The beating drums sound in the distance as I walk to the market. It seems as if everyone in Gulu is preparing for the Independence Day celebration this weekend. As I turn the corner to enter the sea of endless market stalls the sound quickly drowns out and is replaced by chapatti sizzling in pans of oil, merchants haggling, chickens squawking and little Justin Bieber singing “Baby” on the radio. (Bet you weren’t expecting that last one were you? Yea…me neither.)

As I walk through the narrow and rocky pathways between vendors and try not to sprain my ankle or step in a puddle of unknown liquids, I smile and practice the little Lwo I’ve picked up. “Apwoyo. Eco ma ber?” They respond and smile back, amused that a mzungu is attempting to speak their language.

As I proceed to the food market, I become very aware of the overwhelming smell of fish, both dried and fresh, mixing with the citrusy oranges and the sweet yet sour smell of sweat that is inevitable when you have that many people in one place under the heat of the Ugandan sun. I pretend that I want to buy anyogi (maize) just because I learned the word last weekend. “Apwoyo ba. Cheni adi?” I ask, pointing to the maize. “Miadek” the old woman replies. I pause for a minute…”Don’t tell me!” I say, waving my hand. “300!” She looks confused. “Pay ahmio. Apwoyo matek. Dong ma ber.” (No, I don’t want it. Thank you very much. Have a good day!) Little did she know that she was my test subject for the day. Poor lady probably still doesn’t know what happened. She probably told everyone that a crazy mzungu yelled at her. Oh well.

I exit the market world and re-enter the reddish dirt streets of Gulu crowded with boda bodas, bikes and giant UN Land Cruisers. I stop in a store to buy a refreshing pineapple Novida and transfer it to my coffee thermos (yummy pop—the bottle costs extra though!)
I take my time walking back to the office, the only mzungu in sight. Then I see a young man—clearly American— walking in my direction and we share a smile, a brief moment of understanding. “Apwoyo” I say. He laughs…”Uhh hey?” (Pshh…hellooo when in Rome!) Maybe not.

I continue walking and fall into thought again, laughing to myself as I think of all the mistakes I’ve made so far with language, both in Lwo and before in Spanish. I told the girls that I was “fighting water” the other day when I was really trying to say I was pumping water. I also tried to tell one of the girls that she was smart (knowledge=ngec) but instead told her she had many alligators (alligators=ngec also!). It’s all in the intonation.

I look forward to the days where I can have longer, more meaningful conversations in Lwo. I know that if I keep at it, I will get there. Manok nok. One step at a time. In the meantime though, maybe I’ll spend my lunch break trying to confuse some more market ladies.