Tuesday, September 8, 2009

20 Observations after 9 Years in the Village

This post is from a recent email by Nathaniel Dunigan. He is a remarkable man not much older than myself, who grew up about half a mile from where I live. He has spent the last 9 years of his life caring for children with AIDS in Uganda. His work has grown incredibly during that time into an organization called AIDchild. A full scholarship to Harvard has brought him back to get his Master's Degree. Enjoy his comments below on what it's like to (temporarily) re-enter American culture.

"20 Observations after 9 Years in the Village"

From Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts

  1. It's so quiet here. Waiting for the subway, or walking down the street, or standing in line -- no one talks to each other. It's just QUIET. In Uganda, everyone is constantly chatting, honking horns, and shouting out greetings. Kind of strange to walk down a street anonymously after so many years. At home in Uganda, people call out "Mzungu, how are you?" or "Hello, Big Man!" Constantly.
  2. Speaking of walking down the street, I try to keep up. I really do. I walk as fast as I can possibly imagine, and still people overtake (err "pass") me on both sides. Even old people! In Uganda, we just stroll at a super slow pace. Always.
  3. And speaking of speed-walking, my feet hurt. I haven't worn shoes in nine years (only sandals). Turns out I have increased a whole shoe size, and need extra, extra wide shoes. They say your feet spread out with time. That's just weird.
  4. It's 56 degrees at the moment, and I am cold! The thought of winter still scares me.
  5. I can't stop singing: "Eight hundred five eight eight, two three hundred, EMPIRE!" and "Stanley Steamer makes your home cleaner!"
  6. Convenience and abundance. Oh my goodness. Anything I could possible need or want is just a few steps away. My, my, my. I am finding it hard to make choices in the shops. Whatever I am looking for, there are at least 15 choices. It's mentally exhausting (but at the same time tres marvelous). I can go to websites, enter my food order, and within minutes a delivery person is standing at my door with Hot & Sour Soup, or Pizza, or Enchiladas, or anything I want. Truly miraculous.
  7. I still haven't taken a hot shower. I find even warm water to be scalding and uncomfortable. We DO have hot water heaters in Uganda, but power is out so often, and we're always focused on saving money, so I hardly ever switch mine on. When I do, the water only trickles out, so here the huge RUSH of hot water is unpleasant. (PS I know that WILL change as winter sets in.)
  8. It's unnerving to be alone in my apartment. Am thankful that I am not in a house -- at least there are other people in this building. I have not been alone in years! It's doubly unnerving to have only a little deadbolt between me and the world. In Uganda we have multiple gates, plus hardcore locks on the doors -- not to mention the armed guards who patrol. I find it uncomfortable that I do NOT see riflemen walking past my windows when I awake in the night.
  9. I found a table and a chair at the Goodwill! Was so excited. Super nice, and so cheap. Then I called a taxi to pick me (and furniture) up. The driver said that we could not fit the table, chair and passenger (myself) into his cab. I laughed, and said, "My dear sir, where I live, not only would we get all of this in, but we would add seven more people, two babies, three chickens, and four 20-kilo-sacks of beans." He finally agreed, and I gave him a nice tip. The table and chair look so nice in my space.
  10. My apartment has a refrigerator! While I have a tiny one where I stay in Kampala, I do not have one where I live in Masaka. I don't have anything in the freezer here yet. Am still worried power will go off, and everything will melt. I had a guest the other day, and they wanted ice in their drink. Oops.
  11. Speaking of ice, I keep ordering my water at restaurants, and I ask for NO ICE. The servers look at me funny, ask for clarification, and then agree. It still comes super cold. The chill is unpleasant on my throat.
  12. No toothpicks. In Uganda, as soon as dinner is finished, people sit around and pick their teeth. Here, I guess that is done in private, so I sit very uncomfortably after meals, just wishing I could clean my teeth straight away.
  13. Machines. So much of what happens here is done by a machine. I don't buy tickets from a salesperson, but a machine. I don't give my subway pass to a conductor, but to a machine. I don't stand in line at the bank, but rather I slide a card into a machine. I don't buy stamps from a person, but from a machine. I don't even hand my credit card to a cashier. I have to swipe it myself, and then sign my name with a little pretend pen on a computer screen. When someone comes to see me, they don't chat with a gatekeeper who then comes to tell me they are here. Instead, they push a button on a machine at the building's front door, it then BUZZES nastily at me here in my apartment, and then I press a button, and we talk to each other like magic through the two machines, and then I BUZZ the door open and in they come. Then, they don't walk down the stairs to my basement apartment, instead they get into a machine (elevator) that brings them down. Even toothbrushes are machines! I went to buy a simple, plain ole toothbrush, and found that they now have batteries and switches. Very cool.
  14. I don't know what to do with trash. In Uganda, trash is just tossed out the car window, or dumped at the edge of the property. Here, there are all these fancy, plastic contraptions, with specially shaped holes in the tops. The round one is for bottles, the slots are for paper, etc, etc, etc. It takes me like six minutes just to sort out my tray after lunch in a cafeteria. Let's see, what is the square slot for again?
  15. Timekeeping. On Friday, I hosted a reception for all the grad students in my program (Human Development and Psychology). The start time was scheduled for 5pm. People were here as early as 4:50pm, and no one came later than 5:15! I was astonished (and not ready).
  16. It amazes me that our professors enter our classrooms lugging their own briefcases and materials. This would NEVER happen in Uganda. Someone respected like that would simply NEVER lift their own things. Even walking from their home to their car, a housekeeper or nephew or gardener or someone would be there, and would INSIST on carrying the items for them. And all the more so in a University-like setting. I struggle to know what I should do for fear of offending the professor if I offer to help him or her ("Are you suggesting that I am too old and frail to do so myself?!!").
  17. People keep asking me to speak up. In Africa, we are most polite when we speak very softly. I forget that here it can be seen as rude -- or at least as non-communicative.
  18. Similarly, I continue to answer "yes" simply by raising my eyebrows (as we do in Uganda) -- only to have the question repeated again and again until I realize that I must actually speak my answer -- and loudly.
  19. One thing is the same. I feel like a foreigner here -- just as I felt when I first went to Africa. But just as they did there, people here are welcoming me very warmly, and seem extremely happy that I am here. For that, I am most grateful.
  20. No one calls me Daddy here. = (

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