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September 24, 2009

It takes a village

I was interviewing women at a prenatal clinic in rural eastern Uganda yesterday. For reasons I'll leave out for now, one woman's story in particular caught my attention, and as journalists sometimes do in these situations, I suggested to the local health worker who was escorting me that we might drive the woman, 29-year-old Catherine, the few miles back to her home for a longer conversation.

You're 9 months pregnant, I said to Catherine, feigning chivalry. You shouldn't walk all the way home.

There was something in Catherine's tone that made me think she might be reluctant. But she agreed, and said she'd wait for us while we interviewed one more woman. About 20 minutes later, we were ready to leave, but Catherine was nowhere to be found.

We described her to some hospital workers, who said they saw her walk out of the gates. Agnes, the take-no-guff health worker, was now as interested in this story as I was, and we were determined to track her down.

Our quiet morning of interviews had turned into a good old-fashioned village caper.

Driving up and down the main road looking for Catherine seemed unlikely to succeed. What if she turned off into a side road? Fortunately, she'd given us some clues in her interview. Her husband worked at a butchery. We knew the name of her village, and that one of the hospital workers was a neighbor. And we knew her cell phone battery was dead, so she might have stopped somewhere in town to charge it.

Africa never ceases to amaze me with how, by describing the broad outlines of someone's life, you can sometimes track down one of their relatives or neighbors. So that's how we learned from some of the hospital workers that the butchery where Catherine's husband worked was just down the road.

We drove past, looking for her, but no dice. Agnes saw the man who she believed to be Catherine's husband, but she hadn't told him she was going to the hospital that day, so we decided it best not to tell him we were looking for her.

That left us with the clue about her neighbor. Her village is small enough that only a few hospital workers lived nearby. One of them was there that morning, and when we described Catherine to him, he immediately knew the neighbor we were looking for.

We set off with the neighbor's name and a vague set of directions, hoping that we could find Catherine walking along the road, or at least her village. We drove our little Toyota sedan up and hill and down, through thickets of bushes barely wide enough for a car, the branches scraping the sides. We stopped at five clusters of huts before finding the health worker's home, except she wasn't there and no one had her cell phone number.

We described Catherine to some people, and then one had a suggestion. William, one of the health worker's sons, was home on lunch break from school and knew where Catherine lived. I started to say something about kidnapping an elementary school child, but Agnes was adamant.

This is more important than school, she yelled to William. This is our visitor from America!

I was embarrassed by the fuss I'd created, which had now lasted well over an hour and threatened to torpedo the rest of the day's schedule. But William, still dressed in his gingham-checked school uniform, had already jumped in the car. Barking instructions from the backseat he led us down some back roads, through more thickets, more scrapes on the Toyota, until we arrived in a clearing of huts that William said belonged to Catherine's family.

Sure enough, here were Catherine's kids and their grandmother, who greeted us like old friends. But no Catherine. She was probably still walking back. I asked if anyone had her cell phone number, and no one did - she and her husband had the two phones in the family. One of the kids had a brainstorm, and found the sheet of paper that had come with Catherine's cell phone SIM card, which had her number printed on it.

I might have kissed the kid, but when Agnes went to dial the number, the phone was switched off.

We could have waited there for hours, but I said we should give up. We'd wasted an hour and a half and had one more clinic to visit before a long drive back to Kampala. We agreed to drop William back at school and proceed on our way. We thanked Catherine's family and drove off back into the thicket.

As we turned onto the main road, Agnes looked behind us and noticed a figure moving slowly way down a hill, several hundred yards away. It was Catherine. I had never been so pleased to see a near-total stranger. Even William smiled. Agnes waited several minutes for her to make her way up the hill before she started to chastise her for leaving us in the lurch.

You woman, she said, as Catherine looked slightly sheepish. You woman!

I didn't ask why she'd left the hospital without us. It could have been impatience, confusion, a language problem -- these things are often unknowable in Africa. We didn't stay with her long, in case we really did make her uncomfortable. But she was gracious and smiled when we parted company. Agnes and I slapped palms and felt like we'd solved a crime, The Case of the Disappearing Mother.

Was I being intrusive by chasing Catherine down like this? Maybe a little. I often feel like my presence as an outsider with expensive shoes and a nice camera makes people feel like they have to talk to me, whether they like it or not. Sometimes it's the local contact, like Agnes, insisting that the visitor's wishes must be accommodated. And sometimes people just don't want to talk to you.

I had to take Catherine at her word - she'd invited us home, and she didn't shoo us away when we found her. Quite the contrary. I felt a little embarrassed at chasing her, but she has a story worth telling, which I'll tell in due course. And it's these little mini-adventures, which end up exposing much more about life in these places than even the most illuminating of interviews, that I'll miss most about this job when it's over.


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The arrogance of people who call themselves reporters knows no bounds. This women wanted privacy, you had no right, indeed you had a moral obligation to honor her privacy. You aren't any different than the hounds who pursue stars day and night for that photo, just scume.


"The arrogance of people who call themselves reporters knows no bounds"

hold your horses, mate; we haven't heard the main story yet.

'And it's these little mini-adventures, which end up exposing much more about life in these places than even the most illuminating of interviews, that I'll miss most about this job when it's over.'

Shashank, are you leaving?!


Great story Shashank - being in Africa for the past 13 years has taught me the same thing. It's the follow up outside the official places where you truly find out about Africa and people's lives and what makes them tick.


if this whole "newspaper" thing doesn't pan out, i believe TMZ is hiring

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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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