By Mikayla Frye
The time was 5:30 pm. I was squished on a boda (motorcycle taxi) between the driver and Sumaiyah, my hands weighed down with our luggage. We were finally leaving the Sigulu Island Sub-County Hall after a long day of traveling and training peer educators on the topic of HIV/AIDS. I looked back at Shivani; she, too, was squished between the boda driver and Martha, her face a mix of the exhaustion of the day and the exhilaration of finally taking our first boda ride. We took off. I was just getting comfortable when I heard a loud and booming “STOP!”
The bodas grinded to a halt and Sumaiyah let out an exasperated sigh behind me.
“This guy won’t leave us alone! He wants to see your passports but I keep telling him he doesn’t need to see them.”
I was extremely exhausted from the day. The GROW team woke up at 4:30 that Tuesday morning to get ready for our trip to the Islands. At 5:00am, we loaded into the UDHA van and drove two hours to the landing site, where we waited for a bit then loaded our stuff into boats and took off. At 10:40 that morning Shivani, Sumaiyah, the facilitators (Martha and Fred), and I were dropped off at Sigulu Island, ready to start the 5-day HIV/AIDS training. After the busy day, all I wanted to do was go to our lodge and fall asleep but, unfortunately, that didn’t seem like it was going to happen for a while.
Sumaiyah and Martha both hopped off the bodas and followed the tall and irritating man into the Sigulu Sub-County Police station – a small, round building constructed of thin metal, situated adjacent to the sub-county hall. Shivani and I remained on the bodas confused and annoyed. We gave each other a perplexed look and sighed deeply.
“Iwe! Iwe! You two! You come, too!” A police officer shouted with a smile. He was younger and friendlier than the first man, dressed in a blue camouflage police uniform. Shivani and I hopped off (well, more like fell off) the bodas and lugged our backpacks with us as we sauntered to the police station. The friendly man escorted us in and we took seats in plastic chairs next to Martha, Sumaiyah, and Fred.
The tall man cleared his throat, took a seat, and looked us all in the eye. “You are welcome,” he said.
“Thank you,” we all replied, trying not to sound too annoyed.
“Yes, I am the chief detective of the Sigulu Island Sub-County. We have brought you all here because we were not aware that mzungus (foreigners) would be working on this Island,” he turned to look first at Shivani, and then at me. “Can I see your passports and visas?”
Shivani and I gave each other a long, nervous look.
“We don’t have our passports on us,” I eventually said.
“And why not?”
“Because we were told when we first got to Iganga, where we are staying, to lock our passports in our hotel room so they would be safe.” I responded.
“Yes, that is what they were told,” Sumaiyah jumped in. “Ssebo, if I was aware that they needed their travel documents, I would have told them to bring them.”
“Hmmm…okay,” the chief detective paused. He looked at me, and then at Shivani. “Or maybe the reason you did not bring them is because your visas are expired and you did not want us to find out!”
Bewildered and wide-eyed, Shivani and I glanced at each other and started speaking at the same time.
“No no no no no no, it’s not like that. We locked them in our hotel room because our boss told us to!”
I looked at Sumaiyah. Her blank expression and uncharacteristic quietness meant she was fuming on the inside. A heavy silence hung in the air.
“Ssebo, these girls are working with me for two months at Uganda Development and Health Associates. I already introduced them to the Iganga police, so they know they are here. The training here on Sigulu Island has been set up for weeks – you should have known we were coming,” Sumaiyah said in a low and annoyed voice.
“I was not aware,” he replied.
“We talked to the District Health Official. She knew we were coming. We have been planning with her.”
“And did the mzungus have permission, too? This is an Island – we have different rules here than on the mainland.” He shifted his attention to Shivani and I. “The problem is that you people from the US and UK expect get special treatment when you come here. The locals see you and will cater to you. You don’t even worry about carrying your passport. When one of us is in your country, we can be stopped at any time and asked to leave if we do not show identification!”
Shame and guilt suddenly overcame me. I shifted my eyes to the floor and mumbled an agreement. He was not wrong in what he was saying – it is true we get special treatment here in Uganda, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us.
“You know,” he continued, “I could have you arrested right now and you wouldn’t have any identification on you. How would your people know what happened to you? How would we know who you are?”
“You wouldn’t,” Shivani and I whispered in response. The mention of “arrest” scared us.
I think the Chief Detective noticed a change in our attitudes, because his attention swiftly focused to our well-being and safety as the main reason for his intervention.
“You know, it can be dangerous for mzungus here. Do you know where you are staying? It is full of drunkards!”
“Yes! It can be unsafe!” The nice, smiling man chimed in.
“You must be careful!” The Chief Detective stood up now and the smiling man and another officer followed his lead.
Before we knew it, all at once the three of them were shouting various safety tips at us.
“The people here will see you and think you have a lot of money and will try to take from you!”
“Make sure to lock your doors!”
“You need a security escort!”
“Check under your beds before you leave and again when you get back! People like to hide there!”
It was that last comment that really did it. Shivani and I looked at each other and started to laugh. The time was incredibly inappropriate, but the overwhelming ridiculousness of the situation finally got to us. We tried to compose ourselves before we made the situation any worse. Shivani was having better luck than I was. I could not stop giggling. I was just so unbelieving of what was happening to us. The Chief Detective kept talking, but at this point I wasn’t paying attention. A paper went around to get our contact information and we finally formally introduced ourselves. The meeting was coming to an end.
Before we got up and left, the Chief Detective said “Don’t be surprised if when you come tomorrow, there is a boat waiting for you.”
We all nodded, said thank-you, and left.
After the incident, Sumaiyah reassured Shivani and I that the police knew we were coming, and were just trying to scare us into giving them money. She told us that whenever people here see Americans, they assume we have a lot of money we can just give away, only she knows we are students who don’t have too much to give. Even so, what the police chief had said about us getting special treatment was not wrong at all. Our perceived whiteness (even though neither of us identify as white) immediately elevates us to the top of an uncomfortable racial hierarchy. For the whole time we have been here, I (and the rest of the GROW team, I assume) have been trying to balance behaving and interacting with the locals, and the UDHA staff in particular, in a way that does not perpetuate the centuries of western imposition, colonialism and racism but also allows us to assert ourselves when we think we need to. It is important to recognize the privilege we have -- and the history behind that privilege -- but it is also important to not let that knowledge immobilize us, especially when it pertains to the work we do with UDHA. We must remember that our partnership with UDHA is a partnership based on the two-way street of cross-cultural exchange.
Thanks for reading through!