The Marabou storks rule Kampala from above. Like hunched guardsmen they stalk along the rims of buildings, the weight of their dangling neck sacks and bladed beaks pulling their gaze downward. They are ugly and four feet tall and I love to watch them. They watch back.
I’ve been back in Uganda for two weeks and I am constipated. I haven’t shit once. This happened the last time I was here, four years ago. “It’s the stress of a new place.” “It’s the plane travel.” “It will go away.” It doesn’t. “It’s the new diet,” the retired nurse I live with tells me. “Try pawpaw, it makes the tummy soft.” Pawpaw is papaya, and I try eating it at every meal. Twice I’ve eaten it as my entire meal. But for some reason being constipated makes me more hungry than usual and I think often of eating.
“You have lost so much weight!” they say. I am happy to see my friends again, to be back in their homes and to feel them as my own. But they almost don’t see me upon first re-encounter because I was “so fat” when I was here last. When I lived here. They used to tell me this all the time. My boss: “You are getting so fat! You must really be enjoying Uganda!” My friend Charlie: “An ass like that on a white chick! I feel like I’ve just seen a unicorn!” They show me pictures as proof. My boyfriend is shocked at how I once looked. I am sure now that all the weight I put on back then was a result of constipation, this compacting of everything I ate and my body’s failure to process it, stacking it instead like a backlog of paperwork on the desk of my swelling bowels.
“We are so happy you’ve come back,” they say.
I feel burdened down by myself and find it that much more exhausting to work my way through the topical chaos of the city’s streets—pollution, crowds, traffic, I stand out terribly—whose internal order I have forgotten after four years. My heaviness makes it harder for me to reincarnate the mode of existence whose skin I had once so cleanly, after enough time, slipped into and relished like a new pair of jeans that grip just right along the idiosyncratic contours of my ass and legs.
After all this time, I’ve forgotten a lot. It is to be expected. If I am to be honest with myself, which I admit is difficult, even when I lived here I was merely a visitor and that is all that was ever possible.
I remember some things. The Marabous, of course. (Who could forget?) How to get certain places. How to make people laugh with my ill-suited Luganda words and the way the air is always sweet and burning. What it felt like to leave here and know more but live my life just the same.
If nothing else, I think, my body should remember how to shit here.
I visit the Ugandan Parliament where no one stops me at the gate. I walk on through. “You are welcome, our visitor,” the guards say and make a soft bow as I pass. I assume that they assume I am here for something important, official business, but I am just here to look around. The gardens are empty entirely save for me and the Marabous in the low-hanging trees. Occasionally the birds sink heavily to the ground and march with their backward-bending knees in determined circles. They look at me once before returning to their post just high enough above me that I feel them there, always.
“What are you doing here?” the birds say. “Why have you come back?”
To be back here is important, to return is to feel my muscle memory awaken to a reality that I left behind. There are certain smells and sounds, the combination like drunk music, damp, that make me shift at the pause of the last four years. But what is it I’m seeking, the Marabou’s insist without punctuation as they plod above me with their invisible rifles, guarding the city and my memories like keepers of time. What story of theirs am I trying to steal. And can’t I find my own story without traveling all this way.
Full of my own shit, I stare at them still.
I see Marabous around the house where I’m staying with old friends. (I feel a pinch of envy as I pass my old house and hear the sounds coming from it that are no longer mine). The birds feed off our local dump, a smoldering heap of refuse cast away to be burned. With no municipal garbage system to speak of, the Marabous are Kampala’s primary waste processors. They love to eat they city’s trash. And they shit loads, sometimes liters of this urban excrement as they fly from one perch to the next, casting the shadow of their ten foot wingspan onto all us sun-cracked strangers traipsing heavily below, bellies and bowels and intentions chock-full.
Lauren Markham lives in her native San Francisco and has spent lots of time living and working in Vermont, Uganda, El Salvador and Maine (all places she feels at home). She works with refugee youth and families in the Bay Area, helping them access the support they need during their transition into their new lives. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Vermont College.