The Privilege of “Uncomplicated” Culture Shock

By Kirstie Russell

In preparation for international internships like this one, students are often warned about a phenomenon known as “culture shock.” According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, culture shock is defined as “a feeling of confusion felt by someone visiting a country or place that they do not know.”(1)  Interns are told, or we read, that upon arrival in a new place, especially somewhere as far away as “Africa” that we will be exposed to new sights, new smells, new social cues and new foods that will likely cause us to miss or even mourn home – what the literature on culture shock calls our “abandoned culture” (2).  I won’t lie, I did feel a certain element of shock upon arriving in Uganda. The most intense period probably lasted about two or three weeks, but to be honest, the lingering discomforts and confusion remained until my last days in the country.

For me, the shock of being in a new place did not present itself in the “typical” ways, or at least not in the ways that I was expecting. What I mean by that is that it was not the food or the lack of sidewalks or the religious prayers before each work meeting that were the most difficult aspects for me to adjust to. Yes, I faced challenges with some foods, especially as a vegetarian, and yes, I certainly found it claustrophobic not being able to walk around my neighbourhood alone (particularly at night). For me, the biggest challenge I felt in terms of “culture shock” was my inability to even remotely understand the lived experiences of the many people I met, and most especially the people with whom I worked – both clients and colleagues.

The Gender and Sexuality program at Refugee Law Project (RLP) assists refugees who have experienced sexual violence and sexual torture and helps connect them to medical and other support services. As an intern, I interviewed clients about their history and what in particular was bringing them in that day. The stories I heard are, I would imagine, for most people born and raised in Canada probably unimaginable. It was utterly disturbing to hear about what instability, war and conflict allows human beings to do to one another. What was equally disturbing, however, was the lack of awareness about some of what is currently going on in areas of conflict – for example, the perpetration of sexual violence and sexual torture against men,  a current focus of RLP’s. During these sessions, I could nod my head and listen actively to the best of my ability, but I knew that at the end of the day, there was nothing I could personally do to help the client’s situation. I couldn’t heal their wounds, give them money for their children’s school fees, or as some people requested, bring them to Canada for a better life. I could only take down notes and hopefully give them a referral to a doctor, but even that depended on what funding was available and whether it applied to that individual and their particular circumstances. At the end of the day, I would pack up my Macbook Air, fill up my S’well water bottle, pull out my cellphone and call an Uber to my secure compound after stopping by the grocery store, all the while knowing that the client I saw that day was starving themselves to save up enough money to send their child to private school so that they can get a decent education (several people have told me that in Uganda, if you send your child to public school, the children are so unsupervised that most come back unable to read and write and many girls in particular end up ditching school entirely in order to make money engaging in prostitution) . This, for me, was the most intense form of shock or confusion I experienced in Uganda. I felt shocked and confused by the deck of cards I have been dealt compared to others; shocked and confused by my privilege and all that my peers and I consider “basic needs;” shocked and confused by the things I have taken for granted. I don’t think there’s much that can prepare you for those complicated feelings of horror, shame, guilt and sadness. I was nothing short of smacked in the face by the fact that my quality of life is so much better than someone else’s for no reason at all, except that I were born in a different place – a place free of conflict and instability – under entirely different circumstances. When that reality is staring you in the face, it really is nothing less than shocking and, for better or for worse, it is the type of shock that doesn’t really go away.

However, as I write this blog post, I can’t help but feel guilty (or at least some complex version of guilt) for spending 1000 words talking about my experiences with “culture shock” during my McGill University human rights internship in Uganda. After working at RLP with individuals who have been forced to flee their home for unimaginable reasons, I realize that the idea of feeling culture shocked is a privilege in and of itself. Indeed, most of the individuals I have been working with at RLP have experienced such horrific things that they do not have the time or the wherewithal to feel culture shocked, despite the fact that they are in a new country, generally living in slums with people they have never met, often separated from family and friends for an indefinite amount of time. This is in contrast to me, a law student who is in Uganda by choice for a limited amount of time, fully aware that I will be returning to my peaceful and stable home where I will be greeted by my family. Unlike me, the migrants I have met at RLP do not have time to feel culture shocked. No; they are far too busy focusing on how to seek treatment for their wounds from torture, how to pay for their children’s school fees and in some cases, how to locate family members, even children, from whom they have been separated for many months, if not years. My “culture shock,” which the literature aptly calls uncomplicated culture shock is, I have come to realize, one of the most significant forms of privilege I have encountered during my time in Uganda (3).

