September 20

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John and Dayna in Uganda – Culture

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Prior to traveling to a new and exotic place, we like to learn all about the local culture and customs of the people in the land we are going to visit. What will be the same as at home? What will be different? What do we need to look out for so that we do not offend?

The internet and books are great sources to start with, and we then like to compare and contrast what we read and what we actually witness once we arrive in a new country. Here are some of the items that we learned prior to coming here to Uganda and our observations on particular customs that we were looking out for:

Ugandans are considered some of the friendliest people in all of Africa
So far we have found this to be quite a true statement! Everyone we have met here has been gracious, courteous, and extraordinarily nice.

To learn about cultural differences, it is crucial to ask questions and listen
The gracious Ugandans will never tell you that you are making a mistake, so it is important to ask pointed questions about something related to their culture and listen carefully to the responses. Humor plays a big role in communicating and most Ugandans enjoy a well-placed joke (good thing we are so naturally funny!). However, it is best to avoid sarcasm as it may not translate well, if at all.

The elderly are celebrities in Uganda
Perhaps due to the life expectancy in this country being what it is, the older people in this culture are honored and are given respect, which is great. We have seen this in other parts of Africa as well. The elderly here are deeply respected and sought out for advice and counsel. Outstanding!

Don’t lecture about the “Best from the West”The books said that it is inappropriate to “lecture” about western culture being “better”, so we take great care not to impose our values or discuss what we have at home being better than something here. It is always best to engage in a meaningful conversation with people of a different culture, and here it is interesting to listen to the locals and learn how they make it in spite of difficult times.

The African concept of time
Time is seen in terms of relationships here, not in terms of tasks. We are learning to be flexible, relax and go with the flow! It is a challenge….

Uganda is relational
Here, it is great to learn that the urban and middle class all return to their roots, their village, their family, their parents, their grandparents, etc. during holidays and wherever possible. The people here seem to enjoy hearing about our families at home so we relate stories as often as possible.

Emotions are rarely shown here
It is kind of nice and somewhat strange (compared to what we are used to in the States) that people here do not show emotions such as anger. Exploding in anger here is a huge cultural mistake…. You must grin and bear it and keep quiet when something here does not go your way. In this culture admitting to a mistake is a rarity, and confrontation will often lead nowhere except distance. We are doing well with this one (e.g.: When at the airport the airline could not find our reservation, when the hotel said they took credit cards but the machine was not functioning and we had no money, when it took 20 minutes to get a bill at a restaurant, etc., we know that we need to be calm, cool and collected and eventually all will be well).

Meeting and greeting people
Shaking hands here is a must and the handshake is often extremely long compared to U.S. standards! Even strangers shake hands with you here all the time. The interesting thing is that often the handshake starts out “regular grip” then transfers up to a quick “arm wrestle grip” then back down to the “regular grip” where it is often held for the duration of the conversation (and one can throw in an additional “arm wrestle grip” or two during the original greeting). Also of interest, when it comes to holding hands one cultural difference here is that friendship between men and men and women and women are often expressed by lightly holding hands (perhaps while you are walking down or crossing a street). Children sometimes kneel upon arrival at a home here, and when we buy items such as fruit at the stands the women kneel in thanks for your purchase (a bit shocking at first). All these meet and greet items are interesting and we accept them gracefully.

Public affection
Kissing in public or other public displays of affection even with your spouse is frowned upon here. Good to know!

What to wear in Uganda
We read that Ugandans like to dress smart and that is exactly what we have witnessed here! Even if clothing is second-hand, Ugandans are well dressed, neat and well pressed. The attire here is conservative, so Dayna is wearing modest clothing and I am wearing appropriate business casual to the office. Shorts seem to be rare here, and even when I go to the gym I feel self-conscious walking from the car to the facility in shorts. Perhaps we will try to dress Dayna in a traditional Bussuuti (or Gomesi) dress (colorful!!), and perhaps I will try a man-dress called a Kanzu (photos to follow if we go for it!).

Personal space and eye contact
Personal space tends to be very minimal in Uganda. People often talk very close to each other and less than an arm’s length of space is common. Generally, people prefer indirect eye contact. This does not mean you can’t look at somebody directly, but continuous eye contact during conversations is not a must. Overly direct eye contact can be considered aggressive by some. Women and children often will look down or away when conversing with men or with elders.

Overall, the cultural norms here are interesting to learn about and not difficult to implement.