Monday, March 17, 2014

8 Insights into what it's like living in Uganda

Africa is a place that fascinates many of us in the West. It still fascinates me and I live here. I don’t know if it’s the beat of those African drums, the relaxed pace of life, the smiling faces that greet me whenever I’m out and about or that I frequently find myself humoured by the fact that some things can only be explained with a shrug and a smile! There’s just something about this continent. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What it’s like living in Uganda’? Depending on the timeframe given, my answer can range from ‘good’ to a 3 hour conversation. Here’s a quick read that’ll break it down in no particular order:

1. Security. From the moment you step off the plane you’ll notice it. It might be the fact that the UN and the US Air Force were the only other planes at the tiny airport or the fact that everyday you’ll see 50-75 armed guards cruising the streets carrying automatic weapons. Either way, it’s a slight change from NZ. By the way, it’s also not unusual to see plain clothes young men carrying rifles across their chest in a busy marketplace or on their motorbikes. Every time I go into a public place like a shopping district, restaurant, supermarket or hotel – I’ll be patted down, have to put my bag through a check and have my car looked over inside, outside and underside for weapons. One time a particularly vigilant guard asked me directly “Do you have any bombs today madam?” as I was trying to park the car. Not today pal. Most foreigners living here have a full time day and night guard and live in a compound with barbed wire fencing and big metal padlocked gates.  All windows here have bars across them as a security measure. There are police out in force 24/7.  Especially at the only 10 traffic lights in Kampala (everywhere else is free reign). The police try their hardest to ensure people obey the road rules. With their solid frames, white uniforms soaked in sweat, cheeks filled with air from blowing whistles, hands waving vigorously and batons for anyone that dare charges the lights, its quite the sight.

2. Weather. Uganda is on the equator which means that the temperature is pretty constant year round – 27-31 degrees Celsius most days. When it rains, it rains like you’d expect in the songs you hear about African rain. These tropical rainstorms usually lasts a couple hours before clearing to the hazy/smoggy blue sky that covers most of the country year round. You sweat every day and your body is consistently caked in a fine layer of red dust that never quite comes out.

3. Transport. One has four options. 1. Walking. 2. Matatu (van that legally seats 10 but actually seats 15 humans, a few chickens and fish strapped to the exterior bullbars). 3. BodaBoda’s  - these motorcycles make the city feel alive. With the loud engines, dodgy driving and colourful characters driving them – this is not for the faint of heart. We’ve personally see an average of one accident every few weeks.  4. Cars – we are driving a massive (former UN) Land Cruiser Troop Carrier 4.2Litre Diesel engine. It feels great to be driving a vehicle that can ram anything off the road. This attitude is of course of great concern to Tim with my driving record. 

4. Food.  You buy most of your food at markets here and then pick up the rest of your items from a small supermarket (like a 4Square in NZ).  Fresh vegetables and fruit are offered on almost every street corner in the country. Tropical fruit like mangoes, pineapples and passion fruit are staples and most other vegetables we eat in the West are available. Quality varies from stall to stall and we often buy fruit and veg twice a week to keep things fresh in the constant heat. The local staple food had every day by Ugandans  is matoke, beans, rice, posha, and g-nut.    If you pull over to the side of the road while driving, you’ll have 25 Ugandans run up to your car trying to sell you anything from toilet paper to a goat (we hope) kebab stick. If we want a quick local snack we go for a rolex (a chapatti (local bread) with a fried egg/tomato/cabbage omelette wrapped inside it). That’ll set you back NZ$0.50 and fill you up. There’s also a handful of safe and yummy places to go out to eat.

5. Little Challenges. Brushing your teeth with bottled water.  Dealing with Mzingu (white people) prices for everyday goods and services. Being surrounded by corruption in every facet of life. Unrelenting traffic almost 24/7. Pot holes so deep and roads so bad I have taken to wearing a sports bra when driving. Sleeping under a mosquito net every single night. Getting in and out of our house with multiple keys and padlocks. Monster sized biting ants, dragon flys, bees, snakes, lizards and birds (in the house of course).   

6. Being the minority. Uganda is a country of 32 million. 50% of its population is under the age of 15. There are literally ‘kids for Africa’. Life expectancy here is age 55.  Whenever I go out,  I am the minority. I hop on a bus and people stare at me from all angles for the trip. This is uncomfortable. I go to a pool and I’ll be the only white one in a pool full of black ones. When I go for a walk children (and sometimes adults) point and yell out ‘Mizungu, Mizungu (white person)’.  I often wave and smile, even take pictures with the kids. Somehow I don’t think I’d get away with doing that to Africans in NZ!

7. Time. It’s just different here. In New Zealand I plan my days and even my weekends into hourly chunks. Quite often I even plan ‘relaxation time’. Here, that would be ridiculous, unrealistic and probably offensive. Life in Uganda moves at a slow, relaxed pace. Nothing happens quickly. If the water or power goes out, no-one really knows why or when it will be fixed. And they don’t seem to mind. If we do call someone, their phone is off. Then, three days later and with no rhyme or reason, it’s back on. If you’re late it’s not a big deal, it’s expected and appreciated.  

8. Morals. God is important here. The majority of Ugandans would say they have a Christian faith and attend church. Whether or not they’re living a Christian lifestyle is another question. Respect for your elders is paramount and the African saying of it takes a village to raise a child comes to life here. It’s normal to be raised by a variety of ‘Mama’s’ ranging from your Aunt to your Grandma. A poverty mentality can see some people living for today, not for tomorrow. Instead of letting a tree grow big juicy fruit, they’ll pick it at ¼ of the size and make the money for today. Instead of letting a small tree grow, they’ll cut it down for firewood tonight.

And so for a planner/organiser like me, my plan is quite simply that I have no plan here. I try to relax into the madness and let it humour, challenge and amuse me as oppose to annoy me. And somehow I find amongst all the chaos, a joy and contentment like no other and a fire in my heart for Uganda and her people that I pray will never go out.  Long may the adventure continue!

-Helen -

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