LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE DRIVER IN UGANDA WHO WAS NOT GODFREY
BY RAKSHA VASUDEVAN
When you stepped out of the car, I was struck by your big liquid-dark eyes, the crispness of your pink button-down shirt.
“Madam, please, I insist,” you said, prying J’s mom’s suitcase away before she hauled it into the trunk herself. The look of offense on your face made J and I smile.
On-time, sky-blue sedan gleaming, lemony air freshener scenting its insides—it seemed we were in good hands with you as our driver. So, on Christmas Eve, the dry season sun baking Kampala’s red soil into hard yellow, J, his mom and I set off on our week-long trip across Uganda with you.
But once we started driving, you said little. Nothing, in fact. I was surprised: my friend who’d recommended you had warned me you’d talk our ears off. But with us, you barely spoke, eyes fixed ahead at the deadly still traffic of Jinja Road, jammed with families escaping the capital for the holidays. Hawkers selling roasted g-nuts and cold sodas wove between the unmoving vehicles. From a matatu van in the next lane, a woman stared at us. Our “family” must have looked odd: J and his mum, milky white. Me, Indian. You, Ugandan. From the beginning, we were a strange galaxy in that car: planets orbiting each other but always worlds apart.
You switched off the engine, resigned, and leaned back in your seat. With your slight pot belly and balding head, you looked like someone’s dad—maybe that’s why I felt an immediate affection for you. Growing up mostly without a father, I latched onto potential substitutes.
Maybe that’s also why, later on, learning you’d lied to us stung more than it should have.
Once we got on the highway, you floored the accelerator.
“Slow down, Godfrey!” J pleaded, gripping the handlebar. Outside, fields of plantain and pawpaw blurred past us. But you didn’t react.
J’s mother, a delicate-looking divorcée with a neat bob, squeezed her eyes shut. Not for the first time, I wished—imagined she was also wishing—J had returned to London for the holidays instead of talking her into coming here. Knowing her first trip to Africa was in part to meet me made my stomach twist. In the last few days, doubts had trickled endlessly through my mind: why, lately, did I want to turn away from J’s smiles? Drip. Did I even want to meet his mother? Drop. Should I go on this trip? Drip.
I couldn’t turn off this faucet of misgivings but it was too late to change plans: the lodges were booked, safaris paid for. So, I went.
Now, in the car, I did the same as J’s mom: settling back, thighs sticking to the faux-leather seat, I closed my eyes.
The trill of my phone woke me. Hours must have passed: we were winding through a valley, jade hills of coffee trees wrapping around us. The air was cooler here, a world away from Kampala’s dusty heat. I dug my phone out of my purse: the caller ID said “Godfrey.”
I glanced at you in the rearview mirror: you were looking ahead, eyes pinked by the wind blasting through your window rolled all the way down. Your phone was nowhere in sight. Puzzled, I answered my phone.
“Hello, Madam Raksha!” a man chirped. “This is Godfrey, the driver.”
“But… Godfrey is in the car driving us right now.” (In the mirror, your eyes flickered back towards me.)
“Oh no, no, that is my colleague!” the voice on the phone said. “You see, I got a last-minute job: UN convoy to the north. You know how well the UN pays, Madam! I couldn’t say no. So, I sent my colleague in my place. It’s all okay, yes?”
I was so disoriented I don’t remember what I said. Maybe “fine.” Maybe I just hung up.
Tapping you on the shoulder, I asked, “Why didn’t you tell us?”
You, Not-Godfrey, just shrugged, eyes once more fixed ahead. Before us, a truck loaded with longhorn cows swerved. The cattle, the three of us—we all stared at you, all baffled and alarmed.
“What’s your real name?” I tried again.
“You call me Godfrey. It’s ok, it’s ok.”
J, his mom and I looked at each other, unsure how to proceed. Maybe you thought your real name was too complicated for mzungus. Or maybe you just didn’t want to reveal any of yourself to us.
“Alright,” J nodded. “Godfrey it is.”
I looked at J, chestnut hair curling at the nape of his neck, his broad straight nose, his pointed chin. How could he not need to know the truth? We’d been dating for almost a year; at 27, it was my longest relationship. Yet, I was still learning him; but did I keep wanting to? I looked away, at the roadside market we were passing, pyramids of avocados and tomatoes precisely arranged on wooden stalls. Those displays looked more balanced—infinitely surer of themselves—than I could imagine feeling.
