All the Feels of Being Far and Away
My first week in Uganda was the biggest roller-coaster ride of my life, both emotionally and physically. I had never left the United States, and for some reason I decided that going to Uganda for my first outing would be a good idea. On January 31st, I left on a plane to meet the other students participating in the SIT Uganda/Rwanda Post-Conflict Transformation program. Pictures and words will do no justice to what I am experiencing, but nevertheless, this is an experience worth communicating.
My roommate and I cried our first night. Culture shock did not even begin to experience what we were feeling. We talked about why we were here. We talked about what we wanted out of the trip. We talked about our existences and about God. We talked about how silly we felt to be crying over our anxiety while sitting in a hotel preparing to study a genocide and a war that were very real for the people around us. We probably would have held each other if we hadn’t just spent fifteen minutes tucking our mosquito nets into our beds. The first day was the toughest, and our only solace was knowing that in just three and a half months we would be going home. We discussed, quite seriously, the possibility of going home then and there, and what was stopping us from doing so. The answer was unsatisfying; it was stubbornness. It was more than that, though. It was about giving up an opportunity that, as she pointed out, many people don’t get, or that they do get, and pass up. It was about giving up on a personal challenge that we had already put so much effort into. We’d come this far. And in this discussion we had realized that the solace we had found in our inevitable return to the comfort of home was being replaced by the remarkable friendships we were already making on this journey.
I am one of eight American strangers on the trip of our lives together. We opened up to each other immediately, with the bond of cultural intimidation forging itself instantly. Whether we chose to or not, we were going to be friends, or at least each others’ emotional lifelines. As the week proved, we were going to be close like a family, which meant we would be laughing and bickering, angry and affectionate. Luckily, we have an amazing academic director, whose real title should be something like, “Adoptive Mother of Scared American twenty-something year olds.”
I sat next to an older American man on the connection flight to Uganda. He was traveling for business, and was very friendly. He drank 6 shots, and tried to ease my nerves by making pretty insensitive jokes about Ugandans and Africans. While this was incredibly frustrating, it was at least a reminder of the many lovely Americans back home who expressed misinformed concerns. As a Vassar student, I am hyper-aware of the neocolonial phenomena that manifest themselves in tourism. I constantly question why I chose the place I did, and how I can both experience the culture in a respectful way, and communicate my shock to my friends back home. I had to try, though.
The ride from Entebbe airport to the hotel in Kampala was exciting, to say the least. Was I excited? Well, clearly my feelings were more along the lines of fear and anxiety. I rode down the left side of the road with Pamella, the driver hired by my program, and watched amazing numbers of cars, trucks, and boda bodas (dirt bikes that function as taxicabs) speed past each other. They swerved into oncoming traffic to get a couple of feet ahead, like an expert game of Mario Kart sans bananas. Store front after store front, shack after shack, I thought the dirt road would never end without our car getting into a mild accident like the two we had already seen. Finally, we had arrived at the Bativa hotel in the heart of Kampala. Finally, I had arrived. I had been hatching this egg for more than a 14 months, when I applied to study abroad the fall of my sophomore year. I was as ready as I would ever be.
The next morning, we left for Gulu in Northern Uganda, where we would spend a good part of the next 15 weeks with a host family. After a six-hour long van ride down a pothole-ridden road, a run in with some baboons, and crossing the Nile, we pulled up outside our hotel. Everything somehow became even more real for two reasons. First, at dinner at the famous Acholi Inn, we bumped into the president of the Democratic Party of Uganda, Norbert Mao. This is a man who communicated with Joseph Kony, hoping to get him out of the Bush and who also ran for president against alleged dictator, Yoweri Musevini. The true potential of this trip was presenting itself to me slowly, but surely. My second reality check was the singing that called for Muslims to pray, which was coming over the whole town on a blown out loud speaker at 5:30 am, followed immediately by the incessant howling of a rooster. This was real, but I still felt like a tourist.
A week of orientation went by, and tomorrow I meet my homestay family. So far we have had orientation to SIT classes and been exploring Gulu. We went to the market, to the churches, to the prison, and to the university. My favorite part was going to BJz. BJz is the local bar recommended to us by the alums of the program, which we had been talking about all week. The atmosphere was amazing, the people were fun, and we got second place in trivia, winning a bottle of local rum and half a case of local beer. The experience was incredible, and I look forward to feeling like a local. I need to get some beauty sleep now, for I’ve been told that first impressions with your host family are the most important. At least some good came from waking up at 5:30 AM.
My home before my homestay, and a boda boda.
At least some good came from being awake so early.
BJz bar; if only you could hear the Dido and Coldplay jamz.