Last night, a third stranger followed me home.

It was about 11 pm. I got off the train to see two dogs tied to the pole at the bottom of the stairs, barking their heads off. Dogs terrify me. I retraced my footsteps, took a different route; began the walk to my apartment a little rattled by the break in my routine.

Perhaps the confusion was apparent on my face. Without warning, a man appeared in my path. Tall, muscled, African American; whiff of tobacco when he moved to speak, menacing eyes. Hey, he said. There was nothing particularly aggressive about his tone, but he had planted himself quite comfortably within inches of my face.

I felt the air rasp at the top of my throat.

I just bought a house down the block, he said.

Rattled, and now tongue-paralyzed, I simply blinked at him.

My name’s Richard, he continued. Richy, if you want. Casually, he reached for my cell phone, which I’d been holding out in front of me – I’d wanted to hit ‘next,’ and skip to the next track on my playlist. Dumbfounded, I watched him enter his phone number, and then call his phone, before handing the phone back to me.

I’ll call you in thirty minutes, he said, and then he turned and walked away.

Later, much later, after I’d burst into my roommate’s room and told her what had happened, out of breath from running, heart in my mouth, fucking scared out of my mind, I remembered a line from a novel I’d read:

A woman’s no is a metaphorical yes.

And then another line:

Silence is acquiescence.

About two months ago, when the first strange guy followed me from the train station, I wasn’t alone. I was walking with a friend, talking, laughing, when a horrible scratchy feeling overwhelmed me – the sort of feeling you get when someone comes up behind you, too close, without prior warning. And then there was a smell: marijuana, waves of it, spreading, stretching, and sticky, like wriggly octopus tentacles. Excuse me, he said, can I talk to you? Can I be your friend?

With a careless laugh, I threw a NO over my shoulder and kept walking, although I did not pick up my pace, not even when my friend clutched my arm and whispered urgently: walk faster!

The man was harmless, I thought. Simply confused and high and a little stupid.

I was still laughing when we finally managed to shake him off – nearly fifteen minutes later. What an idiot, I said to my friend. What a joke. Did he really think that I would be interested in him?

When the second stranger followed me home some two/three weeks later, I was irritated. A Nigerian man, short, sleazy-looking, persistent. The second time this second stranger followed me home, he told me when I tried to shake him off:

Don’t bother. I know exactly where you live. I saw you go in the door the other day. It’s that house, right?

Of course, second stranger upgraded himself to stalker, easily. But I was not afraid of him. He, too, struck me as being harmless – a mere irritant. A lonely fly to be swatted away.

But the third stranger, the third nerve-wracking occurrence, made me suddenly acutely conscious of my femininity: the fact that an external male gaze can deem me both vulnerable and stupid, can sexualize me, even when I do not wear provocative clothing or present myself in a sexual way.

Last night – and this is quite rare for me – I was scared witless. I acknowledged that bad things – bad sexual things – can happen to me. Not some abstract female – me. Maybe pepper spray is a good idea. Maybe self-defense classes aren’t a bad idea either. The weapons that I thought protected me – my no nonsense attitude, my ability to articulate my no, my arrogant belief that things are only as serious as you allow them to be – were actually useless in the face of material danger.

And now I’m not only chastened and cautious, but angry. What right do these men have to make me afraid? What part of NO is difficult to understand?

Subway Meditations

I dismissed him, at first, as being just another homeless man on the train. He wanted money; who didn’t? The sound/tone of his request – in the beginning – was familiar: sing-song, urgent, pleading. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen…” I did not bother to look up from my reading. But right about the time my slow-acting guilt kicked in – did I maybe have a dollar or two in my wallet? – the content of his speech became clear to me:

“I need a five dollar metro-card to get me to work tomorrow and another five dollar metro to get me back.”

“I’ve been working these past few weeks to get me off the streets, and I have just one more day of work before I can buy an air mattress and move into my new place.”

“I also need another five or six dollars so I can buy a coffee and a donut before work.”

“If somebody could just give me the sixteen dollars, that would be great. Please. Please.”


Was that entitlement in his voice? I had never – not in five years of riding the subway – heard a homeless person demand a specific amount. Only sixteen dollars, he said. And I heard in his tone: “What’s sixteen dollars to you, you privileged motherfuckers?”

So I looked up and received a shock that was not quite a shock: the homeless man was white. Young, too: late twenties or early thirties. He was wearing clean clothes: a warm-looking grey sweatshirt, and dark jeans. He continued to pace up and down the car, up and down, relentless in repeating his story, almost word for word, until someone/ anyone sympathized. Our car was crammed full of people, but for five long minutes no one responded.

Eventually he stood in the middle of the car and began to say, “Please, please, PLEASE,” in a sort of bleating voice that also harbored palpable resentment. “Please, just sixteen dollars.”

