Life in a northern town:

Yes, people greet each other frequently on the streets. No, you cannot walk around comfortably post-8:00 pm, as street lights do not exist and the roads are often muddy and slick, realities of the rainy season. Yes, I am afraid of the stray-ish looking dogs that stare (or bark) at me as I walk to and from work. No, I am not worried about the lack of chocolate bars – Cadbury has a strong foothold in Arua.

There are colonies of bats. You think it’s a flock of birds in a tree as you run around the golf course (which is not actually used for playing golf.) But no, it’s a colony of bats. (The proper collective noun for bats is colony or cloud. I looked it up.)

Ugandan aerobics is the Imagine a combination of dancercise, boxfit, thaibo, and calisthenics for footballers. Tony, the instructor, is kind of mean in a good way and knows his stuff. The smell of gasoline emitted by the generator and the dim lighting are wholly overshadowed by the pump up the jam pump it up musical accompaniment and the synchronized aerobic movements of the mostly male class.

I like the local food, but definitely miss having access to an unlimited variety of cuisines for lunch.

The power goes out with quasi regularity. And sometimes, your phone and laptop are dead. Good thing you have 600 page novels to read 🙂

And, suffice it to say that I stand out here – a lot.

As I walk to work or stroll into town, I regularly encounter the now familiar chorus, “Munduhowareyou?” emanating from the children in my neighbourhood. (Mundu is the name for white person in Lugbara, the local language in Arua.) Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge of Lugbara and the limited amount of English my young friends possess constrains our conversations to a routinely simple exchange:

Children: Munduhowareyou? (Usually sing-songed at me as one word).

Me: I’m good, thanks! How are YOU?

Children: I’m fiiiiine. (Evidently, the only appropriate response to this question.)

End Scene.

I’ve become accustomed to my presence attracting stares, gawks, whispering, and other times just straight up laughter, from children and adults alike. Apparently, people often find the way I walk, dress, talk, etc. pretty hilarious. Mostly, this doesn’t bother me – I don’t perceive any malicious intent, and my personal space is rarely infringed upon. My personal rule of thumb for local folk of the adult variety – if you are greeting me and you are within a two to three metre radius extending from my person, I will exchange pleasantries and smile. As mentioned above, this is a small town and people often greet each other in the street. I’m happy to participate. That being said, I am not keen to respond when hollered at from across a yard or from the other side of the street by adult men – I don’t feel the need to be particularly pleasant or polite when these men are essentially yelling “Hey White Lady. White Lady!” at me.

It’s so bizarre – having lived the last four years in Toronto, one of the most ethnically and racially diverse cities in the world, it’s difficult to imagine a scene in which a person walking down the street would be hollered at simply because of the colour of their skin. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Toronto is a panacea of triumphant anti-racism by any stretch of the imagination. My comment is more a reflection on the fact that it is (A) so common for people of all races and ethnicities to reside in Toronto that as one walks to work in the morning, registering the skin colour of a passerby may not be top of mind; and (B) it is not socially acceptable to publicly identify people based solely on the colour of their skin.

Over the years, I have found myself in situations in Toronto where I was the only white person – birthday parties, bus rides, etc. But these events were few and far between. Yesterday alone, I attended an engagement party and a televised talent contest/concert, and later went to a club; at each of these three venues, many people were in attendance, and I was a hardcore minority of one.

Again, this mostly doesn’t bother me. I was at each of these events with friends, and I am treated with the same respect and courtesy as everyone else 99.9 % of the time.

But sometimes I wish my presence wasn’t so absolutely obvious. I am so conspicuous. Blending in is not an option for me. I try not to let this get to me – I’m white, I stand out, and once people have registered that I am sharing their space, they ignore me as they do everyone else. I don’t mean to sound completely narcissistic and assume that people are concerned with whether I am in attendance or not – I’m sure most people could care less. But I don’t think I can deny the fact that when I walk into a venue, one of these things is not like the other.

And sometimes my conspicuousness does necessitate having my guard up; of course, context matters. At the engagement party (pics below), I felt very fortunate to be a guest and was mostly concerned with not making a fool out of myself as we ate dinner – still getting the hang of eating rice with my hands 🙂 At the talent contest/concert, I was clocked, but then mostly casually ignored.

