Building Relationships with Host Families: a Critical Element of Volunteer Integration
Prior to starting my Peace Corps service in Uganda, a question I would frequently get asked by friends and family back home was, ‘’Why Africa?’’ My usual response was, ‘’Why not?’’
Prior to starting my Peace Corps service in Uganda, a question I would frequently get asked by friends and family back home was, ‘’Why Africa?’’ My usual response was, ‘’Why not?’’ I had already been to various countries in East Africa and knew how much I enjoyed my time there; I simply did not feel the need to explain myself. If I'm being honest, I could not explain it myself. The truth is, I didn't know what it was about this part of the world that fascinated me so much. All I knew was that I felt passionately about the idea of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in East Africa and I was ecstatic to go!
At the time, I didn't realize how significant the question "Why not?" would be throughout my Peace Corps service. Although I was anxious and felt unprepared during the beginning stages of my integration period, I think, in hindsight, I was mentally prepared. During any given situation in which the boundaries of my comfort zone would be pushed, the question "Why not?" or "What's the worst that can happen?" would pop into my head. I was not afraid to try new things- something that is crucial when integrating into a foreign culture. It was rather the physical aspect of undergoing such new experiences that I struggled with. This would first become clear to me when I started interacting with my Ugandan host family.
Host family introductions
I was introduced to my host family during the final stages of our cohort's pre-service training. In Uganda, a host family is one that we do not live with during our entire service, but a family that has been selected to help us to learn language, learn culture, and help us to learn to integrate into our communities during our training. My host family consists of my two older sisters, their children, and my elderly mother, or, as mothers and grandmothers are often called in Uganda, Djaja. Although I am close to my host family today, it took some time to form a strong relationship with them. I was not entirely comfortable around them in the first few weeks. Like everything it seems in the Peace Corps, building this relationship was a journey in and of itself.
I struggled initially with my host family because they tended to criticize me for doing things "wrong." They were strict when it came to speaking the local language, Luganda, for example. They corrected my language mistakes and often quizzed me on vocabulary. On top of that, my Djaja didn't speak any English. I was forced to hold lengthy conversations in Luganda with her, which was challenging and emotionally draining. Besides language, my host family was tough on me in other ways. Every time I visited my family's home, we would cook and do work in and around the house. It was important to my family that I practiced traditional Ugandan cooking methods and could partake in daily house chores. They wanted me to not only embrace, but be exceptional in what is considered the lifestyle of a typical Ugandan woman. My sisters, Carol and Oliver, taught me how to peel, cut, and prepare local foods such as matooke- green plantains which is a staple food in Uganda. They taught me how to cook on sigiris, small, charcoal stoves, and woodfires. They showed me how to clean an entire house with only one rag and soap and water. They taught me how to sweep the compound with traditional grass brooms. Carol even took me to her husband's farm to teach me how to dig with a gardening hoe. None of these things had I ever done before and most of these skills were exhausting to perform underneath the equatorial sun.
Embracing the challenge
I understood the reasons behind my host family’s insistence on teaching me all that they taught me. However, the magnitude of giving new experiences a try throughout an integration process was overwhelming. Why not? As directed, I gave everything a try. I completed every task my family asked me to do. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very good at those tasks. Oliver's ten-year-old son -who isn't even expected to cook in Ugandan culture as he is a male- peeled plantains faster than I did. I was also too weak to do most of the cooking. I didn't have the arm strength to stir the mash of posho, a starch made from corn flour. I also did not excel at any of the cleaning chores. One time while mopping the house, Carol had to re-mop the floors after I was done, as I had apparently not completed the task sufficiently. Anytime I messed up, my sisters would laugh at my poor abilities. At first, it made me feel bad. I thought that, in the locals' eyes, I wasn't "good enough" at performing certain skills- something that in my mind was necessary to fully integrate. I felt alienated over it but, over time, I learned to see the absurdity of my thinking.
Coming to terms
The idea that I would not be accepted into my community because I didn't peel plantains at a fast enough pace was silly. Besides, why wouldn’t locals laugh at the foreigner who not only looked out of place in the village, but was also struggling to do basic skills that they can do in their sleep? Instead of being offended, I accepted my shortcomings, appreciated the intentions of my host family, and developed a new appreciation of the daily life of Ugandans.
I have made great progress in building a relationship with my host family since my pre-service training. Looking back, I can pinpoint the moment my host sisters and I began to see eye-to-eye and connect from a cultural perspective. It was about two months after we had met, and I was visiting them on the weekend. During one of our conversations, I mentioned that I did not grow up cooking matooke, posho, or beans. I also mentioned that it is common to use cleaning devices, such as vacuum cleaners, in U.S. households. My sisters' facial expressions suggested that a light bulb had gone off in their heads. It was as if they realized that my flawed skills were rather efforts to take on their lifestyle and their cultural normalities. I felt ashamed that I'd assumed, all this time, that my host sisters would know these things about me or the country I came from. More than anything, however, I was glad to experience what felt like a breakthrough moment with them.
From that moment on, my relationships with Carol and Oliver began to flourish. Both my host sisters started showing gratitude for any task I did, even if I did not do a very good job at it. They also started to show interest in my upbringing and life in the United States and would frequently ask questions to better understand my experiences before Uganda. Between my host family and I, there was now a mutual interest in each other's cultural backgrounds, and it felt liberating! This is what the second goal moment- to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people of Uganda. I know that when I return to the US, and when I send messages home about my time in Uganda, I am participating in the third goal, to help promote a better understanding of other people, in this case, Ugandans amongst Americans. I intend to do just that!
My service journey thus far
Overall, there are many things I have learned since arriving in Uganda. I’ve learned what it takes to integrate into a foreign community. I've learned that putting in effort and not being afraid to try new things goes a long way. I've learned to let go of my perfectionistic tendencies and to accept failures and setbacks, even humiliation at times. I've learned to be more forgiving of myself and I've learned to laugh at myself. I've learned that there is no such thing as a perfect integration process and that making (cultural) mistakes is inevitable. I've learned that people who come across as critical really want to see you succeed. I am thankful to have learned these lessons from my host family first-hand. They truly have played a large role in my integration process; I believe it is because of them that I was able to integrate into my community. For that, I will forever be grateful!