With only one and a half weeks left in Uganda, I have been contemplating on my journey here, and reflecting on how things have changed. Somewhere between 6 months ago, when I arrived in Entebbe airport never having stepped foot in Africa before, and now, life here became normal. It became normal to see cockroaches in the bathroom and not even bother to kill them. It became normal to be able to hop on the back of a motorbike and go pretty much wherever you want. It became normal to buy soda for 25p, and anything more seemed extravagant.
Along with this, the slums became my workplace. Poverty was something I saw every day. And even this started to seem normal… I expected to see children with no clothes or shoes walking across sewage. I didn’t bat an eyelid whilst watching a boy on a rubbish heap scavenging through plastic bottles. Sickness became relative, if it didn’t require immediate hospital treatment, then it wasn’t that bad.
Uganda has changed me. I have met some beautiful people, seen love in action and fallen in love with a continent. I have grown, been challenged, and altered my views and beliefs.
Have I achieved everything I hoped I would? Maybe, maybe not. But I have grown in ways I didn’t realised I needed to. I have loved and seen real beauty in the poor. I have been inspired. I have more of an idea of the person I want to be- the same person no matter where in the world I live. That’s really more than I could have asked for.
Somewhere along the way, this country began to feel just a little like home. I couldn’t envision that when I left for the unknown 6 months ago. But I am grateful that this had become a place that it pains me to leave behind.
On Saturday I am flying back to England for 2 weeks over Christmas, after spending just over 3 months in Uganda. I face this trip with mixed feelings. Of course I will be overjoyed to see my family and friends. However I am somewhat apprehensive considering how I will cope spending 2 weeks back in Western culture, at the most consumerist time of year. (I am also very worried about how I will cope with the weather- I hate the cold at the best of times, nevermind after having acclimatised to the African climate!)
Uganda has changed me, but the change has been subtle. Everyday I am exposed to extreme poverty. I have talked to maamas who can’t feed their families and have no hope of getting a job. I have met people who are sick and yet can’t afford to go to the doctor. I play with children whose families can’t scrape money together to send them to school. But not only do I just briefly encounter these people, but I spend time with them. I see them regularly, we build a relationship. I care about them, I am friends with them.
Somewhere in the midst of the last 3 months as working in the slums became normal, something shifted inside of me. I decided that I will never let money worry me again. I doubt I will go home and want to get rid of all my stuff, as I accept the culture I am from and I don’t want to be a martyr and live without the things I am used to for the sake of it. But maybe it will be hard seeing the amount of toys and clothes children receive when the children I spend time with often don’t have clothes to cover their naked bums.
But maybe it won’t affect me. Maybe I’ll be able to join in with the manic shoppers on Christmas Eve. I think that will worry me more. How can I straddle two completely different cultures? How can I give and receive extravagant presents and then come back here and pretend to be able to empathise with what these maamas are going through? I don’t want the poverty that I see everyday to become normal to me. I want it to anger and enrage me, because it is from that place where I want to do something about it. Equally though I don’t want to find extreme Western materialism acceptable, because seeing such consumption when others have nothing is not okay with me.
Life is not fair. Some have and some have not. I know that achieving equality for all sometimes seems like a naiive and unattainable dream. I also know from experience that material wealth does not guarantee happiness, and poverty is not synonymous with depression.
So whilst I swing like a pendulum from two contrary cultures this Christmas, I will be trying to find my own middle ground, and a happiness not dependent on wealth.
After being here almost a month, I feel like I am finally, slowly starting to get to grips with such a different culture than the one I have always known. It’s becoming normal to be called ‘mzungu’, to risk your life every time you cross the road, and to see babies on the back of motorbikes. You become used to the lack of commerciality: chain stores, fast food and advertising are vastly subdued here, and seeing a well-known brand becomes a rare occurrence. But whilst this is so different to home, it is quite refreshing to have a break from Western ideology.
This week, the realisation that I actually LOVE Uganda came as a surprise to me! I love the waves of the local people as I walk down the street, I love bumping my head on the top of the car as I drive down the road, I love seeing slabs of meat hung up by the roadside, I love seeing completely wacky things on a daily basis! This came as a surprise, as sometimes it is so overwhelming being 4000 miles away from home, and from the people that I have known all my life. It is so hard to be away from that support system, and often I get sad that life is continuing there without me. But maybe I have been concentrating so much on where I am not, that I forgot to just enjoy and embrace where I am.
Therefore, from this moment on I am going to make a conscious effort to make the most of where I am, to note the little things that make me laugh and to thoroughly enjoy living in Uganda, a wonderful country so far from home, for this short period of time. This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to miss home, but will maybe make me feel content to be where I am. I love Uganda!
So today, the 14th September, marks day 6 of my Ugandan adventure. This week has involved getting used to a completely new culture, meeting a multitude of new people and a bout of homesickness. However, it has been fantastic! I have been pleasantly surprised by my accommodation and the range of available commodities (heinz tomato ketchup, chocolate cake, cadbury’s dairy milk). Whilst not having experienced the full workload as the new interns were allowed a week of introductory orientation, I feel quite exhausted at the end of my first week. It has been great to catch the vision of the charity and I am eager to go out in the slum communities more next and to really build a connection with the people there.
This week has involved a range of activities, from worship to a scavenger hunt that involved me asking a taxi driver to say ‘coolbeanz’, making an announcement over a tanoy in a supermarket and cooking a curry in a Ugandan restaurant! Whilst it has been tough in some aspects, from my first impressions I can’t wait to spend more time getting to know the beautiful country of Uganda, and the amazing people who live here!
At around roughly 7.20am Uganda time (5am English time) this morning I arrived in Uganda, eager for my adventure to begin! Thankfully, having met up with someone who is volunteering with me at the airport, I wasn’t totally alone entering this totally alien country. Nonetheless, the airport transition seemed to go smoothly with only a little trouble trying to fit 6 (very heavy) suitcases onto 2 trollies!
It was absolutely lovely to be welcomed and greeted in the arrival area by two friendly staff members holding beautiful signs with our names on. It made me feel a little at home in the country already. I then travelled with one of these volunteers along the 2hour journey to the village where we are based. All in all, it was lovely to meet such lovely people who have helped us to settle in.
This first week will be relaxed and chilled to let us get a feel for the tone of the place, but I am eager to discover more of what this stunning country has to offer.
In two weeks time, I will have seen my family, friends, house, bed and pets for the last time for 5 months. I will have just boarded a long-haul flight from Heathrow, bound for Entebbe. Taking the step of leaving behind the familiar and diving into the unknown will undoubtedly be terrifying, but I am also extremely excited for what the next few months hold in store!
As part of my gap year I have decided to spend 5 months in Uganda volunteering with a Christian charity that works in the slums of Kampala. I have no doubt that this will be an unnerving yet life changing experience and I am not afraid to return to England different than the way I left it. I expect the culture shock to be severe and I will surely dearly miss all that I have left behind. However I am eager to immerse myself in a completely different lifestyle and I am so excited to meet so many new people.
So, whilst the nerves tend to creep in from time to time, deep down I know that this will be the greatest adventure of my life.
In the words of Gandalf (in the film, not the book)
“Home is now behind you; the world is ahead”