Soooo I know I’m back and no one is following this anymore (maybe Jill’s grandma is still out there in readerland?), but I found this post I wrote and never posted. Probably because it’s borderline illiterate and all but completely falls apart at the end. I find it endearing. Also, I don’t want it to get lost on my computer somewhere so I’m just going to post it here regardless.
Something fairly profound hit me while in the shower today. This is not unusual, as frigid lake water in an outdoor bathing block tends to have a “mind-clearing” effect. I don’t know how to describe one of my biggest frustrations about life in Uganda, except to say…I never really know what’s going on. Sure, after 2 years and some bonus I understand how life flows, I’ve figured out the bizarrely irregular market non-schedule, and I can tell which vague white taxi is going to Kasese and which vague white taxi will stop at Kyambura by examining its unique pattern of still-attached door handles. I can read between a lot of lines in conversation. But I think, as most travelers would agree, that I am generally excluded from the inner-workings of Uganda.
This is a land where your closest friends can disappear for two months and produce babies when you never knew they were pregnant. Where a man and woman get married after a long courtship that no one ever really knew about. Where people say things and you’re not supposed to be offended but you don’t understand why. Where your neighbor says he’s coming home a certain day, shows up three weeks later, and no one else is phased by it. Where you can know someone for years without knowing he/she has kids. Where Christmas plans are made the night before, and where people always purposely withhold where they’re going, and when, and if they’ll be back despite that this information would make it infinitely easier for you to make a meeting with them or bake them a cake for their birthday. Where husbands and wives don’t always know where each other are or how they are feeling. I could go on, and on….and on. In fact, I think I have!
The important thing is, and for which I will be winning the Cold Water Revelations prize, is that I think I have discovered the way in which Ugandans and Americans are the MOST opposite. (At least those of my generation…) PRIVACY. Rural Ugandans have essentially zero physical privacy—whether they grew up in a house of 7 kids (or 17), attended boarding school for up to 13 years, or plain just lived in a village where everyone knows everything. I think they make up for this by creating their own sense of internal privacy. Given the average parent : child and teacher : student ratios, it’s also likely that kids grow up being taught to keep their feelings and ideas and goals and challenges inside. I’m not pulling this out of my butt here, there is a poster in my local secondary school’s main office that says “Don’t tell your friends your problems: Half of them have bigger problems, half of them won’t listen, and the other half of them won’t care.” The school’s deficiencies in mathematics may be discussed in a future post. Please note that I’m not condemning this way of life, as I do think there are redeeming qualities about a culture which always responds “I’m fine.” For instance, I find Ugandans to be highly independent at a much earlier age, more flexible to deal with changing situations, and certainly far from stretched out on therapy couches and popping mood pills.
Ahem. Let us contrast with America. I don’t think I need to elaborate to most of you the idea that we have created for ourselves a society that provides not only SO MUCH physical privacy, but also basically the CHOICE of, say, exactly how many people I feel like interacting with today. Families of 4 often have 4 bedrooms, and 4 cars. You can go to stores without seeing anyone you know, or just decide to hole up at home for days in a row without anyone asking questions. Etc, etc. And yet, we contemplate about buying the 500 or 1,000 text message plan. Boyfriends and girlfriends know where each other are 98% of the time and insist on talking about every little thing and feeling of the day (okay, mostly the girlfriends). We announce our problems to the church. We post what we’re praying for and what kind of socks we’re wearing on Facebook. We Tweet about our break-ups and share photos of our ultra-sounds! We blog about privacy (and, it seems, blog about blogging about it…) Not only do we share EVERYthing going on inside, but sometimes we just throw it out there to the universe and hope someone cares, or laughs, or calls us for a drink! (hint hint)
I don’t dare to believe that I’m the first person to suggest that our demolition of personal boundaries is a reaction to our somewhat self-induced physical isolation from each other. It’s no big secret that sub/urban life seems to shake free of the bonds of community. Only so that, once we’re free, we can try to build that community back up again, but in ways that we can control. There’s a movement in the U.S. to make everything more “social”. I think technology is great, but I also think there’s something very unsettling about “making television more social”. There’s a lot to be said, and a lot that has been said, by far more interesting and intelligent people than me, for real, present, physical, human community and togetherness—warts, awkward/unpredictable situations, and all! Also, nature. Remember nature? It was nice.
I see the Americans I know at home, and the Ugandans I live with here, as people living in incomparable places with nearly-incomparable challenges. We’re all wired to interact with others but, in the push and pull for physical vs. personal privacy, I feel like these two groups swing wildly to extremes. In very general terms, Ugandans keep everything inside because everyone else would mind way too much, and Americans divulge even the most private or mundane details, just hoping that someone minds enough to care. As Americans market ourselves to the outside world, Ugandans soldier on with support enlisted from only their most intimate contacts. So really, we are all just trying to control and define our identities—whether through carefully chosen Facebook broadcasts or through intentional withholding of personal information. Wait, did I say this would be an issue that made Ugandans and Americans DIFFERENT? My bad. Looks like we’re all the same humans after all.
Then, my neighbor’s kids locked me inside my bathing room. The end.