August 21, 2010

Iganga Town, Uganda

I haven’t mastered this pseudo post-colonial era in africa. In truth, this is my first true interaction with the way things probably were. I have a high fence with broken bottles glittering in the sunlight to deter unwanted visitors. And if that fence fails I have an armed guard circling the premises.

At least in theory. In truth the guards are often blaring music from a radio they aren’t supposed to have but we have allowed, sleeping curled up on the side of the house (or on a mat on the front porch for the less concerned), chatting with friends, or shirtlessly sunning themselves. And I’m irritated.

My first instinct when I showed up at the office/house was to make friends with our guard. Assuming we had a few that rotated in on a regular basis. They don’t. instead every 12 hours a veritable stranger walks in with a huge gun dangling nonchalantly from his/her shoulder.

The gig must be mind numbingly boring. We aren’t in any real danger from anything except theft (which is how we ended up with a guard in the first place). During the day we have visitors but the guard is truly only forced to move if a car honks to be let in.

At any rate, my first instinct went by the wayside when I realized I couldn’t keep up with all the changing faces and the way our interactions shifted. it was further forgotten when one of the guards asked me if I wanted to play cards…harmless, I know, except it doesn’t feel that way. I’m at work, and frankly, so is he.

The problem I’m having is reconciling what is a professional working relationship- employer/employee, against a colonial history that claimed the same thing.

Why can’t we be friends…at least friendly?

Only it gets twisted into history and power and expectation.

The other day one of the guards gave me money and asked me to buy her some menstrual pads. Woman to woman I had no issue. But that same day she asked one of our students to buy her a drink. Then she asked me if she could run out to get tea. And today she was stretched out sleeping on a mat on the front porch. Aussie, my colleague and roommate, found another guard with his short open to his navel, rubbing his belly and my first weeks here I woke up to a blaring radio at roughly 6am every day.

Then there is the food. It is Ugandan custom to feed people who work for you, be it special hire taxis, bodas you ask to wait for you, or security. So we give lunch and dinner each day. At first the staff gave out a full container of salt and oil, only it would come back empty each day, so those provisions were rationed. Same with sugar. Most recently it is the batteries that power the radio (we supply those as well and someone walked off with them – which explains the relative quiet of the last few days).

It all seems to have spiraled out of control and it makes me uncomfortable.

Aussie was telling me how much she loves jinja (about an hour from iganga at the mouth of the nile), the palatial homes – currently in disrepair but their former grandeur still evident all these years later- that line the canopied streets. And I cringe a little at the thought. At the policies and protocols that built those houses and who they built them for.

Maybe this has nothing to do with my fears of being a colonial presence constantly trying to make Uganda something it isn’t and didn’t ask to be. Maybe this would be uncomfortable no matter where I was, after all I have never had occasion to have security anywhere else. In south Africa I had the same short wire fence as my neighbors, Liberia didn’t even grant that (which was unfortunate give we lived behind a school and the kids were obnoxious on a good day). In oakland my dad thought I needed protection but I managed fine without it and so I really have no point of comparison.

All I have is this nagging desire to have a mutually respectful working relationship on all fronts. Maybe I’ll figure out a way to do that without cultural differences and history getting in the way.

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3 Comments on colonial me

  1. Melody says:

    This was hilarious! Perhaps if it were colder they would be more vigilant! But these sound like every Florida security guard I’ve ever seen, only difference instead of belly rubbing they text!

  2. LaDawn Fletcher says:

    Maybe you are thinking too much about it. It is what it is. Be who you are within this new cultural context.

    • linnea says:

      there is clearly a limit (today the guard was washing his clothes and walking around in street clothes with his gun dangling across his chest and i firmly explained he could not wash clothes here and must be in uniform) and there are things that are egregious regardless of history…but i do want to be mindful of not perpetuating “the mzungo is right” mind frame. the ugandan as victim instead of partner (or at least participant) in what is going on.

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