I still haven’t found what I’m waiting for (in Uganda)

 Potential visitors are being tempted with “Pearl of Africa”, ”the best climate on earth” and “the most friendly people you would ever meet” slogans. Source of the Nile, fascinating Murchison Falls, snow right on the equator and exceptionally rare mountain gorillas are used as a bargaining chip, too. Decades after civil war and brutal dictatorship, thanks to relatively stable political situation and effective marketing strategy, tourism brings currently over a million visitors a year.

Few years ago I was embarking on a trip to Uganda driven by concern and prejudice. It was my first travel to Sub-Saharan Africa and some people told me I was getting slightly insane. One would hope for great safaris and amazing landscapes. But it was not widely expected to encounter so much human warmth, optimism and sense of humor in the heart of the so-called “Dark Continent”. To the surprise of many, finding that joy was the only culture shock I went through.


Once you rest your feet on the Ugandan soil – you instantly become “mzungu”. This term in suahili means “white man or a man wondering without purpose”, and it is widely used in eastern African countries with slight name modifications. You can introduce yourself a hundred times, can plead, beg or threaten and the result is still the same – you are “mzungu”, by default. Before coming to Uganda my mother warned me that I would be eaten there alive. Ugandan kids are being told that white people travel to Africa in order to catch and eat small children. I got to know that after approaching a girl who instantly burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying for hours hiding by the wall. Not sure, which one of us was more scared at that time.. It looks like the first stage at first contact with mzungu, is fear. Children watch from a distance trying to establish the risk of getting too close and run away when you just look at them. Second time is much better. Curiosity takes control and they come closer in order to verify if the danger is real or not. Third stage is an attack and usually in masses. Next time they see you, they would run with open arms to meet you, wave their little hands and shout: “bye Mzungu, byeeee”. (I haven’t been able to establish why it is always ‘bye’ and not ‘hi’). Elders quite often initiate conversations in local shops, markets, on the streets. After habitual “Hi, how are you, where are you from?”, normally comes “give me your phone number” or “take me back with you”. They are open, welcoming, cheerful and funny. They want to know what this whole “Western world” is all about and if it is actually the milk and honey land as they see it. No matter how you try to picture the reality out there, explain nature of problems such as an economic crisis, high mortgage rates, unemployment and depressions; they would only shake their heads with a typical resonant sound of disbelief “eeeeeeeeeeeee” and walk away laughing.


People seem to be always in a constant move but they never hurry. Women peddle by the candlelight, children play on the streets, hairdressers take care of their clients and believers from evangelical churches praise the God late into the night. The rhythm of life is determined by a 12-hour cycle between sunrise (at 7 AM) and sunset (7 PM) with small variations over the year. Uganda has fertile soil and one of the best climates in the world with an average temperature of 25-30° Celsius degrees all year round. No surprise then, that the country’s economy is based on agriculture – coffee, tea, cotton, vanilla, tobacco and sugar cane. One of Uganda’s landmarks are plantations of green bananas called “matoke”, which constitute the basic food ingredient. It is very common to see people transporting bunches of those bananas on huge trucks, motorbikes, bicycles and even heads. From the very morning women occupy themselves with preparing food and when lunch time comes, Ugandans in the whole country celebrate their meal by eating exactly the same – matoke. It tastes more like mashed potatoes than sweet bananas and it is not a prominent dish by itself, so normally some sauces and vegetables are added (chicken, beans, beef, butternut, etc.). I wouldn’t call it a feast, but it’s definitely very nutritional and somehow stodgy. For some Ugandans it is also the only solid food throughout a day.

Uganda has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. According to UNICEF, statistically speaking, 6.2 babies are born to one woman and almost 80% of the country’s population (34 mln) is below their 30ties (data from 2011). “Ohh, we have made a big progress in this matter over the last few years, says a young Ugandan. “Until we have enough matoke to feed us, we can easily concentrate on bearing more children”, he adds.


