Steven unraveled stories the way a weaver worked his cloth, etching unexpected movements into every colorful detail. We met him our first day in Uganda, a country so intense to us Americans habituated to the quiet of Rwanda. Kampala’s heat, road traffic, dust, aggression and general chaos was a stark contrast to any city I’d been to before.
But Steven’s love for Kampala was infectious. “I can’t stand the order and cleanliness of other places!” he said. “A city is supposed to be like this. Crazy.”
He was right. To me, the perpetual light in his face reflected the energy of the city. I soon began to see Uganda through his eyes, the grittiness of its residents, the comfort in the noise, the friendliness that resonated through every street corner.
That first night in the woods of Jinja, we all sat around a campfire as Steven told our group stories about growing up. He spoke of the troubled history and fractured politics of his country after Idi Amin. He told us casually about being held by rebel police during a volunteer trip to Sudan. All four of us listened with wide eyes. He had such a strong presence and daunting intellect that I was surprised when he revealed he was only 23. He was still hoping to attend college.
“What is the word for older sister in your language?” he asked me, later in the night. I told him it was Akka. “Then from now on, I will call you my Akka.”
We spent a few days more in Uganda bonding over our mutual love of Fela Kuti, Denzel Washington’s Fences, and Justin Bieber’s new single. On the six hour bus ride back to the main city, I learned about Steven’s wish to eventually come to America.
He said, “I don’t want to leave my country, but the American passport will give me so much freedom. I will be able to travel all over the world with it.”
As he said this, I felt a familiar gnawing guilt about my carefree possession of this passport. Why was I given the world when it was denied to people so much more ambitious and capable than me?
We left Uganda but stayed in touch with Steven. I followed his Facebook posts, hoping he would eventually get the American visa he was dreaming about. But this morning, I signed into Facebook and saw a post from his mother.
“My son, has gone to be with the Lord. A fatal accident in Kenya involving many cars claimed his life. He has always fought his fights and now he has finished his race.”
Steven died in a bus accident as he was returning home for Christmas. I stared at my computer screen at the article his mother posted, feeling helpless a thousand miles away. I still do. But I feel lucky to have been shaken out of my illusions of Africa by this man. More than anyone else I met on my trip, he helped me to listen and understand. To be generous. To not sit on my hands but use them for good. I will think of him always.
Steven “Congress” Lyazi, pictured here in Jinja, Uganda.