In the paper chase that has become my life of late, relationships are what have carried me through. Let me explain.
As a quality-time girl, hours spent sitting in silence on hard wooden benches outside stuffy government offices become draining after the first 5 minutes. As I sit, my mind drifts to how unfortunate I am to be sitting there. Often I’m pressed up against smells that seem to transfer to me by proximity. My back starts to hurt and I long to be able to pull out a book and read, but know that the key to adjusting to a new culture is staying alert to my surroundings. I try to distract myself by watching every human interaction I can find. Do they shake hands? How close do they stand to each other? Who “ends” the interaction? How aggressive can I be in this office? Is it OK to consistently remind them of my presence or should I sit quietly and just…wait?
But, even observation (to an extrovert) becomes draining after a while. My need to connect to the people around me is strong and as a result I now have a trail of boda drivers, street vendors, janitors, secretaries, and even high-ranking officials with whom I have developed a strange sort of camaraderie while I waited all over Uganda. I’ve waited for copies, passports, stamps, receipts, people to show up, people to leave, rain to stop, electricity to come back on, offices to open, planes to land, lunch hour to be over, and cows to cross the road. Sometimes it’s only a 15 minute wait and sometimes I wait all day.
I could tell you stories a-plenty of seemingly random connections and pointless conversations that have led to me having contacts that have proved invaluable throughout this process. One in particular stands out, as our relationship is almost a year old, but we only just became friends on Wednesday.
I still don’t know her name. She sits inches away from a man who holds much power in this process. When I met her last October, she was cold. She rarely looked me in the eye and, while I waited in the chair next to her desk, would make subtle comments to other people in the room that were derogatory about my clothes, choice of words, timing, and the way I cared for Ellie, who was usually in my lap. Often times, I can sit literally inches away from her for hours without ever having her even acknowledge my presence. It’s not just me. I’ve seen her chew up and spit out adoptive families, lawyers, officials, sweet young Ugandans hoping for their paperwork, foreign tourists asking for help, and even an Indian schoolgirl. The time spent in her presence always depresses me, so naturally I dread going to this office.
Unfortunately, (or rather fortunately as I’ve come to discover) this process has forced me to spend literally hours with this woman. When it became necessary for me to spend yet another day in her office a few weeks ago, however, I saw a side of her that had never been obvious before. I don’t know if she finally decided that my reoccurring presence wasn’t worth her resistance anymore or if I just happened to catch her on a day when she needed to connect. After just a few minutes of waiting in that chair beside her desk, a series of housekeeping mishaps and epic failure on my part to communicate in Luganda left her and me laughing together in the early hours of the morning, before anyone else had come in to work. She was still reserved, but something had unlocked between us. Laughter. I left the office not thinking I’d see her for another few months.
But on Wednesday, I again entered her office, this time with Sweet Pea in my arms.
“Why did you come so early?” she snorted. “You know he won’t be here until later.”
I knew. I scolded myself under my breath for inflicting this woman on my day when I could have slept in another hour and spend minutes – instead of hours – in her presence. Then, from somewhere inside me where Jesus must live came these strange words:
“I just came to sit with you. I thought you might be lonely.” (what did I just say?)
She startled and looked to see if I was mocking her. I sat down and she asked if I’d like to read the paper with her. We read together and finally she asked me for Sweet Pea’s name. This baby has seven names and so I searched my brain for the right one to share. My favorite of all of her names is one meaning “grace” in her birth mother’s native language.
“She is called Kisakye.” [pronounced: kee-SAH-chey]
She closed her eyes and sighed. After a moment, she reached into her drawer and pulled out a photograph of a 4 year old little girl. She told me that the child was her daughter, also named Kisakye. There was a significant resemblance between this hardened woman and the sweet little smiling face in the picture and I told her so. A tiny smile cracked on her face and she contemplated whether to tell me what she said next:
“Thank you for saying that she looks like me. I brought her home from an orphanage when she was 8 months old.”
In a country where adoption can bring significant stigma from one’s family and is therefore often kept a secret, her sharing of this detail meant the world to me. She proceeded to share her daughter’s story – pieces of her heart for adoption – that she admitted few others were privy to. In return, I shared Sweet Pea’s story with her.
We sat there, both with broken hearts for how our Kisakyes had come into our lives, and both so grateful for the opportunity to share their stories with someone who had context, someone who knew what it felt like to scoop up a child that might have not made it otherwise and love them more than anything you’ve ever loved before. The hour together flew by and I was even a little disappointed when the man showed up and gave me what I had come for after I barely had to wait at all.
The point of this written monologue is to remind myself (and whomever else might be reading this blog) that every single person we come in contact with on these long days of waiting is precious. Every opportunity to reach out and connect with another person is valuable. The woman I had labeled as mean and crabby is now someone with whom I can share a part of my life that few others understand. We still don’t know each other’s names, but now we each refer to the other as Mama Kisakye and are both looking forward to the next time I have to sit on that chair next to her desk.