Just Living

 

Usually when I mention Uganda or another African country to your average American (or Korean) their eyes glaze over, and once they’ve figured out that Uganda is in the continent (country) of Africa I can see images of starving and emaciated children, millions of people living with AIDS and elephants and lions flash through their minds. A typical conversation might go something like this:

“Oh you’re working in AFRICA? Wow! That must be so hard with all the diseases and starving children.”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“How fulfilling to be able to save so many lives. You’re so brave to be there!”

The conversation might continue to mention someone they know doing a short term mission trip to “Africa” and how wonderful it was, but if you try and mention any other details about “Africa” and how perhaps it’s more than just starving children, AIDS, malaria, and unique animals, the person will lose interest.

Why many people can’t seem to grasp the concept that Africa is a continent made of up of many, many individual and unique countries with separate cultures, languages, and customs frustrates me. But what what frustrates me more is the perception of Africa (that the media only reinforces) as a continent just riddled with poverty and disease, corrupt leaders, but filled many beautiful animals like the lion “king of the jungle” (thank you Disney for confusing jungle and grassland). Of course none of these perceptions are inaccurate per se. I live in a place where people do die of hunger, where on almost a daily basis one of our staff gets sick with malaria (which actually isn’t that big of a deal if you receive treatment), and where almost all the Ugandans I know have lost a child or a young relative prematurely. I can’t gloss over the fact that all the African countries I’ve been to are filled with hardship that we can barely dream of in the western world. But they are also filled with so much more than hardship. To characterize an entire continent so negatively is the same as when people ask me if all Americans carry guns to school. Sadly, there are people who carry guns to school and shootings do happen, but of course there is so much more to the United States than shootings, McDonalds, New York City and LA, and fat people.

The “Africa” I know is filled with people just living. Just like in every other country I’ve visited, people in Uganda have families, they fall in love, they have favorite foods, they laugh, they cry, and they enjoy life. Even in the midst of harder living conditions than we have in the west people are still living. Yes, there are corrupt governments but people have still found a way to get by. When I read the news about the state of government affairs in the US, I find myself disgusted, but when I’m living there I realize it’s not as bad as the media presents. Yes, there are many people living with AIDS (particularly in Southern Africa), but there are even more people living without AIDS and many people fighting to stop the spread of AIDS. Yes, there are many unemployed people who are barely scraping by, but there are also many people who have regular jobs, who work hard, who send their kids to school to give them a better life, and people who have hope for their country and want to stay and make a difference.

I’ve only been to a handful of African countries and each one possesses a slightly different set of struggles, different languages, slightly different animals, vastly different geographies, different cultures, different beliefs, different political systems, different dress, and simply different ways of life. The African continent is arguably the most diverse culturally and certainly linguistically, yet this is not the Africa that most people know. Instead of only seeing Africa as a place with famine and drought, disease and despair, corruption and power struggles, my hope is that people would see it as a continent filled with people full of life and ideas, bright and colorful culture, music, and art, and landscapes and animals that are a photographer’s dream. Just as it’s unfair to characterize America by obesity, fast food, and guns, it’s unfair to characterize Africa by only the negative.  

Blending in

The more time I spend in Uganda and other African countries, makes me wonder what it is that draws me to these places. In my natural, comfortable state, I am pretty close to opposite the average “African” (if I’m going to do some generalizing) citizen. I immensely enjoy planning (as long as its long term big picture planning), I love structure and schedules. I dislike being late. I have a terrible sense of rhythm, and am a bad dancer even for a white person (not that it stops me from having a good time). My ideal diet would be mostly plant and whole grain based. I have the attention span of a two year old; therefore am lucky to sit through a one and half hour church service (forget about an all-day affair). While I consider myself semi social, I am not nearly as relational as people here are. I would likely prioritize finishing a to-do list or making it to a meeting on time, than stopping to chat with someone. I prefer hugs to handshakes. I have no immediate or even long term plans to have a family, and if I ever decide I want kids it’s hard for me to imagine handling more than two or three. Repetition in speech, writing, or song irritates me and when viewing the Bible and faith I struggle with theology that is legalistic or merely focused on evangelism.

There are a million reasons why I do not blend in here and why I often become frustrated, but I also love how different life is here. It is slightly less stressful (in some ways) knowing that meetings will NEVER start on time, deadlines are flexible, and no one takes life too seriously (a lesson that could be learned in many other countries). I appreciate the rhythm and character of music here since it’s so opposite to what I’m capable of and used to and I appreciate the passion people put into their worship even if I’m the awkward one stiffly standing and singing. I appreciate how relational people are and how they will stop whatever they are doing to talk, no matter how trivial the conversation is. While I seriously doubt I will ever learn to love African church services, it is admirable that young children are able to sit through three hour plus services and that people often devote their entire Sunday to church. I’m not sure if I will ever understand the obsession (for lack of a better word) with fertility and “producing” here, and it is one area of Ugandan culture that for the health of the country and people that could perhaps adapt a bit (without trying to sound like I’m trying to change culture).

There is a vibrancy, color, and relaxedness to life in Uganda (and the other African countries I’ve visited) that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. In spite of the many, many reasons I look silly here, I do enjoy Ugandan life and there is so much I will miss.