Three months ago today, I was having one last coffee and cake with my family at Heathrow Terminal 5, before setting off on my East African journey. I had no idea where I would be living, what I would be working on, or even when I would be coming back (!) so needless to say I was feeling a little nervous, but excited all the same.
These last three months have been an absolute whirlwind. For the first few weeks, I felt like I was in a dream, trying to adapt to new sights, sounds and smells (and no, it wasn’t just the side effects of the malaria tablets!) but there came a point around the middle of March, two months in, that I suddenly felt completely comfortable with everything here: the culture, food, language, people…
So today I’ve been reflecting on the things I’ve learnt since arriving in Uganda, both about the country and about myself:
1) Ugandans are very friendly!
This is said a lot about African cultures, especially East African, but even so I am constantly surprised by the friendliness and generosity of people, and their ability to strike up a conversation absolutely anywhere.
One day for example, I was walking along a busy road in the middle of the day when I heard a voice call out behind me, ‘Hello!’ I half turned around, replying wearily, ‘Hello, how are you?’ I thought it might be one of the beggars who congregate along that road, holding out their hands for money, sometimes even following you down the street, but when I turned round I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a young guy in low-slung jeans, shades and a snapback cap, but he was draped head-to-toe in ladies’ underwear! It’s a common sight to see hawkers wearing as much as their stock as possible, trying their best to entice passers-by with a sale. But this guy didn’t try to sell me anything; he just wanted to tell me that it was dangerous for me to be walking on my own as a white woman and could he pay for me to take a boda boda?! Without waiting to hear my answer, he turned and hailed a passing driver, stuffed some money into his hand and said ‘Take this madam wherever she needs to go!’
2) That leads me onto my second observation: Ugandan’s are extremely polite (and that’s saying something coming from a British person!)
Men and women are always addressed as Ssebo or Nnyabo, or in English, Sir or Madam. Greetings are very important, so you must always ask someone how they are before you say anything else, even if you’re just asking for directions or where the nearest toilet is!
It’s also common to thank someone for their work, or after a meal to thank your host for cooking. Other unwritten rules that probably have more to do with culture than politeness include: never eat while walking, never publicly show affection (this includes hand-holding between couples, but for some reason it’s fine between friends of the same sex!) and always avoid confrontation or arguments, even behind closed doors.
There’s a Ugandan proverb, “Ombra dra ni” which translates as ‘Anger is death’ (meaning that anger can lead to disastrous situations)
3) Sharing is caring.
That means when you have money, you are expected to share it, and when you don’t it’s acceptable to ask friends and family to help you out. But in my experience, nearly everyone here has problems of some kind and these usually come down to a lack of money, yet it’s only very few who expect to solve their problems themselves; the rest just rely on those around them to support them through the tough times.
And this relates to something I’ve learnt about myself:
4) No matter how much I want to help everyone, it’s not physically possible to do so. As a “muzungu” (white person) I am automatically labelled as ‘rich’, despite being a volunteer, so it means people are constantly asking to borrow money from me. Notice I said ‘borrow’ – the intention is always to pay it back, but I have no idea in what time-frame they are expecting!
5) Patience is a virtue and slowing down is good.
“Africa time” can sometimes be a struggle, especially when plans are pushed back so much you wonder if they will even happen, or someone calls to tell you they’re on their way but don’t show up for another two hours. However, now I’m getting used to it I’ve discovered how much more relaxed it makes me, possibly because of the freedom and lack of expectations about time-keeping.
And I’m even starting to understand the patterns of “Africa time”, for example if you make plans for early in the morning or around lunchtime, you will find that food is the priority, followed by conversations and catch-ups with people, before any thought is given to where you are supposed to be. Similarly, if it’s rush hour or the rainy season, then all plans go out of the window completely!