The other night, I’m watching Legends of the Fall and suddenly realize that the way the soldiers stare at Brad Pitt when he rides back into the WWI camp, his dead brother’s blood smeared in war paint on his face and a necklace made of German scalps around his neck, is the way that Ugandans often stare at me – a sense of wonder, confusion, and a hint of unsettled, disapproving curiosity, like they’ve never seen something as crazy-weird as you. I first laughed at the realization, then was depressed by the fact that for two years, I’m looked at in the way that one might look at a person who has brutally chopped apart bodies, isn’t exactly mentally stable, and is no longer recognizable as a civilized human being and needs psychiatric counseling.
I really need to learn not to give any contact information to Ugandan men, period. I thought I was being sneaky by giving out my e-mail rather than my phone number, but a) I forgot that I have an automatic e-mail signature with my phone number in it, and b) I just received an e-mail from one of my students at the agricultural college saying, “your are my fiance i like you from bottom of my heart and i like you with my soul heart i would request you to be my best Friend What about you dear?” All other differences in culture and wifely expectations aside, I prefer dating guys who understand the definition of “fiancé” and realize it’s not a term that means “The girl I find pretty who I would like to be friends with.” Unless we begin with that type of understanding, I really can’t see this working out, fellas. Additionally, crying, “I love you!” to a Western woman with whom you’ve literally never spoken one word is a sure way to get her to run immediately in the opposite direction. It doesn’t help that the local language has no distinction between “like,” “desire,” and “love,” but given the other problems I’ve encountered with men being extremely forward with what they say and vocabulary confusion about words like “fiancé”, I doubt it makes a huge difference. In a relationship in the U.S., if you say “I love you,” too soon (for some this means after the first few dates, for others it means months or years), it’s a sure sign that you’ve just made things too awkward to continue. Just watch the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother, a TV show that is becoming an obsession in certain Peace Corps circles – it proves my point. One of my best friends, Andrea, is in Peace Corps Paraguay, and while Latin American cultures are widely known for their machismo culture, I think Uganda should qualify as another flag-bearer for ridiculous male declarations of love.
ATTENTION all lazy and/or eccentrically-dressed people: come to Uganda. Here, one of the common greetings is, “Gyebale!” or “Webale/yebare emirimo!” which both mean “Thank you for your work!” This is a very nice sentiment, to thank everyone you meet for just doing what they do, and speaks highly on how Ugandans value other people, but using this as a standard greeting could very well (and often does) mean thanking people for sitting and drinking a beer, walking down the road, or taking a nap. People recently thanked me when I bought a sofa set. If your goals in life are less than overachieving, or you’ve had too few people appreciate all your hard work, Uganda could be good for you, or at least make you feel good about yourself. Additionally, just about any time I wear a new outfit, I am told by someone, “You are very smart!” meaning well-dressed. One day I was wearing a black tank top with a pair of brown capris, which are actually getting pretty washed-out, stained, and gross-looking (and by mixing black and brown I broke one of those fashion rules which someone once created but probably doesn’t actually apply anymore, like the whole “white after Labor Day” thing) but someone still said, “Eh! You are so smart.” I think this is partially due to the fact that I rarely wear pants in my village, but regardless, if you wear some type of clothing a Ugandan has infrequently seen, is very unique (also sometimes known as “really weird”), or has bright colors, you will be complimented on your wardrobe.
However, other compliments here I can go without, namely any remark about my body. In Africa, being called ‘fat’ is a good thing, similar to being called beautiful, and people will sometimes say, “You are growing fat!” to mean that you are looking rich and healthy. Unfortunately, Ugandans do not understand that such comments have been known to cause eating disorders in Western women, who are bombarded with images of celebrities and models with long, lean figures. For instance, when I first arrived at site I was chatting with some women in the village who were saying, “Oh you are so pretty! Your nose is small! Your face is nice! And you have a great figure!” Just when I was about to be flattered, they added, “You have big legs!” It was in that moment that I realized I never want a Ugandan to honestly compliment my body because of their preferences for junk-in-the-trunk and everything that jiggles.
One fashion trend that I really don’t get is that men here sometimes wear ridiculously short ties. While most Ugandan men adopt a typical Western suit for work or special occasions, including a tie of normal length, you occasionally see a man wearing a short, fat tie stretching down no further than where I imagine his nipples would be. I’m not sure if the actual tie is shorter or they just tie the knot differently, but the effect, at least from my perspective, is probably not what the wearer was going for. I was at a hotel with another PCV once when our waiter had a tie that extended literally only 3 inches past the knot. She and I couldn’t help but bust into hysterics every time he came to refill our drinks or bring our food. It just looks so strange and comical, as if someone stepped into a futuristic machine that makes you bigger (whatever the opposite of a shrink-ray is) and everything got 5 times larger except for the tie. If a man wears shorts in this culture he’s considered to be dressing like a young boy, but apparently wearing a tie that is meant to be on someone standing no more than 3 feet tall is a fashion statement.
If you put an American kid within 3 miles of a puppy, he/she will find that puppy, play with it, squeeze it half to death, and cry out, “Mom, can we keep it, please?! I promise I’ll take care of it,” and other similar pleas to keep the good, cute and furry times rolling. If you put a puppy near a Ugandan child, the kid will scream bloody murder and run away crying, as if he or she is being chased by an 800-pound Grizzly bear (or for an African example, a pride of hungry lions) rather than a 4-pound hairball of joy. Ugandans are not dog lovers, and I realize this, but it still never ceases to amaze me how absolutely terrified of dogs, and especially puppies, Ugandan children are. Kibo has lately taken up the hobby of terrorizing small children on their way to fetch water by charging at them at full speed. I think she knows they don’t want to play, but despite their screams, their tears making channels in the dirt on their cheeks and snot bubbling out of their noses, they still run away and provide something to chase, so the game is still fun for her. Dogs here are for security purposes only, so most Ugandans are raised to fear dogs as much as American children are raised to fear strangers offering them candy or… a cute puppy. Huh. Maybe these cultures are more similar than we think.
Speaking of similarities, at the Easter service at one of the local churches, the LC1 Chairman (basically the village mayor), an older gentleman, was giving a speech and addressed the children, telling them to appreciate their education and study hard. At one point, he actually said something like, “I used to have to walk for miles to reach school,” (which I would like to point out that some of these children still do) then said something about how kids these days have it easy and they should appreciate what they have. I didn’t hear anything about walking uphill both ways in three feet of snow, but the correlation to those stereotypical stories we all heard from our grandparents was not lost on me. Maybe Uganda and the U.S. are more alike than meets the eye.