At last a white girl sitting a few seats down from me waved five dollars in his face. He took it, and submitted a subdued, “Thank you.” Only once he said it, and then at the door – as we pulled up at the next stop – he added, to no one in particular, “Now I just need eleven more dollars, and tomorrow I’ll be off the streets.”

Are certain forms (rhetorics) of begging more acceptable than others?

I won’t lie. I expected that a homeless person would accept – humbly and with visible gratitude – whatever amount a charitable person had to offer. A truly seasoned beggar would know better than to fill his tone with palpable resentment, or inundate his potential donors with the specifics of his plight. That sing-song, “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” would/ should always be followed by a short pitiful story – a story abridged for politeness’ sake: “I lost my job/my home; I haven’t eaten in three days; my baby is hungry – can you help?” Such a form or style of begging is acceptable, because familiar; it does not make specific demands on the listener; it simply leaves charity up to the kindness of the listener’s heart.

But, was this man’s “style” more effective because specific? He forced himself into the car’s collective consciousness by asserting his individuality: I have a story all mine, he said; I am not just any homeless person; I am a homeless person working actively to get out; you cannot ignore me because I am forcibly, absolutely here (he did not leave until he had received at least one note). Perhaps his style was/ is more effective, but I will not dwell on this (too much speculation and no hard evidence). What I am more interested in is the story behind his style. Simply put: did his entitlement/ his demand, rather than plea, come from his position as a white male in a society historically dominated by white males? Was the subordinate position – the conventional ‘I am at your mercy’ style of begging – not merely anathema, but entirely foreign to him? It’s hard to say.

And what of the cold reception in our car? Were people reacting – negatively – to the entitlement they could hear in his voice, or the unfamiliarity of a young white homeless person asking for alms – with a unique rhetoric? Or, perhaps, a third option: were they simply ignoring the request of this young white homeless man the way they ignored countless other similar requests? Again, hard to say.

I have only written these thoughts because they seemed somehow important.

“The Sense of an Ending”

I’ve been reluctant to voice this for a while, but it seems that I cannot hold it in any longer: I have grown tired of New York.

At first, I put it down to homesickness – I had not been home in almost three years. Falling into a repetitive routine had deadened me in some crucial way. I craved surprise, adventure, extremes of emotion. Luckily, wonderfully, I got to go home over the summer. 6 weeks outside of New York! I welcomed the chaos and madness of Kampala; the familiar accents; the knowledge that anything could happen at any one time, and I could not predict the next day or even the next few hours. The chaos made me come alive.

When I returned to New York, I found that I had become a stranger. The noises were too loud, the smells too sharp, the dirt in and on the subway almost a sacrilege. I shrunk in front of the overly aggressive personalities I encountered everywhere. But this too, I put down to homesickness. I could still taste the pork from Rise & Shine in Ntinda; I could feel the Kampala heat on my skin: hot and blessedly dry; I could see my mother and my brother waving through the glass as I crossed over to ‘Departures.’ Homesickness was natural. Of course I would miss Kampala with a heightened awareness immediately after leaving it. Slowly, I told myself, the pain would ebb. New York would seep its way back into my consciousness, and I would begin to call my Brooklyn apartment home once more.

But merely two weeks after my return, I am away from New York again, visiting a friend in New Haven. I love the tranquility of this place. No cars drive by with the music on at full blast; people stroll; there’s enough here of the city – little coffee shops, bookstores, clothing stores, frozen yogurt shops, restaurants with exotic food, bars – but also enough of the small-town: troubadours on street corners, large parks with wide benches under leafy trees, conversations allowed to unfold over hours, and not simply minutes; peace.

Perhaps it is time for me to move on from New York, and settle some place else, some place new.

Speaking with Three Voices

“The voice with which you wake in an earthquake is your true voice.”

I am paraphrasing a line from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, Americanah. You will forgive me, my version is not nearly as eloquent as hers (I do not have the book on hand), but it preserves her meaning, I think. In the novel, Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who has been living in America for a few years, makes the decision to stop speaking ‘phonetics’ – a Nigerian term to mean speaking English with an American (or British) accent – and revert to her Nigerian accent or her “true” voice.

I felt many things when I first read that line: amusement (only an African would describe a true voice in that manner), admiration (it takes courage to make such a decision), and confusion: how would I wake in the middle of an earthquake? I was troubled because my answer to that question was another question: in whose house would I be sleeping during this quake? In the company of my American friends, I would wake with my American voice, and in the company of my Ugandan friends, I would wake with my Ugandan voice. Or so, I think.


