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Taking it Back

-17 °C

I wandered around Kampala today in a sleepy, queasy haze, my body having fully succumbed to the bacterial clamor in my intestines last night. When I was here at the beginning of the trip, Kasese felt like a blur of Chaotic City in Developing Country. Now I can start to pick out features -- and it feels so posh, so clean, after Kasese. (Although I can't quite process the absurdity of the tinny Christmas music everywhere and the twinkle-lighted trees in the hotel lobby).

I couldn't sleep much last night -- I was wired in too many ways -- reconnected with my north american world through a steady stream of wifi, thinking hard about everything, trying to remember and get in the frame for a return to client work in 2 days. Trying to process the absurd drama that Canadian politics apparently spiraled into while I was in the time-free mirage of Kasese.

While I was walking around, I was thinking about what I was taking back with me -- the trinkets I picked up for a few people, and the intentions, commitments and list of actions for the kids. What I'm taking back in changed meaning about Africa.

I think it's a lifetime to gain a really nuanced understanding of sub-saharan Africa -- and I've been here about 10 days, in one tiny pocket, at a particular point in time. But I'm already sort of shame-faced about what I wrote about before I got here -- all of the focus on fear and conflict.

I was reading through the conversation of my online community about my blog while I was gone, and I so appreciated knowing that they'd been following and hoping that I was doing well -- but I also picked up a sense of anxiety about this being a scary place. And I know I certainly had that too -- fed it, paid attention to it, almost let it suggest I shouldn't come.

Before I came, I had that conversation with Kianga, the woman I met at Syracuse, who told me I'd be a white woman in Africa. And again, while I still don't know what she "intended" by that, the meaning I now get from that is that I should pay some attention to the frames I brought to this, the stereotypes and assumptions and stories that I let shape my relationship to the project, to this trip, before I actually came. I'll always be muzungu here -- which means white person, and can be affectionate, directive, derisive -- but it always brings a question -- "why are you here, exactly?"

When I was on the plane from Amsterdam, I was talking to my other new pal from Syracuse who happened to be seated next to me, and he pointed out that western children are always taught about the animals in Africa and very little about the people, the history. "It just reinforces this idea of the Dark Continent," he said.

I got that -- and was conscious that my own fears were part of that story too. I just didn't know how else to read them, how to shift it.

But today, walking around Kampala, a little lost but ultimately finding the bookstore I was looking for, very comfortable with where I was, I had a blinding flash of the obvious. Part of my anxiety was about Africa, and part of it was about traveling in a developing country in general -- how I would manage the issues with water, uncomfortable travel, bugs, heat, unfamiliar food. Chaotic roads. How I could shave my highly honed needs (tall-half-caf-americano-with-room-please) into the unpredictable, available slots.

And, I was afraid that muzungu would mean animosity, somehow, that the thuggish stereotypes of African rebels, barbaric dictators, savagery, would somehow thread themselves over me in a way I couldn't possibly manage. I could not have possibly constructed a concrete story of what I feared -- I just feared it. The conflict in Congo just laid itself conveniently over it.

But. But. This is what I'm taking back -- the desire to take that all back, to recant, to pinch myself for not trying to understand more before I came. The fervent wish that I could figure out how to turn off that drip of fear about Africa that I think is so deeply, un-excavatably embedded in the history of European colonization, slavery, racial uneasiness. Just, mythic history, atavistic worry about Other.

It is obvious. But so obvious that it envelops us and we don't probe it.

My other flash, today, while walking around the Parliament buildings by accident, was about the concept of developing country. I think the term contributes to fear -- implies that there are stages of country growth, and that a developing country is in an earlier stage compared to our uber progress, and that we will naturally be uncomfortable because it is less-than what we expect. I think evolving country is so much more apt. Uganda is not moving toward becoming an imitation of Ireland, or an equatorial tracing of Sweden or Colorado. Its evolution fuses technology and medical advances and well-intentioned NGOs and its own history and culture and environment into something that will look as different from Canada as a zebra from a beaver.

On the drive yesterday, I was leafing through a newspaper that our driver had bought, and came across a Woman's Page article about preparing for a stress free Christmas. Exactly the same shape of this kind of story at home. And among the predictable instructions to try buying small gifts throughout the year to avoid a last minute crunch, was the suggestion to buy your turkey early. Wait a minute, I thought -- I don't think people have freezers. "Of course you will buy a live turkey," the article admonished, "unless you live in an area with load shedding restrictions. Your turkey will be very happy in your yard for several weeks before Christmas. Just be sure to buy a female one -- the males can be very vicious and can attack your other animals."