A busy city market in downtown Kampala on a Sunday.

 

The “taxi” park in downtown Kampala. In Uganda, a “taxi” refers to a matatu, which is one of the main forms of public transport in Uganda. They only cost about a dollar, but do not have reliable schedules so you must be patient because the taxi will not leave until it is full.

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The view from the office I shared with my manager at RLP. I was lucky to work next to the English For Adults Center at RLP, where RLP staff would teach new refugees English, Uganda’s official language, so that they would be able to integrate more easily into Ugandan society. I heard from many refugees that this program was absolutely vital to their quality of life in Uganda because knowing the language made it so much easier to get a job and to interact with administrative bodies like UNHCR.

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(1) The Cambridge English Dictionary, “Culture Shock”, accessed on August 29, 2019 from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/culture-shock

(2) Garza-Guerrero AC, Culture shock: Its mourning and the vicissitudes of identity, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 1974 Apr;22 (2):408-29.

(3) According to A. Cesar Garza-Guerrero, “uncomplicated culture shock” is “culture shock resulting from a more or less voluntary decision by a newcomer to leave [their] country for diverse reasons…[T]his is in contradiction to ‘complicated culture shock’ – that is one in which the newcomer left his country for the very reason that his ‘average acceptable environment’ was no longer that ‘average’ for their particular ego identity. One example of ‘complicated culture shock’ would be that suffered by refugees from sociopolitical upheaval in the abandoned culture.” [pg. 417]

 

Navigating the Small Moments in Kampala

By Kirstie Russell

My commute to and from work is, in many ways, the time when I am most reflective on my new life in Kampala. Part of me wonders if this is because it makes up about 2 to 3 hours of my day, but another part of me thinks it is because it gives me time to slow down and really observe the city, its people and the way of life here. Kampala’s exuberance and vibrancy is difficult to put into words. Whatever I write here in this blog cannot possibly do it justice.

I arrived in Uganda nearly two months ago and still, almost every day, I see a passenger riding a boda (the motorcycles that most locals use to get around) while balancing some kind of large object on the end of the bike. For example, last week we saw a passenger transporting what must have been a 4-foot sheet of glass, which if you are at all familiar with Kampala’s traffic, is extremely risky business. The week before that, we saw a boda driver carrying a passenger who was balancing another broken down boda perpendicularly in his hands, clearly on the way to a mechanic. Just yesterday we saw a boda driver transporting what must have been 8-foot tall stalks of sugar cane horizontally through the narrow streets of Old Kampala, just missing other drivers passing by. Each and everyday we see bodas carrying entire families (sometimes up to 3 or 4 people, including small children) to their workplace and to school. Most of the time these small motorcycles narrowly squeeze in between the traffic, which operates relatively seamlessly but on its own accord given that there are barely any stop signs, traffic lights or street lamps. Meanwhile, pedestrians boldly skirt between the vehicles, which move in sudden spurts taking little mercy on anyone who risks getting in the way. Goats and chickens also occupy the roadway, trying to feed on whatever they can find in the grassy patches next to the uneven tarmac ridden with potholes.

Traffic, which is called “jam” in Uganda, is an inevitable part of life here. This is part of the reason why so many locals rely on using boda-boda’s, which are small motorcycles that weave in and out of the traffic in order to get their passengers to their destination on time.

In a way Kampala traffic is utterly hectic and completely overwhelming but from another perspective, it’s quite beautiful. The streets are chock-full of multicolored cars, mostly models from the 1980s to early 2000s, and motorcycles weaving in and out carrying all kinds of people wearing anything from a suit to flip flops to a beautifully patterned kitenge dress. All of this takes place against a backdrop of lush green hills, dotted with red roofs and rich rust-coloured dirt. A friend of mine local to Kampala describes the city as “beautiful chaos” and I think that puts its perfectly.

