Are we together?

You were lost…

‘You were lost, long time, welcome back’. Ugandans have multiple ways of greeting you after you have been away for sometimes not more than a day. After six months (hard to believe I have already used half of my time here), I think I am in a position to share some of my thoughts on the people whose country I am living in. Ugandans are lovely. Sure, TIA (this is Africa), people move at a different pace than in Europe, on my trip to Murchison last week I saw a man drinking a sachet of gin at 10 in the morning and some people only see you as a lot of money on two legs. But then Ugandans are funny, frank and so so friendly. One of the things I have come to appreciate most is how they speak.

Due to its status as a former British colony, English is the statutory national language of Uganda. However, most people learn a local language before learning English. Luganda is the most widely spoken language apart from English, with approximately 7 million users. Although it is what comes closest to the language of national identity, about forty languages are spoken throughout the country. To add to the confusion, Swahili has the status of national working language. I just came back from Zanzibar, Tanzania and am fairly certain I have not heard a word of Swahili in Uganda before. But asante sana nonetheless.

Since languages in general are a favourite topic of mine, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that after six months all the Luganda I have mastered is counting from 1-10 and ‘Hi, how are you’ and ‘Thank you’. But, with some help from Ibra (one of our drivers), the data collectors I work with and a neat app I am sure I can put my Christmas break to good use. That being said, I do think that by now I am fully proficient in Ugandan linguistic etiquette of which I will provide some examples.

…let me give you a push…

Always start a conversation by asking ‘How are you’. We once forgot to do so when asking someone for directions. The guy answered with ‘I am fine, how are you? You can find what you are looking for over there’. Introductions are very important in general. When attending a meeting, visiting a health facility or checking into a hotel, if someone has not said ‘You are most welcome’ you are sure to be in trouble. Similar to that, I have the feeling that I am continuously attending meetings of all sorts of support groups. If someone speaks up for the first time during a meeting, the person will start with a polite ‘good morning’ after which everyone else will respond with the same ‘good morning’. When the person thinks the response was not passionate enough, he/she will not hesitate to provide a, slightly louder, ‘good morning members’. Another one of my favourites is the ‘Are we together’ to check if everyone is still awake during a presentation. Or to check whether you are understanding what is being said of course.

Then there are the particular phrases that cause utter confusion the first time you hear them. The first time my guard said ‘You were lost’ after having been away for a couple of days I thought: lost, I am not lost, I just came home! The same goes for ‘Let me give you a push’. One of my team mates from volleyball said this to me as I was about to leave practice. I was very sure my car was perfectly fine and did not need any pushing at all but apparently it just means that they will walk you to your car, boda or wherever. Before our Monday morning meeting at the lab, a woman I work with asked me: ‘Did you happen somewhere?’ Still no witty remarks on this one since it is so self-explanatory and yet so strange. I had absolutely no clue how to interpret this, but it turned out she was just asking whether I went out somewhere. Me and my friends are very proud to have come up with a strongly needed addition to this collection of Ugandan phrases. When a white girl is being hit on by a Ugandan guy we say she is being radioed. The other way around, white guy and Ugandan girl, is referred to as being microwaved but this has not been widely accepted yet.

Besides actual words and phrases there is also a specific way of constructing sentences and stressing certain words or parts of that sentence. Often, people that are presenting will tell their story by way of asking questions. ‘I would rather buy a drink than what,? Invest in my health’ or ‘The programme will improve the allocation of funds to the what? The facilities’. It is a way of speaking I have grown what? Rather accustomed to, but it still seems like using more words than necessary. One thing I am trying to incorporate in my speech is ‘eeh’, which has a very specific intonation and can mean anything from surprise or amazement to disgust, praise or disbelief. I like the expressive nature of this one.

…and some other observations

Finally, there are random things that are funny, clever or just different. If you want to have something done now, you have to state that you want it now now. Like in other languages, the l and r seem to be completely interchangeable. So a slide can state something about the beneficiallies of a certain programme. Restrooms are referred to as places of convenience or the office and if someone goes anywhere you say ‘nice time’.

Just some random quotes picked up during two trainings we recently had at the office, one about security, the other on fire safety.

  • ‘You can fight a Waragi fire with water’ (Waragi is gin)
  • ‘American fires class F are kitchen fires with cooking fat’
  • ‘You have seen those fires in the swamp, they are not evil spirits, just spontaneous combustion’
  • ‘Get out of the killing zone!’
  • ‘Always carry a pack with food rations, your ID and a fish hook’
  • ‘When faced with a home intruder text your guard and ask him to shoot blanks in the air. If that does not work, ask him to aim at the window’ (without doing any damage obviously).

For people that are so insistent on their greetings and introductions, Ugandans do not spend much time on goodbyes. The first couple of phone conversations I had left me wondering whether the connection was lost but no, once business is settled, people just hang up. My European heritage keeps me from doing this, instead I will leave you with a friendly goodbye.

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