When I first began to speak with an American accent, years ago (to stop repeating myself or drawing annoying questions about having Simba or Mufasa for a pet), I told myself that I was learning an entirely new language: American English. With new languages, like French or Spanish, it is acceptable to adopt new accents, so why not do the same with American English? This – impeccable logic, to my mind – was what helped me quiet the niggling feeling that I was betraying my Ugandan self.

But I was unique among my Ugandan friends in America. Those beautiful girls chose to keep their Ugandan accents. They said to me, heads held high, “Am I not speaking English? If they listen to me, they will understand.” It was true; if you insisted on your Ugandan accent, eventually the people you spoke to would grow used to it. Still, with strangers, there was always that annoying question, “Where’re you from?” Or that judgmental comment, “You talk funny.” Attached to the judgment were certain assumptions: an impoverished background, a poor grasp of English, lesser intelligence. Perhaps, at the end of the day, my decision to speak “American” was an issue of pride: I did not want strangers prodding and judging. It was far better or far easier to meet strangers on what they would assume was level ground. They would believe I was like them; they would not expect too little or too much from me. (In my freshman and sophomore years, I remained completely oblivious to racism. I thought that if I dressed and spoke a certain way, I would be free from prejudice. I had not reckoned that the color of my skin could become, and in fact, was an issue for some people.)

How did my fellow Ugandan Americanahs receive my two voices?

With rebuffs: Why do you have to make your accent local when you’re talking to us? (Unsaid: are we not good enough for your American accent?)

Or with something that was part-envy and part-derision: Ehhh, some American accent.

I couldn’t blame my friends. At lunch or dinner – if we were eating out, that is – my accent would switch from Ugandan (in conversation with my friends) to American (in order to speak to the waiter or waitress). Sometimes the switch was not even conscious; it just seemed natural to speak to Americans in American and Ugandans in Ugandan, and so I did. I was only ever in trouble – perhaps, present tense is more suitable – I am only ever in trouble when my Ugandan friends and my American friends interact; suddenly, I am working double-time to speak American to one person and Ugandan to another; consequently, when I’m excited, or if at all I have to address everyone present, a wondrous thing happens: my two accents/ voices collide, like two trains approaching from opposite sides on a single track.

My mash-up voice is chaotic – at once pitiful and hilarious – but it is the most truthful of all my voices. It is representative of my lived experiences in both Uganda and America. It is also the voice with which I am most uncomfortable. Why? It is the voiced evidence of my transcontinental 180/ my transcontinental middle split; the proof that I belong to neither America nor Uganda fully. And 180s/ middle splits are painful.

Big Days in America

Let me tell you what it is to go to a Ugandan grad party in the U.S.

At home, graduation parties are extravagant affairs: large tents pitched in spacious gardens, staggering buffet tables, long, pompous speeches by parents and relatives, hundreds of guests, expensive gifts for the distinguished graduates. Some of these parties are like weddings. The graduates appear in formal dress – spruce suits and shiny new dresses (satin, taffeta, lace) – with their graduating caps perched at jaunty angles. On their faces are expressions that are a strange mix of elation, sadness, and trepidation: what will the future bring? The celebrations last through the night. The parents beam with irrepressible pride. Party-crashers and guests, alike, partake gleefully. Because as a Ugandan, you get two really big days in your adult life: the day you graduate and the day you get married.

In America, we make do with what we have. Graduation Day is still important, still big, but very few people can afford to fly their immediate family, let alone their relatives to their graduation ceremonies, so most of us gather together our “abroad” family (which means, quite simply, every Ugandan you know in the States, and their Ugandan friends). And somebody will offer their house as a venue, someone else will offer to buy the drinks, and yet another person will promise to handle the food. Many people will offer to drive and pick up guests from nearby bus depots or train stations. Others will graciously agree to host the guests. And the guests will congregate in Maryland from all over: New York, Vermont, Texas, Virginia, DC, and Massachusetts.

The decorations at the party will be minimal, perhaps a helpful sign on the front lawn that reads: “Graduation Party Here,” with an arrow pointing to the house. Maybe two or three balloons will be suspended over the sign. Inside the house, a single banner will read: CONGRATULATIONS. There will be no names on the banner, because one party will celebrate three or four or five graduations; it is a cost-efficient method.

Just before the party begins, proper, guests and hosts will revert to familiar roles. Females (both hosts and guests, with the guests offering to help) will drift towards the kitchen. Males (guests and hosts) will sprawl on the couches in the living room or on lawn chairs out on the porch, nursing cold beers. Small children will trail haplessly after their mothers. From the basement, loud and gloriously familiar music will begin to pound. For one night, all the Ugandans present will hear only Ugandan music.

