5’7” or so, with fierce eyes. Dark skin. Colorado little league t-shirt with a firm handshake and a broad grin.
Robert shouldn’t have cried when we dropped my brother and rest of the team at the airport outside Kampala for their flight back to the US. He was just our driver. But I saw it. Out of the corner of my eye, as I blinked away tears of my own (I don’t usually cry at goodbyes, but I will miss Levi), I saw 2 small tears drawing roads down Robert’s cheek. I turned to my right to look at Robert (Uganda’s left driving roads were prescribed a century ago by their British colonizers).
Another tear followed the same road as the first. He turned to me and gave a sad half-smile, then turned back to the road. We sat in silence for the rest of the twenty minute drive back to Anderita Beach Hotel, each content to dwell alongside a brother with an open heart.
Ugandans (or the Ugandans I have met) do not linger in their goodbyes. They may tell you they love you, pray for you, say Dong Mabe (“remain well” in N. Uganda’s Acholi tribal tongue) or Wot Mabe (“go well”), but then when it is time, one turns his back and leaves, as he must. No wistful backward glances or waves. No maintaining eye contact until the car drives away or until the loved one turns a corner. When it is time to depart, it is time to depart.
But while Robert and I sit and watch the boda bodas (motorcycle taxis that go ‘border to border’) swarming around our van, I see that Robert’s heart lingers. So does mine.
“Baba” Jeff and “Mama” Yvonne Weinstein have known Robert since he started driving our California church’s visiting teams 3 years prior, and they have spent almost a cumulative 2 months with the diminutive driver.
He is loyal and hospitable — fiercely defending me to his boss when I accidentally crush our hired van’s windshield. He barters with shop owners on my behalf, and gently corrects me when I botch Acholi greetings. Not an uncommon occurrence.
Robert and his four children live alone. His sister watches the twins while he’s off on driving jobs and the older two attend a Kampala boarding school — another system inherited from the British. Instead of hosting us at his home, as he has in the past, he pulls the twins out of school for the afternoon to go to lunch with us at Gulu’s sole American restaurant. Tex Mex doesn’t taste like home and we miss the standard rice, chapati and goat stew, anyway.
The twins have searching eyes and Robert’s quiet posture, but they are only in P1. Between infant shyness and lack of English, they don’t smile until the end of the meal. They pick the chicken out of their quesadillas (cheddar cheese is alien) and drain a thick mango smoothie between the two of them.
One day, the van breaks down on the side of the road and we spend three hours there entertaining the children who live in the thatched mud huts across the way or pass by walking home from school. Our white skin and origami cranes are mesmerizing. To one 8 year old girl, my rain soaked, long, straight hair feels like “plucking the feathers from a chicken.” She will be a poet, if the world allows. Robert spends the entire time moving back and forth between the phone and the engine until he discovers the cracked oil valve, and must call for a backup vehicle. His boss blames him for the breakdown.
Two weeks later, I misplace my knee on the windshield and lean forward too far while I am strapping a bag to the roof. Cracks spider across the windshield. Robert’s boss insists on 300 USD. Robert’s mechanic friend in Kampala laughs heartily through the phone’s earpiece — “What is he trying to replace? An airplane windshield?” — and asks for less than half of that. Robert spends at least 3 hours on the phone over two days arguing with his boss, who is fuming over having lost an easy 160 USD.
At a revival meeting, Robert and a few of us walk out to the middle of the circle. He tries to teach us some dances. In the hands of Christ, ancient Acholi dances become tools of unbridled praise, and the story of Abram entertaining angels bolsters an age-old tradition of hospitality. All we can do is laugh, and trip over our feet, and remember that once King David danced down the street in his undergarments. There is no shame in worshipping like a fool.
That last night, Robert and I order two Nile brand beers and sit on the hotel lawn across the street from Lake Victoria and brush away lake midges while we talk about God and family and leaving people you love.
The next day he takes me to the airport. I give him as close a hug as I can, given my height.
“Wot Mabe,” I say.
“Dong Mabe,” he corrects me.
“Dong Mabe,” I laugh.
“Wot Mabe,” he says, and his eyes are wet.
And we turn. When I look back, his back is to me, walking towards the van.
I take a deep breath and walk into the security line. And my heart remains.