Elitism and the Expat Life

July 8th 2015

Being abroad can be hard. Navigating a different culture can make you feel confused, lonely, scared and at times make you homesick for things you never thought you’d miss (like proper garbage bags to keep out fruit flies for example).

Here in Uganda I’ve luckily had minimal bouts of homesickness, but this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions that come with being an expat. When I was nine years old I made the bold decision to move to China with my dad – and for weeks I cried every night because I missed my mom. Years later, at age 15, I chose to leave my friends and high school in Canada and transfer to an international school in Singapore. For months I would message my friends regularly to tell them how much I missed them. In both cases I took a leap of faith, and it paid off a hundred fold. I learned that the pros of living abroad far outweighed the cons.

Still though, there were times that I wanted nothing more than to be home. When you go abroad you are thrown into a new reality. In this reality very little is recognizable – the people look different, the landscape is different, the food, clothes, and the way people interact are all different. The simplest tasks become difficult. For example, going to the grocery store is a multiple step process: first you have to figure out how to get there, then decipher what foods they offer and convert the currency to dollars in your head, then navigate the checkout, sometimes in a foreign language, and finally find your way home. In Beijing going out to eat meant learning how to pronounce what was on the menu, ordering it without confusing the waitress, and then learning how to eat with chopsticks. Essentially, when you’re abroad so much energy is expended on basic upkeep that you fall into bed exhausted well before your usual bedtime. Foreign places are draining.

Not to mention that you are the target of stares and comments every time you step outside your house. Because you are equally as foreign to the place as it is to you, you attract a lot of attention. In Beijing my sister, our quasi step brother and I would constantly be approached for our picture. People would touch seven- year-old Lucy’s red hair in awe as she stood stock still, waiting for it to be over. Similarly, here people yell “mzungu!” when we pass, and in Peru they call foreigners “gringos”. Sometimes you just want nothing more than to blend into the crowd.

Surrounded by all this foreignness it is logical to look for something familiar. A person who speaks fluent English for example, or a pirated DVD of a Hollywood movie, or even a block of cheddar cheese in the supermarket. Any small thing to anchor you to the reality you’re used to. This is why I make it a habit of travelling with some small comforts from home: a bag of David’s Tea, my favorite ginger candies, and letters written by my friends and my mom. These objects become lifelines, allowing me to explore and enjoy the unfamiliar while still retaining some measure of comfort.

In this context, it’s no surprise that expats often seek out Westernized hang out spots. In Beijing for example we had a tradition of going to our favorite neighbourhood French restaurant once a week to get steak or creamy carbonara. Once in a while we’d also treat ourselves to a slice of decadent peanut butter pie at the American –run Grandma’s Kitchen. In Singapore, my friends and I would drink beer at the foreigner-dominated Holland Village on Friday evenings, and play pool on the weekends at a Westernized mall. These expat havens complimented trips to the Chinese opera, meals at hawker centers, and rickshaw rides.

Here in Kampala Shelby, Jeremy and I have found our own expat getaways. For example, once in a while we’ll go out for pizza at a nearby hostel or buy ice cream cones after work like we would do in summer in Canada. Moreover, Shelby and I regularly attend a spinning class at a nice gym, and on Saturday the two of us treated ourselves to a day by the pool at an upscale country club.

But at what point does this search for comfort take away from the experience? And is there a point where it becomes unethical?

I’d be lying if I answered no to these questions. I always feel guilty when I ask the boda guy to take me to one of the upscale malls, or a movie theatre. The fact is, even though these places can provide comfort, they can also feel like too much of an escape. It seems to counteract the point of traveling if you spend your time away seeking out the comforts of home. Why not just save yourself time and money stay in your hometown? One of the reasons for traveling is to be exposed to new places and experiences – something that eating burgers every night and living in an air conditioned mall will not accomplish.