When the food is ready, the female hosts will carry trays to the dining table. The array will be splendid: chapatti, fried rice, hot dogs, matooke, beef stew, pork barbecue, grilled chicken, and roasted goat meat. There might even be mandazi set aside, almost playfully, because this sweet, oily doughnut is rightfully a snack. Only the hot dogs will stand out as distinctly American. The sight of them will be slightly disappointing, although all of the guests will appreciate that it is a convenient solution for unexpected guests who arrive too late, but still expect to eat.

Only when they gather to help themselves to the food – from the porch, the living room, the bedrooms upstairs, and the basement – will the guests begin to take stock of each other. Often, people will attend these parties in clusters: high school friends, university friends, hometown friends, work colleagues. These clusters will greet each other loudly, exchange anecdotes within their circles, and then meet new people, and discover common ground. The keen observer will note the stereotypes. One woman will come to the party, straight from work, still wearing her scrubs. There will be at least two people dressed in army fatigues. An olive -skinned child with soft curly hair will call a dark-skinned man or woman, “Daddy” or “Mummy.” The college kids will wear trendy, up-to-the-minute clothing, complete with colored contacts, and in the case of the girls, expensive weaves. But everyone present will absorb the homey-ness: the warmth of familiar accents, familiar food, and familiar music; the realness of languages that are not English – languages whose silences are jam-packed with meaning, and the presence of people whose lived experiences resonate with their own.

In America, the big days are still big, even if they are merely caricatures – cartoons of the real thing.

Transit Tales

I do not remember anymore what she wore, but I had the distinct impression, as I looked at her, that she was a young professional, probably between 21 and 23, fresh out of college, and returning from her first job in the city. I cannot say what exactly gave me this impression; perhaps it was her trendy, and yet business-like shoes. More likely, it was the air of novelty that seemed to surround her—she wore her clothes as though she was not quite used to them, or as though they belonged to someone else, and she was merely borrowing them for a while. She moved quickly, sitting down, crossing her legs, and reaching into her purse for something.

She sat across from me on the bus. As I watched, another young woman got on the bus. This new young woman was strikingly similar to the first. She, too, wore her clothes experimentally, and appeared to have just returned from the city. Next to each other, the two looked to me like twins. The only exception was that the first woman was blonde, and the second, dark-haired. The dark-haired woman reached into her purse and pulled out a cell-phone, which she immediately began to poke at. The blonde woman, seeing the cell-phone, leaned sideways, and exclaimed: “Oh, my gosh, is that the new ___? I just got the exact same phone! Do you know how to work the ___?” The dark-haired woman smiled, “No, I haven’t been able to figure it out either!” They began to talk in earnest. I was no longer listening, but my parting thought was this: how wonderful that two people with so much in common should meet on a bus; perhaps I have just witnessed the start of a beautiful friendship.

I allowed my eyes to wander once more. They lighted on an old man, sitting a few seats further down from me. He was speaking to a woman, also elderly, who sat sideways, poised to get up easily. “God bless you, ___,” the old man said to her, as the bus slowed to a stop. She returned the words to him with a smile, and disappeared into the night. Now I could see the old man clearly. He had an abnormally large swelling on his nose, and a tuft of hair sticking out from his forehead. I must have forgotten myself, because several seconds later, it was with a start that I realized that he was staring back at me. He smiled. I smiled back, a little abashed. I turned then to look out of the window. But the old man was already shifting his bulk in my general direction.

“Hello,” he said, with a big smile.

“Hello,” I replied, curtly.

“You’re very pretty, do you know that?”

I did not respond.

“Do you know that?” he insisted.

His voice was quite loud. I wondered if everyone on the bus could hear him.

“I have been around for a while,” he continued, “and I have learned that if you see somebody you appreciate, you say hello right away and you try to start a conversation. You never know what may come from it.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the twins exchange a look. It consisted, mostly, of a smirk. The old man, on the other hand, warmed to his theme.

“There’s a lot of lonely people in this world,” he said. “Very few people are lucky enough to find that person they can be with for the rest of their life. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had had the courage to say ‘hello’ when I was younger.”

He paused, inching closer, where I was drawing back.

“So…can I have your number?”

At this, the twins began to giggle. I sneaked a glance to see if they were laughing at me; they were.

“I don’t blame you for hesitating,” the old man continued, “a beautiful girl like you must have a boyfriend. It’s okay; you can tell me if you have a boyfriend…”

“Yes, yes,” I lied, “I h…ha…have a boyfriend. We’ve been together two years.”

I pushed the STOP button while I spoke.

“Well, it was very nice to meet you,” he said, “I wish you and your boyfriend the very best in life. God bless you.”

“Thank you,” I said quickly, grabbing up my purse, and making for the door. I avoided the twins’ eyes; they were still laughing.

Doubtless, my little incident would be another memory to mark the day they first met.