Over the cacophonous din of the morning birdsongs is the rhythmic chopping of a young woman hunched over her mound of dirt with a short-handled spade lacerating the dark red dirt still wet with the morning’s dew. She is grateful that the air is still cool, and the morning moisture minimizes the spread of the earth’s fine red dust that will soon lay a fresh coat over everything as the air dries in the rising equatorial sun.
I’m sitting on the porch of the hospital guest house where we arrived yesterday to pilot our educational program in palliative care at yet another Ugandan rural hospital; our mission to educate more healthcare workers in the principles of relieving suffering.
As I drink the instant coffee I’ve made with lukewarm bottled water, I’m thinking about the previous day’s events when a young woman in a bright and boldly patterned yellow and red dress, her bare feet padding up the dirt path, smiles broadly as she approaches me.
“Good morning, Suh.” As I answer her back the birds seem to have stopped to listen, yet the sound of the distant chopping never misses a beat. “I will make breakfast?”, the delightful lilt of her Luganda dialect making every word carry music of its own. “Now?”
I look down at my watch, the one I use only for my trips to Uganda, a Walmart $19.95 Casio World Time® watch with its LED picture of the world map and various other dials I’ve never mastered nor needed. 07:02:54 it displayed. My jetlagged stomach not yet ready for breakfast, and knowing my traveling companion, a medical student assisting with our project, was still sleeping. Satisfied with my tepid coffee, I suggested to her, “8 o’clock? Is that okay?”
“It is okay”, she smiles and walks back down the hill to what I realize now is a cooking hut and disappears behind its curtain door.
I look around from my perch on the porch, now aware of the awakening bustle of the hillside below me, a man struggling with a heavy jerrycan doing his best to avoid spilling any of the precious well water he’s carried up the hill, a small child in a school uniform swinging her book bag at a mango tree waiting for her brothers and sisters before starting the long walk to school, and so many others walking to their plots of land to start their morning farming before the blistering sun make it untenable. All the while, the sepia smell of cooking fires rising, showing like exclamation points across the hillside.
And suddenly there she is again, the bright yellow and red dress, coming up the path, accompanied now by a young man wearing a torn Justin Bieber Believe 2012 Tour t-shirt, both carrying trays of food and the traditional pots of hot water and hot milk, walking, smiling, toward me.
Could it be 8 already? Had I been lost in a reverie of early morning Uganda longer than I thought? My Casio reassures me that I hadn’t had a petit mal lapse, blinking 07:11:14. The young man and woman put the trays down on the rickety repurposed plastic patio table next to my chair. I thank them, they smile broadly and walk back a way down the hill a short way where she picks up a spade, he a watering can, and they hurry to their small land plots halfway down the hill. I look again at my watch. From a nearby tree an unseen hornbill laughs.
I should have known better. Here in rural Uganda, time is measured by the sun’s rise from the dawn horizon, not a watch or clock. Each day is divided not by hours, but by the chores dictated by the sun’s position and the heat of the air. Time to go to school, feed the chickens, start the matoke, hoe the land, are set in the day’s rhythm, a different more fluid metre than the monotonous metronome of our western clocks. Though most villagers can in fact tell time as we westerners do, mostly from the digital readout of their ubiquitous cell phones, they just choose not to be constrained by it, preferring to heed the conversation between the sun’s station in the sky and the chore at hand.
My breakfast preparation that morning occurred when breakfast fit into the scheme of the necessary chores and events of the day, not when the Casio reads 8:00:00. Breakfast occurs just before the work in the field must start, for good reason, or else the heat of the day and the dryness of the soil forces the necessary work to halt. I drank my tea and ate my sweet mango, slowly savoring my breakfast.
April 25, 2018