The club is the venue which necessitated the highest level of guardedness – of course, this is true for women of every race and ethnicity in every country in the world, as this space is notorious for men egregiously disrespecting women’s bodies – yes, I’m wearing tight clothes and I’m dancing in what could be perceived to be a sexual way – no, this does not mean you can put your hands on me or grind your pelvis into my ass or leg. Women who want to dance should have the freedom to do so alone, with their female friends, or with a member of the opposite sex, if they so choose. Is verbal consent perhaps more difficult to communicate in a loud, dark club? Yes. Is it still possible to speak closely enough to someone’s ear and ask if they want to dance? Yes. Is excessive, extremely direct eye contact followed by offering a hand potentially an alternative option? Depends on the person.

But I digress. Getting back to my personal experience with being on guard – last night, as we waited in line to pay cover, I was acutely aware of a man, way too close for comfort, looking at me in a strange way. His intoxication was apparent, and the way he was looking at me made me very uncomfortable. Unfortunately, before I had time to move away from him in the kerfuffle at the club entrance, his hand made contact with my chest – my response was immediate. I resolutely swatted away his hand and said to him very directly, DON’T TOUCH ME. End Scene.

Maybe this incident would have occurred regardless of the colour of my skin. Maybe not. I was rattled, and would have left immediately if anything similar happened again. It did not – everyone inside was generally respectful of each other’s space.

Upon reflection, in that moment before hand made contact with breast, I realize that the main thought in my mind was, “What are you going to do?” Fight trumped flight. Which I suppose is an important thing to know about myself.

But let it be known that I do not wish to find myself in confrontations with drunken men in Arua (or any town) ummmmm, ever. Thus, it is important for me to avoid situations where such confrontations are likely to arise. This means Caitlin doesn’t get drunk if she goes out dancing – she maybe has one or two drinks over the course of the night. And sticks close to friends she trusts. And goes home before last call. (I’m not professing “rules” or “guidelines” for white women in rural Africa (we already had that extremely involved debate on Facebook – love my fellow fellows). I’m just articulating what I have observed to be good rules of thumb in my particular context.)

Because yes, being white in Arua means I have conveniences and luxuries that most people here do not possess; indoor flush toilets, sinks, and electric stoves are not ubiquitous by any means. I acknowledge this and think a lot about the implications.

But being white in Arua also means I got hollered at from across the street on the regular and draw unwanted attention to myself when out at night. These are situations of which I am keenly aware. Because as much as I want to blend in sometimes, the fact remains that I don’t.

First group of potential "brides" - but alas, she was not found.

First group of potential “brides” – but alas, she was not found.

Saida and me.

Saida and me.

Second group of potential brides. Again, she is conspicuously absent.

Second group of potential brides. Again, she is conspicuously absent.

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Aunties looking for the bride in the third group - the bride is in yellow and white.

Aunties looking for the bride in the third group – the bride is in yellow and white.

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Saida and Annette, the beautiful bride.

Saida and Annette, the beautiful bride.





The cultural context of contradictions and contrasts

Today, I traveled approximately 500 km from Kampala to Arua. The journey took about 8 hours, including a pleasant stop for lunch at a restaurant with many mizungo safari goers, who were excited as I was to take pictures of the cows with crazy long horns grazing across the street from where we sat…

Before setting out from Kampala, we had to stop by the AKF office in Kololo (a posh area of Kampala where many embassies are located), in order to pick up our passports and newly minted work permits. Nikki and I arrived together, and then bid adieu, as she left for work and I left for Arua, along with three of my AKF colleagues and our driver Tom.

On our way to the AKF office, we pass the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). UNHCR is also located in Kololo, where the homes/offices are somewhat hidden behind gates guarded by security personnel.

The first time we drove past last week, seeing UNHCR in living colour was a bit of a trip – you write papers on these organizations in your third year poli sci courses, and then there it is – real life.

This morning, outside of the gates of UNHCR, approximately twenty refugees were sitting on the slightly sloped lawn, spread out on either side of the driveway. My eyes were immediately drawn to the small crowd, uncharacteristically out of the ordinary in this neighbourhood. Without asking, as soon as I saw mothers with shawls wrapped around their babies, and people who looked both bored and worried and like they had no other place to go, I knew these people were deliberately situated outside specific gates on a specific lawn. My colleague confirmed that these were refugees and again it was mentioned when we drove past again, heading out of town.

