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The Iron Fence MAG
When I was a boy of ten living in Uganda, my father's undying love for sailing drew our family to a small sailing club called Mukumbo that lay on the banks of Lake Victoria. Unless you took the banana boat ferry from the outskirts of Kampala, Mukumbo was an hour's car ride and involved crossing several kilometers of devastated dirt roads and large villages. The club itself was beautifully placed on the long, marshy banks of the golden lake.
The southern shore was where the boats were kept and rigged for sailing, and where most of the activity happened, second only to the clubhouse. The northern shore was mostly untouched and generally avoided. Despite its location in the heart of the African continent, Mukumbo's members were all white – predominantly British, Dutch, and German. The only black men and women inside were the workers and cooks, whose sole purpose was being told what to do by the white men and what to cook by the white women. Together there were fifteen of them, and they were usually sent to a small hut on Mukumbo's west edge unless required in the kitchen or down at the shore to rig the boats. There was only one black club member – a highly respected Ugandan lawyer – but he seldom came.
On the northern bank of Mukumbo stood a tall iron fence, which ran straight across the shore and into the murky waters of the lake. Just beyond it was a gravel path along the edge of the lake that led to a small village.
Ugandan children would often walk in their worn sandals, with heavy yellow jerry cans balanced on their heads, to the lake's shore to get drinking water. Their clothes were ripped and seemed too large for the thin legs that protruded from them. They would grab the iron fence and call to the white men beyond. Only once or twice did I dare to stray close to the fence myself, for when in audible reach, they would threaten us and swear at us in such a brutal manner. A deep hatred had formed between us and them. I never understood where its roots lay, but it was there, and it was common. The white men couldn't care less about the insults of black locals, and spent most of their days on the southern shore shouting orders to the Ugandan workers. That was where the boats lay, which was their only concern.
One day, in what could be said to be a truly enlightening experience, a grave incident happened in Mukumbo, and when it was over, it was never spoken of again.
The day was clear, revealing an azure sky and the warm touch of the morning sun's rays on the neatly cut grasses of Mukumbo's southern shore. The forest that covered much of the sailing club's south-western territory shuddered as an unseasonably strong wind gusted from the north, mounting steadily and battling intensely with the water. The white men were at the southern shore either rigging or watching their boats be rigged for what would have been a perfect day of sailing.
Around four hundred meters off the mainland, in front of Mukumbo, lay a large, forested island; from it a yellow speck wobbled toward us. It was a canoe, built and crafted in typical African manner from tinted wood that had been splintered by time and hollowed from years in the sun. An adolescent boy paddled awkwardly toward the shore. No one took notice of him; he was a Ugandan local and therefore unimportant. Yet I divided my attention between the canoe and a Dutch man wearing a polo shirt and too much sunscreen directing two bare-chested African men how to rig his boat for him. The yellow speck slowly drew closer to the northern shore.
I was seated on a patch of grass next to the clubhouse. From this plateau towering over the northern territory I was granted a perfect view of the island, the bank, and the iron fence. Fresh air filled my lungs as the trees above me groaned in the wind. A single black and white kingfisher flew off toward the papyrus swamp in the south.
As usual, there were about fifteen naked Ugandan boys in the water beyond the fence, splashing and yelling. Their teeth glimmered white against their black skin as they played in the blistering sun while two Ugandan girls filled yellow jerry cans for the night's maize porridge and posho.
The yellow canoe was now thirty meters from shore, and the boy inside could be clearly seen. His skin was shining brightly with sweat from paddling. The strong winds had waged war with the golden lake, and the surface of the water had transformed into a rough canvas. Battalions of white horsemen rose from the water as small waves breached their limits and then subsided before disappearing into the lake. The boy struggled to keep his canoe from veering to one side or the other as the horsemen trampled the wooden defenses of his small vessel. They toyed with him mercilessly before striking a final blow.
My head turned, and so did the British woman's next to me, as a faint cry drew our attention. The yellow canoe, now capsized, floated not twenty meters from the banks of the gravel path on Mukumbo's northern border. The Ugandan children screamed in horror standing in the shallows but did not dare enter the lake's depths for fear of being swallowed by the same darkness. The two Ugandan girls wailed and cried, dropping their cans and grabbing their dresses in agony. I watched curiously from above as five white men, including my father, ran from the southern bank into the water and swam toward the yellow canoe.
Desperately, they dove under, rising above to gasp air and then dive again, trying frantically to find the boy. The British woman next to me held me as we watched. A small crowd of white club members gathered behind us, hands covering their mouths in disbelief.
I do not know how long they searched for him in the water, but I remember that every second felt unending, and every minute lasted a lifetime. The waiting finally ended tragically. The boy had drowned.
The five white men lifted him out of the water, and others helped carry him to the uncut grass near the fence. There they tried to resuscitate him, but to no avail. The Ugandans watched from behind the fence, clinging to the barrier while crying prayers in Luganda that would prove useless.
The women behind me and the white men below began crying along with the Ugandan crowd behind the fence. This was quite a spectacular scene for me, one that I had never seen before, nor since that day. How strange it was to see both the whites and the blacks, the rich and the poor, sharing a single unbroken moment of grief for the black boy. But by this time we did not see him as black. Nor did we see him as white. In this instant we saw him as a color that was curiously familiar to both groups. Perhaps it was the thin stream of red flowing from his mouth that reminded us that we were all the same.
It was then that I decided I wasn't white, and that the people beyond the fence weren't black. Every single one of us was red. It had taken death's cold touch to strip us bare of our colors and reveal what lay within. It had taken decades of hatred to realize that we were all from the earth, and from each other.
From the death of this child a new life was born, a life that would affirm that we were all red, all the same. I turned away and ran to the sanctuary of the clubhouse. I never learned what happened to the boy's body, but it was surely given to his village for a traditional burial.
It was not until years later that I wandered, hesitantly, to the edge of Mukumbo's northern bank, where the iron fence lay. It was curiously silent. I had not seen the children grasp its metal bars for a long time, nor did I hear them taunting the white men when they strayed to the northern border.
As I drew near I inspected the fence and saw that it was bent and uneven. What had once looked firm and forbidding now proved to be almost useless. I effortlessly swayed it back and forth with my arms. Beyond the tall grasses, smoke from the dead boy's village trailed across the sky.
I looked down to where the water met the metal fence. Two black and white kingfishers perched on the iron fence above the murky water. The grass was neatly mowed. I let go of the iron barrier and found that my fingers were stained red.
The fence was rusting.