The other day I was in my bathroom filling a basin with water when I heard a stirring sound in the front room. As I left the bathroom, I heard the sound of glass bottles rattling…my first thought was that an intruder had entered and I was prepared to fight him.
Upon my first glance, it appeared I was alone and had imagined the noise. To be sure, I went to the only location of glass in my apartment; a stash of empty beer bottles between the wall and my mini-fridge. Just as I reached down to pick up the fallen bottles, a chicken (nkoko in Luganda) pecked at my hand. Turns out, I wasn’t alone after all. It only took a loud shriek then a few pointed shouts to get her out of my apartment. As I laughed about the strangeness of the situation on my front veranda, all the women in our courtyard were laughing their heads off at me. All I could think was, “Oh, Uganda.”
Mzungu to Madam to Teacher to Auntie to…Mama?
I have officially demolished the wall that I had built to protect my heart and the hearts of the children around me. There is no telling when this wall fell down, but the evidence is clear that it no longer exists. One example is that I have transformed from the once Mzungu to all, to the Teacher of most, Auntie to some, and Mama to one. Yes, apparently I am now Mama Apio Esther. This happened the other day when Apio (my 6-year-old neighbor who is the niece and permanent houseguest of the Headmaster) was snuggling me on my veranda. She looked up at me and said, “You are Mama Apio.” I thought for sure I heard her wrong, but she said again, “Kristen is Mama Guange” which (despite my misspelling of Luganda) means, “my mom.” I tried to explain to her that I was her constantly awesome neighbor, her sometimes-great teacher, and her eternal adopted Auntie…but I cannot be her mother. I don’t have enough years, experience, or cultural matchup to be her mother. These are difficult words for a six year old to understand, so I tried to hone in on the “I’d make a better Auntie than a Mommy in life right now” part. It seems to me that the more I open my heart and let these kids in, the deeper they are willing to venture into my life. Apio is just one example of the kids at Mustard Seed with whom I have mutually fallen in love. I constantly hope I am not doing more harm than good.
Despite what most of my Ugandan peers believe, I am not actually perfect. This will not come as a shock to any person back home who has known me for longer than a day. It is interesting, frustrating, and oftentimes comical how many Ugandans make this assumption. If there is a big task to be done, many people first turn to me. It doesn’t matter that I am one of the youngest employees of the organization. It doesn’t faze them that I am a woman. All that matters (or so it seems) is that I am white. Of course, these assumptions of perfection do not cross all behaviors and expectations. Many of my Ugandan peers often assume that I am unable to do simple life-support tasks like cleaning and cooking. A neighbor wanted me to hold his newborn baby and actually asked me if I knew how—which as a woman I found quite insulting. Yet, when it comes to solving peoples’ problems (whether money is involved or not) I am often the go-to person. You know what they say about assumptions…
Whenever I walk anywhere, I greet each person along the way. Ugandan Culture 101: Bugandans are very friendly people who live in a community environment; if you want to live among them, you must become a member of the community. Although I have become very good about greeting my “neighbors” (which is a term that extends for about a 2 mile circumference around my apartment), I sometimes feel too lazy or otherwise not in the mood to do a full-on traditional greeting. On these days, I simply wave my hand and say, “Hello.”
The interesting thing about my abbreviated greeting is that Ugandans are expecting a, “How are you?” so they always respond to Hello with, “I’m fine, how are you?” The irony of my having to respond and still greet them always makes me laugh.
One of the problems with living in a society where the life expectancy is 53 for men and 56 for women is that people seem to be dying all the time. This is probably because there really is always somebody dying. It took a while to get used to this, but in the last several months I have adopted (a less intense version of) the Ugandan perspective on death. It just happens. Nothing we can do about it. Let us cry, attend the burial, then move on with our life; there is nothing else to do. On many occasions, I have been sitting with a child, group of children, or even adults and it will just come up that their Mom or Dad is dead. Or their sibling. Or their Auntie. Always it is the same tone of conversation, “He is the brother to my father, who is dead…” “I had a twin once but he died when we were being born…” “Both my Mama and Tata are dead but I’m alright…” Rarely is it spoken with a shaky voice or teary eyes. Mostly people speak of death as a matter of fact.
My Grandma Shirley died October 2009. There are moments when my heart still hurts from that loss; even as I type this out, tears are welling in my eyes. Thankfully, I have a short list of loved ones whom I have lost over the years. Perhaps if my list was longer I would not be able to expend as much energy and heartache on each of them. I know my Ugandan peers love, miss, and cherish those they have lost, but I think we grieve differently in our cultures because death happens in very different ways and at much different rates throughout our lives.
So there you have it. This is some of the stuff that happens sometimes!