The Shoebill's Pace

Entebbe has an orphanage built for animals that would not otherwise have made it in the wild: two black rhinos, a 15-year-old lion, a crocodile that, for my taste, could have been left to perish, a clump of chimpanzees. It also has an aviary filled with weaverbirds. One looks like a flying orange. It is quite rare, seen only here. It has tied four stalks together with an intricate set of knots. This is the platform from which it works. As we watch, it goes about the business of constructing a dome around the platform. First, it flies off to find a strand of green grass. Then it flies back and ties a knot around the stalk with its beak. This is a remarkable bit of genetic programming. If one wanted to make an argument for intelligent design, the weaverbird would be as good a place as any to start.

The shoebill is another of the birds in the orphanage’s aviary. These prehistoric birds are studies in immobility. When I first saw them, I thought I was looking at gray stone statuary, given their dumb imperturbability, their unflinching stare, their extra eyelid that comes down like an indolent window shade shutting. It stands totally immobile, without so much as a quiver for minutes on end. Then it takes a stride forward. It stops. That seems to be its life.

Our hotel turns over at the shoebill’s pace. The wait staff approaches our table in slow motion. They take down the order in slow motion and judging by the time we have to wait for dinner, the kitchen plays at the same tempo. I don't write this critically. I rather like this slow motion way of life. You see it in the streets of Entebbe as well. A man on a bicycle is carrying four empty plastic containers. He stops to fill them with water. The stoppers are sweet potatoes. He carefully unplugs each container, lays the vegetables on the ground, unties the containers and proceeds to fill them from a stream. Everything occurs in half time, as if he were counting to himself very slowly, one, two, three, four.

Our room has an unimpeded view of Lake Victoria three hundred yards away. Just below us is a ring of palms that marks the forward boundary of the hotel. Their fronds are made of tubing filled with a gas that lights up into a day-glo green at night. The edges of the fronds twinkle. I am a sucker for kitsch. I love the fake palms beside Lake Victoria. Just behind the palms is a small oval shaped plot of ground. There are four letters embedded in the grass: Z I B A. Perhaps they are an acronym or a motto: zealotry is bad for Africa.

The next morning a plaque beside the entrance explains everything. Karim Hirji built the hotel. His wife—her name was Ziba—was his constant adviser. She died before the hotel was finished. It is a sad dedication. It makes the hotel seem more intimate, like a bed and breakfast.

Last night Nancy picked up the telephone and asked for an extra towel. Almost immediately there was a knock at the door. We hadn’t expected so speedy a response. We opened the door to the head of housekeeping. She hadn’t brought the extra towel. She wanted to know why we wanted one. Nancy said she always used two towels at home, one for her body and one for her hair. The head of housekeeping shook her head in disbelief and left. Nancy’s argument had failed to convince her.

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