A Muzungu Among Ugandans

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My summer eating, traveling, and finding true love in the Pearl of Africa.

How do I even begin to describe life in Uganda?

I guess I could try describing it the way books do: Uganda is incredibly diverse in terms of people and of geography. Uganda is home to sixty-five indigenous communities and boasts a landscape as varied as the stereotypical African savannah; rife with lions and other wildlife, with rainforests and swamps. And then there’s the pessimistic perspective: Uganda’s equally known for its diversity of problems, from poverty to AIDS to corruption.

But after spending nine weeks in Masaka, Uganda’s former second largest town until it was ravaged in the Uganda-Tanzania War of 1979, I found none of those descriptions sufficient. I prefer to remember Uganda in terms of its diversity of life, its eclectic mix of personalities, and I like to sum it up with my own statistic: only in Uganda can you get six passion fruit, a taxi or boda (motorcycle) ride, or – so my Ugandan friends quietly confided to me – a blowjob for bitaano. That’s 500 Ugandan Shillings or about $0.25.

Of Passion Fruit and Other Alimentary Experiences

“What do people even eat in Uganda? Are you sure you’re not going to starve?”

I met these early skeptics with scoffs. “Please,” I thought, “Like everyone’s actually starving in Africa. I’m sure I’ll be able to find food.”

And find food I did! Though the food I found wasn’t always exactly the kind of food I was expecting. Passion fruit was a case in point. My first experience with passion fruit in Uganda was during my first week there, when I went mostly to restaurants recommended by muzungus (white people/foreigners), an experience that made the transition to Ugandan food really easy but also really unrealistic. That night, we had tomato soup, roast chicken, and strawberry crêpes, and passion fruit was served as a side dish – sliced in half for us to scoop out the yellow, seeded interior. It was ridiculous – a muzungu establishment in the middle of rural poverty! – but, and I’m a little ashamed to say this, sinfully delicious.

After that experience, I happily moved in with my Ugandan host family at the end of my first week, fully expecting some variation of what I had had that first week. Maybe some fresh veggies, maybe some meat – those I wasn’t so sure of – but certainly lots of passion fruit! Boy was I in for a surprise.

My diet changed radically. I’ve never had so much starch or grease in my entire life. My typical meal now consisted of heaping piles of just three things: matooke (mashed green plantains), lumonde (sweet potato), and posho (ground cornmeal). The oh-too-occasional dish of cabbage was something I looked forward to and ate ravenously whenever served.

Local Ugandan restaurants also offered little respite. Ugandan restaurants are actually really funny establishments. Most of the ones I went to, ones located deep in some village accessible only by hours on a boda, really just looked like outdoor living rooms. Minus the comfy sofas. Minus lighting too. Most establishments offered the same menu: matooke, lumonde, posho, Irish potatoes, rice, and chapatti (the Indians pre-Amin brought it with them when they came and now it’s been fully integrated into daily life) served with your choice of beans (soaked in tomato sauce), meat (really just means two tough pieces from a goat that’s probably been hanging  outside unrefrigerated and fully exposed to the incredible dust that is Uganda, for the past few weeks), or luwombo (dry fish in a g-nut, or peanut, sauce cooked in banana leaves). And as if the food selection weren’t limited enough, restaurants would quite frequently run out of food.
Nothing was more disappointing than mentally preparing yourself for another meal of almost all starch – maybe matooke my choice of poison today – only to hear the waiter announce matter-of-factly, “Sorry, matooke is over.” Groan!

I tried to be adventurous though, trying street food here and there and partaking in dishes that looked almost deadly. And sometimes I paid for it. (At my worst, I contracted a stomach bug that left me bedridden for four days. I think the culprit was ghi, which my Ugandan friend referred to as “cow butter” but tasted more like pure cow lard.) But sometimes, my adventurous spirit really, and I mean really, paid off.

So Ugandan food can be pretty gendered. Rolexes, one of my favorite street foods, a chapatti breakfast burrito essentially, was derided by one of my Ugandan friends as being a guy food – “You can eat it, but I’m not going to. Only guys eat that!” I guess my skin color made me an exception to the rule. But even more gendered were the pork joints. Ugandan men, according to my sexually and/or maritally frustrated female Ugandan friends, never tell you where they are. Ugandan men, when they aren’t disappearing into other women, are packing off to pork joints, which are really just bars where they serve trays of crispy pork with cold beer.

