About Me

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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Maybe it's just me...

But Ugandans are becoming increasingly more perplexing.

Examples? Examples you ask?


ATM Etiquette

Here's my philosophy while using an ATM: if there's a line behind you, do what you need to go, do it quickly, make sure you accomplish your task, then leave others to the same, quickly.

Ugandans have a different strategy in mind. It - in theory - works something like this: saunter up to the machine as if a teacher has just asked you to give a speech on a subject you know nothing about, insert first card which never works, get denied, try six more times to withdraw from the same card, turn around and look dispassionately at the queue waiting mindlessly behind you as you retrieve first card, try again, get denied, finally decide to use another card, withdraw cash, pause and consider if you need more cash, decide you do, use the same card, withdraw additional cash, finally decide to retrieve card, wait for receipt, do not exit the console upon obtaining receipt, instead spend twenty to forty-five seconds reading the minutia written on the receipt while the queue continues to wait for you to get out of the way, re-enter the line directly in front of me (this always happens just to me), continue to read the receipt as if it contained the unedited version of the Warren Report, repeat process.

My problem with this: the popular etiquette just described only bothers me. A queue of six to eighteen people could be standing in line and never once complain about the length of time the person in front of the machine is spending. Never.

Another irksome feature of this procedure - besides the fact the machine sometimes eats cards or shuts down in the middle of a transaction - is that personal space is absolutely disregarded. In the midst of a ten minute wait I'll inevitably have two men literally breathing on the back of my neck. "Do you mind?" I'll ask. They'll smile, say hello, try to shake my hand, I'll shake my head in complete and utter amazement, turn around, inch away from them precisely as they inch closer to me.


There are approximately zero crosswalks in Kampala. This leads to a game of virtual Frogger, as men, women, children, women with children, children with younger children, cattle, children with cattle, and domesticated animals with cattle cross busy intersections and highways at a snail's pace, as bodas and SUVs motor towards them at upwards of 60 miles per hour. People will pause in the middle of roads, averting death by inches, jump in front of semis, hoping cars will yield, direct traffic, languidly trot between police tanks, and then casually jaunt to the other side of the road as a vehicle's exhaust powders their face with acrid smoke. It is absolutely insane the chances these people take...and get away with. Insane in the membrane.


One of my favorite past times between dawn and dusk is sitting on my patio and counting how many times people stare at me as they make the twenty four strides between my gate and the front hedge of the compound. Seven is the record. The first glance I don't count, it's the double-take, eyes bulging-out-of-their-sockets glare that begins the count. Ugandans walk to and fro so slowly that the record is in perilous jeopardy. Just today a nun looked at me six times, pausing at one point as she pretended to think, before continuing ahead and out of sight. Whatever packs of students have been discussing becomes back page news the minute the 'mzungu, 11 o'clock' is spotted out of the corner of one's eyes. Sometimes, when feeling particularly prickly, I stare back, stand up and stare back, or ask them what they're looking at. I'm not proud of it.

African Time Redux

I lecture my students on punctuality, the importance of it in business and in life and the consequences of not keeping time. They still come to my office late, turn in papers late, hold meetings late, or don't come at all. Common excuses: malaria, rain, a combination of malaria and rain, being 'upcountry', not finding a taxi, not finding a boda, getting lost on a boda, assuming the meeting time is not punctual, assuming the meeting time is not serious, assuming the meeting is not serious, assuming I was not serious when I lectured them on punctuality....


In my syllabus, as part of my first-day speech, throughout the semester, I discussed the perils of plagiarism and its insidious duplicity. The students seem to be adherent, for the most part. But today, after shirking my class for the first eleven weeks, I received the final short story from a student we'll call Judy. The assignment: write an original short story of your choosing. An original short story. I guess I didn't stress this enough in class. Judy's original work was entitled: Hansel and Gretl. Her story follows two children lost in a forest where they happen upon an old woman who wants to fatten them up before swallowing them. Luckily, the boy, called Hansel, leaves crumbs on his way so a woodsman finds the siblings before it's too late. My comments at the end of her paper: Nice story. I loved it...when I read it 1983. See me after class.

Techniques for Communication

A Ugandan's most popular method for reaching another human being: flashing them. Don't be alarmed. This doesn't entail a mustached man in a raincoat or a webcam owned by someone named Mother Love Bone. Rather, it's the practice of dialing someone's number, waiting for them to answer, then hanging up. The message: Call me back. I don't have enough 'air time' to complete our conversation. But you must, right? Because you're you, and I'm me. Whenever I do this to them, they incredulously flash me back. It's a fun game which - like many other things - leads to nothing getting done. A week later, when we finally do meet face to face, the person always inquires as to the state of my cell phone. Is it damaged, were you upcountry, were you on a boda boda, you just hung up out of the blue. So strange.

This doesn't occur just with students. It occurs with my boss, his boss, his boss, her boss, members of parliament and, presumably, the president. On election night, when I was invited to sit in on a popular news radio broadcast, the co-hosts ran out of airtime and decided to flash candidates to initiate on-air interviews. Then the candidates began flashing the co-hosts. It was a game of mouse versus mouse. When the producer noticed me sitting idly in the back of the studio, he whispered something in Luganda to another producer. Before I knew it, they were asking me to use my phone to call one of the ministers up for re-election. Glad I could help, guys. You want me to spring for a couple pizzas too?


  1. love the ATM thing. that would make me insane.. but only bother you? of course.. that's culture, baby. ha ha.

  2. The Hansel ad Gretl story is the best.

  3. Little behind on my reading, but just wanted to let you know if you do visit Malawi, you'll feel right at home!