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How Not to Have Six Horrible Months in Uganda

We 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.”

Screenshot from Justina Li's article in the Globe and Mail.

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.

13 comments

  • mc

    Great piece. One sentence struck me however “It assumes that one can come from Canada, hit the road in Uganda and voilà, you “belong”. How would this read if written by a Canadian if we reversed the roles and what does that mean (if anything, I hope I’m not totally blind to dynamics of power) for how we talk about migration ‘the other way’:

    It assumes that one can come from Uganda, hit the road in Canada and voilà, you “belong”. She recounts her attempts at “belonging”, such as wearing a local dress and getting a “European 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.

    • Magdalene

      In this case it would stand fine, as Canada has a generally multicultural background. And indeed, that background culture may have had a role in Ms. Li’s assumption that changing her hair and clothes would help her fit in, as it certainly would go a long way to help someone attempting to fit in were the roles reversed as you describe.

    • My opinion of Ms.Li’s experience is that, we humans are surely one in a number of senses, but there will always exist cultural differences among peoples (simple behavioral science). Any body can get what Ms.Li got in Uganda, anywhere. Trump calls it (…Always America First…), threatens to build walls etc. Ms.Li, you had come on a specific, probably special project to you, then go back HOME, where people behave differently, I hope. It is always not easy, when you are not HOME. Uganda is a TWC, and has along way to go, to compare it in any way to Canada is simply laughable. Ms.Li, I think the conclusions you spelled out were out of very poorly done research. Analysis of peoples behaviors is a complex issue.And your project, was it about people’s behavior or Micro-finance or a mix of the 2.

  • Paulina Wyrzykowski

    I think you make excellent points, and am wondering whether you’d consider submitting them directly to the Globe and Mail. Like you, I found the original piece cringe worthy – at the end of the day, though, it struck me as being more about the author than about Uganda. Having been a melodramatic teenager myself (who wasn’t?) I have some sympathy for a kid who finds out the world is not what she thought it was, however oblivious she may also be to her own privilege in that world. What’s much more reprehensible is that the Globe, historically the most respected national newspaper in Canada, would give her a forum. Sure, they’ve suffered from budget cuts like all other print publications recently, but really? I find it hard to believe they wouldn’t have realized how juvenile and tone deaf the piece was, which in turn makes me think they were setting her up for the clicks.

    • Justin Benn

      I would second that suggestion to send this reply to the Globe and the Mail. It would be instructive to see how they received it and, indeed, if they were to publish it at all.

  • Wood

    Treat others how you would want to be treated!! Its in the bible!!! Uganda is no piece of heaven..you can look it up on you tube… ask the people who struggle to live their and flee from their…slavery is very much talked about and the neglect that is given to each other despite the suffering everyone is going through together…. and the utter lack of empathy. Women are not treated equally and children are brutalized.. I can only imagine what happens with the disabled and elderly who are unable to defend and fight for them self.Uganda has a long road in front of it if it wants people to come and share its beauty… a big start would be investing in its people and building in them.. so when they do leave they are bragging about its majesty of beauty… not landing off a plane and declaring… i didn’t see this in the brochure.

    • ‘White people are rich’ its a local mentality Ms Li unfortunately became victim to.
      This mentality is all over African countries predominated by black natives. All Ms Li needed was a native guide to protect her from these prejudices. Let this be first priority to all travellers.
      Black Africans who travel to Eastern Europe and some Asian countries also suffer their own prejudices.
      No country is purely a heaven.

    • william

      And likewise i will say that western countries are no piece of heaven either. I grew up in uganda and have lived in america for last 10 years. One thing i have learnt is just how screwed up america is too. and like Ms.Li i had this misconseption of perfect people living perfect lives. IF she thinks she was being discriminated against why doesnt she ask herself why she was flown that many miles to a country she doesnt even understand to do a job that thousands of other locals could do. That in itself is the true definition of priviledge. I will tell you one thing, its human nature that people always take advantage of those they asume ignorant and unaware. as a foreighner Ms.Li was ignorant of what not to do in a third world country and people too advantage of that. And its no different in america, people will try to get you to buy things and sign u for credit cards you can afford. Its the same thing, just one is done in a much more subtle and organized manner.

  • Excellent Post

    As a expat living in Uganda I find my day to day interactions with locals the most enjoyable part of living here. Yes, sometimes you can get mistreated, but you can get mistreated anywhere in the world. Like what you said the fact she did not mention any daily positives shows she was only interested in talking about the negatives.

    Too many young volunteers come to Africa with the idea they are going to change the world while they are here, they get put into a real situation and they soon realise they task at hand is a lot more difficult. Putting on local clothing and getting haircuts is not how to understand a culture, spending time with different communities, eating local dishes, meeting story tellers etc are all ways to experience a culture. You come here for the experience and personal development not to try fit in by wearing the same clothes and haircuts. Its superficial.

  • Hi! Congratulations for this piece. I appreciated it so much that I am translating it into French.

    The attitude of this Canadian Asian is very common among some young Westerners who have a biased view of Africa and Africans. Starting from these conceptions they have, when they are confronted with the realities of the part of the continent they visit and not finding a confirmation of what they think, they feel frustrated.

    Some become racist and spread false information about all of Africa. Before I went to Uganda last time (2016), I read an article by a young Italian girl who landed in Entebbe in September, complaining of the heat. When I responded trying to rectify the facts, my answer was not published. I had chance to meet her in Kampala, she was quite confused when I mentioned her article.

    How can one suffer from heat in a country where the lowest altitude is more than 600 meters above the sea? The highest temperature in Uganda is lower than in Rome from May to September.

    For me, Uganda and its people remain among the most charming of Africa. For beauty, I am of the same opinion as Sir Winston Churchill and for the kindness, I will simply remind that in the current crisis of refugees, this country is cited as an example for its policy of reception, despite the great number of people coming from the neighboring countries..

    However, my friend, the man “the with the hat” remains a dictator who falsifies the results of the elections and imprisons the opponents.

  • eva

    To reduce a country, a culture and a people to a mere scenic backdrop for your own personal “development” is just so monumentally arrogant that it defies belief. It’s not a damn theme ride in Disneyland, where you get to pose with exotic locals and look noble on your FB pictures. If someone came to my country and presumed solve our problems without knowing the language, the history, the culture I’d be profoundly insulted.

    That being said, you guys – we have some pretty big problems with inclusion, racism, xenophobia and unemployment in Denmark and we could most definitely use some outside perspective.

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