It was the sound of distress. High pitched, I couldn’t quite figure out what it was or where it was coming from. Two young men looked back to where they’d just passed and, seeing nothing, continued.

I stopped and peered in the pile of refuse perpetually piled on the side of that busy dirt road -children and adults alike, seemingly immune to the stench of decomposition aided by intermittent downpours and heat.

Finally, my eyes trailing greenery to the cinnamon brown road, I spotted a kitten splayed out and helpless. It couldn’t have been more than a few days old. Probably newly dropped or abandoned, its cries hadn’t yet diminished to the feeble sound I would expect. The cries of newborn lambs succumbed to after days of neglect from new mothers.

I was living in South Africa the first time I heard those almost human cries in the unquiet of a village night. I bundled myself against eh cold, opened the kraal door and found the bleating little body, limp and scared. I carried it into the kitchen, searing for something warm against the cold air blasting though every rack in the door, roof and windows. I warmed milk, tried to feed. But in the morning it was dead.

I cried that day – to the amusement of my host family. “silly lekgowa”, but I learned. The next time I heard the cries I tied the wayward mother to the kraal fence and manually attached her lamb until she got used the idea of feeding.

No longer silly.

As I walked past that screaming kitten I knew there was nothing I could do. Against my instinct, I walked on. The yelps recede and were replaced with the sound of traditional drums. Finally, at the mutatu stand, a mostly filled Jinja-bound mutate greeted me. And as we pulled out of Iganga half an hour later, the kitten and drums were lost on the wind escaping through the slightly ajar mutatu windows.

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