Monday, October 5, 2009

Seeing with Ugandan Eyes

In study abroad opportunities, students are often prepped, before leaving, to experience culture shock in the new country, and upon returning, for smooth re-entry into the home culture. This explicit discussion of expectations and transition readies the traveler to more fully enjoy the journey by mitigating and preparing for otherwise unforeseen and disturbing experiences. While I had read up on Nigeria society in preparation for traveling to Abuja, I hadn't anticipated that I would receive such a fascinating and effective re-entry program upon my return to the U.S.

For the past two weeks, I have had the remarkable opportunity to come on board with a Ugandan delegation of entrepreneurs at Southern University. Spending time in class and in community with the group of 14 Ugandans, I had a unique opportunity to see the U.S. through Ugandan eyes. I went with them to their first football games, explained what hot dogs are, and tried my best to translate the American experience into Luganda.

The first distinct cultural difference I came across was in the questions the Ugandans raised during a finance class module. The instructor urged the importance of businesspeople paying themselves first in order to maintain a functioning and financially viable venture. The Ugandans pushed back, stating that this couldn't be done when family members, neighbors, and other relations still needed food or other basic necessities in their economy of affection. The sense of community and responsibility for one's neighbors was so prevalent that paying oneself first seemed an incredibly selfish concept to the group of Ugandans.

The Ugandans were further startled by the grandiosity of marching band halftime shows, ample resources to support college graduates as exemplified by career fairs, and the amount of electricity used to light buildings during daytime hours. But nothing could prepare them for the extravagant RVs that filled the parking lot of A. W. Mumford Stadium before Southern University Jaguars football games. Touring one complete with bathroom, bedroom, and bar, they, obviously overwhelmed, exclaimed, "You have these and houses? It's too much!"

Certainly, the grandour and glitz of the U.S. is in stark contrast to much of the developing world, particularly from where I've just returned in Nigeria. The infrastructure, wealth, and government operations function at completely different levels. While the unexpected revision of our program unfortunately forced us to leave Nigeria early two weeks ago, I'm of the belief that my group members and I ended up exactly where we needed to be. Despite having our program schedule completely revised and our flexibility tested time and again, thanks to the questions and curiosity of the Ugandans, we had the opportunity to re-enter the U.S. more deeply conscious of our home country's attributes, culture, and global perspective than ever. It's amazing what you have to go through to get to where you're meant to be.

And I'm so thankful I had the opportunity to connect with such intelligent, passionate, and fun people from the other side of the globe. To my dear Ugandan friends: Waybale nyo!


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