1. Why don’t girls have hair? When I first came to Uganda, it seemed at first that it was a country filled with many, many boy children. Upon closer inspection, I realized that most girls shaved their heads before classes began, for uniformity and neatness. When I was in primary school, my mom showed her delight in having a daughter by making me grow my hair so long that I could sit on it. It wasn’t until my parents separated that I finally felt the sweet pleasure of having short hair, the feeling of a cool breeze on my neck.
In eighth grade, or S2 as it’s known here, hair was a huge deal. It could make or break you. All teen girls obsessed over their hair. It took up a lot of time. In the morning, before classes started, girls would flock to the bathrooms armed with large paddle brushes and combs, determined to get perfect, shiny locks. A trip to the hair dresser could determine your social future.
When I was thirteen, I hated my hair much more than I hated geometry and chemistry, my least favorite school units. It was incredibly oily, weak, and limp—so limp, it could barely stay up in a ponytail or bun. Thinking about the sad state of my hair took up most of my thirteen-year-old brain cells. When I wasn’t thinking about it, I agonized over my jeans (too short for my constantly growing legs) and tops. After I went to Uganda the first time, I showed my friend Dorothy (who I met in S2) pictures of my Ugandan sisters, and we reflected on what a big deal hair was growing up. Maybe Ugandan schools have it right—shave your heads, and use your brain cells for something useful… like geometry, for starters.
2. Where do people get their money? This really confounds me. In the U.S., people’s source of money is usually obvious. It’s their salary! The expansive houses, luxury cars, and posh vacations usually belong to people who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year at their (formal) jobs. People with small salaries usually have tiny houses or rooms that they rent, and stay at home during leave. Of course, salary doesn’t necessarily mean prestige in the U.S. Some of my friends with prestigious jobs in the arts make little money, while a friend I know that works as a security guard and bouncer at a trendy club makes $90,000 a year, or sh180million shillings. But people’s material wealth usually lines up with their salaries. In Uganda, it’s a different story. Someone will have a tiny salary, but a large car worth millions of shillings, and a huge house. Others with salaries that seem to indicate they should be eating rolex own large amounts of land outside of Kampala. Since credit is practically nonexistent in Uganda, compared to the debt-friendly U.S., I’m forced to realize that the same people with tiny salaries probably paid for their houses with cash. Cash? Not credit! Where does their money come from, I often wonder. What they own is much larger than their salary after taxes. Of course, what I always want to say is—what on Earth are you doing after 5 pm? Clearly, harvesting some cash.
3. Why do children say bye, rather than hello? Any friend who has the misfortune of walking with me anywhere in Uganda is used to hearing this greeting: bye-iii, Mzungu! Bye-iii! Although Uganda may sometimes be divided over land and other issues, at least its children everywhere seem to be in total solidarity on how to greet foreigners. As soon as you start to feel comfortable in Uganda, like it could be your home, there is always a loud group of kids all too eager to wish you goodbye.
Which leads me to wonder, why don’t they say hi? At first, I tried to start a “Hello trend.” Walking home, I would realize I had been spotted, and hear kids already making their goodbyes to me. But I’m not leaving, I would complain in my head. “Hello! Hello!” I would respond. Eventually, I gave up. Goodbye, it will have to be.
4. How can you tell me I look fat? In the U.S., where a lot of our fruits and vegetables are imported, good nutrition and a slim, even malnourished body is associated with wealth. Fans of Desperate Housewives, a series popular in video libraries here, might recall how one housewife fought to have the prestige of being a size “zero,” even during her pregnancy. In America, it seems to be that the more money you have, the skinnier you become. Some of the wealthiest women in the U.S. are the tiniest, like Paris Hilton. Top-grossing supermodels seem to live on cigarettes and black coffee. It seems that those overweight in the U.S. are perceived as depressed (as if you stay at home in your free time, weeping over a carton of ice cream) or poor (you can only afford to eat at McDonald’s and Burger King). These are crude stereotypes, but perceptions stick. After all, going to the gym, having a trainer, and purchasing pricey, organic fruits and vegetables requires quite a few dollars. In fact, in some low-income neighborhoods in the U.S., it can be almost impossible to find anything resembling a mango or greens. Living in Uganda gives me a large amount of cultural dissonance. When I came back to the country in March, many of my colleagues greeted me warmly with cries of, “Becky, you’re grown fat! You’ve put on a lot of weight in your stomach.” Instantly, I recoiled, wanting to run to the nearest bathroom to cry. Although I knew it was a cultural difference, my gut reaction was—how can you be so heartless and rude? I would gulp two or three times, as if to swallow my hurt. Luckily, I know that when I go home, I’ll be greeted with the sweet sounds of “Becky, you look so skinny!” My friends will grab me and compliment my skinny arms or waist, even if my weight is relatively the same as when I left. This, in my land, means that I look good!
5. Why are NGOs seen as business ventures? In the U.S., working for a nonprofit or NGO is something you do as a financial sacrifice. Hence, perhaps, the name “nonprofit.” Although not always the case, such as a career is perceived to require a lot of time, commitment, and financial austerity. In Uganda, this is not true. NGOs are a business, a source of foreign exchange. Those I know working for NGOs in Kampala or upcountry are perceived as lucky, wealthy, “making good money.” It’s a complete reversal of how nonprofits are viewed in the U.S., where people will often have to take on a second or third job to survive in their NGO work. But in Uganda, the word on the street is that nonprofits are really for-profits.