“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!” the girl yelled, sliding to a stop at my feet and grinning up at me like she’d stolen second base and was waiting for me to call her “Safe!” I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. This was Uganda, for heaven’s sake, and it wasn’t even Kampala. You might expect it in the capital city, but this was deep in the bush outside Kyamboga in Masaka District, in 1989. Mud huts scattered along a non-existent dirt track. It was the middle of nowhere, a place where neither place nor time had much meaning. Nowhere, no how.
I’ve never forgotten her face: tiny, heart-shaped, pixie like, front-to-back cornrows pulled tight from her scalp, the hairdo of choice for young girls in Africa long before they hit the style section here, her ragged clothing streaked with mud the color of the house she’d streaked around when she heard our Land Rover pull up. The naked earth yard was like an asphalt-covered parking lot, mercilessly scoured of any kind of vegetation so occupants could kill the snakes before they reached the door. Black mambas crept past her door in the rainy season, and while they were less dangerous than green because they didn’t move quite as fast and only attacked when provoked, they were more deadly when they finally did strike.
“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!” I yelled back. She never broke her smile as she imitated me, bobbing her head in a strange upward motion to stare over the tops of my bifocals, which had slipped down my nose in the sweaty heat. By this time, she was surrounded by her TMNT gang – brothers, sisters, neighbors – and they were all bobbing their heads, their non-existent glasses having slipped down their faces in the sweaty heat. A perfect imitation. Of me.
What were TMNT doing here – a place with no books, no television, no school, no roads, and no hospital – only five years after their birth? The brainchild of California artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, each of the short, squat, masked turtles specialized in a different weapon, merging anthropomorphic animals with mythic New York City ninja clans in a parody of four popular comic book heroes of the day. In 1984, Eastman and Laird borrowed money from their family and their tax refunds to publish the first comic book. It turned into a series lasting twenty- six years and revived again in 2016. But the first movie didn’t come out until 1989, and there were no movies in Kampala outside the American Club. Certainly, no video kiosks outside the city. What were the Turtles doing here?
Had a Peace Corps volunteer brought the books and given the kids a sample? Possible. Peace Corps celebrated their 50th anniversary in Uganda in 2014, so the timeline would be right. Did a comic book come in a bundle of donated books? Also possible, but the folks that brought in used books didn’t usually bring in comics. Had the Turtles arrived on the front of a t-shirt? A stronger possibility. Early in 1989, coming back from the madcap, open stall Nakasero Market – where there was now some toothpaste but still no toilet paper to be had – I nearly collided with a woman wearing a t-shirt advertising the Lark Tavern in Albany, New York at Makerere University’s gates. No Toilet Paper, although it seemed like anyone could buy an AK-47. There was gun fire every night outside the University guest house where we stayed, often so close that we ducked behind the old porcelain tub to avoid getting hit by stray bullets.
One night, some months later, my husband and I were chloroformed by thieves who dropped a toxin-soaked handkerchief through the slats of our bedroom window, entered our locked house, and grabbed my briefcase from the bedroom closet. Still groggy, we found the open briefcase dumped on the lawn, where the thieves had shaken it to separate wheat from chaff. My work papers were intact but scattered, our wallets and checkbook gone.
Globalization. The credit card was used three days later in New Jersey at a time when you couldn’t book a through flight to Kampala without being hung up in Nairobi for three days. The roads to the border were miserable. We had to cancel our US checking account, even though it was the only way we could get cash at black market rates, illegal but three times what was offered in the banks.
There were turtles in Uganda. Some years ago, five smugglers were arrested at the Ugandan border with 152 Leopard tortoises from Mbale stuffed in gunny sacks. Each was worth $5,000 to $10,000 on the Asian market.
So Urban Myth, the turtles and their origin story. The turtles, all of one litter, dropped into a sewer – supposedly by accident, but who will ever know if some parent flushed them down a toilet after learning from the FDA that they commonly carry Salmonella on their skins and shell surfaces, and transmit them to their owners just like lizards, snakes, frogs, salamanders, newts or the cages, tanks and aquariums where they’re kept.
This kind of multi-cultural connection gave Uganda a magical quality in 1989. To be sure, you were operating in a dreamlike space. You never knew if you were living in the present or the past. Leaders pontificated, some things were remarkably up to date, some things were not; the turtles were an odd amalgam of modern and ancient – turtles by virtue of contaminant-caused mutation; practicing ancient martial arts, taught to them by a mutant, giant rat who fled Japan when his family was killed as part of a vengeful conspiracy by the overlord.
Uganda was as timeless and mutant as the turtles themselves. In many ways, it still is, as recent elections demonstrate. Too many children still live in poverty, vulnerability, and uncertainty. But they carry on bravely and often with an extraordinary sense of humor.
Richard Rosenbaum, author of the cultural studies text Raise Some Shell, says the TMNT “are adopted children of a rat from Japan. They’re being raised by a single dad who isn’t even the same species as they are and who has his own history and baggage but came to N.Y. and is trying to build a life for his children,” he says. “They’re a complex metaphor for the multicultural society we live in.”
Video Night in Kathmandu: Mohawk hairdos in Bali, yuppies in Hong Kong and Rambo rip-offs in Bombay. In 1985, British freelance writer Pico Iyer visited ten of the world’s oldest Asian civilizations only to find American pop culture had penetrated everywhere. His revelation? We travel to see the exotic, only to come upon the familiar in the most remote locations. Children like our own, exposed and vulnerable, left at risk by governments concerned more with the political than the just.