Monday, January 9, 2012

First Reflection

First Impressions

During our trip the study teams of American and Ugandan students will be asked to conduct reflection sessions on what we are learning and experiencing, then post something about the session to this blog.  As we complete our two days of orientation and begin to turn towards our subject matter, the trip leaders conducted the first session about their initial impressions of Uganda, each other, and the trip.  We asked them to write something about what they have been experiencing, and we encouraged them to discuss things that made them uncomfortable, as well as those things that surprised them. The subjects they chose to reflect upon were varied, ranging from their impressions of their foreign counterparts, to the structure of activities, to the impact of sudden immersion in a foreign culture, to what struck, them, positively or negatively, about what they have seen so far.

Reading their reflections prompted us to think more about the purposes of study abroad.  Our hope is that in addition to learning about Health and Education here in Uganda, they will begin to develop strong bonds with their foreign counterparts, and they will begin to think more deeply about Ugandan culture and society in general. We hope they will be able to apply their experiences to other contexts and continue appreciating cultural differences even in their respective home communities. Lastly, we anticipate that they will be able to learn something about themselves through examining their own reactions to this trip – both the positive and negative ones.  We have collected the students' written responses and plan to return to them at the end of the trip to see how their thoughts and perceptions have changed by then.

Here are some excerpts from their written reflections:

