One year ago today I arrived in Uganda…full of excitement but also apprehension…wondering what lay ahead of me. As I’m sure anyone who has lived in a developing country for an extended period of time will tell you…it’s changes you. My worldview will never be the same. I find it difficult to truly articulate my experiences of the last year. Often I’ve sat at my computer trying to write a blog post about life here and there are just no words to adequately describe it. I will say that having been born and raised in the richest nation on the planet…looking back at my country and culture from this vantage point has been, well…shocking. I thought I had a pretty normal life and upbringing. But there was nothing normal about it. It was privileged and full of opportunity. Compared to the majority of people on the planet, it was abnormal. My experiences of the last year are the norm for most people in the world. I am living a normal life here in Uganda. I grew up having electricity and running water, having access to healthcare and a good education, having decent roads and a functioning democracy, having enough food…we take it all for granted. I know you’ve heard this before from visiting missionaries in your church or in books you’ve read or through documentaries about poverty, or on the evening news, etc. I had heard stories but nothing could have prepared me for the last twelve months. Today I was talking to a friend here about how much I’ve learned and about how my view of the world has changed. I laugh at the notions I brought with me to Uganda. I had on rose colored glasses but now I see more clearly. When I go on Facebook these days and see the first world posts of beloved friends and family back home I can’t help but to think that we really do live in a bubble in the US. We take our hugely blessed abnormal lives for granted. We say we know how blessed we are but we really don’t. I didn’t…until I came to Uganda. I didn’t come from what would be considered a rich family but somehow I’ve managed to get a first rate education, (including seven years of higher education) I’ve lived on three continents and I own a home in one the most desired cities in the world. How did that happen? It’s bizarre to see photos of friends’ lives on FB…grilling steaks on Memorial Day, celebrating the purchase of a new car, posting pics of vacations at various locations all over the world, having meals at restaurants, etc. From my vantage point here in Uganda, it’s all very “Richie Rich”. I’m not judging it in a negative way. I’m simply acknowledging that I see it in a whole new way. But…wealth corrupts…and poverty corrupts…this is the same no matter where you are in the world. The great equalizer in humanity is the grave. We all end up there and because of our propensity for corruption, we all deserve the grave. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only answer to what ails us all and gives us the assurance that there is more…we are all only passing through this world.
Ten Random Observations
- Culture: It’s sooooo powerful! You can’t know just how much you have been formed and shaped by it unless you leave your culture for a period of time…not a couple of weeks…not even a couple of months…but long enough to make you realize that culture has a grip on you and has stamped you with an identity and worldview that is almost impossible to change. It fascinates me and baffles me. All the other observations below are mostly related to culture.
- Communication: I think I know what it must have been like at the Tower of Babel when the Lord confused the languages of people. I have had more conversations that sounded like a “Who is on first” comedy sketch than I can count. Some days it’s funny…some days it’s incredibly frustrating. Before I began to catch on to what was happening, there were days when I thought I might be losing my mind. I’ve had to learn to speak “African” English…and it’s still challenging. This means not only annunciating all my words…but being hyper aware of what I’m saying. For example…today I said to someone that I was trying to beat the rain…meaning I was rushing to get home before the rain came. I realized how confusing that must have sounded…why would I beat on the rain? How do you do that? Do you try to hit it? I find myself explaining American idioms all the time. You can never be sure you have been understood and even the most straightforward questions cannot be guaranteed a simply straightforward answer.
- Patience: People in Africa pay no attention to time. Here is Gulu I always hear people talking about getting better at keeping time…but it seems one of those cultural things that is impossible to change. Things move slow…like at a snail’s pace. This is not always bad…but for someone coming out of the American culture where time is money…it can really wig you out after a while. I’m learning to wait…and not be in a rush. But some days I just want to show my Ugandan friends how much better some things would be if we could keep time. Meetings here can last for hours and hours and events can start two or three hours late. Planning is not a priority. People live in the moment…not in the future. Planning a huge event with many moving parts in just a few days is not unheard of.
- Traffic: One of the interesting and confusing things in this culture is that although no one keeps time and things move at a snail’s pace…it’s not so when it comes to driving a vehicle. People drive at crazy speeds on these bad roads and accidents are common. It’s like people kick into high gear behind the wheel and put lives at risk to get to their destination in record time. Yet…in all other areas of life time is not important. I don’t understand it. People die in accidents all the time yet nothing is
done to make the roads safer. Maybe the US has become hyper safety conscience? Watch the news…recalls on cars, parts, etc. to insure safety. You would never see that in Africa.
- Women: I am in awe of the women here in Northern Uganda. They work so hard! Most have to haul the water, dig the garden, care for the children, haul the firewood, cook the food, wash the clothes (by hand). Women here are strong! Yesterday I was in town buying fabric with the manager of the Women’s Development Center. We had a big load to carry to the truck. I could barely lift the bag I was carrying. I turned to see how the girl with us was carrying her heavy bag. She had it on her head and I thought…I’m going to try that. I lifted the heavy bag full of fabric to my head and it was a breeze to carry! Everyone was staring in unbelief…that a white woman was doing manual labor. They think we are all weak…and truth is that we are weak. The other thing about women…a bride price is paid before any wedding can take place. Families haggle over the price paid for a woman who is to be married. This part of the culture is still very strong…even with western culture influencing other aspects of marriage…this is firmly entrenched. Women are essentially sold. It bothers me a lot. But women’s rights are growing here and little by little they are gaining more power over their own lives.
