May, 2019 back to Apr, 2007: (nothing)
Language is one of the most obvious differences in culture between here and Canada.
Every tribe in Uganda (and there are a lot) has its own language. Some of these languages are similar, and they can be lumped into categories: the tribes around northern Uganda speak similar languages, for instance. Within the same categories, some languages are mutually intelligible. A Langi (resident of Lira) can speak with an Acholi (resident of Gulu), for instance. Both are speaking in different languages, and yet they understand one another.
My travels have led me to three different groupings of languages: the north (Nilotic languages, in particular Acholi); central (Luganda, in the kingdom of Buganda, home to the Baganda tribe, in the capital of Uganda); and the southwest (I can't remember the name of the language: it had an A, a K and I think an L in it somewhere).
While the phonetics may be different, the messages are the same. For instance: even before coming to Uganda I wanted to learn some regional languages, so I asked how to say, Hello in Swahili. I was surprised to find out that one does not say, Hello, ever: one says, How are you?. And of course, the response is, I am fine. As far as I know, there is no direct translation of Hello to Swahili or any of the local languages. (I have asked many people.)
Prejudice is a hard habit to shake. My opinion is that it is impossible to avoid prejudice: just take one look at somebody and your mind is bound to make various assumptions. Not that there's anything wrong with that: it's just the way we are, as human beings.
One glance at somebody in Kampala should be plenty to form a rather accurate estimation of that person's worth. As a simplification, I present a scale. Here is how to determine a person's value, from one to ten:
- Clean clothes: without clean clothes, you're worthless. Even beggars have clean clothes.
- Clean, tear-free clothes: clothes without holes or rips are a step up.
- Clean, new clothes: clothes which show no signs of fraying are even better (and sorry, obviously-second-hand clothes, such as t-shirts, don't count). Congratulations: if you've made it this far, you've reached the first major tier of respectability.
- Clean, new clothes and a cell phone: you're important enough to talk to people. Airtime and battery life aren't necessary: you can just pretend there's somebody on the line with you. But flaunt that cell phone, because it's a sign of wealth.
- Clean, new clothes and a nice cell phone: wow, great phone! Again, airtime and battery aren't necessary. But you can play games on that phone, so that more passers-by will see it.
- Clean, new clothes, a nice cell phone, and a watch: the watch is great because it's always visible. It doesn't matter if the watch doesn't work: anybody who asks you for the time evidently doesn't have a functional watch, so you're better than they are anyway.
- Clean, new clothes, a nice cell phone, a watch, and creased pants: the crease in the pants means you have an iron at home, which means you can afford electricity.
- Clean, new, creased clothes, a nice cell phone, a watch, and accessories: a cell phone holder, a necklace, or other flashy objects show that you have money to burn. Be sure all accessories are clearly visible.
- A car: you've reached a major plateau of wealth. The bigger the better: bigger cars get right-of-way in high-traffic areas.
- White skin: you're so respectable, you're practically inhuman.
This is a rather crude scale: you could wear a watch and not have a cell phone, for instance. But make sure you don't get accessories if you're too low on the scale: if you have many accessories but no cell phone, then you're obviously trying too hard. Finally, there are other sundry modifications which will also affect people's opinion of you:
Old Taxi Park during the day
All matatus can be divided into three categories:
- Matatus which are converging upon Old Taxi Park or New Taxi Park
- Matatus which are leaving Old Taxi Park or New Taxi Park
- Matatus which are gridlocked in and around Old Taxi Park or New Taxi Park
A private organization runs the taxi parks. This includes owning the land, setting up signposts, hiring people to clear jams, and hiring people to direct passengers.
When I traveled in London, I was surprised at how many people were using cell phones. I wondered if this is the apex of civilization: everybody communicating with everybody far away, ignoring everybody nearby. I assumed that poorer countries would have fewer cell phones, for the simple reason that they have less money.
Wrong. In Uganda, anybody who's anybody has a cell phone. I have yet to meet a Ugandan who cannot readily make a phone call: either with a personal cell phone, a friend's cell phone, or a cell phone stall. (Residents of IDP camps are a possible exception.) Ten minutes after meeting somebody, we'll be exchanging cell phone numbers.
I have accumulated approximately 50 friends so far, and they are all stored in my wee little cell phone.
All barriers to owning a cell phone can be overcome:
A gorilla-tracking license costs USD$375 for a non-resident. That's over UGX656,000. That's more than it cost for a weekend at Murchison Falls in a fancy resort, and aside from Murchison it's around the same amount of money that I've spent in the past month. And I'm living like a king compared with most Ugandans. In other words, seeing the gorillas costs a fortune.
Some background: in 1966, a woman named Dian Fossey went to Rwanda to research the endangered mountain gorillas. She befriended the gorillas there and eventually brought a whole lot of awareness to the rest of the world. She wrote a book, Gorillas in the Mist, and a movie by the same name followed. She was brutally murdered in 1985. At that time she was a huge influence against poachers, tourism organizers, and other organizations: plenty of people would have been happy to see her go, and evidently one of those people took action.
In the Rwanda genocide, the camp where she stayed was destroyed. There are some remnants of her cabin left over, which I hope to visit in the coming weeks. Despite Dian Fossey's wishes, there is a quiet tourism business in the region. In Uganda, as many as 24 tourists (three groups of eight) will see gorillas for an hour a day. There are about 350 mountain gorillas in Bwindi and 350 others in Rwanda. Their population is slowly growing.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: a rainforest in southwestern Uganda. For USD$375, tourists are permitted to follow a guide to track gorillas in the forest. After an hour with gorillas (in which tourists can take pictures), tourists must return to Buhoma, the nearest village. The price is non-refundable, and there is no guarantee that the gorillas will be found. Three groups of gorillas are tracked, and at most eight people (plus a guide, plus two security guards) can track each group each day. (The security guards there are because of a 1999 incident involving Rwandan Hetu rebels, AK-47s, and short-lived tourists. I personally find it somewhat funny that such an unstable area of the world is home to such an exclusive tourist attraction.)
