We walk through the dark streets of Gulu, letting the sounds of town fill in the silent spaces of our conversation. There aren’t many spaces to be filled and the lack of electricity means there are also fewer sounds of the town, only the hum of a handful of generators and throbbing dance music coming from a club a few streets away.
Our stomachs are full of pork and cassava from my mom’s going away dinner at a local pork joint called Alulululu. My mom called it Alulululululululululululululu and everyone at the table giggled because, as she said several times, all of her syllables are in the wrong places. There were six of us at dinner and in order to be heard over the din of the rain on the tin roof, we shouted most of the night.
Everyone else peeled off after dinner, riding bikes or bodas back home. This, this distilled quiet time, walking back to the hotel with Ivan is precious.
We recount the dinner conversations and pretend to speed skate home through the streets of town. In our minds we’re fantastic speedskaters. Power is scarce, so light is also scarce and nobody can see well enough to laugh at us. Ivan rarely gets to be a kid, so fake speedskating through town, laughing until our cheeks hurt and doing other goofy things is a necessary component in each piece of our time together.
He paints, well and constantly, to ensure that he and his sister get to go to school. He pays the rent for his studio and collects the rent from other artists sharing his space. Most nights he sleeps in the studio because he can’t afford the boda boda fare from his house to the studio. He keeps a rolled up mattress under the table and pulls it out each night to sleep amongst his paintings.
As we walk, he tells me the story of painting at the TAKS (Through Art Keep Smiling) Center. His face is all lit up as he fills in the details of getting to paint in public and getting to talk about what painting means to him. He painted a LOVE Africa piece and at the end of his time, he was offered a position helping teach Art Therapy.
He’s over the moon and I’m somewhere beyond that because he deserves to be a successful, working artist. He deserves to make a living. He deserves to have a bed, not a rolled up mattress under a table. He deserves an education. He deserves not to worry about his sister.
“I bought my sister a new dress with some of the money I got from the paintings you sold,” he smiles, his big toothy grin brilliantly visible in the inky night.
“From the fashion store you were telling me about?”
“Yes. Do you know why I bought her a dress?”
“Um, because you love her?” It’s obvious in everything Ivan does just how much he loves his sister.
“Because I love her and I want her to know she’s special. Just because we don’t have parents, I still want her to feel cared for. I don’t want her to think she has to go looking for that from guys and then get into trouble.”
Just when I think I can’t love this kid another drop more, he goes and buys a new dress for his sister and my heart shifts into overflow mode.
“You’re a great big brother, you know that?”
“Thanks,” he swallows hard. Compliments are difficult for him to accept and I make a note to speak them more often.
Ivan’s learning to skateboard and as our conversation ebbs and flows we fake skateboard down the last street. We practice all of our best fake tricks and in our minds we’re fantastic.