I have tried all traditional means of transport in Uganda. Some of them are fun, some scary, all mostly inconvenient. The most popular one for short distances is called „boda-boda”. The idea for boda-boda (bicycle) taxi was born in the 1970s in Kenya and Uganda. At the beginning they were used to smuggle all kind of goods from one country to another (therefore the name boda-boda: “border to border”). It soon became clear that “smuggling” people would be more profitable though. Over the years, bicycles have been replaced by motorbikes, which proved to be more comfortable for both passenger and the driver. Although speed limits and passengers’ nerves are also being driven to their borders and most traffic rules seem to be forgotten, boda-boda business is still thriving these days. Eventually one gets convinced to them, but personally I felt more confident when using collective taxis called matatu. Also introduced in Kenya, at the time of opening the price for a drive was just 3 shillings (matatu in suahili language means “for three”). They are to date the cheapest and equally popular. Mzungu might find it quite challenging to use matatu services at first. How to get into that bus? There are no bus stops and no timetables and there are hundreds of matatus going at the same time in all kinds of directions. The fact that the routes are set is hardly comforting. They all look the same, so the real challenge is to get into the proper one once they slow down for a few seconds in order to take more passengers “in the flow”. There is a matatu driver and there is a tout. The first one drives and the latter does all the rest; identifies people waiting on the streets, drags them into the bus, relocates the others, manages luggage and takes the payment. All of this while having just half of his body inside the bus and shouting out loud the ultimate destination. A tout also makes some tricks with their hand to show the route of the bus. Blessed are the ones who interpret those! Did I mention there are no timetables ? A bus leaves the station whenever it is full. And I mean FULL, as any wastage of space is just unthinkable. You believe that all places are taken and then finally there’s light at the end of the tunnel meaning that you should leave any soon? Surprise! Somehow new seats emerge and more space is left to be taken, which means one thing in particular: more waiting. When you are confident that no way a human being can fit in anymore, there is still a possibility to jam some more suitcases, boxes, bags, tables or chickens. Chickens can eventually end up on the roof. Yes, space on the roof needs to be properly utilized too! Hours have passed. Eventually the bus leaves and moves. You are slowly getting closer to your final destination. Very slowly. The bus is going to stop countless times on the way, some people will get off sooner than the others, empty space will need to be filled in, luggage relocated, passengers reshuffled, money collected,… Those who sit at the back need to push everything that’s on their way and ask everybody in the front to make some space for them as they leave the vehicle. There is no space, so everybody would eventually have to get off, take their belongings, let others leave the bus, take the next seat available, unpack again and then wait for the next stop when the whole process starts again. Surprisingly this gambit runs quite smoothly. Nobody is bothered, disturbed or impatient, although the journey seems to last forever. Only mzungu checks on their watch anxiously as it is getting dark already and they should have arrived hours ago…


“I’ve been here for a week and most of this time I am waiting. The most frustrating out of this – I have no idea what I am waiting for”, said a young Dutch man who came to Uganda as a volunteer. My impression was exactly the same, so I started to think of a phenomenon known as “African time”. Different cultures have different approaches to time. We (so called “Westerns”) see it as a fleeting moment, which passes by in a glimpse making us older every second. We try to make most of it in order not to waste a single moment. Doing “nothing” cause frustration and remorse. Time goes by irreversibly and if we do not make a proper use of every single moment, no progress is made. Time is our enemy and we need to fight it. This is called by anthropologists a linear time. Ugandans would call it “mzungu time”, as in most of African countries prevails a totally different phenomenon known as “African time”. What’s the difference?

Linear time is systematized and structured. Things happen at particular time, which is set, predictable and stable. Everything has its beginning and its end. Although this concept of time was developed by ancient Egyptians, today in most of African countries it seems to be forgotten. “African time” is nowadays a concept much more sophisticated. African time requires one to take into consideration all kind of circumstances, events and situations, which might happen on the way and influence (or not) somebody’s plans. If we set up a meeting at specific hour, it will take place exactly then and there – that’s the mzungu’s approach. If something happens, people will call and make you aware that they are late but most probably they will be on time. When you make an appointment in Africa, most probably people will be late and quite probably they will not show up at all. They will never call or bother to pick up the phone in case you try to get in touch when looking for them. If they happen to see you accidentally some other day, they will behave as nothing had happened. Time has been adjusted to their needs. What if there’s a storm, cousin calls in with an urgent matter or something else comes up in the middle? What if the rain falls, makes it difficult to drive, they catch a flat tire and don’t have a spare one (never checked in advance!) and the garage is closed until the next day? Need to wait. Most Africans seem to understand this simple reliance, foresee the unforeseen and predict the unpredictable. Probability that something comes up in the middle is the same as if there were no changes to the itinerary. Either way is good. As a result, there is no need of informing third parties about the circumstances, which interfere with the original plan, as it is widely assumed there were known from the very beginning. Ugandans have also mastered a technique, which enables them to pass by a bothersome, “mzungu’s way” habit of giving a concrete time. They would often try to duck out of any commitment by using terms such as: “let me come back/ let me go/ let me do this or that/let me be there/ let me see you later”, etc. It does not mean of course that they ask for any permission, but it simply means they will take their time and do whatever. No need to say “I’m sorry”, no need for excuses or explanations of why they are being late or being in a totally different place than we would expect them to. Why would you bother to make a plan anyway if it’s obvious that it is subject to a change? You really want to ask all these questions – “what are you up to, when, how, with whom, at what time, why,..?”

You are still wondering what actually you are waiting for? It means only one thing, my friend; you do not understand Africa. Things happen when they happen. If nothing happens, time does not go by. It is practically impossible to waste it, so one needs to pose for a while and simply enjoy that unique moment. “Europeans have watches but Africans have time”, they laugh. People do not worry about the next day to come but concentrate their efforts on the present. If there is a problem, they work on finding a solution without creating too much drama out of it. They take life as it is and make the best of it. Let it be then.

 Dookola Swiata


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