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June 16, 2015

I stood along the familiar tarmac road that passed through my village, as I’d done a hundred times since moving to Uganda. I always felt a certain level of anxiety when traveling, particularly because it usually involved hitch hiking, but this time I was overcome with a new feeling – fear. I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle and stuck a shaky hand out. The dark gray sedan stopped and I peered inside and saw three passengers, two men and a kid. I got in. I was on my way Into town to replace my bank card, which was just one of the things stolen from me during a robbery in a taxi over the weekend.

I greeted my fellow passengers in Rutooro. Maybe if they are aware that I knew the local language, they’ll think twice about robbing me. I live here. I belong here. We sped through rolling hills of tea plantations while Neyo blared through the stereo about how much he hated love songs. Not for the first time, I noted how bizarre my life was. The men next to me yelled out  “stage” – the signal that they had reached their destination. The driver stopped and soon, I was the only one left in the vehicle. I could feel panic rising within me like vomit and I could no longer control the direction of my thoughts. This driver could take me anywhere. He could rob me. He could rape me. He could kill me.

Studdenly, he turned around and said “Your door, it is not closed.” I was paralysed. Was this really happening again?

I painstakingly replayed every detail of the last time I was in a taxi, the last time I heard those words, when I was robbed. I remember feeling a sense of weightlessness prior to the incident, the kind of happiness that makes you want to tell the whole world how wonderful life is. Looking back, it was as if the universe was mocking me and I needed to be brought back down to earth. My friend and I were passing through Kampala and we sat in a matatu that we had flagged down after dinner. I was seated in the front, while she was seated in the back. With our guard down, we did not question why the conductor separated us in a minibus with only three other passengers. I was so preoccupied with making sure we didn’t miss our destination that I didn’t notice the man next to me taking my wallet out of my purse. I was so panicked when the conductor started gesturing wildly at the passenger door and told me in broken English that it was coming unhinged that I didn’t notice the man next to me taking my laptop and makeup bag out of my book bag and replacing it with a brick. I was so stunned when my friend started yelling out “thief” that I did not hear the man tell us to get out of the taxi. What I do remember clearly is running down the dark streets of a city I barely knew, in a country where I did not belong, as a man from the taxi chased after us.

Although we escaped physically unscathed, I feel like a part of me did die that night. This was becoming more and more evident as I sat with  heightened paranoia on my way into town worried that the driver was assessing my vulnerability. “You close the door,” he said impatiently. I opened the door and closed it with force. Satisfied, the driver turned around and we were speeding through tea plantations once again.

I know I should find comfort in the fact that the worst thing that the robbers did was steal our things. I know I should be relieved that I’m not lying in a ditch somewhere. But I’m not. Maybe if I was leaving the country, I could find solace in the type of violation that did occur but I was still here, and dying was now a possibility that crossed through my head every time I got in a vehicle. Didn’t being a volunteer – being a good person – give me a pass to these kinds of things?

The tears flowed freely now, out of my control, but I tried to reign in my thoughts. “Resilient” was the word echoed by my friends and I tried to make myself believe it too. You chose this. This is why you’re in Uganda, to educate children so that they don’t turn to robbery as a way of life. You are too strong to let this incident beat you. It didn’t work, I was still on edge and I could feel myself slipping. Outside my window, the landscape had changed from rolling hills to mountains peaks, a sign that we were close to town. If the driver had wanted to rob me and kill me, he would have done it by now. Neyo was still crooning on the stereo. Finally, the car stopped at the market near town. I slipped on my sunglasses to hide my puffy eyes and gave the driver 3000 shillings. Thank you.

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