I just erased what I had written. Apparently blogging this is more difficult than I thought it was going to be! I had written bullet points summarizing the history of Uganda and Jinja. There is much to be said, written about, and discussed. I could write about how Uganda has been a site of religious contestation between Muslims, Catholic and Protestant missionaries. I could discuss how the British colonised Uganda, using indirect rule to ensure that their commercial interests were well-served. I could spend time writing about the different kingdoms that existed in the region and their cultural and political structures. I could speak about the lingering impacts of the British annexing several different ethnic groups and kingdoms into one country, with no consideration of cultural/linguistic/political differences.
While helpful to ground contemporary realities within historical context, whatever I wrote, however, seemed inadequate and broad. It seemed to fail to capture anything beyond the basics. I didn’t know where to start, where to end, and how to move beyond scratching the surface. And so, instead, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the complexity and dynamism of social and global relations and affirm my desire to seek out and bear witness to the people and places that are less well known to me.
Upon telling people that I was going to Uganda, the most common response was to confirm that that was where Idi Amin, the infamous dictator, had ruled. Usually, that was the extent of people’s knowledge about Uganda. And it makes sense. In Canada, Uganda is not a country that we hear about on the news regularly or have learnt about in school. It is a place that is seemingly far away, disconnected, different, and dangerous.
When we think about things that are seemingly far away and incomparable to our own lives, however, it can be easy to fall on generalizations and stereotype. Even if done unintentionally, we draw on the few images we have seen (in this case the poor ‘Africa’ from World Vision commercials and LiveAid, the sweeping landscapes and wildlife of Planet Earth documentaries, and the odd World News story of conflict), to help make sense of things. With our collective lack of exposure, Uganda can quickly become just another place in Africa, and, very quickly, Africa – the second largest continent with 54 countries – can become a homogenous place full of wild, spectacular animals, a place devoid of human settlement, and a ‘country’ that has fallen victim to civil strife, poverty, famine, corruption and disease. And the more that these common themes are repeated and reinforced, the more they appear to be real tropes.
It is not that these stories we know of “Africa” are wrong (although some have been), but that they are incomplete, simplified, singular, and often devoid of broader context and interrelations. These pervasive but limiting depictions of ‘Africa’ do no justice to the diversity that is present here.
People here are just like people back home, in so far as they are all different. This evening, while waiting for my rolex (a omelette wrapped in a chapati) and adding air time to my phone, I met a Pastor, a born-again Christian, who was convinced that I needed to be saved and accept Jesus as my saviour. He wanted to come to Canada to preach the Gospel. The woman I bought the rolex from was not enthused by his diatribe and described the Pastor as crazy. This morning I was stared at by a toddler (my presence almost made her cry) and was followed by other children who laughed at me. This afternoon I was greeted by a gramma, and ignored by many others. I have never shaken so many hands, or been asked so consistently how my day is going. Each of these people that I meet have a different life story and have experienced the history of Uganda differently. I can’t summarize the history of Uganda because whatever I say, I will be leaving other parts out. My desire is not to summarize, pathologize, theorize or explain, but rather to acknowledge my privilege, my role within the global economic structure, and observe and hear the multiple, heterogeneous and complex stories of individuals.