Perceptions, Misconceptions, and Reverse Culture Shock

Ohayon Jillianby Jillian Ohayon

Perceptions & Misconceptions

Here are some of the things that were said to me in Canada when I told people I would be spending the summer in Uganda:

“What’d you do to piss your dad off?” – My father’s (very loud and rather obnoxious) acquaintance, whom I met in the Montreal airport on my way to Uganda

“Is it for a punishment?” – My Cameroonian Uber driver in downtown Montreal

“If you can’t afford to fund the difference on your own, maybe you should get a real job in the summer instead of doing an internship in Africa.” – McGill financial advisor

***

The first thing that I’ll say is that the general Canadian public’s perception of East Africa, and Uganda in particular, seems to me a little twisted. It’s true that Uganda is one of the least developed countries in the world. There is poverty. It is hot outside most of the time. Police officers regularly walk around carrying machine guns. Most living compounds are surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. That being said, there is not crime, violence, and savagery to be found around every corner like some of my friends and family were concerned there would be. Uganda is not a dry and deathly desert land; Uganda is vibrant, lush, and beautiful.

I have also noticed some western misconceptions with regards to East Africans themselves, in that I get the sense that some people assume laziness on their part. To be clear, very few Ugandans sit around pouting, complaining about living in poverty, and waiting for some wealthy person from some wealthy country to come and dump money into their laps. Everybody is doing something pretty much all the time. I always tell people that there exists a strong sense of vitality in Uganda that I have never quite felt before in any other place that I’ve visited. In fact, Uganda was recently named the most entrepreneurial country in the world. From what I have felt and observed, it is a sense of gratitude, pride, and resilience that fuels this spirit.

I worry that the negative stereotypes about danger and disease in East Africa keep people from visiting, even just for purposes of tourism. Uganda has a lot to see. Among others, I visited Jinja (the town on the source of the Nile), Sipi Falls, Murchison Falls waterfall, and went on a safari in Murchison Falls National Park.

Roasting coffee beans, Sipi Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls

Murchison Falls National Park

Sipi Falls

Cave by the shore of the Nile, Jinja

Sunset over the Nile, Jinja

Reverse Culture Shock

Everybody expected me to find myself in serious culture shock upon arriving in Uganda. That didn’t happen. This might have been because I had had a few long, in-depth conversations with two expats living in Kampala before leaving Canada. It may have been because I had prepared myself to expect the unexpected. For whatever reason, I arrived in East Africa, took in the warm, sweet air that filled my senses the moment I stepped off the plane, and hit the ground running. Kampala felt like home after only a few days.

My Canadian-Ugandan friends and I at the top of the Gadaffi Uganda National Mosque overlooking Kampala

This is not to say that there does not exist a multitude of significant dissimilarities between Canada and Uganda. There are certainly many cultural and ideological differences between Canada and Uganda that make being a young, white female more difficult in the latter country. I grew used to being incessantly catcalled on a daily basis on my ten-minute walk home from work. I grew used to having locals shout “Muzungu!” at me in their attempts to get my attention to buy their products (actually, sometimes, they didn’t even want to sell me anything – they just wanted the satisfaction of gaining my attention). I also quickly became used to walking around the city hyperaware of the fact that almost everybody assumed I was in possession of deep pockets filled with American dollars. I even learned the hard way not to travel alone after dark. However, just like Uganda’s shoddy internet and temperamental electricity, all of this just became a part of the experience – and because I loved the experience so deeply, I learned to love the bad with the good.

It was the reverse culture shock that hit me the hardest.

Coming home was not easy. My departure from the full and exciting new life that had so quickly materialized before my eyes throughout my three months in Kampala was cushioned slightly by travels to Kigali, Rwanda with my close friend and IHRIP intern, Julia, as well as a four-day stopover in London, England. Nonetheless, I arrived at home in Montreal, spent a few hours with my family, and proceeded to sleep for seventeen hours straight. I think that, combined with the intense jetlag through which I had put my body, this was my subconscious way of avoiding the feelings that I knew were creeping in ever too quickly as I tried to reintegrate into a society and a life that I now felt so far away from.

It wasn’t just that I missed the beautiful friends I had made over there, or the restaurants I had been to so many times that the waiters knew me by name and even brought me a cake with the words “We are going to miss you” written in chocolate on my last night in Kampala. That was undoubtedly a part of it; but there was something more.

