After I had already almost finished this blog entry I got ill and then I was very busy organizing plans for after my return – about which I could write at least three more blog entries. ;) But now it is time to publish this glimpse at my thoughts about my stay in Uganda which somehow felt so multi-faceted this time that I decided to just confine myself to a few aspects rather than never publishing any of my impressions. :)
Not long ago I watched the movie “Fire” by Deepa Mehta which included an interesting scene. The family head of a Chinese family whose working-class parents had immigrated to India after the Cultural Revolution explained to his daughter’s Indian lover why he hated India. He talked about how his son was called “chinky” in school and how they were feeling treated as a minority.
I was thinking about this in the light of my own cultural confusion. Ugandans themselves rarely make a difference between Sweden and Germany (not even Sweden, Canada and Australia ;)), but what does matter is skin colour. So Indians, for example, are differentiated from “white people”. At the same time, I have noticed a strong preference of Western countries as opposed to other countries, which I had never thought about before and which again seemed interesting with regard to the movie scene I mentioned. Somehow I also got confused about which country is the most hospitable in the world – in India people claimed it was India, here people said it was Africa. I wonder, however, what extent this hospitality reaches in either country when it comes to non-Western / lower-class people. Are Indians welcome to any house in Uganda? Are Ugandans welcome to any house in India? Are people welcoming to anyone from their own country, irrespective of their status or income?
In fact, I was even surprised to find an indiophobic climate – after some time, I learnt about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 – the government had claimed that the Indians were hoarding wealth and goods to the detriment of indigenous Africans and “sabotaging” the Ugandan economy. (There is even a Bollywood movie which touches upon the topic, named “Mississippi Masala”.)
Completely opposite to that, Germany ranks higher than any other Western country in terms of appreciation due to the fact that many (especially church related) NGOs have brought a lot of help – and, probably even more, money – to Uganda. I could not help feeling pretty unenthusiastic about being welcomed or “liked” only due to my nationality – which has nothing to do with me as a person. Of course, this is something which exists in any country, and of course, there are exceptions to the rule everywhere as well. I feel bold enough to claim that racism starts where we differentiate between people according to their countries of origin, and thus it is often an unconscious process.
Well, back to my cultural confusion. I remember how we were asked in a lecture to make a drawing which describes our identity, and how lost I felt. I thought “oh, this is bad, I don’t know my identity”. But actually, it was more like I could not describe or let alone paint the things which I feel that constitute my identity. In the book “In Search of the Miraculous” I came across an interesting passage in this regard:
“Essence is the truth in man; personality is the false. (…) Culture creates personality and is at the same time the product and the result of personality. We do not realise that the whole of our life, all we call civilization, all we call science, philosophy, art, and politics, is created by people’s personality, that is, by what is ‘not their own’ in them.”
Travelling has made me realise how intensely culture overshadows any trace of “essence” in people. The scene from “Fire” made me realise yet another thing. When the Chinese father talked about his son being called “chinky” in school I could immediately sympathise with him, being that I was called “muzungu” at least 50 times per day wherever I went in Uganda. It is a again an act with perceives a label rather than a person. (I was elated when I was travelling with my friend and someone again threw a “muzungu!” into my face and she said to him in Luganda “How would you feel if you walked the streets of Europe and everyone called you “African?” (I should have learnt this sentence in Luganda!))
I also felt many times that wherever I went, people seemed to hope to have some benefit from me – mostly in the form of money, but also in terms of other help or a “gateway to the West”. This made it difficult to find real (new) “friends” or anyone who would have cared about my (emotional) needs. Other things which felt difficult to me were the high unreliability of people and the fact that any guesthouse I stayed at seemed to serve as a “brothel” to my neighbours. Ugandans are quite open about sex, one can say… :-O
My Ugandan friend with whom stayed for a while this time once wrote to me about exactly this problem – which I also found to be prevalent within my field of studies. Many people are not ready to help themselves, but expect help from somewhere outside. Again, this is a global phenomenon, only showing itself in many different ways. And it doesn’t make sense to blame anyone either – we understand too little of their history, their culture and their mindsets. The scene of the movie also made me realise how this Chinese father had made himself a victim of his seemingly evil circumstances. Obviously, we cannot force ourselves to like something if it is completely against our nature, but if we can’t “escape” our situation, we’d better see how we can improve it ourselves. Also, we can accept that people just behave accordingly to their culture and may not know an alternative – and maybe we are the only ones who can show them an alternative.
