When I woke up in a small room at Backpackers in Kampala one morning in 2006 I panicked. For the first time in my life I was more than 500km/310mi away from home. In fact, I was more than 5,000 km away in a foreign land, and the only person I knew (and only through email) wasn’t even in the country at that time. What the heck was I thinking?
That night, I’d just arrived in the “mysterious land of Africa, where children are hungry, war ravages and AIDS, malaria and other diseases are rampant”. I didn’t even like the idea and I wouldn’t even have come if it hadn’t been for a Slovenian guy writing on an obscure Slovenian forum about his Apple gadgetry breaking down in the Ugandan dust. But he was looking for a volunteer designer and having someone familiar (albeit just because he’s from my country), intrigued me. It was incentive enough for me to abandon the comforts of home and a fixation I had at the time with traveling South America with just a towel and a toothbrush (no kidding, that was the original plan!). What nudged me that year towards Uganda was seeing the film Constant Gardner, which greatly improved the image of Africa in my mind (if you’d seen it you know that’s not to my credit). It sparked a mild interest in going to Africa as a stepping stone to my original plan. But even so, in my ignorant Westerner mind, Africa remained a dark, dangerous and miserable place to definitely avoid.
One hour later that first morning, I summoned the courage to open the door to my room, get breakfast and head out to explore Kampala. By day’s end, I’d fallen in love with everything about Uganda, from the lovely warm people, to the amazingly big but disgusting birds, the Marabou Storks, eating garbage on every street corner. By the end of my month and a half tenure as volunteer at Edirisa, I genuinely perceived Uganda as my second home.
Three years later it did become my home for almost 16 months — until I left in 2011. That was also the time, when at the Global Edirisa Meeting (GEM), the organisation changed. In an odd way, and not until writing this article, I realised that in 2011 Edirisa and I both grew up. When I was asked to write about 2011 my first thought was: I don’t remember much from that year. Most memories I have are from 2010! But as in most coming-of-age stories, what changes a person happens before the change, and so I will add bits of 2010 to this story.
Three years of absence surprised me with unexpected changes to Uganda. My infatuation with the place was filled with memories of stargazing in a canoe on Lake Bunyonyi, being awed at the powerful sight of the Milky Way in complete darkness, unobstructed by artificial lights, during country wide power blackouts. You can’t experience that in Europe and can only imagine it looking at those impressive long-exposure photos. In darkness, under the galactic night sky, you could hear passionate singing and energetic drumming from villages around the lake. It was … magical.
I still remember how almost no one had phones, cars were rare and the lake was very silent as motor boats were almost nonexistent.
Three years later what attracted me to Uganda was disappearing. Cars were everywhere, everyone seemed to have two phones, singing was replaced by bad audio speakers. Power came to remote places and when there was a blackout, the sky would be lit by generator lights from tourist resorts. The silent lake had become polluted with constant noise from loud motorboats.
The same way that “miserable Africa” was in my mind replaced by lovely Uganda the first time around, I was now struggling with the loss of a fantasy I had created and wanted to protect. I realised I just wanted Uganda to stay primitive so I could always return as a cultural voyeur and live the fairytale of the foreigner escaping the messy developed world and return to the roots of life, surrounded with dance and song. At the time, I even argued Ugandans should reject progress and stay as they are, connected to their cultural roots. Only later have I come to understand that colonisers have already wiped those out almost entirely. Whether or not you agree with such ideas, Ugandans certainly did not, and I was patronisingly overstepping a lot.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my year there was bound to become a reckoning with the reality of a culture so different I could never really fit in outside the shell of the white saviour fantasy.
What I saw that year was troves of missionaries and charity workers coming to help “the poor”. They flew in Business Class, driving expensive cars and talking down to locals in infuriaitingly patronising ways about how they should live their lives or raise their children. I saw tourists jumping off overland trucks and handing banknotes of up to a hundred dollars to the first random person sitting near the truck, assuming they were poor, as if money was the most important gift a human could give to another human being. As a consequence, I’ve seen loads and loads of children whose parents have taught them to see a white person as a walking wallet to get money from, not a person worth talking to.
The list could go on and on and it just made me frustrated. I was often irritated by the fact I couldn’t go anywhere without being shouted at, “Muzungu (white person), give me money”. I would snap at well-meaning people because I resented the fact that they made me feel like I was an outsider. All I really wanted was to feel at home in Uganda.