This is Uganda. Frames that feel familiar, with sudden inversions that yank you upside down.

Uganda is this. This mixture of passionate Jesusy religion, mobile phone profusion, post-colonial formality in blazing heat, offerings of roasted goat, people pushing a week's worth of firewood on a bicycle, mud-sided thatched huts, a man carrying a briefcase on his head the way exactly as a woman carries a basin full of beans, malaria, workers talking on cellphones while peeling matooke to cook over a fire, children singing spritely songs about AIDS, mini-buses with unique identities plastered across their windscreens -- Bismillah! God is Able! I <8 Savona! -- sim card and phone minute sales in huts adjacent to open hanging goat and beef, children teaching each other tribal dances and asking for my email address the next, concern about education, a fine bookstore fronted with the most modest of signs, over-inflated currency and a complete cash culture, English inflected with Luganda, Swahili, Runyarwanda, Runyankole -- this is all Uganda.

I've been here for 10 days, and I have not had a single moment of fear. Irritation, and frustration, on occasion, and a bit of recoiling at the strong smell of goat, but not a moment of fear. Never felt threatened by another person, never saw anyone do anything that gave me the kind of frisson of adrenaline I get every. single. day at home. Trying to avoid blanket statements notwithstanding, this is an open, warm, friendly, kind culture. Even persistent requests for more money than we agreed on are amiable, delivered with a grin.

And of course, our children are with us because of poverty, petty and extravagant wars, brutality, disease and abandonment that I can't possibly parse. I'm not squinting rosily at any of that. But what I'm taking back? Is that this is not a broken continent, this is not a place to be feared, this is an evolving land -- as it's been evolving for millenia -- and that my place as a white woman is to help strengthen a few kids so that they can help this country lean just a little bit further to a place where much more of it looks like Kagame's smile when he's singing than like the stories they tell of where they came from. I don't know what that evolution will look like -- I can't know that. But I can believe that it's possible.

Posted by CateinTO 16:17 Archived in Uganda Tagged volunteer

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I have absolutely loved seeing Uganda through your vision and your personal evolution. You are a great thinker, a great observer, and a great writer and that has helped me share a tiny bit of your experience as well as a tiny bit of the lives of the children you met. I especially love what you wrote about seeing one "pocket" of Africa at one particular point in time from one particular perspective, and about how it is constantly evolving. I've never understood how some people think "i've seen that country already - i don't need to go back" as if it's frozen in time (or even that *we're* the same and frozen in time, and would understand and experience a place the same way). I have also been totally and completely dumbfounded that "Africa" is one word used to describe something that seems to be one singular place and people. Thank you for bringing to us the spirit of one tiny corner of Uganda.

by MelissaC

One of your previous posts, someone refered to reverse culture shock. Coming in at christmastime (overconsumption, etc.), i'm sure it will be even more impactful. Please post to let us know what you're thinking.

by MelissaC

Ah Cate. So many of your comments resonate with my own travels and ongoing struggles with my own privilege and identity.The whole issue of whiteness is fascinating, and complex.In Sherene Razack's 'Looking White People in the Eye' she talks about the need " to admit our own complicity in the oppression of those whom we are trying to understand or help." Being a white woman in West Africa in the early 80's, I was constantly reminded of the entirely unearned privilege offered me by virtue of my race and status as a white teacher.I now include a piece on whiteness and identity in my global citizenship course. It makes many white students very uncomfortable to be included in a discussion about racial identity.But I think we often learn the most from being pushed to those places where we are uncomfortable. There are ongoing discussions around terminology. "Developing' countries can, to some, be considered a pejorative, implying that industrialized countries are somehow more 'developed' than the other 2/3 "developing" world,though thousands of years older with rich and complex histories and established systems of order (ie Ghana's Ashanti,). So do we say "North/South"? "1/3 as opposed to 2/3"? Suddenly the world shifts and our understanding of it is toppled. We realize how complex and important these dialogues are (or aren't). And finding our own place in it and how to contribute is never simple or complete, but in my opinion, well worth the journey. Welcome home and thanks for sharing.Can't wait to see you.

by Modo

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