Kampala sits on seven hills and numerous valleys. It is extremely lush with all kinds of different trees, ranging from fruit trees to pine trees. Virtually anything can grow here because the climate is so amenable to growth.

The smells of Kampala are almost as diverse as the users of the roadway. On a warm sunny day, the air is usually thick and polluted but as you pick up speed you get enough of a breeze to catch the smell of fresh cassava cooking in oil in silver pots set up all along the road. Towards the middle of the day, the “rolex guys” start setting up their small stands typically protected by nothing other than a meager umbrella that is nowhere near big enough to stop them from getting drenched by one of Kampala’s intense but brief rain storms. Rolex’s are a classic Ugandan food consisting of a thin omelet rolled up in chapati, which is a wheat based fried bread, similar in a way to naan. Even later in the evening you can see women and their children setting up stoves along the roadside where they spend the evening roasting maize, which they then try and sell to tired and impatient drivers stuck in traffic (which the locals call “jam”). I’ve learned that food is extremely important to Ugandans. In fact, I find that it is one of the very first topics strangers ask me about when they find out I am visiting from Canada: “…but have you tried Ugandan food?” I’ve even had Uber drivers invite me over for dinner out of fear that the local food I have tasted is not up to standard. I have been lucky, though, because the organization where I interned at the beginning of the summer kindly provided its staff with lunch. Lunch typically consisted of a number of staple Ugandan foods, including: ground nut “g-nut” paste, which is a purple paste that is made out of nuts that taste similar to peanuts; mataoke (the most cherished Ugandan food), which is boiled and mashed green banana cooked in a banana leaf; Irish potato, which is similar to boiled potatoes at home; pumpkin, which is similar to acorn squash in Canada; beans or cow peas; rice; and some kind of stew, typically made with chicken, beef or fish.

A local man making chapati at a rolex stand near the Refugee Law Project. Chapati is a very cheap but filling option for lunch. I think this is the best Chapati out there, but apparently everybody thinks their “rolex guy” makes the best chapati.

For the first week, I tried every single food available at lunch (with the exception of the meat dishes because I am a vegetarian). I enjoyed most of the dishes but I quickly learned that my body was not used to consuming that much starch all at once in a single meal. Perhaps my challenge with digesting rice, potatoes, chapati, etc. all in one sitting is related to the fact that in North America there is an obsession with body image and because of this, often pressure to eat fewer carbohydrates. It’s possible that given my diet at home, I have difficulty digesting such a large amount of gluten all at one time. In the following weeks, I realized that I had to adjust my lunchtime eating habits to include just beans, cowpeas, rice and avocado in order to avoid getting a stomachache. This disconcerted my colleagues a lot. Every day someone would comment that I wasn’t eating “real” food. Ugandan’s love meat so it was difficult for them to understand why I would choose to eliminate this cherished food group from my diet. Initially, I felt really guilty about not eating all of the different foods offered in the buffet because I could tell that my colleagues were proud of their cuisine and eager to share it with me. I also recognized that choosing not to eat meat is a privilege that is not available to everyone. I didn’t want to come across like a picky eater because let’s be honest, nobody likes a picky eater. I tried to explain to my colleagues that in Canada, unlike Uganda, animals tend not to be raised ethically. Upon hearing this explanation, most of my colleagues understood my reasons for being vegetarian. Many of them seemed aware that food in North America is highly processed and they are very much proud of the fact that Ugandans eat real, natural food. And they should be proud. The tomatoes here are a deep cherry red like I’ve never seen before; the avocados, which are literally the size of my face, are a bright shade of green; and the chickens and goats roam around freely until maturation. The freshness and diversity of the food here is truly amazing, so it is unsurprising that it is such a critical aspect of Ugandan identity.

