A Writer Writes
Red Dress Magic
by Karel Amaranth
Karel Amaranth is a family friend (she attended college with my wife) and has a Bachelors degree in English and Creative Writing, and a Master of Arts degree in Fine Arts and Art Therapy. She completed a Masters degree in Public Health at New York Medical College writing her thesis on an innovative project to address maternal mortality. While not an RPCV (well, no one is perfect) she has been working for 3 years with the Rotary Club of Makindye in Kampala, Uganda as the co-founder of Holistic Care for Mothers. She traveled to Uganda this past summer to visit health facilities and women’s groups to assess the needs of the communities and assist in strategic planning with Rotary Clubs, health providers and government officials, including the King of Tororo. Holistic Care for Mothers has distributed more than 10,000 birthing kits donated by the Birthing Kit Foundation of Australia through a Village Health Worker model. Here is her account of her first trip to Africa.
I was enveloped from the top of my head to the tips of my toes in a soft white veil that floated around and above me like a bridal accessory to obscure my identity until the moment of the connubial kiss. But there was no marital bliss in store for me as I lay in the sweaty bed sheets, the mosquito netting hopefully obscuring me from the nocturnal kiss of female anopheles mosquitoes. The diaphanous barrier hovered around me, wavering and wafting with my every move as, even though protected from their bites, I listened to the high-pitched frustrated zzzzzzz’s in search of my blood. Then there were the deeper tones of cows who lowed just outside my window, the rapid staccato of the rain on the metal roof, and the scratching of something unhappy, perhaps trapped, under my bed. Somewhere a baby cried, was quieted and dozed back off at her mother’s breast.
I couldn’t sleep, but not as much from the surround sounds of the Ugandan night, but thoughts of who I was and what I was doing 7,000 miles from my home in the country house of a man I had just recently met, my host, the Tororo Minister of Culture and Education from the Rotary Club that had sponsored my visit to clinics and hospitals where beautiful ebony skinned women gave birth and far too often died.
The following day I would meet with the King of Tororo and wear a voluminous dress of scarlet and gold, with great puffed shoulders and a wide gold belt that I was already informed would take 4 women, their hands looping and guiding to knot and hold the several meters of fabric in place. The dress was a gift from my host, Gabriel who had already given me other gifts, items to wear that, as he said, made me an African woman. At this comment I had smiled, fanned my fingers through my chemically dependent blond hair and batted my baby blues at him. “Really?” I said. He laughed in that same oboe cadence of the hymns he sang as we had driven north from Kampala in his Jeep through fields of sunflowers, over the source of the Nile and past the throngs of baboons that rushed to greet us, eying our samosas purchased at a roadside stand and the Trader Joe’s dark chocolate I had brought from home.
The first gift bestowed upon me shortly after we arrived at his house had been a necklace: large blue orbs of wood dyed the color of my eyes.
“How lovely,” I had said. “I will enjoy wearing this at home. It will remind me of my visit here.”
“No, no,” he replied. “You must wear it now.” And he reached for the strand, unhooking the catch and then rehooking it around the back of my neck.
It did indeed look lovely with the black T-shirt I was wearing above my jeans. We had a dinner of vegetable stew, rice, and obungi bwa kalo, prepared by Constance, Gabriel’s niece who had come along to “take care of” me. This meant cooking, heating water on the stove for my bath, making my bed with the sheets and blankets, the mosquito netting, folded and arranged differently every day like a large soft sculpture origami.
The following day, we were scheduled to meet with the directors of several clinics and visit a Rotary Club. I dressed (alone despite Constance’s sweet insistence that she put my clothes on me as part of her responsibilities,) in a creamy blouse and multi colored striped skirt, embroidered Teva sandals I had worn in Mumbai. When I emerged from my bedroom, the only one that had it’s own bathroom with a flush toilet and large plastic container of water to accomplish the flushing, Gabriel met me with a newspaper wrapped item. I folded back the bilingual pages of English/Luganda, and fabric, the same blue as the necklace, draped into my hands. A long beautiful flowing linen dress, with white embroidery cascading down the breast and waistline to the floor. Before I could gasp a surprised “thank you,” Gabriel said, “Constance will help you take off your clothes and put this dress on.”
Back in my room, I took off my own creamy blouse and multi colored striped skirt, but then Constance came in and tumbled the blue dress over my head, smoothed it down my front and back, and then stepped away smiling, “You look like an African princess.”