I don’t mean to speak about people with names and lives and stories and families as nameless refugees. But, so often, this is the way we discuss people.

A heavy start to the morning, to say the least. But I start here because it’s important for me to convey that this scene was woven so seamlessly into the fabric of the day, that by the time we arrived in Arua around 6:00 pm, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world that after breakfast, we had driven past refugees seated outside UNHCR, and after lunch, we had driven past a bunch of elephants enjoying their afternoon meal in the wildlife reserve by the Albert Nile crossing.

Totes normal, right? No. It’s bonkers. It’s bonkers bonkers bonkers, from a Canadian, North American contextual perspective.

My colleagues were outwardly un-phased by the refugees, but very excited about the elephants 🙂

It seems that the more fluency with which one can accept/absorb seemingly glaring contradictory/contrasting circumstances, the more quickly one can cope with new situations and experiences. Contrasts and contradictions are culturally contextual.

And if you think about it, most of us experience contradictory/contrasting situations every day of our lives – we just get so used to seeing the same homeless people every day as we walk to jobs in our comfortable offices, and again in the evenings as we walk home to our comfortable apartments, or on our way out to spend too much money on dinner at comfortable restaurants.

But accepting does not mean disregarding. And absorbing does not mean ignoring.

(And just because we didn’t spend the entire day discussing the refugees, it doesn’t mean we didn’t see them or that we don’t understand the implications of people sitting outside UNHCR waiting for their near term futures to be decided.)

But sometimes, the contrast is too much, and it is really, really rattling. Because it’s uncomfortable, and you feel guilty, and you feel helpless, and you feel sad, and you feel scared.

The most specific example I can provide to illustrate this point is not from Uganda – it’s from Vancouver.

A year and a half ago, one of my best friends was extremely ill with a nasty flu. She was extremely dehydrated, and needed to be hooked up to an IV at the local hospital to replenish her fluids. The hospital is small, so when she was admitted, she was directed towards a small room that contained two beds separated by a curtain.

My friend’s “roommate” was in agony. And, since I could only hear what was happening, as the only part of the patient that was exposed from our side of the curtain was the back of his head, it made it that much worse. What I was able to aurally gather – adult male addicted to intravenous drugs with a large abscess growing out of his head. Nurses had extreme difficulty trying to locate a vein to provide fluids, as his veins were badly damaged from drug use. They eventually had to inject the IV into his ankle. The only time the patient perked up, and momentarily ceased groaning, was when he asked if he could get pain killers, in addition to fluids, to be hooked up. The patient’s curtain had one of those STOP signs on it, the ones the hospital puts up when it requires staff to fully gown up and put on masks, because they are worried an extremely aggressive bacteria/virus may be present.

The contrast I found extremely difficult to accept/absorb: my friend, a third year law student, sharing a small hospital room with an extremely ill man suffering from an intravenous drug addiction.

Because, in Canada, hospital emergency rooms are one of those rare places where everyone from all walks of life gets mashed up together – a hallmark of public healthcare. In Uganda, it seems like everything is a hospital waiting room. Everything is mashed up together all the time. Rich and poor. Nice suits and second hand clothes. Refugees in the morning and elephants in the afternoon.

(I will save my thoughts on the contrast between the way people discuss “villagers” and the fact that most people refer to their home villages very fondly for another time…just remind me to never be in a car that hits a kid on a bike and breaks his leg when driving through the countryside, as it would seem this story can only end with pangas (the knife not the fish).)

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Ten Tips for Venturing into Downtown Kampala

1.) Go with locals – Kampala’s city centre is confusing. And crowded. Even if you kind of know where you are going, you are likely to get turned around. Learn the ropes from people with good senses of direction. And, preferably, people who are tall – much easier to spot them in a crowd.

2.) Don’t follow blindly. While playing follow-the-leader with your local friends (in my case, my 13 year old, 11 year old, and 9 year old neighbours, featured below), try to identify landmarks that will help guide you around town in future. North-east-south-west becomes less relevant than where things are located in relation to the taxi park or Kampala Road.