- Electricity and water: These two luxuries are what we take for granted the most in the west. It’s been a huge struggle for me. In the west, electricity is as available as the air we breathe. Turning on the tap and having drinkable water is the norm. Life is so much different without these two first world luxuries. These two simple things alone have the power to transform a developing country into a modern 21st century country. Of course we can live without electricity. Lots of people do. But it makes life so much easier, safer and healthier. Manufacturing is impossible without it. With it water can be pumped into homes. Life-saving drugs needing refrigeration can be kept. Communication is easier. Most people here in N. Uganda have limited access to the internet. Cost and access to computers are challenging…but you also have to have an energy source. Just having a refrigerator alone would change life dramatically for people here. Think of it…being able to preserve food would change the life of women here in immeasurable ways! Using the internet for education when books are not available. I could go on and on. When you turn on your electric stove or warm your dinner in the microwave today…stop and think of how much easier your life is with these conveniences…not to mention your washing machine and dryer.
- Animals: We are so removed from farm life in the US. Life is so clean and sanitized. We don’t see the cows being butchered or the chickens being killed. Here…it’s just the way of life. If you want chicken for dinner…you go outside, catch one, kill it and prepare it. When I tell my friends that no one butchers their own animals in the US…that they go to a supermarket to buy meat…they think this is so strange. The fact that I’ve never grown my own food is strange. On the way into town there is a goat market where dozens of goats are tied up and waiting for their demise. I find it difficult every time I pass it. I want to stop and rescue them all. LOL! But seriously, some days, if it’s been a particularly stressful day…the sight of those goats is the last straw. My emotional reaction to the goats is even strange to me sometimes. Again…it goes back to culture. I see pics on Facebook all the time of cute goats that people have as pets and cows that do funny things, etc. This would be so strange to a Ugandan. Animals are food. No one has pets. Cats and dogs serve a purpose and are rarely considered “pets” in the way we have pets. I had a cow follow me one day after it read my thoughts…or so I believed. I stopped as I was walking to the office one day and looked this cow in the eyes and was thinking to myself, “If I could I would take you home with me so the shepherd can’t beat you anymore” and the cow started to follow me!! This is a true story. The shepherd boy had to stop the cow from going home with me.
- Food: I admit that I struggle with Ugandan food. I try. I really do. But I don’t feel so bad because I know if a Ugandan came to the US they would hate American food. Again, it’s one of those cultural things. For the life of me I can’t understand how people eat some of the staples here…but they love it! In my mind I think that if they came to the US and ate some food…they would never want posho again. But this is not the case. When a food culture has been imprinted on your brain…that’s it. That’s the only food you will ever really enjoy. It’s hard to change your preference for food after that. No…I’ll never eat white ants. I can’t get beyond the idea of eating a bug. But that’s just because culturally I’ve been imprinted that way. I’ve been told that a really good cut of tender beef would not be liked by most Ugandans. They would not like the texture. Go figure.
- Money: This took some getting use to. One dollar is equal to 3,000 shillings. To fill the truck up with fuel cost 150,000 shillings. It took a while but now when I pay 25,000 shillings for something…this is considered somewhat expensive but it’s really only about $8. Tipping 1,000 shillings (.33 cents) is considered a good tip. The average Ugandan in the north makes about 15,000 shillings per day. That’s $5. When I go to the western style supermarket in town and buy a can of tuna for 8,000 shillings…it’s almost as much as a Ugandan will make in a day. Puts things in perspective fast. This is why I’m considered rich here in Uganda while in US my income puts me below the poverty level.
- Faith: There are many challenges to Christianity but one of the greatest is African traditional religion. Many people still follow tribal traditions and have one foot in Christianity and one foot in their tribal traditional religion. Again…culture hugs us like tightly wound cling wrap. It’s like the skin we wear. It’s hard to peel off. It’s our identity. The church struggles here…many Christians still go to witch doctors…still practice polygamy, still have idols of local gods in their homes. But as I have reflected…the same could be said of American culture…it just looks a little different. We go to fortune tellers, we read horoscopes, we study numerology, we think nothing of marriage infidelity (or so it seems), we have multiple sexual partners throughout life (we just don’t marry them) and we worship many idols…we just don’t admit they are gods. For all the ways our cultures make us different from one another…culture can’t hide the one thing we all have in common…our fallen sin nature. It’s the same on every continent, in every country, of every race.
My top ten observations…it’s only just a beginning. I’m learning so much everyday….about myself, about the world, about how our heavenly Father sees us. My eyes see the world through different lenses. I’ll never be able to go back to seeing things as I used to. I don’t want to. I want to see the world as the Lord sees it. I want to have the compassion that He has for it. I want to be a part of His redeeming work in it. It took a year but I think I have the lay of the land and I’m ready for the second year. I’m sure it will be full of new and eye-opening experiences.
It’s been easy…it’s been hard…it’s gone by fast. It’s been the most enlightening year of my life. My thanks to my Ugandan friends and partners in ministry who have helped me ease into this strange new world. They have made me feel welcomed and loved. My thanks and appreciation to all who have enabled me to be here through financial support and prayers. There are many more days of learning to come and I look forward to them all. What a blessed life…what a normal life I have here in Uganda. Thankful for every minute.
To God be the glory!
Amazing! Brilliant! Would love to hear you explain “wigged out”. You are such a blessing to all of us! MJ
Thank you for this. I ‘m going to print it and hand it out to some folks here. I’ve had similar experiences from Haiti and eastern Europe in 1986, just on a tinier scale. And it wears off all too fast. WB
Loved reading your reflections and observations – thank you, Elizabeth!
When I moved to America I thought I spoke the same language, but often was totally misunderstood. I remember being invited to a (horrors) Tupperware party and not understand what those New Jersey women were talking about.
This is very inspiring and humbling at the same time. How wonderful for you to be blessed with His ordained mission! I wonder how many of us could make the grade as you obviously are. Hang in there and have cool thoughts!