So today is my 6th day in Uganda, but it already feels like I have been here so much longer than that. (In a good way of course!)
I’m already learning TONS, just from walking around the city. Things here are different from the U.S. First of all, being white in Uganda automatically puts me at a disadvantage. One of the first words we learned in Luganda (the language they speak here) was “Mzungu,” which means white person, or person with money. We went to a market today, and every merchant I passed yelled “Mzungu! Mzungu!” followed by an offering of whatever they were selling. Apparently here white skin is automatically equated with money or prosperity. And it is completely appropriate to greet people with that word. It’s usually not meant in a negative way; it’s more just their way of pointing out the obvious (I am, obviously, a white person). So I don’t mind it so far, but it’s certainly different.
I have to say, though, that the equation of white people with money is probably correct in my case. The Ugandan shilling is worth practically nothing, due to rampant inflation. The exchange rate is about $1 to 1,000 shillings! And 5,000 shilling bills are considered big bills here. I can get dinner for between $2 and $4 most nights, which is awesome.
We’ve also learned about something called the “Mzungu price,” which means that since people think we don’t know the way things work here (and to be fair, we don’t really…), they will try to overcharge us–sometimes charging double or triple the actual price. This is when it becomes time to “bah-GAIN,” (aka bargain) according to our academic director. She says you can bargain anywhere, really (though this is somewhat disputed). She’s really a character. Even though it’s not customary to bargain in supermarkets, she says “oh! you can bah-gain there. You say, we are six, and if you give us a good price, we’ll send six of our friends too!” She has a point.
It has been a little difficult to get used to the Ugandan accent, which is sort of a mix of British English and Luganda (the language they speak here). We’ve been told that Ugandan people would be able to understand us better if we spoke in British accents. Too bad I’ve always been terrible at British accents.
We have started learning how to speak Luganda, though, so that makes communicating slightly easier. Though all I really know how to say so far is “hello, how are you sir?”, “thank you,” “goodbye,” and “don’t overcharge me because I am a mzungu!” But we’re starting real language classes on Monday so I am sure I will learn more then. The language is fun, and very different from anything I’ve learned before. But I have to say, I think the accent is easier than a French accent, so I’m excited about that.
There are a lot of things about Ugandan culture that we are finding out as we go. One of the funniest so far has been finding out that many Ugandans speak in questions. When the chief of police came in to brief us about safety and security, he introduced us to this. His speech went sort of like this: “Life in Uganda is different than life where?” *short pause* “The United States. So we need to be what?” *pause* “Careful.” This was hilarious, because he never paused quite long enough to give us time to answer the question before he supplied the answer himself. But since our American schooling has taught us all to try to answer questions posed in a classroom setting, you could see the whole body of students kind of murmuring or opening our mouths but then closing them again. It was great.
Unfortunately this mannerism makes talks take what? Much longer. But that’s ok here, because we are on African Time. I don’t just mean that official time here is 10 hours ahead of Colorado time. We’ve discovered that African Time also means that schedules are really more of guidelines, really. If it says dinner is at 6, it probably isn’t actually until 7 or 8. If something is going to be an hour, it’s probably more like an hour and a half or two. It can be annoying when you’re really hungry and waiting for food, but it’s actually kind of nice in comparison to the crazy over-scheduled life I usually live.
Oh so much more to say, but I’m almost out of time, and this is probably long enough anyway. Best wishes from Uganda!