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Zarina's Castle


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At the bottom of Kampala's Kololo Hill, where I live, there is a densely populated slum area, where tiny brown-plastered unpainted buildings lean against each other in the mud, and where our family's housekeeper Zarina lived when we first met her. It's near 6pm and it's been raining. The mired streets are packed with people in the damp early dusk, on foot and on bicycle, balancing every load imaginable, carefully dodging the occasional car to keep from slipping into the deep sludge-lined gutters lining the much too narrow road.

Tiny faces peer out of storefronts and from behind mothers' skirts as our Landrover passes by. "Mzungu!" we hear - excited voices calling out to a foreigner's car. Our waves are met with laughter, surprise, babies crying in fear. It's loud - music blares, people shout at each other above the din. Market activity is at it's height, as many stop to buy the makings of a meal with their day's earnings. We drive with the windows down, and smell the mud, the market grime, the oily heavy smell of fried pastries, and fish.

Living Seed

"Living Seed"
by Jenn Scerra

We reach the bottom of the valley and continue upward on the other side, out of the slum and into the suburbs. The air clears, noises fade, the setting sun shines on fields of tall grass between houses. Families gather around cooking pots outside. Little girls in ragged dresses, forever hanging unbuttoned off of proud slim shoulders, wave tentatively, silently, as they watch us pass by. The road is bad, with unexpected crevices where the rain made its afternoon escape. We drive only in first gear, up and up, past fields, around blind curves, hoping to avoid unseen cows and cars. We pass a freshly painted school, family dwellings with cultivated gardens. The scene has changed. It's peaceful, friendly, inviting.

Now to the left; just down there and to the right; then left again. I turn wherever Zarina points, expecting to arrive at any moment. She's nervous, I can tell. She wants me to like it and I think - I hope - I will. We eyes take in a courtyard lined on three sides by 5-6 houses, one containing about 100 young chickens. A pile of bricks. In the middle of the courtyard, a rectangular pit, 40x50 feet, divided into four parts and lined by two-foot-high newly bricked walls. Tomorrow, the foundation will be poured for this four room, two family house Zarina's future home and livelihood, financed in part with the loan we guaranteed for her.

My children opt to stay in the car, too shy to be the object of 20 or so curious village kids, who swarm the car as soon as I walk away. They play games with each other in safety, through windows rolled up hide and seek behind black and white fingers, kisses on glass. Testing and teasing each other, they search for a zone of comfort. I look, but pretend not to see.

Zarina haggles with the workers while I survey, as she expects and wants me to do. She shows me which room will be the shop, eager to point out that there are no other food shops nearby. We discuss where the outdoor latrine should be, and the veranda for cooking. She estimates $40 per month income from the two extra rooms, and points to what I perceive to be a path, where she tells me she can build three more rooms to rent out later on. There's a water seller nearby, and an electricity pole she can connect to. The neighbors are friendly, she says, and another Muslim family lives just there, next to the chickens.

I'm tense, trying not to be disappointed. Inside I cringe at how she'll make the transition from our spacious home to a 10x11 foot room, plus a shop. Although the place has a good feel, I want so much "better" for her - comfort, space, and a nice place for the children to play.

But as I watch the workers listen to her with respect, and catch a glimpse of future neighbors eyeing her with curious admiration, it dawns on me what Zarina's future in this place really holds as landlord and shopkeeper, Zarina will be the queen of this castle she's building. From this place of honor she's carving out for herself as a property owner and businesswoman - right in the center of this tiny peaceful community - she will reign over everyone with her outgoing, caring, and street-wise ways. They will love her of course, as we do. She won't be alone. She'll be important, useful and needed. Widowed so young and left completely alone to raise her kids, I can't imagine a way of life that might make her happier, or more secure. The foundation walls of Zarina's castle take on a new shine in the twilight.

As we get ready to leave I coax my boys out of the car to see the chickens. They're willing now. They've reached the kind of understanding with the Ugandan kids that can only be obtained through a 1/2 hour of peek-a-boo. I'm more comfortable too, in knowing that what I might want for Zarina really doesn't matter. What's important is that she's building a life which will bring her the kind of peace she needs - on HER terms, not mine or anyone else's.

A long-horned cow appears from nowhere, and wanders down into a nearby field of green. My gaze follows it down, past the lights of the slum and out across the valley. I notice suddenly that the house has a direct view on Kololo Hill, where we now live so happily together, her family and mine. Feeling sentimental tears well up, I realize she'll see it every day for the rest of her life to remember us by, as she grows to be the happy, old and well-respected African "mama" she deserves to be, in this beautiful tiny castle of her very own.

Christina Jordan, of Kampala, Uganda, is Founding Director of The Life in Africa Foundation, which is dedicated to increasing international understanding of contemporary Africa, and to promoting the sustainable development and self-determination of African people through microfinance, or grassroots financial services tailored to the needs of the poor. An American living in Uganda since 1998, she is also the author of Letters from Uganda, a biweekly email publication from http// about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people in East Africa today. She can be reached at

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