However, after three weeks of receiving commentary on my food intake, I admittedly became a bit tired out by other people’s focus on my personal dietary choices. Sometimes it felt like it’s all anyone wanted to talk to me about. That and the fact that I had a driver, which I admit, is not something that I felt great about either. While I would have preferred to take public transport to work, I was told by my friend who is from Kampala and who knows the city well that the safest and most reliable way for me to commute to my workplace (which is located about 40-60 minutes outside of the city) was to organize a scheduled driver. Before arriving in Uganda, I had many reservations about this set up. I recognized that this was not a typical form of transport and that it would likely be perceived as “privileged” (as it should be). I wasn’t wrong about this. On my very first day, I was asked the normal question of “where do you live?” and then “how do you reach?” which means “how do you commute?” When I explained that I had a driver due to the challenge of using public means from where I live, the next question was almost always “how much do you pay for that?”

In Canada we tend to avoid asking strangers personal questions, especially questions related to money. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case in Uganda, which is a much more collectivist society than North America, where we are typically more private and individualist. In my experience, Ugandans are much more willing to ask questions about money, family and even in some cases sexuality. Indeed, many people, including work mates, seem to have little reservation asking for intimate details about your personal relationships. A common question people would ask me is why I haven’t had children yet given that I have been with my partner for so many years. At first, my immediate internal reaction to these sorts of questions is shock and then, admittedly, some amount of irritation – why is that anyone’s business other than mine? My external reaction, however, is typically to laugh sheepishly and to try and explain how expectations surrounding family planning are different at home. As a “western intern” in Africa I regularly find myself in this confusing position of feeling like an outsider – distanced and alone – while at the same time feeling like I have no personal space whatsoever because my understanding of what is “personal” is so different from that of most Ugandans, who have a genuine curiosity and well-intentioned concern for one another’s personal wellbeing and family life. I wonder if this is a feeling that international human rights workers feel all of the time or if it something that they get used to as time goes on.

I tried to remind myself of these cultural differences each time I was asked about the cost of my driver. I would try and vaguely explain that while the transportation to and from work is a significant cost, a local friend suggested that having a driver was the safest and most reliable mode of transportation for me, given where I lived. Unfortunately, living close to work was not really an option because the office is so far outside of Kampala and there is limited rental housing in the area. Those who found out how much I paid my driver were shocked by the amount (and to be completely honest when I said the amount out loud, I was too). However, many of them tried to hide their surprise by acknowledging that where I lived was particularly challenging to commute from. Others responded by referring to me sardonically as “their rich friend” or their “rich sister.” These comments were uncomfortable, but I had to learn to brush them off and not take them personally. I anticipated this response and to be quite honest, I understood it. I wished that I felt more confident navigating the matutu routes (local taxi buses) and taking bodas into the rural suburbs outside Kampala, but I knew I had to recognize my own boundaries and I chose to prioritize my safety. I had to accept the consequences of that decision and make the best of it. And funnily enough, it worked out. While at first having a driver seemed like something that was going to make me feel like a total outsider (and a privileged one at that), it had the paradoxical effect of bringing me closer to my colleagues because I could pick several of them up on the way to work and drop them off at the end of the day. In a weird way my commute, which I thought might distance me from my co-workers, actually brought us closer together by allowing us the opportunity to learn about one another’s lives outside of the office.

These very brief interactions in Kampala have taught me the importance of slowing down and noticing the small moments, for example the commute to work and lunchtime conversations, which can be easily taken for granted during an internship abroad. Often times, these seemingly insignificant features of everyday life are the things that we learn from the most. My more challenging moments have also served as an important reminder that when things feel difficult, frustrating or uncomfortable, it is important to remain calm and open-minded because things are not always as they seem and, in some cases, if you just hang in there, they even have a funny way of working out for the best. While it is important to prioritize your wellbeing and know your personal boundaries, I’ve learned that letting your guard down (in some situations) has the potential to change your experience for the better.

A view of the hills in Fort Portal, a city in western Uganda near the crater lakes.

A friend paddling along the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda.

Driving back to Kampala from Nakwero, the town where CEHURD is located.

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