Tribal Markings

I saw her ankles. She was sitting side-saddle. She could have been thrown off backwards like a scuba diver. The rough road would tear through her dress. She’d roll. She’d be shredded. God help her. If she landed back first, not head first—if she’s alive and her sight’s not blurred by blood, shock, or panic, she’s squinting up the road. Headlights of cars bearing down on her from behind are lighting up the back of my car. If she hasn’t been run over, she’s looking at the back of my car. Old Georgia flag. God Bless Johnny Cash. Bumper stickers. Tribal markings.

Day and night, many thousands of dusty vehicles migrate in irrationally hurried streams on two-lane paved roads in all directions pouring into and out of Kampala. Until a few seconds before, the night had been like all the other nights I’d driven home from the city. My grimace and squint were the external signs of the internal state of mind I’d learned to access for driving in Uganda—a blend of hyper-alert vigilance and Gethsemane-like resolve. A focused gaze into the immediate peripheral headlight future contained mostly someone else’s weathered bumper. The shadowy margins were filled with moving pedestrians, goats, cycles, and motor-scooter taxis—bodas—all walking, milling, rolling in the dusty clay shoulder of the road, a left arm’s length away from the vehicle traffic heading opposite directions.

We approached a busy roadside market, activity on the shoulder thickened, and our road traffic slowed to stop-and-go. Only my driver’s window was open. The equatorial night air was bitter with diesel fumes and dust, chicken, chapati, oil, and charcoal smoke from the fires of street vendors. Taxi vans—matatus—pulled over to drop off and pick up passengers at a crowded stop—stage. Boda drivers parked by the stage, eager for passengers to climb on for a quick and easy final leg of their journey home. Male passengers in trousers straddled the seat, inner thighs and knees wrapped around the hips of the boda drivers—all young men—with dignified, professional intimacy. Female passengers sat side-saddle in dresses and skirts with their backs to the road, feet crossed at the ankles. No boda passengers wore helmets. Matatus left the stop to force their way back into traffic. Some bodas buzzed onto the outside edge of the road in that arm’s length space, passing slow-moving vehicles while they could, before turning down dusty lanes toward off-road destinations.

Things slowly opened up as we rolled away from the market. Brake lights were disengaged, and I shifted into second and accelerated to keep up with the bumper in front of me. Then vigilance was activated. A distracted truck driver up ahead in the opposite lane hesitated, creating a gap in traffic right beside me that quickly grew into the length of three matatus. The matatu behind me saw that gap as a chance to pass me and swerved into it, accelerating madly toward the hesitating truck. At the same time, vehicles behind the truck alerted him with angry horns. He ground and gunned his truck to fill the gap. Since neither vehicle was at open road speed, the impending head-on collision would probably not produce fatalities, but both vehicles were aggressively accelerating, and their collision would lead to other collisions, multiple injuries, long-term discomfort, and financial difficulty for many people traveling in both directions.

All in a gasp between two palpitated heart beats, the oncoming truck honked hard and loud. The matatu in that shrinking gap on my right, its front bumper barely in front of mine, revved frantically and swerved at me. As I tapped my brake and swerved left to let the matatu slide in front of me, in my passenger side mirror, by the red light of my taillights, I saw a boda passenger’s sandaled feet crossed at the ankles. I felt my left rear fender hit the boda and saw its single headlight swerve sharply to the left and stop. The truck flew past in the opposite lane, still shaking and grinding, angry horn dopplering accusations.

I continued to roll—not accelerating or braking—and listened for screams, screeches, or crashes. There were none. I checked and re-checked my side mirrors and rear mirror for any immediate signs of catastrophe, chaos, or alarm. There were none. I accelerated casually and drove on.

Hit and run. That’s what this is. This can’t be right. Man slaughter. Woman slaughter. What can I do? There’s no 911, no 999. I don’t even know if she fell off. I didn’t see anyone fall off. If she did fall off and she’s lying in the road, I can’t U-turn here. The best I can do is drive on to a spot where I can turn off, come back, park on the other side of the road, run through traffic across the road in the dark, pick her body up off the road and carry it back across traffic and put her in the car to drive her twenty minutes to the hospital. They might let me do that. They might assume I’m just a mzungu who stopped to help. But if someone helps me carry her to the car and sees it’s the car that hit her. Then I’m dead. What if she’s dead? God don’t let her be dead.

