Firsts with Africans

One of my favorite things is to be with Africans when they experience things for the first time.  This is one reason that my Global Health Corps (GHC) training at Yale with 34 Africans and 34 Americans was such an amazing experience.  I loved my African co-fellows impressions of these new things:

  • Riding in an airplane – One fellow thought the airplanes got into the air by driving up enormous ramps.
  • Bowling – One fellow tried to walk down the lane to throw the ball at the pins.
  • Driving down an East Coast freeway – “Everything is so orderly, do you ever get bored when you drive?”
  • People walking dogs – “I guess those small dogs are for friends not security?”
  • Eating at an American cafeteria – This was a painful lesson for some, who I saw eating strange combinations like pizza with peanut butter, yogurt, and tuna.  And the lack of rice or a heavy carb (which by definition is “food” in Luganda) at every meal was especially hard.
Experiencing new things with Ugandans in their very own country makes me especially happy. Unlike Americans, Ugandans do not have a culture of family vacations or college road trips, which means that even a short three hour trip will often be a remarkable experience for a Ugandan – placing them in a new land with people who do not speak their same tribal language or have the same traditions.  My co-fellow, Agnes, often tells me about the culture shock that she encounters when she travels ‘upcountry’ for work.
Last weekend we had our Quarter 1 GHC retreat in the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria. In 2004 when I studied abroad in Uganda I visited the islands, which meant that out of 18 people – including 8 Ugandans – I was the only one in our group who had ever been to the islands.

A: Entebbe to B: Ssese Islands

The trip started with a three hour ferry ride – a very exciting first for non-swimmers and those who hadn’t been on a boat before!  While I was doubled over in seasickness from the choppy waves of Lake Victoria, my sweet Ugandan friends were exclaiming about the open water, summoning their courage to stand next to the ferry’s edge, and snapping frenzied photos.

Me and friends on the ferry

We arrived at Kalangala Island and walked along the white sand beaches to the Ssese Island Beach Hotel where hot milk tea was waiting for us. We dropped our things in our rooms before enjoying a peaceful evening dining around a bonfire on the beach. And from there our wonderful weekend began. Saturday was filled with group discussions and breakout sessions, perfect for refocusing on our common goal of health equity. We also spent time splashing in the lake – a first for many.
The Americans definitely had some firsts as well.  We Americans were highly entertained by the troupes of monkeys around the hotel. One cheeky little guy actually swung down and stole an unwitting fellow’s toast and pineapple when she stepped away from her breakfast – definitely a first experience for us.

The monkey thief waiting to capture another person's breakfast!

We all enjoyed ourselves immensely, the food was especially fabulous – fresh fruit and omelettes for breakfast, whole fried tilapia for lunch, and grilled meat with curried vegetables for dinner. Our rooms were a long hike up the hill from the beach, but that meant they had a breathtaking view of Lake Victoria. Everything was neat and clean (no bed bug bites this time!).

A whole fried fish with chips for lunch - I didn't eat the head..

My favorite though was experiencing the beauty of the islands with the Ugandans – two of whom kept singing “Uganda is Blessed.” My hope is that more Ugandans will get the chance to experience their own country – not only for the tourism revenue that this would generate but also for the pride in one’s country that domestic travel engenders.

The white sand beaches of Ssese!


One response to “Firsts with Africans

  1. So well-written, Faith. I remember taking a ride on a huge ferry in Seattle with the Africans who came to our conference, and the man from Burundi who told me, “This is like magic! Now I have seen this boat with my own eyes and I can go back to my country and tell my people that the magic is real!” What a wonderful way to experience the world. It was so great to have you home this last weekend!

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