The truth is, I was a guest, who in that one year barely started to scratch the surface of understanding the cultures let alone assimilate into them.
I still remember the time helping out Valeria, a lovely Italian researcher doing research for her PhD about a powerful female spirit called Nyabingi. We’d visit witch doctors and female mediums who would be talking about their practice. The taxi driver who drove us around the villages was also acting as a translator. We would ask them how they interact with Nyabingi, how does it work. The driver would translate and for the most part it was very insightful, but we would get these strange looks from the mediums every time he’d say Nyabingi while translating their answers to us.
When Valeria later asked her assistant to translate the interview tapes, we discovered that no one was talking about Nyabingi! A female medium — who in reality claimed that the spirit of Jesus was what gave her healing powers even kept asking him why he was mentioning the devil all the time. The Christian missionaries and British colonisers had managed to turn the name of the good feminine spirit Nyabingi to essentially a local word for the devil, driving the real Nyabingi mediums away from populous areas, trying to avoid persecution. But that is how the taxi driver cheated us into many rides around the villages and was completely shame-free about it. Even when found out, he regularly visited The Home of Edirisa in Kabale here I was based at the time as if nothing had happened. Cheating, it turned out, was culturally acceptable, and you could even get praised for it if successful.
Do not miss the Africa’s Secret History episode of SEE AFRICA BREATHE AFRICA where a male Nyabingi is being talked about!
Visiting a frend in Rwanda weeks later, I tried to ask people about Nyabingi as a way of helping Valeria. That evening, while visiting a local bar, was as close to a spiritual if not paranormal experience I’ve had in my life. While having a chat at the counter, I turned to a few people standing there asking whether they knew anything about a spirit called Nyabingi. I’m still wondering whether I imagined things or was my memory playing tricks on me. As I asked the question everyone suddenly froze in a look of dread. The bar fell silent and even the noises from the streets became dead for a brief moment. A chill wind blew into the bar moving the curtains and flying some papers around. One of the people at the counter hissed, “Don’t say her name out loud like that, she will strike you dead!”. The benevolent and helpful spirit Nyabingi, as I learned later, can only be called when you desperately need help. But she is also irritable and will punish you if you call her in vain.
Experiences like that were a rare genuine glimpse into the culture, which was not translated, constructed or idealized for the muzungu. They were a reminder that there was a rich and often hidden culture outside of the white discourse of charity, pop culture, economy and the like. People who have learned the local language have many times told me that behind the limited English-speaking skills of village locals there were rich, lovely and often funny conversations about everyday things, which escape the English-only speaking muzungus and distort their perception of the peoples and cultures.
And there was the other, dark side of contemporary Ugandan culture which has been metastaticly infected by fringe and sometimes mainstream Western ideologies, sometimes in such perfidious and unexpected ways it was sickening. When living in Nkozi next to Uganda Martyrs University, the university on the equator, I attended a students debate club at the lovely campus during one of my breaks building the new Gardens of Edirisa. I don’t remember the exact title of the debate, but it was something in the line of “Homosexuality: good or bad?”.
The debate format would have one team debating for good and one for bad. After maybe five minutes of the good team trying to somehow find a positive view, it soon turned into a competition about who would condemn homosexuality in harsher tones, mesmerizing the jury into forgetting how a debate club is supposed to work and what it is for in the first place: exchange of ideas, not an ideological show of hands. The debaters raged about how Europeans have infected Africans with homosexuality as a means of destroying their culture and their traditional Christian roots.
At one point they even started addressing me (I guess as a token representative of Europeans) while accusing foreigners of inciting homosexuality as a means of further colonial exploitation of Africa. I kindly reminded them that, just like Africa, Europe is a diverse continent and that there actually are Europeans like me, coming from countries, who have never colonised other countries and don’t really have a history of racism towards or control over African people. It worked: they left me alone but never the less doubled down on their thesis. The debate ended with the win from the team which was most persuasive about Westerners bringing the virus of homosexuality to Africa which “had beforehand been a god-fearing country where homosexuality did not exist”. The losing team was the one trying to argue for historians and scientists to look into the matter.
I had, at the time, already seen the documentary “God Loves Uganda”, which documents how evangelical missionaries from the USA have in a few years turned a country which mostly didn’t care about homosexuals to a country that wanted to hang them. But it didn’t seem that I could say anything that would make them reconsider their position. The uncontrolled rage had been left out of the bottle.
