Disclaimer: This was written about a week ago. I am completely fine, safe, staying with a good friend. (Mom, please re-read that last statement) and on my way to Rwanda very soon. Now that you have been briefed.. Proceed 🙂
Here I sit in my hotel room, aptly named Hotel Harambe, feeling like I arose from the dead compared to the despair I felt yesterday. Yesterday I discovered that I unintentionally sent my passport to the UK with my friend who I had been traveling with for the last two months, meaning that I am stuck in Kampala for the foreseeable future until the extremely reliable mail system gets my document to me. After realizing this most unfortunate circumstance, I took a relaxing walk through one of the busiest sectors of the city, dodging men’s attempted grabs, avoiding the eruption of frustration that threatened to bubble up at every “owe me water, owe me your water, OWE ME COKE!” and explaining to Uganda’s citizens that it is actually not polite to call a white person ‘mzungu’ just because you see me as different (“Do I call you a black person in the street?”).
I was being reminded of the anger I felt in Namibia – the cold washing over of disdain for people who took one look at me and placed their predetermined ideas of who and what I was, saw me as a part of a larger whole and not an individual person. For the past two years of my Peace Corps service, I saw Namibia, but especially Khorixas, as a very different place from the rest of the African continent. I saw it as underdeveloped, but with so much potential; I saw it as a place where I had some of my lowest moments in my life and felt despair for the way I was sometimes treated; I thought it was unique in its ability to get under my skin because it became home to me, with all the arrays and nuisances that home encompassed. Last night, I was enraged all over again at the difference I felt walking through this city as a single woman as opposed to the travels I have had over the last two months in a group and then with a male friend. I felt tears burning the corners of my eyes as I choked back sadness for how little difference we make in this world, and how no matter what I do, there will always be societal hierarchies that are predetermined by many and prescribed to many more through familial and structured teachings. Despite my lack of belief in them, and my work to combat and challenge them, they will always remain.
I stumbled into a nearby shopping center to my hotel, in search of human contact that was not expecting me to give them money, my water or my non-existent phone number. After wandering aimlessly through the store filled with products containing fixed prices (thank God, was all I could think, I would not be charged ‘mzungu price’ like I was on the street from the hawkers, boda-boda drivers and produce ladies) I settled on conditioner so I could go home and take a shower to wash away my unsettling thoughts. As I made my way to the check-out lines, each bolstering at least 15 people, I settled into my body and consciously worked to unclench my jaw, gently smoothing the newly formed lines around my mouth from the constant grimace I wore, hoping my body language would emit a protective force field around me. I relaxed into my jeans, took a deep breath that filled the shirt I was wearing to dress modestly, just as the man in front of me turned around to look me directly in the eyes and smile. My gaze met his, ready to react defensively, as I have become so used to doing.
“Good evening, madam, I hope you are well.”
(me, leering and avoiding eye contact) “I am fine, thank you, I hope you are as well.”
“Yes, yes, even me, I am also fine.” (I nod my head disinterestedly)
“Please, go ahead of me in line – I have many more things than you, and I want you to feel at home in Uganda. In Uganda, we treat our visitors as we do with guests in our own home.”
(Doing double takes to see if he is serious and working on forming my lips into a smile as I thank him, telling him it is unnecessary, but knowing it is impolite to refuse a gesture from someone).
My friend and I were talking recently about the parallels of standing out in a foreign country when you are traveling, either being treated with so much respect (often to the point of being put onto a pedestal) that you are uncomfortable, or realizing that many people do not see you as a person – after all, tourists are simply rich people who come from other countries to exploit the resources of the country they are visiting, as I was told is the thought of many local people. Not entirely untrue, but an unfair stereotype nonetheless. We are often skipped in line, ignored when we are trying to find out information, and charged at least triple the normal price of things like street food, boda-boda rides and tickets to events and cultural sightseeing. We are laughed at when we try to greet in the local language, laughed at when people look at our hiking bags, laughed at when we don’t know where something is.
This is why I was so shocked at this man’s kindness, his sincere desire to make me feel more comfortable in an unfamiliar place. His lack of expectation was so refreshing that I nearly forgot about the frustrating, maddening day that had nearly led me to resigning my travels that I had felt just moments before. I paid for my conditioner and walked out of the store, back to the direction of my hotel, not even hearing the shouts of ‘mzungu, I want bottle!” and gently brushing off the men who grabbed at me to try to get me onto their boda-boda. As I sat in the hotel lobby, making plans for my friend to send my passport back to me, I realized that this is what traveling is all about – resigning the fact that you will be pushed beyond your limits, discovering that you are stronger than you ever believed and pushing through the awful moments to make room for the beautiful ones. I laughed to myself as I added “my passport” and “my unflinching sanity” to my bullet journal page of “Things I Am Letting Go Of” in my journal. After all, what more can you ask for than the blessing of experiencing new countries, new cultures and realizing how small and similar the world is?
I love Namibia, as a country, and many of the people who I met during my years of living there. But I will be the first to admit that I was (and still am) jaded beyond belief after my service. I felt that I had not made as much of a difference in my community as I originally hoped (of course, I recognize that almost every volunteer feels this way – the unattainable sense of accomplishment is what drives us to become Peace Corps volunteers in the first place) and had not changed people’s ideologies as much as I intended, even if only surrounding people from the United States and the roles of women in society. After last evening’s events, I feel a trickling relief and calmness spread throughout my mindset of Namibia and my work that I did there. I feel at peace with those who made my work there difficult, and peace with myself for giving my all to the cause of globalization, understanding of one another and the small impact that I know I had. I feel ready for my next adventures, my next countries I will visit, and subsequently with finding a job that brings me satisfaction and fulfillment in this crazy, unpredictable world.
But first, I wait for the mail system..
Things I Appreciate About Uganda:
- White Coffee – it is nearly impossible (in most of Eastern Africa) to get a black coffee with milk on the side. Most times you are asked if you want black coffee or ‘white coffee’, which consists of half of a cup of coffee and half of a cup of steamed milk. I’m not going to lie, its not bad.. Even for a coffee snob.
- Boda-bodas – I can and probably will spend an absurd amount of money (meaning, $1 or $2 per ride) to hop on the back of these janky motorcycles as transportation throughout the busy city of Kampala. Although certainly not street worthy most of the time, they do not follow normal traffic laws. This is great when you want to get somewhere quickly but would have to sit in a car for 30 minutes to get there, or opt for this careening, driving down an invisible lane, side-swiping cars along the way bodas. When there is no way, these drivers make one.
- The weather – I can see why people come and stay in Uganda when there seems to be a consistent breeze, cool temperatures and sun that is not oppressively, patriarchally hot (you’re welcome, Michael 😉 ). I have spent many happy, lazy mornings here, sitting on the back verandah of my friend’s house, drinking coffee and reading for hours. From what I hear, the weather is like that all year round, making it an optimal place for those who do not enjoy sweating all day, every day.
- English Proficiency – Uganda has been rated as one of the top countries in the developing world for its excellence in the English language (along with Kenya and Zambia), which has come as a welcome relief after traveling through Malawi and Tanzania, where English was not a main focus of the school system. I never realized how much I would appreciate being able to understand the people around me until I lived in a place where English was rarely spoken. It is lovely to see street signs that I understand (Swahili is not as common here as it was in Tanzania, Kenya and Zanzibar) and know that I will be able to communicate with most people I encounter.