A few of the things I learned in Uganda:
What ostrich meat and boiled goat taste like;
How to say “How are you,” “Fine,” and “Thank you” in Lugandan and Swahili, and how much fun it is to say names like Musa, Magala, and Busembatia out loud;
That if you can drive a car in Kampala and live to tell about it, you can drive anywhere in the world.
I also learned how isolated and alone it’s possible to feel, even when surrounded by large crowds of people. This had nothing to do with the fact that I was in Africa or that I was eight thousand miles from home. Instead, it had to do with technology – specifically with finding myself in a foreign country and unable to get a cell phone or internet connection, even though I was supposed to have access to both.
Eventually the problem became merely annoying – wireless access was available, but sporadic and weak, and I never did get any cell phone service even though I had arranged for a Global Travel Plan before I left the States – but it caused a severe sense of panic and helplessness on the first day, when I couldn’t get a message to my family to let them know I’d arrived safely, and when I wasn’t able to find the people I was supposed to meet at a certain place and time, and was unable to call or email them.
The problem turned out to be the result of a slight miscommunication and a cultural difference I would come to understand shortly, but for a very brief period of time it left me feeling extremely vulnerable and uncomfortable.
It also left me feeling somewhat upset with myself to realize how dependent I’ve become – how dependent we’ve all become – on technology. It wasn’t so terribly long ago that cell phones and email didn’t even exist, let alone became things we carried around with us at all times. And the amount of mental energy and stress it was costing me now was time and attention that was being taken away from everyone and everything around me – the new people, places, and activities I wanted to learn about and experience.
I decided that perhaps God was sending me a message in leaving me stranded without the communication technology I had been counting on, and the message was that I should be making more of an effort to connect with the people around me in Uganda than with the people back home. And that’s what I wanted to do, once I got a single message out to family and friends so they’d know I was alive and well, and once the group I was with exchanged room numbers and established a Buddy System for staying in contact with each other.
As soon as that was taken care of, there was a whole new world to discover and explore. Changing landscapes as we traveled from place to place. Different customs and traditions, and the reasons they exist. The fact that rain can totally change your plans and your schedule, even if you expected to be indoors all day. And that “You are welcome” isn’t simply the standard response when someone says, “Thank you.” Instead it is spoken with joy and sincerity and it means, “We are glad you are here.”
After a few days in Uganda, I didn’t even miss my cell phone, although I seemed to be the only person in Africa who didn’t have one. And I was enjoying capturing and documenting snippets of my experiences the old-fashioned way – by writing about them in the journal I carried with me everywhere. The only modern technology I still depended on was my digital camera, which I had to recharge every night because of how many photos I took every day. My absolute favorites were photos of the children, partly because of how wide their smiles were as they posed for the camera, and even more so because their smiles grew wider still when I showed them pictures of themselves.
A few more of the things I learned in Uganda:
That in some cultures, “Let us pray” really means, “Let us sing,” and that I kind of like this;
How quickly people can become friends when their hearts and minds are open;
How much we can gain when we’re willing to let go.
The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on November 10, 2011.
© Betty Liedtke, 2011