I felt as if I was going to be sick.
We had congregated under a small tent near the entrance to the Batwa village and they had received our group as guests, as though their song and dance was less of a performance and more like a crash course in their culture. They featured several fable-like narratives – such as one in which a rat visited and ate all of the village’s food. One of our guides translated their language into English in intermittent pauses throughout the demonstration.
This visit took place as part of a trip I took with 16 other people participating in a week-long program called Wayfinders. This program was started by a man named Mike Brcic, who previously took people on international biking tours but saw a more enriching opportunity to help entrepreneurs and other business-minded people to peel back layers of their own experience through international travel. But a critical part of this model was to take people to more obscure places, including Bhutan, Fiji, and the Peruvian Amazon. By going off the beaten path, Mike intended for his people to get a glimpse of themselves through unexpected experiences.
For my trip, he took us to Uganda.
What is interesting about Mike’s model is that he very purposely keeps his folks in the dark about what the week will entail. I knew very little about the week in Uganda, apart from a couple of activities we were meant to do together.
But given how all 17 participants were westerners visiting a country on the other side of the world, what would we even do in a place like Uganda?
This question was in part answered in the form of a long hike up a volcano that summited at over 10,000 feet (I got altitude sickness and didn’t make it to the top) and trudging through a river in water shoes so as to take a dip in a waterfall at the end (I did the river walk but stood on the rocks near the waterfall and watched almost everyone else rejuvenate themselves). With each activity I did what I could to play along and get the full experience, but I also wrestled with a feeling that I didn’t belong. Many of these folks owned companies with dozens of employees and often seemed rather easeful in their relating to one another. I even asked several people toward the beginning of the week a question I like to ask relative strangers (“What’s something important to you that I can ask you about?”) and felt self-conscious that I was going too far into relating too quickly.
This was a shame, as I liked that question. It was a way to show curiosity without knowing what to be curious about – while still honoring the other person’s boundaries.
Despite a curiosity about my fellow travelers from the West, I didn’t find myself too invested in the Batwa’s song and dance fables. By the time we made it to the Batwa village – on day 4 of our week together – I was not only feeling uncomfortable with the group, I felt uncomfortable visiting the village. The Batwa were a tribe of pygmies and were mostly about five feet tall. Historically, they lived in the jungles of Uganda and surrounding countries, cohabitating with the native wildlife such as gorillas and elephants. But in 1991, the government moved them to a small settlement near the lodge where we were staying. In my mind, they seemed analogous with how the Native Americans were placed on reservations, but a key difference was that the Batwa didn’t own their land. They rented it from a local landlord.
The demonstration with the fables was led by a woman – a matriarch of sorts who seemed to be in charge of the event. It surprised me how young she seemed, she couldn’t have been more than 30 or 35. In fact, none of the Batwa seemed all that old. She had stood beside the village liaison and our guide when they greeted us upon our arrival, and though she was in street clothes during this initial encounter she quickly changed into an outfit worn by all of her fellow singer/dancers: a colorful dress made of purples and oranges, a straw skirt-like accessory over the lower half of the dress, and many of them wore headdresses made of straw or a bandana made from the fabric of which they made their dresses.
And though their outfits exhibited an expression full of spectacle and feeling, it was nothing in comparison to the matriarch herself. At first glance she was much like the rest of her tribe, small and sturdy, lean from a life of intense dancing and likely malnourishment.
She conducted call-and-response chants with the rest of her troupe, and may have even been responsible for the choreographing everything.
But even more than her position of leadership, it was her gaze that set her apart. Many of her fellow dancers had a sense of buoyancy, a playful quality that would likely inspire a similar sense in those who watched them.
The matriarch, however, seemed to see the world in flames.
While she exuded a sense of joy when she danced and sang, the history of her people appeared to play out as a movie across her face. She would often conduct herself and her fellow dancers to suddenly stop in a sort of pose and stare at us. It was almost like a final pose of a big dance number in a Broadway show, except it happened mid-song and multiple times throughout. But again, while the others stared at us, the matriarch saw through us. It wasn’t as if she blamed us westerners for her people’s plight – or even that she envied our comparatively abundant lives – but her expression did seem to demand something. It was as if anyone who looked upon her had to earn the right to do so.
And I didn’t feel like I had.
Not even close.
