After almost 9 weeks in Uganda it is safe to say that I am finally starting to get the hang of things. I am rapidly gaining proficiency in Lunganda, the local language spoken in the Kingdom of Buganda where Kampala is located. Further, I know where to direct my boda in order to avoid traffic jams, have started to recognize faces of colleagues from other NGOs, and have gotten used to the overall pace of life in Kampala. Simply, I am settling into Uganda quite nicely.
Yes, I do miss life in Canada and that is something that will never change – but my love for Canada has not stopped me from finding a considerable measure of comfort in the rhythm of life in Uganda.
At the beginning of our pre-departure, I remember one of our supervisors showing me, Rachel, and Shelby an upside-down bell curve that was supposed to represent the stages one goes through while abroad. The top left hand corner of the curve represents the early stages of time in another country: a new place with new people is exciting, but the gravity of the experience has yet to fully settle in. Consequently, one’s spirits are pretty high during these first stages.
The centre of the curve dips down dramatically. This dip represents a stage in travel where the novelty of being abroad has worn off. According to the curve that our supervisor showed us, the low point usually occurs sometime around the middle of one’s time abroad. Reality has caught up with the traveller and she or he begins to realize just how far away she or he is from everything she or he knows and loves. The traveller has begun to learn the nuances of the new culture, but day to day life is still very unfamiliar.
The top right hand of the curve illustrates how a traveller feels and the end of her or his time abroad. By this point the traveller has a firm grasp of a once unfamiliar place. The traveller is able to pick up on both explicit and tacit aspects of the culture, language, and overall ‘vibe’ of her or his respective country. Homesickness is a non-issue and the traveller fears the process of reintegration into daily life at home far more than the unfamiliarity of her or his surroundings.
Granted, this curve is a massive oversimplification of all the trials and tribulations that come with traveling for an extended period of time. My time abroad, for instance, cannot be illustrated by a smooth, inverted bell curve. In fact, if one were to graph my internship in Kampala it would probably resemble a polygraph chart. However, certain components of the curve have proven to be useful for my own cognitive processes.
For example, my first blog entries mainly take stock of the differences between Canada and Uganda rather than reconcile them. The gravity of daily life had not settled in and Kampala was still an unfamiliar place. The next entries are characterized by countless rounds of cognitive negotiation and renegotiation – both individual and shared. Life in Kampala becomes ‘real’ during the latter grouping of entries as home starts to feel very far away.
Fortunately, over the past week or so I feel that I have moved beyond the dip that characterizes the middle stages of one’s time abroad. That is, I am certainly not entirely comfortable with my surroundings, but Kampala has become a place of familiarity. And familiarity comes from holistic understanding of a place and its people.
Up until recently most of my experiences were characterized by explicit, rather than tacit, notions of culture. Explicit culture can be talked about – i.e., tangible representations of cultural practices. Food, clothing, and formal education are all examples of explicit culture. Tacit culture, on the other hand refers to less tangible practices that one can only access through prolonged observation of a place and its people. Further, while explicit culture is something that can be taught (i.e., it is rude to refuse matooke), tacit culture is something that is much more difficult to grasp (i.e., the feeling of comfort a Ugandan has when he or she eats matooke).
As I move along the oversimplified bell curve towards the top right-hand corner, I feel that I am beginning to understand tacit elements of Ugandan cultural practices. For instance, in Uganda body language plays a large role in communication. Unfortunately, contrary to popular belief, body language is not a universal language. It has taken me quite some time to fully appreciate the notion that non-verbal actions do not carry the same meaning across all cultures – pretty naïve, right?
By way of illustration, in Canada when I ask someone a question, I usually get a response within a matter of seconds. And that makes perfect sense; when somebody asks you a question, it is polite to acknowledge her or his query and verbally respond to your best ability in a timely manner. In Uganda, however, if I ask somebody a question I am usually met with no less than 10 seconds of silence. The person will then usually say nothing, simply chuckle or even walk away. The question is eventually answered (usually), but not in the immediate manner that I have grown accustom to.
Initially, the aforementioned phenomenon was a large source of cognitive disequilibrium for me. I could not understand why somebody would disregard my questions so readily. According to Canadian standards, after all, such a practice is considered to be quite rude; yet here in Uganda it happens all of the time.
Interestingly enough, after over two months of observation, I have realized that my questions answered quite immediately; however, these answers are not verbal. More, I must understand the context of my surroundings in order to decipher the non-verbal answer of my questions.