As a kid living in Nigeria, I’d heard mob justice stories. The day before we flew back to America, from the backseat of someone’s Volkswagen, I saw and smelled sick smoke rising in the road ahead of us. We u-turned frantically and drove away. I craned my neck but couldn’t get a look out the little back window. Later I heard someone say the smoke was from burning tires and bodies—a mob had beaten people, thrown tires over their heads, arms, and legs to restrain them, soaked them with gas, and set them on fire.

When I moved to Uganda, I’d been told not to cry, “thief!” in a public place. A thief caught stealing is stripped and beaten until either the police intervene, or the thief is dead.

About a month before I hit that boda in traffic, I was dragged out of bed on a weeknight by a midnight text message. “Coach pls come down quick they might kill this guy.” I was a university athletic director and basketball coach. The text was from 32—a 5’ 9” Ugandan shooting guard. I blinked myself awake as I drove, bouncing down the dry rain-rutted red clay lane toward the hostel where most of my guys lived. I turned in at the hostel and a crowd of at least fifteen young men, most of them my players, unfolded their sinister circle to stare, interrupted and angry, into my headlights shining through the iron gate. In the center of the unfolded circle was a shirtless teenage boy in torn jeans with a disfigured face—cut, bleeding, eyes swollen shut, lips split. I turned off the lights and got out. 32 let me in the gate.

From the center of the now closed circle I heard an explosive punch and deep angry Swahili followed by a moan, then peripheral angry grumblings, and a few laughs. In my first year I would have rushed into the circle, waving my hands, yelling at guys, grabbing shoulders to clear them away from the beaten kid, grabbed him, helped him to my car, and driven him to the hospital while mentally forming a Sermon on the Mount/Miranda Rights talk to deliver at the beginning of the next practice. But I’d been living in Uganda for five years. I stood with 32 away from the circle and listened as he explained what was happening.

Over the last few days, phones, shoes, and clothes had gone missing from the hostel. “Saul is trying to get the stuff back, but it’s been too long. I knew he would slow down if you got here.” He explained further, that our captain, Robert Mugabe—6’ 4” versatile post player, one of two orphaned brothers from Mombasa, Kenya, named after one of Africa’s beloved and hated presidents-for-life, intense dark face, maybe regal, maybe vigilant, maybe violent—was down in the market and saw the thief on the back of a boda wearing his No. 6 game jersey. Instantly, Mugabe grabbed the jersey in his fist, lifted the kid off the moving boda, and led him on the mile walk to the hostel. Saul—6’ 7” power forward, also from Kenya, big hands, big fists, big deep voice that laughed as freely as it spat Swahili threats—took over at the hostel. The Ugandan thief wouldn’t have understood the Swahili he was hearing from Mugabe and Saul and the others, as it wasn’t his mother tongue. For at least two hours he’d been in the darkness of this small hostel courtyard, likely disoriented as much by the number of foreign words, accents, and smells of his international captors as by the punches and kicks they kept delivering. Ours was the most diverse of all the teams in the Ugandan National Basketball League—Kenyans from Mombasa, Kisumu, and Nairobi, one Tanzanian, one Rwandese, Ugandans from the city, and Ugandans from the village. Each one of these young men in this little African mob had learned at home how to treat a thief.

Saul did slow down. After a few less-frequent slaps, the boy agreed to lead them to the other stolen items. With Saul holding on to the loose waist of his jeans, the broken boy led our semi-single file pack down unlit, uneven, lanes, off the clay to shuffle through high wet grass toward small, dark shacks hidden in trees—invisible dogs barking. At each stop, stolen items were returned to one or two owners and the boy was reminded with a slap what unrecovered items remained. From the middle of the pack, I watched for signs of life from the boy—a spit, a cough, a recovered step.