Prior to our visit, Mike had arranged a donation of one goat for each of the 32 families in the tribe on our behalf, as that was apparently what would help them to be more self-sufficient. But since I hadn’t had anything to do with arranging for this to happen, it didn’t feel like I was supposed to be a part of this gesture either. I carried this thought with me as we returned to the old Land Cruisers that drove Mike and the 17 of us around, and when we got to the vehicles I found that the Batwa had set up blankets with their crafts for sale: baskets, bracelets, small gorilla statues, and many other items. They were hand-crafted, the kinds of creations that probably took many hours to make. If they were offered at a craft fair in the United States, they would likely cost $50 or $100.
“How much?” I asked one of our guides as I pointed at a small, circular placemat. I didn’t have interest in bringing too much back to my tiny New York City apartment, but I certainly could use new placemats.
“Twenty thousand,” the guide said.
He had heard the price from the matriarch herself, who stood among a dozen of her people behind their makeshift booths. I hadn’t even meant to stop in front of her – I had merely been looking to find something small that would fit in my luggage.
“Twenty thousand,” I repeated as I looked at her. She didn’t have the same fiery intensity that I saw during the dance, but her face seemed to tell a different story – that she knew, like I did, that buying a couple of placemats would have little impact on their lives.
Twenty-thousand Ugandan shillings was the equivalent of about $5.35.
I felt foolish as I gave the matriarch a 50,000 note, and tried to convey through gesture that she could keep the remaining 10,000 Shillings from the two placemats I purchased. I wanted to ask the interpreter to assist us in a real conversation, one in which I could hear her story – or hear her tell me pretty much anything at all. But I didn’t. It didn’t feel right. And while I admit my discomfort came in part from how ridiculous it was that these items cost less than $11, it also came from how she looked at me. She didn’t seem grateful for my purchase or the small bit of remaining change. She didn’t seem curious about the white man with a shaved head and pierced ears. She just looked at me, like she had seen a million other people just like me.
And if that was true, that I was as unremarkable as I then felt, then I may very well have stumbled across why the sight of the Batwa made me feel sick in the first place.
* * * *
The only place in our house where there was enough room for me to practice choreography was in the basement. Unlike the finished basements that so many other kids’ homes had, this was a cement-floored storage area that smelled of must and rotted cardboard boxes.
But it had open space, which was a far cry from the main level of our house.
Not to mention the basement afforded me a level of privacy.
My high school drama club was going to do Anything Goes as our spring musical, a silly show featuring Cole Porter songs and a lot of 1920’s style dancing like the Charleston.
This was my junior year of high school, in 1994. By this point I had invested quite a lot of my identity into being a “drama geek.” I got the theater bug in 8th grade when I played Rooster in my junior high school production of Annie in 1991, and committed all of my energy to participating in theater in any way I could. In my freshman and sophomore years, I scored juicy character parts in Grease and Li’l Abner respectively.
This had me feeling very optimistic for landing a comparably juicy part in Anything Goes. There was one part in particular – that of a British fop called Sir Evelyn – that I was particularly interested in. I had come to love British humor, as I had been influenced by Monty Python, the teacher in the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and some of Mike Myers’ characters on Saturday Night Live before he received greater fame for the Austin Powers movies. I had even worked at the Renaissance Faire the previous summer pretending to be British – even though I was just schlepping kegs of beer and bags of ice to a beverage stand.
And one thing that I thought would get me the part was to dance my ass off at the audition. We would be auditioning in small groups in front of the rest of the students auditioning, and our drama club director taught us the Charleston-inspired choreography one afternoon before the big day. I thought I had the bones of the dance down by the end of that session but I really wanted that part so I went down to the basement later that day to feel more confident in it.
I didn’t really know why theater meant so much to me. Admittedly, my 7th grade year immediately before getting the theater bug was tied with 6th grade as the worst two years of my life. It wasn’t until 6th grade that I was forced to deal with bullies and when we moved to junior high school for 7th grade it didn’t seem like there was a single person in school who had any greater ambition than to knock my books out from under my arm between classes. My life outside of school wasn’t any better, for while I wasn’t really a victim of bullying at home my parents seemed as committed to screaming at each other as the kids in school were to terrorizing me in the hallways.
Maybe, just maybe, if I committed myself wholeheartedly to performing, I could keep all of that at bay.
Or maybe I was just starving for attention.
Regardless, as I practiced the dance that evening in the basement, I kicked my legs out as high as I could. I threw my arms into it as well. By the end of my practice session I thought I had a passionate, authentic recreation of the routine.
