Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Friendly Reminder

Dear Self,

When you live just a few kilometers south of the equator and plan to spend half the day at the pool, take a little extra time and put some damn sunscreen on. Even if it's cloudy.

Red and Painfully yours,

Monday, March 22, 2010

Like Animals at the Zoo

In Uganda it's perfectly acceptable to stare at whatever catches your eye. That drunk man lying on the side of the road? The two bazungu (plural of "muzungu") people walking down the street? The man who fell off his bicycle spilling chickens all over the side of the road? Sure. Stare. Openly. Freely. Intensely. Without the fear of persecution.

I sometimes feel like I moved to the zoo overnight. I'm not a person who continuously seeks out attention. I like sitting on the sidelines letting others take the spotlight. But living in Uganda has begun to stretch me to my limit.

An example:

A couple friends and I met at a hotel's pool in town for a day of relaxation. After shelling out 5000 shillings and demanding they provide us with towels, just this once (what hotel/pool doesn't provide towels?!) we settled ourselves in white, plastic lawn chairs near the pool. It had rained the night before so the sky was a little overcast and the temperature was a little chilly for swimming so we were planning on waiting the weather out. Also, the pool didn't look terribly inviting. Despite the worker halfheartedly skimming bugs off the water's surface, many drowned ants, flies, bugs of all kinds still swam lazily in the water and the deep end contained so much algae that the bottom was murky and resembled more of a set from a shark attack movie than a high-class hotel swimming pool. And the water was cold.

Shortly after we arrived and settled ourselves to wait and snack by the edge of the pool, two young (and VERY skinny) girls walked over to the "pool house," picked two dirty, white lawn chairs from the stack and arranged themselves directly in front of us. And there they sat. Staring. I have to admire their commitment. For at least a half hour they stared at us. And not just casually sneaking glances every few minutes or seconds, but sitting, facing us and staring. Watching. For at least 30 minutes - probably more. Every once in a while they would readjust themselves, inching closer and closer with each shifting movement. And they stared silently. The girls didn't say a word to any of us or to each other. They just stared. And we weren't even in our bathing suits yet - just in pants and t-shirts! I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that the situation quickly became uncomfortable.

Finally, after 30 - 45 minutes of blatant staring we elected C. to say something. She kindly explained that their staring made us uncomfortable and we felt like "animals" and would they please turn around and look somewhere else. After a few minutes of explaining they turned around and stared at the pool the rest of the day.

Oh, but the fun wasn't over yet.

After we finally mustered the courage to jump in the freezing, buggy, algae-y water a group of secondary school boys set up watch. Like the girls they arranged themselves in a row of white lawn chairs and either watched their friend (the only one out of the eight or so of them to actually get in the water) or watched us in the pool for quite a while.

Oh Uganda.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Ugandan Lies

Uganda, I am sad to say, has turned me into quite the liar. I'm not talking about everyday, pedestrian American lies. I'm not telling people their new hair looks smart when I really think it looks like a chicken threw up on it. I'm not saying, "Oh! This matooke is really good! And the gnut sauce! Oh my! Pure heaven!"* I"m talking about hard-core, big time lies.

In Uganda I've managed to split myself into several different people; I really only let fellow PCVs see much of the true me. And even then, I think Peace Corps and Uganda have changed me so much over the past seven months (SEVEN MONTHS!) that I'm not really the same person anymore. With Ugandans, who I am depends solely on my relationship with them. With co-workers I'm a more religious, nicer, more accommodating person. With female strangers I often lie about where I work (not really a full-on lie, more like a specifics!) and often I lie to them about my marital status/living arrangement. When talking with men, typically just the bodaboda drivers or secondary school/University students ("professional" men - men who work in offices - generally don't proposition me the way bodaboda drivers and students do), my lying becomes more extreme. I've somehow invented a completely different life for myself. In this make-believe life I have a husband and sometimes children. Occasionally, to a particularly creepy and/or aggressive guy, a completely different name and occupation.

In America this type of lying would be nearly unthinkable, but in Uganda it's common. I once invented a boyfriend back home to ward off a particularly amorous library patron and felt bad about the lie afterward. However in Uganda I hardly ever feel bad about my lies. They're not just a coping mechanism we Volunteers have adapted, but a survival skill. When a bodaboda driver finds out I have a husband, he (the boda driver) will still tell me I'm pretty, but he will be far less aggressive and annoying. We can joke about it now. And I can get through the day.

Lying in Uganda is far different than it is in the States; it's expected that someone will lie to you here.** A fellow aid-worker friend once told me about a conversation she had with some Ugandan school girls. She asked them how often they lie to one another (their friends) and the girls responded, "Every day; all the time." In conversations I expect the person I'm talking to to lie to me. They do it not to be mean, but to be nice. Many Ugandans believe it's much nicer to lie to someone they care about than it would be to tell them the truth. Some of this belief even extends to America - those little "white lies" we tell (why yes, that dress is so pretty! Wow, you look so much thinner than the last time I saw you!) exist here in Uganda too, just in greater numbers. Here, lying is just part of the culture. Usually it's just harmless little "white lies," but often it can extend into larger lies.*** If a man tells me he's not married and then proceeds to explain that he's always thought Muzungus (white foreigners) are beautiful, I can be pretty sure he is in fact married and lying about it.

I'm beginning to feel the same as those school girls. In my opinion, it's much nicer to lie to someone - to tell them I'm married for example - than it would be to tell them the truth: that I have absolutely no interest in them whatsoever, which may cause them to become angry at me or hurt...and nobody wants that. In training we were instructed that oftentimes when Volunteers turn down "relationship" requests Ugandan men will just see them as playing hard-to-get and will try harder. I've found that if I tell them I'm married they will take the hint and won't proposition me again.

And anyway, they probably just already assume I'm lying.

*fyi: I hate matooke and gnut (peanut) sauce. *vomits*

**Don't misunderstand me, not all Ugandans are like this. Many Ugandans that I meet are very honest and truthful. This is just one aspect of my life here.

***Aren't I supposed to be integrating myself into the culture?