Reflections from My Mirror

Travelling to another country or region and encountering the people of those places, always comes with its own particularities and challenges. As a graduated anthropologist I’m supposed to be quite literate about “different cultures”. At least that is what I used to say when people asked me what it actually means to study Social and Cultural Anthropology. “We study different cultures”, I would say, hardly understanding myself what that actually means.

Don’t get me wrong, we saw a lot of theories about cultures, about tradition, society or religion. Still it felt that we were always so limited in our knowing, trying to interpret what these “other people” were doing and why, yet not actually being able to talk to them or connect with them.

I did go to the Republic of Congo for my thesis research, but being there only a short six weeks, I never felt like I really got to understand the “culture”. I’ve travelled quite a lot for my young age, yet right now in Uganda is the first time that I am living for an extended period of time within a different culture — and the true meaning of all that academic theory has finally dawned on me.

I now understand the real importance of what the famous anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski meant when he said that a field trip should last at least one or two years, “To fully grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world.” The most important factor in learning about another culture really is time — spending quality time with the people that you are getting to know. It is about being there, not just for the big moments like weddings or funerals, but more importantly, sharing the banal, every-day life things. And when I say “being there”, I don’t mean just observing from the outside, but actually living it, being a part of it.

I’ve realised that forming friendships is an overlooked but oh-so-important way of doing that. I am very lucky to say that I have made two really close friends since I’ve arrived here and they have been the best teachers to me.

One of them is Apollo. He is 20, he is a local guide and he has been offering his services at Lake Bunyonyi since he was 14. He lives with his mother with whom he has a really strong bond, as she has been raising him and his 9 siblings alone after his father died. Apollo is always in a good mood but he is especially happy when he can take tourists around. He loves being a guide, to meet new people from all over the world. He’s always trying to learn new things about his home land, so he can proudly present them to the tourists.

Apollo on a boda boda (passenger motorcycle) taking Mari to Kisoro

Recently I was looking for something in my wallet while I was emptying it in front of Apollo. It still contained some euros and his attention was caught by these exotic coins. He asked me about the worth of some of these coins and I converted it to Ugandan shillings for him. I saw him thinking it over in his mind and after a couple of seconds he looked at me and said, “You can buy at least two goats with this money here!” I laughed as I was reminded of the fact that we truly come from different worlds. With this money in my pocket in Belgium, I may think about buying a coffee and a waffle — while his frame of reference immediately brings him to buying a goat. Since owning livestock in this area is a recognised sign of wealth, he tried to make meaning of these strange coins by referring them to something he knows best.

Brenda is my other new friend and teacher. She is the manager at Edirisa where I am staying and she really is an extraordinary woman. Born on the shores of Lake Albert, she ended up living in Kampala by herself at a young age. Her life story is one that can be made into a movie, one that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. She is one of those women that has endured so much hardship, but still goes through life with a seemingly effortless smile. (This blog’s featured image shows her having her hair done; her friend is smothering the edges with a candle, an activity that gave me anxiety while Brenda looked perfectly comfortable with it.)

Brenda and I started watching a TV show together. It is about four African-American women facing the ups and downs of life together. The show is nothing too deep, but enjoying it together has taught me so much about her point of view and how our different frames of reference make it unique for each of us. The things I find funny, she might find incomprehensible. Some things that I find cruel, she finds entirely reasonable, and the other way around. Sometimes, she laughs and then explains to me that it’s funny because, “Here we don’t do things that way.”

Who we find attractive in the show is also quite different. Brenda considers the girl with the lightest skin the most beautiful, while I think she is clearly the least pretty one. This has led me to a more general observation that many people here want to have lighter skin and they idealise white or light-skinned people. Brenda could not understand why I wanted to lay in the sun to get darker skin.

One topic that remains sensitive for me is gender inequality. It naturally provokes strong emotions and I have opinions about it that I cannot easily ignore or suppress. Last week, Apollo came back from a trip with tourists to Punishment Island. It’s the smallest and most notorious island here at Lake Bunyonyi, where girls who became pregnant before marriage were traditionally left to die. I enquired how the trip went and he told me how one of the women got really upset about the history of the island and even confronted him, asking him if he thinks this kind of behaviour is acceptable. He told the story kind of jokingly, making fun of this woman, and I felt an urgent need to protect my fellow women against male gas lighting culture (where men question female victimhood). I wanted to hear Apollo’s honest opinion about this so I tried my best to respond with an open question instead of immediately insinuating his culpability. He quickly made it clear that he doesn’t condone such practices at all, that it is most of the time men who are to blame for making girls pregnant before marriage and that it would have been more accurate to send the guys to Punishment Island. He actually agreed with the woman but he had felt attacked by her as she had assumed that he would condone these old practices. I am so glad I was able to withhold my initial reaction, and listen to his opinion first. It revealed Apollo’s true position, and stifled my combative first impulse.

I remember a particular experience I had in Congo last year that was a real eye-opener for me. One of the friends I made there was called André. He was an expert on forest life, and I loved our nature walks together. He knew how excited I got about plants and animals, and was always eager to teach me woodland wisdom, which plants are edible, and which ones cure certain ailments. At one point we were walking on a tree trunk that lay across a large dug out hole, when we heard a peculiar bird cry. André said, “Aha, it is 12 o’clock.” He explained to me that this native bird tells them the time and it’s how they know whether they have to start going back to the village in the evening or be prepared to stay the night. As my first reaction, I wanted to verify the time on my phone. Luckily, my battery was dead, and I said nothing. In that forest, staring at that dead phone, something suddenly became clear to me. I realised that it didn’t matter whether the “time” he got from the bird corresponded with my phone. The Western time measurement that I had grown up with was of no importance to him. The crucial thing was that the bird’s cry gives him a notion of midday and helps him organise activities. I’d come to Congo to learn from the people, but my conceptions on what counted as knowledge, were so limited that it impeded my learning. What I considered “the truth” was only one way of knowing and was strongly determined by my own frame of reference.

A building illegally erected in a wetland lies pretty but unfinished, reflected in the waters of Bunyonyi

With that understanding, my thesis research became far less about ‘windows’ (reading books, conducting interviews) and more about ‘mirrors’ (self-reflection), and I ended up learning so much more about myself and the others around me. Learning about other cultures is in the first place realising that you are also part of a culture.

Whenever I find myself in a ‘cultural impingement’ now, I try to remind myself of that moment and that I am only one person with one opinion, influenced by the place and the people I grew up with, in a myriad of possibilities. I’m excited to keep learning from my new friends …