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.  

Advertisements

How are you?

Phrases don’t always carry the same meaning in every country. In Korea, I very nearly banned the phrase “nice to meet you” from my speech due to its constant improper use. “Nice to meet you” directly translated back to Korean more closely resembles the phrase “Nice to see you again”. Because of this translation error, I was greeted with “nice to meet you” by almost everyone I “met” on a daily basis. The confusion was humorous at first, but very quickly grew old. I found myself cringing when I was forced to use “nice to meet you” in its proper way, instead trying to at least replace “nice” with different adjectives.

Even the simple expression, “how are you?” carries slightly different connotations in different countries. “How are you” is most often treated more as a greeting in the US than a genuine inquiry to a person’s well being. Even so, how are you is not used at the beginning of every conversation and one might expect slightly different responses from person to person. In Germany and much of Europe “how are you” is only used when one really wants to know how a person is. If you ask how are you don’t be surprised to hear about how horrible someone’s day is with all the details. A simple “I’m fine” would only suffice if the person was truly fine. At first, I was a bit taken aback when I received what I deemed long winded responses to how are you, but later I learned to appreciate the honesty of people and how the question was taken literally. When someone asked me how I was, I knew they were genuinely interested in my well being, rather than just throwing out a standard greeting. 

In the US how are you may be viewed as a greeting, but its frequency of use pales in comparison to Uganda. How are you in Uganda is the equivalent of hello. A standard conversation might run like this:

“Hello! How are you?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“I’m very okay.”

Sometimes people are so zealous to answer the question that they don’t even wait for you to ask. “Hello. Fine. How are you?” Ugandans are some of the friendliest people I’ve met (particularly in all other regions of Uganda besides Karamoja) and probably are mostly interested in my well-being. However, I’ve about had my fill of how are yous. My daily walk from the office to lunch allows me to disclose my well being at least twenty times as I pass by a village full of young children. “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” “Mzungu! How are you?” At first the small children running up to greet me was cute. But my patience for repetition (and children in general) is rather limited and these days I find myself getting irritated with the rapid fire stream of greetings. My answer to how are you does not change in the one second between the first greeting and the second and more importantly seeing a mzungu walking past the village should cease to be a novelty, given that I walk the same way nearly every day. The only thing that prevents me from completely ignoring these greetings is the knowledge that I have some kind of image to present since no one here comes in contact with many mzungus. So every day I robotically respond “I’m fine. How are you?” a million times in a row as I briskly walk past to the peace and quiet of lunch. 

I know I’m being impatient and intolerant, but pretty soon I won’t be “fine” if I hear one more “how are you” 😉 Image

Good thing they’re super cute or I my patience would be exhausted by now.