The art of conversation…before leaving for Uganda, I had a conversation with my supervisor, who spoke about how she often attempted to engage people in random conversation in Victoria, BC. She would chat with the teller at the grocery store, the person in front and behind her in line, and try to draw multiple people into the conversation. The strange part is that it took effort. It was a conscious decision on her part to converse with the people around her. She is an incredibly kind, social, warm person, and usually had positive responses from people. But for most people living in North America, we have forgotten how to engage in the act of random conversation. During our pre-departure training, we discussed how time is perceived differently for many people living on the continent of Africa – in North America, we are task oriented, driven by checklists, by accomplishing tasks, and by moving sequentially through the things that we need to do. Our effectiveness is judged according to how efficient we are. In contrast, we were told that for the majority of Africa, many people place more importance on developing and maintaining relationships with people. Conversing with people is as important as checking the next thing off your list and social ties trump going through tasks sequentially. (As a caveat, there are differences within both North America and Africa, as you move from more urban to more rural settings). Speaking to friends about living in rural settings in Uganda, or going to visit family during the holidays, they have explained that it can take a day to go greet everyone in the community and you arrive back home stuffed from being fed by all of your neighbours. If you don’t go to greet your neighbours, you will most likely be judged. Alternatively, someone told me that if you are in a rush in rural Uganda, you need to either plan your route (to avoid certain houses that you know take longer to greet), leave early, or show up late as you know that you’ll have to stop and greet every house along the way.
When I arrive at work, it takes a good half hour to fully say hello to everyone at work. The conversations with each staff member usually start the following questions:
How are you?
How is your morning?
How was the night?
How is here?
How is there?
How is your family?
How is your home?
And, depending on the answers, you ask other things. Building relationships with co-workers has been the sweetest experience, and one that I wouldn’t have done if I had gone in with a super professional, North American attitude. Small talk and random conversation is a live and well, compared to back home, where we face much more social isolation and individualistic motives. You don’t strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside you on the bus, you put your headphones on. You don’t chat with the person in line in front of you, you check your phone. My initial reaction when a random person speaks to me back home is usually mild suspicion – especially if it goes over anything more than the obligatory “how are you”. If someone you don’t know says “Hi” to you, it’s often to sell something. And, as a woman, I often avoid eye contact to also avoid engaging with slightly creepy men.
Over the past 6 months, I have made friends with servers at local cafes and restaurants, owners of market stalls, and random people around town – all of this facilitated by people generally being friendly and open to conversation here. People in Jinja are open to becoming your friend. And it’s a beautiful thing. As I write this, it’s my last full day in Uganda. I will spend lots of time today saying goodbye to the sweet people I’ve met here. I am so grateful for learning from people here how to greet people, how to show people you care, how to be open to conversation, and how to place value and importance on relationships with people around you.