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Muzungu to Ugandan: 50 Steps to Becoming an Honorary Citizen

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Posted Aug. 22, 2017

The other day, I received the greatest compliment since I've been in Uganda. After hanging up the phone with my driver in a van full of secondary-level girls, one of the girls told me, "You speak like an African." Mind you, the whole 30-second conversation between Kunde and I had been in all English.

As you can imagine, the Africans speak their own version of broken English. Most times, it's easier to get your point across and to be more clearly understood when you speak in that broken English as well (I'm finding Americans use too many pointless words, anyway).

This simple compliment spoken by a girl who gave it no second thought, I'm sure, made me stop and consider the slight transformations two month in the African bush of Uganda has brought. Following that compliment, a few other Ugandans tried to convince me that I'm now one of them. And I do consider this country my second home.

Becoming an honorary Ugandan is no small feat, however. Looking back, I can pinpoint special moments that brought about this new unofficial citizenship. For all of you in America lustfully wishing to join the Honorary Citizens of Uganda Club, I've created a list of requirements for admission. At least three of these recommendations are from native citizens themselves.

  1. Eat beans and posho with your hands. A fork is okay, too, but to truly experience the Ugandan lifestyle, you need to eat at least once like a local.
  2. Understand that "on African time" is 30 minutes to an hour later than originally planned. Don't be in a hurry, chances are you'll still be waiting on someone when you get there an hour late.
  3. Get to the Nile. Whether that be on boat, kayak, raft or board. You've got to see the views.
  4. Take a giraffe selfie. It is recommended that you do this while on safari at Murchison Falls National Park.

Giraffe selfieGiraffe selfie!

  1. Learn some Luo. At least be able to say, "Hi, how are you?" "I am well." "My name is…" For pointers, see my previous post. They'll love you for it.
  2. Sing Lion King soundtracks while on safari. This is just a given. If you've seen it (which you should have), it just comes naturally.
  3. See an elephant on the side of the road. Do this while praying it doesn't decide your vehicle is intruding on its territory and charge you in defense.
  4. Get bitten by a mosquito. You don't even have to try for this one. It's a gimme.
  5. Visit a Ugandan medical clinic. Preferably, you wouldn't have to do this, but it's an experience for sure. I'll be glad to be back in a U.S. doctor's office.
  6. Play omweso on the street corner. This is the best way to learn and also the best way to make surefire friends who will wave every time you pass by afterwards.
  7. Ride a bota. Asking for forgiveness, Steve … It is recommended you only do this in the northern cities and NOT in Kampala/Entebbe. Your likelihood of living is much higher.
  8. Get your hair plated. Aka, braided, but in African style by professionals (the best platers are aged 12 and under).
  9. Eat chips and guacamole. Don't be fooled – American chips and Ugandan chips are not the same. Think fries. When ordering, clarify by asking for Irish chips. WARNING: This is liable to become your staple meal when eating in a restaurant or café. It may not do much for your figure.
  10. Drink fresh passion juice. Just do it, and thank me later.
  11. Chapatti. Tortillas take on a whole new meaning (PS – this one is better).
  12. Utilize a mosquito net. For more information, refer to #8. Also, refer to the U.S. Department of State travel warnings (m-a-l-a-r-i-a).
  13. Use a hand hoe to till a garden. This will burn off all the carbs you've ingested while in Uganda (bye, bye #13) and also cause you to question the purpose of the small "hoes" found in America.

Restoration Gateway seedbedA Restoration Gateway seedbed hand-hoed by yours truly with Ryan. This bed took us an hour to clear and hoe, and it had to be re-hoed the next week.

  1. Harvest soybeans with no gloves. Have your Neosporin on-hand for afterwards, and be amazed at the true Ugandan farmer next to you working twice as fast and twice as painless.

Walter at the Barlonyo schoolWalter at the Barlonyo school with the soybeans we would eventually harvest.

