“Freaky Friday” in Uganda means understanding

Peace-thumbnailOne would have had to be a part of our class to understand why, on one blue winter evening, our language instructor arrived with big, plastic bags full of various pairs of colorful shoes.

Our reclusive classroom, a small conference room tucked into a forgotten basement corner of an Anthropology building, reflected the tone of the group. We were seven students about to embark on a study abroad program to Uganda, and we had spent these past weeks bonding and learning Luganda from Peace, a Ugandan native.

“Osiibye otyanno nnyabo,” she would continuously repeat for our untrained ears, and then she would laugh in good humor as we all tried to pronounce this Luganda greeting. As it was a public health program, the room was full of pre-med and science junkies, which made adjusting to Uganda’s culture and language interesting at times.

Peace was a Northwestern law student studying international human rights, something I both admired and envied. Also impressive was that neither Luganda – one of many dialects in Uganda – nor English was her first language.

It was a basic class, but not only did we have different first languages, we were used to different learning and teaching styles. It felt like a moment of beautiful cross-cultural connection each time a particular miscommunication or mispronunciation could be worked out.

I was bewildered but not altogether surprised when Peace showed up with this vibrant assortment of shoes. As she handed each of us a few pairs, she asked if we would take them to Uganda for her sister.

The easiness in the situation betrayed a cultural difference. American culture often involves a sort of cordiality and distance in relations which can be cold and disconnected, while Ugandan culture emphasizes a community bond and a directness that some might find too frank. The lack of community relations in the United States was one cultural difference Peace bemoaned.

Another cultural nuance Peace struggled with? Chips.

Laughing freely, Peace described trials in American sandwich shops when she would ask for chips and would get “crisps.” In Uganda, what Americans call “French fries” are called “chips.”

The day came when I arrived in Uganda for my experiences in a different culture. I finally began to appreciate Peace’s many adjustments, which had been hard, even with her stories of assimilation, to fully appreciate. The mentality in the class was never “her” and then “us.” She melted into us, our cultures bled together, and our bonding over language made us all allies in this global world.

I vividly remember an occasion during the trip when I visited the home of a Ugandan for an Easter dinner celebration. There was this certain moment when I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of this beautiful, open home with a room full of Ugandans, all of us with plates piled high with traditional Ugandan food such as matooke, a boiled banana dish.

Everyone was either busily eating or talking in Luganda too fast for me to pick up, so I had looked momentarily at the TV, which was playing the American movie “Freaky Friday.” There was this moment as I took my eyes off the screen and surveyed my surroundings when I felt so strange and lost. I felt straddled between two worlds. It is a sensation not easily described, and it was one of those intense momets during the trip when I understood how it felt to live in a different place.

When the other Northwestern students and I briefly met Peace’s sister to hand over the shoes, I was not surprised by how friendly and energetic she was. We talked of Kampala’s night life, Peace, and what we thought of Uganda. It was funny in a way, being half way around the world and on the reverse side of a relationship with someone so very much like Peace.

I often thought of Peace and our wonderfully informal class meetings, filled with laughter and bad attempts on Luganda pronunciations. It was a delightfully uninhibited environment, filled with people just trying to adjust to a new place and find a better way to understand each other.

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