3.) Watch where you step. “Sidewalks” (where such infrastructure exists) are crowded with people, piles of fruit, garbage, merchandise to be hawked, etc. Gingerly, walk gingerly. Avoid large holes and piles of rubble.

4.) Left-right-left-right-left-right when crossing the street. Absolute alertness. Need those eyes in the back of your head that my Nana always talked about 🙂

5.) Also, try to cross the street in a pack with others. (I may have witnessed a miracle today – vehicles actually stopping at a “zebra crossing” aka crosswalk. This is an incredibly rare event.) For those back home who know how much I dislike J-walking in Canada, you will appreciate how unnerving it can be for me to traverse Kampala’s busy roads…

6.) Watch where you are looking – non-verbal communication speaks volumes in Kampala. If you don’t want to hire a boda boda or get a taxi going to Jinja Road, don’t make direct eye contact with the drivers.

7.) Be prepared to be propositioned frequently. And if you are a mizungo (white person), get ready to be stared at. A lot. You get used to it.

8.) When walking through the intricate maze of the taxi park (featured below), slipping through the tiny crevices between vehicles, ensure that said vehicles are going to remain stationary for the foreseeable future. Or, at least until you are out of getting-run-over range.


9.) Be prepared to pay twice as much for your taxi travel from town than your travel into town. Still working on my underdeveloped “price negotiation” skills – but taxi dude was not budging this afternoon. All things considered, 3900 Ugandan shillings for four people, equivalent to about $1.50? Quite economical.

10.) Soak it up – enjoy. Enjoy the chaos, the vibe, the hustle and the bustle. Stay alert, stay safe, and enjoy your time in a lively, vibrant city.

Things I Know to Be True

To blog, or not to blog, that is the question. I’ve been having internal debates on this topic for awhile now (and conversations with myself out loud in the presence of others); but after being treated to a number of fantastic accounts of the other AKFC Fellows’ respective first weeks abroad – learning about life in Dhaka, Mombasa, Madagascar and Tajikistan – I’m feeling resolved. I’m jumping on this bandwagon.

Sarah Kay, spoken word poet extraordinaire, encourages her students to write lists before they are ready to write poems (check out the Ted Talk here – Walking before you run, I suppose. I’ve decided to co-opt this advice and apply it to blogging.

I like lists. They are systematic, intentional, and purposeful. Not that writing about your experiences/thoughts/observations/introspections has to be all or any of these things – but I think it is a good place to start.

Sarah asks her students to write lists about ten things they know to be true. This exercise is intended to:

  • connect people;
  • highlight each individual’s uniqueness; and
  • encourage people to learn from one another.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I write my first list. (I’ll start with 5 things, opposed to 10, in an attempt to make this post less daunting for reader and writer.)

5 Things I Know to be True about Kampala, Uganda (After Living Here for One Week):

1.)    The public conversation around family planning is much more blatant than expected.

Uganda is an overtly religious country. One of our colleagues has explained to us that the Kabaka, the hereditary king of the Buganda kingdom (the official seat of which is walking distance from where we are staying) designated the different hills in Kampala to different religions – one hill was designated for the Muslims, another for the Catholics, another for the Anglicans, etc. This geographic segregation is no longer enforced, but the iconic mosques and cathedrals that sit atop Kampala’s hills are very permanent reminders. I am beginning to infer people’s religions from their given names (Richard, probably a Christian; Ismael, probably a Muslim) – although, of course, this is not a foolproof strategy.

Taking into account the overt religiosity of Kampala’s populace, combined with my knowledge of the significant amount of aid dollars that come from countries such as the USA or Ireland which are unlikely to directly support family planning services, I was quite surprised to see huge billboards that advertise birth control pills or IUDs located along Kampala’s main thoroughfares.

In Canada, with our American inundated television networks, birth control commercials usually involve a colourful montage of independent, urban professional women who exude the sense that they are in control of their lives, decisions, etc. But the fact that the product being advertised is a birth control pill is always somewhat disguised. There is no disguising huge billboards that read “The pill is our smart choice! We want to wait to have our next child.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some are quite opposed to Kampala’s prominent contraceptive advertising campaigns –

2.)    Safety is a relative concept.

Without waxing too philosophical on the enforcement of laws, social control, the responsibility of a government to ensure the safety of its citizens, I will simply say that “safety” in Kampala seems to fall under the purview of the personal domain.