One thing in this regard which seemed almost impossible to me to make people understand is the Western attitude towards religion (84 % Christianity in Uganda). People in Uganda are so convinced of “being religious = good” that it is difficult to try and have a slightly more broad-minded discussion on this topic. It is almost as a strong conviction as arranged marriage is in India – rather than trying to find one’s individual path, people follow structures and traditions either imposed on them long ago or again having become part of their “culture”…
I was asked about the food many times. Well… It basically consists of 90 % carbohydrates and the variety of vegetables is restricted to a few grams of cabbage or bitter leafy “greens” (if you are lucky). And hey, I am not the only one complaining ;) – I even met people from Kenya, DRC or Ethiopia who were missing their own cuisine! I think it is not so much the food as it is a lack of variety and a strange lack of openness to trying new things. So, now I am not sure which is the real “banana republic” – Panama or Uganda? ;)
As for Ugandan English, I already knew from my last visit that people say things like “well be back” instead of “welcome back”, “you are lost” instead of “I haven’t seen you in a while” or “footing” instead of “walking”. Especially fascinating is the use of the word “sorry” – it is rarely meant as an apology, but mostly to express empathy with someone who is suffering or has experienced something bad. (I actually think I have adopted that by now.) Confusing is also the frequent use of “ever” with the meaning of “often” or “always”. Ugandan formality aside, when it comes to asking for something, a simple “You give me…” is totally normal – no “please” is required. It can furthermore be helpful to have read a guide on Ugandan culture which tells you that being told “you grow fatter and fatter every day” is actually meant to be a compliment. ;) It is exactly the same as if someone in Europe would tell you “oh, you have lost weight”. Both does not have to be true at all, but is just said to flatter the other person.
Most of all, meeting my friends again was a great experience. I had met both of them during my time with the NGO “Kulika” last time I was in Uganda. Sr. Margaret had been one of the participants of the “Community Development and Education” Programme at the farm where I stayed, and Achilles had been spending his vacation at his brother’s place which was nearby. (One day he had invited me and it had been the first time I tasted jackfruit – a memorable experience. :)) We have been in touch since then and it was only now that I visited him at the place where he is studying and working (close to Masaka where I did my fieldwork) and even got the opportunity to visit his parents, who welcomed me with an immense lunch. The most fascinating thing was actually to see how my friend really lives his everyday life, after having just had a rough picture from a communication over many years. Furthermore, I visited Sr. Margaret’s convent and stayed there for a few days, getting to know the place (she had lived in a different place last time I was in Uganda) and the sisters. I even met the oldest sister again (“Sister Jajja”, as any oldest sister in a convent is called – “jajja” means grandmother) whom I had also met during my last visit and her joy to see me again was truly touching (she jumped with joy and hugged me and said many things in Luganda which I didn’t understand :)). Later I travelled a long way together with Sr. Margaret to visit her mother who is living on a farm close to Kamuli, where she grows abundantly many fruit trees – I felt in paradise! After that I got the opportunity to visit Jinja with her, the second-biggest city of Uganda, which I liked very much. I could even include a visit to a big Agricultural Show and an interview with one of the organisers, whom I had met on a conference in Stockholm last year.
My time in Uganda has helped me to learn many things, put many things into perspective and feel differently about many things. I am very grateful for that. I think one of the main things I have learnt from life is that we cannot learn through anything else than experiences. We may realise the most amazing things and write them down in a book – if we read them later, the effect will not be anywhere near to realising new things through new experiences. It never ends, and that is why we should never stop exposing ourselves to life and especially never think that we know the final truth.