Lessons in Ugandan Formality or How I Was Elected Chairperson of a Baby Shower

Ugandan offices are exceedingly formal, and IDI is no exception. Our department of around 20 people holds a bi-weekly staff meeting that usually lasts around three hours and is rigorously governed by an elected chairperson. At my first meeting, I was elected chair for the next meeting.

Honestly I’m not sure if this was a sign of my popularity or if I was just fresh naïve meat. Whatever the case, I arrived for the next meeting with my most formal game face on. I had prepared opening remarks, including a few jokes, and had even made banana bread. The Chair controls almost all parts of Ugandan meetings. For example, if Person A had just presented an update, and Person B wanted to ask a question of Person A, Person B would look to me, the Chair, for permission to ask their question. Moreover, if anyone wanted to be excused from this three hour meeting, they had to come to me and whisper their excuse and ask permission to be excused. (Don’t worry, I always grant early excusals upon request.)

Me, trying to look formal, at the Office.

I felt that I was doing well in my debut as Chair, until we reached an agenda item entitled, “Heads of Department Remarks.” Reasonably, I said, “And now we will hear remarks from our Heads of Department.”

Silence.

I looked at the two heads of our department, and they looked back at me. I tried again, “Remarks from our Heads, please?”

Still nothing.

Ugandans have a much higher tolerance for silence than Americans do, so after what felt like a very long awkward pause, one of my colleagues leaned over and whispered, “You need to call on the deputy director for his comments first.” Ah, I had forgotten one key element of formality – hierarchy. This time I successfully said, “Deputy Director Dr. Umaru, would you please honor us with your remarks?” Dr. Umaru smiled and opened his remarks with, “Thank you madam chairperson.”

Despite my hierarchy faux pas, it seems that my reign was a huge success because at the end of the meeting my colleagues unanimously voted me Chair for the next meeting. I seriously even heard someone say, “Long live Faith as Chair!” Probably due to the banana bread. I chaired the next meeting, but politely turned down their nomination for a third term, citing the fact that I’m an American and therefore should serve “Obama and not Museveni Terms.” (Meaning the two-term American limit rather than the four terms and 26 years that the Ugandan president is currently serving.)

And this is how, a few weeks later, everyone decided that I would make the best chair for an impromptu Baby Shower for one of our colleagues. Thankfully after they realized that I couldn’t even pronounce the baby’s name, hierarchy trumped and one of my superiors Chaired.

Even small meetings often turn formal. A few weeks ago our Monitoring and Evaluation Team held a check-in meeting. Myself and three other females my age whom are some of my best friends around the office were there. I expected the meeting to be very quick, but to my surprise, one of my friends opened the meeting with a formal speech calling on all of us to continue working our hardest and using the word “whereby” often. She then asked us to submit topics for the agenda, which we all had to agree on before discussing each.

For an American, one of the hardest parts of acceding to this rigid formality is learning to be incredibly patient. No way around it, formalities take time – which is probably why Americans have largely done away with them. In my old office in the U.S. the most desirable quality of a meeting was brevity – people complained about anything over half an hour. One office group that I was a part of actually stopped meeting entirely because a superior decided that all we did was discuss the same items over and over. There must be some sort of happy medium out there – something between a three hour exchange of formalities and a half hour blitz where no real discussion takes place.

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