  1. Harvest g-nuts. G-nuts = peanuts. This isn't as painful as soybeans, but pulling them out of the ground is still a great workout and followed by social time pulling the nuts of the stem.
  2. Have a Stoney. The Ugandan ginger ale that's 10 times the typical Canada Dry.
  3. Eat some pineapple. It's just better in Uganda. Trust me.
  4. Get chased by a Cape buffalo. When the Cape buffalo is walking toward you while on foot, it is not giving you a warm Ugandan welcome … Standing by and waiting to pet it is not exactly advised. When it starts running, it is best to also start running, preferably to the nearest elevated space in which the Cape buffalo will not fit. The stories are worth the slight panic. Also, I need to send my apologies to my partners in crime for bearing our secret, and also to "The Adults" who will be hearing of this for the first time.
  5. Wave in response to, "Muzungu, HI!" It's worth the smile and laughter, and responding with "Apoyo" gets you bonus points.
  6. Receive a Langi name from some Lango sisters. Mine is Okello (as is 90 percent of the Ugandan population). It means "peace bringer." Find some good Ugandan family (it won't be hard), and they'll have you named before too long.
  7. Get offered free land and/or mud hut in trade for you staying "forever." Multiple times. From 1 acre to 50 … My recommended response is, "I'll call you when I get back!" They typically promise that the offer will still stand.
  8. Get lost in the African bush, and wait on someone to meet you to give you directions. This is just good practice in the patience-gene. You'll have a lot of that. Running late? Don't stress. Refer to #2.
  9. "Take tea" in the late morning/early afternoon in a mud hut with a thatch roof. This will be loose-tea, not bagged.
  10. Typically occurs with four to 10 Ugandan friends to gossip and take a break. It is not unusual to enjoy some chapatti (#15) during this time, too.
  11. Dance with some babies to Luo gospel music. This one is a personal favorite. Prepare to experience ultimate joy while doing so.
  12. Live life with no power. For unknown reasons at random times, experience life without power. No charging and, even worse, no fans.
  13. Walk two miles to town and two miles back. It's good for your cardiac health, and also there's no better way to see the sights, hear the sounds and meet new friends to walk with you.
  14. Walk through the town market. Don't worry, chances are they're just staring at your weird clothes … (right). Also, don't be afraid to barter when they ask 20,000 UGX more than appropriate to purchase your item.
  15. Buy African material to have some African-wear tailored just for you. Know what style you want, and then prepare to be amazed. Also, it's recommended that you wear this to church and receive multiple compliments on looking Ugandan.
  16. Walk to church in the rain, barely escaping downpour. This is just good for the soul.
  17. Have a dance party with 50 orphans. You'll pick up some new moves to take back to your friends!
  18. Play patty-cake with the school children. You'll have to instruct them at first, but they catch on quick. This is a much better alternative to them sitting and staring at you for 45 minutes.
  19. Plant a garden with Ugandan women. You won't know what they're saying 80 percent of the time, but you'll quickly catch on to the instructions and who is in charge. Also, it's just a really good exercise to be welcomed into the family.
  20. Purchase movies for 50 cents from the video store in town. You have about a 7 in 10 chance that the movie will play most of the way through and that it will be the one you actually intended to purchase. Movie roulette!
  21. Eat some freshly harvested g-nuts. After harvesting them, you'll have an appreciation for the hand roasting and salting that occurred to make them oh so delicious.
  22. Answer questions about your marital-status continually. "Bring your husband." "No husband?" "We will pray for you and husband." "God will provide husband, don't worry." "24? Not married? Ah! I will pray for you." "Bring boyfriend and marry in Uganda." "You will be married when you go home?" "God will bring husband."… Get it?
  23. Enjoy some true African coffee. Most places will have the Nestle instant coffee – please forego. French press, African Arabica coffee. Also, please purchase every bag you see for when you return.

Ryan and his three Ugandan lovesRyan and his three Ugandan loves: French press, omweso and a PATH Center cinnamon roll.

  1. Receive a live chicken and white-ants as an appreciation gift, and take them home with you riding in the car. I'll preface this with my own personal tidbit – I'm deathly afraid of chickens and have been since I was 5. When the wonderful women give you a LIVE chicken, only secured by having its legs tied together, don't panic. Kindly default to your driver to receive the chicken and place it in the back of the van. Also, elect to sit shotgun and make Agnes ride between you and the chickens, lest they get any ideas. (Needless to say, Agnes got to take two chickens home as opposed to one.)
  2. Praise God with a child-led worship choir. Jesus told us to be like the children, and you'll experience it firsthand here.
  3. Buy some street crafts. Paper-bead necklaces, papaya wallets, hand-painted cards, beaded bracelets – get some memorabilia for the awesome people at home.
  4. Draw and doodle with some aspiring little artists (provide the pen and paper). Whether this be during an agriscience training or during the church service, they'll love every minute of it.
  5. LEAD a Luo worship service. Even if you're terrible at singing and have a newfound fear of singing in front of people – do it anyways. You'll realize it's all about worshipping God anyways and no one even heard you mess up those three lines and sing off key.
  6. Make friends who don't speak the same language. Love knows no bounds.
  7. Learn to prioritize relationships over time. Will what you're rushing to do really be more important than the person in front of you in 10 years?
  8. Learn to share. They have hardly enough food to feed their family every day, yet you show up and receive tea and posho and beans and greens. And they even slaughtered the chicken (that you saw walking around when you showed up) in your honor for lunch. It doesn't matter how little you have, all that matters is how much you're willing to give.
  9. Learn to love like Jesus. They truly live that "love your neighbor" bit. If you didn't know how to do that before, sit back and watch. You'll learn fast.
  10. Fall in love with the Pearl of Africa. No instructions needed. This one comes naturally.
About the Author

Alexa Major is a 2017 MIAP-Noble Fellow serving in agricultural development roles in Uganda. Major is from Fowler, Colorado, and is a student in the Master of International Agriculture Program at Oklahoma State University, where she focuses on business and rural development. This fellowship is sponsored in part by the Noble Research Institute.

Alexa Major
2017 MIAP-Noble Fellow