“Denis, how come you never talk about your wife and kids?”
It comes out harsh and more accusatory than I intend, but I don’t know how to say it any other way. Friendship is so darn hard to navigate sometimes, especially when I’m all kinds of blunt and don’t know how to be otherwise. Add to the mix friendship between two such different cultures and things really get messy.
“What do you mean?” he shouts over the wind whipping in my ears.
“I mean, we’re friends, right?”
I soften because this is the real root of my question and being vulnerable enough to ask it dissolves any toughness I purport to have.
Are we friends or aren’t we?
The lush green of Uganda passes in blurred shapes as we fly down the road. This is how most of our conversations take place, me side saddle on the back of the boda boda as he threads through traffic and pedestrians and cows and pot holes a cacophony of other road hazards.
This is what we’re doing now, threading through pot holes and trying to remain on the path of our unlikely friendship. It’s not the first difficult conversation we’ve had and odds are it won’t be the last.
“Yes, we’re friends.” Denis is perplexed by my question.
“But I didn’t know you have a wife and children until this week. We’ve been friends for a long time now. It feels weird that I’m just now knowing your family. You know my family-my three boys and Terry. You’ve even talked to Terry on the phone.”
Denis doesn’t respond.
“If you don’t want to tell me about your family, that’s really okay-I won’t make you, but I want you to know that you can tell me things, trust me with things. I’m safe. And I’d like to be friends with your wife.”
“Like I’m friends with Mr. Terry?”
“Yes, like you and Terry are friends and you and I are friends. I’d like to be Vickie’s friend, that’s all.”
I leave it there, like an offering, meager as it might be and then I back off.
“My mind has been divided. Last year I was focused on going to school and this year I’m focused on shifting to Te Okot,” Denis explains.
“Your mind was so divided that you forgot about your family?”
So much for backing off. I’m not letting him get away with that one. No way. If Terry’s mind was so divided that he forgot he’s married to me, well, let’s just say that wouldn’t end well.
I’m quiet, pressing my lips together to keep from spouting off my indignance on Vickie’s behalf. Denis catches my eye in the mirror on the handlebar and I wait, unblinking.
I once heard that when you ask a question, you should wait seven slow seconds to give the other person time to think, time to compose their response.
Seven seconds feels like an awkward eternity. Go ahead and count them out. I’ll wait.
You couldn’t make it past two, could you?
On the back of the boda boda I waited, counting the seconds. I waited, maybe for a response. Maybe for an explanation. Maybe for nothing. Because sometimes nothing is the only response. But I waited nonetheless, giving breathing space and thinking space and the space of time where there wasn’t the luxury of physical space.
Denis doesn’t offer up an explanation of why he safeguarded his family from me. Instead he extends an olive branch.
“Would you like me to tell you the story of how I met Vickie?” I hear a small smile creep into his voice.
Denis unfolds the story of how he met Vickie when he was still staying in an Internally Displaced Persons Camp. He tells about his sweet, kind father, who was legitimately bitter and angry, ravaged by war and loss. I nod because if my child had been abducted I’d be beyond furious and seven shades beyond bitter. Denis took his mother and moved out of the camp with Vickie, who was kind and soft when he needed it most. Denis continues and tells me about his reconciliation with his father.
“I can’t imagine Musee being that way.” I say over the wind.
“War breaks a lot of things.”
It’s the truest sentence I’ve heard in a long time and I let the words sit between us before asking my next question.
“What does Vickie like to do?”
“She stays at home.”
“I know, but what does she like to do? Does she like to sing or build things or sew or cook or dance? What does she like to do?”
“She likes business. She makes paper beads. I learned how to make paper beads in the IDP camp and I taught Vickie and my sister, Conci. Vickie wants to make jewelry and earn her own money.”
“Can I bring her a gift of bead making supplies when we visit Te Okot?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good.” I feel the embarrassment of not knowing about Vickie start to fade.
“From seeing her, how old do you think she is?” Denis grins in the mirror.
I tilt my head to the side and conjure up her face. She served me beans and posho the last time I was in Te Okot and had the grace not to laugh at my feeble attempt at thanking her in Acholi. She had a shy smile and smooth skin.
“I think she’s twenty-three.”
“She told you!” Denis chides.
“No, she didn’t tell me. She just looks twenty-three.” I imagine being twenty-three, raising four small children in the bush, where daily living is so very hard. Vickie is remarkably unhaggard. “What are your children like?”
Denis tells me about Mercy, a first grader who loves to write.
“You’re just saying that because you know I love to write.”
“No, you will see in Te Okot. Writing is her best subject.”
“And what about Lucky Maurice? What’s he like?”
Denis shakes his head and tells me about his second child, Lucky (who incidentally is my favorite kid in the whole family because he’s always laughing and making mischief). Denis tells me that Lucky used to pick on all the other kids in Bungatira and that trouble was Lucky’s shadow, but now he’s mostly grown out of that.
“And the twins?”
“Opiyo is sweet and Ochin is stubborn, so stubborn.”
“I know. The last time I was in Te Okot he was using the panga outside and Vickie asked him to bring it inside and from inside the house all we heard was a groan and his footsteps stomping away.”
“That’s Ochin. Stubborn, stubborn boy.”
“I wonder where he gets it,” I elbow Denis in the back. “You know she’s a saint for putting up with you,right?”
“Vickie. Sweet Vickie. Saint Vickie.” I fold my hands piously.
He laughs and a few minutes later we reach our destination. I pull out my notebook and scrawl a reminder.
“What are you writing?”
“Bead materials for Saint Vickie. I love that she wants to be a businesswoman. Who knows, maybe I’ll be her first customer.”