It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve only been in Uganda for 4.5 days. It feels more like a year, but I’ve discovered that tends to be the way of it when you’re in a new place and constantly bombarded by new sights, sounds, and smells all day. Meeting new people is more tiring than you’d think, and when those new people have an entirely different culture than you, complete with a different way of speaking, greeting each other, and interacting, you find yourself on constant alert. You try to soak everything in and learn it all at once so that you can interface with people as naturally and appropriately as possible. Add starting a new job on your first full day in a new city, and you’ve got me: tired, worn out, slightly shell-shocked, and blissfully happy.
It would be difficult to describe to you how I came to feel so at home here so quickly. Indeed, looking back, it’s difficult to explain to myself. It might have something to do with how people greet each other here. Whether you’re a stranger or an old friend, it’s very much the same. People clasp hands, or arms, or hug, and they maintain the contact for at least a full 60 seconds, all the while inquiring about your health, family, travels, and work. I’m learning Acholi greetings right now, and there are a ton of them because people are constantly greeting each other and asking after each others’ health. When I walked into what would be my home for the next six months for the first time, I think I heard “you are most welcome” about 50 times. That routine was then repeated on my first day at work. People say it all the time, to everyone. When I came home from work today, I was greeted with “Emi! Hello, you are welcome.” For someone who is as comfortable with personal connection and loves hugs as much as I do, this is heaven.
It might also have something to do with the people I’m living with. Pamela Angwech is the matriarch of the household, the executive director of GWED-G (where I work), and a total bad-ass. She’s one of the strongest, warmest, most capable people I have ever met. She has a way of making you totally terrified of her and 100% comfortable around her at the same time. She inspires incredible loyalty. Her nephew, Prince, who lives with us, is the most charming 5 year old you could ever meet, with just enough mischievousness to keep life interesting. The people at work act like a family. They play and joke and laugh and support each other constantly. The are the best of friends, and the club isn’t exclusive. If you’re there and you work hard, you’re included. The best part is that they aren’t just family, they are an incredibly talented family. Everyone is so wise and skilled and experienced that they leave me in awe. I’ve already learned a huge amount, and I’ve only been to work for 3 days. I think my head might explode from the awesomeness after 6 months.
Then again, it could be the physical beauty of my environment. The red earth and all-encompassing green go together in perfect harmony. Long-horned cattle graze lazily by the side of the road as I walk the 5 minutes to work. People pass with a gentle “apwoyo” (casual greeting), and the sun sheds a soft light over the whole scene. It takes my breath away. The office is settled in a spacious courtyard where people are always coming and going past the baby blue gate.
Pamela has selected an Acholi name for me in honor of starting my culture and language lessons tomorrow. I am Aber, pronounced “abey”, which means ‘beautiful one.’ It’s fitting, I think, because I feel beautiful here. Happiness and fulfilling work coupled with the best of company and good friends is always a recipe for someone who radiates joy. I won’t act like there weren’t a few moments of discomfort or awkwardness. There were times I felt very alone without my traveling companions, and I was nervous. But overall, that’s how I feel these days, radiating. Uganda has that effect on me, I guess.