The Ugandan Boy: A recollection from my time as an 18-year-old missionaryRead Now
a gem in a valley,
as Churchill once described it.
A description on point,
as I would testify-
despite my sweat.
I was a sight.
guy who "runs in circles"
riding over chaotic potholes
in a landscape with
to the vendors on the streets,
while Bastille beat drums in my ears,
a tether to the privilege of home.
I heard a mosque-
bellowing five pillars
out into the streets
across from the school,
where I spoke to the child.
a louder curiosity
than the call to prayer.
I told him
a mute salvation
as he rubbed my wrist
to test the myth, and
see my "blue blood."
is what history has given him:
contrived. Smoke and
This young boy
in the slums, to him
I am simply "Mzungu,"
a reminder of the pervasive regimes
his family talks about.
I am the one with blue in his veins...
I still wonder,
to this day,
what he would have done
if I had sliced my hand
to show him-
that oxidation makes us all red.
In 2011, I had freshly graduated from high school, and with a 2.2 GPA under my belt, I had no desire to go to college. I apathetically watched a vast majority of my friends as they all packed their bags to go to blah-blah University. Meanwhile, I stayed home and wrestled with my desire to see the world. I wanted to see change, but most of all, I wanted to be a missionary. I chose Uganda pragmatically, and upon arrival to the Pearl of Africa, I was overcome by the lush environment, the dry heat, the busy streets of Kampala, but most of all by the resilience of the Ugandan people.
I wrote the above poem in 2015, in recollection of an experience I had. One day, we were evangelizing in a slum on the outskirts of Kampala. The slum was near a school that had just dismissed its students, and as the school boys and girls seeped through the rusty gate of the schoolhouse, I found myself surrounded. "Hello, Mzungu" was a standard greeting I received. Although they say it with a smile, there is a darkness to it. The darkness is not in the intention of the one saying it but is intrinsic to the word itself. The word "Mzungu" can be translated to "wanderer without purpose" or "one who runs in circles" and implies constant, but useless movement. I did not learn that until I had revisited the country in 2013 and though the word is said with a smile, my college history class illuminated the subconscious frustration behind it. Continuing my story, the teen students surrounded me and stared at me in pure curiosity. I did what I had come to do. I spoke, and the kids dispersed. Happily, I took my translator(Vincent was his name) and walked ahead of my group.
In politics, religion, and ethics we like to preach our ideologies to portray that we have "an open heart." At age 18, my heart was closed. My heart was closed because my ears were closed. A little boy started following me, pointing and shouting, causing a ruckus about the Mzungu— aka me. Yelling at me "Mzungu, Mzungu" with a smile plastered on his face, his bright eyes filled with wonder. I looked this boy in the face and playfully pointed back, yelling:
"No! YOU'RE Mzungu!"
This was my time to listen. The boy giggled and said something in his native language. I turned to Vincent for a translation:
"The boy says that we are not the same because your skin is white and my skin is black."
"Ask him if he bleeds when he gets cut," I questioned to the boy through Vincent.
"Yes," the boy replied quizzically.
Sure of myself, I asked the boy what color his blood was. He replied,
"Me too. So we are the same."
This tiny boy could not have been older than eight years old. The boy pointed at my hand and said:
"No! Because your blood is blue."
If there were ever a time in my life where I have felt an ineffable voicelessness, it was there as I stared at my blue veins. I am twenty-three now. If there is anything I regret out of my small handful of experiences, it is that I didn't bite the hell out of my finger. I would have held it low enough for him to see that we were not so far from each other just because my skin is pale and his is dark. Two years later, I attended a European History class at a community college. There, I learned about the horrors of European Imperialism in Africa. It was then, two years later, that I opened my heart to the lesson that boy taught me. How would it have blown his mind if he saw me bleed red? Would it have undone the hundreds of years of walls people have built? Would he have even believed if he saw? I wonder.
I plan to visit again, perhaps next time as a better listener and less of a talker...
William F. Burk
Award-winning author of fantasy, flash fiction, and poetry. Author of "The Heart of Hearts," a debut fantasy novel. Always writing, forever and ever.