I have not investigated the topic thoroughly enough to know if there are in fact laws about babies and young children sitting in certified car seats determined by the child’s weight; if the government is planning to install streetlights so the entire city of Kampala does not recede into darkness after 7:00 pm when the sun sets; or if gun safety is part of the training that security guards and police officers are required to complete. (My gun safety knowledge is completely reliant on my good friend Brent, who has instructed me to NEVER point a gun at anyone, regardless of whether it is loaded or not. When we shoot guns at his lodge, strict procedures are followed. The many security guards I’ve observed who sit, looking incredibly bored, with their guns held between their legs, pointed directly at their chins….it makes me nervous, to say the least.)

Based on my observations thus far, safety is a privilege, and a choice (which is a privilege in and of itself.)

If one can afford to hire a driver, to live behind a fence complete with an armed night guard, and to own an SUV with airbags, it is likely that money will be spent on these expenses – this way, one can avoid walking along dark streets that do not have sidewalks and are often in a sad state of disrepair (more pothole than road); young children can be buckled into the backseat instead of being perched on the front of a motorcycle (boda boda); and any unwelcome visitors can be kept at bay.

Intra-city transport follows similar stratifications – if you can afford a private hire cab, you do not have to catch a mini-bus (large van) with 14 other people and then navigate the extremely congested taxi park in the city centre; or jump on the back of a boda, and weave through Kampala’s winding streets, with vehicles speeding toward you in basically all directions all the time (we quickly learned that a two lane road in Kampala is more like a six lane road).

That being said, bodas may remain one’s first choice for transportation, as they are undeniably the most efficient way to get around town. And maybe not everyone wants to live behind a locked gate.

I suppose this leads to a conversation about choice and agency more generally – it’s one thing for people with money to make a choice about the commoditization of safety, but what about the boda boda drivers and the security guards? Were these profession selected after careful consideration of other options?  How does one’s socio-economic status affect such a cost-benefit analysis? Do they worry about their safety on a daily basis? Questions for another day.

3.)    Kampala has late night snacks covered.

Feeling peckish on your way home from the bar at 4:00 am? (Bars/clubs are open very late in Kampala.) No stress. Kindly ask your boda driver (who has already graciously lent you his helmet so you can (a) ride with more ease and (b) are not contravening your contract) to pull up to one of the many all-night rolex stands and get ready for culinary wonder. Like omelets? Like chapati? How about an omelet wrapped in chapati? Scrumdiddlyumptious. (Note: Rolex also doubles as wonderful hang-over food.)

4.)    African time is a thing. Sometimes.

My African friends living back home in Toronto joke about African time – pickup soccer games and barbeques often started a couple hours later than originally designated. We quickly learned that African time is alive and well in Uganda – it’s not out of the ordinary to get picked up late or the start of a meeting to be delayed.  It’s not altogether surprising that the processing of our work permits has been delayed, even though we were told they were ready back in June (as a result, my trip north to Arua has been delayed until Wednesday, at the earliest.) Nikki and I adjusted relatively well to African time – neither she nor I are particularly prone to punctuality. However, what is slightly more difficult is interpreting when things are likely to run on African time and when things are likely to run on “English time” – if you assume someone is going to be late, but they are on time and you are not ready, it’s your bad. Therefore, I suppose the best strategy is to be ready on time, and then not get stressed if someone is late – have a book to read, enjoy a second cup of coffee, write your grocery list, etc. Let go of the frustrations and impatience that accompany waiting – try to be grateful that you have more time to _________.

5.)    It is important to listen carefully in order to identify the presence or absence of contractions.

In Kampala, “You are welcome,” is not the phrase that follows “Thank you.” It is a greeting that means, “Welcome! It’s a pleasure to meet you, etc.” The proper/expected response is “Thank-you.” This may seem counter-intuitive, 1.) You are welcome 2.) Thank-you – instead of the other way around. But if you think about it, it’s grammatically correct.

Of course, to confuse matters, the response after someone says “Thank you” is usually “Welcome” – without the You’re.

(English is such a weird language. Why is “You’re Welcome” the proper response after someone says “Thank You” anyway? The Spanish response, “De Nada” (of nothing), seems far more logical.)

More lists to follow. Stay tuned friends.