We ended up under a hazy street light at the top of another lane that ended in an intersection across from the main entrance of the university. There were a couple of shops still open and a loud, well-dressed, Ugandan student stepped out of one, speaking aggressively in Luganda. Until then, we had not encountered another person on our search. As the loud Ugandan got closer and recognized Saul and the others, he started speaking Swahili. Saul responded and let go of the staggering boy’s pants and the loud Ugandan punched the boy in the face. The boy crumbled to his knees and the loud Ugandan, in dress shoes, kicked at him wildly. The boy was alive enough to ball himself up for protection. Saul and the others laughed, watching a few angry, unathletic kicks, but then Saul saw something he didn’t like. He grabbed the loud Ugandan by the shoulder and spun him away from the boy spitting Swahili at him. The loud Ugandan recovered his balance, spat, and stumbled down the hill into darkness.

Someone grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the crowd. “Mistah! Why are you out here with these people?” It was Joachim, a middle-aged Ugandan security guard I’d seen many times, but never spoken with. He was clearly scolding me. “These people” could have meant “these foreigners,” “these drunkards,” “these basketballers”—most likely it was a mix of all three. He was still holding my hand—common for Ugandans engaged in conversation or greeting. I shook his hand and continued to hold it, “Joachim. These are my boys.” I explained the situation, assured him no one was drunk, thanked him for coming over, and asked how we should get the boy to the police. Still holding my hand, he walked with me over to Saul and the others. He let go of my hand, smiled and greeted Saul in Swahili and they shook hands and exchanged dignified greetings. Joachim quickly but completely exchanged greetings with all of the other guys—everyone smiling. I was relieved to see the boy rise to his knees at Saul’s feet and cough. Saul stepped around him toward me, gave me a hug, thanked me, and followed Mugabe, 32, and the others back to the hostel. Joachim and I were alone with the boy under the light.

“We go,” Joachim said, lifted the boy by his arm, and we walked the half-mile to the police station. We left the boy at the station, bleeding but breathing in the hands of the police. Joachim walked with me back to the hostel to get my car, and I drove him back up to his post at the main gate.

On the walk, Joachim only spoke twice. “It would not be good for Kenyans to bring a beaten Ugandan to Ugandan police."

“Thank you for helping them,” I said.

“Thank you for what you are doing with these boys,” he said. “But you should not be out at night in this place. It’s not good at night.”

I got back into bed at 3:00 a.m. Later in the morning, I told my wife the story. I said more than I should have about how beaten up the boy was.

“You shout at those guys all the time and they do what you say.. You couldn’t have stopped them?”

“I could have, but this is different. It’s much deeper.”

“Then why’d you go?”

“32 asked,” I said.

I hadn’t thought any of it through. For me, the whole thing had been cautious reaction in pursuit of survival, not strategic action in pursuit of justice. As time passed, I couldn’t get comfortable with the images of the beaten boy, but I was comfortable with what I had done and not done. The boy was alive. Saul was not in jail.

The only other traffic accident I’ve been involved in was in my second year in Uganda. I was driving the team to a night game in a university matatu. We were cut off by another matatu turning left in front of us from the inside lane of a roundabout. I swerved to miss him, but his left rear bumper scraped our front right bumper. I honked and Saul and the boys let out a few yells. The driver of the other matatu pulled all the way over to the curb in front of us. I slowed, honked again, and kept on driving.

Under different circumstances, I would have pulled over, checked damage to both vehicles and at least had a conversation with the driver. He would deny responsibility, wave me off, and drive away, but at least I could explain to the university mechanic that I’d tried to do the right thing. But we were on our way to a game, it was dark, and I was confident that any visible damage to either vehicle would be minor and not worth the risks.

A few minutes later we pulled into the gate at the YMCA—the outdoor court is the primary site of all Uganda National League games. In the second quarter of the game, focused on whatever on-court situation I was trying to improve by yelling at my guys, I ignored the first two or three calls of “coach” from a player on the bench. Finally, annoyed, I turned to look at who was calling me. The guys on the bench pointed to the police officer standing a few feet behind me in full khaki uniform with an AK-47 on his shoulder. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear him over the crowd noise.

