A Tale of Two Lives

Living as a Peace Corps Volunteer has many juxtapositions. Between your American education and their own disjointed, interrupted education. Between your “salary” and the money they live on. The way you are able to travel throughout their country and the way many people in your village have never left their district. The largest differences are obvious when you travel to the capitol.

For Peace Corps Uganda, Volunteers occasionally travel to the capitol to see Peace Corps doctors, for various meetings about projects, or to travel through the city to get to other parts of the country. I think this is similar for other PC countries as well. For me, I have to travel to Kampala to get anywhere in the country other than the North.

Usually you are not alone in Kampala. Others are there for their own reasons. So you end up eating with them, watching movies with them, going to the mall with them. You live almost like you were living at home. It’s a nice break from the village, but the more you go back and forth, the more you marvel at the differences.

A child born in Kampala may never travel to the village, though their parents will surely try to get them to see their ancestral land. They live in a world of consistent electricity, Western influence, plentiful food women in trousers, good roads, lots of cars, lots of foreigners, and lots of English. It remind s me of the difference between a city like New York or Chicago, and a small town in maybe Iowa or Nebraska. But the difference is even more striking. Around 15%-20% of Uganda is illiterate, and most likely a larger percentage have limited literacy skills. It’s difficult for them to save any money, have any say in their government, travel very far from their homes, or receive a good education.

I feel very guilty going to the capitol for long stretches of time, but it is sometimes unavoidable, both for official reasons and because for mental health, I need to leave my site sometimes. I think it’s difficult to compare your life at site and your life while traveling as well as your life back home. We are here to attempt to live like the people we are serving, but surely that can only go so far. Some volunteers “go village” and truly integrate, only emerging for trainings and few other things. But I would say the vast majority cannot change, at the core, who America has made them.

This is not to say that we cannot learn from our host country or cannot integrate. It’s just that there is a limit to those activities which has nothing to do with how much we try.


I Went to a Wedding!

So this Sunday, I went to my first Ugandan wedding! First, some background information.

Weddings here are notorious for being very long, starting in the morning with a long religious service and with the reception starting in the afternoon and going until the evening. There are three main types of weddings – traditional, church wedding, and the Muslim wedding (niqa). A traditional wedding includes the tradition of bride price, meaning that the male relatives of the groom and male relatives of the bride get together to decide what the bride is worth in terms of barter (mainly livestock but can also include money or houses). A traditional wedding also may not be recognized in the church or by the government, instead is just done by the villagers between themselves. There may not be a big ceremony and dress code is probably traditional African fabrics.

A bride price can even happen with more modern church weddings. This was the kind of wedding I attended, but I didn’t ask about the bride price. I believe the bride was Catholic and the groom was Anglican. This type of wedding more closely resembles the American idea of a wedding – some religious service to start, and then a reception for friends and family.

A Muslim wedding, called a niqa, is something I don’t know a whole lot about, never having been to one. But from what my friends tell me they are also long, with lots of people talking. It’s most common for Muslim men to take multiple wives here versus other religions, so you may be attending the wedding of the second or third wife while the first and second wives sit looking on. Dress code is more conservative at these events.

General picture of the wedding.

So the wedding started at church, and this part I did not attend. It was in the local language, Lugbara, and the neighbor I was attending with was also not going until the reception. This worked out well for me because I didn’t really like the idea of sitting in church for three hours listening to something I couldn’t understand.

The reception was held at the primary school next to my college, as the bride is a teacher at the school. They had sectioned off an entrance way with mesh over most of it except for a small part for people to enter through. They put down red carpet for people to walk on as well. The bride and groom arrived in a car with lots of ribbons and balloons tied to it, as well as a leading car (the college truck) honking and playing music.
The couple enters solemnly, making their way to their provided tent, while the rest of the wedding party, including women whose sole job it seemed to be to yip loudly and shake palm leaves, are dancing and shouting behind the couple. All the guests are either seated in their own tents, or up standing trying to get a view of the couple and take a picture or video. They are also dancing and singing.

Bride and groom enter the reception.

This is one thing I love about this culture. Music is a part of their daily life. It’s a part of the big and small occasions, for happiness and sadness. At funerals they don’t even wear black, but they wear nice dress up clothes and play loud dance music. I don’t think I’ve heard a Ugandan song without a booming bass line to shake your booty to. It’s simply accepted as a fact that you dance as a Ugandan, or that you sing as a Ugandan. For men it’s not seen as feminine or emasculating, and for women it’s not seen as trying to be a diva or show off your crazy dance moves. You’re all showing off together, as a big family.
The bride was wearing a Western style wedding dress, large and white with a veil and a large white necklace. All the bridesmaids, though their dresses were handmade, no doubt were fashioned after Western style as well. The groomsmen were also in tuxes and matching ties. It makes me wonder what they wore 100 years ago to weddings. Most likely the traditional dresses and kitenge (kah-TENG-gay or kih-TENG-gay).

You can sort of see the bridesmaids dresses here.

