Adjusting in Africa

My adjustment to Africa has been a rocky one in the first few days, but it’s probably not because of what you think. I am used to cold bucket showers (even those were a luxury at times in India); I am used to being without electricity or the ability to communicate with anyone outside of shouting range; I am used to wearing dirty clothes and stinking to high heaven for weeks at a time; I am used to spending time with those who I share no common (verbal) language; I am used to the bugs (and their bites, or more properly, welts) and rats running near me in the night; I am used to having nothing but a few slices of stale bread for a meal; I am used to being covered in dirt in the evening, and to the ubiquitous smell of burning trash; I am used to erratic and dangerous driving and the jeering calls and stares of men. Yet the rhythm of chaos in Africa is something totally new.

What has thrown me about Africa seems to be just this: It’s not India. After three months in the latter, I had become accustomed to the culture. I was starting to settle in. I grew used to being asked “How are you feeling here?” at least every hour, and drinking chai until I thought I would sweat it; I was used to rice and roti and chapati and paratha, and I was used to holding my hands together in continuous greetings of “Namaste.” I am not used to being hugged by almost everyone I meet, or strong public displays of affection and emotion*. I am used to gurus and Hindu customs but not to witches or the mzungus with their Bibles (and mzungus are here aplenty). I am used to seeing temples on every corner but not seeing psalms written above liquor stores. I am not used to having to go such a distance for anything I need (everything is so crowded in India!), and the aggressive and risky rides on boda bodas. I am not used to the matatus, or the way the drivers always (ALWAYS) try to overcharge me (this didn’t happen on Indian buses, and rarely on the shared jeeps in the Himalayas). I am used to public urination, belching, and spitting, but not to men calling and grabbing at me – in crowds or on deserted roads. And after 4 months of being out of Belgium, and even more away from the US, I’m a bit tired and stressed and, well, homesick (not to mention food-sick, already what I would give for some curry!).

This realization became overwhelming as I sat quietly at a corner the other day, half-watching some Ugandan men toil away as they constructed the frame of a building, and my first thought was, “How dare I?!” The horrifying effects of poverty were literally across the street and all around me, and I had the gall to sit there and mope! Perhaps it’s my right to pity myself, I tried to respond. Sadness isn’t a privilege saved for those with the greatest suffering – there is no chart that dictates when crying is allowed or a threshold of shittiness one must have crossed. Is there? Yet I have a very gut-level instinct that expressing distress or sadness in public is not acceptable, unless one has just been hit by a car or lost one’s father or mother or just survived a meal with a Russian that seemed to be headed towards a conclusion via kidnapping.

I’ve been reflecting for some time on what I’m doing here. Uganda is a beautiful place and the sky here is endless. But I have some worries about the organization I’ll be working with and about my own strength; they are concerns of several kinds (including selfish ones). I’ve contacted several other places in the country that I will (hopefully) visit during my time here, but they all seem equally disjointed and struggling. What I do know is that the children here have seen horrible things, and I am convinced that both they and I will be rewarded if I can focus and devote myself to my work with them, even if I have little guidance in doing so. I wasn’t prepared to be thrown into their midst on my own, I wasn’t prepared for the grabbing and crying and being peed on. I wasn’t prepared (how could one be?) to hold hands with children whose parents tried to kill them in sacrifice, or burned their hands and faces for luck and wealth; I wasn’t prepared to work alongside a boy several years my junior who has killed 80 people. I was lost when a boy was crumpled in sobs when he found out his mother would keep his sister but not him. I’ll have to figure these things out on my own. Perhaps this organization is less structured or rigid about how they interact with volunteers, but I should see this as an opportunity and really grab on to it. I can figure out how I want to relate and work with the children, and it is a great chance for me to grow and try some new things. Even though I will have less contact with the organizers than I had at other places, it just leaves me time to meet new people in the area, and to face new challenges in my travels alone. It also leaves plenty of time for reading philosophy! So, forward I shall go.

*I would say the one prevalent exception to this in India is after a car accident. In such a case, the drivers and anyone else involved will just shout at each other, then start physically fighting until one gives up, in which case a “winner” has been decided. The first time this was described to me I couldn’t help but laugh; then during a 7-hour wait outside of Kathgodam where a truck had overturned and blocked the road, I saw it actually happen and found it somewhat less amusing. It was like watching society devolve into a state nature in a matter of minutes.

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