Our first week here in Kampala, Uganda was exciting and rather rough. From what I gather, each of us at some point hit a wall. Africa was winning. Trying to do a job we have never done before in a country where we have never been before that has a culture that we have never encountered before makes for a trying week.
At first I thought I had been lied to repeatedly. Everyone, seriously everyone, kept talking about how friendly and kind most Ugandans are. Justices, students, mentors, anyone that lived or lives here spoke of the constant happiness that most Ugandans seem to have. I just didn’t buy it. Especially when at work there were so many protocols, formalities, and so many unsmiling faces for those first few days. I felt awkward and out of place.
Fortunately, I finally realized and let go of many prejudices that I had carried with me from the United States and then had projected onto the people I was meeting. I expected them to be unhappy that I was here. I expected them to think that I was rude or arrogant no matter how I behaved. And that is what I saw. But once I put down my prejudices and decided to just be myself and get to know everyone else for who they are and not what I expected them to be, I was delightfully overwhelmed.
It turns out that I am most certainly awkward across cultures, but fortunately people here laugh just as much and as easily as those back home. One of the justices in the Anti Corruption Court, where Nathan and I work, put it nicely when she said that Ugandans are truly colorblind for better or for worse. At first I balked at this because I have been stared at (and even photographed – see Nathan’s post about our newly acquired fame) so often so far. But then I realized what she meant. Ugandans are color blind in the best way. They don’t pretend that there is nothing different between us; they don’t act like my skin isn’t blindingly white and like my hair isn’t incredibly unruly after a boda boda ride; no, they just don’t hate me for any of those things, at all. No one that I met disliked me as I had expected, nor did anyone expect me to dislike him or her.
In one of our recent cases, this all became very clear. One of the accused (or “defendants” in the U.S.), a 22 year old woman, had what could be the completely unglamorous, unromantic, twisted, true story behind the movie Pretty Woman (the one with Richard Gear and Julia Roberts). This young woman is not experiencing the happy ending that Ms. Roberts did. It is a long story, but it seems that a British man acquired her “services” and then began some sort of relationship with her. He eventually came up with the brilliant idea to make her a co-director and sole proprietor of a new multi-million dollar company that would be called Davishan (a wombination of their two names). This woman has no education, seems to be illiterate, and knows very little English. Once she spent the money that seemed to be coming the same way as the rest of the money had been coming (just from a different account), he complained to police that she had embezzled money from the company (thus, her being in our court). What struck me was when the Justice, out of pity, took a moment to ask this young woman why on some of the papers and documents she was referred to as “Blackie” or why she had taken on the name “Bad Black.” The young woman could offer no real explanation other than that those must be nicknames that David (the British man) had given her. The Justice took a few minutes to explain that in other countries there are histories and prejudices of which this young woman was unaware. She explained that she should not let men or anyone else call her by names that are meant to be derogatory. This woman, born and raised here in Uganda, had no idea.
This really is a colorblind country. Now that I stopped expecting prejudice I am finding that there isn’t any (at least not towards me from the people I have met so far – I do not want to paint the wrong picture; this is still a country coming from a dark past). In fact, the people I know here really are incredibly kind and really do smile and laugh quite easily. You just have to take a moment and get to know them a little better. Friendship will not be forced on you but it is absolutely readily available if you seek it out.
There are some other issues associated with that recent case and with the way the law, the media, and the culture work here. One of those (women’s rights!) may be the topic of another post. But for now, I am loving Uganda! Most especially for its kindness and its patience!