Mzungu Photographer in Uganda Part 1: Culture Shock
Mzungu: the name given to white people in Uganda.
Before writing anything else a quick disclaimer. I am not a travel photographer, I am not a sociologist, I am not an anthropologist. I spent just over a week in Uganda on this trip and was mainly located around Kampala. What follows is but a self portrait of my experience there.
First thing you will see in Entebbe when you land at the Airport there is a horde of Airport Taxi drivers that will all offer to drive you. My friend Martin Male from the orphanage was picking me up so I didn't test them but I will say having later seen what Taxis look like in Uganda, the airport Taxis and vehicles look far better maintained.
As a westerner you will quickly start noticing ALLOT of soldiers and security with AK47s. In fact even when you go to the grocery store, you will have to go through a security check where they first check the car, and then you will have an airport style metal detector and pat down.
As the first one on the ground I went to the store to stock up on supplies. An interesting thing was that they offer a considerably higher exchange rate on the larger currency bills ($50, $100) where people tend to stock up on small bills when they travel ($20s and lower)
when checking out at the grocery store, it took us about 20 minutes. We were the only ones in line and there were four employees at the register. The hold up was that they couldn't find the correct bar-code for the apples in the system. Later in the stay we would have the same experience with the bread. As someone that grew up in the consumer driven cultures of the western world, it was hard to stay patient and not be irritated at the situation. Taking myself out of the equation I did consider their point of view: It's not like anyone was waiting in line behind us so they have plenty of time right?
The shopping experience is also interesting because you realize how expensive life is for people that live in Uganda. With the exception of a few supersizes like glass bottle of coke coasting the equivalent of $0.40. It's very hard to imagine how people can hope survive to survive with $120/month.
As we unloaded the car one of the security guys from the apartments we were renting helped bring the groceries up. For every 2 trips I did running up and down this young man did 1 trip and with 1 bag. Despite a kindness and willingness to help I was starting to see this pattern of lethargy, a constant state of Daze. This does not negate the fact many individuals have a very high personal work ethic. The Last thing I would say about anyone in Uganda is that they are lazy... It's just a different world.
A very tricky thing to deal with is the people's concept of time and distance. Whenever we would ask Martin how far something was the answer was always 20 minutes... As we quickly found out... Nothing takes 20 minutes in Kampala. The rest of our team arrived the next day. "How far are we?" was of course one of the first questions... Lets just say we would spend periods of 20 minutes without moving at all. It took us almost 4hours to get back to the apartment so the team could drop off their stuff, and take a shower... or not. The showers had a mind of their own.
African time also made things difficult for sleeping since 5AM was apparently the set time to sweep the courtyard. Again not that people don't work hard, they don't sweep with what we call a broom they use a bunch of sticks wrapped together and in a position we would only attempt in a yoga class.
Like good westerners when we got settled in the first night, we sat down and made a schedule for the next day. It was the first and last time we tried to do such a silly thing. Another Typical example of African time, was the carpenter we requested a quote from to make shelves. We where supposed to meet him at the orphanage at 9am... I believe it was closer to 2pm when he got there. Of course much of our schedule depended on having shelves put together to put away and organize the tons of stuff we brought (all together we probably brought 300kg of stuff).
Within a few days of being there we start finding ourselves on African time to. No concept what day it is, no concept what time it is. Despite our best efforts to prepare something for lunch, we ended up skipping lunch almost every single day we were there. We would simultaneously have the feeling we had just arrived, and that we had been there for ever.
An image I keep in mind that best illustrates "African Time", no matter where we went we often saw multiple clocks... usually none of them worked. The clocks served as wall ornaments and were in no way used as time telling tools.