The difficult part I find in writing about my African experience is distinguishing between the subtle differences in the cultures from country to country. In one East African culture, I could say something along the lines of, “This African culture is quiet, reserved, and humble and place a high priority on family.” And then find myself writing about the next African culture, by saying “This African culture places a high priority on family, while remaining humble, reserved, and quiet.”
It is like distinguishing between shades of gray. I find myself wanting to say things like “they are quieter than the former quiet peoples were.” Or “they are like the country-folk of… country-folk.”
I begin to sound like the Orwellian society of the novel 1984 in which you start referring to things in double double speak bad bad or good good double speak good, because I lack the vocabulary to characterize the sub-subtle subtleties.
But it is safe to say that Uganda is comprised of some of the quietest people I have met in my life. I can barely tell if someone is trying to saying hello to me, and when I finally figure out that they are in fact greeting me, I have to get really close so that I can hear them. I feel so rude sometimes because after an awkward interaction in which I discover that I am being approached in conversation, they merely say, “I just wanted to greet you.”
“Thanks!”… I guess.
Ugandans remind me so much of old men and women in the remote parts of America who try to impress each other by wearing the awkward clothes that a Las Vegas starlet would have worn thirty years prior. In fact that is exactly what they wear when they dress up.
Dressing up for Church is big priority, but the contrast of very simple, quiet, country folk in worn suits and second-hand dresses reminds me of the American sitcoms Beverly Hillbillies or Green Acres.
The fancy clothes for today are extra special because today’s celebration of Mass is the 100th year Centennial celebration of the St. Joseph outstation in Kasangati. This outstation is struggling to build a new church and Mass was said in the construction zone of a half completed roof and various support beams holding plastic canopies in place to keep the rain from forfeiting the celebration of Mass. And what a Mass! There were eight baptisms, three acceptances in the Catholic Faith from Protestant denominations, two Christian recommitments, and a whole class of First Communions, not to mention the typical African accoutrements of dancers, offertory processions, and announcements. Not difficult to have a three hour Mass that way!
In what has become a strange custom for me on this pilgrimage, (I think this is the fourth First Communion service I have witnessed this year,) I began to take pictures of the First Communicants after Mass. There is an abnormal splendor to the dilapidated disunity of the very poor dressing up for First Communion. They wear fraying dresses and suits that fit oddly, and are obviously bought second hand, or worn by their previous sibling. There is no similarity from outfit to outfit, which makes the contrast almost seem harmonious.
This is why I almost have no adequate description for the average Ugandan other than to say they are wonderfully simple, country folk. But since that description also fits other people in other countries of Africa, I am left with doublespeak. They are the country folk of country folk, or using a comparative analogy… as city folk are to country folk so are country folk to Ugandans.
And they are very quiet.
Which is why I was surprised after Mass when a young girl in a muted tone actually had the courage to come up to me, and ask me if there was any way she could get a sponsor for her to go to school. Of course I still had to ask her three times to repeat what she said. Courage goes a long way, but doesn’t necessarily overcome the soft spoken tone of the average Ugandan.
I really wished I could have helped her. I hope that when I get back to the States, there will be many people who will come forward to assist this girl and others like her. There is a great deal of good work that can be done to build the Church, the Kingdom of God, and peace in the Global Village, if we work together. The hard part is doing so with the poor in mind, and on their terms, with their needs put to the forefront. That is why I was glad the little girl asked me for help, though it broke my heart that I couldn’t do anything for her then and there. I now keep her in my heart and my mind as a specific cause for which I was asked to help.
You see, so many things done to “assist” with developing countries are executed on the conditions set by the donor, and are frequently a complete absurdity to those who the donor is trying to assist. The following conversation is not real, but plays out similar scenarios that have been running through my head the last several weeks.
“Here we are! We’ve come to help you. We, your big brother and liberator, have come to bring you what you need… Here it is.”
“Thanks! What is it?”
“It’s a golf club.”
“Um… what is a golf club for?
“Why… to play golf of course.”
“What is golf?”
“It is a game. Your country is in obvious need of business development, and most business deals in America are made by executives while they are recreating on the golf course over a game of golf. So by giving you the tools you need to play golf, we are stimulating your economy.”
“But we don’t have any golf courses.”
“That’s OK. We’ll build them for you, and our contractors will charge reasonable rates of course. We’ll even set up the irrigation systems at half price.”
“But we don’t have any source of water to supply water for an irrigation system.”
“That’s OK. We’ll dig wells. We can do that too.”
“But wouldn’t it be better to dig the wells in the villages so that the people can have water?”
“No… because the people need economic stimulation to do that on their own. If we build your village a well, then we need to build every village a well. We’re trying to get you to help yourself, that is why we’re giving you the ability to play golf.”
“Oh…” the resigned recipient begins to leave, “…thank you.”
And what can you expect of the nice country folks but to go out with their brand new set of golf clubs and put them to use… whacking weeds.
This fictitious account highlights why both donors and recipients are frustrated by the process of aid distribution in developing countries. The United States sends crates and crates of condoms, but the people here don’t know why they need them. There is a definite disconnect. We send what we want to give, in scenarios that would be helpful to solve our problems in our way, but we don’t listen to the problems that the people themselves are having.I’ve been thinking about the golf club example for a couple weeks because similar scenarios are endemic to developing countries. The only difference between that conversation and what would happen in Uganda is that the recipient would not really engage in the conversation. He would take the golf club in a simple, stoic saunter and then humbly mutter “Webale nnyo” (Thank you). Don’t worry… next week you would be able to find him using the club… whacking weeds with it.