“Sorry?” I said and stepped back toward him, keeping my eye on the action on the court in front of us.

“I need to speak to you sir,” he said. “This man says you knocked his vehicle with your vehicle.” He pointed and I looked over towards the scorer’s table where the disgruntled matatu driver stood, grinning.

He knocked me,” I said and smiled. I put my hand gently on his non-gun shoulder. “Please, sir, this is my job. Can I finish this game and then come and see you?” The police station was right across the street.

“We will wait here.”

After the game, I didn’t speak to the officer or the matatu driver. Sam—6’ 4” Ugandan post player, book smart, street smart—soaked with sweat and out-of-breath, immediately introduced himself to the officer and greeted him and the driver in Luganda. The officer gestured for me to follow. I told the guys to wait at the van. It was my first time in a Ugandan police station. I stood silent. Sam talked, listened, objected, clarified, was calmed by the officer, apologized, and clarified some more. The only word I understood from any of them was “mzungu.” A short fifteen minutes later—no citation, no violation, no paperwork, Sam and I walked out of the police station. I put my arm around Sam and thanked him. “No problem coach,” he said. “I just told them not every white man pays bribes.”

In the van on the way home, Sam told the story of his interaction with the police. I asked them all how the matatu driver found us. “Coach,” Saul laughed, “Celebrity life!” Everyone laughed, most of them probably wondering if their name or photo would make it into the next sports page. No one thought it remarkable that this driver, who must have taken all of his paying customers to their destination before looking for us, actually found us. Motivated by the possibility of money, he did whatever he had to do, and he did it quickly.

Squatting alone in the early dew of the morning after I hit the boda, I leaned in to inspect the area around my left rear fender. There was no visible evidence of contact. I knew there wouldn’t be. I hadn’t stopped processing each element of what happened and all possible outcomes. I knew that the same awareness, desire to pursue justice and/or money, and resourcefulness was shared by everyone—drivers, passengers, pedestrians, chicken and chapati cooks—who witnessed the accident the night before. There were hundreds of old Land Cruisers in Uganda. But there was only one with my bumper stickers.

Six years in New Jersey, three in Nigeria, three in Kansas, thirteen in Georgia, five in Illinois, five in Uganda. I guess I’m from Georgia, but I don’t think it’s in my soul. I don’t know if there’s a place in my soul. But there’s Georgia on my car, with God and Johnny Cash.

I stood and stepped around to the back bumper, lifted my left hand to the flag sticker, and carefully slid the tip of my thumbnail under the bottom right corner—the Confederate corner. With my thumb and index finger, I pulled firmly, slowly. The sticker rolled away revealing a small isosceles triangle of spotless glass, bordered on two sides by straight lines of thickly dusted Uganda red clay.

I can pull the rest of this sticker up and it’ll be pristine glass underneath. Thirty seconds with a wet rag, you’d never know it was there.

I left that Confederate corner hanging and squatted again and pulled at the bottom right corner of the Johnny Cash sticker. It didn’t roll away like the flag. A tiny piece tore off and stuck to my thumb.

I’ll have to get a razor blade and rubbing alcohol. Then that section of the bumper will be shiny, and the rest will be dusty. I’ll have to wash the whole car—thoroughly. Someone might see me doing that and ask me why. But I could do it at night. Don’t drive today, wash the car tonight, and no one finds me.

I squatted and thought. I winced when I stood. With the same thumb, I carefully smoothed the Confederate corner back where it belonged.

God Bless Johnny Cash. Black sticker, white letters, all caps. Somewhere, that woman—most likely in Uganda—still thinks about that sticker. I hope so. I hope she’s still alive. If she’s not, I know I didn’t kill her. Uganda would have found me if I did.

JASON MEHL teaches high school humanities in Savannah, Georgia. For six years he worked in Uganda as a writing teacher, athletic director, basketball coach, and country gospel D.J. In addition to placing a memoir piece at Rock & Sling, he has also novelized a finance textbook.