Culture Shock Therapy

Posted March 6, 2007 in Uganda

(This is part 3 of 3 in my series on culture shock. As a reminder: Part 1, Mzungu, discusses my unavoidable position as an outsider. Part 2, Life is Cheap, attempts to illustrate that Ugandans live life on the edge.)

(Oh, and I'll say one last time: NGO means non-governmental organization. They're the people funded by governments and by donations, with a goal of helping people. Nobody I've met here, mzungu or otherwise, seems to know the term. Except NGO employees.)

(Okay, on with the show.)

Two weeks ago, in the slum in Kampala, I volunteered for an Ugandan NGO called Meeting Point. At the time, my mind was still reeling after my first trip to Gulu. At the forefront of my thoughts were the two ideas I mentioned previously: I am a mzungu, and I will always be different, and the people here live life day-to-day. Beyond wanting to help random people I've never met, I wanted to evince some meaning from it all. Maybe it was the hot sun, or maybe it was hearing child number 12728 yelling mzungu!.... Whatever the cause, I understood something about culture shock.

And then I forgot it. I'll try to piece together the fragments I remember. Understand that what I write here seems blatantly obvious to me at this point, because I don't think in the same way I used to. I am writing for an audience whose point of view I do not understand.

There is a common stance in the West that we owe it to ourselves to help random people on the other side of the world (to phrase it cynically). There is also some notion that the culture in Africa is precious and beautiful. I think most of my readers agree with those two Western views, and I don't know to what extent the paradox is evident.

What is culture? Culture is crafts we bring home. Culture is incessant cries of mzungu. Culture is hoppin' Kampala night life. Culture is food. Culture is dancing. Culture is music. Culture is monkeys and safaris. Right? This is the reason to travel to Uganda. Right?

Why do we care so much back home about the culture, anyway? Is it because we feel we don't have any? I doubt that. We have tons of culture.

Maybe it's because deep down we don't like our culture. I know that's a reason I came to Uganda. Sure, we have night life, opera, ballet, theatre, and bad music. But there is also a dark side to our culture: our culture is stress, ignorance, and consumerism. I'll steal a quote from Trainspotting:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday night. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life.

In Africa, culture takes on a whole new meaning. Culture is laid back: broad smiles, arbitrarily long lunch hours, and greeting and loving everybody you meet. Culture is an outlook on life and people: an outlook which is indescribably beautiful.

Or maybe culture is tribes, complete with inter-tribal tensions. Culture is alcoholism, prostitution, promiscuity, sexism, violence, rape, disease, the rich/poor abyss, war, parentless children, concrete walls, barbed wire, AK-47s, and living life day-to-day. Et cetera. (Yes, I just said et cetera. Culture is cynicism.)

Culture is taking what the NGOs give you and then trying to convince them to give you more. Because at least with them, there's a chance of getting food on your table.

And that's just it, right? Something made me realize that I am a part of the culture, right here, right now. So are Japan, Canada, Denmark, and the United States: they supplied the food I was distributing, as part of the World Food Program. The World Food Program encompasses many more countries than the four I just named, and all those countries played some part in getting those 15 bags of rice into 15 homes. (And hopefully they'll play their part next week getting 15 new bags of rice into 14 homes and one orphanage. Situations change quickly in Africa.)

Meeting Point is structured such that HIV-affected families can get back on their feet in a constructive manner. I know this, because I've read the pamphlets and I've seen it at work. But to most people I saw in the slum--even the recipients, who applied personally for the service--it's probably the African version of Santa Claus. And I (the mzungu) likely appeared to be a PR stunt. Culture is that point of view.

Do you want to save lives in northern Uganda? Cynically speaking, that would be missing the entire point. Ten years from now it'll be the same thing all over again: maybe in eastern Uganda. Maybe the next gruesome genocide will be in Sudan instead of Rwanda. (Oh wait, it already is.) And that's because the culture is stronger than the individuals who unconsciously back it. Those individuals comprise the people living here and the people observing (or ignoring) from afar. Culture is the ignorance of rich countries. (And I'll save more on that thought for another blog post or two. Thousand.)

There is a lot that NGOs can do (and are doing) to improve the world. The systems which actually seem to work, to me, do so by consciously changing the culture. Microcredit, for instance, works by changing the way clients think about money. Community-building projects work by consciously altering community members' priorities in life. Fair trade establishments work by integrating themselves with the communities surrounding them. (Okay, so fair trade isn't directly run by NGOs; but the NGOs play their parts.) Meeting Point works by instilling a sense of support, structure, and hope. The common theme is empowerment. And so the paradox is: how can we say these systems work if they simply change the culture into something more Western? Don't we want to preserve the culture, so Africa doesn't end up like us?

The correct answer (which ought to be a gut reaction but which I think may not be obvious to most people) is to throw that question out the window. I didn't define what it means for a system to work. (I refuse to do so, because that would imply metrics; a choice of metrics would imply that I know what is best for other people, and I do not.) More interesting to me, though, is that I didn't define the term culture. There is some implicit assumption that it can stay fixed, and that assumption is obviously, drastically wrong.

The culture in Africa is changing at an alarming pace. Cellular phones are now everywhere. Computers are moving in. Roads are becoming overcrowded. Mzungu attitudes in rich countries vary with the Western media's viewpoints (all information from Africa is hearsay, anyway, including mine). Things change fast. Some problems solve themselves, some problems remain unsolved, and new problems arise.

I harbour a firm belief that the above-mentioned NGO-operated systems effect a huge positive impact on a sizable number of lives, more than making up for their undesired side-effects. For better or for worse, they change the culture. Consciously changing the culture is not cheating: it is, at the very least, being somewhat aware of the consequences of our actions. And that should be obvious, when you think about it: everything begins and ends with culture.

Do not ask how can we improve people's lives without affecting their culture. Instead, ask how we should change the culture to improve people's lives.

Suddenly, with that perspective, development seems easier and harder at the same time. (Hrm, is my ideal career moving towards development?) The goal is to choose the best aspects of Western culture and integrate them into African culture. While we're at it, why not pick the best aspects of African culture and bring them back to the West? Or, for the inspired: create new, better cultures, and implement them where they make sense. (My blog, for instance, is becoming an attempt to amplify a slowly-budding subculture, awareness, to my many readers.)

The world is rapidly shrinking and growing simultaneously. Everything we think and do is a part of our new cultures. At first glance, cultures control people. In reality, though, people control their cultures. Like it or not, we are all doing our part, every minute of every day.

I feel I now understand a little bit about culture and my place in it. In the coming two months I will undoubtedly learn a lot more. But I suspect I will no longer be surprised by people's thoughts or actions, since I can in some sense understand the bigger picture. Was it a healthy dose of cynicism? I like to think it was a flash of realism and inspiration. Whatever the cause, that Wednesday two weeks ago, I overcame my culture shock.

Fun Fact: According to World Vision, 62% of children living in displaced persons camps in northern Uganda are victims of sexual abuse. Happily, 34% of sexual abuse victims are given basic needs (such as food) in return!