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.

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