Over the next days, you drove us south, to Lake Bunyonyi, pointing out kingfishers hovering above the water. We watched them dive and emerge with fish writhing silver in their tweezer beaks. You drove us to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, hiking with us in your penny loafers to find a family of gorillas. The Silverback, 400-pounds huge, was at once the most alien and human thing I’ve seen: its fingers and nostrils and penetrating eyes astonishingly like ours—like what we once were or could be.
At these sights, J’s mom often cried, overwhelmed. J smiled, sometimes reaching for my hand. When my fingers remained limp, his smile faded. You always noticed those moments, sentimentality verging into sadness. You must have wondered what drew J and me together. If you’d asked, I’d have told you this: we were both foreigners, both working for international nonprofits. Those things were enough, until moments like this, when their hollowness rang loudly. You always spoke up just then. Look, a Ugandan crested crane—do you see? Look, a moringa tree—the powder is popular in the West, isn’t it?
I was grateful for your distractions, your conversations. J was too, I think. During the drives, he chatted away, trying to entertain, take care, control: Mum, are you too warm? Godfrey, what are your kids’ names? R, how’s your book? Sure you won’t get carsick? Sure you’re alright?
“I’m fine, J,” I said over and over, until once, I almost shouted it.
“Okay,” he muttered that time.
You looked at me in the rearview mirror then, big eyes curious, but said nothing. This time, I was grateful for your silence. When I turned back to my window, baboons peered evilly back at me, stalking the roadside. I felt like one of them: menaced, menacing.
As the miles and days wore on, the vapors of doubt I’d been feeling about J and I crystallized into something else, sharp and painful. And at night, lying next to him under a gauzy mosquito net, our bodies unconnected (“too hot,” I said when he tried to reach for me), I could no longer pretend uncertainty—not to myself, anyway.
And then the car got stuck. New Year’s Eve, the last leg of the trip, we were headed to Lake Mburo National Park. Tomorrow, we’d awake early to ogle zebras and hippos. But first, we had to get there. It was already dark when we turned onto the rutted dirt road. At some point, we must have taken a wrong turn, the road indistinguishable from the coffee-colored earth spreading in all directions.
“You sure this is right, Godfrey?” J asked. You didn’t answer, just kept inching the car forward around the holes. Until suddenly, we dipped. Just as suddenly, we emerged—almost. The back wheels were trapped in mud, spinning helplessly even as you floored the accelerator, again and again.
We got out, shivering under a black sky shattered with stars. Wild fig trees and acacias dotted the landscape like skeletons, white and bony under a thumbnail moon. For the first time that week, wonder washed over me. Finally, a moment that wasn’t curated—where we didn’t have to be curated.
“Goddamit!” J was standing by the car, boot-deep in mud, anger twisting his face. “Are you even a real driver?” he shouted at you.
This whole trip, he’d been so careful, always trying to strike the right note, trying to plan and birdwatch and safari us into happiness. No longer. It shouldn’t have been at your expense, but I wish he’d broken earlier.
You didn’t answer because you were rolling up your shirt sleeves and pant legs, readying to push the car out. Of course—what else was there to do? We joined you, sinking and slipping in the viscous ground, pushing, pushing until—it was out! We high fived, panting and smiling at each other stupidly, our pants and shoes ruined with mud.
“Good job,” you said, grinning. I felt like a kid who’d won her father’s approval. It was the happiest I’d felt that week.
After the trip, after returning to Kampala and saying goodbye to you and J’s mom, J and I finally, finally broke up. I wanted to call you then, thank you for helping us navigate that week of delusion. A whole week of J, his mom and I pretending to be things we weren’t: untroubled, a happy unit, a unit with a future.
At least you, not-Godfrey, were honest about your pretension.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Raksha Vasudevan is an Indian-Canadian economist and writer based in Colorado. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Catapult, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Roads & Kingdoms and more. Find her on Twitter @RakshaVasudevan.
All images provided by Raksha Vasudevan.
Header image by Maho on Earth.