How could I not receive the part of Sir Evelyn, with this much passion and commitment?
On the day of the dance audition, I waited for my name to be called. I watched one, two, three, and then four groups of six as they took their turns. Most people seemed shy or timid with the exception of a few girls who had clearly been taking dance classes since they were young. Then, finally, as group five was called, I heard my name.
I walked up on stage, giddy with anticipation to show off my moves, took my place, and the music started.
I kicked my legs as high as I could. I threw my arms into it as well. I felt sure that all eyes were on me as I did the routine. We then finished and we got the same polite applause that everyone else did. After the remaining groups had gone, I approached the drama club director in the hopes of hearing praise.
“You were so over-exuberant I was kind of concerned that your limbs were going to fly off your body!” she said.
It turned out that, once she elaborated, she didn’t think very much of my energetic dancing at all. She didn’t think I was passionate and committed.
She thought I was a spaz.
And despite how my British accent and commensurate foppishness during my audition was actually rather convincing, the role of Sir Evelyn went to a senior. I was cast as a sailor, one of six guys who were paired off with six girls to do dance numbers.
I did what I could to stand out, though. My 17-year-old ego apparently couldn’t take being relegated to a glorified member of the ensemble, so I still kicked out my legs as high as I could. I didn’t want to recognize that ensemble members don’t serve the show if they pull attention. To be a good sailor is to be the same as everyone else.
However, as I did more theater, I got the impression that putting that much energy into my dancing and other aspects of the performance weren’t what any given show needed. As I took dance classes, I sought to be more refined. I sought to keep my limbs in just the right place at all times. When I didn’t get into a performance program for college, I pulled my limbs in further still. I did study theater in college in a more general way, but by the end of that program I was pretty much done with that form of expression as a whole.
In the end, all I had really done was be a local kid who needed to distract himself from largely typical adversity. I was just someone who had convinced himself that he had talent even though it wasn’t any sort of talent that would be sustainable in a professional context.
And as I entered the real world that follows college, my unfocused, unremarkable foray into the professional workforce ensured that I heard the message that the universe wanted to send me…
It’s best to keep all of your energy to yourself.
* * * *
Following our visit to the Batwa, Mike kept us busy with a variety of experiences, including not just trekking along that river to the waterfall but also tracking gorillas out in the wild. For that experience, we split into two groups of nine (including Mike) and trekked into the nearby jungle where our trackers guided us to where the gorillas were. And though the other group encountered a gorilla family that seemed content just to nosh for a bit and then take a nap, our family featured a silverback who actually attacked our trackers and embedded his fingernail in one of the trackers’ legs. But the tracker soldiered on, because, well, it was his job to do so I suppose. Eventually, however, the silverback decided we weren’t a threat. Dramatic though our initial encounter was, he did little more than give us a wary side-eye the remainder of our time with them. Apparently, as long as we didn’t stay longer than an hour, we wouldn’t be imposing on them in any way.
This was on our last day at the lodge before we were to return to our point of entry a short plane ride away the following morning. I thought we were just going to hang around after the gorillas and have dinner, but Mike had other plans for us. After it stopped raining – something that happened in buckets as Uganda ended its rainy season – he took us to a place called “The Top of the World.”
This was merely a small peak near our lodge that was known for particularly majestic views. I liked a nice view as much as the next person, but I couldn’t fathom why it was worth it to venture out after heavy rainfall as well as a full day tracking animals that had a questionable tolerance for humans.
We unloaded from our Land Cruisers and set out up a hill to be at The Top of the World. As I got closer to the summit a few minutes later, I overheard song – a chorus of women singing in joyful harmony.
It was the Batwa.
Apparently Mike had arranged with the Batwa’s liaison to greet us with song and dance yet again.
Except, this time I didn’t feel self-conscious or out of place. Along with hikes and gorilla tracking, another thing we had done that week was discuss as a group whether we wanted to help out the Batwa as well as an orphanage we had also visited. We had found out that the thing that would help out the Batwa more than anything was to own their own land. Because they rented their land from a wealthy landlord, and because of their poverty, they were unable to raise the 14 million Shillings to purchase it.
14 million shillings is the equivalent of $4,000.
Of course we raised the fucking money.
Of course we did.
One of the problems with a privileged person from America talking about participating in an act of charity is that it’s often tainted with the cliché of self-congratulation. But I don’t mention that money – or the other money we raised beyond the cost of that land and to help the orphanage finish the first floor of a dormitory – to congratulate ourselves. I’m sure many of us in the developed world – at least those who have gotten this far in this essay – would do something similar.