I had never anticipated feeling so free. This feels like a somewhat ironic sentence to write. I can imagine that someone reading this may be thinking, “Free? Really? In a country where you were shouted at every time you walked outside in public and felt afraid to walk alone at night?” Yes. Kind of. I will try to explain it as best as I can, but please bear with me, as I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself.

Kampala, with all of the shouting, traffic, pollution, and poverty that it has to offer, is imbued with a vibrant soul that is only felt by those who understand it. I know this to be true both because I have felt it firsthand and because I have spoken to many people who have enthusiastically agreed with this assertion. It probably isn’t the most beautiful city in the world. It’s not on the ocean, nor is it exactly wealthy. It is, however, a city of sunshine, red earth, many hills, and an abundance of palm trees. All of Uganda has a certain vitality to it. Whether it’s a woman braiding her daughter’s hair, a man selling fruit on the side of the road, or a child carrying water to their home in jerry cans, everybody always seems to be doing something. Rarely do they seem exhausted or miserable. In fact, to my mind, they generally seem to be much happier than the average person one might encounter in North America.

There is also a very different mentality in Uganda by contrast to Canada with regards to time. Scheduling and planning – which are essentially second nature in the western world – do not hold the same influence over Ugandans. One might often hear jokes about “Africa time.” Africa time is, for example, when you tell someone you will meet them at 10:00 AM and then only show up at noon, and nobody thinks anything of it. Rarely did a work meeting begin sooner than 45 minutes later than its set time. Again, nobody ever seemed to be particularly stressed over this. If I told a boda boda driver to pick me up in ten minutes, it was because I knew I was only going to be ready to leave in twenty. This was a significant aspect of Ugandan life that helped to feel liberated during my time there. It might have also been a part of why coming back to the western world felt like something akin to suffocation for a while.

There is also a feeling of liberation involved in being a white person in East Africa. As young females especially, whether or not we are always conscious of it, we live under the constant impression that we are being scrutinized. We aim to look a certain way, we dress in a certain way, and we even walk, sit, and stand in a certain way. Being in Uganda, I knew that I was going to be noticed and stared at no matter what I did. There was no way around that. It took me a while to get to this point, but eventually, I came to find this realization very liberating. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, how I looked, or how I walked, because people were going to stare at me either way. Since nobody there knew me previously, I was free to do and act as I pleased, and to let go of some of the unconscious stress and awareness of judgment that governs so much of my behaviour on a daily basis back home.

To be painfully honest, all of this, combined with the facts that I was on a different timezone from everybody who had ever known me and that I had limited internet connection, allowed me the space and freedom to discover parts of myself that I’m not sure I had known existed. It’s a very liberating feeling, to say the least.

***

Well, that’s about what I have to say on Uganda and its gift of reverse culture shock. Thanks for reading my blog! If you’re reading this because you’re considering visiting East Africa, I hope that my experience functions as a helpful push in that direction. Challenges will certainly present themselves from time to time, but I can guarantee that the positive aspects will far outweigh the negatives. You cannot put a price on the self growth from which you benefit when you succeed in making a home out of an unlikely and unfamiliar place. It wasn’t always easy, but it most definitely was worth it.

Advocating Taboo Issues in Health and Human Rights

2016 Moreau Andre  By André Moreau

I’ve been in Uganda for a month now and I am really enjoying my experience thus far!

Kampala, Uganda’s capital, is a big bustling city laid out over a series of hills and valleys on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Kampala appears to be continuously developing. The city is undergoing countless construction projects, which are improving the city’s infrastructure and the art/music/culinary scenes are becoming increasingly prominent.

My internship at the Center for Health, Human Rights & Development (CEHURD) is providing me with an opportunity to learn about some of the issues relating to health and human rights in Uganda in particular and East Africa as a whole. From visiting Uganda’s Constitutional Court, to drafting memos and conducting legal research, I have had the privilege of being exposed to some of the key initiatives of this dedicated organization.