These are all pictures I took while in Gulu. I did not take many more: I feel it's in bad taste to act like a tourist in Gulu. Mostly, I took pictures when nobody was looking.
The Internet is slower than a matatu in Kampala rush hour traffic, but since I'm heading to Bwindi tomorrow (to see the gorillas) now is an appropriate time for me to clean out my camera. Excuse the small-ness of these images: accost me upon my return to Canada, and I can show larger, non-cropped versions. (If I'm lucky, I'll be able to bring back video footage as well....)
Spot the NGO: there are at least seven signs for NGOs at this intersection.
A cat in Unyama, an Internally Displaced Persons camp near Gulu.
Today, on the way from Mengo hill to Mulago hill, I tried to be as normal as possible:
- Hopped on a mutatu, edging my way ahead of another person in that social game of chicken which is the result of a complete lack of lines. I had waited long enough, so I deserved to get the next matatu. Failure: I asked the conductor, in English, whether this matatu was going to New Park. I still can't figure out how everybody else figures this out.
- Rode the matatu to New Park, scrunched to the side. Failure: I couldn't help myself: I had to look out the window as we rode, because there is so much to see. (Everybody usually just stares straight ahead.)
- Got off the matatu in an orderly fashion.
- Made my way from where the matatu left me to New Park without even getting confused about directions.
- Walked to the proper corner of New Park to where I knew the Mulago matatus lie in wait.
- Failure: I asked someone whether this was the matatu to Mulago. While I was asking, another person jumped into the last seat. So I had to go into another mutatu and wait for it to fill up.
- Failure: after saying webale to the person who directed me to that mutatu, I simply did not understand the long, fast stream of Luganda (the major language in Kampala) he gave in response.
- Failure: there were two children crammed in next to me. They stared at me and called me mzungu. (I don't think it's common for mzungus to take matatus in the morning, especially alone, solely because most mzungus are too lofty to do so.)
- At an appropriate moment, softly (everyone speaks softly here) called out konducta (I still don't know whether that's Luganda or just conductor with an English-style accent) and paid my fare.
- At an appropriate moment, softly called out masao so the matatu would stop and let me off.
- Gave a completely nonchalant and impersonal webale (thank you) to the conductor and received a completely nonchalant and impersonal kale in return.
So, while I may make mistakes, they're mostly unavoidable, owing to my being white. As I walked away from the matatu, I felt a bit of pride: I am now at the point where not only am I comfortable with a normal Kampala lifestyle, but also my fellow passengers can see a mzungu who isn't a complete tourist.
I'm back from Gulu now. I'm staying at Backpackers, a hostel on Mengo hill in Kampala, while I search for an apartment.
When I got into my room, I started friendly conversation with a traveller in a neighbouring bunk. Not surprisingly, he didn't know anything about Gulu. I immediately thought to myself, you decide your level of involvement.
Speaking of which, there is something in Gulu that I am missing today: one of the founders of Gulu Walk is visiting. Gulu Walk was founded in 2005 by a pair of Canadians. Instead of sleeping in their beds at night, Adrian Bradbury and Kieran Hayward decided to walk 7.5km to Toronto's city hall, sleep for only four hours (due to time constraints), walk back to their homes, and continue with their normal lives. Jobs, social life, etc. They did this every night, for a month. They blogged about their experience, and raised a lot of awareness (and cash) which provides tremendous help to the children in Northern Uganda.
They will readily admit that they didn't have to worry about malaria. They didn't have to worry about food, clothing, or shoes. And most importantly, they had their safety nets, in the forms of money, family, and friends.
I visited the Unyama IDP camp today. It is home to 20 thousand displaced Acholi Ugandans. Unyama is a short drive from Gulu: I tried to imagine, on the way back, what it would be like to be a child walking down the dark road to Gulu for shelter.
My first impression of this camp is that it is relatively well-organized. The elder gave us a tour, and he readily answered my questions about the lifestyle.
Again, for my third time visiting absolute poverty, I got defensive: thinking to myself, it's not all that bad, right? Again, I told myself that things could be worse.
And things could be worse. The camp has schools and wells, which serve an impressive number of residents. In the past month, despite the heat, only seven huts' thatched roofs burned down. In some sections, the huts are very nicely spread-out. The past rainy seasons have formed ditches which I imagine will provide reasonable drainage once the rains start. NGO-sponsored buildings and sustainable, income-generating activities can be seen everywhere.
This is the dry season. If I just sit in a room and do nothing all day, my pants are filthy by the end of it.
Back in Canada, I washed my pants when they were dirty. I only wore about four pairs total, and I didn't even wash them all when laundry day came around.
Here in Gulu, at this time of year, I simply must wash my pants every day. And it's not because I'm vain: cleanliness is very important here, and walking around Gulu with dirty clothes would be a faux-pas.
All the local crazy-people wear dirty clothes. One peacefully accosted me yesterday at a huge Women's Day celebration (which lasted until about 4am). Another is famous for latching on to passers-by's wrists and not letting go. (I fell into his trap....) The one local madman who doesn't wear dirty clothes is the naked man, who wears no clothes at all.