The dirt track from the matatu junction descends and then climbs back up towards the clearing upon which the temple is perched. We found our way here yesterday the same way we have discovered other places that we haven’t been before (which in Uganda is every place): asking directions and squinting out the window for landmarks or signs. When we got off here, we could see the coppery green of the temple’s dome poking out above the trees and we walked down the only road that led in that direction. Today, as yesterday, the greenery that overflows the side of the road is coated in red dust. It is the same red dust that covers our shoes and leaves a collar stain like makeup where it mixes with the sweat on the back of my neck. We are running late for the Sunday service.
Kampala is said to be built atop seven hills just like Rome. The Bahai Temple sits at the crest of one of these hills couched in a rambling set of gardens. It’s hard to describe what a shocking contrast this place is to downtown Kampala. The close cut lawns descend down the sides of the peak. Lines of bushes and copses of trees run in lines framing the view back towards the city. Yesterday there were a few people wandering the grounds: sitting on the grass or lying under trees. A group of little girls were racing down the hill, screaming as the slope accelerated them past their legs ability to keep up. They collapsed onto the grass, rolling the last 50 feet to the bottom, laughing all the way. The quiet of the exhausted and the destitute – so salient to the parks in Nairobi and Nakuru, Kericho and Kisumu – is absent here. This space itself seems pensive and welcoming. The quiet and the reflection it invites has drawn us back for today’s services.
Our Sunday best is no longer really in very good shape. I washed my only pair of pants and collared shirt in the sink last night, but the seat is wearing thru and the collar of the shirt has been hand scrubbed so many times that its frayed and losing color. It’s before nine, but the sun is already high and I am sweating.
Up at this time, carefully dressed and groomed, walking up a dirt road is powerfully reminiscent of Kitui. But so many things have been recently. Our Peace Corps training and homestay south-east of Nairobi was almost a year ago but walking here in the sun and dust, we could easily be headed into the Pastoral Center for our weekly group training. The view of Kampala sprawled out below the temple reminds me of standing atop Tsambani rock and the drums of Sunday worship floating lightly on the wind.
Why do we look towards the beginning as we approach the end? I worried for a time about what it means to bookend my experiences; to mark their ending a long way off and to consciously begin the process of summing them up. I take two points and try to find how they exist for one another. I try to measure and articulate the space between. I have worried, in the past and now, that this habit cannot help but strip the experience of vital and gorgeous details, in the same way any generalization loses the romance of its reality. Fortunately (or unfortunately) this experience has proven resistant to such compartmentalization. Daily I have trouble even wrapping my head around where I am. Placing that in contrast to where I was a year ago and considering it in the context of this whole experience is too much to hold at once.
At home I used to avoid learning about – much less using – public buses because I didn’t like the idea of boarding something whose route was unbounded by a set track. And this was in a space where I speak the language and am familiar with the geography. One of my goals in coming here was to confront the pit-of-the-stomach dread I felt with the idea of being dropped off alone in a totally unknown place. The experience of having not a clue about where I am or how to get to the next place is so reliably produced by this experience that it has become less something I confront and more something that I live with everyday. Being lost is an ongoing context to everything, anything else.
What does that mean? I am at a loss as to how to summarize that change. I can see where it began and where it will end, but I can’t yet contain it, understand it at once.
Every two points are related to one another, if only be nature of their mutual existence. Seeing a relationship between them, reading lessons or truths into their distance and sensation is little more than saying that they existed and you remain the link between them; I am the space between the past and present. And in that context, what I am confronting is the fact that I don’t know exactly who I will be when I return. I don’t know who I am now if only because I have come to learn that the self is as essential and objective as the location and attitude in which it is examined.
Time will take care of the reducing the details. In six months, a year, I won’t be able to recall what it’s like to be here well enough to be overwhelmed with it. ‘Permanent’ changes won’t be existent then any more than they are now, but the place will show a different me. I don’t have to worry about summarizing this experience or deciding on its lessons and impacts any more than I needed a detailed summary of the person I was before I arrived. These changes are not set, they cannot be known, detailed; they are a function of where I go next and what that situation demands. I will find myself a new way then, just as I have here.