HOLLLLYYY TITTSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Two beagle-sized rats just ran across the apartment. One headed for the kitchen and another made a b-line towards our bedrooms. Nobody is safe. DEFCON 5, I REPEAT DEFCON 5!!!!! Fire the nukes, call Khrushchev and tell him that the deal is off. Screw the blockade!
Mice are fine, they get names. There was a mouse in my flat in Halifax a couple of years ago and I named him Albert (RIP). Rats though. No. They do not get names. They are scary horrible creatures. The Princess Bride and Mr. Ratburn from Arthur pretty well ruined rats for me… Well, Rachel and Shelby are at their spinning class and I am trapped on this couch until the rat situation is neutralized so might as well write a blog post.
My father and a close family friend have been debating an existential question for a number of years: “Are you the main character in your own life story?” From what I recall, my father views the question in the affirmative while my family friend views it in the negative. Although I have not completely made up my mind, for most of my life I tended to share my father’s view. After all, I have been single for the majority of my life and spend most of my time working on things that will serve my interests. I am not a selfish person, but I’m definitely not altruistic in every situation. The past seven weeks, however, has forced me to reconsider where I stand in my father and family friend’s existential debate.
If my time in Uganda was a short story the main characters would be me, Rachel and Shelby. We spend every waking moment together. Our alarms go off in the morning and minutes later Shelby is in the kitchen making breakfast smoothies for me and Rachel (entirely out of the goodness of her own heart). Rachel and I then walk to work where we share a desk. We message Shelby throughout the day and usually see her at a meeting or two. After we come back from our respective evening sporting activities, the three of us make dinner together and sit in the living room until we go to bed. Even when I fall asleep, Rachel and Shelby find their way into my malaria pill-induced dreams from time to time. We sometimes joke that not even sleep can separate us from one another… it’s not creepy, okay?
An outsider would probably expect for us to be tired of each other after seven weeks of being attached at the hip; however, the reality is quite opposite. During our short time in Uganda, the three of us have become quite the team. If one of us is sad, the other two will lift the other person up; if one of us is excited, then we are all excited; and if one of us is homesick, all we have to do is have a conversation about Canada and things feel better. Our time together has truly been characterized by bonding, shared-learning, understanding, and compromise.
My fellow Scholars and I were famished by the time we returned home from a long day of exploring the lush forests and surrounding villages of Masaka…
HOLLLLLLLLLLLYYYYYYYYY SHIIIIT TITS!!!! ANOTHER ONE JUST RAN TOWARDS THE KITCHEN!
… Our first thought upon entering the house was: “how are we going to fill our bellies”. As a swimmer, I have that thought a lot. However, the actions that flow from the question of how I am going to fill myself are quite different here in Uganda.
When my friends and I are hungry in Canada (usually as a consequence of the swim practice we just survived) we go to the kitchen and make ourselves separate feasts. I quickly prepare a stir-fry while one of my roommates makes an entire package of pasta that he will later mix with 6 sausages and carbonara sauce. My other roommates continue to buzz around us as they make their own personalized dishes. We frantically eat as much as our stomachs will allow, clean our own dishes, and head to our rooms. It is a pretty individualistic approach to meal prep, but Canada… eh?
Uganda, on the other hand, has what Rachel and I call a “collective collective conscience”. Quite simply, while Canada’s collective conscience is centred on the individual; Uganda’s finds its roots in the collective. This collective collective conscience informs nearly every aspect of life here in Uganda… including meal prep. As such, through meal prep, my fellow Scholars and I have been able to reconcile our individualistic tendencies with Uganda’s collective collective conscience.
Our meal last night struck the perfect balance between the individual and the collective. Without intending to, we ended up making a three course meal where each of us contributed a course. True to form, I was the hungriest upon returning from our adventure so I immediately started chopping some potatoes. We had enough potatoes to comfortably feed one person, but definitely not enough for the three of us. Upon coming to this realization, Rachel and Shelby started chopping some vegetables to round out the meal.
Before we knew it, the three of us were sharing an appetizer of seasoned potato wedges while Rachel put the finishing touches on three veggie burger paddies. I started to wash a few dishes – true to my “clean while you cook” mantra – but was interrupted by the smell of melting butter and sugar coming from behind me. I turned around to find Shelby baking a batch of peanut butter fudge. “Mmmmm, that’s convenient”, I said to Shelby as I stuck my finger in the hot batter. She replied, “Well we can’t have appetizers and dinner without dessert! Fudge will by my course.” She then scraped the bottom of the fudge bowl with a spoon and passed it to Rachel and I do devour.
The following hour or so was filled with cooking, eating, conversing, and sharing. We covered a number of topics that ranged from agricultural policy in Uganda to life back in Canada, and everything in between. By the time we finished the potato wedges, veggie burgers and fudge it felt like we had known each other for years – not only a couple of weeks. My suspicions were finally confirmed when Shelby took the fudge out of the fridge for a bedtime snack: the three of us were cut from the same cloth.
The meal we prepared last night illustrates the dynamic of our relationship. As individuals, we each bring something unique to the table that is ultimately shared by the collective. As the appetizer, I bring foresight and a measure of pragmatism to the table. While an appetizer of baked potato wedges sets the tone for the rest of the evening, the main course and dessert determine how enjoyable the meal is as a whole.
