I feel as if the last post may have come off a little more negatively than I had planned. I really am OK, and this experience has a lot of positive aspects as well as the difficult ones. Uganda is kind of reminding me of that scene from Lord of the Rings (yes, I am pulling out the LOTR reference, sorry to be a nerd) where Elrond is trying to convince Arwen to join the rest of the elves in leaving Middle Earth, and he says he has looked into her future and “there is only death” there (because he sees that Aragorn will die and she will be left mourning). But then she has her own vision and sees her future child, and says to her father “But there is also life.”
That’s how I feel about this experience so far. Yes, I have already seen a lot of pain and suffering, and yes it has been hard… But truly, I think coming here was one of the best decisions I have made. There really is a lot of life and joy here. Despite all the problems they have, people here seem so happy. When you walk down the street in downtown Kampala, you pass hundreds of vendors, selling out of storefronts, stands, or off of blankets spread on the ground. They report that they don’t make much money (probably about the equivalent of $1-2 on an average day), and on some days they won’t sell anything. Some of them sleep in the same place where they operate their business, which may mean on the sidewalk, covered with a tarp. But when you pass them in the middle of day, you would never know. People are constantly laughing, joking, and generally having fun while they work. That’s something that is really difficult to find in the U.S.. In my mind I compare the high-powered, suited, business men working in Wall Street-type places with the business men here (who also wear suits, by the way), and it just amazes me, because I feel like the U.S. business world exists in greyscale, whereas here business takes place in vivid color.
The atmosphere in general is just so different. The U.S. is so rooted in capitalistic ideology, and everyone is trying to get ahead, no matter how many people they have to push down to achieve that goal. Here, though people are also trying to succeed because it’s a matter of survival, it’s more laid back and there is a much stronger sense of community. People help each other, which is really refreshing to see. But it also extends beyond economics, into family life and just life in general.
I find the family relations and personal space conceptions especially interesting. Family lines are much less clearly defined than they are in the U.S.. Parents treat many children as their sons and daughters, not just those who are biologically related. People who are considered cousins in the U.S. are brothers and sisters here. Maternal aunts and uncles are considered other sets of parents, and these people consider their brother’s/sister’s children to be their own children. In some families, it’s hard to tell how many people actually live there because friends, relatives, and neighbors are continually flowing in and out.
People are just friendlier here. I have never walked down any street here without being greeted by multiple people along the way, and the few times I’ve been lost in the city, people have been amazing in helping me find my way back to where I’m supposed to be. Maybe part of that friendliness has something to do with my skin color—being white definitely has its advantages here. (I hereby correct the language I used in a previous post, where I wrote that being white automatically put me at a disadvantage. I’ve thought about it a lot since posting that and it has bothered me, because it’s definitely not true. It does make me stand out, and sometimes that makes me a target for getting ripped off, but sometimes it opens me up to opportunities that might not be available to other people.) But the friendliness also just pervades Ugandan society in general. I hear it in the pleasant chatter in the taxis, when busses in the U.S. can be completely silent; I see it in the way people always have time to stop on the streets and say hi, when I’m often guilty of walking past friends at home because I’m in too much of a hurry to stop; I feel it in the touch of the smiling children who run to hold my hand as I’m walking through their neighborhood, though they have such a difficult life compared to American children. You know what I mean? It’s really refreshing, and I just admire it so much, because even though life is hard, people here have their priorities straight and are enjoying the life they have been given.
I think this is illustrated well in one last anecdote. I met my host grandmother recently, and I had barely stepped through the door when I was greeted by a massive smile and excited exclamations in Luganda, and enveloped in one of the most enthusiastic hugs I have ever received. She, like the rest of my host family, has accepted me into her life as a true family member. She remained in my thoughts for the rest of the night after we left, and I marveled over the love and acceptance that she had shown for me immediately. It really speaks volumes about a culture based on love, because she had no reason to accept me into her family. She is an old woman who has few material resources, but a lot of power in the family. She is not in the best of health, and she lives in a remote area that makes contact with the rest of the city difficult. If she had decided that she didn’t want to bother with meeting this mzungu (I’m the 5th student my family has hosted), no one would have faulted her. But she truly thinks of me as a granddaughter, and insisted on seeing me as soon as possible, and that is really amazing to me. It touches my heart that the family has accepted me so readily, when most people I know would keep a stranger at some distance from intimate family life.
That is the life and the joy that I have been writing about. It stretches from the rural villages to the center of the capital; from the children in my neighborhood to the vendors on the street. It is in the tea that is constantly offered to you and in people’s eyes when they greet you; it’s in the voice of the taxi driver trying to convince you to get in his taxi, and in the aroma that fills the house when you cook homemade food each night. It’s the feeling of knowing what is important in life and knowing not to waste your time with the things that don’t make you happy. Perhaps it’s partially related to the pain that people experience too; knowing all too well that tomorrow is guaranteed to no one sometimes helps to put priorities in order. That’s the life that makes me love this place, and makes me want to get out of bed each day despite the painful things I see. I can only hope to bring back some of that outlook on life when I return to the U.S..