    I was thinking that Americans would be reserved, that was just a bad thought.  They are very expressive and cooperative guys and ladies.  Thanks be to God I got this chance to meet good and interesting people.
    The Americans seemed happy to be around. I loved the cultural night, it was great for me.  Americans are friendly and open.
    More welcoming and kind than I would have thought.  Came in thinking there would be more hostility or apprehension against Muzungu [whites] because of all the research, colonialism, etc.  I saw a little of this in the market but that was a very business, money making environment.
    Wow!  What an experience we have had thus far.  Throughout this weekend I have continually been reminded of Professor Burnham's remark that only 5% of the population lives in Kampala.  I feel like I have seen millions of people and have almost been overwhelmed by observing their daily routines and activities.  One thing in particular that has struck me so far is the public nature of daily life.  Everything is so open and happens right on the street.  As I expected, children roam freely and often without accompaniment.
    My impression of Uganda in general has been almost too overwhelming to put into words.  It could be that I've been to developing areas/countries before, but just driving in the city and to and from places have felt somewhat familiar, but also different.  It was very unexpected at how much traffic and people and fumes there were in the streets.  Also, although I may have expected it, I was very struck by the amount and presence of poverty near the city and when we visited [a band member's] home, even seeing what was on the way to his home.
    The last few days have definitely been packed with activities, and have gone by in no time.  They were almost too packed for my liking.  I noticed that initially, I am a person who enjoys observing rather than talking, before I feel like I have gotten a "feel" for a situation or an area.  If I had structured the last few days myself, I would have probably minted myself to fewer activities, each lasting a longer amount of time.  I'm happy that we are on such a fast-track schedule, though, because in a way, life in many ways, especially in the US and Europe is much more like this and fast-paced.  Also, this structure is forcing me to find new strategies to take up information faster, rather than sticking to my "observe, then engage" way of encountering new situations.
    I came to Uganda expecting an isolated culture and a not-so-developed landscape that poses health hazards.  However, my first impression when meeting the locals and Makerere students was that Ugandan culture was filled with warm greetings and loving, personal gestures.  Even my first reaction upon seeing the dusty Ugandan roads mixed with patches of lush vegetation was a daze, as the paths looked rustic and had a magical aura about them, rather than a fearful appearance.  Overall, my reactions and impressions of Uganda after entering this beautiful country are much more positive than my previous beliefs. 
    At first I was incredibly surprised at the closeness that seemed to be established almost immediately upon meeting the Hopkins students as well as the Makerere students.  It surprised me because I rarely have this kind of sentiment with people I have just met; I used to think these kinds of close and genuine relationships could only be formed after knowing a person for a long time.
    Right now I'm honestly not sure how I feel or how I should feel.  The first few days in Uganda have been kind of overwhelming -- the immediate cultural immersion has been beyond stimulating.  Uganda is definitely not what I expected it to be.  My expectations are difficult to express in words, but the scenery, the people and the culture are so different and foreign that they constantly pique my interest.  I can already begin to feel as though this experience will shape who I am and ground me with a sense of global and cultural perspective.
    I thought I knew what poverty meant, and I was expecting to experience a familiar environment in Uganda.  Although there are some similar aspects between [my country] and Uganda, I was still surprised to see the extent of poverty here, and the bad living conditions in which people live. 
    The first meeting was a total surprise.  I was happy that I was able to identify my academic theme mates.  I too was surprised with the high level of socialization within the American team, thus everyone wanted to speak to me and all the fears about the accent that have vanished (I have been able to cope).  I was pleased to find out that many people are from different parts of the world, which I didn't expect in the first place.  Very interesting questions were involved and the rate of adaptation was really high.  My team surprised me with the high levels of interaction in the market. 
    From the very start I was really impressed and touched by the level of hospitality that shown to us by the Ugandans.  It was really nice to always be greeted with a smile and a hug.  Initially I was thrown off by this because I didn't expect all of the warmth due to the way most Americans interact with foreigners, in a cold and distant way.  It really made me realize that while Uganda may still be developing they are much further ahead of the US in many ways.  The fact that everyone we came into contact with was warm and invited was truly refreshing and very touching.  I hope that I can internalize this and use this as a guide that I will follow through life.
    I did not expect Americans to be social like they are.  I had a feeling that Johns Hopkins students would be feelers but am surprised.  I expected to incur expenses but surprisingly not.  I have come to realize that I am stubborn and talkative.  I feel so blessed to interact with people I had never expected to meet.  So far I have no expectation that is not met.
    I feel blessed that I am a Ugandan and that I have been given a chance to share the cultural beauty and diversity of my country.  For example yesterday during the Ndere cultural presentation the show was very good.  It portrayed our cultural diversity -- every song and dance had a story to tell.  A story that I could possibly not put in words.  I hope the JHU students got it.  I hope they see in these various trips and excursions we've made and are yet to make the spirit of Uganda.
    I have kept wondering what these two weeks would be like, at least I knew it wouldn't be about Children and HIV only, though I still did not know what else; I tell myself, "just have fun." I am impressed we have other interests in culture, family of late.  I hope HIV will come into the picture after Rakai.
    My impression of Americans was that they wouldn't want to be so close to us, like share bedrooms with us and everything else, but that's not the case, actually they are really nice people and so curious, they are open to us and can ask about anything so that's great.  I think if they were to stay longer, it wouldn't be a bad idea, it would be more interesting and I for one would like them to visit my family.
    I tried to have as few expectations as I possibly could so that I could take first impressions in with a positive attitude as soon as I could.  One situation where I did have an expectation was at the Owino market because I have been to several markets before and had a mental picture of how I thought it would be.  But I could never have expected what was to come.  I thought the experience of the market was one of the most chaotic, crazy and ridiculous experiences of my life.  I have never had my personal space invaded so much or had so much sensory overload.  I'm so glad I had this eye-opening experience, though because it was so far from anything familiar, and that is one of my bigger goals during this journey: to be exposed to unfamiliar experiences and assess how I deal with them, and reflect on what I can improve on and deal with well.
    How nice everyone is, how crowded, how much stuff they are selling, how many babies and toddlers, good food, drivers are crazy.  I was surprised at how crowded Kampala was.  I know the population growth rate was through the roof, but it was unbelievable to see the amount of people, especially the amount of babies and toddlers.  It was also crazy to see how many stores there were.  It seemed like everyone was selling something.   Kampala made me think of New York City in a developing country.
    While we rode from Entebbe to the Ndere Center, I was a little surprised by the landscape.  The shell of charcoal or singed hair and smoke hit me and [a colleague] said she loved it.  But it seemed to choke me.  And at the same time, it reminded me of the fresh warmth of a furnace burning ash and oak.  Stoking that furnace had been my chore in Vermont when I spent a semester studying on a farm.  I had seen Museveni's face plastered to pillars outside Entebbe airport, and again on billboards along the road.  The sky was not dark, as I'd expected, stars were not too numerous, and the single road was not bumpy or rugged like the BMAs (Bloody Miles of Africa) Gilbert had described.

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