Sunday, November 29, 2015

You Gotta Uganda

When I say “Uganda”, quick, what do you think of?

Idi Amin? Joseph Kony & the Lord’s Resistance Army?  The Book of Mormon?  Chelsea Handler?

All wonderful contributing options to society (not), but I honestly didn’t think anything about Uganda besides the fact that someone I ran into in Lamu told me it was pretty.  So I went.  And I fell in love with it.  And then I left.  And then I came back.  And I lost myself there.  And so here’s the first blog post in two months, woo hoo!!

This probably sounds ignorant, but I assumed that Uganda would be a repeat of Kenya, just with more gorillas and rivers.  Not so.  I was stupidly shocked at how different the people, the environment, and the culture was.

I had no idea skin could get so dark.  Some men were so absolutely black that they almost looked ashy.  I found out later from a friend that there are tribes in the north that place people, starting at infancy, out in the sun for hours at a time, making themselves so dark that their skin starts to have a blue-ish shimmery tint to it.  I wanted to touch it.  But the Superego took over and pushed the Id back in its place.  Sigh.

I’ve also never seen so many rifles & AK-47s.  Actually, I’ve never seen so many guns being mishandled.  Ever since my overnight layover in Egypt on the way here, rifles have become a common object of the environment.  Almost all security guards and police have some kind of huge firearm slung over their shoulder as they slouch in chairs in front of banks or as they slowly stroll down streets casually giving everyone an uninvolved but suspicious eye.  As someone that didn’t grow up around guns and who has handled them on only two separate occasions, it took a bit of getting used to seeing them so often, out in the open in crowded areas.  Man, I thought I saw a lot of rifles in Kenya, but that number must have doubled in Uganda.  They’re everywhere.  I hardly register them in my mind anymore as I often march up to police & security guards to ask for directions (they usually know what bus to hop on and where things are located better than the motorbike drivers).

Even us greenies know that the number one rule of holding/owning/thinking about a gun is that you never point it at another person.  Even if it’s not loaded.  Ever.  Somebody forgot to tell everyone here that.  It’s not that they point them at civilians, it’s that they point them carelessly at OTHER POLICE OFFICERS.  Cops will lean against lamp posts or walls with their guns resting on the ground, either pointing at themselves or at the cop standing next to them.  I even saw two police officers sit at a bar together to eat dinner and one officer laid her rifle horizontally on her lap WITH THE DANGER END POINTING AT THE OFFICER NEXT TO HER!!!  I could barely concentrate on what my friend was saying over dinner because I was too engrossed thinking about how much shit would hit the fan if anything went wrong.
I love visiting museums in Africa for gems like this: a small diorama featuring Edward Gorey-esque early humans.  Is that supposed to be Eve reaching for the apple?  I have no idea.  Africans usually aren't ironic or subtle about anything, but who knows.
On the other hand, it’s really safe here.  Being out in the city alone at night is not a problem.  Being out in the city along during the day is not a problem.  Motorbikes are safe and reliable.  Petty theft is always a problem, but it involves stealth, it never involves knives & guns like it does in Kenya.  Crowds are not an issue, unless it’s a political rally.  Most of the safety concerns that I dealt with in Kenya were a non-issue here, giving me much more time to enjoy the city of Kampala and stop and talk to people on the street.  It’s exhausting operating under the assumption that everyone around you is going to mug you (thanks for that, Nairobbery. I mean, Nairobi).

Trendy hostel artwork and my current better half: the laptop.
And praise the Lord!: the men are much less aggressive.  I didn’t get propositioned for anything until my third day.  I was on the back of a motorbike that was going 60 kph zipping through heavy downtown traffic.  I was distractedly chatting with the driver who didn’t seem concerned at all that we both has to shimmy our shoulders from side to side to avoid hitting the side mirrors on all the cars we were squeezing in between.  Right before he dropped me off, he casually asked if I would give him my number.  I shook my head and laughed and said, “No, I don’t give my number to anyone.” and winced and waited for whatever armory of comebacks he had.  He just shrugged and waited as I fished around in my wallet for money to pay him.  I had to pause for a minute and process both the ecstasy that it was that easy to turn someone away, and the indignation that “Hey (as I jab him in the side), aren’t you going to try harder?  Aren’t I worth the effort for that green card I know you want?”  Nevertheless, I stopped wearing that fake wedding ring in Uganda (it reappeared in Rwanda, but that’s a story for another day).

And it was so refreshing to stop and briefly talk to men without them asking for my number at some point in the conversation.  I was downtown watching a huge festival parade and stopped to take a photo.  A man about my age walking in front of me saw that I was taking a photo and ducked.  Ducked!  The conscientiousness stunned me, so I stopped him and thanked him.  Then asked for directions.  He pointed me to the general area and sent me on my way with a smile and a wave.  Yeah, I could definitely get used to this.

At said festival downtown.  On the left, we have a typical street vendor grilling the living daylights out of whatever meat that is, maybe beef, or goat.  Eating those kababs is like chewing on blocks of rubber coated with hot grease and salt.  On the right, we have two school girls looking on as a man checks himself in a mirror shard as he gets his face painted with his football team's colors.
I usually prefer to ask people for directions rather than bury my head in my phone.  Honestly, probably 40% of directions people give me are wrong, so I try to double or triple check with other people I pass.  It helps me interact with more people and I avoid pulling out my phone as much as possible since it makes me a target for theft even more than my skin does.  That’s why I don’t take many photos.  But who knows who you’ll meet!  I asked one Ugandan woman on the bus from Kenya to Uganda for directions to my hostel in Kampala and she ended up buying some phone credit for me and negotiating a good price for a boda motorbike.  So naturally, I had to buy her breakfast.


Part of me missed Kenya just because I got used to the way it breathed.  While things never quite went the way you’d expect them to, I was there long enough that nothing shocked or surprised me anymore.  The poverty, the way restaurants were frequently out of half of the items on the menu, the city traffic, the advances of both beggars and suitors, I had it all down to a science.  I was glad to move on, but it also required me to start the process all over again.  This was a new country with new people, a new language, and a new way of looking at the world (that’s a broad way to think about it, but it helps me to not generalize or slowly slide into racism).  

But this is what I live for, right?  I love change.  I love new environments and meeting new people.  Naturally being a constant problem-solver, I love giving myself a cultural puzzle and seeing how it gets solved.  And it’s amazing how far you can go with nothing but a prayer and a smile; I’m always astounded at how much God provides when you’re in a foreign country and don’t speak the language, it really is nothing short of a miracle when you can manage to find food and accommodation every day.

The ultimate puzzle: the taxi park!
After just a week in Uganda, I wish I had four more months to wander around and learn the heartbeat of this land.  It felt so much easier than Kenya, and the work ethic was stronger and personalities were less assertive and manipulative.  But it also made me glad that I experienced Kenya first and was able to relax a bit more here.

I splurged and forked over the $35/night for my own safari tent in Jinja with a view of the Nile. What a drag, right?

It’s safe, it’s cheap, it’s beautiful, and the people are nice.  Go to Uganda.  

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