My reason for mentioning it is that the knowledge that I had helped even just a little bit to shift an awful situation to become a little less awful helped me to feel lighter and happy to see the Batwa again. Of course they had no idea that they were about to be able to buy their land – and as of this writing, I believe they still don’t – but even so they greeted us at The Top of the World with the same joyful, enthusiastic song and dance that they had only days before. And because I was finally able to really take it all in, I started to notice how they moved, and how fiercely they stomped and how high they jumped. They may have had diminutive frames but their joy made them giants.
And with that uplifting quality came another gift. As I said, I had been struggling for much of the week to feel like I belonged, that I often needed to refrain from asking the kinds of questions I wanted to ask, that I needed to fit myself more into the mold of what a Westerner in Uganda was supposed to be. And that was really at the heart of my problem so much of my life. My curiosity was too serious, my brow was too furrowed, my feelings were too intense…
…and my limbs were too likely to fly off my body.
Several days prior, our group had had a dance party in the lodge after dinner. I usually needed to be at a wedding with people I had known a long time to feel comfortable busting a move, but I felt at least comfortable enough with Mike and my 16 fellow travelers to break out some moves at 50 or 60% capacity. That felt like it would be safe – that it wouldn’t be too much.
Two women who are sisters were among our 18, and they easily began dancing with the Batwa when several of the Batwa broke ranks and started dancing right in front of us. But rather than feel apart from the sisters and everyone else, there at The Top of the World I only had one thought.
Fuck it. I want to dance too.
And so I did. I stomped on the ground as hard as I could. I emulated the Batwa’s moves in whatever way that felt possible, wayward limbs be damned. There was no limit to the amount of energy allowed here, except perhaps that of my 45-year-old lungs at 7,000 feet above sea level. At one point a young Batwa woman came up to me and danced right in front of me, and I did my best to keep up. I then had to take a break because, like I said, 7,000 feet.
But then several minutes later the sisters joined them again as well as some other folks from our group. This time, I took off my sandals to dance barefooted in the wet grass like the Batwa were doing.
And that’s when I found myself face to face with the Matriarch once again.
This time, she was the one to come up to me.
And this time, I didn’t feel like a million other people she had seen. As I’ve said, during their demonstration days prior they had all frozen intermittently throughout the demonstration. And she did now right in front of me as well. When she froze, I followed suit. And we stared at each other. I found myself on the receiving end of her fiery gaze, and through it she dared me to look away. I couldn’t. We held each other’s gaze and I found myself having the conversation I had wanted to have when I purchased the place mats.
But this time, we didn’t need an interpreter.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“Why do you hide?” she asked.
“I don’t think people can handle all of me,” I said.
“Give it anyway,” she said.
At least, that’s what it felt like after it had played out.
I still felt like apologizing – apologizing for the fact that she and her people were booted off their land when I was busy playing Rooster in Annie. Apologizing for the fact that she had the strength that she had and yet it seemed like the most remarkable thing about me was that I was born in a certain country with a certain type of skin.
But through her gaze, I got a different message.
“Stop that,” she said.
She then moved on and I joined them in more dance. And once again, I felt winded and had to take another break.
Eventually, they wrapped up their singing and dancing. And their liaison – also in the dark about what we were going to do for them – had a basket to collect any money we might be willing to offer. I put in most of the rest of the Ugandan cash I had on me, knowing that no amount of money was worthy of what had just happened.
For as things wrapped up I found myself reflecting on how much of myself I really had hidden away throughout my adulthood. I may have stopped doing theater, but I wasn’t any less theatrical at my core. And my curiosity may not have been at everyone’s speed, but it still had earned me a career that I really did love. And my limbs, well, they were pretty firmly attached to my body. There was no reason not to use them in whatever way I could.
Indeed, my life was only ever going to be as big as I allowed it to be.
* * * *
As I headed to the path that would take us back down to the Land Cruisers, I once again made eye contact with the matriarch as they packed up their gear.
But this time, I felt neither her indifference nor her intensity. She just seemed to exhibit warmth, and as I placed my hands in prayer and giver a brief bow of my head, she placed her hands on her heart. I then did so as well.
We may have been about to give the Batwa a little bit of money, but they gave me something far more valuable.
They reminded me to kick my legs as high as I could.