During the ten years I have been travelling to Uganda with Messiah Lutheran Church and now Hearts and Hope, I have gradually (okay, very slowly) learned about some of the differences between our culture and theirs. Some of the truths about their culture are frustrating but many are simply fascinating! There are numerous situations that would have gone down in a different way if I would have factored in the cultural divide between their perspective and ours.
Some of that knowledge has come from intentionally reading books that covered the subject. Several years ago a friend recommended I read “African Friends and Money Matters” by David Maranz. It was a lightbulb-on moment for me! Westerners value very different things from our African counterparts. I have seen it numerous times: Ugandans value family and their welfare, while we tend to expend our effort in the accumulation of things and wealth, maximizing every minute of the day. That disparity alone can radically change how we each make decisions!
Ugandans’ approach to borrowing things and returning them is a 180-degree shift from our method. Let’s suppose I live in Uganda and find myself in need a calculator and you have one. According to Maranz, it is very much understood that you will lend it to me – I might not even need to ask. I may just come in your house and get it. And when I am finished with it, it is YOUR responsibility to come take it back; not my job to return it. Mind blown!
And if I give you money to go buy meat for our family’s dinner and along the way, you meet someone who has a sick child with no money to pay for treatment, it goes without saying that you will give that mother the money I gave you – and we will have no goat meat for dinner. No questions asked. Hmmmmm.
Much of the clarity I have in regards to differences in our cultures has been acquired through the relationships I have developed there. There really is no better way to learn than to be taught by someone else. It is one reason I encourage mission team members to ask questions. Don’t assume we have the better way!
One of our frustrations, particularly in the early days of our work in Uganda, revolved around time. Nowhere am I made more cognizant of our infatuation with time than when I am waiting for a Ugandan to pick me up at our hotel. If we have been told the bus will leave at 8:00, then we will be ready at 7:55! In fact, we can become quite legalistic about it. Much of that hinges on our stance in the US that being late is frowned up, sometimes even rude. And when we are guests in another country, the last thing we want to be is rude!
However, as our Project Coordinator Henry Balidawwa has said to me many times, “Americans have the watches, but Africans have the time.” There is a really only one pace in Uganda and it is not a hurried one. Could this be why we describe them as some of the most joyful people we have ever met? Are they happier because they aren’t constantly moving on to the next task in their minds before they even complete this one? I think there is something to be learned!
An 8:00 bus departure for the mission team easily translated into an 8:45 arrival for the bus and, at the earliest, a 9:30 arrival for our Ugandan friends. Every. Single. Time. No fear of retribution from them. More of a “hey, I’m here – how was your night?” greeting. Fifteen minutes of pleasantries and then maybe it was time to get on that bus.
Violet Nanono and I were shopping in Kampala one day. We had been invited to Pastor Charles and Eve Bameka’s house for lunch at 3:00. At 2:30, I started wrapping up my last purchases. At 2:45, I was casually steering us towards the door of the mall. At 2:55, I was downright antsy. I finally said to Violet, “Aren’t we going to be late? Shouldn’t we have already left?” (I had been in Kampala long enough to know this wasn’t going to be a 5-minute zip across town!)
She looked at me and said “Oh, we have plenty of time.” And so I finally asked the question that had been haunting me for years: “Why is it okay to be late here? Why does no one care about time?” She looked at me, a bit surprised and explained to me that, in Uganda, arriving for a 3:00 lunch date before 4:00 would be rude! What?!?
Well, there was some knowledge that would have been useful from day one! It explained so much! Starting times are loose, almost non-existent, guidelines. A meeting will start when everyone gets there. It is an unspoken belief that if someone arrives an hour after everyone else, they had more work to do in their garden that morning or simply needed more sleep than anyone else. No hurt feelings. No grudges.
And so there it was again – putting people and their well-being first, not cramming as many tasks into a day as possible. Take the time to enjoy the process, not just the end result.
I still have a long way to go in my quest to fully understand our Ugandan friends but every nugget of knowledge I gain about how they value family and relationships is beneficial. It is a fascinating journey to see how we approach the same situation; there is so much we Westerners can learn!
And now, I need to go find my calculator.
Julie Stroder is Messiah’s Missions Coordinator and also the Missions Coordinator at Hearts & Hope for Uganda. She writes about missional living on Messiah’s blog.