I was haunted by Western cultural hegemony and spent a lot of time thinking about what a healthy relationship would be between Western and African cultures. Yet even I had moments when I acted like an arrogant European know-it-all while working alongside Ugandans. Fortunately, I had the privilege of being proven wrong on more than one occasion. Once when we had to lift the mould for a structural beam for the new building at The Gardens, my white colleagues and I had spent a week building a pulley to do the job. I brushed off advice from local builders on how best to raise the mould. When the pulley was finally finished, we tried and it failed completely. Seeing my desperation at the realisation I would have to pay for an expensive crane to lift it up, they came and asked if they could finally lift it up. Resigned but amused, I told them to go for it. The mould was fixed in place in just a few hours, using the most common sense and unsophisticated method — pushing it on scaffolding by means of giving beers to about ten passer-bys. Way to go, you overthinking European schmuck!
This was just not working — us, westeners, coming to Uganda for a short time and being really clever about how Ugandans should live their lives. And Edirisa was becoming part of the problem. Smiles, the educational section of Edirisa, used to have a program of sponsoring a child in Uganda, essentially supporting their education. People would send a sum of money and get pictures and letters back. It was an inefficient logistical nightmare which was most effective at washing guilt from well-meaning Europeans but would not result in quality educational programs. As soon as Edirisa proposed a smarter approach which would drop the adopting a child concept, financing of Smiles plummeted.
The Global Edirisa Meeting in 2011 was the culmination of several key people’s frustrations. I, like some others, felt that it was not for Westerners to build Ugandans’ cultural self-respect and give them means to financially sustain their children’s education. It was Ugandans themselves, who should do that, and feel the pride associated with such achievements.
But leaving the world of charity or even agreeing that charity is part of the problem of cultural colonialism, not the solution, was too controversial even for such a progressive organisation as Edirisa. Discussions got heated. I, myself, became so passionate about the need to reform that I ended pushing people way too much. The daughter of the head of the UK charitable wing of Edirisa, who I’d grown to really like and had great conversations with, snapped at me in frustration at one point. She’d been put in the impossible position of being the mediator between her mom and us. Ideological divides were deep and created, in some cases, permanent rifts between people, that seemed unbridgable.
It was a difficult time for me, at the height of my disillusionment about the nature of my love for Uganda. I was slowly understanding that meddling with a culture so different than mine was damaging. I didn’t really understand it thoroughly, and coming from a position of extreme privilege, power and many deeply engrained prejudices, it was just not going to work. What I could do is go back and take stories about the wonderful people of Uganda to my friends and to everyone who would listen. I could try to grow myself and my own culture out of the same complex prejudices I never knew I had, before being confronted with them in Uganda.
Wait, isn’t that what the core of Edirisa was all about anyway?
As someone who has given a lot of time and energy to Edirisa, seing the name become permanently associated with the charitable version of it left a bitter after-taste.
But something great emerged from GEM after all. A new initiative based on the lesson learned. Just think for a moment how rare that is these days! For an organisation to say, “We were wrong,” and essentially shutting more than half of its signature activities down to reinvent itself into something new. Becoming a hub for really smart East Africans to build their local enterprises on culturally responsible tourism, retaining the idea of the window for the world to see Africa, and for Africa to see the world.
GEM laid the first brick for the Gorilla Highlands Initiative. An organisation has matured, and a new, more sensible focus was born.
After GEM I went on a tourist trip around the country for the first time since first coming to Uganda. I was awed by what I saw. This time, the infatuation was not based on some misguided fantasy about finding a new home in the heart of Africa. This time I saw beauty in the nature, populated by lovely people who are worth visiting and learning a certain relaxed lifestyle from.
Unburdened by the task of influencing culture, I regained the understanding of what made Uganda so special to me. I embraced and enjoyed being able to just walk up to any person on the street and start a warm conversation of genuine interest. I cherished the slow pace of life, which enabled me to fully process the experiences I had and contemplate on everyday things in a way which is difficult in the quick-paced Western life. I saw a place that is not home, but despite being the source of a lot of hardship in my year living there, deserves my deepest respect and will always be a place worth returning to.
For the richness it offers behind the curtains of prejudice, to anyone coming with an open mind.