When I decided to study abroad in Uganda I prepared myself for the antithesis of my semester in The Netherlands. Uganda is an overwhelmingly Christian society where gender norms and cultural practices are deeply embedded. The internationally infamous “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” that continues to be widely supported here is a clear example of the social restrictions that continue to reign.
In addition, Gulu is recovering from a horrific 20-year-long war. Last weekend, I went to my host sister’s church and was overwhelmed by the passion of everyone in the packed room. In that moment, I realized everyone over the age of seven experienced the war’s brutality. In these circumstances, is it any surprise that both young and old almost desperately seek solace in religion and tradition?
Northern Uganda is wracked by poverty, unemployment, and a failing education system. Once, this region had the greatest schools in the country. After the Lord’s Resistance Army’s insurgency, everyone who can afford to sends their children to boarding school in the capital. Despite everything, dance music fills the streets and refuses to be confined by the weekend. Just as Ugandans faithfully attend church on Sunday they flock to the bars on Friday.
Remember Kony2012 and Invisible Children? The commuter children featured in the viral video fleeing abduction are now my age. It’s these commuter children and former LRA abductees who fill the streets with music. Like religion and tradition, music has also been chosen as a therapy of choice.
This past Thursday, I went to BJ’s, the go-to bar for Gulu’s humanitarian aid workers, with my host sister and classmates. Here, I can only imagine the story of everyone I meet. Besides former abductees who work for various NGOs there’s also a good handful of Americans. I met three guys who work for the U.S. military, filming LRA defections. They’re part of the 100 Special Operations personnel sent by President Obama to assist in the hunt for Joseph Kony. While their sense of American exceptionalism and inability to dance didn’t endear them to me, at least nobody here is boring, that’s for sure.
Digesting the reality of a post-war society continues to be a sobering experience. Religious and social restrictions continue to curb my usual freedom (to wear what I want and go where I want, when I want). In a world where everything that could be different is, I’m grateful one thing - celebration and communication through music and dance - remains the same.
That awkward moment when your name means both ‘give me’ and ‘one hundred’ in the local language.
Does this mean I can say:
"Oh, you want to marry me? Mia Mia cows."
Now that I’ve settled into something resembling a routine I thought I would share how a “typical” day goes for this American student stumbling through Uganda.
7am: wake up to roosters outside my window
7:30am: boil water for bucket shower #1
8am: breakfast of bread, pineapple, and hot milk (not together)
8:30am: walk to school, avoid massive potholes and motorcycles
9:30am: Acholi language class: “pronouncing the unpronouncable”
11:30am: guest lecturer
1:00pm: lunch, sometimes you can hear them kill the chicken
2pm: How to Save the World 101: site visit to an NGO
5:30pm: walk home, count number of passing UN vehicles
6:30pm: dinner, eat the rooster that woke me up that morning
9pm: boil water for bucket shower #2
10pm: bed or bar
Any international experience includes plenty of misunderstandings. I thought I would share a small sample of the many I’ve experienced in this last week.
When our Academic Director first introduced herself, I understood her to be saying that we could call her “mother.” I thought this was strange but just went along with it for the first few days. Eventually, I asked another student what she had actually said. This student asked her if we were supposed to call her mother. She burst out laughing and said she already had enough children and that we should call her by her name, Martha.
When I was told my homestay address was “Senior Quarters” I thought, “Oh, no! I’m living in an assisted living home. This won’t be any fun.” Turns out Senior Quarters is a neighborhood where senior colonial administrators once lived and has nothing to do with the elderly.
When we piled into the van to drive 7 hours from Kampala to Gulu, Martha told us that Ugandans never announce when you have to go the bathroom. However, she said we could always stop to “check the tires.” We stopped for lunch and one of the students turned to the waiter and asked where she could check her tires.
From this last moment has come an entire dictionary of bathroom euphemisms involving goats. Among ourselves, we share when we need to, “walk the goat,” “set the goat free”, and “see a man about a goat.”
Ellie, Cosh the one-eyed cat, the stove, the fridge, our bedroom.
Yesterday morning I moved in with my Ugandan host family. The information sheet I was handed right before being picked up told me that there were ten children in the family, TEN. However, I soon learned that most are adults with their own families elsewhere.
In Uganda, most families live in compounds, an enclosed plot of land containing several buildings. Sharing this compound is the mother, father, two brothers and three sisters, a maid, gardener, a one-eyed cat, a dog named donkey, and chickens.
I share a room with Mercy whose twenty and studies economics at Gulu University. The youngest is Ellie, whose one and absolutely terrified of me. She cries anytime I come to close despite peace offerings of stickers.
We eat meals outside on bamboo mats under the trees. In the yard are mango, jack fruit, and guava trees. Sometimes a surprise jack fruit takes a dive for my head while I’m eating breakfast. As we eat, the dog, cat, and chickens compete for scraps. Breakfast is bread, homemade peanut butter, bananas, avocado, leftovers from dinner, and tea. Lunch and dinner is some combination of rice, cassava, matoke, beans, spinach, chicken and ground nuts. Yesterday at lunch, I was given chicken gizzard as the honored guest.
We live right next to Gulu’s most elite hotel. Every Friday and Saturday night there’s a live Congolese jazz band. How do I know? Because my window is about 100 feet away. I’m about to become very acquainted with Congolese jazz, very quickly.
By Ugandan standards I’m living quite well. There’s a flushing toilet, cold shower, and electricity. I could boil water for a bath, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Sometimes all of Gulu looses electricity, so if my internet presence disappears at times, that’s why. The maid prepares meals but I make a point to help wash dishes. Soon enough, I’ll have to figure out how to hand wash my clothes. In Uganda, no one ever sees your underwear. Hanging it outside is considered to be giving away your luck. So that will be an adventure.
The biggest cultural shift for me is bowing. It’s customary to bow to anyone older, especially men. So when I met my host father I greeted him in Acholi and dipped on one knee. I probably was supposed to kneel on the ground, but I figured we could meet each other half way. Tomorrow, we’re meeting the chief, so I can save my full bow for that.
My host father is a government health official and my host mother a farmer. I’ve been told I’ll be sent to the fields to learn how to harvest rice and pineapples. (The pineapples here taste AMAZING) I’ve also been offered a trip out the my host father’s village.
Last night, after meeting the family and getting a tour of the compound, I felt a sense of “I can do this.” Everyone is so welcoming, that even though so much is new, I know I can navigate my way through cultural and logistical differences. There are definitely lots of adventures to come and tomorrow is my first day of class. In the meantime, I will continue to eat endless amounts of pineapple and fall asleep to Congolese jazz.
The SIT Center, the tree we hold class under, and a guava fruit in the yard of the SIT compound.
Today a Ugandan girl around 7 or 8 grabbed my arm and held it next to her own. She looked at our skin and looked up at me. “Give me yours”, she said.