Conveniently, my friend’s dad owned a pork joint, so we knew we had to make the trip at some point, and one night, we set off together with her mom and her sister. It must’ve been a strange sight – four females, two muzungu and two Ugandan, going into a rough and dirty pork joint. It was ridiculously dark in there, and in fact, so dark that we had to take out our cell phones to be sure of what we were eating. We were presented with two large trays, one consisting entirely of bite-size crispy pieces of pork, and another with matooke and avocado with tomato and onion garnishing. But, to my dismay, there were no utensils! Now, it’s true that Ugandans (or “real” Ugandans, anyway) like to eat with their fingers, but every restaurant or home I had gone to always offered me the option of eating with a fork. But here, the forks were conspicuously missing. What they offered instead was a tub of water that looked suspiciously murky and a bar of soap that was caked with bits of sand and other unidentifiable substances. I gulped, took a swig of beer, and went for it.

I’m so glad I did. There’s something extremely delightful about eating with your fingers, once you get past the pain of grabbing at a piece of steaming hot whatever. As my friend’s mom likened it, when you eat with a fork, you experience food through only three senses really: visual, olfactory, and gustatory. But when you introduce your fingers, you take on the sense of touch, whether it’s just experiencing the pain of grabbing at a piece of steaming hot whatever – and trust me, the food tastes a lot better after overcoming this pain – or feeling and anticipating the texture of the food. Plus, it’s easier to massage sauces into posho or matooke to make it more flavorful.

Of Taxis, Bodas, and Other Transportation Adventures

Taxis in Uganda are ridiculous. It makes you aware of your community like no other.

There are basically three types of taxis in Uganda: special hire taxis, matatus, and just plain taxis.

Special hire taxis operate largely like American taxis  –  they take you door-to-door wherever you need to go but tend to charge exorbitant prices.

Matatus are public 14-passenger busses that are often driven by young, sometimes drunk, drivers who speed like there’s no tomorrow and are stuffed beyond capacity. You can find yourself sitting next to anyone or anything – including the ever-so-delightful chickens-or sometimes even on top of someone. My worst experience was one where we were twenty-five people in a matatu, packed so tightly I couldn’t even sit up and had to lay back on my friend. It also didn’t help that we were traveling on an unpaved road.

Regular taxis aren’t much better but they’re certainly cheap! They’re standard compact cars that travel a given route. You just hop on and off anywhere along the way. While they’re only supposed to hold five people, I’ve been in ones with as many as nine. I once sat in the back with three other passengers while the passenger and driver’s seat each held two people. We were all relatively slim so uncomfortable as it may have been, it was doable. But the worst is when your driver stops to pick up a big African woman. Now, I don’t have anything against big, African women – I think they’re probably some of the most gorgeous and feminine women I have ever seen (and sometimes, I even wish I could look like them) – but I can’t ever avoid that sinking feeling in my stomach when I realize that that woman is going to take up half the room in the back. It is then that I always wish fervently that I had gotten on earlier so I could’ve taken the passenger’s seat up front. The one time I did, it was amazing. Cruising down Kampala Road, sitting in the luxurious, spacious passenger’s seat, I was happy as a clam. When a larger than even the typical big African woman flagged us down and the driver pulled over to pick her up, I even smiled at her. “She sure looks pleasant,” I thought.

I thought that because I could afford to. When that woman climbed into the back, everyone immediately moved over – or as Ugandans like to say it, “extended” – to make room for her but there still wasn’t enough. The poor woman tried to close the door but kept closing it on herself. It took five tries before the door finally closed. The driver thought it was a hoot and looked back in the mirror, grinning widely at her. As he gassed the pedal, he started swerving his car, so sharply that even I was discomforted. Meanwhile, he kept looked into the rearview mirror at the pained expressions of the passenger and laughing. “Oh my god, I’m in the car of a maniac.”

But maniacs? Let’s talk maniacs. Boda drivers. Because so much of Uganda is inaccessible by normal cars, the only thing you can really do is turn to bodas. They’re notorious for being sleazy and even more importantly, dangerous – in fact, US State Department includes drunkenness and recklessness in its travel warning on Uganda. This is partly because you’re riding a motorcycle without a helmet, partly because boda drivers are, more often than anyone else, drunk, and partly because Ugandan roads are terrible and you feel every imperfection when you’re on that boda. We often joked that the dangerous drivers are the ones who go in a straight line – they’re too drunk to swerve around the potholes.

