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A few days after landing I started to come across a pattern of puzzling situations, so I reached out to my American boss. A professor of cross-cultural negotiation, his insights, though initially unsettling because not conclusive, have been proven right by what has happened in the following weeks. Conclusive is a process, not an end point.

Dear Ron,

after a week of Uganda I came to understand a few things, other puzzle me still. One of the most intricate is my relationships with the locals. Ok, I am a muzungo but what does this mean in concrete? Here is my evidence. The first week in Kampala that I spent with a local’s family, I basically paid everything myself. Apart from the first lunch, I cooked or bought the meals for the following days, and it seemed to me it was sort of expected. I was actually happy with it as I was the guest and I wanted to show my appreciation, so we just perfectly fit in with each other’s wishes and desires. The same days, I was accompanied by a relative of a friend in each of my movements in the city. We went everywhere together and had also our meals together, on me. Again, I was happy with it too for the same reasons as it seemed an excellent means to show gratitude.

Tonight we were walking back from the field with one of the Maple staff. I asked if he had the intention to stop for dinner with us and he said yes. We sit down at this place, they bring me food, Andrew chooses not to eat (for good reasons) and the staff person doesn’t get anything either. Shortly after the same person has a change of mind and orders the same plate as I did. I already paid (like 2 bucks) but he didn’t. By the time we finished dinner, he asks me to give him 5,000 UGX, which I do, though very perplexed, and then we walk out to the house together. Now, let me be clear, I do not  care at all about the money. It is more than affordable to me but the principle and its implications make me wonder quite a lot. How comes that is expected from me to provide for other people, moreover people who do have an employment with a local NGO? Is the dependency towards white men so strong that I’m just expected to behave in a certain way without even asking if I could do it?

As we discussed, we both oppose the handout culture that descended from years of development aid. However, how is that possible to even change that ever so slightly if even one of the people that should embrace and spread a different culture in the country, the Maple culture if you like, expects me to give him the very handouts that he opposes in front the saving groups he supervises?

Perhaps I am taking it too far, but I saw this pattern a bit too often to think it limited to only the poorest sections of the population. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I would really like to know where I stand in this country, so that I will avoid situations that can promote behaviors that make me uncomfortable.

Thanks a lot,


And Ron answers:

Stories from the field:

1) Story 1:  I’m glad you are going through and thinking about the way things are.  It’s a good cultural introduction.

2) Story 2:  “There are two kinds of muzungus: those who give stuff away and those who come back.  Which kind are you?”  (Question posed to me by a Ugandan when I first arrived.  I answered that I come back.  A big disappointment and a hope for the person at the same time.)

3) Story 3:  Within Ugandan culture giving is reciprocal.  It is the basis for the internal Uganda social security system.  Those who have more are expected to give more.  It’s not a black white thing.  It’s a thing.  Frankly, that’s the same story, through progressive taxation, in Denmark.  In the U.S. we’ve tried to become that enlightened but our history is different.  In U.S. the rich think they are deserving and the poor underserving because all had equal opportunity at birth, right?

4) Story 4:  You are being tested.

5) Story 5:  You don’t go to Africa for answers.  You go for the questions and perhaps, for a small step forward, which you must decide for yourself.

6) Story 6:  MAPLE has an internal policy not to give things away.  Random kindness from my point of view is ok, especially if reciprocated, but it should not be detected as a pattern.

7) Avoid, if possible, assuming that others “expect” anything from you.  Trying and expecting are very different.  You can’t really see the thoughts of the Ugandan or assume their behaviors are mechanical thoughts in action.  We don’t think that about ourselves, either.

8) Because 8 is a lucky number and I needed it.  Avoid, if possible, assuming that those who work for MAPLE are not Ugandans, first.  Then you will make friends, understand the culture and social relations, and build the kind of trust that comes with knowing people.  Trust is all about character.  I’d rather hire the poor, with their character, than the rich, with theirs, in Uganda (and perhaps elsewhere for the most part.)  Character just means that people act in accordance with their values.

I hope this confuses you in a constructive way.  Some people who have gone to Uganda want the absolute truth.  Others see what is and work within what is.

Story 9, pushing aside the lucky number.  The first refrigerator sticker I saw in Uganda (so you know I was not in a village at the time) said, “It is what it is.”

You are taking the right steps, and you will be tested again and again, every day.  Tell people, kindly, who you are and why.  People appreciate that.  Let who you are change a bit over time.  Yet also recognize the gifts given by others.  I actually think we depend on Africa more than Africa depends on us, but that is a very different story altogether–story number 10–and just meant to extend the notion the constructive ambiguity is not only possible, but the way things are.