Friday, February 11, 2011

Some thoughts on life in Uganda

To many Ugandans, being a mzungu means that you are qualified to do many things. When you are at a health center, this usually means that you are most often seen as a doctor, or at least a nurse. Many times I’ve had to explain to my colleagues that I am not qualified to perform medical procedures (I’m barely qualified to observe!). For example, while visiting a health center IV in my district, I stopped by the theater to observe a circumcision. I imagined that I would observe from a good distance, preferably behind a window. Instead, the health workers had me suit up in a surgical gown and stand not less than a foot from the patient during the procedure, (during which only local anesthetic was used, by the way) and the nurses kept telling me to come closer in order to get a good look at what was going on. Why was it so important that I observe so closely? Well, I found out as I left that the nurses were hoping that next time I came to visit the health center I would actually perform a circumcision myself. Ummm… thank you.

Hospitality is very important to Ugandans, and being a mzungu most often means being treated like royalty (did I mention that my Busoga name means princess?) I’m always offered the best seat in a room, the front seat of a taxi, and first servings of a buffet lunch. In fact, if I’m not first in line to get food, I’m often pressured to cut everyone else in line in order to get my food first. Such treatment is both frustrating and flattering. It definitely takes some getting used to though. As a side note: this special treatment doesn’t always mean getting silverware to eat the food you were served first at an event (there is very rarely silverware at meals for large functions such as introductions and parties), so it’s important to practice eating with your hands before making a complete fool of yourself in public. Rice is particularly challenging.

Nonverbal communication is very popular. For example, raising your eyebrows means “yes,” and people will give directions by pointing with their lips. It took me a while to get used to it, but now I’ve started using these nonverbal communication methods as often as my Ugandan friends.

Public transport here can be quite the experience. It consists mostly of matatu taxis (vans that are supposed to seat 14 but often seat 25 or more), Toyota corona taxis (small cars that seat 7-10 people instead of the usual 5), and motorcycle taxis (called boda bodas, these often seat 1-2 passengers in addition to the driver as well as ample amounts of luggage). Peace Corps doesn’t allow volunteers to ride boda bodas, for good reason. They are particularly dangerous, especially since most drive much too fast and passengers never (and drivers only rarely) wear helmets. Since being in Uganda, I’ve already witnessed several boda boda accidents, some of which were particularly bad. I was on a matatu taxi once when I saw the consequences of a motorcycle accident on a main road to Jinja – the police had to scoop up the remains of the body with a shovel off the road and into a bag. Just a few days later, a pregnant woman died in a boda boda accident on the main road in my town. She fell off the motorcycle onto the road and a taxi hit her, killing her and her baby. Not even a week later, the husband of a midwife in my town died when the boda boda he was driving was hit by a car. Sometimes I feel like it is safer to stay at home rather than brave the public transportation to move around! Today when I arrived in town, I was greeted with “kuli ko lugendo,” which translates to welcome back from your dangerous journey on the road.

Matatu taxi

Small car taxi

Kampala taxi park - quite the experience

Boda boda - and yes, the women ride side-saddle!

Meals in Uganda consist of “food” (matooke, potatoes, rice, posho) and “sauce” (literally a soup-like sauce, meat such as chicken, fish or beef, beans, etc,). I realized I was truly adjusting to life in Uganda when I got a plate of beef and vegetables at a nice restaurant and immediately thought: “but where is the food?!”

The dry season started about a month ago, and I REALLY miss the rain. When it is dry, it’s also sweltering hot and extremely dusty – even the Ugandans say so! It also means that my rainwater tank is emptying, requiring me to carry water from the borehole (about 1 km away) for drinking, bathing, washing, etc. It rained once last week, and even though it was very short-lived, I almost wept in relief at the brief reprieve from heat and dust.

Ugandans take stealing VERY seriously. They believe in a concept called mob justice, so when someone is caught stealing, everyone around will attack the culprit. I witnessed this for myself this week.  I never found out what the man stole - all I saw were dozens of hands, feet, and sugarcanes hitting him everywhere. Even a legless man wailed on this man. They stripped off his clothes and dragged him into an alley for more beating. I couldn't stand to watch, but I heard that eventually he ran away from the crowd. The moral of the story is: don't steal in Uganda!

ttfn – ta ta for now! J