By Kathleen M.Carroll
Even before my return from a month-long sojourn in Uganda, friends and family members were asking me “What is Uganda Like?” The question calls for an attempt at a response. I spent two weeks in Kampala, a traffic-choked metropolis teeming with every kind of business. An apartment in the capital city costs about the same as a comparable rental in my Midwestern US town. Gulu and Jinja were not as large, but were built on the same cosmopolitan model. There were upscale restaurants and hotels for tourists and visiting workers, posh homes for the well-to-do and roadside shacks for the struggling.
But I also traveled through smaller towns—Moyo, Arua, and Adjumani. I visited the refugee settlements—the established colossus at Bidibidi and the fledgling Palorinya. And I rode over miles and miles of road (and not-road) through villages, open land, and rampaging brush fires (of both the intentional and accidental varieties). Less popular with visitors, these places did not cater to tourists. Even if you have money to spend, very little in the way of luxury is for sale. So, how can I begin to describe what Uganda looks like or how people live? The variety is staggering. But there are a few characteristics of the country that stood out to this Western mind.
You Are Most Welcome.
This expression, which sounds a bit quaint, even dickensian to me, is showered on every newcomer, visitor, old friend, or family member who crosses a threshold, bumps into an acquaintance at church, or passes on the street. The belabored but genuine exchange of greetings, handshakes, and embraces must take up 10% of the typical Ugandan’s day. In the US, handshakes are reserved for the most formal of occasions and it is perfectly acceptable to return a mere nod to someone who wishes you a good morning. And the greetings are sincere. You have absolute confidence that the person who is speaking to you is deeply, intensely interested in what you are saying. There is no sycophantism, though.
If someone disagrees with you, they’ll tell you, with great courtesy. It is one of the most respectful experiences of dialogue I have encountered.
You’re Not from Around Here, Are You?
As a light-skinned American (lily-white, in fact, of Irish extraction), I didn’t expect to blend into the crowd in Uganda. I was surprised to learn just how much of a minority I was. Perhaps this was exacerbated by my location. I did not stay in the hotels or visit the KFC (though, I admit, I wanted to). I didn’t insulate myself in private cars. I walked through the market at Bulogobi. I took a few cab rides. God help me, I rode a few boda-bodas. The reaction I garnered ranged from shouts of “Muzungu, how are you?” to the cries of startled children and the barking of bewildered dogs. In Uganda, white people are like giraffes. Sure there are plenty, but only in certain places. They stand out. And not everybody has seen one in person.
The Price Depends on Who’s Buying.
How much is taxi fare, or a loaf of bread? What does it cost to get a roadside rolex or a hot bottle of Fanta? In the US, a thing costs what it costs. The price is marked and that’s what you pay. For a very expensive item (a car or a house), there might be some room for negotiation. And if you’re buying a whole lot of something, you might expect a discount.
In Uganda, the official English language and a white face will get you a price two or three times what a local would pay. I still cannot decide whether I think this is racist, extortion or just free-market capitalism. If you’re making a US salary, getting lunch
for less than two dollars seems like a great deal, even if the locals pay 50 cents. Any indignation you might initially feel welling up can be cured by visiting the railroad tracks into Kampala in the pre-dawn hours and watching the river of humanity walking to the city for work because the price of a taxi (about 15 cents) is out of reach.
If you need to get around the city, negotiate a boda-boda ride, or buy anything of value, you need the help of a local. If I didn’t have a friend to help me navigate, I’d still be in a market somewhere, subsisting on ten-dollar bananas and waiting for the right kind of foreigner to happen by.
There’s a Reason to Sing.
Everywhere, people are singing. In the US, Mass is often a solemn affair, punctuated by short bouts of reluctant voices raised in what is meant to sound like praise. In Uganda, Mass is a concert; there are choirs. People play gorgeous homemade instruments. Everyone dances and claps and joins in. Muzungus like me are never more keenly aware of how much we’re not fitting in as during a lengthy hymn in the local language. I’m sure the lyrics on the overhead projector are meant to help; they do not.
Singing is a spontaneous overflow of the Ugandan soul. At night the streets of Kampala resound with music from a thousand radios, discos, and inebriated revelers. At midday, school yards ring with the songs of children. Even the residents of Palorinya, surprised by our visit and with little to offer visitors, treated us to an impromptu concert, complete with instruments and three-part harmony as though they were a Broadway troupe at a cocktail party. Uganda is all one song.
To ask what Uganda is like is akin to asking what the world is like. It’s wild and wonderful; it’s by turns scary and comforting; it’s rich and poor; it’s generous and greedy. It is a symphony of all that is best and worst about humanity.
What is the world like? I can’t help but feel that it would be better if it were all a little more like Uganda.
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