Gabriel agreed as I returned to the living room and this was when, expressing how impressed the clinic directors would be, he declared me to be a true African woman. As we were all laughing together about my funny gesture of hair and eyes, Gabriel said, “Akoth. That is now your African name. It means the blessings of the rains.” I liked it. I liked the way the A resonated with my own chosen name Amaranth. And I love water, the sea, a summer rain, my Hudson River which, from its source in Lake Tear of the Clouds to the Statue of Liberty, was beautifully documented in the photo book I had given to Gabriel. And I loved the dress, too, but I felt just a little uneasy about this man I hardly knew buying clothing for me, about being dressed literally and figuratively. I let it go, thinking that this was very un-African of me.
After our breakfast of sorghum porridge and my desperately improvised coffee made with water Constance had heated on a charcoal fire, Gabriel and I stepped out into the bright just slightly north of the Equator morning. “The Community” as he called the gathering of local people who had assembled outside of his house began dancing and singing:
“Wasangala ginero wendo. Wamwei ri go…EEE Wa tuk ri go…EEE, Wa wer ri go…EEE, Wa galgasa ri go…EEE. This was later translated for me as, “We are to receive our visitor. Let us dance for her, Let us entertain her, Let us sing for her, Let us adulate her.”
Their bodies swayed and their colorful dresses and shirts, and white kanzus undulated with the rhythm and joy with which they sang. Everyone was clapping and raising their voices, a few people played little stringed instruments and one man fingertip tapped two small skin covered drums. I joined, yes, truly joined, in the full sense of the spirit of joining: bringing and coming together, fixing things, making a connection, becoming part of a group, uniting people in a partnership: a union, a fusion, a unification. The song went on and on with verse after verse, the high pitched E’s! more and more ecstatic until we all huddled together in a big communal embrace.
Gabriel, who previously had worn beautifully tailored suits, blue chambray shirts, and striped ties, had donned his own white kanzu. He reminded me that we were running late for our first meeting at the Reach Out Project, a maternity clinic specifically serving mothers with HIV, but before we left he had another surprise gift for me. In my typical American way I attempted a confused but hopefully gracious, “but you have given me so much already.” And then the black goat appeared. Led to me with a rope around its neck it butted its head into my thigh, looked up at me with deep dark seductive eyes and pressed the pink crescent of its tongue against my hand. I looked over to Gabriel and smiled. “How sweet she is. Can we give her an African name?” Gabriel now seemed like the one who was confused. I fixed my laughlined eyes on him and was about to say, “But she won’t fit in my suitcase,” when I heard the words “slaughter” and “roast.” Someone was approaching with a very large knife.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,…..” escaped from the me that was somewhere between my blue eyes and the blue dress. “No, I can’t do this.” And now Gabriel did not look confused, he looked furious.
I walked away from the goat, from the knife, from Gabriel, but before I got into the Jeep, I turned to The Community, “Thank you, thank you.” I didn’t look back at the goat.
In the Jeep as Gabriel drove on the bumpy red dirt opening in the fields that served as a road, he told me how angry he was with me. “It was a great embarrassment for me that you refused the goat that was to be slaughtered in your honor and roasted for us to eat with The Community tonight.” It would be hours of driving around Tororo that day with stops and visits and meetings and distributions of the birthing kits I had been able to arrange to have donated so women had clean supplies for their labor and deliveries, and Gabriel and me both upset, both stubborn, both apologizing for being culturally insensitive, for not listening to each other, for not understanding each other, both acknowledging our gender differences, both conceding that we had been wrong, but not purposefully, not in any way to hurt each other.
Gabriel: “I should have asked you if this would be a good gift for you, but I have thought of you as one of our Community.”
Me: “I should have understood that this was an honor and I know it is hypercritical but when I do eat meat, which is not very often, it is on a plate in a restaurant or comes wrapped in plastic. I’m a girl from New York, I have never actually slaughtered anything I ate.”
Gabriel: “Really? Next time I will wrap the goat in plastic before we slaughter it, ok?” We both laughed. “Akoth, you are a very brave girl from New York.”
But perhaps not so brave as I tossed and turned under the mosquito netting on that last night in Tororo. The blue necklace was in my suitcase. The blue dress I happily wore and Gabriel was right, the clinic directors and Rotary members appreciated that I was looking about as Ugandan as I possibly could under the circumstances. I was Akoth. And the goat, well, there were torrential rains that night so the big Community barbeque would not have taken place anyway. Gabriel, Constance and I had vegetable stew again, canned fruit and warm beer. I am sure that goat meat was roasted and enjoyed as it was meant to be. But there was still the red dress.