A second reason to avoid binging on Westernized locales is that they often seem inauthentic. They’ve usually been built for foreigners, not for locals. Let me give you an example:

When we first arrived our friend/tour guide took us around to spots he thought we’d be interested in. Of these spots, one was the Commonwealth Resort: a luxurious hotel/country club on the shores of Lake Victoria, frequented by diplomats and heads of state. We were wowed by the extravagance of the facilities, but it also felt a bit hollow. It was all too well maintained, posing a sharp contrast to the chaotic streets outside.

In contrast, after the Commonwealth Resort our guide took us to Gaba Beach – a local market and port for fishermen and small passenger boats. Here there was life and noise and haphazard stalls everywhere. People were practically on top of each other as they squeezed their way down the crowded dirt path. Although far less serene than the resort we’d just come from, Gaba Beach felt authentic. We finally felt like we were in Uganda.

But I wonder if we’re also kidding ourselves to seek out an ‘authentic’ experience. Isn’t it a bit of a condescending farce? When we went rafting on the Nile one of the girls from Operation Groundswell said something I’ll never forget: she said that she’d seen “the real Africa” because they visited a slum. That phrase made me cringe because 1) she assumed the slum represented the whole of Africa, and 2) she was commodifying the ‘authentic’ experience. It is now becoming increasingly popular to see the real Global South by volunteering in remote villages and living without running water or electricity. Afterwards people go back to their home countries and smugly talk about the hardships they endured as part of their ‘authentic’ trip. So even if you avoid the expat hubs, will you ever truly get the authentic experience of living in said country? And is it just some new brand of consumerism to seek this out at the expense of local communities?

But that’s a topic for another time. Let me move on.

A final danger/unethical factor of overfrequenting Westernized locales is that it stinks of elitism. Only foreigners and rich Ugandans can afford gelato at Acacia Mall or can regularly attend a spinning class. Shelby and I felt a pang of guilt as we splashed in the pristine blue pool at the country club on Saturday, because we knew that only a small fraction of the Ugandan population could afford to be there. Even if it’s not our intention, by going to Westernized places we automatically surround ourselves with the rich. And that’s an icky feeling (not that there’s anything wrong with rich people, but I’d like to operate in a more varied social milieu. Especially as a very non-rich, Mr. Noodle-eating, recent university graduate).

I keep asking myself: is it fair for us to go to all these upscale places while Ugandan children are selling bananas and corn in the street outside, struggling to survive? Are are we supporting class divisions by frequenting places that are relatively expensive? (Although still far cheaper than in Canada) It’s obvious when you’re entering a foreigners hub because the percentages of Caucasian faces in the crowd shoots way up. It’s like there’s a semi-permeable membrane at the doors to Acacia Mall that lets in everyone who grew up using dollars, but only some who grew up with shillings. This division based on income and country of origin (to some extent) makes these places slightly uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.

But then I wonder; if accessibility is the root of it than where do you draw the line? Even in Canada there are many people who can’t afford to go to the hot yoga classes I go to, or the coffee shops I frequent. So should I stop going there? Probably not. And to use an even more extreme example, many Ugandans can barely afford to feed themselves, but that doesn’t mean the three of us will stop eating to make it fair. So where’s the line?

I think ultimately it comes down to a matter of degree. Sometimes we treat ourselves to little tastes of home because we need a break from the exhaustion of navigating a foreign place. There are things like spinning classes that may cost a bit more, but that we know are good for both our physical and mental health. And our weekly trips to get steak and carbonara in Beijing didn’t take away from the view of the Great Wall from my window, or my weekly Mandarin classes. But does that mean we should spend our Saturdays here in Uganda lying by the pool at the country club rather than exploring the city? Obviously not. Or at least the time we spend exploring should far out-way those token poolside afternoons. Not only to avoid the threat of elitism, but also to enrich our own experience here.

