I can’t think of one aspect of living in Uganda that feels odd to me now. I can bathe from a bucket, go without electricity, find no water when I turn on the faucet and sleep soundly under a mosquito net. I anticipate sights of people working along the road, always busy and hustling to earn the days meal. I enjoy babies tied to mama’s backs by blankets while little ones toddle alongside keeping up during her commute. Boda drivers haul any household item you can imagine on the back of the motorbike. I’ve seen an entire dining room set piled up and roped tight. Their driving snakes between trucks and vans and it no longer make me gasp to be in city traffic. Bicycles also transport items of ridiculous proportion. And I know that time is not kept here.
Usually as I walk along the path from my apartment to the children’s home I encounter as many as twenty people in a short five minute walk. It is always safest to be where there are people around. In this area they are used to seeing a Mzungu. Not once this trip did someone holler at me in surprise, “mzungu” as I would do if I spotted a leopard in a tree. Neighbors are polite to us and passby with a hello and a wave. Children shyly grin and stare. I always feel safe, welcome, secure and confident.
The first walk we took with Mary Beth on the path to the children’s home we had to turn the corner around a house that is being built and follow a path to the road. It is an open and commonly used path. There were a dozen or so men hanging around, construction workers. One offered some of his food to us in a cheeky manner and as we said, “no thank you” they all burst into a raucous, taunting, harassing sort of laughter. As we passed it did not feel friendly. It was slightly intimidating and it made me angry. Before I reached the road I whipped around pointed my mama finger at them all, stared with my angry eyes and shouted a firm “NO”. Immediately it was silent. Satisfied I had stopped the bad behavior we continued to the house. I reported to Robert what they did and he told me these men disturb our girls every day inviting them to go inside and be their baby. Now that was it.
I asked Robert to return with me so I could give them a piece of my mind. He gently yet firmly in his best Robert manners explained to the men they had offended us with their laughter. They all lied of course and acted innocent. I scolded them for using bad manners with us and requested they treat us with respect. Then I got on their case about our girls. I told them to not say one word to these girls because their teasing scares them. I warned these men that our girls travel with pepper spray in their purse and if they are to scare our girls the spray will blind their eyes. I promised the girls are not afraid to use it. I suggested it was best to leave our girls alone. They were surprised, thoughtful and then they apologized. It was clear we got their attention so we said thank you and goodbye.
Since that occasion I have waved, smiled and said hello and they have all used good manners or ignored us. What I did was highly unusual. Julie said, “oh those men, we just ignore.” Irene was giving counseling sessions while this was occurring and she was aware of my actions. Mary Beth reported to me a few days later how significant my confidence was as a model for her. Where she was feeling fearful as a foreigner out in public, she was inspired by my expectations of the good manners all Ugandans have been taught. This is an extremely polite society so their behavior was inexcusable. Mary Beth said that my action gives her confidence here and she will ask Robert to help her communicate if she ever has a problem.
Yesterday Irene told me a story of how she was at the hospital representing a young girl with heart problems. Kirabo Seeds is seeking to assist this girl in getting the care she needs. Irene saw a significant discrepancy in the billing. She was afraid to confront the big accounting office at Mulago hospital but she remembered my courage with the men and so she politely and firmly confronted them. She pursued the matter for over an hour until they refunded Kirabo Seeds. They tried so hard to intimidate her into leaving the matter or tricking her that it was something it was not. Irene had photographed all the receipts with her phone so she had proof. (love her!) I have taught everyone in this organization that we are working with God’s money and it is handled with perfect care without exception. I was very proud of her to pursue what is right.
Courage is contagious. There’s no need to become hot tempered or impatient with people when there’s a conflict. However we have a choice about how we allow people to interact in our personal space. There is a no nonsense rule about disrespecting me in my presence. In my home if one of my boys or Kira DARE disrespect me it is high treason. They know. I don’t care how important you are or who you think you are I won’t tolerate it from a construction worker or a celebrity. I have always found if I confront these matters in the moment they happen I can prevent future problems. If I let them go they only get worse. I will share a secret about the source of my courage. I have been learning to ride a horse for three years. A horse respects consistent expectations. If I let him get away with little things he will take advantage of me with bigger issues so my trainer taught me to be consistent whenever in the saddle and he will respect me and then we’ll get along just fine. For my safety it is critical that the horse obey every request I make or he will learn to ignore me and do as he pleases which could be a buck, a rear or a bolt. I simply transfer this communication consistency and fair expectations into every day life, whether I am in the US or here in Uganda. It works for me, perhaps it will work for you.