09/10/2015 10:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lost and Found in Uganda

I'd spent the past couple days gorilla trekking in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. This afternoon, I decided to go wandering around Kanungu instead. I walked down through a valley, and across the Munyanga River towards the forest.

Soon I was both a bit lost, and had a group of 12-14 boys (guessing ages four to 15) walking along with me.

Eventually we stopped near a small waterfall and sat down, everyone crowding around my camera's LCD to see what water looks like when a camera makes it "stop moving." "Wow, wow, wow!" "Can I try?" "I want to try!"

Two boys, Jerome (on the left) and Owen (on the right), quickly emerged as the group's spokespeople, their English excellent (though not their native language), their curiosity unabated, and their intelligence, ambition, and drive impressive and charming.


They quickly began peppering me with questions...many of which I literally could not answer (e.g., "Do you grow millet in your country?"..."Ummm..." "How tall is the tallest building in your country? ... "Hmm, I think taller than that mountain." "How were the Tennessee plains made?" ... "Are you frickin' kidding me? Ask me anything at all about taxis. That I know cold.")

Other questions were just too hard to answer (e.g., "How many people live from here to there?" "Is school free?" "What is your job?" Oh you know, co-prez of a fashion eyewear brand/marketing/PR ― got that?), OR when I answered, the boys were simply blown away by my response (e.g., "How many children must you produce?" ... "As many or as few as you choose." WHAAAAT?").

The following exchange, on the precipice of my 46th birthday was one of my favorites:

Boys: What grade are you in?
Me: I'm not in school, I'm a grown up.

Boys: You are not a student?
Me: No, I am like your parents.

Boys: How old are you?
Me: Guess.

Boys: You look very young, 32.
Me: Keep this up and you will be very popular with girls. I am 46.

Boys: Oh, you are VERY old.

...yeah, moving on.

When I could squeeze in a question, they answered thoughtfully, honestly, earnestly:

Why don't all children in Uganda go to school?
"Because our government is corrupt." (Ouch. That's a lot to know already).

What is your favorite football team?
"Manchester United!!!" (Sorry, Messe, Ugandans all love Manchester United, and the other day my taxi driver said Messe had become fat).

Where do you dream of going?

What will you be when you finish school?
"A doctor of course!" (Jerome) "An engineer!" (Owen)

I had NO doubt they will be.

I took their photo and gave them my email, hoping they'd write to me so I could send them the photo (they did). We shook hands, and promised to know each other forever. I told them that when they are grown ups, Jerome a doctor, Owen an engineer, that we shall meet again in New York. And then I showed them how to pinky swear on it.

They showed me how to get back to where I crossed the river...I was pretty sure I could find my way back to the lodge from there. One last hug and pinky swear.