The first time my family and I went to Uganda for an extended stay, I met Monica. My experience with Ugandans has been that they are some of the friendliest, most welcoming people in the world. Cultural differences, however, can sometimes be challenging when it comes to conversation, especially with women. In the context of other cultures, we Americans easily come off as loud and arrogant. Ugandans are particularly soft-spoken.
I often find myself at a loss for words when in the company of Ugandan women. Our lives are vastly different. I was never so keenly aware of my own privilege as when, halfway through my story about how I can’t believe that after seven trips to Uganda I haven’t yet gone gorilla trekking, I realize that the Ugandan woman sitting across from me—who is smiling and politely listening to every word—will probably never see the gorillas in her lifetime, even though she lives only a few hours from their natural habitat.
I am constantly scared to say the wrong thing, or even worse, have nothing to say. Isn’t that just so very American of me? To be so painfully aware of, and uncomfortable with, even a split-second of silence between two people. And that’s a damn shame, because despite our cultural differences, Ugandans adapt to the conversation seamlessly— whereas I stumble and blunder about, consumed by the need to know what to say and how to say it. We could learn a lot from cultures that don’t have the need to fill every second of silence with empty words like, “How ‘bout that weather?”
Sometimes it’s okay to just sit in the presence of another person and listen to the birds, hum a song from your childhood, or pick stones out of rice.
Not all Ugandan women are so soft-spoken and reserved, however. Monica, who had never left East Africa before taking a short trip to Hong Kong last year, is one of the most confident, cosmopolitan women I have ever met. Not to mention, she’s stunningly beautiful. I think many Americans and westerners in general have this misconception that Africans only become cultured and cosmopolitan after spending significant time in the U.S. or Europe. But that certainly isn’t the case with Monica, a Ugandan woman who has lived her entire life in a small village in Entebbe, who has never spent even one day in the U.S. or Europe. Monica, a graphic designer/business woman/construction foreman/supermodel, impressed the hell out of me. But also, I just really liked her.
And Monica isn’t an exception. Over the years, I’ve met many Ugandan women—lawyers, business owners, socialites—who shatter every stereotype imaginable.
Growing up in America in the eighties and nineties, I learned only good things about my nation’s history, as did most American kids. It’s no different in much of the country today, although Vermont, and a few other cities/states, are an exception. Vermont has officially changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, for example, and my kids frequently come home from school with questions about the Holocaust or the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s easy to believe that we are superior to people from other countries, especially those in the developing world. We are constantly bombarded by requests for aid (money, donated items, our “support”), and these requests carry devastating consequences. Commercials and social media posts show starving children covered in flies, or screaming children covered in concrete dust and shrapnel wounds. These images make us sad, but they also create a subconscious comparison, between us and them. We live in safe, comfortable homes, attend good schools, and play sports. They live in huts or hollow shells, can’t read; the only sports they play involve kicking a makeshift soccer ball down trash-strewn, city streets.
But the heart-wrenching scenarios above are not the reality. Sure, these scenes exist, but so does a way of life quite similar to our own. Even in Syria—a place that most Americans would presume to be a burnt-out shell—families still vacation on the beach, and children go to basketball or flute practice after school.
If we believe we are superior to people in other countries, it stands to reason that we are also smarter, more sophisticated and—for the religious among us—more deserving of the grace of God. Historically, this mindset has allowed us to turn a blind eye to suffering in other parts of the world, while simultaneously exploiting their resources for our own gain.
Acknowledging this age-old problem is about more than just compassion. Africa’s GDP is projected to be more than that of the U.S. and the E.U. combined by 2050. If we want our kids to have prosperous futures, they must learn to work and co-exist with people from all different countries and cultures. To do this effectively, they must first view themselves as equals, not superiors.
Practical application is the best way to teach equality. You can preach equality every day, but if your kids only interact with other blonde-haired, blue-eyed white kids, how effective will that preaching be? This problem is increasingly apparent in Vermont, where our progressive mindset is handicapped by our lack of diversity.
We fear what we do not know, what we do not understand. If kids don’t have the opportunity to interact with people from other races, religions and cultures, they will not understand them. They will fear them. Traveling the world is the best way to introduce our kids and ourselves to other cultures, but not everyone can travel the world. And not everyone wants to. I get it.
Fortunately, we live in the most diverse country in the world.
But if you do like to travel, I highly recommend Uganda, and if you happen to run into Monica, tell her I said it’s soon time for a reunion of the nyabos.
I’m Monica, and I’m from Entebbe, Uganda—though most days I feel like I belong anywhere but here….
Though raised a Christian, I went to a Muslim boarding school most of my young life. I used to cry at the beginning of each new term when I was dropped off at campus, since I would be away from home for months. School was an experience I hated at the time, but now look back on with appreciation, because of the excellent education I received and how hard it was to come by.
In Uganda, parents traditionally sacrifice all for the sake of their kids’ schooling. In return, the kids take care of the parents when they get older. Additionally, Uganda is still a patriarchal society where male offspring generally get priority. My dad bucked that archaic trend by placing equal importance on the education of his four daughters and his three sons, along with various nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.
Though I didn’t really enjoy school all that much, I worked hard at it, especially when I entered university. Dad had just been retired from his job as a telecom engineer. After years of footing the bill for the education of his immediate and extended family, there was no retirement savings and money was going to be tighter than ever. In light of that, I applied myself and earned a full government scholarship to pay my university fees. As a result of the influence and sacrifice of a father that placed an incredibly high value on all his children’s education, I earned a degree in graphic design. I always told Dad I was studying for his retirement, not mine.
