Hi, Sakura here!
Ugandan road conditions can be very poor and my stomach was really not a fan of all of the jostling, so while the rest of the girls went off to a safari for a weekend, I hung around Iganga with Tom, the Ugandan intern that stayed with us in Naigobya. Though I saw no lively lions or graceful giraffes, I learned a lot about Ugandan culture, some tidbits of which I wanted to share with you all here.
1. On corruption
On Friday, I accompanied Tom to a political meeting where the incumbent mayor of Iganga town was to hold a question and answer session with the Youth Council, of which Tom acts as treasurer. (Interestingly, in Uganda, one is considered a youth from age 18 to 35, in some cases, even 45.) At first, nothing was out of the ordinary. However, as the meeting wrapped up, I was dumbfounded as a couple thousand shillings were suddenly being forced into my hand. Confused, I tried to refuse, but eventually gave into Tom repeatedly telling me, “Just take it. Don’t be weird.” The man went on to hand out money to every attendee. After leaving the building, I asked Tom why in the world we were given money, to which he responded, “He has to thank us for giving him our time…he also wants votes.” He explained that every Ugandan politician seems to go power-hungry and forget about the people once they gain office, so people have to get what they can from politicians before they’re elected.
Thus started a long conversation about corruption in Uganda, during which I learned that, for one, most good jobs in Uganda are bought. In fact, Ugandan parents can’t consider their parenting responsibilities over until their child’s job has been paid for. Tom explained that once he graduates college, his mom will probably buy him a job in the government, where she has connections due to her post as regional police commander. Since there’s not enough money flowing in the Ugandan open market, everything has to be paid for behind closed doors, including jobs.
2. On social functions
After the political meeting, I was told we were going to stop by a funeral for Tom’s barber’s father. When I asked if it wouldn’t be weird for me to be there, Tom replied, “Why? He’s my friend and you’re my friend. That means we’re all friends. You get?” He went on to explain that in Uganda, the number of people who show up to your funeral is the last test of your popularity. So, if your friend loses a family member, the best thing you can do is to bring people to the funeral. When we reached the funeral grounds, Tom registered our names and dropped several thousand shillings into a large box. He explained that in Uganda, it’s customary for guests to chip in to help cover the costs of the funeral. As we made our way towards the center of commotion, my eyes bulged. There must have been at least a thousand people milling about. The temporary pavilion where speeches were being made was far too small to house all of the guests so everyone else was just catching up with old friends, laughing and generally having a good time.
On Sunday, I attended another community function: a women’s association gift-giving ceremony honoring Tom’s eldest mother. (He has four mothers, over thirty brothers, and around ten sisters.) Fortunately, WashU anthro professor, Dr. Parikh, was also in attendance, and she provided me with an explanation of what exactly was going on. Essentially, women’s associations serve as basic insurance plans for its members. If something happens and a woman is in dire need of money, the members of her association will pitch in to pool some funds. What goes around comes around, right? The interesting thing is that, even when no emergencies arise, this cycle continues. On a bi-weekly basis, women in the association take turns hosting gift-giving ceremonies during which they receive money and common household items from their fellow members. Family members and friends of the honoree are also supposed to attend the lavish function, bringing their own gifts. Dr. Parikh explained that these ceremonies are a good way for women to acquire a large sum of money at one time to pay for any big expenses, rather than having to save up money little by little. Seems like a pretty smart idea to me.
From this weekend of adventures, one thing will stay with me forever: I was welcomed everywhere not as some strange foreigner but as a friend, as a family member, as someone who belonged. Of course it helped that I was with Tom and of course, I still got stares from children and people happening to walk by. Yet, the warm and genuine hospitality that I received from so many was unparalleled by anything I have experienced in the U.S. And for that, to the people of Iganga, thank you so much.