I am in my fifth week here and I finally hit a wall… I must be honest about some of my external and internal challenges. I feel like African mission work is extremely glorified in the States, but it is difficult for me.
I am always outside of my comfort zone. People are welcoming me and receptive to my presence; however, the culture is SO DIFFERENT that I feel frustrated about many of the events that happen. I’m not sure where to begin. I’ll start with the fact that EVERY plan is subject to change. If they say I’ll pick you up at 8:00am they might show up before 10:00am. But, if I am scheduled to meet people at 9:00am they may or may not arrive sometime between 10 and 11 and just because people have arrived doesn’t mean the workshop will actually start before 12:00pm. I am constantly wondering the right thing to do when I am just sitting waiting for the program to start is it rude to read a book? Should I continue to try and communicate with more slow English words with hand and facial gestures to the one woman who is seated with me waiting for the others to gather? Should I get up and ask the head woman or man pastor to gather the women who clearly see that I am seated and ready to go?
Also, if someone says, let’s meet on Saturday at 3:00pm. It actually means, “I have the intention of meeting with you, but I have no idea when or where that time will be.”
OK, I know what you’re thinking: Nancy, chill out and realize that things will never start on time or just plan for time to be flexible but when I am coordinating meetings with people and I leave my house at 7:00am because everyone knows that people from the States are on-time and I end up searching for a place in town to sit or stand for an hour or two it can get frustrating.
Also, EVERYWHERE I GO I am seen as a money tree. Kids on the street scream, “Jambo Musungu” and if I give them attention they frequently ask me to buy them something. Waters and waitresses will ask me for my phone number or email to contact me later. Students at schools will ask me if I can find them a sponsor. I had to get my phone fixed the other day and the guy that fixed it texted me yesterday: “Hi. Don’t fear this text but it’s me who help u 2 solve e problem in your phone 2 start sending text messages. NOTE always remember me since it was my 1 time 2 u Repply it and remember me even if you back to home $ Send your Email were I can chat with u when your back. Night u. SERIOUSLY?!!! (I obviously ignored it).
The stereotype of ignorant people in the States of all Africans is that they are all starving and living in hut. There is a stereotype of ignorant people here that everyone in the States is rich. No joke, when I tell some Ugandans that there are poor people in the US, they are shocked and they wonder why the States gives Uganda aid.
Something else that gets to me is that there is a “real” price for things and there is a “musungu” price. I have to pay twice as much for much of my transportation, accommodation, services, food, you name it because I have white skin.
I basically live off of rice, pineapples, bananas, sodas, and wafer cookies. Most of the food that is cooked makes my stomach upset and the majority of it is fried! People also assume that I want to eat “chips” (aka French fries) for every meal.
Everything is constantly dirty. When I wash my hair the water that comes out is literally orange with dirt. The majority of the population does not wear deodorant.
This week I was in a taxi stuffed on the side with four other people in my little row and the girl in front of me didn’t want the window open and I told her I wanted it open but she closed it and I just gave up. I threw a temper tantrum in my head and I thought to myself: I hate Africa! However, it didn’t take me long to realize that I don’t hate Africa, I hate myself and the fact that I was born in a country and lifestyle where I never have to be truly uncomfortable!
People live like this — stuffed into a taxi every day. They have to pump their water and carry it for miles to just have a sponge bath, cook, and boil it to drink. They walk for miles in the dust and dirt to get to a job that may or may not pay them what was agreed. They sell crackers, roasted corn, and tomatoes on the street to SURVIVE. They wash all their cloths by hand and hang them to dry. They cook everything from scratch including slaughtering the animal. Western toilets are a novelty they mostly use a simple hole in the ground.
Henri Nouwen helped me process my self loathing this week through the words of Jean Vanier. Often I go off in dreams about living and being with the poor, but what the poor need are not my dreams, my beautiful thoughts, my inner reflections, but my concrete presence. There is always the temptation to replace real presence with lovely thoughts about being present.
Jean also said, Poverty is neither nice nor pleasant. Nobody truly wants to be poor. We all want to move away from poverty. And still God loves the poor in a special way.
OK! I’m thinking: I feel enough love by God that I can go back to my “inner reflections” and keep my presence to myself. Phew, it would be terrible to put myself in uncomfortable situations for the rest of my life!
But Jean goes on to say, Jesus did not say, “Happy are those who serve the poor, but — happy are the poor. Being poor is what Jesus invites us to, and that is much, much harder than serving the poor. The unnoticed, unspectacular, upraised life in solidarity with people who cannot give anything that makes us feel important is far from attractive. It is the way to poverty. Not an easy way, but God’s way that the way of the cross.”
Here I am complaining because I have the ability pay twice as much for something, I have a lot to learn.