Once Upon a Time....(time, time, time)
It was near about Christmas time and the family had decided to spend it deep in the village. Not our ancestral home, but a village in Uganda near to a town called Hoima. This place had become a kind of home for us as we had decided to commit our love and support to enriching the ancient land and empowering the people.
The exact place in this village that we called home was a plot adjacent to a man with five wives, two brothers, and a gaggle of babies between them. He was a prominent member of the village council.
When we first visited his home to show our respect to his hosting us, we went to the back of his compound behind the main house where there was the typical hard dirt area and a hut for the kitchen. The babies were everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, with large dark eyes indicating the distinct relation to their father (underneath the dirt you could believe they were the children of a king). By the kitchen hut lay a sleeping pig with engorged pink nipples, a dusty dog with puppies tucked beneath her, and a young woman beached on a mat and heavy with pregnancy, staring listlessly at the visitors; the flies intermittently landed on each one and all seemed too bored and bloated to do a thing about them. Every year I've gone since-though it has been awhile-there is always a fresh baby to hold whose eyes still have that blank, blind look about them, but they are large and dark, just like their fathers.
On this particular occasion, we had come more by self-indulgent capriciousness, rather than dogmatic dedication. We had come to play. My mother had charge of three naughty twenty-something year olds, young enough to need her protection, old enough to demand freedom for mischief. We were carelessly innocent. It was a perfect holiday brood.
The abode we called home, in that adjacent plot, was made entirely of sticks and mud and we would giggle when we forgot and tried to lean against the wall, only to have pieces of the house come crumbling down. Lucky for us no wolves came knocking. Our kitchen was the open fire under the big tree, and it was often here that visitors and family alike would gather and commune.
The babies were allowed to escape from the eternal tedium of their lives to join in the adventure of watching and interacting with us-visitors from another world. When they weren't playing "throw rocks and dirt" or stealing fruit we would have given them anyway (a habit of the perpetually hungry), they were waiting on hand for any instance that they could find to run an errand for us: fetch sticks for the fire, bring us some fresh cut sugar cane, or dig up some greens for supper. Only one of the wives was actively in charge-it was not the young woman I had seen earlier.
They willingly allowed us to play with them like dolls, piling them up for pictures, adjusting their torn, insignificant clothes to hide their genitals from the peering eye of the camera. It didn't take long to observe there was a distinct character designation among this troop of 9-12 children. There were leaders, fighters, and a caretaker who managed the disturbing act of maintaining an infant of no more than 12 weeks on his small bony back while playing a game of futbol. At times I would dare to intervene, lifitng the wailing baby to me, gently clearing the dirt from her eyes, asking that she be sent back to her mother "where she belonged". But, even at such a fresh age, she new whom to depend on; she would only wail harder until she was back in the arms of the boy. And should she be sent to her mother, within 15 minutes he would come trumping through the dirt path, shoulders hunched and strong, the wailing baby tucked between them in her rightful place. I never stopped marveling at how gentle he could be with her, a mere four or five years old himself. No, that is not an underestimation or a miscalculation due to his malnutrition: by two you can help your mother with small tasks, by four you are the primary babysitter, by six you will have had your first beer-this is Village life, and we are only visitors.
Or so I thought.....