From New England to Uganda: Second and Third Goal Stories
Peace Corps has three goals. The 2nd and 3rd goals are to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. Peace Corps Uganda Volunteer Brenda shares the joys of the second and third goals.
Call to Service
Peace Corps service had called to me for decades by the time I finally found the opportunity and a skillset with which to serve. The call was as much about my own curiosity as about any skillset I had to contribute. It was simple: I love a good conversation!
How lucky I am to have landed in Uganda. Ugandans are welcoming and extremely friendly. To me, Ugandans seem to wear their thoughts and feelings right out in the open. Contrast this with northern New England, where we have a deserved reputation for being stoic, cautious, and frugal with our emotions. From rural New England stoicism to Ugandan friendliness… you can imagine what a shock this was for me to process and navigate.
At first, I mostly kept my head down. A quick hard smile at passers-by was my signature move. I was uncertain whom to trust or how to move about this crowded hot city, full of boda bodas [motorcycle taxis] and sidewalk vendors aggressively seeking my attention. I did not know how to navigate either the streets or the relationships. Fortunately, my neighborhood did not give up on this muzungu.[White person]
My daily walk to the University where I teach nursing softened me up. An older man a few doors down from my apartment gently greeted me and taught me a few how-are-you skills. Eye contact and a friendly acknowledgment go a long way here, especially since my language is lacking. Once I began smiling with the boda boda drivers hanging out at the main road where I had to cross, they paid me back with friendliness, advice on timing, and cheers for my success. It’s a bustling city life here, and soon I was chatting with the other walkers, bumping fists with the school children, and bantering with the young men who wanted to sell me everything from kitchen utensils to healing foot creams. “But look, my feet are fine! Strong and nice!” I insisted, giggling, while the joking street vendor tried out increasingly silly sales pitches, and a little laughing crowd gathered around the entertainment…)
At ease in my community
It’s fun for me here. With Ugandan encouragement, I gained confidence. Now I love moving about the city, the central market, the rural roads where I go running. I have made friends. Of course, many Ugandans are curious about muzungus and interested to learn from me, as I am from them. We have much to talk about. I am grateful for these opportunities to exchange ideas about work, family, government, tradition, and what makes our lives meaningful.
Conversation at a local cafe
One evening at a local cafe, a group of us health care wazungu (White people/foreigners in plural) and Ugandans gathered to celebrate our co-worker’s birthday. Ugandans asked about American house buying choices. They questioned why we buy already-built houses, why we take out huge loans, and are burdened by them for a lifetime. They wondered why we do that.
Ugandans enjoy building their own homes. They told me, "Then you can start small, and make it just the way you like, and add on a room or a floor when you can afford it later."
Ugandans cover major expenses through collaborative fundraising among family and friends. This knits together their community in ways we Americans can hardly imagine. The conversation around the table that evening knit together our understanding of each other.
I am so grateful for these conversations. Our opportunities to exchange smiles and talk, these have made my life here meaningful. Recently a boda boda driver at that busy road crossing called out to me, fist raised high in victory, as I scampered across: “You are a Ugandan now!” Can you imagine how good that made me feel?
Bonding over fabric
Shortly after I arrived in my community, I wondered how to combine my sewing hobby with my wish to meet people. I also needed potholders! I made a foray to the central market in search of someone who sews and might sell me some fabric scraps to use. The central market is a multistory warehouse in my city full of stalls and small businesses. I found many seamstresses making clothing on their Singer treadle machines. My communication skills were so limited, I had zero success explaining my wish to them. Finally, one woman grabbed my wrist and led me through the crowds to Alex’s shop. He and I shared enough English to communicate, as well as the desire to learn about each other’s countries. I am grateful for his friendship – as well as this fine Kitenge (East African fabric) dress he made for me. I get many compliments from Ugandans when I wear it!
Reverse culture shock
My six-month term of Peace Corps Response service now seems way too short and will soon come to an end. Even though I am looking forward to going home and seeing my own dear ones, I wonder: How will I manage American culture again? Part of my coping strategy: I am already imagining how and when I will come back…