After graduating university, I first worked as an unpaid helper in my brother’s restaurant for a year, doing what we Ugandans do: helping out family while searching for gainful employment. During that time, I first visited the Malayaka House orphanage and happened to meet Anna Katrin, a strong-willed and fiercely independent German woman. Along with other international travelers I met, Anna helped widen my perspective of the world. When I managed to work my way into the business world as a graphics artist, there were a lot of expat clientele who preferred to deal with me directly because of my technical expertise and creative branding ideas. Many would also wonder aloud whether I was truly a local because of my fierce business attitude. I’ve never been the typical submissive Ugandan female and still defy that stereotype.
Uganda has about fifty-six tribes, a social culture that is foreign is to most people in the world. Given our colonial history, English is the common official language, but there are others that dominate speech depending on the region of the country you happen to occupy. When I was growing up, my dad only allowed us to speak English when we were at home. Local languages were to be learned at school and when out with our friends. He wanted us all to possess the ability to communicate on a more global scale. I speak several different languages fluently, including English (yes, I wrote this myself sitting under that same mango tree shade where all of my education milestones occurred), Madi (my mother tongue), or Luganda (most used local language in the central region of Uganda), and I can hold my own in a few other dialects as well.
My ever-growing familiarity with people and cultures from other countries has led some of my fellow Ugandans to wonder about me now and then. I have a few piercings, more than the typical single ring in each ear. I like the look and have been told it suits me. I used to wear dreadlocks in my hair all the time, prompting some locals to speculate that maybe I was Jamaican. My familiarity with Northern languages and some of my facial characteristics has even caused some people to assume I’m from Nigeria.
I try and keep up with fashion trends while staying true to what I think looks good on me. Most of the clothing here is bought in local, open-air markets. The majority of items are secondhand, though some are new. Ours is a bartering and haggling society, so people are always trying to get that “last and best price.” It makes me laugh when I buy a pair of trousers for 10,000 shillings (less than $3.00 U.S.) and see that they originally sold for more than $50.00. And no, I am not a cheapskate, just living within my means. When I negotiate in English and try to make a deal, the shop owners occasionally speak among themselves in Luganda: commenting on my fashion choices, saying I must be a foreigner and should pay more money. I love to watch their faces when I speak back to them in their own language. I can also fake a decent Russian accent (blame it on the character Svetlana from Shameless) but so far no one thinks I’m from Moscow….
As much as my mother might disagree, I’m a pretty good cook. I can whip up something from a short list of simple ingredients and season it so well that you’ll find it memorable enough to ask for the recipe. And I can do it using your favorite chef’s signature cookware on a gas cooktop, or with a single aluminum pot over a charcoal-burning cooker made from an old bent Toyota wheel. As for those ingredients, they might range from the familiar (beef, chicken, veggies, rice, etc.) to more regional fare (matooke, goat, pan-fried grasshoppers, even white ants). When a country is historically as poor as Uganda, no option for food is wasted.
I’ve seen only one president in my lifetime—a man who took over as the result of a bloody coup, and initially professed to want the job for no more than ten years. It’s now been thirty-two years. I guess he liked the position more than he originally anticipated. Ironically, I can name many of the men who have held that same title in the U.S., but I’d wager very few Americans can name the one guy who’s been president of Uganda since 1986. (No, it’s not Idi Amin—he’s been dead for fifteen years, and we didn’t like him much either.)
Though it’s been this way all my life, I’m still sometimes surprised by the level of corruption in my own country. Uganda recently mandated the issuance of national ID cards to all its citizenry, yet getting one took me months of waiting in line, and token bribes to several different “officials” before it was finally released. And after all that, I don’t think it’s been out of my handbag one time….I’ve been mugged more than once— yet no justice was brought to the guilty, since I didn’t have the money to pay the police to file a report or investigate the crime. I’ve had a friend get involved in a traffic accident where he was clearly in the right, yet he still had to pay a substantial fine and all damages simply because he “looked like he had money.” I’ve been hassled inappropriately in a nightclub, but before you go to the police to report harassment, you have to be careful that your harasser wasn’t also a police officer. I’m sad that this oppressive misogyny exists, but those kinds of incidents happen all over the world to some degree, right? I don’t want to scare anyone away from all the beauty and splendor that can be found in Uganda; there are darker sides to every country. Someday I’d like to make my own comparison.
Recently, I’ve found myself branching out into other areas of learning and expertise. I’ve been a construction manager, overseeing a renovation and expansion of my dad’s place. I also have a side business rearing and selling broilers (chickens to cook), and I still do occasional freelance graphic design work. Here in Uganda, unemployment is over 80 percent for my age group, even with a university degree. We have to hustle for every shilling. Whenever possible, I find the time to help out at Malayaka House, which is also where I met your author, Amy.
I enjoy scrolling through Instagram to see the lives and places others share. I surf Pinterest to see interesting ideas and notions from around the globe, and have adapted many of them for local use. The internet has been a boon to those who want to continue learning, and its prevalence has made me feel more like a citizen of the world than merely a Ugandan passport holder. It’s a little odd that via news reports, blogs, and social media posts, I’ve learned more about other countries on the planet than any of those citizens know about Uganda—other than it’s one of the countries Trump blindly labeled a “shithole.”
So far, I’ve managed to travel a little. I’m sure some of my wanderlust came from listening to my dad tell about his job-related travels when he was still working. I’ve been to Rwanda and Kenya for extended periods, and even made a trip to Hong Kong last August. I’m still hoping to gather many more stamps in my passport. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the U.S. a year ago but was summarily denied without more than two minutes of one-sided conversation, ostensibly because I was considered a risk to overstay my welcome. Not my favorite day, but perhaps I’ll try again. Or not—there are 195 countries on this planet. There are plenty of other possibilities. I want to try as many as I can. Can I start a GoFundMe page for that?
The following was an excerpt from Expand Your Bubble, by Amy Carst. All profits from the sale of Expand Your Bubble go to Malayaka House.