Rachel is the main course. She is always looking for innovative ways to fill up me and Shelby with new experiences. When she is not doing secretariat work, Rachel is busy browsing the web for weekend getaways, veggie burger recipes, film festivals, and trips to Rwanda. Rachel, just like a main course, complements the appetizer’s “type A” tenancies and makes sure everybody at the table is satisfied.
If I am the appetizer and Rachel is the main course, then Shelby is the dessert. Her personality (and baking for that matter) brings sweetness to the table. Sometimes the appetizer and main course can get caught up in adding spice to their respective dishes and forget that people can only handle so much curry powder before their faces turn red. Shelby’s sweet, trusting, and friendly nature counterbalances mine and Rachel’s “spicy” tenancies.
When it comes to my fellow Scholars and I, the sum of all parts is far greater than the whole. Not only do the three of us balance each other out – we complement each other. For instance, without Rachel’s wanderlust we probably would not have found the hiking spot and village that we explored yesterday. We certainly wouldn’t have had snacks. Had Shelby not been with us, we would not have had the courage or drive to take a crazy Ugandan taxi to and from our destination. We also would not have made so many friends along the way. And without my pragmatism we would probably still be sitting on the side of the street, waiting for the friend the Shelby made in the taxi to pick us up.
So, am I the main character in my own life story? In Canada, maybe; in Uganda, no. Rachel and Shelby play just as important a role as I do in shaping our collective reality. All of our experiences are shared and co-dependent. Compromise is sometimes negotiated, but unanimity remains ubiquitous in all the actions we undertake. Without Rachel and Shleby, I can honestly say that my experience in Uganda would be much less than a third of what it is now.
Well, the caretaker just left after investigating the rat situation. He laughed at me as he explained, “This is Africa, people eat those rats; don’t be scared. Well, they are more like cats than rats”. For some reason he did not put my mind at ease.
Epilogue: “HEY, MUZUNGU!”
You start to forget that you are white after being in Africa for seven weeks. Actually, that’s not what I’m trying to say. Rather, when you are in a place for a while, you tend to focus on what connects you to others rather what separates you. It is not that I have forgotten the colour of my skin. Instead, I have simply lost interest in the colour of others’. Given this, you can imagine how surprised I feel when a kid yells at me from across the street: “HEY, MUZUNGU!”
A few days ago we decided that it was high time to shed our training wheels and leave the comfort of urban Uganda for a day – and what a fantastic decision it was! Our transport to and from Masaka was almost as interesting as the destination. After a 12 minute boda boda ride we arrived at to a local taxi station. We were immediately swarmed by tens of men in their late 20s yelling “HEY, MUZUNGU, MUZUNGU! WHERE YOU GO!? OLA GAWA?! I TAKE YOU MUZUNGU!” The following 43 seconds were a whirlwind of us negotiating prices with men trying to pull us into their taxies:
Rachel: “Odeotia seebo (how are you sir), we want to go direct to Masaka”
Driver: “Okay I take you!”
Me: “How much?”
Driver: “15 thousand”
*Me, Rachel, and Shelby laugh and walk away*
Driver comes running after us: “Okay, 10”
Me: “Mukyono (my friend), my brother who went to Masaka yesterday told me he paid 4 thousand”
Driver: “Kalay kalay (okay okay), 5 thousand”
My fellow Scholars and I climbed into the Ugandan taxi, which can best be described as an oversized minivan. The 15 people already jammed in the taxi greeted us with hushed whispers of “ohh look Muzungu”. Even the babies knew something was up. As the taxi pulled out of the station, men with bottles of water and Krest (a Ugandan carbonated lime drink) stuck their hands through the windows and yelled, “Hey muzungu! Be by customer! One thousand schillings for you, muzungu”
I got lost in the scenic hills of Southern Uganda as our taxi bumped along the winding road to Masaka. Uganda’s country side is a lush paradise of rolling hills, small scale farms, and trees as far as the eye can see. At least 50 different shades of green coloured the fields and forests we passed. My words and pictures do not do the scene justice, so you will have to just see it for yourself.
After a long walk through a forest reserve, my fellow Scholars and I walked through a nearby village. While we were walking through the village, small children yelled “HEYYYYYYYY MUUUZUUUNGU!” as they popped their heads out of cooking houses and piles of matooke. At first only a few kids from each house spotted us, but when the other children in the homes caught wind of our passing through they too burst from their widows and shouted “MUZUNGU!!!!! HOW ARE YOU, MUZUNGU!” I swear a couple of cows also greeted us with a “hey, muzungu”, but Rachel and Shelby tell me that was just the acid… just joking!!
Three young boys playfully fought with each other about half way down the village’s main street. When my fellow Scholars and I passed by it was as if somebody yelled “time out!” The boys immediately stopped fighting and turned to us with mischievous grins: “Hey, muzungu! How are you!?” We greeted them back and continued our trek. The second that we walked away the boys resumed fighting. All we could do was look at each other and laugh. Rachel aptly pointed out that we were a walking circus in the village that day.
For the record, I did not see any babies with bloated stomachs or 4 year-olds taking care of 2 year-olds. Children laughed and played as parents prepared dinner and tended to their farms. Once again, I lost myself in the similarities between me and the surrounding villagers… until a three year-old aptly yelled “HEY, MUZUNGU!”