I recently decided to spend a week without motorized transportation. This meant that if I wanted to go anywhere I had to do so on the power of my own two legs.
I had big expectations for the week. I was hoping that my little technological fast would help me remove some of the conveniences and distractions from my life in order to better think, listen, and pray. My (naïve) hope was that this would give me a new revelation or insight into my future as Krista and I think about moving back to Canada in a little over 3 months. My intention was to pray the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) as I walked, wanting to learn – if only a little – what it meant to pray without ceasing.
Unfortunately, I failed to learn how to pray without ceasing and few, if any, of my expectations were met. I spent over 15 hours (About 85 km, which works out to something like 12 km/day. To give context, the nearest city is about a 17km walk) walking along dusty African countryside roads, and none of those hours gave me any new or even particularly fruitful insight. It was by no means a waste of time – my week of walking is something that I am considering making into a yearly discipline – but it certainly did not fulfill my somewhat lofty expectations.
To begin with, the week was not as solitary as I had hoped. To be one of the only white people (muzungus) in the area is one thing, but to walk through these tiny towns and villages, past huts and houses with kids spilling out of them, is quite another. Walking is too slow to allow you to escape the onslaught of attention that excited kids and confused adults will give you when they simply want to know why this rich white person was walking through their village when he normally speeds by on his motorcycle or car.
The locals frequently asked me if something was wrong and why I was punishing myself by walking everywhere. The easiest way for me to answer these questions was to say that I was walking for fitness – though this was probably still sufficiently confusing for the locals; they don’t walk for fitness, they are fit because they walk. Ugandans, like most Africans I presume, are a walking people. This is not out of choice, but out of necessity. Few people in the country have access to transport beyond their own two legs. Kids often walk up to 5km one way to school, and this after they have fetched water and completed their morning chores before sunrise. I was even told that one man in our village walked 17km to town to pick up wood for a bed frame which he then carried back to the village on his head. All of this was done in bare feet of course, so I was not quick to refer to my week of walking as a week punishment – I did, after all, have shoes and water to drink.
I considered of my week of walking to be more of a purge than a punishment. The purging may not look so different than ascetic self-punishment of some form, but to call my week a punishment would not give the act of walking enough credit. Walking is not merely an inconvenience that we do when all other options are lost; it is a way of seeing the world, a way of being in the world, a way of slowing down to move at the same pace that the majority of people in the world move.
The ironic thing about walking is that time doesn’t speed up, it slows down. Despite the fact that walking took up much more of my time, causing me to be less efficient and productive in my daily work, I never felt like the day ever got away from me. I would do what I could when I could, but I wouldn’t be overrun by the demands I and others put on myself. I could have done that of course, but it would have meant forgoing meals or walking through the night – two things I couldn’t let myself do if I wanted to get home in one piece. Ironically though, these are two things that many people in the North America do every week of their lives, they just never slow down to realize the folly of it. I am no stranger to forgotten meals and late night work, but I am aware of how our time is too often controlled by efficiency and productivity.
So if my week of walking taught me one thing it taught me this: time is to be managed, not controlled. My week began with an unacknowledged desire to control or orchestrate a new insight about my future – much in the same way that we use technology to control my time in order to increase efficiency and productivity – but the insight never came. As I am learning, this is okay; these things are not to be controlled. My time, as with my future, is not my own.
At the end of my week of walking, somewhat frustrated by the lack of success my week of walking had given me, I traveled roughly 5km to a neighboring village for a football (soccer) practice. I was told on multiple occasions that the practice was at 4pm so I left my village at 3pm in order to be there in good time. I arrived at the field shortly after 4pm only to find that the other football players were nowhere to be seen. This was not entirely unexpected, so I just sat and tried to read as I waited. The problem was that the local school kids were out for recess and solitude was nowhere to be found. I was quickly surrounded by more than 20 kids who tried to read what I was reading (they couldn’t) and who stared at me only feet away as if I was some sort of zoo creature (which, in a way, I was) and continually yelled muzungu at me to get me to look at them. The kids who do this are always adorable and their excitement over a white person always endearing (I try to tell myself that they are actually excited to see me, but any white person will produce the desired effect), but after 9 months of living in rural Uganda and a week of walking where solitude was desired by surprisingly hard to come by, the attention got tiresome very quickly.
So, I did what I was doing all week: I went for a walk. The football practice eventually started 2 hours after I was told it would (this is not an uncommon occurrence) and we played until the sun went down. When the practice was finished and I turned to make my way home, slightly annoyed that I had to do so in the dark, I did what I thought any African in my situation would do: run.
I put my running shoes on my tired and blister-ridden feet and started running along the dirt road that was lit up just enough by the full moon to see the potholes and puddles and rocks that littered the road. The full moons here are so bright that flashlights are hardly necessary.
About half-way home, tired and sore from the week and the practice I had just come from, I met two other guys on the road who were also running to the village. They did not have bikes or motorcycles too get them to town, so like me, they ran. Shortly after the 3 of us started running together, we were joined by a teammate of mine who was also coming from the football practice in the other village. Now there were 4 of us, a real running group, so naturally, we picked up the pace. I was tired, but was buoyed by the presence of other guys who wanted to do the most simple of things with me – get from one point to another on their own two legs. We exchanged leads with each of us taking a turn as if we were actually racing and jockeying for position. Whether this was out of a subtle competitiveness or a desire for camaraderie, I am not sure, but the result was all too clear – no one wanted to let the others out of their reach.
We ran along the winding dirt road until we reached the tiny yet bustling candle lit village. The two guys who first joined me were the first to break off. I said farewell, but kept running. Then the other football player peeled off the main road too. Again, I said farewell but did not stop running. Before I knew it I was through the village, past the light of the flickering candles that lit up the food stands in the village, and alone. I had the solitude that I sought all week, but this time it was different. Instead of feeling relieved or even happy to be alone, I felt a tinge of sadness. It was strange feeling because it was more of a joyful sadness than a sorrowful sadness, but it was sadness nonetheless. I think I knew that I would probably never run with those guys under the light of the full moon in the African countryside again.
Those running mates of mine did not give me the solitude or insight that I was hoping for, but they gave me one of my most cherished moments of the week – maybe even the year – and that moment was definitely worth a week of walking.