For instance, last night my co-worker (G) and I went to a tailor to get some measurements done (more on that later). We hopped off our respective bodas and G held three fingers up in the air. I instinctively pulled out 3 000 crumpled schillings* from my pocket – another example of how I have adjusted to less explicit forms of communication. I placed the money in the boda boda driver’s hand and he immediately asked me for more money:
Boda: “Muzungu, you add for me”
Me: “Ssebo, if magadawange pays nkumi ssatu than so do I” (Sir, if my brother pays 3 000 than so do I)
Boda: *Holds his hand out* “Mukoyno” (My friend)
G: Jeremy, tu gende! (Let’s go!)
Boda: “Kalay, kalay, you go muzungu” (Okay, okay…)
Me: Webale nyo, ssebo. Obee’re bulungi! (Thank you, sir. Good bye!)
*1 Canadian Dollar = 2500 Ugandan Schillings
G and I wind through countless streets and alley ways before we reach the tailor’s stand. It quickly dawns on me that I am in the heart of Kampala’s garment district. The streets are packed with tailors at sewing machines, half made clothes, and colourful fabrics. Based on the explosion of colour before me, my immediate reaction is that somebody slipped MDMA into my lunch. I then realize that I am being paranoid and that it was probably just some acid.
We approach G’s tailor stand to learn that he is not there – classic. Jeremy 9 weeks ago would have asked G where the tailor is or if he plans to arrive soon. Yesterday, however, I decided to hold my tongue and let the situation play itself out. Here is why:
Had I asked my G if the tailor was coming soon he would most likely let out a friendly chuckle or simply not answer at all – not because he did not respect me, but because I did not ask a question that needed to be answered verbally. As I said in a previous entry, in Uganda it appears that significance is not placed on when things happen but rather if they happen at all. As such, the tailor’s arrival was completely inconsequential in the eyes of G because he knew that the tailor would eventually arrive. After all, the tailor’s sewing machine appeared to be on so he could not be far.
I looked at G, then at the sewing machine, and then back at G. Based on G’s calm expression I inferred that there was no reason to press him. I knew that doing so would only alienate me from the situation and perhaps undermine my rapport with G. The tailor would arrive eventually and that was the important part. My question, therefore, did not need to be asked or answered verbally. It was evident that the tailor was not at his stand at the moment (my question), and based on the fact that his sewing machine was on it was obvious that he would arrive at some point in the future (the answer).
The tailor eventually did arrive after another few minutes and we continued on with our business.
The above is just one example of my slow, but palpable adaptation to tacit aspects of Ugandan culture. Another component that I will explore in an upcoming entry is Ubuntu. Briefly, Ubuntu is an African philosophy premised on the idea of interdependent humanity. The philosophy finds its roots in the Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” or “A person is a person because of other persons”. Although Ubuntu is fairly easy for one to conceptualize, in my view it is something that is difficult to fully understand until one immerses her or himself in a culture that places a high degree of value on communitarian notions of humanity. Anyway, Ubuntu is another aspect of tacit culture for another day – but stay tuned because that day will come soon!
To close, I am noticing marked changes in the way I approach day to day life thanks to an improved understanding the tacit components of Ugandan culture. I believe that when one is able to combine her or his knowledge of explicit and tacit aspects of culture, she or he is in a better position to holistically understand a place and its people. By extension, such understanding allows those who travel abroad to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes, uphold cosmopolitan notions of global citizenship, and make the most of their experiences.
On my first day of university my Sociology and Social Anthropology professor told the class that cross-cultural experiences “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange”. In light of this entry, it is evident that my time in Uganda has done just that.
p.s. I attended two really cool meetings today. The first one was centred on establishing a “way forward” pursuant to the impending passage of Uganda’s Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill. Rachel and I will be working with a team of talented lawyers to redraft the Bill so that Civil Society’s amended version can be given to MPs before the Bill is passed it in its current state. There are a whole bunch of interesting legal issues attached to the Bill that I will outline when I am less tired. However, if you are really curious then please comment, send me a facebook message or email and I would be happy to give you the Reader’s Digest of what’s going on!
Rachel almost set the Serena Hotel on fire at the second meeting, but you can ask her about that one. The meeting at the Serena addressed the question of what role (if any) social media can play in facilitating the ‘social contract’ between citizens and the state. It was another fantastic and endlessly interesting meeting that I will reflect on when I am less tired. Once again, just shoot me a message and I will give you the down low. Really, really, interesting stuff though!