How Not to Have Six Horrible Months in the Pearl of Africa

Perhaps start by taking a more nuanced look at the people you meet?

ugandaWe are not allowed to be complex, like any other society.” Downtown Kampala by evening. PHOTO by Zahara Abdul, used with permission.

Every now and then we are forced to have this conversation. A conversation that many who reside in parts of the so-called Global South can relate to.

Usually, it’s a story about someone’s adventure in one of the countries with all these “beautiful people” and exotic landscapes. For me, there’s a signifier that alerts me to these stories. It happens when I log on to Facebook and see a post shared by a friend with just the word “Eh!” accompanying it. In Uganda, this one little sound can encapsulate the entirety of someone’s feelings about something. So when I saw this “Eh!” response to a recent story carried by the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, I just had to click.

The piece, headlined  My travels in Uganda, like life, were not as perfect as the pictures, is by a young woman who comes to Uganda to intern at a microfinance initiative and ends up experiencing six months of horror—which teaches her the lesson that the world is not full of nice people.

Leaving aside the notion that social media images aren’t necessarily a full reflection of people’s lives, this “special dispatch” by a certain Justina Li “discovered” mostly the savage side of life in Kampala. Her account includes a robbery, a bus driver who leaves with her money and fake friendships of all kinds. She feels personally targeted as a result of her skin colour, and writes about the discrimination she experiences as a result. While it’s true that all these things happen in Uganda—as in other parts of the of the world—Ms. Li narrates these anecdotes with a twist of melodrama which The Globe and Mail apparently thinks makes good fodder for their audience.

The writer then travels to Rwanda and writes of experiencing fear at the border, without qualifying where her fear comes from. You would be forgiven for thinking the Uganda-Rwanda border and Ms. Li’s fear of being detained there is a scene from Trump’s America or most of Fortress Europe. Nowhere in her narrative does she interrogate where her fears might come from, especially as one rarely hear of arrests of travellers at the border.

Binyavanga Wainaina long ago reminded folks that when writing about Africa, you shouldn’t forget to mention beautiful landscapes and beautiful children. And Ms. Li’s article fulfils this requirement well, with mention of “an incredible jungle trek and a beautiful sunset.”

Justina Li

She later writes, however, that she “ached to belong. I stuck out like a sore thumb in the local community.” An extraordinary statement, if you ask me. It assumes that one can come from Canada, hit the road in Uganda and voilà, you “belong”. She recounts her attempts at “belonging”, such as wearing a local dress and getting an “African hair” style, but is surprised that those things don’t give her enough street cred to confer a sense of belonging—something that takes time, a lot of hard work, understanding and compromises in many cases, in addition to a degree of comfort in your own skin.

“I went to a new country, believing that the majority of people in the world were trustworthy, with good intentions. I left, defeated,” writes Ms. Li. Sorry about that, but you travelled thousands of miles to another country to do an internship at a microfinance initiative where 77 percent of the population are below the age of 30 and face over 22 percent youth unemployment. In fact, for those between 15-24, the unemployment rate is at 83%. Have you thought about why that internship was given to you, and not to one of the thousands of Ugandan youths looking for such opportunities?

Throughout the article, questions kept coming to me. Did Ms. Li ever stop to think that the people around her might grapple with preoccupations similar to her own? Did she ever ask what she herself brought to the place? Why did she expect us to serve her on a silver platter with opportunities and knowledge? Did she evaluate her own place in the context, like why a “voluntourist” like her was sent to gain skills in a part of the world where over 2,000 others who could use the same opportunity do not? Wouldn’t a little research about the place have helped? And was there no one you worked with whose name you could remember? Perhaps a lady who served you the lunches you said you ate alone? Someone who welcomed you to the microfinance office in your first days? Was there no act of kindness shown to you in your whole time in Uganda that is worth mentioning? Or perhaps now you get to be one of the Africa specialists we see popping up all around us due to your “good understanding of other cultures” gained during your brief stint in the “motherland”?

To help you answer these questions, I urge you to take a look at the post Your White Savior Complex is detrimental to my developmentby TMS Ruge. Ruge says his nickname is “Educated Angry African”, and I guess I am one too. You are operating within this complex regardless of your ethnicity. Yes, you had a horrible time, but I suggest you take a hard look at The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems by Courtney Martin to understand why.

Ms. Li’s piece ends on a familiar note. After laying out her run-ins with nasty Ugandans, she concludes her post with this sentence: “Uganda is a beautiful country with beautiful people with incredible stories who gave me so many opportunities.” Yet the article never talked about any of these “beautiful people”, nor their incredible stories. And apart from being “beautiful”—which is an all too common cover-up used by outsiders who would rather avoid talking about the realities—we are never allowed to be other things. We are not allowed to be complex, like any other society. Isn’t a view of a people that veers between beautiful, on the one hand, and fraudulent, on the other, detrimental to the development you claim to have come here to work on? One hopes Ms. Li will ponder on that.

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