As it approaches a year since my trip to Uganda, I’ve begun to dwell on the country and just how different it is from the UK.
Every place you visit evokes different emotions. For me, Uganda brings back a feeling of intensity I have experienced nowhere else. Honestly, although I had tried to prepare myself for the culture shock, it was like a slap in the face. I found the mechanics of Ugandan society fascinating and utterly alien.
To be faced with a living, breathing World Development case study felt a little surreal. It is one thing to see HIV campaigns in a video and another to see billboards on every road hammering home the severity of the problem. We saw car washes in rivers, shantytowns, and toilets made out of barrels. When I asked my teacher why so many people were out late in the evening, he replied that if all you had was a floor to sleep on with 4 other people, you wouldn’t want to spend much time at home.
But it wasn’t the absolute poverty that made me feel the most uncomfortable, instead the Ugandan reaction, influenced by poverty, to white people. To see mobs of children begging for a sweet or pencil, asking for our cameras, trying to steal our bags, made me so angry. Not at them, but at their situations. I felt uncomfortable posing for photos with a child who came and sat on my lap, knowing she wasn’t there out of curiosity but rather necessity. I felt guilty that I was relieved to leave the partner school at the end of the day. The fact that history has conditioned Ugandan society to believe that every white person is special confounds me; it was common for people to wave when they saw us. We were taken to other local schools, provided with entertainment, and asked to fund them. In Uganda there exists the misconception that all white people are rich, and whilst we are without context, within the framework of our own societies, things are a little trickier. Uganda, like the UK, faces staggering inequality with larger extremes, shown from the gated shopping malls with armed guards and walled houses with barbed wire, minutes away from the slums.
Perhaps my comments so far have made Uganda seem backward and hopeless, but I really want to emphasise the potential we saw too. The entrepreneurial spirit could be seen everywhere, with the best way to earn a living being to own a business. There were taxis and Boda Bodas everywhere, (our minibus driver even crashed into one, resulting in us being followed until we paid them off). Like our bus services, there were minibus taxi stops following certain routes across Kampala, with men in suits walking as well as catching a ride. The privately owned cars we did see were mainly second hand from Japan, in line with the Ugandan ethos of repairing/reusing rather than buying new, something we could learn a lot from. Driving was crazy, to say the least, and I was grateful to find I had one of the few seatbelts in the minibus, although sitting at the back didn’t help when it came to the numerous speed bumps we went over.
I found methods of communication in Kampala fascinating. Numerous buildings had ‘This property is not for sale’ written over them, suggesting a high demand for commercial land in the capital. Unlike our printed or electronic billboards, advertisements appeared painted on walls, with Sadolin paint being particularly popular. Visual advertising appeared to play a much more important role in political campaigning, with posters of candidates plastered over the city. We saw drive by rallies in trucks with megaphones promoting potential MPs; in a country where digital media is not accessible to all, frontline methods of campaigning appeared to be more effective.
Nevertheless, we saw plenty of advertisements suggesting that the telecoms market is booming in Uganda, with a strong focus on cheap mobile phones and packages. It was really interesting to see how new technology is infiltrating Ugandan society, in a country that still has a strong sense of cultural and religious identity.
One thing you cannot call Uganda is dull, with the dress, food and music arresting the senses. I hope that as Uganda inevitably becomes more involved in globalisation, it doesn’t lose the passion and richness I experienced. It is a country with a lot to offer the world, not only visually but also intellectually. It is our duty to paint Uganda truthfully, talk about how we address the issues of ‘development’, how we protect the vivid culture and constantly bring new perspectives into the debate.
If anyone has any questions about my experience of Uganda or essentials to bring, feel free to leave a comment.