Our plan---we are learning to hold plans very lightly---is to take Janet & Lemu home to the US with us in December. To do that, they need Ugandan passports. So last Tuesday we as a family headed into the Immigration Office in Kampala not knowing what to expect apart from a lot of waiting. That expectation was not only correct, it was grotesquely prophetic.
We parked our truck, made our way through security, and turned to face a sea of faces under big tents curiously evaluating the two whities with black children. We’re used to being stared at, but that was a bit much for me (Terrill). (For some reason, we keep finding ways to attract yet more attention to ourselves...Do we secretly like it?) Anyway, we then ask a cop behind a desk in a crowd of people where to begin the process, and he informs us that we need a file to hold all our documents in. Oh, okay, too bad our lawyer didn’t tell us that. They say to go ‘just outside’ to buy a folder. I’m thinking ‘just outside’ is a metonymy for Kampala in general, so I volunteer to Amber to go find a shop to buy a folder. She and the kids sit down to wait.
Once outside the compound, I decide I don’t want to lose our parking spot, so I take a motorcycle taxi to a shopping center a few miles away. The first big shop doesn’t have the folders I want, neither does the second. But I buy two ridiculously overpriced plastic folders, as well as some drinks and snacks for us for the long wait ahead. I head back. All in all, it takes at least 30 minutes if not more. When I get back, the line to security has grown to about 100 people. As I take my place at the end of the line, I see two women sitting there selling what? Folders. For very cheap. I start feeling like the dumb mzungu who prefers to blow huge amounts of money on expensive folders instead of just getting the cheap paper kind, the kind, in fact, that everyone else has.
Once inside, I find Amber, and she tells me that she was kicked out of the line because she had no folder. (What is so important about the stupid folder?) So while I was traipsing around expensive department stores, she has been waiting in futility. Great. Finally, we get into the right line. Only the right line is lined up over six benches and encompasses a couple hundred people. We are at the end, and people are skipping line left and right, despite the half-hearted protestations of a very large policewoman. Janet’s nose starts running profusely, and we have no tissue. Being the handy and clearly very efficient currier that I am, I again volunteer to go to the truck and get a roll of tissue, which I did.
When I get back, I find Amber embroiled in a conversation with a young, male college student. He is obviously quite excited about the prospect of spending the next few hours scrunched up against my wife and potential next sponsor of his education. I look over, and he’s running his hands over Lemu’s head, and I’m like, ‘What the...?!’ I resist the urge to say “Get your grimy hands off my child!” but eventually plop myself right between Eager Beaver and my family. That’s when the smell of decaying fish enters my nostrils, a smell that would hang with me for the next 3+ hours. This guy’s breath and B.O., for some reason, were noxiously fishy. He says to me: “Hello Boss Man, my name is Peter.” A little annoyed, I’m thinking “And your point is?” No, not my best sharing-Jesus moment, I confess.
Over the next hour and a half, we sloooowwwlyyyy wind our way up one bench and down another, watching and sometimes vocally protesting people sneaking in line when the authorities aren’t watching. Folks are so thoughtful, so considerate of others. Not. All these benches are under a tent, and it’s getting hot as noon comes and goes. We’re all thinking: “I wonder what happens at lunch time.” Like a bad dream coming true, one by one the six adjudicating officers get up from their desks and wander off into that chronological black hole we all know and fear as the lunch break. Try to picture this: Two hundred people, most of whom have been waiting 3-6 hours already, crammed like sardines on hard benches in a hot tent, watch as the government ‘servants’ they depend on for their travel plans (for many, life plans) get up and walk way to fill their bellies. Okay, a lunch break is fair enough---though none of us in the crowd get to eat lunch---but you would assume they could at least stagger their lunch breaks. No. No staggering. All six officers go and are gone...
For the next two hours.
Between 2:00 and 2:30, they mosey on back one by one, with bellies a little more rotund than when they left. By now we’ve waited for four hours with little children. We can’t help but feel a little hopeful, almost elated, at seeing them take their places again behind those desks. Their is a sense of heightened expectancy and excited murmuring among the crowd. But our hopes are premature. After lunch is apparently when they start handling the bribed applications. People start showing up out of nowhere, skipping the entire serpentine line, and being welcomed directly to the desks for their interviews. The public servants ‘serve’ the ‘special cases’ openly and indifferently. Even the lady who was next in line right before the two hour lunch break, when she finally got up and sat before one of the officers, she was told to go back and sit down so he could take care of another ‘special case’. As one guy in line in front of us said, “All men are equal, but some are just more equal than others.”
At last, at 3:30 pm, a supervisor calls us and all others with young children to come to the front of the line. Instinctively, I suspect people will think this is because a) we are white or b) we paid something. But neither are true. I want to say this to the whole crowd, but I don’t. The truth is that we did things the right way, the legal way, and by God’s grace we were prepared to suffer the injustice of a corrupted system like the other Ugandan citizens around us. Suffering isn’t the problem. The problem is how you respond to it. But we were also profoundly grateful for God’s blessing in being able to get out of that situation faster. We probably had another 1.5-2 hours of waiting yet, and sadly, many of the people in line would have to come back again the next day and wait for hours and hours more. As for us, we got through then in about 20 minutes. We asked the guy at the next desk (there are always multiple stations in these processes) where to go next. And he just said, “Go home.” We then asked him how long we needed to wait to come pick up the passports. He said a minimum of three weeks, unless, of course, it was a ‘special case’. Then he asked us if it was a ‘special case’. We said “No, it’s not” and happily left.
And thus ends the saga of applying for Ugandan passports. Getting said passports in hand will entail another saga, as will getting US visas for the girls. We appreciate your prayers on this regard.