Poverty. Chaos. Laughter. And happiness. These are probably the best four words to sum up my first week in Uganda. I came to help with teacher training services for some community initiatives here and have found a new place in my heart.
Uganda has – to say the least – all the hallmarks of a developing country. Upon leaving the airport you are greeted by eagle-eyed motorcyclists as they search for the road among the mud and potholes. Their cargo being anything from the bulk of a banana plantation to a precariously balanced baby and mother and a toxic rainbow of plastic and organic waste decorates the roadside. However, as always, the strongest indicator of developing world status is the position of the poor. In Uganda – in the absence of social housing – they dwell in homes hobbled together from little more than mud, sticks and a sheet of corrugated iron.
That said, as you enter a community then what is uniquely Ugandan on an unparalleled level becomes clear – Joy!
I’ve never encountered a people who – on the whole – have a smile as their default facial expression. It generates a feeling that words fail me in expressing. The closest, and yet wholly inadequate, definition that I can think to characterize it is that happiness generates happiness.
I must admit though that my vision is somewhat blinkered and my glasses rose-tinted by the fact that Muzungus (white people) are revered in Ugandan culture. Therefore, you enter a community with a somewhat quasi-celebrity status. Young children are eager to shake your hand or rub your arm based on a superstition regarding touching Muzungus and ‘good luck’, while shouts of ‘How are you?’ can be traced to young and old.
This status is inevitably bittersweet because there is a certain tragedy in it and an inevitable gateway for abuse. History has shown us that attaching assumptions to ethnicity – whether they be positive or negative – can never end well. That said, when speaking to community leaders you learn that the presence of white people improves the morale of an entire project and gives the project the respect of skeptics in the community. Therefore, it seems best to just embrace the positive influence that the Muzungu mascot status entails and the joy it generates.