“What are you doing?”
“Biscuits! Come help us with the biscuits!”
A bunch of the girls that had been harvesting hibiscus, which they called “biscuits”, from the field and were standing with full gunny sacks, getting ready to carry them back to the compound.
“Uuuhh….No, no,” I said. “I don’t think I can.”
“Have you ever carried?” One of them mimed picking up the bag and setting it on her head.
“No, it isn’t our custom.”
They laughed at that one. “Okay. Then come here and help us lift them!”
That I could do. I stumbled through the tall brush – snagging my skirt on thorns the whole way – over to where they were standing. I passed around the customary handshake, and then, one by one, helped them lift their bags.They held the top, I lifted from the bottom, and together we’d get it up until it was balanced comfortably on the top of their heads. Since all of them had been carrying things in this way since they were small, they casually slouched on one leg, their massive bundles resting easily atop their heads. They laughed and joked as we got the bags settled, encouraging my feeble attempts.
“Can you carry the corn?” One pointed to several ears that lay in a basin. She pulled up the hem of her shirt, miming how I should carry them. “Kwangina. Like this.” I picked them up and did so, feeling completely absurd – hauling six or seven ears of corn while they each had a huge bag of hibiscus flowers on their heads. Not to mention that none of the girls stood taller than my ear.
We walked along single file back to the compound, each of them swaying lithely as they walked, singing and joking, with me in the middle – stumbling and snickering, my satchel banging clumsily at my hip.
“Where is your place?” one of them asked me.
“There.” I pointed to my banda, which we happened to be walking by at that time.
“No, I mean where is your home?”
“Here.” We laughed. “BUT, I was born in America.”
“America…America…” They passed around the word, tasting it.
“Do you like America?” A question loaded with implications.
“It is very cold. But the ground is rich, so the food grows fat and the people have much to eat.”
“What does it look like?”
It was about here that I realized that this was the first time anyone had asked me about “my place”. Usually I just tell about it, to make an interesting comparison or tell a story. But they wanted to hear about it! I turned around to see a line of expectant faces, the sun rolling off of the white gunny sacks and sweaty faces.
“Well…” I talked about buildings as tall as the hills and shops that you couldn’t see the end of. I described the beaches, water so wide you could look out and see only water. I told them how fat the cows were, and how much milk they gave. I told them about green, green grass with no thorns, and snakes that wouldn’t kill you. They were very happy to hear that there were some black people too in America – “So when you go there, you can still find some Karimojong and you will be happy because it will be like here!”
I also told them how cold it was. And how different the people there were. I couldn’t really explain everything – in fact, I could explain very little. They bore with my stumbling, awkward Ngakarimojong, supplying the necessary words when I forgot them. At the end of my long tale, one of them asked, “But you love here? Here is beautiful too? You look there and you see the mountain, and it is beautiful.”
“Yes, I do love here. It is so beautiful. In my place in America, there are no mountains. Only land.”
That settled it. “Then you stay here. You don’t leave your mountains.”
I laughed again, my gasping snicker sounding totally alien mixed with their ululating laughter. They tried to teach me how to laugh like them, which caused even more hilarity.
By this time, we were back on the compound. They tossed the laden sacks off of their heads with ease and joined the others who were peeling the hibiscus. I handed the corn back to one of the girls – “Take it,” she said. “You like maize?”
“Yes, I like. Thank you.” I took one of the ears.
“See, she took a small one.” They grinned at me.
I pulled out my camera. The least I could do was offer them the treat of seeing their picture. I snapped a few, then asked the rest of them if they’d mind a picture. Naturally, they didn’t mind in the least.
|Cutting open the “biscuits” (in a pile in the center) to get out the seeds.
I asked them if it would be okay if I wrote about them in my “letter” to the people of America. I told them I would write a letter on the computer, and then the people of America would be able to see it. (Incidentally, I try to ask this of all I write about beforehand.)
“The people in America in the church want to see what the people of Karamoja look like! They want to hear about them!”
“It is good! It is very okay! Yes! Let them see the good people of Karamoja that their people are working with!”
People of America, the biscuit people are greeting you.