Yes, the red dress. The last of the gifts and the one I found most difficult to deal with. But why? It was just a dress. All I had to do was be dressed in it by 4 women. To have it wrapped around and around me and held in place with that huge gold belt knotted tightly at my waist. I just had to wear it and kneel for the King of Tororo. Knowing in advance I would have this important meeting, I had brought a very sophisticated black dress, simple, elegant but professional with a jacket, not dissimilar from the dress I had worn when I met Bill Clinton. (Of course I didn’t have to kneel for him.) But then there was the gift of the red dress, much less a gift than a requirement. When unwrapped from its layers of newspaper it was not just revealed, it had insinuated itself, it had a power, an authority in its vivid scarlet, its sheer floating mass, its gold hologram shimmer like a magician’s cheap trick. All of the hours of conversations that Gabriel and I had seemed to vanish with the sorcery of this dress, with my wordless resentful consent to participate in the illusion, my disappearing act or perhaps the lady sawed in half. I was sleepless with the thought of this.
And so it happened. Four women, laughing and excited wrapped me with their dark smooth agile hands and I held my breath as the big knot cinched into my waist. Gabriel and I hardly spoke as we drove to the King’s home, a lovely house surrounded by gardens. And then I met the King of Tororo who was in fact quite charming, cheerfully dismissive of my curtsy before him, appreciative of my visit, interested in the work the Rotary and I were doing with the maternity clinics, grateful for the 6,000 birthing kits distributed and the rain water tank we were planning, and very apologetic when he excused himself briefly to check the World Cup scores on the television. I felt ever so clever when afterwards I was able to slip between the garden and the Jeep, wriggle out of the belt, pull off the dress and reclaim my own self in the short skirt and tank top I had worn underneath it. I opened the hatch of the car and stuffed the dress in a plastic bag, and said in my Glinda the Good Witch voice, “Oh rubbish, you have no power here. Be gone!” If Gabriel was surprised to see me all ivory legs and arms when I slid into the front seat with him, he disguised his reaction with intense concentration on the bumpy road.
Gabriel, Constance and I drove the 5 hours back to Kampala. That evening when we said goodbye, he handed me one more newspaper covered item. I knew immediately that it wasn’t something for me to wear… or a goat. As the paper fell away, I saw a beautiful, tall proud woman with a jug balanced on her head, carved of smooth amber wood, encased in a glass covered box frame. “You see, she is Akoth, bringing us the blessings of the rains,” Gabriel said. “Do you approve of this gift?”
“Yes… I do.”
I returned home to my little house perched above the Hudson River with my clinic assessments and strategic plans, with photos in my Nikon of beautiful women and babies, with my memories and hope. The necklace, when I am not wearing it, glows azure across my dresser. The blue dress hangs in my closet and I often slip into it after a shower, my hair still wet around my shoulders. The elegant carved water carrier graces my living room wall with a statue of Kwan Yin and a painted mermaid as her sisters. The red dress, well, I didn’t actually remember what I did with it until a couple of weeks ago when I had to pack to travel to another country house, this one the home of my long time friend Judy; a delightful retreat at the end of a long country road with a porch that overlooks the rolling hills and valleys of Columbia County, New York, where she and I would read and talk for hours. I pulled my small carry-on suitcase out of the closet and as I unzipped it the red and gold peeked out and then flowed like a waterfall out of a canyon or a high tide that had been confined in an all too narrow inlet. The fabric, with a faint perfume of charcoal and sorghum, poured across my lap and flooded in a wave to the floor. I held onto the great puffed shoulders and raised it to my chest, then up to my face. Breathing in the Ugandan air fixed between the woven threads, I hoped that like a flying carpet or ruby red slippers, the dress was magical enough to take me back.
A through-line in Karel Amaranth’s career is her commitment to strengthening vulnerable populations. In addition to directing Bronx-based not-for-profit home care agencies, she has served as executive director for the national Women’s Action Alliance and for Victims Assistance Services in Westchester County, New York. For 11 years she served as the executive director of the Butler Child Advocacy Center in the Bronx.
In 2006, she co-authored landmark New York City legislation requiring review of child deaths. She has served on a national Expert Child Death Review Panel that was engaged to review the deaths of children in Nevada and make recommendations that dramatically changed the social services, health care and investigative systems. Karel has presented at international conferences in San Diego, several cities in Canada, Hong Kong, Tampere, Finland, Swansea, Wales, and Belfast, Ireland among many other venues. During the summer of 2011, she was the teaching assistant for the Einstein College of Medicine Global Health course at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, India.
Karel has a blog A Private Life in Public Health http://privatelifeinpublichealth.com