I feel like Cady Heron in “Mean Girls” every time I say that! But if I’m Cady then why isn’t Rachel McAdams my best friend? Hm. One of life’s great mysteries.
Well, I’m in Uganda y’all! I’ve been here three weeks and I can say two things with certainty: one, I have never experienced a culture so different from my own; and two, I will absolutely be buying an air conditioner when I move to my own apartment. It’s the rainy season here (aka winter) and I already sweat buckets on sunny days. I don’t even bother trying to sleep with a covers. Or pants!
I’ll start from the beginning. When I first arrived, I walked out of the airport and there were tons of taxi drivers standing right in front of the doors vying for customers. I was a little overwhelmed, so I did a quick glance around for my coworkers who were picking me up and, not seeing them, walked to the seating area off to the side of the doors. I was so sad when I later learned that they were standing out front holding a sign for me! I’ve never had anyone hold a sign for me at the airport before and I’m still kind of bummed that I missed it… Anyway, we then embarked on our slightly alarming journey from Entebbe to Jinja. If you ever go to Uganda, prepare yourself for crazy driving. No one follows any discernable traffic laws and no one has the right of way, so as we were driving along the two lane highway, our driver would periodically merge into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the cars in front of him. This wouldn’t be that shocking except for the fact that he did it while there was oncoming traffic. The cars in both our lane and the oncoming traffic lane would scooch out to drive on the edges of the road as we drove down the middle of it. This happens all the time. I feel like we’re playing chicken every time I ride in a car. And it doesn’t help that the roads here are riddle with potholes. When we went over a particularly big one, my director said “Welcome to Uganda! Before you fall in a pothole, you have not arrived.”
While I already feel pretty comfortable here, there have been plenty of adjustments. First of all, I have to take a daily malaria pill. By now I have gotten into a routine, but the first week or so I was kind of nervous that I would forget to take it and catch malaria. I was spraying insect repellent like nobody’s business! I even adapted a lullaby that my mom used to sing to me. I call this “Ode to Mosquitos”:
I hate you so much, I hate you so much,
I can’t even tell you how much I hate yoooou.
You’re wretched to me, you’re wretched to me,
It’s awful to have you as part of my liiiiiife!
It continues, but it gets a little repetitive. Yeah… they’re making me go a little crazy. There are so many and they make such annoying whining sound as they fly around that sometimes it keeps me up at night. Plus I get paranoid and think that they have somehow gotten into my mosquito net, so I start feeling phantom mosquito bites on my arms and legs. Once I was on my bed reading when I had this feeling that I was being watched. I looked up and there were like 10 mosquito that had landed on my net and were just staring at me. At least that’s what I imagined they were doing.
The mosquito net itself is kind of nice, though! It makes me feel a bit like a princess with drapes all around my bed. And I get tuck myself in every night, just with a net instead of covers. Plus, it is super handy for drying my underwear! It is not culturally appropriate to ask someone else to wash your underwear (because everything is washed by hand) or to dry it out in the open where others can see it, so I lay it out on my mosquito net and it gets great air circulation. Another perk of having the net is that any time I want to reach out and get something from the table near my bed, I have to poke my head out so that I can reach far enough. When I do that, the way that the net drapes over my head makes me feel like the velociraptor from the kitchen scene on Jurassic Park, and that’s pretty great. Rawrrrr! (Or should I say “Squealy screech”?)
For this first month, I am living with a host family to help me as I transition and learn the new culture. I love them! Helen and Alex (my host parents) and Misa (the maid) live at the house year-round, but they have two sons who are home from boarding school for a break in the semester. We like to teach each other card games and every night we eat dinner and then sit down to watch our favorite soap opera, which is wonderfully dramatic. It’s kind of addicting, actually. Helen occasionally has to translate for me because it is an Indian show with an English voice-over that gets cut off by a Luganda voice-over, so I only get about half (or less) of what is being said before it switches languages. Also, my host parents are very “hip”! (Does anyone still say that?) Last weekend I had a blast with them and some of their friends at this cool café/bar where a band was playing, and we are making plans to go clubbing. I’ve got zilch when it comes to dancing, but it will definitely be fun to go out.
So far, most of my time has been spent working. We had a colleague from our head office fly in on the same day that I did and he had an urgent project that need to take priority for the two weeks that he was here. I enjoyed working on that and seeing the process, especially since we will be doing more work on that project over the summer. It was also really nice to have a fellow American here adjusting to everything with me. Plus we got to go do cool stuff with the rest of the Site Team, like taking a boat tour of the Source of the Nile, touring a brewery, seeing the palace of the Busoga king, and visiting a village where all of the kids ran around shouting “Muzungu!! Hi!!” This last one is very common. Everywhere I go, it’s “Muzungu! Muzungu!” It basically means “foreigner” or “English-speaker”. It seems to be most closely associated with identifying white people, but not exclusively. My colleagues joke that when I am around they disappear because people only see the Muzungu.
Let’s talk about cultural differences for a minute. From where I stand, the biggest difference by far is the individualism vs communalism perspective. In America, we live in an individualistic culture, which is all about independence and being your own person. It also has more emphasis on things like privacy, personal space, and alone time. Uganda, and much of Africa for that matter, has a communal culture, which is characterized by interdependence and collective identity. Communities are very important and everything takes a backseat to personal relationships. Privacy is somewhat of a foreign concept and space is thought of as collective. Especially out in public, personal space ceases to exist. One of the first things that I noticed when I arrived was that when the plane landed nobody “waited their turn” to get out of their seat, collect their luggage and leave. If you wanted to get off the plane, you either had to push your way into the aisle or wait until everyone else was off. It was the same thing when I got into the airport and had to show my passport and yellow fever card to the official. Everyone crowded around the man and pushed their way toward him until they were close enough to give him their documents and pass through the checkpoint. Suddenly everything from my Cultural Paradigms class came rushing back to me.
There are many other cultural differences that I could write about, but the one that I will mention today is polychromic verses monochromic time. These tend to go hand in hand with communalistic and individualistic cultures. Americans base their lives off of monochromic time. We follow regimented time tables and place a lot of value on making appointments and schedules. The saying “If you’re on time, you’re late, but if you’re 5 minutes early, you’re on time” pretty much sums us up. A polychromic time perspective, however, is more relaxed and holistic. More importance is placed on the process of what you’re doing than on meeting a certain deadline. I kind of laughed when I first heard that they have two phrases for specifying time here. There is “Muzungu time,” which means a 10:00 meeting should start at 10:00 sharp. Then there is “African time” which means that for a 10:00 meeting people will likely show up around 10:45 or even later, no apologies or explanations needed or offered. Honestly, this is one of my favorite cultural differences so far because I’m always running late anyway! I’m like Hercules. I’ve finally found where I belong.
Alright, well this is a very long post, so I will wrap it up. Please note that the title of this post is called “Uganda Miss Me When I’m Gone” (wow, lots of movie references this time). I’ve been saving that one for a while, so I hope you appreciate it. Also, I fully expect all of you to already be missing me since I am already gone, so… don’t disappoint. And as always, I would love to hear from you while I am away, so comment on my blog or send me a Facebook message!
Tunaalabagana! (See you later!)