Cultural Lessons

2 03 2010

One of the things I love about my role is going to the villages. It affords me opportunity to share with strangers what we do in their community. It allows me to listen alot and just soak it all in. The village is one big cultural lesson. When I go out to the village, I am usually with my assistant, translator and jack of all trades – Kaye. He’s great and has been a blessing as we talk about everything and anything in our car rides. Our office administrator calls us siamese twins because if I go to the village alone, I’m hosed. Sometimes the people will speak English, other times in Luganda. The other thing is I have no clue how to get to some of these places without a trusty guide. Like yesterday, we had to take a back road because there was an accident with a overturned truck on the main road. It was raining like crazy and we were on this narrow muddy and steep road. Lots of fish-tailing on the Rav4. Everything looks the same when your landmarks are trees (there are no street names).

So as I had to process all the cultural nuances, here are a few that just boggle me.

Gestures

I remember growing up and giving my friends the head nod as a sign for ‘sup!’. Here Ugandans love to use facial gestures. The problem is they don’t tell me what it means. Boda drivers will raise their eyebrows to get your attention. It looks sometimes as a ‘come on’. My Ugandan colleagues in the office always love to raise their eyebrows to and make a ‘mmmmm’ sound when I talk. Are they affirming me? I have no clue what they’re thinking. I haven’t had a chance to ask Kaye about it yet.

Hand Signals

This is even funnier. Usually if you want to wave down a taxi in the states, you whistle or wave your hand. I tried doing that when I needed a boda here and they just passed me by. The secret is to nod your head with the eye brows raised. How in the world are they supposed to see that from 200 feet away? And then there’s the driving hand signals. I see the thumbs up when people want to signal or turn. Wait a second… there are really no rules to driving. I’ve driven several times and there is no common courtesy. You have to drive aggressively. New York cabbies have nothing on these matatu (taxi bus) drivers and crazy pot holes. The ironic thing is when they want to tell drivers off, they don’t really yell at you, they just shake their fingers towards you like ‘shame on you’.

Personal Space

I was out in the village today with Kaye and we were meeting with some pastors. After that meeting I needed to confirm a future legal education so we went to the edge of our project area to talk with the person who is helping us mobilize this community. I walked around the venue where it’s going to be held (it’s super rustic, see pics below) and it’s great because the homes are right next to the venue. After we left, I knew of a roadside stop where there are a ton of food vendors and I wanted machomo (kind of like kabobs) so we drove down the hill and onto the main road. When we pulled up to the vendors, we were swarmed by 40 people all unionized wearing their blue vests selling machomo, gonja (it’s not pot, it’s grilled plantains), water, fruit, and anything from the animal. Our windows were rolled up but these people pressed their goods on the window yelling do you want water, beef, liver, chicken, goat, gonja? The idea of personal space is kind of lost. Kaye told me that my predecessor Jaime and another ex-pat Suhanya were riding in the village once and stopped at a similar roadside stand. Kaye and Jaime left the car to buy some food with Suhanya taking a short nap in the back seat. The windows were rolled down and when Suhanya awoke, she had whole chicken legs on a stick and other animal parts shoved in her face. Personal space violated. My personal space was encroached on when I road the matatu last week. Now the matatu is a well oiled machine. There are thousands of these mini-buses that drive all over Uganda and can take you from one end of the country to the other dirt cheap. I took the matatu back from our project area which is about 20 km from Kampala for .75 cents. Now the thing about the matatu is the frequent stops. They make their money hauling passengers, dropping off and picking up new ones. When I boarded my matatu, there were only three people in it. The sticker outside the van said ‘not to exceed 12 passengers’. Would they really obey this rule? Silly me, of course not. At the height of my ride and passenger load, there were 17 people in our van which is a little bigger than a Honda Odyssey. I had a lady that was leaning on me, it was a hot day, and it just didn’t smell good. Personal space violated.

The Hand Shake

As Jack Black said to Lawrence in ‘School of Rock’ – “slap it, shoot it, kaboot it”. The Ugandan handshake consists of the universal handshake, then the ‘right on my brother handshake’ and then back to the universal handshake. Now I don’t know but I have followed along and this is how I shake hands with Ugandans. I don’t discriminate, it’s the same handshake when I greet the women (no one told me if we’re supposed to greet them differently). The problem is I don’t know when to stop. We tend to shake hands a lot so I greet the people with a handshake, and then a few minutes later I may greet them again. It makes greeting a fun excercise.

Thanks for reading, I’m sure I’ll be adding more cultural faux pas soon.

This is restricted personal space in the village. Not pictured is the cow tie to a tree five feet from the squatty potty

This pic shows a more calm group of vendors. Mine swarmed the car today

This is why I love going to the village. Great views, clean air, and rural

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