Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Random Notes on Ugandan Culture

  • Breastfeeding in public is not just normal, it’s everywhere. Boobs everywhere. I’ve heard that male PCVs serving in Africa complain that for them, breasts lose their sexuality because they’re just out, all the time, feeding babies. I mean, that’s their function, but it’s so taboo to do out in the open in the U.S. that it’s a shock here to see it on a daily basis. Sometimes the women have finished breastfeeding but just leave the girls out, flapping in the wind. But God help you if you wear a skirt that shows your knees – completely inappropriate.
  • Today, the nurse I was working with decided to play music out-loud from his phone. His choices? Enya and Celine Dion. Back to back. Not kidding.
  • Small car taxis. These are the only vehicles which come to my village for which I have Peace Corps approval (we are not allowed to ride boda-bodas, the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis). They’re essentially an older Toyota Corolla that fits quite literally ten adults in it on a regular basis – 6ish in the back, 2 in the passenger seat, and – probably my favorite part – a passenger sharing the seat with the driver (who is driving a stick-shift). Definitely safe. There’s often a few small children sitting on laps and a poor chicken thrown into the trunk for good measure.
  • I’ve been asked before such things as, “Are you from America or Italy?” as if there are no other choices. I even had one person in Kampala yell at me, “Hello, Japan!” Perception of foreigners is funny, and my guess is most people think that all muzungus are from the only country that they themselves have met people from.
  • The security guard at a friend’s site offered me his 5-year-old son to take back to America with me. When I said, “Won’t you miss each other too much?” he replied, “I have three other children.” While I know he has his son’s best interests in mind (an education in America is an opportunity most people here would never dream of), his response shocked me.
  • I've been told by several Ugandans, "Your English is very good." I usually think the statement is so ridiculous, English being my first language, that I just say "Thank you," but I think they mean I speak clearly and they can understand me. I adopt my own "Ugandan voice" when speaking with local people - speaking more clearly and slowly. Maybe that's what they mean. Some Americans/foreigners just keep blabbering at their normal speed and nobody understands them.
  • The ideas determining what is rude and what is not are almost reversed from the U.S. It is rude to confront someone directly about a problem you have with them (better to go through a friend or relative), but it is perfectly okay to walk into someone’s house without asking (for instance, my house) while that person is eating or otherwise preoccupied – thus leaving me in a conundrum about how to tell said person to leave. It is rude not to greet someone, but it is not rude to inquire a perfect stranger about their religion, their marital status, and why they aren’t yet married. It is rude to eat while walking on the street, but it is in fact good manners to tell someone they are fat (it’s a compliment). It’s not rude to slap someone’s arm to get their attention, inquire how much someone else’s stuff costs, arrive two hours late to a meeting, or to stare openly. It’s sometimes very hard to remind myself the cultural differences and not get irate at certain behaviors I consider, from my American perspective, very rude.
  • Ugandan English is funny and often throws me for a loop. It’s amazing how many variations of “English” there are in the world, and how even native English speakers from different countries sometimes struggle to understand each other. Words/phrases of note:
  1. “Extend” – move over, we have to fit a 7th person in the backseat of the taxi, and no, you don’t get a discount for losing feeling in your left leg
  2. Ugandans like to insert a rhetorical “what?” into the middle of a sentence to see if you’re listening. For instance: “We are meeting in Kampala to do what? To go shopping.”
  3. “Hmm/ehhh” – I’m acknowledging what you’ve just said. For instance, if you ask someone “How did you spend the night?” and they reply “Very well”, you say “Hmmm” to prove you were listening.
  4. “Smart” – well-dressed. “Clever” means intelligent.
  5. “How do you find the place?” – do you like it here? How’s life?
  6. “You increase” – you’re paying too little, you’re white and rich, please pay more
  7. “You reduce” – you’re overcharging me, I’m white but I’m a volunteer, bring your price down
  8. “It is finished/it is over” – we’re out of stock. This phrase is heard far too often in this country
  9. Non-verbal "words" - instead of saying "yes", Ugandans often just quickly raise their eyebrows. I've started subconsciously doing this. I'm afraid I will be so weird when I try to have a conversation back in the U.S. Ugandans also will point with their lips when you ask where something is.

At my post office in Mbarara. This pretty much sums everything up.

No comments: