Thursday, June 16, 2011

"All Mazungos look the same"

This week was rough. I experienced the well known, “Culture Shock” in about three degrees. The first was when I arrived at my new home, “The Whitehouse.” This home only has electricity at night and I cannot plug in my lap top here because it will use up all the power and not ever charge. There is also no running water and I must walk outside and through the yard to use the toilet. Yes, the toilet is in an outhouse-like structure, but it is actually a pretty nice facility for being a hole in the ground. There are chickens and roosters wandering in the yard. Neighbors have cows that occasionally wander into the street in front of the house. I have accepted the fact that I will never fully be clean while I’m here—at least not by western standards. There is no recycling or garbage pickup…we must burn all of our rubbish. Yes, this is hard for me to do as a girl from WWU. It took us 6 hours to go grocery shopping. 6 hours: AKA almost an entire work day. People stare at me like I’m either a freak or a celebrity everywhere I go. Children shout, “Mazungo! Mazungo!!” (translation: White person, or any person who is not from Africa. I’m told  it is not offensive, but I think some people say it to be mean, and others use it as a term of endearment…) when they see me and they often come close to me with hopes that I might let them touch me. I can’t tell you how many children’s hands I have held in the last 6 days because I can’t bring myself to ignore them. What if I’m the only Mazungo they ever encounter? I can’t let them think we are all mean, selfish, rich, and inconsiderate!

The second degree of culture shock came when I traveled to the islands. My supervisor told us that our accommodations would be on one island and our work would be on two others. This first island was supposedly much nicer than the others. It took us almost 5 hours to reach the island and I may have contracted something from the water called Bill Hausia (…spell check needed) along the way. It was already dark when we arrived at the island—in Africa, that means we only had our head lamps and the moon to guide us to our rooms. I won’t gross you out or worry you by going into details about my room, but to give you a vague picture: it was like a shack. Only the wooden planks that made the walls had huge spaces between so I could see the person in the room next to me and they did not extend all the way to the ceiling or the floor. The floor was made of dirt. Sheets were provided with the mattress, as were a dozen or more rat poop pellets. The roof was actually just a piece of plastic lay across at an angle, and was covered with rubbish and old clothes. Outside of my room (and all of the island) was covered in rubbish. There were goats, chickens, and cows running around between the shacks, and the children ran freely without any parents ever checking in on them. Keep in mind, this island had the nicer accommodations.

The third culture shock arrived as I stepped foot onto the second island and again later onto the third. I was there to talk with the locals about HIV/AIDS, conduct rapid HIV tests, and counsel the people about their results. This was possibly the toughest thing I have ever done. My supervisor advised us to tell every HIV positive person that there is hope—they can go to the mainland and receive free treatment—if they use condoms they may continue having sex—and if they are sleeping with more than one partner, they must start being faithful to their wives (I say wives instead of husbands and wives, because only the men that I spoke with were cheating. Antoher mini culture shock). It cost approximately $35 US  to ride on the boat to the island, one way. You might be thinking what I was thinking, “$35 that is a pretty sweet deal for a 5 hour ride on Lake Victoria” but I’m sorry to say, that is wrong. Most of the people on the islands can barely afford food, much less a weekly or monthly trip to the mainland…which would end with a taxi ride to the nearest health clinic, accommodations would be needed, and the fee for the trip back would need to be considered too. In America, condoms are sold at every store in the country. They are also given out for free at health clinics and places like Planned Parenthood. The islands of Lake Victoria are not America. We brought a box from USAID full of 3000 condoms to be dispersed between two islands. For many people, they had never used one before, and for those who do use them, it is not every time they have sex because they cannot afford or access them enough to keep up with their libidos. So then what? Then we tell them these words so we know we are doing something, but we must turn away with heavy hearts knowing that the only hope they may have is with prayers.

That leads me to my next thought: I am not an especially religious person, I have only ever prayed for my family and friends to keep them safe when they are fighting for our country overseas and when a loved one is dying to make sure they leave us without pain. Yet, here I was on this island (days 3-5 of my trip to Uganda) and all I knew to do was pray. I’m not sure yet to whom I need to be sending my prayers, but I know in my heart these people deserve them. I’m also not sure yet why I was born in a hospital in America as a female who was to one day earn a college education...while the people of these islands may die, many years too soon, in the same place they were born, without the privilege of ever leaving their island. Yet I know in my heart that I am meant to be using my unearned privilege to help these people and the many more like them to have healthier lives.

As for the title of my blog today:
A group of travelers joined us for our trip to the islands. There were two Australians, one English woman, one Canadian woman, and four Americans from Tennessee. When they arrived on Monday evening, my supervisor, Festus was directing each of them to their rooms. When there were only four people left in the room, myself included, he turned to me and one other girl and said, “the two of you can sleep in the second room” and I said to him, “I already have a room” and he said, “Oh?! That is a mistake! What room did I give you?” when I told him which room he said, “NO! That is not possible, because somebody already has that room.” I felt very confused at this point and said, “Yes, Festus, I am the one with that room!” and he said, “NO! Not possible, Kristen has that room!!” and I said, “Yes! I am Kristen!!” And he froze, looked at me with an intent gaze…and then said “Oops! All Mazungos look the same!” He really is a sweet guy though, he even has me calling him Jai Jai which means “Grandfather” because he says I am his granddaughter. I feel honored.    

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