As everyone gets seated, the MC made some announcements which I didn’t understand because they were in Lugbara, but I did catch the part about “men’s bathrooms over here, women’s over there”. The best man and a few other people made speeches, and there were a few rituals put on by the bride and groom. They set out a chair and a woven mat on the ground in front of it. The groom sat in the chair while the bride sat on the mat. She poured water over his hands for washing and fed him food, then wiped his mouth. This is to signify the women serving her husband. After this the groom also fed his bride, but she remained seated on the ground with him in the chair. This is common here. I noticed it with my host family as well. Whenever my dad was not home, my mom would sit in a chair and the kids would sit on mats. When he came home, my mom would sit on the mats with the kids.

 Then it was time to eat!
Just realized I didn’t take pictures of the food because I have gotten used to it, but I will try to update this post with pics from daily life - since they eat it every day!
Enyasa, the staple of the West Nile region, is made of dried cassava pound into a flour, mixed with water, and then stirred and cooked for a long time. It doesn’t really have a taste other than starch, and the texture is not really comparable to anything in the States. The closest thing I can think of is if you took bread and made it the consistency of bread dough, but much stickier and able to hold together more. Most people fill up half their plate with this, much like Westerners do with rice or pasta.

There’s always some sort of meat at large events, usually beef, but sometimes they’ll have fish. The beef comes in two pots, one for what I would consider “regular chunks” like you’d make stew out of, and the other pot has parts of the animal that I didn’t know were eaten. Intestines, mainly, and I know because of the little bumps sticking up from the meat. Then there’s beans, sometimes rice, and this time they had cabbage! They also usually have pop (Pepsi, Fanta, Stoney – ginger ale, Sprite, Mountain Dew).

There’s no table service, in fact there’s no tables as we are all seated in chairs squished together under tents. So each tent takes its turn getting food, buffet style. We eat, and then a woman comes around to collect the plates. I hear later from my neighbor Felista that the cooks were supposed to bring out the bull’s head, and whichever woman dances with it on her head is the next one to get married.
Then there’s the presentation of gifts! Unlike a wedding in the States with a gift table,  the gifts are brought in the same way the wedding party is – with much pomp and circumstance and of course, dancing!!! People bring money, goats, chickens, tables, chairs, and at this wedding I saw them carry in a queen bed complete with four posts, mattress, and mosquito net! Don’t forget the yipping ladies and the shouting and the music. And the conga line of people bringing gifts.

Afore mentioned bed that was carried into the reception.

Entrance to the reception, including African conga line!

Felista was presenting a cash gift from the local women’s savings group and asked me to go up with her and two other women from the college. So we walked around to the entrance way and danced in – didn’t take a video, sorry! One of my fellow teachers did take a video so I’ll try to get it from him.
After this we left the wedding as it had started to rain a little bit. The tent we were sitting under partially blew off the frame and the wind kicked up like crazy. They were trying to wrap it up quickly actually because they had predicted it was going to rain.

Overall I like the communal feel of events here, much like daily life here. It’s like admitting that everyone is connected, and everyone is welcome. The wedding was fun even if I didn’t understand most of it, because I understood what was important – we are a large family, and we’re happy and celebrating with you for the creation of your new family. Joyous day. Here's some more pictures.

Mainly I was trying to get a picture of all the cakes, but also got a picture of the woman who was dancing around with some animal part stuck on a stick. Or it's possibly enyasa. Who knows. Lots of the cakes were given as gifts to the groom's family and bride's family. Not many people bake here (wheat flour is expensive) so cake is kind of a big deal.

Children dressed as navy officers?? Super cute anyhow.

I just loved this woman's dress.


Ceding Control

Americans are, I think, used to being in control of their lives to a certain point. You decide what you eat, where you work, what to go to school for, what you can wear, who you can associate with, how conservative or liberal you want to be, how you transport yourself around your neighborhood. When you live in a developing country you lose some of that control. Things don’t always work, transportation depends on unreliable cars and badly maintained roads, you can’t eat the things you’re used to, you can’t wear what you want to, the weather is not what you’re used to, and you have to manage your views or ideas to control the level of safety you may have.

So you tend to cling to things you can control – personal hygiene, hanging out with other expats to have a chance to speak like you did back at home, depending on care packages for food versus going to the market, buying things for your home, communicating with friends back home online (but even that is difficult sometimes).

I think the key to living abroad (not in an expat community, but more integrated into culture) is finding the balance between what you’ve realized is out of your control, and what you can fight for. When you first arrive, you decide you’re going to fight for everything. Call people at home everyday. Spend lots of money at restaurants designed for foreigners. Shop at supermarkets versus the local market. Spend lots of money on internet to live the life you did at home. But at some point you realize you’re not at home anymore, and even when you’re on a limited contract, that you’re not going to be home again for a while. You start to let go of things which simply bothered you, and start to focus on the things you can control.

How often will you see your expat friends? How often will you spend money on comfort food or comfort items? How much work can you expect to get done now that you’ve seen the systems and their limitations?
Grassroots work is hard. And change takes an extremely long time. But you focus on the people and the things you can affect, and that helps.