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.

Kasese and Queen Elizabeth National Park

This past weekend, I traveled to Kasese to meet up with friends. The town sits at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains, which form the western border with the DRC (Congo), and the views are absolutely stunning. I actually now, in reflection, find it a little strange that one of the biggest things I remember is the fact that Kasese has a quasi-grid system, so they have actual blocks and street names. Revolutionary for Uganda. That evening, we had dinner at Margherita Hotel in the foothills, and had beautiful panoramic views of the mountains as the sun went down. On the ride up to the hotel, with the wind whipping through my hair, surrounded by good friends and staring at the mountains in the pre-dusk glow, it was one of those perfect moments in life when everything feels right – just pure euphoria.

The Rwenzoris

On Saturday, we headed to Queen Elizabeth National Park. It was so nice to feel like tourists for a day. Along the way, we stopped for photos at the Equator – I was in two hemispheres in one day (actually I jumped back and forth a few times in 48 hours).

The Equator!

Once in the park, we took a $15 boat trip along the Kazinga Channel which links Lakes George and Edward. Definitely worth the money! For a couple of hours, we cruised within meters of hippos (reportedly the world’s largest concentration of them), buffalo, a big bull elephant, waterbuck, bushbuck, African fish eagles, yellow-billed storks, pelicans, herons, egrets, etc. When we reached Lake Edward, the sun was going down and the views of the fishermen on the lake, and the pelicans soaring over the water’s surface, were beautiful. The lake forms the border with the DRC (Congo), and it was insane to think how close we are to a place that is still in serious conflict. Honestly this has been one of the hot beds of conflict in the world – Uganda has weathered Idi Amin and had rebel groups killing people in the north until very recently, the DRC still has mass murder and rape occurring, Sudan to the north is famous for the genocide in its Darfur region and could see more conflict soon when the country votes whether to split in two, Rwanda to the south is famous for its own genocide, and Kenya to the east has had its fair share of conflicts. All the more reason Peace Corps, and other organizations, are here to help re-build communities.

Bull elephant in Queen Elizabeth National Park

Pelicans on Lake Edward

The excitement didn’t end after the boat ride – while driving back through the park at night to Kasese, we literally almost ran into a herd of elephants. Only in Africa – gotta love it.

Sunday was a lazy day around Kasese (including listening to Christmas music – totally surreal when the weather hasn’t changed in months and there is nothing around to remind you that it’s the holiday season), but the real event happened that evening – I was drifting off to sleep when suddenly I woke up to the bed shaking beneath me. We had an earthquake! Apparently it was a 4.9 quake centered near Lake Edward in the DRC, not far at all from where we had been on safari the day before. Crazy!

Random moment today: a boy walked into the clinic wearing a Santa hat.

Romance vs. Reality

Peace Corps has such a romantic image. Before coming here, I imagined such exciting and idealistic images like traveling the world, laughing all the time with local children, building schools and wells, spending my days in the field vaccinating cattle and helping livestock farmers, making a tangible difference every day, etc. Picture Angelina Jolie in aviators and khaki pants, working in a refugee camp, an independent, worldly woman actively fighting poverty – that’s the image of Peace Corps that comes to mind for many people, including my own pre-Peace Corps self. While it’s a wonderful experience, and I wouldn’t at all change my decision to come, this is not reality. Of course, it’s not reality anywhere – we aren’t always living meaningful thrilling lives no matter where we are. But I’d just like to dispel the myths.

The truth: nothing like that former vision. Village life is pretty boring. Not much to do for entertainment – good thing I grew up as an only child and know how to keep myself occupied. Work is excruciatingly slow right now (as I understand it is for most PCVs at first) – I’ve been trying to meet with my supervisor for weeks to create a workplan and re-evaluate my job description (aka I’m not here to count pills for the nurses) but he’s always off doing something else, or doesn’t call to tell me when he can’t make a meeting we have together. You really have to create your own work here, and I’m trying. While my Facebook status updates (and even this blog) always sound so exciting, those really thrilling days happen maybe once every two weeks – the rest of the time I’m just here, trying to find work to do, getting frustrated with my inability to understand most of the people around me (my Runyankore just isn’t that good yet), avoiding harassment from men, wishing I could be doing more meaningful activities and interacting with more people. And the food – oh! I’m afraid I’m becoming anorexic (not really, Mom, don’t worry) because of the monotonous diet. I’m not keen on making some of the local foods myself (they take hours and aren’t even that tasty), and have been subsisting mostly on rice, pasta, potatoes, PB&J, milk, eggs, bananas, and some other fruits and vegetables. The diet is just so routine. Case in point – you go into a local restaurant and they never have a menu because everyone knows what will be on it – matooke (steamed plaintain-like bananas), posho (maize meal), maybe rice, maybe millet, maybe meat, maybe groundnut (peanut) sauce. That’s about it. It makes sense to not have a huge variety of foods when most people here grow their own foods (and how many different things can you really grow in one garden?) but it’s still getting old for me. I’m convinced I’ll gain 30 pounds in the first month I’m back in the U.S. just because all I’ll want to do is eat!

