Written June 17-18, 2009
The theme of this post is fitting in. To start, today (June 17) I attended a “welcome” lunch at Ahmaddiya High School. This is a “fitting in” example. The principal has been trying hard to find a day that I can come. He is great and very pleasant to work with. He started off with a speech where he introduced me and, to my partial surprise, my country. Although he stated that he didn’t want it to get political, he went on about how in Uganda, when things go wrong, people blame the United States, but as evidenced by my being there, the United States is not all bad. He talked about the principles of democracy and acceptance and more and how I will be able to bring promote these positive ideas in the school while I’m there. As I was set to make a “speech” next, I was thinking, how on earth am I going to respond to this? I managed, taking mostly about how important it is to observe and learn from other cultures and that although I hope to contribute something to the school, I expect to gain just as much. I networked with some teachers, too, who were able to help me out by drawing a lovely replication of the male and female reproductive systems on a poster, which I sorely needed a couple hours before class (a collaboration between biology teacher and art teacher).
My cultural knowledge is increasing. A recent addition: Don’t tip in Uganda. I was at a café a few days ago where I sat down and ordered lunch. As I was finishing up, I suddenly realized I didn’t know if I should tip…. And how much. I really had no way of finding out the answer, but I figured it was better to tip when it was not expected than to not tip when it was expected. So I calculated 20% as I would in the US and added that to the bill. The bill was only 5000 schillings, so it was not extravagant. Anyway, later that day, I found out that tipping is either not done or done in very small amounts in rare circumstances. So I made someone’s day with an extra 1000 schillings.
If you ask what the hardest cultural adjustments are, I might say the language “barrier” and the food. When I say language barrier, it is not a barrier per se because almost every person here speaks English and Luganda fluently (English is the official language). But Luganda is used quite frequently and sometimes I just want to know what they are saying, especially when “mzungu” (white person) is in the phrase. I am trying hard to learn Luganda. I practice with members of the family every morning and night.
As far as food, it has been somewhat difficult to adhere to the eating habits here. Three very big meals a day. A quick sandwich or salad is not an acceptable lunch here (sidenote: Someone asked me, “What is this we see in the movies about eating leaves all the time…?”) We ward off comments that we are going to starve at night and that we are going to lose so much weight. I’ve found that I’m just accustomed to small meals and snacks, rather than so much at once. Another adjustment: Dinner here is eaten sometime between 9:00 and 11:00 pm. Yes, right before bed.
EDITOR’S NOTE 1: Maybe it’s just the type of food I’m not used to. Some of the other interns and I treated ourselves to a fast food restaurant a few nights ago complete with cheeseburger and fries, pizza, and an ice cream. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that despite my comments about “too much food,” in the face of this familiar food the issues disappeared. One of the Dutch girls accused me of acting so American. I accepted the comment and finished my burger. So I am more American than I had realized.
EDITOR’S NOTE 2: I believe the “losing weight” comments will cease. “Mommy” told me today that despite my small portions, I am looking good and fat (must be the burger). A bit bigger than I was when I arrived. Woohoo! Imagine someone saying that in the US… I’m glad I was warned of this cultural difference.
Here is a story addressing both of the issues above. A couple of days ago, I went to a very large market with an AIESECer from Uganda. They sell literally everything you can imagine. All the clothes are second hand and apparently brought in from the US and Europe (exclusively). To me, it was a giant maze of alleys. As you walk through crowded and cramped pathways, you enter “shoe world” then “women’s shirt world” then “appliance world,” etc. All the while you are being shouted at (“mzungu! mzungu!”), touched, arms grabbed. At the market we stopped at a “restaurant.” We sat down at this little table with a bunch of strangers. Negotiating how much food I would order took a long time. I seriously did not want a lot, but that is rarely an acceptable answer. The process involved me tasting the pumpkin on my friend’s plate to see if I liked it. I took a tiny bite, and I guess there was something funny about how I did it because every single person at the table—mostly strangers—started hysterically laughing and making comments in Luganda that I couldn’t understand but included “mzungu.” That was one of the moments where I had that burning feeling of just feeling out of place. It doesn’t happen all the time, but every now and again.
The shouts of mzungu do baffle me. Imagine walking down the streets of the US, pointing and shouting “black person!”
There are moments where I happily realize that I do belong here. A couple of days ago, I passed a small test of belonging when I was walking alone around the town and actually bumped into a Ugandan I knew (an AIESECer). This may seem like it’s not a big deal, but it made me oddly happy to be in a crowded, foreign place and know somebody by name. Not that it was warranted but it made me feel pretty popular.
So to wrap it up, things are going well in the schools (I am working at 2 now) and as far as work with the NGO, things are STILL getting settled but I am making progress. By next blog post I expect to report good news.
Love and hugs,