The uncharacteristic warmth and spotless blue sky of San Francisco greeted me as I left the bar. It was mid-afternoon two summers ago and I had some time to kill before meeting my friend, so I turned south on Polk and crossed to the east side of the street toward Broadway away from Russian Hill.
From about halfway down the block, I made eye contact with the man at the bus stop. He was sitting on a bench facing me, and as I approached, he continued to watch me. His wild beard favored necessity to luxury, but his eyes were soft, and his smile broad. As I walked past him, the warmth of his dark face melted my apprehension and I greeted him.
“How are you, sir?” His clothes were tattered and his hands rested calmly on his knees.
“Blessed with less, friend.” His voice was gravelly smooth. “Blessed with less.”
I was already passed him when he repeated the words, but they drifted on the air and stayed with me. At dinner that night, I said them aloud to my friend and marveled at their simplicity and the man and the moment that was so fleeting.
His smile was at once pain and sorrow, but more than that, understanding and happiness. Understanding in the meaning of those words, and happiness in the confidence that they were true.
In addition to providing wakeup calls and cleaning our apartment, she negotiated to clean our clothes. Prior to working at our apartment complex, she had been a typist. In her spare time, she worked as a seamstress to supplement her monthly salary of $50. And through all of this, she has been raising her sons, Cyrus, James Joel, Joshua, and Isaac. Cyrus, the oldest, is ten.
Rose also rolled her eyes at our stupid jokes, but secretly found them amusing. She warned Dan and me about the dangers of Kampala women, and she chastised us when she found empty beer bottles on a weekday morning. In this way, she was a sort of mother.
“Wake up. You are lazy,” she would tell me.
“I am not lazy, Rose. I don’t have to be at work for an hour and a half. I’m sleeping.”
Some mornings she arrived with pineapple for me that I had given her money to buy the previous day. She insisted she knew where to get the best pineapples at the best price and she taught me the best way to slice one.
Once every week or so, she’d inquire about the state of our wardrobe—specifically, the degree of its dirtiness. These questions led to laundry negotiations, during which she argued the weight of clothes and insisted that the filthy state of certain articles required more strict attention and subsequently warranted higher wages.
She wanted to know what America was like, whether or not it was different from Uganda, and after seeing the US Soccer team on television, why our team had “white, brown, and black” players.
Toward the end of our stay, she brought us homemade samosas, a Ugandan pastry, for breakfast.
She also liked to watch African Magic, a Nigerian-produced soap opera that captivated far more Ugandan viewers than it should have. On the occasion that I found her watching the show in our room, transfixed in front of our small television, I told her she was lazy.
She asked about my family, especially my mom. She tailored a traditional Ugandan robe for my mother from silk. And on the day I left Kampala to return to the U.S., she helped me pack my bags.
I trusted her implicitly.
I helped her apply for a bank account. After acquiring passport-sized photos and an Identification Card from the director of her local precinct, she opened a savings account in the days after I left Kampala.
Through our daily conversations, I learned that she has a brother living in Florida. One of her older sisters worked downstairs two days a week doing the books for our apartment manager. And she lived with her youngest sister and her four sons.
They are her life. She beams when she tells you that Cyrus is the best student in his class. When Isaac, her youngest, was sick, she described the difficulty of getting him to the clinic and buying the expensive medicine for him. On her modest salary, she supports her sons, including paying tuition at the private school they attend and covering rent for the apartment where they all live.
On the ten-minute walk to her home, we stopped by her two oldest sons’ school, less than a kilometer from her house. At nearly five o’clock on a Saturday, they were still in class, preparing for the upcoming exams at the conclusion of the school year in late July.
After a dirt road up a hill and a turn or two , we finally came to Rose’s home. Her apartment was one-third of a long row house, the dirt road running its length. The front door opened onto the street.
The “living room” is where we spent most of our time during our visit, watching a Ugandan educational quiz show and eating Rose’s best dish, potatoes and rice with boiled greens. It was delicious.
Her youngest son, Isaac, was visiting his aunt in Jinja, so when we arrived Joshua, her second youngest, sat quietly, but inquisitively studied our white, unfamiliar faces. With the chocolate we’d brought, we coaxed a smile or two out of him, but it wasn’t until his brothers returned from school bringing with them the comfort of familiarity, that he opened up.
The back door led into a dusty courtyard behind the apartment. Laundry lines hung lengthwise across the courtyard and there was an outhouse in one corner that was shared by her family and the tenants of the other apartments in the row house. As darkness fell in the courtyard, we kicked around a soccer ball Daniel had picked up at the store earlier that afternoon.
From the back step where she was cooking dinner over an open flame on a makeshift grill, Rose stood and watched us play with her sons, smiling. And before we left, I took a picture of her with her sons and sister on her couch, and there was that smile again. It was a familiar smile.