Tuesday, October 24, 2006

About Jacob and Being Called Muzungu part II

Being called ‘Muzungu!’ part II

I think I may have finally found a compromise. After being here in Uganda for almost 8 months now I think I may have stumbled upon a ‘cure for what ails me’.

Several weeks ago I wrote exclusively about what it’s like to be a Muzungu (white person) living in Uganda. Believe me I could write another entire blog about the subject. My newest analogy is to being a lion in a zoo. We’ve all been to the zoo. Usually when you get to the lions cage the lion is there but he’s asleep, so what do you do? And don’t tell me that you don’t do this. You clap. You whistle. You make noises to try to stir the lion. You want action, you want a ‘show’. You would throw something near the lion except for the fact that there are signs posted prohibiting it as well as zoo workers standing nearby. All you want the lion to do is to look at you, to acknowledge that you’re there and that it’s a real lion, which you know because you see the twitching of it’s tail.

So it goes as a white Peace Corps volunteer living in an all black village in Uganda. Jacob and I were walking down the street just outside of town about 1km from where we live when I suddenly stopped in the middle of the street and began counting the pair of eyes that were looking at us at that moment…I stopped counting around 50! At any given moment there are 50 people just staring at us. If we’re passing someone who is walking towards us they’ll stop in their tracks and stare and then turn around and keep staring as we pass…and we’ve lived here for 8 months now, greeted most people in their local language. Even if we were to live here for years and spoke perfect Runyankore we would still never shake the ‘Muzungu’ title and incessant name calling and yelling that we receive daily. It’s mostly by the men and children. When the children do it I have no problems. They’re just curious and when you wave they jump and laugh and turn around to continue to play, just happy that you acknowledged them, but when the group of men do it and you even look their way, they laugh and sneer and I hate knowing that I’ve been suckered into looking over there at them.

The catch 22 is that you can’t not wave back or acknowledge their greeting. That would be rude and the point is that we’re in Uganda to help. They also greet in the local language, in part, to test to see if you know the local language. So, after observing Jacob and how he responds, on one of my long runs on Saturday I began practicing a new method of greeting. When they greet (not when they yell Muzungu, but when they actually greet)…just wave. Don’t look, don’t say anything, just wave. Then the greeting has been acknowledged, you haven’t responded in Runyankore. It makes them just mad enough to give me a small joy from the experience. They were trying to get me to look at them and to respond back in Runyankore, having done neither their goal has been squandered but I am justified because I acknowledged and waved… It seems to be just what the doctor ordered.

Home Visits

Saturday night, Japheth, my supervisor and the director of Compassion here, asked me to go with him to do a special home visit. (Japheth is the Biblical name of one of Noah’s sons) One of our girls who is in P5 (5th grade) didn’t attend the Center Day (on Saturday the kids all gather for programs and activities and it’s called Center Day) and had skipped school all week. We began inquiring as to her absence and some of the kids told us that she had left home and was living with her boyfriend who is also an Compassion child in P7 (7th grade) who lives with his brothers under the supervision of a neighbor living nearby. The boy was at Center Day. We kept quiet about the whole thing all day, hoping that we could catch the two of them together that evening. Sometimes when we do a ‘surprise’ home visit when a kid has been unruly then the kid sees us coming and runs! I haven’t been there to witness a runner, otherwise I’d give chase in what could only be viewed as a low budget version of Cops - African style.

We could have called the authorities and had them arrested and brought into the police station to have them both caned. Defilement (a male having sex with a young girl) is a big problem in this country. Japheth decided that the best thing was to go and find them there, have them admit to what they were doing (which we already knew), promise to not do it again and then take the girl home.

We arrived around dusk and despite about a thousand little kids yelling Muzungu when they saw me, the boy and girl were there at the house. We sat down for about an hour and a half and talked by the light of a small kerosene lamp in a small African house. Though it took a while, the boy finally admitted to sleeping together but the girl never did. We explained that we weren’t there to change feelings they may have but to show them that what they are doing is dangerous, reckless and has life long consequences. As workers for Compassion you begin to feel, in part, that these are your kids and your heart aches when they’ve made poor decisions in life. For the boy, he had lost both of his parents. The girl had lost her father. So we try and intervene and act as a parent. I’m amazed though, sometimes, at how many parents don’t act like parents, allowing their children to do whatever they want and act however they want. All we can really do is to talk to these kids and try to change their mind.


