Mona Lisa Does Africa

Mona Lisa Does Africa

The bus has come to a stop at the Kampala checkpoint a few miles outside of the Ugandan capital city. Traveling alone in East Africa I’ve got my billowy cotton skirts and Israeli sandals, fresh Egyptian kohl lining my hazel eyes. It is the summer of 1988 and I’m 27 years old having recently left my boring first job pushing papers for the New York housing department. Grad school at Berkeley awaits me in the fall.

I’m near the end of a spontaneous detour to this country having just visited a British teacher-friend at a southern Ugandan girls’ school. The mid-morning July sun blazes overhead and the air is hot and dusty. A soldier climbs onto the bus and gesturing with his loaded machine gun yells, “All men off the bus with your papers only!” The priest sitting next to me says I have nothing to worry about; they’re not looking for foreigners.

I reach down and touch the Moroccan leather pouch hanging below my neck. My passport is inside. I don’t want anyone taking my passport nor do I want anyone finding out about the little bag of marijuana in my backpack lying at my feet. The soldier looks like he’s about 14. Because he’s real, he’s scarier to me than the images of child soldiers I had seen in a TV documentary about the dictator Idi Amin 10 years back. In the documentary, the orphans of Amin’s genocidal policies had become empty-eyed, gun-toting enforcers of one of history’s most vicious regimes. But it’s 10 years later and the new, peace-loving Museveni is in power. The country is still divided into the bad “north” and the good “south.” Although we’re in the more peaceful south, the country is still under military law, everyone subject to random military checkpoints.

My heart is pounding but I’ve affected a Mona Lisa-like gaze with my serene eyes and hint of a smile. It’s an art form perfected since childhood; convincing people I can handle more than I’m really prepared for.

The priest leans into me and says, “It’s OK, they’re not going to bother you,” as if he knows I’ve made a terrible mistake with my little, finger-sized bag of pot rolled up in my right hiking boot under the dirty T-shirts and Lonely Planet guidebook in my backpack.

Meanwhile the men from the bus have since lined up outside. The priest has been excused for some reason and is allowed to stay with me. Maybe the soldiers are scared to deal with the strange white woman so they leave us alone. I think about if they were to catch me and discover my terrible secret. Would I be thrown in jail, tortured and left to die like the people in the drug smuggling film, Midnight Express. Can the soldiers sense my fear?

Only weeks before I was in the little Kenyan seaside town of Lamu with my new friend Jackie from the U.K., her boyfriend Tim, and a guy from Nairobi she’d met in a youth hostel. At sunset, the four of us drank beers on the rooftop terrace of a magical little house we had rented for a ridiculously low sum. Light glinted from crushed bits of seashells poking through the plaster and sand walls. Carved into the doors were hand-hewn circular Arab motifs. In the middle of the house was a courtyard lush with pink bougainvillea. Inside, a series of spiraling, narrow staircases connected the rooms like in an Escher painting, surreal and never-ending.

Jackie, tan and spry with short blond hair, had bought some pot from the Nairobi guy who had bought it from someone on the beach in Mombasa a week before. She generously gave each of us a tiny handful as a gift. We smoked the yellow-green buds in tightly rolled joints that Jackie prepared, drank beer and coca-colas and had deep philosophical discussions that ended in uncontrollable fits of tearful giggling.

Jackie would soon begin teaching English at the Kigali Girls Middle School in a few weeks. I marveled at her bravado: Shakespeare and Conrad in post-Idi Amin Uganda! She was smart, knew all about Ugandan politics and macroeconomic analysis. I could follow her forever; the big sister I never had. So off to Uganda I went, trailing in her footsteps with the little bit of the pot she had given me in Lamu. But once I had found her in Kigali, grateful as she was for the offer, I was surprised to see her decline the gift, saying it could get her into trouble.

Now here I was, on a bus returning from Jackie in Kigali, the unwanted stash at my feet (why didn’t I simply toss it down the toilet!), jolted into the awareness that I was potentially in deep trouble.

Another soldier climbs on board while outside the men are standing to have their papers checked. He walks up and down the aisle poking into people’s bags—an old lady with few teeth left, blouse buttoned high but ripped, mumbles something and offers him her open straw bag with a dead, feathered chicken sticking out. Others proffer their suitcases and purses. The soldier looks but keeps going, never finding anything. I gaze out the window with my calm veneer, pretending to be curious about the leaves of the eucalyptus trees fluttering overhead, the orangey-brown color of the ground, a garter snake slithering across the road. Some nearby village children approach, keeping a safe distance. One balances a pile of kindling on her head, the other a pail of water. I pretend it is all terribly fascinating and, lucky for me, the soldier’s inspection passes over me.

Finally the half-hour checkpoint is over, the male passengers are climbing back onto the bus, and the soldiers give the signal it’s OK to move on. A baby starts to fuss. Bags are repositioned. Old men with wrinkled faces seem less weary. Despite the inconvenience, the heat, the inspection, everyone on the bus remains poised and dignified. I am no longer afraid of being found out. For a brief, delicious moment, I feel like a survivor.

Safely back in Kampala, I pass the stash on to a friend of Jackie’s—a World Bank consultant who’s letting me crash at his house for a few nights before I fly back to Kenya. In his bullet hole–ridden living room he gives me a brief tutorial on the fragile truce between north and south, reassuring me post-facto that marijuana is not high on the government’s list of concerns. At night I lie awake staring at the blades of a ceiling fan rotating overhead round and round. I think about the priest on the bus and wonder if I ever thanked him.

Anna Edmondson lives in Oakland with her husband and two sons. See her blog at

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