done?” The same feeling overtook me as I waited for the flight to continue to its final destination. Although I held a negative Covid test result and felt perfectly fine, I popped a couple extra strength Tylenols as insurance that I wouldn’t register a fever when I disembarked and be deemed “sick.” Seated as close to the front of the plane as possible (without paying for premium seating), I was one of the first to make my way off the plane and through the health checkpoint, then through immigration, and then onto the baggage carousel to claim my ridiculously heavy and massive bags. It was so familiar, yet the continued airport renovations were obvious in the new x-ray machines positioned at the exit. I hastily stacked my bags on the cart and made my way to the exit, excited to breathe in the thick night air. Carlos was waiting for me. We grabbed a second cart to divvy up the body bags I had and made our way slowly to the car parked on the far side of the pitted asphalt lot. I had made it! In an hour I’d be home.
My house in Uganda isn’t just a dwelling, but a home, complete with friendly neighbors and windows adorned with curtains made of cheery orange fabric I hand-picked in the bustling fabric markets. My fridge, though small, is stocked with water and Coke Zero (the closest thing I can get to stave off my Diet Coke addiction). My clothes hang in the closet and a stack of books by my bed. My shampoo and conditioner rest beside the shower.
This comforting home calms me. The uncluttered space frees my mind to think unfettered. The single, bright light bulb that dangles from the living room ceiling reflects the whiteness of the walls and gives me greater clarity than the painted and artwork strewn walls of my US home. The peacefulness and simplicity and lack of distractions quiets my mind, which, in the US, always seems to bark orders and berate me for not doing enough, being enough. In Uganda, I am enough. My mind is at peace with my soul. And I am content.