(For the beginning of this story, see I’m in a Sitcom, Right? Part 1)

As they all stood around me, apparently arguing about the proper management of the musungu’s money, suddenly, we were all packed back into the vehicle and heading to the University, which sits almost exactly between Bugembe, the suburb I am staying in every night, and Jinja. The distance from Bugembe to Jinja is about seven miles, so we drove to the university and stopped on the side of the road and let the father of the missing girl out to cross over the median and try to find his daughter at the university.

The chairman was not happy about all this and hadn’t expected his partner to pass the money off to someone else after he passed it off to him, so he would gesture in intense flying Lusoga at his partner, now retreating as fast as he could across the road to the university campus, and alternately turn back to us and smile another, “It’s fine. There’s no problem” in English.

We then continued to drive to Bugembe, where we started this day not an hour before. Why? Well, the Ugandan road authority is big on medians on the few roads big enough to have them. This is one of them. They don’t, however, so much believe in turn-arounds. The median on this road runs unbroken all the way to Bugembe, where there are only two turn-arounds, only one of which is legal and, of course, is the most distant, all the way on the other end of the town.

Finally, we arrived in Bugembe. So I have now made a complete circle in less than an hour. The first turn-around here has the obligatory “No U-turn” sign, causing me to wonder why they installed it at all. Alfred, usually a stickler for these little traffic regulations, causing me to spend endless hours riding to the far end of Bugembe to turn around where it is legal, on this occasion chose to ignore the sign and turned around. Now we were headed back toward Jinja – for the second time so far today. I silently blessed him for this criminal time-saving act and said to myself, “It’s fine. There’s no problem.” (You see? I can learn.)

We then drove back to the university, which we couldn’t get to earlier because ogf the median. There we waited and waited until the father came out to meet us – his daughter, being the good girl that she is, had, of course, already returned to Jinja and was waiting there with my $100 bill. We loaded up again and headed back to our starting point in Jinja. All of this incomprehensible running hither and yon took about 20-30 minutes. All this time, the car was full of Lusoga conversations so that I didn’t have the least idea of what was going on. Every now and then, I would ask Alfred for an update and he would try to fill me in. I’m not really sure he knew what was going on either.

Finally, we reached the spot in Jinja where we started with the chairman, and, sure enough, there stood the girl herself, whom I have never seen before, waving my hundred dollars at us like a flag as we pulled up – or maybe I just imagined that part. Now, funds were quickly exchanged, papers were signed, and we all shook hands and parted ways with the phrase “It’s fine. There’s no problem” ringing in our ears.

Once we were away and I could pin them down, I asked Alfred and David what that was all about. Why did the daughter of the partner of the chairman have my $100? They then explained to me that the university was pressing the girl for fees to attend classes. The father and the girl were waiting for funds to come in to pay her fees. So, once the chairman had my $100 in his hand, the partner asked if he could give it to his daughter to take to the university to prove to them that their fees were going to be paid. So my $100 bill was used as surety against her fees. Is that complicated enough?

So you see, without even knowing it, I did a good deed for this girl and her family. I know what you’re thinking, but that’s the way I’m choosing to spin it.

Seriously though, this strange story gives a lot of insight into the day-to-day struggle Ugandans live with and take for granted. Life here really is about how to put food on the table (or pay fees) today, NOW. That priority of last minute immediacy, and always living to catch up to the demands of survival, drives the culture here in so many ways that a westerner cannot relate to. So much of what we observe and find inexplicable actually makes a lot of sense when you know the back-story.

Word of advice for would-be third world travelers: don’t expect cultural situations to unfold in straight lines; mostly, there just aren’t any. And again, you can’t make this stuff up…

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