What Should I Expect in Terms of Cultural Shock?

Article from the series: Frequently Asked Questions about Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo

Culture shock is expected, and even welcome, when you exchange a life in the West for a dive into African life. But your culture shock will inevitably be quite personal.

Considering that I’m a fresh Gorilla Highlands Experts intern that will stay in Uganda for six months, my very recent arrival puts me in a prime position to share my own experience. Buckle up!

Two years ago I decided to write a new chapter. I was finishing my Business Economics degree in Belgium and was destined to sit behind a desk for the rest of my life. Only, there was one problem: I’m not as positive as Dolly Parton when it comes to working nine to five.

Sitting in a cold boring office in a high grey building with a boss telling you what to do and how to do it wouldn’t work for me. It was time to take a step into the unknown. So, I applied for an internship in development work. The following months my tutor and I searched for a suitable project and when I finally found an interesting one in Senegal, Covid happened.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Instead of travelling to Senegal, I studied journalism for a year and I haven’t regretted it for one single second. But my African dream was still alive and kicking so I applied for the internship a second time. And look where it brought me! I’m at Edirisa on Lake Bunyonyi, sitting behind my computer on the hillside above the most beautiful lake in the world while drinking a delicious hot cup of tea. A cold boring office or the shores of Lake Bunyonyi … I’m happy with my decision.

The plane that took me and my fellow students from Brussels to Entebbe landed exactly ten days ago — and what an introduction it has been! Getting to live in a completely new culture feels overwhelming, a bit exhausting but most of all exciting. Of course it also comes with the unavoidable culture shocks.

The first days we stayed at a rather luxurious and Western hostel that is managed by two Belgians. The moment the gates of ViaVia opened, gave us a peek of the real Uganda. Children playing in the streets with nothing more than a rope and an old tire.

After three days we left our bubble and each of us went their own way. My colleague Louke and I hired a private driver to bring us from Entebbe to Kabale, a very fast 5.5-hour drive. Beforehand, I had read about the crazy Ugandan traffic but nothing could have prepared me for Kampala (or Jampala, the mocking nickname locals call it). Cars, vans, busses and boda bodas dangerously passing by left and right. Bikes carrying up to four people, coffins or even dead cows.

After leaving the capital, the roads became calmer and other than the extremely high speed bumps and multiple police controls we pretty much cruised to Kabale. I didn’t know that the worst was yet to come. The “road” leading to Edirisa being so hilly and full of holes that my driver refused to drive all the way up.

With the help of my new friend Kahiri I eventually made it to my new lakeside home.

For the last week I’ve tried to immerse myself in the Ugandan culture and spent much of my time in Rutinda, the nearby village on the lake, and in Kabale town. I have experienced more adventures and culture shocks in a week than I could have imagined.

Let’s start with the concept that people live by, African time. Belgians tend to be rather punctual and even complain when the train or bus is two minutes late. So at first it was a little frustrating that Ugandans have a more relaxed attitude towards time. But actually I adapted quite easily and already enjoy this way of living. An issue that I didn’t yet manage to get accustomed to is the way Ugandans handle their waste. While most parts of Europe recycle and sort their waste, Ugandans just throw plastics on the streets!

Still, there are some similarities that make me feel at home. Many Ugandans told me that the southwest is “freezingly” cold. But when you are used to a climate where the temperature barely hits five degrees at this time of the year, you can imagine that plentiful sunshine with an occasional heavy rain shower isn’t a big adaptation at all. 

Another thing that reminds me of my home country are the potatoes. Before I left I ate mashed potatoes, boiled potatoes and French fries (as a proud Belgian, I have to tell you that we invented them) because I thought I wouldn’t eat any of them for six months. Now, I think you can guess what my first local lunch was … Surprise! Potatoes, called “Irish” here.

But there are also parts of the eating habits that shocked me. I noticed that Ugandans almost never eat meat and when I asked a local why, he answered that it is just too expensive. You can’t ignore the overall poverty when you are walking through the streets. Even kids as young as five or six, who are anything but independent in Belgium, are carrying heavy things on their head or dragging around machetes to help their family. When you pass by, they wave enthusiastically and shout “mzungu”(white person) which is sometimes followed by “give me money”.

It is clear that my skin color represents status and privilege. But it makes me feel like an outsider too. At the market I felt like everyone was staring but that slight feeling of unease disappeared immediately when a person smiled and started talking to me. What a difference with Belgium where people walk the crowded street and just mind their own business! The social and kind nature of the people has shocked me in the most positive way. They always sit together in front of their houses and strangers talk to each other like they have been best friends for years. The average Belgian needs to drink the right amount of beer to get as social as an Ugandan.

The people, the natural beauty before me, the novelty of this new world is intriguing indeed. A dugout canoe loaded with crops slides before me, with a single woman at the oar, and the exotic bird sounds are constant. I can feel myself grow, with each little culture shock warming my Belgian heart.

featured photo by Louke Van Baelen, the rest by the author