I arrived in Kampala, Uganda in May carrying a suitcase scattered with items to manage my own cleanliness, advice from those back home about what to eat and what not to eat, reminders of the importance of hand washing and washing in general, and questions about latrines, showering, and clothing, all surrounding themes of managing my own state of cleanliness and purity amidst the dangers of germs that linger. There seemed to be an understanding that life there would be somehow dirtier than life at home and demanded that I arrive prepared to manage the dangers that the pervasive dirtiness posed to my fragile yet sophisticated immune system.
I sat on the red steps of the house with my cup of coffee and bowl of yogurt, enjoying the view of the morning sun painting the hills with green and orange. I heard music next door and Diana busy at work. She set two white plastic chairs in the compound ready to scrub them with soap and water and greeted me with her cheerful “Morning Nelson!” followed by a question in Luganda to see if I could respond. Agnes, the wife of our research mentor George, walked outside wrapped in her usual beautiful lesu of blues, greens, and gold with China Gloria, her two-year-old daughter, by her side. She greeted Diana and myself, brought me a platter of clean cups, bowls, and silverware to replace the ones we dirtied the night before, and asked me for our dirty laundry. I brought out a basket of dust stained clothes and she and China Gloria quickly got to work washing them, scrubbing each item inch-by-inch with soap, paying extra attention the edges that seem to hold onto more of the orange dust. George, with a backpack carrying his work supplies, a shoe brush and an extra shirt to change into in town, said goodbyes and headed out to catch a taxi. I heard the familiar sound of Noah’s horn and rushed to open up the gates so that he could pull in. He greeted everyone, checked with me about what time we needed to leave, and began washing the car, wiping the whole thing down until it was shiny and dustless.
He cleaned the towel with water and placed it in the driver side door. I came outside, ready to go, and quietly asked Diana and Noah if I looked ‘smart’ enough for the day. Diana questioned whether or not my shirt had been ironed and suggested I come inside with her to iron it. Noah glanced at my feet and chuckled at my lack of sufficient scrubbing of them. I slipped on my shoes that Viani, Diana’s eight-year-old nephew had cleaned, said goodbye to everyone and got in the car. After my day of hanging out and interviewing at my field site, Noah pulled in to pick me up. We began chatting about the day as he handed me the towel from the side door to wipe off my ankles and feet with and then passed me the hand sanitizer from the console and we headed out to find lunch. We ate at our usual small restaurant off of a dusty road in the suburbs of Kampala. Outside was a jug of warm water with soap over a bucket for us to wash our hands with before entering. We ordered our usual meals and continued discussing events from the day. Outside, cars passed by, kicking up clouds of dust with each movement. Scarves adorned the heads of many women walking by, protecting their hair from the floating dust, and handkerchiefs rested in the pockets of men’s trousers, ready to be used to wipe the dust from their faces. I could see shopkeepers busy at work sweeping the dust and trash away from the front of their stores, working to maintain a clean and welcoming environment.
Nfuufu, or dust, demands daily, and even hourly, attention, especially during the dry months of the year. Cases of the cough and flu rise and the eagerly awaited coming of rain is a relief to most, healing them of the dust. It constantly threatens the cleanliness of the body, public reputations, and livelihoods. To keep the body clean demonstrates an ability and determination to manage oneself amidst the constant peril of dust. Further, to keep possessions such as clothes, shoes, cars, and phones dustless exemplifies a similar level of effort and care for one’s success and reputation. And to be willing and able to work hard to maintain a tidy and swept space at ones home or business brings the possibility of more customers, leading to greater prosperity.
Dust went beyond the realm of private life. It was also the grounds for political struggle in Kampala. Demonstrations and riots to protest the government’s failure or delay to work on roads are common. In 2014, the dusty Mbarara-Katete Road was the site of a protest, as citizens took to the streets in large numbers to accuse the government of failing to “sprinkle it with water or tarmac it” (Mugume, 2014). Protesters blocked the road with stones and logs claiming that the dust was causing damaging respiratory infections and forcing businesses to close. Dust posed a threat to the cleanliness of lungs and to spaces, both threatening economic success. George mentioned a time when the Wakiso district boss was forced to bathe in and eat dust by an angry mob, wanting him to experience what they do on a daily basis. We also heard of protests on Busaabala Road, an area known for its dust, where women demanded larger government control of dust, claiming that because their organs were dusty, their husbands no longer wanted to sleep with them. Beyond the economy, dust threatened the state in another way: the health of domestic relations and the ability to reproduce.
For me, dust was a nuance, something I was prepared to deal with but not trained to manage. To have dusty feet or an un-ironed shirt meant little to me beyond forgetting to scrub them or setting something on the bed for too long before hanging it up. But I realized that these small actions carried far more meaning than my eye was trained to see.
To have a clean body, to wear wrinkleless unstained clothing and dustless shoes, to drive a shiny car and occupy a dustless space, all vulnerable to the every gust of wind and movement of vehicles and bodies, displayed a level of ability, discipline and diligence that meant for greater possibility socially, economically, and politically.
Come the end of my trip, I held a newfound and deep gratitude to all of those who helped teach me to and manage my own cleanliness. Agnes and Diana worked hard to supply me with dustless food, dishes, clothing, shoes, and space. And George and Noah similarly worked to advise me where to walk and not to, when to roll the windows up and leave them down, where to take my shoes off and leave them on, when to wash my hands and wipe my feet, and reminded me to wash myself. I found by end of the trip that my eyes were beginning to accustom to noticing all of the little ways dust was managed. Clean shoes stood out to me and I even began passing Noah the towel so he could wipe off his black leather shoes after walking outside. I noticed when the compound was clean of dust and the children on the side of the street busy washing their father’s car after a day out. I was mindful of where I walked barefoot and when to wash my own feet, and even ironed one of my shirts before walking out in the morning. Just as I was becoming accustomed to life in the suburbs of Kampala, it was time to head home. I left this new family of mine with a full heart and a congested head that Noah was convinced was due to my repeated desire to leave the windows down on dusty roads.