Finding The Balance

Before coming to Uganda, I had a very clear vision of what my life would be like living in a rural community.  This included becoming close friends with all of my neighbors and holding lengthy conversations in Luganda (the local language) while learning to cook Matooke and groundnut sauce (the region’s staple dish).  I would fully integrate myself into my community and understand the rural way of life in Uganda. However, after reflecting on my first few months here, I find the pull to seek the familiar and the comforts of my old life inhibiting on my ability to embrace my new life in Uganda.

Kampala is typically only a one or two hour drive from my district of Mukono, which allows for frequent visits and access to a large capital city. It has familiar food, a vibrant nightlife, and a rich history with many sites of cultural significance — not to mention luxuries such as hot water showers and flushing toilets. In contrast, in my village, we rarely have running water and the same bucket serves as the dishwasher, washing machine and shower. My village has one stand which exclusively sells rolex (flatbread with eggs, tomato and cabbage), and while my village is extremely picturesque, typical forms of entertainment are lacking. Most people my age have families to support which means they need to labor long hours on their farms or sell small goods at their shops, leaving them with very little free time for socializing. When things get hard, I find myself hopping on the first matatu (mini-bus) towards the comforts of Kampala for the weekend.

Most of the GHC Uganda fellows live in Kampala, which is another major draw into the city. The fellows in my cohort are actually the most intelligent, driven and compassionate people I have ever had the privilege of surrounding myself with, so naturally I want to spend as much time with them as possible. I have some of the most thought-provoking conversations with the other fellows ranging from global health and social justice to our aspirations for the future. On the other hand, I find it difficult to have such conversations in my village as the language barrier prevents our conversations from delving too deep. Furthermore, the other fellows understand the difficulties that I face being so far removed from anything familiar as the majority of fellows have spent a significant amount of time away from home in unfamiliar situations. The vast majority of my neighbors have lived in a rural community their entire lives and look at me with befuddled amusement when I ask them how to wash things in a bucket or how to cook certain foods without the assistance of a microwave. While my neighbors are extremely friendly, many of them still greet me as Muzungu (white person) and sometimes inadvertently stare, which makes me feel like an outsider. I find that I use this insecurity of feeling that I don’t belong to justify spending more of free time with the other fellows at the expense of connecting with my neighbors and working at getting to know them at a deeper level.

I especially struggle with the feeling that I spend too much time communicating with my loved ones back home. It was very difficult for some of my friends and family to accept that I was moving to Uganda for a year and I know they worry about me constantly, so I feel obligated to keep in contact with them. Because phone calls and texts to the US are expensive and there is no internet signal in the village, whenever I need to connect with people back in the states I have to go to Mukono town or Kampala to do so. As much as I enjoy catching up with all the people I have left behind, it is distressing to think about football or netball games I missed, crucial time that could have been spent bonding my neighbors and community members, because of my need to be connected with my home community.

After reflecting on these last three months, I’ve come to the realization that maybe I will never fully integrate into my community. And maybe that’s ok. However, I have decided that it is unacceptable for me is not to try my very hardest regardless. Some of the best advice that I received from GHC was to lean into discomfort. I wasn’t really sure how this would apply to me while I was at training at Yale, but since coming to Uganda, I have come to understand how much value leaning into discomfort can bring in an experience such as this one.  My time in Mukono is finite and the reality is these next few months are the only time I will have to get to know members of my community, not only their culture and way of life, but on an individual level. While Kampala is an incredible city to explore, I’m sure that if I make the effort, I will discover that my village has a few hidden gems of its own. I still plan on spending time with the other fellows in Uganda, but I know that even if I miss out on some bonding activities to spend time in my village, this experience has made us a family and we will remain connected long after this fellowship has concluded. I will continue to update my home community on how I am doing, but with the renewed understanding that will continue to love and support regardless of how frequently we communicate. That’s the beauty of friends and family. These little discomforts I experience now are only temporary, but I know if I work diligently to embrace the unfamiliar, I can find a blissful balance between my two worlds.