But even well-intentioned, fully sober boda drivers can get into accidents. My one transportation accident while in Uganda came while going with my co-worker into the field. Everything seemed perfectly safe. My co-worker asked to go home to grab a helmet really quick before taking me into the field, and of course I obliged him. I was more than happy to. If he’s taking a helmet, then he’ll be more considerate of our safety than any other boda driver I had taken.

I was wrong. That helmet meant he could speed like a maniac – we cruised at about 70 km/h over unpaved roads with potholes at least one foot deep – and protect himself, leaving me holding on desperately trying to defy Newton’s laws. I kept muttering to myself, “just hold on, just hold on” when suddenly I found myself launched a feet or two into the air. My co-worker immediately stopped the boda and turned around with an amused/embarrassed grin. “Sorry, that one just came out of nowhere.” And we proceeded on.

Of Blowjobs and Other Carnal Adventures

So I obviously didn’t partake of the blowjob business, but “blowjobs for bitaano” is definitely telling of how hyper-sexualized everything is. Microfinance institutions worried about men taking out agricultural or development loans only to spend the money on a bride price for a new wife. My Ugandan mom, a part-time HIV/AIDS teacher, laughed at me in the face I asked whether pre-marital sex was common. (Her reply: “Haha, what do you think? This is Africa!”) And even more explicitly, Adrius, one of the taxi drivers, who was always stationed at the taxi park along my way to work, would clap his hand and dance when I walked by. “Come on baby, come here. I want to insert something in you and put, put, put.” Uh, no thanks.

But while the reputation holds that commitment is rare and among men, even rarer, it isn’t always the case. On my one wilderness trip, our tour guide took us around the lake pointing out finfoots, velvet monkeys, and warthogs here and there. When we got to the hippos though, he suddenly darkened and said, “I do not approve their lifestyle.”

“Excuse me?!”

“One bull, the rest female. Too much, so bad. I do not want to be the bull. But look, African fish eagle! I approve their lifestyle – no cheating, no divorce. African women should learn more from them.”

In a land where even my really sweet female Ugandan friends felt a need to play more than one guy at any time, lest he cheat and bring AIDS into the relationship (actually, I’m still not sure how that makes sense), I felt that true love must be impossible to find. But find it I did, and in the most unlikely of places – a bicycle boda driver.

Bicycle bodas are probably by far my favorite form of transportation. They’re much cheaper and the drivers less likely to be drunk or horny. But they weren’t entirely susceptible to women. Because they were bicycles, rides took much longer and the drivers would often chat me up. Most of it was just friendly, but one guy took it a step further.

After dropping me off at home, he looked longingly and said insistently, “Enkwagala nyo (I love you very much)!” and a string of Luganda phrases I didn’t understand. With my limited Luganda skills, I awkwardly replied with “Webale nyo (thank you very much),” and when he kept insisting, with “Ah, benange (Ah, imagine)! Olimba (you are lying)!” Despite my protests, he insisted it was true and further that I take him again tomorrow. I laughed and walked into my house, shaking my head and laughing. Ugandan men are so insistent.

I didn’t want to see him the next day and I didn’t. But the day after that, I was walking to work when a bicycle suddenly pulled up next to me. I turn in surprise to see his eager face. “I give you ride!”

I normally don’t like to take bodas to work because my workplace is within easy walking distance so I figure I can save money and get a little exercise at the same time. “No, no, I’m going to walk.” And figuring it would be the easiest way to get rid of him, I say, “Neda sente (no money),” and walk on.

“No take money.”

I looked at him skeptically. He probably did not understand a work I said, but he looked so eager and insistent that I figured he’s probably hard up for cash, and I oblige. As I am ferried off to work, I try to figure out what the fair price for the ride is, and when I hop off, I move to grab my wallet but he stops me. “No money. I love you,” he looks at me and smiles. “See you tomorrow.” And he drives off.

Now if that’s not love, I don’t know what that is.

Diana Suen ’11 ([email protected]) can be found clapping her hands and shrieking, “Ah, benange!”

  • Helena

    Seams like you have been to the dingiest part of Uganda. And i believe you have not portrayed it well. You make it sound like there are no decent places here, or the mode of transport and the men are trashy,which I believe is far from the truth.