A bird's eye view of Kampala

A view of Kampala taken from atop of the Uganda National Mosque

Recently, I was given the task of conducting research on some of the Sexual Offences Acts that have been implemented in various countries around the world. More specifically, I was asked to compare and contrast these pieces of legislation in order to find out whether the rights of sexual assault victims have been emphasized. Fortunately, of the seven pieces of legislation that I analyzed, only one jurisdiction did not make mention of the wellbeing and protection of victims within its Sexual Offences Act. The purpose of this research is clear: the Ugandan government is currently in the process of drafting its own Sexual Offences Bill and CEHURD is advocating for the inclusion of the rights of victims, notably when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The Ugandan Constitution states: “No person has the right to terminate the life of an unborn child except as may be authorised by law.” As it stands, abortion is only permitted in Uganda when the mother’s life is in danger. As CEHURD pushes to advocate for the rights of victims of sexual assault, the organization hopes to broaden the range of exceptions to include situations of rape, incest, and/or defilement.

This is no easy task. Abortion is a topic that carries a considerable amount of weight in Ugandan society, a taboo. Even lawyers who are advocating for these changes appear to be wary of having their names ascribed to the file.

The Ugandan government made its views regarding abortion heard when it nearly rejected the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol). The product of eight years in the making, the Maputo Protocol felt strong resistance from the greater Ugandan society, namely its religious groups.  The main point of contention was subsection (2)(c) of article 14, which seeks to protect the reproductive rights of women by permitting abortion in the cases of sexual assault, rape, incest and where pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. In the end, Uganda ratified the protocol but with a reservation to subsection (2)(c).

Despite the attached stigma and legal ramifications, Ugandan women still resort to clandestine abortions. Roughly a quarter of the maternal deaths in Uganda are from unsafe abortions where roughly four women in Uganda die each day as a result. The gravity of the issue is impossible to ignore. Seeking inspiration from nearby jurisdictions such as Rwanda and South Africa, CEHURD continues to put pressure on the government to draft victim-centric legislation.

Although post-abortion care in Uganda is decriminalized, the health workers who provide medical services to abortion survivors are often persecuted. To help assure the rights of health care workers, CEHURD has formed the Legal Support Network (LSN) ­–a coalition of lawyers throughout the country to provide pro-bono services to help health workers who require legal assistance.

In a society that still presents many barriers, this is one example of how the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development has embarked on the long struggle of protecting and advocating women’s health rights and the rights of health workers throughout the country.

A Light Comment on Small Change

2014-Heilke-MatthiasMatthias Heilke

The stuff I have been working on the last couple weeks is a bit intense. Also, I already wrote a blog post about it for CEHURD, which you can (and totally should!) read here. So let’s talk about currency instead.

Uganda has a fairly annoying system of money to handle. The smallest bill is worth 1000/= (“/=” means “shillings”), which is the equivalent of about forty cents. The bills go up to 50,000/= ($20); they are all different colours, but the actual colour of a given denomination might vary depending on age, the 1000/= and 2000/= bills are often too dirty to see well, and anyway I’m colour-blind. Coins run from the diminutive 50/= to the two-piece 1000/=, though the 1000/= coin is less common than the 1000/= bill. The 100/= and 200/= coin are most common, and annoying to distinguish from each other — they’re just very slightly different sizes.

All bills and coins, arranged small-to-large, left-to-right.

All bills and coins, arranged small-to-large, left-to-right.

This is not a wealthy country. If I am walking down the street with 100,000/= ($40) in my pocket, I’m pretty loaded by local standards. Breaking a 50,000/= note is a chore. Any time I have to use the equivalent of a two-dollar bill to pay a fruit vendor, I know she will probably have to run into the nearest shop for change. One of my friends once used a 2,000/= bill (80¢) to pay a fruit vendor, and the vendor commented on what a large bill that is.

I bring this up because of what you don’t see on the street: the 50/= coin. Nobody ever prices anything, down to the tiniest piece of fruit, to divisions smaller than 100/=. In a place where the boda-boda drivers (which is a comparatively well-paying profession) will haggle endlessly over a 2000/= fare, nobody would think to worry about 50/=.  And 50/= is worth twice as much as a penny.

I’m just saying, America.

An Introductory Post

2014-Heilke-MatthiasMatthias Heilke

Since this is my first post — the blog just started functioning a few minutes ago! — please allow me to introduce myself. I just finished my second year at McGill Law, and I am pleased to be spending my summer in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. I will mostly be working at the Centre for Health, Human Rights, and Development (CEHURD), a local health-law NGO that does everything from lobbying to community education to strategic litigation.

There are lots of blogs about what it is like to be a clueless muzungu (white person) making his first visit to a developing country, so do not expect too many words about it here. Just compose something in your head about gruelling poverty, getting lost for lack of road signs and addresses, and the dangers of riding a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi), and you will probably get the right idea. (And please try to make me look good in whatever you think up!)

