Connecting A Minnesotan Father To His Ugandan Sons

On January 15, 2014, I was getting my car washed.

It was one of those where you hand the car over to workers, they vacuum it out, it goes through the wash, and then other workers wipe it down and clean the interior.

I was inside paying the Latina cashier when a man walked behind me and said hello to her. As she responded in kind, I turned to glimpse a tall, black man with an eye patch.

Huh.

He walked inside the car wash area, and I asked the lady if he worked there.

He did.

“How did he lose the eye?”

“I’ve never asked. He’s from Uganda,” she offered.

Uganda borders Tanzania. In eight days, I was leaving for a nine-month move to Tanzania and other areas of East Africa–including Uganda. That’s why I was here at the car wash. I was cleaning my car before selling it.

Upon hearing this, the Latina walked out from her cashier’s booth, entered the car wash area, and yelled out to the Ugandan.

“Yusuf!”

He came over, she told him about my plans, and he got excited.

He swiftly walked back to his personal belongings, and delivered an atlas. He paged through to show me where he was from and where his sons still live: Jinga.

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“Can I have their numbers?” I asked, thinking it was a long shot, but that maybe I’d use this connection while I traveled through. It was a long shot this father was thrilled to take. Writing down his sons’ numbers, he said, “This makes me so happy.”

I wasn’t sure why. I think the idea of a local guy connecting with his world was exciting for him.

We snapped a picture with my cell phone, and then took his sons’ numbers and drove off in my clean car.

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***

Eight months later, was in a coffee shop in a shopping mall in Kampala, Uganda. Now in their country with their phone service–but after having grown evermore skeptical at making this connection as the months passed–I made the call.

After a couple of rings, a man picked up.

“Hello.”

“Hi,” I said. “Is this Najiib?”

“Yeah.”

“Hi, uh, my name is Brandon,” I continued sheepishly. “I’m from the U.S., and I met your father.”

“Yes,” he said indicating a lot less surprise than I had anticipated. “My father told me about you.”

We finished the brief discussion with plans to meet sometime the upcoming weekend when I made it out to Jinja.

***

Six days later, the morning of September 28, I was in my third-rate motel room in the second-tier Ugandan city, Jinja.

I got a call from Najiib. It was 10:30 in the morning, and he was waiting outside. This was earlier than we had planned, but he told me that he was going to check out his fish farm cages and asked if I wanted to join.

“What do you have to do?” I asked looking for some clarification. I had no idea these guys fish farmed.

“We go to feed our cage fish,” he answered.

Sounds good to me. Actually, it sounded awesome. I was eager to see what this operation looked like.

I went outside to see Najiib in his white Toyota.

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Off we went. Najiib’s little brother, Umar, was in the backseat.

Najiib was taller and worked in real estate–buying chunks of land, breaking them up, and selling the pieces for development. Umar had his own cell phone store. Neither of these vocations would be much the topic today.

Today was about family and fishing–Ugandan style.

First thing I did was show them the picture I took with their father at the car wash. They hadn’t seen him in 16 years.

“That’s him,” Najiib said smiling.

Making our way out of the city, we passed an abandoned industrial site. Umar pointed out the car from the backseat.

“That was where he first worked,” he said.

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It was the old Nytil factory that once produced fabrics. The boys told me their dad worked here as his first job, even before he had met their mother.

The topic then went from family to fishing.

On the side, these boys had started a little entrepreneurial experiment. Before taking me to their lab, though, they showed me a fullscale version of what they hoped to do.

After a couple of kilometers of windy, old blacktop over the shoreline of Lake Victoria, we pulled into a lot on the lake’s edge.

We got out, and Umar spoke to one of the workers:

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The man tended to these cage nets:

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Which were places in these waters:

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(And by the way, these aren’t just any waters. This is Lake Victoria at the precise spot where a river from it starts to flow north. See the narrows back there? That’s the headwaters of the Nile River.)

The cage nets held fish–many fish–for this seasoned fish supplier. Working with this larger operations, the brothers had started their own fledgling farm with five cages a bit further down the coast. After a few more minutes of conversation I couldn’t understand, we packed it back up and went to their farm.

On the way, we had gotten far enough out of Jinja that we entered a little independent outskirt.

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Soon, we turned off the now-dirt road and bumped and rolled along into a little homestead. There was a small house for a mom and two children and a little kitchen hut for meals.

Mom and son; the mom was here as a caretaker of the property.
Mom and son; the mom was here as a caretaker of the property.
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Kitchen hut
Inside kitchen hut
Inside kitchen hut

From the house, Najiib emerged with life jackets.

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Time to suit up.

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We walked to the lake’s edge within 100 yards of the house.

We walked around small square rice paddies and a yard of drying laundry.

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At the shore, one boy bathed.

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The water looks okay from here, but not so much from here:

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We hopped in the boat.

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We rowed out to the cages maybe 100 more yards offshore.

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Birds were teased by fish they couldn’t reach.

The brothers knew how to make the fish surface, though.

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Tilapia feeding frenzy

Another way of getting the fish to the surface–and doing to so in a way that kept them there–was to lift the hanging cage nets. While we were feeding the fish, a few helpers came by to do just that.

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As the man raised the net to the surface, the fish flailed. One even got stuck in the cage. This was the perfect chance for the brothers to check out their crop.

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Afterwards, we rowed back.

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Future Fish Farmers of Uganda

The men took the opportunity to talk.

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I wandered around the surrounding sugarcane fields.

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We left soon after and stopped in that outskirt community. The brothers had to talk business with the man who sold them the lakeshore property.

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So I wandered once again. These boys entertained themselves.

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The last thing we did was drive a mile out of town in a different direction to visit a relative–the brother’s aunt, Yusuf’s sister.

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Finally, Najiib and Umar returned me to my hotel.

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Just as I had shown them the picture of their father with me. Now I’d have a photo to show their father when I returned to Minnesota. The boys talked about wanting to bring him back to Uganda to run the fish farm. Najiib talked about going to see Dad later in 2015.

For now they’ll have to settle for phone calls and pictures by way of their American delivery boy.

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This is how travel becomes amazing: make a connection with someone there and get involved with the real life of the area. This is also an example of how everyday people you meet–even just at the car wash–can have an impact.

2 Responses

  1. Holly Bagley

    I was just in Jinja in Dec! This is an amazing and remarkable story! I wish we could get them together again. Isn’t the Nile something? Jinja was a highlight for my travels in Uganda. Thank you for sharing!!

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