Day 9: Into the Heart of Kampala And A Lesson In Cultural Differences

I woke up excited to explore more of Kampala. It’s Saturday, so I wasn’t heading to the Girl Up office. Where might I go? I was drawn to go downtown, deeper into the city, to see what it’s really like.

I brought up the topic to Ronald and Annette (the couple whose family compound I reside on and am calling home) over a breakfast of fresh chapatti, yogurt and bananas. They were very much NOT in support of me heading into the city alone. No, no, no. (Although they didn’t come right out and say “no.”) They expressed their concerns about pick pocketing and other dangers that could befall anyone, let alone a mzungu traveling alone.

I appreciated their care and concern for me. I knew they feel responsible for me as their guest. As a stubborn, independent woman though, how do I navigate this cultural difference?

I relented… perhaps Annette’s sister, Miriam, might be available today or another time to take me to the markets to look at fabric for a dress? Someone on the Girl Up team had suggested this idea to me the other day. I had expressed interest in having Mazuri Designs* create a dress for me and Miriam is one of the seamstresses in the shop. This suggestion was all it took to put a new plan into action that worked for everyone.

(*Mazuri Designs is a design and tailoring shop founded by Girl Up Initiative Uganda. You can check them out here.)

A little while later I was told that Miriam would come over soon to take me to the market. (Miriam lives about 10 minutes away – literally down one hill and up another. She can see this house from her house!) When Miriam arrived, I was told that Ronald would drop us at the markets. My stubborn independence softened even more as I felt how much they desired to support me in having a positive experience in their capital in a way that kept me safe.

Driving into the heart of the city took a while. I continue to be amused by the chaotic driving scene and how even amidst the craziness there is a sense of order. But it’s not linear order, it’s like the roads are rivers and as long as you’re in harmony with the multiple currents flowing every which way, all flows smoothly.

Downtown opened my eyes to where Ronald and Annette were coming from with their concerns. I’ve been in bigger cities before… NY, LA, Chicago, but they’re all in the US, a place where I speak the language and my skin color doesn’t make me stick out like an obvious visitor as it does here. I’ve also been in big cities outside the US and yet this bustling scene was outrageous…

So many people. So much activity going on. Layers upon layers of markets and buildings and sounds and colors. Everyone was up to something: selling, buying, talking, eating, walking, driving. So much movement. And not one other white person among the crowds.

As Ronald pulled into a gas station to drop us off I was flooded with relief that my stubborn independence hadn’t won out, and that Miriam was accompanying me.

We got out of the car, said goodbye to Ronald, and headed into the throbbing, pulsing, very much alive heart of the capital. Miriam knew just where to go. Weaving in and out of the sidewalks and people she led us through passageways with shops on either side bursting with fabrics. Imagine Joann Fabrics times a zillion spread out over what seemed like an entire city block. (And we were just looking at the fabrics… not all the other goods and services this city has to offer.)

Most of the shops were about 5 feet by 7 feet. (Some were much smaller with just a small counter and wall space behind). The entrance of each shop had a counter that the shopkeepers sat at, often engaged in conversations with other potential customers or friends. As we stepped behind the counter we were surrounded by patterns and swirls and lines and colors and oh my god how does one ever choose one type of fabric for a dress?!?!

Fabrics were folded and piled one on top of the other on shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling. There were more piles of fabric in front of the shelves. I scanned through the layers of fabrics, seeking the ones that jumped out at me. When one did, the shopkeeper pulled it out from its tight place in the shelves and unraveled it for us to see. Miriam checked out the fabric and let me know if it was good. If it was deemed worthy, she’d then ask them about the price, speaking in what I think was Luganda or Swahili. (I forgot to ask, so caught up was I in the sensory onslaught).

I spotted a couple of fabrics I really liked yet she said, “We keep moving. We keep looking.” She wanted to make sure I got a good deal. She was so patient with me as I kept looking and looking. I finally ended up getting the FIRST FABRIC that had jumped out at me, only we got it at another shop that offered it for less. How wild is that? The very first fabric, and I saw thousands of different prints before choosing that one.

As we headed out to the street we ran into Claire, another woman from the Girl Up Team, and her sister and nephew. To run into someone I actually knew in the midst of this swirl of activity was pretty damn amazing to me. We hugged and smiled at each other and chatted for a few moments and then allowed the current of the city to carry us forward on our separate paths.

I offered to get us an Uber to take us home (hello independent woman who wants to have some more say in this day), but Miriam guided us through the streets to where several matatus (mini-bus taxis) were lined up. When I say “taxi” you may get an image in your mind of a yellow four-door sedan type vehicle. Think again. It’s a group experience with a sliding door for entering. There are four rows of red fabric covered seats, usually 3 people to a row. Seats on the outer edge fold up or down to accommodate more or less riders. There is also a spot up front next to the driver for one lucky person. We had about 14 riders at the most on this excursion, with riders getting off at various spots and new riders getting on.

We got off at a spot I didn’t recognize. “Are we walking from here?” I asked. “Yes… up there is where I live.” This is the way the river flows here… why go directly to where I live when we can first stop and see where she lives and meet her 5 children?

So from the heart of the city we traveled to the heart of her home and I got to meet Treasure (her eldest daughter), Isiah, Abraham, Jordan and Prophet (her youngest boy), ranging from 12 to 2 years of age. I sat with them and did my best to engage in conversation after having just spent a few hours immersed in JoAnn fabrics on steroids. I asked them about singing and dancing and before I knew it, the floor space was cleared of stools, another woman sat down with an empty water bottle on her lap as a drum, and Miriam and her children started clapping and stomping and singing and dancing, giving me a front row seat for their performance. I clapped along with them and smiled like a goon. I loved seeing how animated they became as they let loose with this tradition that flows through their blood and lineage.

The singing and dancing was followed by more chatting, reviewing of report cards and nursing (not me). Then it was time to say goodbye and head on over to where I live. We walked across the dirt road and down through houses in the small valley, navigating narrow passageways in between houses and through yards. Most everyone waved or smiled or inquired, “How are you?” as we passed.

We wrapped up our adventure with a lunch prepared for us by Annette and Linda of steamed cassava and hot chai tea. We were left to eat alone and talked about the power of prayer, witch doctors, Prayer Mountain, quarreling with God and miracles.

As we said goodbye, I hugged her tight and thanked her yet again for going with me into town. “You would go into town alone, yes?” I asked her. Yes, she shared, and yet for me to go alone is not good. They will charge you more, she said, and it’s just not safe for you.

As I watched her walk away I felt grateful and humbled. I pride myself on my independence and willingness to strike out on my own path. And yet, I’m being invited to explore different ways of being and doing here. What else might be possible if I’m willing to let go of being so independent and instead, receive and act on the wisdom being shared with me by locals?

Before this trip, I told my sisters I’m calling it “culture transition” instead of “culture shock.” Why set myself up to be shocked? My sense is I would have been shocked to have taken an Uber taxi on my own and gotten dropped off someplace in that bustling metropolis. It was more than anything I had imagined. Sure, I may have navigated through it all just fine. I probably would have ended up being charged more money for the fabric. I may have been propositioned a lot more, receiving offers for rides, invites to buy more things, etc.

I’m already outside my comfort zone. I’m already leaning into and past my own edges to experience more aliveness; to keep leaping into life again and again and again; to press more of me into more of life to really truly experience more of what else is possible? So why not let go of some of this stubborn independence to see what else can be created and experienced, without shock, and instead, with a whole lot more ease and humility?

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