~What I’m up to~

As of writing, I have spent exactly three weeks working at CEHURD — it would be a day more, except I couldn’t find the CEHURD office on my first day of work. Google Maps lied to me! I have done a whole bunch of things, so I’ll just list them:

• Intellectual property rights. Patents especially have an enormous and mostly negative effect on access to medicine in developing countries. I spent a couple days in meetings at the Ministry of Justice, going through their draft regulations on patents with the aim of promoting access to medicine. As of those meetings, I have influenced Ugandan government far more than Canadian government! Now we are meeting with some of the stakeholders, especially other health NGO’s and local generic pharmaceutical producers.

• Strategic litigation. CEHURD has a substantial strategic litigation department, and I have done [privileged] with them. We’re [privileged]ing. It’s really [privileged]!

• Also some strategic litigation that I can actually talk about, as we held a press conference about it this morning at our office. Long story short, there are two villages near Kampala whose source of drinking water is being contaminated by a Chinese quarrying company. They also are getting covered in stone dust and being subjected to the noise of explosions, all of which is leading to serious health problems. The local government and the responsible national governmental body refused to do anything about it. CEHURD is filing a suit against all three actors. I got to help edit the plaint.

CEHURD's press conference venue, a.k.a. the courtyard of our office.

CEHURD’s press conference venue, a.k.a. the courtyard of our office.

• Non-communicable diseases. CEHURD is following up on a study it did last year for the UNDP on NCD awareness and prevention at Kampalan universities, and I am helping coordinate ideas, prepare documents and so-on. It is an enormous challenge: I have no experience with this kind of work or programme, and I have literally never stepped foot on a Ugandan campus. On the other hand, it turns out students are pretty much the same everywhere (read: underslept, undernourished, and oversexed).

• Communicable diseases. I have listened rather than participated, per se, in various conversations about HIV advocacy. I also had a lively debate with one of my coworkers as to whether being HIV-positive increases one’s duty of care toward others to not get your blood on them. I said yes morally but was agnostic legally; my coworker said no to both. People suffering from HIV also suffer outrageous discrimination and ill will here, so there is a very emotional context.

 ~What I’m not up to~

There are a couple items currently in the news related to CEHURD’s work in which I have not in any sense participated:

• An HIV-positive nurse was convicted a few days ago of criminal negligence after she pricked herself with a needle and then, after going to clean up, allegedly accidentally used the needle on her infant patient. The hospital administered anti-retrovirals, and the child is HIV-free, but the nurse was nonetheless sentenced to three years imprisonment (prosecution requested six years). The case has turned into a public litmus test as to how one sees people with HIV. The nurse was represented by CEHURD’s very own Counsellor David (though, I should emphasize, I have not heard him talk about the case, and what I mention here is all public information.)

• A public interest lawyer has filed a suit against the government regarding this year’s budget, on the grounds that the budget provides so little funding to primary education that it violates the right to education. It will be a very interesting case, but sadly not one in which CEHURD is involved — the lady who filed the petition is not with our organization.

I’m afraid this blog post is less incisive than I might hope for. Such is the way of introductions. I promise the next post will be about just one topic!

~Weekly Miscellany~

• Many thanks to Prof. Richard Gold for teaching me intellectual property law. I had no trouble keeping up with the discussions at the Ministry, even though I had been in Uganda for less than a week. In a job where I know basically nothing about most of the topics I work on, that is a major victory.

• Currently trending in Kampala: “TGE”. It’s an acronym for a Lugundu phrase that means, “The government should intervene!” You say it if you cut your finger, for example.

• One Ugandan beer company, Tusker’s, advertises itself as “authentically American”. I doubt whether its customers have caught on to the joke. I have not had the opportunity to try it for myself, yet, being preoccupied with waragi (the local millet gin), but I will get back to you with my thoughts when I do.

• Novida. It’s a non-alcoholic malt beverage that tastes like pineapples. Why Schweppes (the maker) doesn’t sell it worldwide is beyond me. So good.

• My coworkers are seriously nice. Not that amusing an observation or anything, but true and worth saying.

• Habs sweaters seen in Kampala: 1. [Update: 2. The latter was for sale in Owino Market starting at 10,000 shillings, rather stained, but with its Village des valeurs tag still attached.]

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.