Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Muzungus - December 9th, 2003

Things are going well here, and I think I'm doing a pretty good job of settling in. My little apartment is going fine, and after five months i think i'm going to have a hard time going back to doing my own cleaning and laundry! I'm glad I brought a flashlight and lots of batteries, cause the power went out last night (for the second time since i got here), which is apparently quite common here, so i'd better get used to it! One of the things that's surprised me so far is how neat and well dressed everyone is here - i've never felt so wrinkled and casual! (It really emphasizes the huge class divisions, because if you see someone who is wrinkly or dirty, they are the poorest of the poor, since cleanliness and 'dressing smartly' is so absolutely important to do for anyone who actually can.) The other thing that's surprised me is all the pollution - i literally feel nauseous when i'm on my way to work, breathing in all the fumes. Its absolutely disgusting, i wonder what kind of lung damage can happen in 5 months!

I had quite the adventurous weekend, figuring that i needed to come out from under the wing of my co-worker who's been wonderful in helping me out and shepherding me around everywhere. On saturday morning I decided to walk into town (quite the trek, it took me over an hour, and i've learned that pedestrians don't ever have the right of way, anywhere), but unfortunately there was practically monsoon-like raining on friday night though, and when i decided to walk into town on saturday I sort of forgot about the whole 'this country is covered in red dirt' thing, and so I basically spent the rest of my day coated in red mud from about mid-calf down. Its a beautiful thing. I spent the day walking around town and getting the hang of the city, I'm starting to feel a bit less disoriented. (Kampala's downtown is pretty compact, so its not too hard to familiarise yourself with it by walking.)

Kampala is an such an exercise in contrasts: On saturday, i went to this really modern internet cafe in downtown kamapala (more modern, and nicer, than the ones in toronto), and i just bought a cell phone on firday, that is smaller and more advanced then the one have at home, and there's a fastfood joint and big shiny marble Barclays Bank down the street, but just outside the gate of the little housing complex i live in are people living in 'houses' that are basically just cinder blocks, with no windows (just holes in the wall instead), and just dirt floors, and big piles of garbage, and little kids running around with no shoes, and you wonder where Sally Struthers and her camera crew are. Its weird, because in one glance all of your stereotypes about aftica aren't true, and in the next, they absolutely are. And I've been told that those people are lucky, they are much better off than the millions and millions living in shacks and boxes.

Its actually sort of tough to guage the exact status of the area I'm living in, because the gated house to the back of where I live - which is also gated - has a satellite dish, and then on the other side, 50 feet over, is the above-mentioned squalor, so its hard to say.

Over the weekend i also discovered where all the white folks are (i hadn't seen any before) - in the shiny modern part of the city. At first I thought this was sort of hypocritical (if you're a foreigner here you're almost certainly doing some sort of development or aid work), but then i realised that you need to spend time in this little pocket modernism otherwise your stress level gets too high. (I'm thinking about it this way: newly arrived Chinese immigrants to toronto spend most of their time in Chinatown cause its easier for them, right?)

Going to and from work (and actually, any time i want to go into the city, because I live a bit outside of town, everybody does though, really) I take matatus, which are sort of like minibuses, and sort of like shared taxis, in that they go along semi-set routes, and everyone pays the same fare, but it stops and drops off pretty much anywhere you ask, and different routes cost different amounts, depending on how far you've gone. (They're still really cheap - the most expensive routes are 500 shillings, which is about 33 cents.) The matatu parks are in the older part of the city, and are probably the most overwhelming, confusing looking things you'll ever see. The parks are huge, and there's no signage on either the matatus or in the park, but matatus for various routes always park in the same spot, and once you know where they are its actually pretty easy. I'm feeling quite proud of myself for getting the hang of the whole matatu-thing, actually! I can walk into the park now, and know where to head for my route, and not look or feel like a confused scared white girl!

The other thing that's nice is that i have yet to feel in danger or like someone is trying to rip me off. People talk to me all the time (Hello white lady, how are you???) but i get the impression that they are either being friendly or practicing their english. (although there's been exceptions to this of course, but i'd say the-men-harrasing-you situation is much worse in toronto than kampala.) I'm never nervous about asking for directions, what I'd read about ugandans being really friendly and helpful appears to be true. (Although don't worry, i'm still be really cautious and careful, and not carrying money with me or going out at night.) Also, I'm not so concerned about getting in a car accident anymore, traffic is so bad that its hard for anyone in the city to get up to a speed where passengers get hurt. Crossing the street just appears to be a skill that requires practice, and i'm getting pretty good at it!

Oh, and i've learned one word in luganda (the language they speak in this part of the country)because I heare it all day long: muzungu. It means: white lady!


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