The most asked question I’ve received since I went on my trip is, “What was your favorite part?” It’s not a bad question – it’s just incredibly hard to answer. To help answer that question I’ve gathered some of my first and lasting impressions of the trip – and in no way have I tried to narrow those down to just one or two things. Too bad. It’s also bad to generalize, so keep in mind these are impressions from only 3 weeks.
1. I could never drive in Uganda. I know…never say never. But seriously – it’s amazing how traffic moves with hardly any stop lights or signs. Or rules? I mean, I saw one traffic light in Kampala but the boda-bodas (motorcycles) didn’t obey it, only taxi buses and cars. We encountered a lot of construction as we drove north to Lira and south to Lake Bunyonyi. Construction is a good sign – making the roads better! But the road would essentially be down to one lane, while one side waits until it’s their turn. Unless you didn’t feel like waiting – then you could drive around other cars to get closer to the front of the line, or just go for it. Whatever. Driving was the only place I encountered a sense of impatience.
2. The culture of relationships is very different than my experience in the United States. Hospitality was overwhelming at times.
Take for example when Liz and I would visit schools: The U.S. culture would be to emphasize efficiency and time management. Get in, get the surveys administered, and get out. From our point of view, that would allow us to get the data we need with a minimal interruption to the teachers’ day. What happened there was that we would spend time talking to the head teacher (i.e. principal), then we would talk to the deputy head teacher and get a tour of the school. At almost every school we went to, we were introduced to every single classroom – in every single classroom, the students lesson was interrupted so they could greet and welcome us. We would then personally hand over the survey after explaining it to the teacher. It’s about relationships. In the United States, if you were on your way to work and saw a friend/acquaintance you might wave and continue walking so you wouldn’t be late to work. In Uganda, you would stop to see how your friend is doing and inquire about their family as well.
I will admit there were several times when I was so frustrated by the amount of time it would take to literally do anything. And yet, I also think that relationships in the US can be weak as our focus is placed elsewhere (?). I am glad for the frustration I felt in Uganda because it gave me the opportunity to really evaluate how I operate in my “normal” life. I do see the need to balance my fast-paced existence in the US with emphasizing the value of relationships and people.
2a. In addition the the relationship building, something that stood out to me was the care and responsibility that people had for their families. Several people I met told stories of being the eldest child, and therefore responsible for their parents or for school fees for younger kids in their family. Our taxi driver, Emma, was helping to support 15 people in his household. After being separated much of their childhood, he worked really hard to reunite his siblings – some under his own roof if need be. I have been blessed with a very close immediate family, as has my husband. But looking more broadly, I don’t know that we see that type of responsibility much in the United States. If a sibling called me today and said they needed to live with us, I wouldn’t hesitate. If a friend? A cousin? Just a neighbor? The reaction would be more calculating and evaluated I think. What would you do?
For some of the women I met, you could almost feel the responsibility and see the weight on their shoulders. It cannot be easy to financially or otherwise be supporting an entire family or extended family (it can’t be easy anywhere!) - but not a single one of them appeared to think there was another option. Their strength was amazing and something I will never forget.
3. I have never seen such a lush green landscape in my life. The boldness of the colors is something I have never truly seen before. I wrote this in my notebook on our drive back to Kampala from Lira: Such a sea of luscious green, grounded in dusty red earth. Along the towns and countryside, you see bursts of the most hopeful and vibrant blue, brightest white smiles, markets dotted with yellow and shiny red produce stacked in pyramids. Buildings half-finished or half-destroyed, it’s often hard to tell. It’s different, and it’s beautiful.
4. International development is difficult. There are many different views on how (or even if) it should be done. When talking to Davis, the head teacher at Wakiso Christian International Academy (pictured above), he explained something to me that no text book will ever state so personally. He said, “People in the United States have everything but also so much sorrow. People in Uganda have nothing, but they do have joy, so much perpetual joy. We need to balance and work together. Uganda has much to share with you, just as the US has much to share.”
5. Ice cold Coca-Cola in a glass bottle just tastes better in Africa. Period. No questions.
Still to come in the Uganda series: Women’s Leadership Retreat, 24 hours in Rwanda, and the most anticipated “post-trip” packing post! Stay Tuned!