Jacob is the other PCV working in Ntungamo with an organization called Africare. As fate would have it we ended up in the same town and live about 50 yards from each other. My Peace Corps experience and Jacob’s will forever be intertwined. We see each other daily and are seen together daily. If you didn’t know any better you would think that the two of us riding our bikes through town were a couple of Mormons, here to preach the Good News plus John Smith.

Jacob, 25, grew up in Indonesia but is from Louisiana where he went to LSU for a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Jacob’s father travels around quite a bit with his work, often spending a month abroad and then a month home. Jacob himself has visited over 30 countries. Everyone likes Jacob. He’s best known in Peace Corps circles as being a vivid story teller. You’ll often find him seated in the middle of a group spinning some tale of what happened to him the previous week, with everyone sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the exciting conclusion. He reminds me most of my friend Bobo from home. I don’t know what his religious convictions are but he’s a very moral guy whom I often go to if I need advice on an iffy problem I have. We share some things in common, for example, we both love fantasy football, the NFL, Ultimate Frisbee and music. He’s one of the most amazing guitar players I’ve ever known. Neither one of us drink for various reasons though mostly the same. He has a mind like a steel trap. In our language lessons he grasped the language quickly and I’m amazed at some of the things he knows about random things, like where nearly every Peace Corps volunteer is living. He also loves to cook and to experiment with trying new cooking recipies. (Not that I’m complaining. I usually am the tester of the food he prepares). We eat together around 4-5 times a week and we watch 2 NFL games on the DSTV at the local restaurant. We’ve also spent our evenings teaching Ultimate Frisbee to 6 local secondary schools. Jacob is a social person who prefers to be in the company of others. I, on the other hand, am more of a loner who recharges by spending time alone. Most evenings Jacob meanders over here to chat, share stories, play video games on my computer or to play guitar. One of the trainees asked us how we like living so close to each other to which Jacob responded, “I think I appreciate it more than he does.” Jacob lives simply. He doesn’t spend money unless he has to. He recently was reading a book about Gandhi and I think he really took from him his simplistic lifestyle coupled with his ability to abstain from the unnecessary. In the first few weeks we were here, I would wake up in the morning, start to fry up some eggs or something and realize that my ‘pancake turner’ was missing. Along with 2 of my plates, my salt and my butter. Jacob had a key to my place and would come over and help himself out to whatever he wanted without returning it. It really got under my skin there for a while until I realized that he’s just being Jacob and not spending any of his money. I had to finally tell him that the Peace Corps gave us the same amount of money and that he needs to spend that money on his own utensils.

All in all Jacob is a super guy and I can’t imagine how isolated and alone I’d feel without him here. Some PCVs go home because they just feel too lonely. Don’t have that here. He’s always got a story to share and a great meal he’s ready to prepare.

Lost in Translation

One of the common things to say if you haven’t seen someone in a while here is “You’ve been lost.” Of course when an American hears that, it implies that you’ve been somewhere where you didn’t know where you were, when in fact you’ve always known exactly where you were. To them it means, “You’ve been lost/missing from this place.” It’s just one of the many strange sayings here in Uganda.


At 01 November, 2006, Anonymous bobo said...

I find it rather disturbing that there is someone else out there that reminds you of me. Not so much that I'm not unique, but rather I fear for the world.... When I read your blog, I noticed that Jacob likes to irritate people (the hand wave response) and tell stories..... I would neve.... Oh, fine, that's me to a T. Glad to hear that you've found a friend to torment over there (I hope you haven't broken out the camera). One of these days (before you get back from Africa) I really need to get a blog or website so you can read up on us and how Jocelyn's doing. It's halloween night, we had her dressed up like a lady bug. It was pretty cute. I'll try to send you some pics.

P.s. Thanks for the mercilous defeat this past week in FF.


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