Before going to the pool on Saturday we went to the big, very well-stocked grocery store in Acacia Mall. There we saw a young blond women picking out peanut butter and red wine. Later we spotted that same woman at the country club eating lunch. My first reaction was to judge her for spending her Saturday in a Westernized bubble. But then I realized that Shelby and I had been to all the same places that day. The realization made me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s time to tone it down a bit. I won’t deny myself the occasional trip to the movie theatre, but I’ll try to keep that and other homey indulgences to a minimum.

Along those lines, if you need me I’ll be drinking Nile Special or haggling over the price of matooke.

Advertisements

Highlight Reel

As of this Wednesday we’ll have been in Uganda for a whole month! Or 29 days to be exact.* So I figure it’s about time to take off my social justice hat for a minute and fill you all in on what we’ve actually been up to. I’ve already mentioned a few things like meetings and trips to the market, but here’s what I’ve left out:

TEDx Nakasero Women
Two weekends ago we were invited to TEDx Nakasero Women. A few days beforehand I’d been talking to one of the facilitators at the conference we were at, and he mentioned that he was one of the organizers. Excited that I had some TEDx organizing experience myself, he eagerly invited us to the event.

The event was held in the Uganda National Cultural Centre, in a cool space on the second floor full of pillars and staircases. The theme of the conference was ‘momentum’, so all of the talks were loosely connected to that topic. The speakers ranged from the Editor in Chief of a local newspaper, to a South Sudanese refugee, to a former Director of the UN-FAO in China, Mongolia, and South Korea. And all but one speaker were women. Of course as is always the case some talks were better than others, but the overall message was inspiring, and we left satiated.

2015-05-29 12.34.11

2015-05-29 13.35.54

The Airtel Africa Mashariki Half Marathon
Before you ask, no, we did not run the half marathon. Not a chance in hell. What we did do was the 10k. At 5am last Sunday Shelby, Jeremy, and I were lacing up our running shoes and rubbing our eyes as we stumbled outside to wait for our friend to pick us up. When the gun to start the race went off – over an hour late – the sun was just peaking over the horizon, and the three of us and about a hundred Ugandan, Kenyan, and Rwandan runners took off.

Now, before last Sunday I’d never run 10k consecutively in my life. My running career ended after winning a few first place medals for 400 and 800 meter races in sixth grade (might as well stop while you’re ahead right?). But recently, anytime I’ve tried to run for even twenty minutes I’ve gotten bored well before the allocated time is up. So the thought of doing 10km was daunting to say the least. Especially with no training, and in the Kampala heat.

Luckily for me, I had my own personal motivator/coach/cross country runner there to spur me along. For the first half every time I got a stitch or wanted to walk after a hill Shelby would jog beside me and make sure I started running again before a minute had passed. Even when she saw someone she didn’t know walking she would cheer them on until they started running again. With her help, by about 3km in I had found my stride. Aside from the last kilometer (which all seemed to be uphill) the rest of the race was kind of enjoyable! At least now I can say I’ve done it.

2015-05-31 08.29.04

A day at the beach
This past Wednesday was a public holiday called Ugandan Martyr’s Day. As we’d been warned against going to the Martyr’s shrine just outside the city, we opted instead to take a trip to the beach! Such a Canadian thing to do right? But as it turns out, Ugandan’s love the beach too (although their beaches are on the lake, not the ocean). In fact I think they do beach days better than we do at home: as we lay on the sand, respectfully keeping to ourselves, all the other beach goers were in the water dancing and playing together. There was even a makeshift game of tug of war at one point! It was amazing to see people who didn’t know each other from a hole in the ground happily hanging out as if they were one big family. It was like all the social conventions broke down: couples were cuddling, people were drinking beer, and women were even wearing bikinis (although not the string ones we’re used to in Canada). It was like a spontaneous, all ages beach party. It just goes to show that sometimes all you need is snacks, sand, and sunshine.

