Reality strikes walking in Mbale market

A few days into the internship, my canadian pal and I were really feeling “flipperized” by the events. We had issues trying to get our intensions or ideas through, we didn’t understand why things were they way they are and we just wanted to make them “right”. Right for the standards of two men who lived most of their lives in the Western world and struggled with nearly everything they saw around them down here. Today, we only do marginally better in terms of understanding why things are the way they are but we definitely both went through a significant paradigm shift in how we see the future of our individual projects and, more importantly, how Ugandans may be able to take ownership of them. Now that our time here is wiring to an end, it is a funny exercise to look back at how we envisioned things initially and how things are planned today. All changed and probably us most of all. One of my turning points happened in early June, after one of the many frustrating setbacks I went through. Daunted, vaguely annoyed but also aware of my own slips, I wrote to the Maple’s director in Oregon to clarify some tings and get some guidance. Almost two months later, this email exchange seems both a little naive and clairvoyant. Why? Stay tuned for an update; in the meantime…enjoy!


Dear Ron,

I would lie to you if I said that our conversation today didn’t deliver a much needed setback to my approach to work here in Uganda. This place is very strange and it plays tricks on my untrained mind. You see, as I walked back home, I thought about one thing that is striking. When I met our male co-workers in Mbale, R. and E. above all, I felt welcome, at ease, in touch with them, even understood. With the females it was different, save S. for many reasons. I felt distance, not rudeness but indeed a general sense of wariness towards me that I could not explain. Here in Lira, except for I., we work with all women and I found harder to rebuild that sort of camaraderie that we had in Mbale despite our short stay, or, perhaps, because of it. But, on the other hand, the very women that maybe keep me at distance are the trustworthy ones. The ones that repay, the ones that don’t try to cheat us, the ones that carry the true burden of a family running through the streets heavy with goods and children on their shoulders. Frankly, I just don’t know yet what to do with this insight. What I know os that things are far more complex that they appear and if here there are many problems that still persist, it is like you said: because if things were easy they’d been solved long ago. Despite my good intensions, I have probably come across some of the people I met as a stereotypical mzungu and I’ll have to retool to work in a way that they feel comfortable with. I need to work on making our goals converge, on increasing ownership of what I do or envision with the people who live and own this part of the world.

I just would like to let you know, in all sincerity, that anything that came out of these first two weeks was not ill-intended. On the contrary, shocked and humbled by what I saw upon my arrival, especially in Mbale’s market, my first reaction was to apply our western mentality and seek a way to maximize the potential of the country. They could accomplish great things and when I express this in words, in the eyes of the person I speak to I see a mixture of skepticism and surprise. Yet, I found it all too hard not to try to board people to work with us on what I thought, and still think, this place can achieve. As I told Andrew in our walk home brightened by the incoming storm, I do not sense that my ideas are ill-conceived, I sense instead that they may be pitched wrong or perhaps too fast. I will set back. We’d also would love to encourage feedback and guidance from our co-workers, though I sense that is a privilege to be earned more than a favor to be asked.




…And Ron replied:


Hi Bernardo,

I just now had a chance to read your email.  I want you to know that I think you are doing great. Truly.  Everyone needs to make a huge adjustment when they arrive in Uganda, especially those with the biggest and greatest intentions.  I think you understand what I mean.  Some people go to Uganda for the adventure.  I don’t work too well with people who are mostly looking for adventure.  You have gone to Uganda to make a difference.  It’s those who truly want to make a difference that also experience initial frustrations stronger than others.  For a person who feels the same commitments I do, you are actually making adjustments faster than most people who have gone to Uganda.  You have only been in Lira a few days!  I have never doubted any of your intentions, and I appreciate the fact that you let me speak openly with you.

You are also very insightful to notice that many of the women may seem more wary but are also, often, are very trustworthy.  For one, Ugandan women are often assumed to be using white guys to leave the country when they are seen with a white guy.  So, they learn to be more formal.  Also, some of the Ugandan guys coast because women do so much work for them.  Others, like R., also work hard and want to make a difference.  You will learn to distinguish the character of persons over time, even in Uganda.  You will meet all types.  Ugandans also carry their stereotypes about you, sometimes regardless of what you do, and you will need to break through those, when possible.  It takes some time.  

We will talk more, specifically about the project, as we both have real hopes but know that progress toward goals can be difficult.  I’ll send you some potential outcome goals, and we will establish stretch goals.  


I also want you to know that both B, and S. like you and Andrew very much.  I tend to let people know if I know of any deeper problem, and there is none I know of.  The team will continue to form and get stronger and you will start to feel a small community moving in the same direction.  Each of you will understand your interdependence (in a good way) over time.  There will be bumps in the road so develop good ways to talk through stuff.

Thanks for the work you are doing,