The limits of the written word

The wait is over. It’s time for a post about…cultural differences!!!

To start, let’s compare the same situation in two different contexts: ordering at a restaurant.  If you are eating at a restaurant in the US or almost anywhere else in the West, you will look at the menu and choose an entree that you want.  If you are torn between two, you might ask the server which one s/he recommends.

If you are eating at a restaurant in Uganda and you simply choose an entree from the menu, your server may very well tell you that item is not available.  So you’re better off if you were torn between two or three items, as there’s a chance at least one will be available.

BUT better still if you just ask the server what’s available today.  For one thing, it’s better to be pleasantly surprised at how many options you have than to be disappointed that the one entree you had your heart set on is not there. Moreover, it’s a much more reliable method.

To a Westerner, it seems absurd that  a restaurant would put something on its menu and then just not have it.  But to the Ugandan server, it probably seems absurd that someone would put so much faith in a laminated sheet of paper that was printed several months ago to tell them what the restaurant has TODAY.

At first glance, this might seem like an economic rather than cultural difference: maybe scarcity makes the availability of certain foods more volatile.  But this phenomenon exists even in more upscale restaurants that should have better access to foodstuffs.

I posit that the deeper difference is the level of trust placed in the written word.

In the West, text reigns supreme.  Although the internet might have undermined the trust that we put in anything we see written, it’s still clear from our expressions which forms of communication we consider reliable: Something of dubious credibility is “hearsay”. If you want to make sure someone makes good on a promise, you need to “get it in writing.”

In Uganda (and I would dare to guess elsewhere in Africa) the written word doesn’t seem to command as much respect or trust.  We could posit any number of reasons why this is the case: Perhaps the oral tradition and traditional reliance on the spoken words of elders is still deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric.  Perhaps widespread illiteracy (27.7% of Uganda’s population) makes text an unreliable form of communication at the societal level.  But whatever the causes, the effects of reduced textual authority are apparent.

For example, it’s not entirely accurate to say that the streets have no names; those names just aren’t posted on signs (except in areas frequented by expats who are more reliant on text for spatial orientation).  But if you ask a local, they will be able to tell you a name for that street (if you ask several locals, you may discover several names!).  Or consider public transportation: in the West, buses have route numbers or terminus points posted in the window or on electronic displays. Bus stops might even have printed schedules posted.

On the other hand, bus stops (or rather ‘taxi stages’) in Uganda might look like complete chaos to someone first observing them: there is no information posted anywhere, and all the taxis, whether inter- or intra-city look the same.  If you want to know which route a particular taxi plies, or where or when a taxi bound for your desired location will be coming, you have to…ask someone.  There is quite frankly no text you can consult.

In light of all this, I can’t help but wonder if international NGOs and aid agencies working to improve governance or fight corruption have missed the mark.  Too often, their work focuses on “the rule of law” which essentially means respecting written dicta. As you can imagine, I’m not sure how much resonance that will find in this culture.

In any case, if you’re planning to visit us, expect to do more talking than reading when you’re here!

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2 responses to “The limits of the written word

  1. Very insightful, David!! Thanks for this post.

    When I was working with Haitians in the D.R., I was quite startled to realize that these folks with an oral storytelling tradition could remember things word for word from special speeches of politicians they liked (Aristide in Haiti) or community activities I did with them. Better yet, they could remember them months or even years later!

    Folks who are literate don’t remember verbal exchanges that precisely. It always made me believe that the anthropologists who claim that stories were inevitably changed through generations are the ones who really get it wrong. They just don’t understand people who come from places where the spoken word is more important than the written word.

    Thanks for your blog(s), David!

  2. I like it that Faith and David are the authors of this wonderful Faith blog I am a Ugandan and I live by faith and not by sight. So David had Faith to take down Goliath. Actually I have to stand by the road side by faith that I will stop a vehicle to take me to town and by Faith it stops though fully packed Like I say it here but then I get on by faith standing all the way to town praying by faith that the traffic officer will not stop this vehicle. Then I make it to my place of work buy faith. I was told the walmart doors in the states open by faith but paying for the commodities is not by faith. its cash or card. But I have faith when I pray.
    Faith and David
    I Love you guys

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