11289167_10153934785219638_2875805833987792757_o2015-06-03 14.02.38  11357317_10153934795664638_207307172851468269_o - Copy

Because the beach was right next to the airport, there was even an old abandoned airplane! Apparently it had been there since Idi Amin’s time.

2015-06-03 17.08.03

A trip to the nail salon
Some of the women here have the most amazing nails. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but you’d notice it too if the lady giving you change at the grocery store had bright blue talons, or the woman sitting across from you at a meeting had gold toes. So when Shelby’s co-worker told us about a local salon, we eagerly decided to give it a go. And as usual, something as simple as getting our nails done become a full day Kampala experience. To try to paint you the best picture I can, given the thousands of miles between you and Kampala, I’ll start from the beginning.

Step one: getting there. We waited for our boda driver to come for over an hour. True, we should have given him more notice, but by the time he arrived we were cranky – I guess we’re still getting used to Africa time. When we saw his huge smile though we quickly got over our frustrations and hopped on.

The best example I can think of to describe being on a boda is to compare it the a ride at an amusement park. For most of it it’s fun – the wind whipping through your hair, the world flashing by – but there are also those moments when you’re hanging on for dear life and trying to calculate the odds of you making it to your destination in one piece. Throw in several hundred other bodas and imagine yourself in the busiest part of town and you’ve pretty much got our ride to the nail salon. At one point I even had to get off in the middle of a traffic jam and hop on another boda, since two riders on one boda is frowned upon.

Eventually we arrived at the mall with the nail salon which is located in the heart of Kampala. Our boda driver gave us a lecture about keeping our valuables close and calling him before we left the mall so he could pick us up. In most places a lecture like this would seem overbearing, but in this case it was comforting. He waited until the man from the nail salon came to find us before he drove off, which we were very grateful for.

The man took us into the depths of the ramshackle mall and into his cramped little salon. When we arrived there must have been ten people in the space of a large bathroom, including two babies, several staff members, and a bride and her bridesmaids. We plunked ourselves down and began what turned out to be another hour long wait before someone was free to start on our nails. We didn’t mind though; we were transfixed by the amazing hairstyles being fashioned into the women’s hair, and the effortless combination of Luganda and English being spoken by the staff. Every now and then vendors would come into the salon peddling peanuts, hair accessories, or shoes. At one point one of the other customers even had lunch delivered from a nearby restaurant. It was pretty wild – by the time our nails were dry we’d had a fully immersive cultural experience.

11059686_10153924572269638_4705535636430651475_o

11312645_10153924579789638_6016130796279987935_o

11357238_10153924573134638_1756063402361265697_o

A night out in Kampala
I know when you read the words ‘night out’ you instantly think of clubs, short skirts and bad decisions. But don’t worry, Saturday’s night out included none of those things:** just a few beers, some new friends, and Indian food. Our co-workers took us to a beautiful outdoor restaurant where we were soon joined by their friends from other Kampala-based NGOs. After a delicious meal and good conversation we headed to a second bar, aptly named Fuego after the fire pits scattered amongst the tables. We stayed there chatting and sipping beers until about 1:30am, when we crammed a few too many people into the vehicles and the designated drivers drove us home. By the time we got home I was exhausted, but it was a well needed night to rewind and chat after a long week at work.

2015-06-06 22.29.57

A visit to Gadaffi Mosque
On Sunday afternoon, after a chill morning catching up on work at home, we decided to check out Gadaffi Mosque. It’s a huge structure about a thirty minute walk from our apartment, and the view from the top of the tower is supposed to be one of the best in Kampala. And it definitely was. After being draped in veils and climbing a few hundred stairs, we could see the whole city laid out below us, going for miles in each direction. What a view!

2015-06-07 16.28.47

2015-06-07 16.32.21

2015-06-07 16.26.43

Next the guide took us into the main prayer room of the mosque itself. It was a huge room with arched ceilings and an elaborate carpet covering the floor. We sat in there for about half an hour listening to him recount the history of the mosque. When he sang the prayers inscribed on the walls of the room the acoustics carried his voice into every corner. It was a pretty surreal experience.