But despite these challenges, that’s life – not every day is an adventure. This isn’t a vacation, this is where I live and work, and I’m learning a new rhythm of how to carry out my days. I’m learning that the little accomplishments, like understanding 30% of what someone says to me in Runyankore-Rukiga, holding a meeting on the same day we planned for it to happen, networking with another organization in the area, or learning to cook something new, are what really get me through. If I look at the big picture, I get frustrated by how slowly things are going – but if I live one day at a time, things are manageable, life is good, and I can see the small impacts I’m having that, over time, accumulate to be something truly meaningful.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Solar Panel!

Here's a photo of the solar panel on the roof! My house is the right half of the duplex. Once I get a little more furniture and decor, I'll take pictures of the inside.

The small window is my kitchen, and the blue door goes into the main house. Note the good-looking puppy on the porch. :)

Let There Be Light!

Thanksgiving was fantastic! On Friday, I headed through Kampala, where I did some Christmas shopping at the craft market (although no guarantees that packages will get there by Christmas, or ever even arrive), then headed back to my friend Becca’s house with Bryce, Alexi, Maggie, and Evan. We spent the evening marveling at her house (it’s huge! and has electricity!), eating Velveeta macaroni and cheese (heaven!), and a pumpkin pie given to us for free by the owner/chef at I <3 New York Kitchen, our favorite pizza/dessert place in Kampala (soooo good!). We bought a DVD on the street earlier that we thought would be the new Harry Potter movie since we couldn’t make any of the showings at the real theater in Kampala, but when we played it, it was just a cheap Bollywood film. Wahh wahhhhh...

Saturday morning, Becca and I woke up first, so we made banana pancakes, M&M pancakes, and scrambled eggs, with real Maine maple syrup! (Becca is a Mainer). I went to work with Becca for a little while, but was called away to go help gut the two chickens we were going to eat for dinner. It was pretty successful, although I’m sure my animal science professors would cringe at my technique. The rest of the afternoon was spent cooking – and man was it worth it! BBQ chicken, wine-and-herb chicken, stuffing made from bagel chips, mashed potatoes, vegetable medley, spicy pumpkin soup with cranberry jelly, yummy bread and butter, guacamole with chapatti, and a fruit salad with passion fruit glaze for dessert. Amazing!!! All of this laid out on a beautiful banquet table complete with candlesticks and autumn-themed napkins from the U.S.

After dinner, Maggie and Evan brought over the turkey piƱata they made, and so for the next 20 minutes or so we watched as blindfolded, dizzy people tried to hit a cardboard turkey that kept falling, the broomstick broke in half, and the clothesline snapped, leaving us all in stitches. Definitely a new Thanksgiving tradition! Afterwards we had planned to stay up and party, but the food coma spell hit hard, and we fell asleep watching new episodes of Glee.

In the morning, Bryce made us delicious French toast (with more Maine maple syrup), then we all headed into Kampala. They all went to see Harry Potter at the theater, but I had to catch a 5-hour bus back to Mbarara, so skipped the movie. I also inadvertently skipped lunch, so was starving, and the first vendor who got on the bus to sell us food had only fried grasshoppers. So, naturally, that’s what I ate. I had tried them last week for the first time and they’re surprisingly pretty delicious... you just can't think too much about what you're eating. The woman behind me hesitantly says, “Madam, did you know those are insects?” probably expecting me to scream and throw them in the air upon discovering what I was really eating. I told her yes, I know, but thank you, causing her and a few others around us to start laughing.

On Monday morning, I went with a co-worker to his cousin’s solar shop in Mbarara for an estimate. He quoted me a price 300,000 shillings lower than another shop I had gone to (about $140 cheaper), and when I said I’d like it installed as soon as possible, he said, “How about today?” So I now have solar power at my house! As a thank-you to my neighbor in the next duplex unit, who always cares for my dog when I go away, I paid the relatively small extra charge to string a light into her house, too. She and her family were so excited, and that night we all just stood around staring at the light. They kept laughing and saying, “Kampala!” joking that now they live in the city, and when I eventually said, “No, America!” they all roared with laughter. We all celebrated by watching a movie at my house (The Princess Diaries, since it has nothing really culturally inappropriate here in Uganda, although it’s amazing how many things I had to explain while watching it. A movie is a whole cross-cultural exchange in itself). I even made popcorn! A huge thanks to Mom at home for helping me to make this happen. :)

I do have to say, it’s so weird after living at homestay and then at site for a total of 4+ months without electricity to now be able to charge my laptop and flip on a lightswitch. It definitely changes the experience, and a (small) part of me misses how basic things were when I based my day more around the rhythm of the sun, and how it was probably a more genuine Peace Corps experience. I feel a bit like a spoiled brat, paying to have solar power in a village where a fair number of people live in mud-walled houses. However, a number of people came to thank me for bringing solar power here, and I know that installing it in the staff quarters here will make it much easier to attract workers in the future. And to be fair, there are also a few other people in my village who have solar power, too, which makes me feel a little better. Also, on a personal note, I am ecstatic to be able to work on assignments for Peace Corps, do research online, catch up with family and friends more often, maybe write that book I’ve always wanted to write, and even just unwind with a movie at the end of the day. And if I feel too over-the-top with solar power, I remind myself that I still hand-wash my clothes, bathe from a bucket, and pee in a hole in the ground.