December 26, 2019

The Raphael Smith Memorial Prize is given in memory of Raphael Smith, a member of the Class of 1994 who died in a motorcycle accident while retracing his stepfather’s adventure of motorcycling from Paris to Tokyo. The prize, established by his family and friends, is awarded annually to two second-year SIPA students for travel articles that exemplify the adventurism and spirit of SIPA.

The weekend did not start out auspiciously. It was a national holiday in Uganda and the whole team had been looking forward to a day off for weeks. Some of the South Sudanese staff were heading back home to their villages for the long weekend, meeting at predetermined spots at the border and heading over en masse for security purposes. I, for one, was looking forward to a long weekend of lounging, doing nothing, and sweating while doing nothing.

The office director poked her head into the team’s office right as I was heading out.

“Oh good, I’m glad I caught you,” she muttered distractedly as she typed furiously into her phone— the generator had finally turned back on after being unrevivable for the first seven hours of the workday, and she had emails from around the globe, all demanding to be responded to immediately.

“I just talked to Halima and Kennedy and the three of you are going to go collect farmer stories tomorrow,” she said, not looking up from her phone. “Remember to get pictures.”

Because the South Sudanese refugees in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement lived among Ugandan host communities and needed access to livelihoods and income, the organization I was interning with was incentivizing Ugandan landowners to form land-sharing farmers groups with refugees, through provision of seeds and other agricultural inputs.

“Oh, but … tomorrow’s … ,” I sputtered to her back as she trudged across the compound through the mud created by that morning’s downpour, “... a holiday?”

“Thank you!” She shouted as she disappeared through the door of the main office.

So I rose the next morning, unable to sleep very much anyways, as the intestinal worms I had acquired were apparently a nocturnal breed and liked to let me know that they were still very much in my body and getting comfortable. I walked into my bathroom to discover that I’d left the window open the night before, and a handful of white ants had swarmed my bathroom light, shed their wings, and were now crawling all over my shower area. I corralled them into a corner using the worn rubber flip-flops the guest house provided and tried the faucet. Nothing.

“Well at least I’ll get some exercise today,” I mused to my trapped ant friends as I struggled to pour out the jerry can full of water.

After my brief and frigid rinse, I walked out to the breakfast tukul—a little open-air room with a grass thatch roof—to inspect the morning’s choices.

“We’ve got mandaz, spaghetti, another type of mandaz, and offal this morning,” Blake informed me as I walked in. “Actually I think that the offal is leftover from yesterday,” he said as he cautiously sniffed the tray.

“Bread or spaghetti, lovely,” I said sardonically as I shook the milk thermos, attempting to dislodge whatever was clogging it. As I poured the milk into my cup of Nescafé, a drowned white ant plopped out.

“Oh, that is disgusting,” Blake offered as he peered into my cup, “and precisely why I keep kicking myself for not bringing my French press.” Blake was with a group of British doctors disseminating lowcost blood pressure monitoring machines—my constant mealtime and card game companions. The journal I’d brought was equal parts a diatribe postulating just how I had managed to gain so much weight while simultaneously being beset by intestinal worms, and musings to the effect of “Blake put his hand on my knee when he rode behind me in the boda boda ... does that mean anything?!” Spoiler alert— it didn’t.

Just then, Kennedy, one of the NGO’s drivers in charge of ferrying various staff around in a large SUV, walked in and motioned that it was time to go. We swung by the office to pick up Halima, the Program Officer for our agricultural inputs program, who looked just as thrilled to be working on a holiday as I felt, and pulled onto the dirt path leading to Bidibidi Zone 3. Kennedy reached across the dashboard and pushed a CD in the stereo. The first song that came belting out hit me like a gut punch. It was Johnny Cash—my grandfather’s favorite, who had passed away a few days before my flight to Yumbe. In the flurry of immunizations, visas, and packing, I hadn’t made it to his funeral. I stared straight ahead, eyes wide open, willing myself not to react. I was not prepared to let my colleagues see me cry—an act more pterodactyl than human when I really got going. And judging by the morning I was having, it was going to be a big one.

Forty-five long, miraculously breakdown-free minutes later, Halima tapped Kennedy on the shoulder.

“Pull over here—I know that farmer.” Halima scrambled out to speak with a group of men sitting in a tukul by the road, and a few seconds later I was motioned out as well.

Over the next five hours Halima and I traipsed through acres of yams, cassava, potatoes, groundnuts, eggplants, and more being grown by the farmers—both host community members and refugees. I learned the names and stories (albeit short versions) of the farmers in the village, how they’d gotten there, and the relationships they’d forged. I learned how to identify a cassava plant and took dozens of pictures of one farmer hugging 20 eggplants to his chest as they spilled onto the ground. I took dozens more of five farmers in front of a cornfield as the rain poured down, posing with straight faces as if they were a boy band. I learned that once the refugee crisis calmed down, Halima wanted to get her master’s in public health. We walked for miles, getting thwacked in the face by branches and cornstalks, emerging from the jungle farmland covered in sweat and mud, grinning ear-to-ear, and laughing.

There was something about that day—meeting the farmers, seeing how the NGO’s seeds actually turned into a product that contributed to a sustainable livelihood, finding something in common with a team member—that not only turned my morning around, but transformed my summer.

“Where’s that Johnny Cash CD, Kennedy?” Halima said as she fiddled with the stereo. “I love his songs.” As soon as it came on, the three of us began belting out “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the top of our lungs. As the song came to a close, she turned around to look at me in the back seat.

“Again?” she asked, mischievously. We listened to the same song the entire ride home, and for every ride after that.

Sierra Robbins MPA-DP ’19