Like Writing on Water
Travel Stories: In western Uganda, Christopher Vourlias met Colin, a farmer and poet who questioned the purpose of life while happily revealing the meaning of nohandika ha maiise.
08.06.08 | 11:30 AM ET
Colin Kisembo—dairy farmer, poet—wanted to read me a story. He rifled through a weathered accordion file, pulling out two legal pads and reams of wrinkled looseleaf covered with his fastidious handwriting. Outside, the wind gusted, branches thrashing against the windowpane. Colin adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat. He prefaced his story with apologies and asides—nervous, he admitted, what a “real” writer might think of it. His eyes scurried across the page, he shifted in his seat. After a few false starts, he grew frustrated and changed his mind. The story was too much of a work-in-progress, he explained, and he wanted to read me a poem instead.
We were on Colin’s farm in western Uganda, 20 miles from Fort Portal, a languid colonial town near the Rwenzori Mountains. I’d met Colin a few days earlier, squished together in the back row of the Horizon bus from Kampala. We’d struck up a conversation on the outskirts of town, as I’d fiddled with my iPod and waited out the bumpy ride. Curious eyes followed my thumb as it whirled in circles, heads poking over seats and craning into the aisle, when the man by the window—lean, bookish, scratching at his wiry moustache—leaned toward me and cleared his throat. He asked about the storage capacity, and we soon got into a heated discussion about file-sharing and intellectual copyright law. This was not, I suspected, your typical conversation on the Horizon bus from Kampala.
When we arrived in Fort Portal, he ushered me through the crush of cab drivers and helped me to my hotel. Along the way he professed his admiration for Truman Capote. He’d read “In Cold Blood” and had heard stories of the author’s legendary Black and White Ball. Soon he shyly admitted that he was something of a writer himself. We shook hands and parted warmly and made plans to meet later in the week.
Fort Portal slumbers in one of Uganda’s countless backwaters. Once a busy hub for colonial administrators in the West, it now seems content to shuffle along, rubbing its eyes and looking up now and then to wonder what time the British left. It’s a lovely place, with acres of tea plantations sitting in neat parcels on the surrounding hills, and the blue-gray ridges of the Rwenzoris rising on the horizon. I had no plans for my stay—I was only passing through—and was happy to spend a few days strolling down dirt roads and waving to naked kids scooting between the banana plants. Meeting Colin gave me an excuse to stick around, and a few days after our bus ride, he was waiting for me on the steps of the public library.
Colin carried copies of the day’s papers folded under his arm and a canvas shopping bag full of muffins and mango juice. We wedged ourselves onto a motorbike and puttered down the street, soon finding ourselves on a dirt road stitched through the hills. Tea plantations and coffee farms sandwiched the road, goats chewed on grass. We passed a dairy farm and Colin gestured to the plump, handsome cows flicking their tails on the hillside.
“This is, I think, the best dairy farm in the district,” he said, his voice warming with appreciation. “They have very nice cows—pure Friesian. A very nice breed, from Europe.”
A half-hour later we pulled up to his farm. Colin’s cows—lean, scruffy, not-at-all Friesian—buried their faces in a trough. It was a modest bungalow surrounded by bright, flowering plants; by western Ugandan standards, I knew the house suggested some small measure of wealth. Inside we sat across from each other at the kitchen table, picking at the muffins, when Colin offered to read me his poem.
“Let me try to pick the least worst,” he said, again adjusting his glasses, which slid back down the bridge of his nose. Finally he leaned forward, cleared his throat and began to read.