__________________________________________
**Except maybe the bad decision to sit too close to the singer at the restaurant. He was horrible.
*I only know that because I’ve been taking malaria pills every day since two days before I left. They come in packs of 12, and right now I’ve finished two packs, plus 5 pills. So (12×2) +5+2-2 = 29. I like simple math.

From one country of Great Lakes to another

May 16th, 2015

We now have three days in Uganda under our belts! We arrived late Wednesday night after an exhausting 24 hour journey crossing the Atlantic Ocean and traversing three continents. Upon our arrival we were greeted at the airport by a man who we’ll call R, who we have quickly come to know as our driver/tour guide/friend/life saver. After packing our bulging luggage into his small car, tetris-style, he drove us to Visitor’s Village – our guesthouse in Kampala, the capital city. There we were greeted by the friendly owner, we’ll call him E, who we have since discovered is the most welcoming, hospitable person any of us have ever met. He set us up in our beautiful accommodations were we quickly passed out from exhaustion.
The next day we awoke to a beautiful breakfast of fresh fruit, fresh juice, omelets, toast, and tea with Ugandan mint leaves. It is hard to describe how we felt sitting outside eating this luxurious meal, surrounded by lush trees and flowers, with tens of species of birds chirping in the background and the sun warming our backs. Any anxieties we had were quickly soothed by this peaceful scene, and for that we were grateful.
 
That day and the one that followed were a blur of logistics. R drove us to the bank to take out Ugandan shillings (1 dollar Canadian = roughly 2500 shillings), to the mall to get cell phones, modems for the internet, mosquito nets, and helmets so that we can safely ride boda bodas (or motorcycles), which are the city’s fastest and cheapest form of transport. We also went to the head office for Food Rights Alliance where myself and Jeremy, one of the other interns, will be working starting on Monday. There we met our boss – a confident lady with brightly coloured nails – who graciously welcomed us to her organization and explained some logistics of our first few days. From there we went to three different apartments, one of which we will move into tomorrow (stay tuned!). Needless to say it was a hectic two days, in contrast to the Ugandan way which I get the impression is much more laid back (upon hearing how much we’d done yesterday E threw up his hands in surprise). So to unwind from our 48 hours of logistics, last night we went to a wonderful three hour dance performance featuring dances from all over East Africa. There was drumming, singing, and some of the most athletic dancing I have ever seen. Upon hearing we were from Canada, the host also told a story about his dance troop arriving in Halifax for a performance in January and experiencing snow for the first time, with very comedic results. My thought was that it is amazing how you can be in Uganda, and within two days meet people who have been to your small coastal city halfway across the world. That’s globalization for you.
 
As for today’s activities, our jet lag and our busy schedule caught up to us, so we decided to take things at a slower pace. We started the day around noon by driving to a nearby resort to catch a glimpse of Lake Victoria. It is one of the Great Lakes in the region, and it feeds into the Nile. You can also take a boat from Kampala and cross the lake to Tanzania or Kenya – two trips that I hope to make sometime in the next three months. From there we drove to Gabba Beach, which provided a stark contrast to the resort. While the latter caters to diplomats, expats, and heads of state, Gabba Beach is a bustling local market and fishing village. Where the resort had been quiet and well maintained, the market was noisy and in a general state of disarray. The resort had been picturesque and felt out of context, but the market was messy and authentic. Although we blended in at the resort, Shelby, Jeremy and I much preferred the market. It was one of the many examples of the discrepancy between rich and poor here in this country, which I will talk about in a different post.
 
Although there are many other anecdotes from our first three days here that I can tell, I’ll leave it for now and get some rest before our busy move in day tomorrow. Until next time!

Kampala - Day 1-3 012

DSCN4719

DSCN4702

Kampala - Day 1-3 021