Culture Shock – Ugandan Hamburger

“Prepare yourself for the culture shock,” advised a colleague two nights before I left Kampala, “Because when you get there you will be quite lonely.”
My memories of the definition of the term, however hazy because I first heard it during those cloudy first weeks in University, didn’t isolate culture shock to the loneliness one feels on entering new climes, and Wikipedia ( agreed with me.

Having paid some attention during my Sociology classes – and as usual relying on basic logic – I read up quite a bit on Germany before boarding the plane and was grateful to my relocation agent for equipping my little apartment with a small booklet on Hamburg written by two auslanders (foreigners). Their perspective, however foreign, was not Ugandan and so didn’t top my comparison charts, but it was useful in a way.

And so I wasn’t ill-prepared every time I walked into a shop and people said, “Morgen”. And I didn’t find it awkward that some people rode bicycles on the pavement with their dogs chasing after them; or that others actually went shopping with their dogs, as did the lady in the Saturn store on Monday evening whose dog seemed keen on the Playstation 2 games on offer. I wasn’t even thrown when my new work friends dropped everything and insisted on going for “lunch” at 1130hrs on my first day in and every day since. Now my breakfast time has somehow merged with lunch and I am rapidly losing weight at the office as well.

I am even getting into the groove of keeping right, which isn’t easy after all these years of walking and driving on the right side of the road – which happens to be on the left. For the first ten days or so I kept doing that pavement shuffle that happens when one such as myself lands among a people that have walked and driven on the wrong side of the road forever. Thank God for the traffic light systems here, otherwise the road traffic fatality numbers for the month of September would have gone up by one because of this Ugandan whose natural check before crossing a road is to look right. For the first two days every time I looked right the road was clear – and in the split second before I’d raise a foot to start crossing, I’d glance left and go into a panic because of the deluge of heavy traffic coming my way!

But the beast that is Culture Shock was biding its time to live up fully to its surname, watching me silently off the Supermarket shelves the first day I went out to stock groceries and sundries; chuckling quietly to itself as it overheard me muttering to myself words off the packets of noodles, sausages, chicken and what-have-you (you end up buying a lot of what-have-you if you don’t understand a language) in an attempt to find their english equivalent in the little phrase book I had bought.

Culture Shock followed me home and burst into laughter when it saw my expression after I unwrapped a chicken and then realised that I was lacking the usual ingredients for turning it into a meal; ingredients such as spices and a maid to do the cooking. A German maid, at that. Culture Shock almost had a paralytic fit when I moved on to the pack of fish fillets and dropped a couple into a pan of oil without letting them thaw out properly; and I couldn’t be blamed – the instructions said something about six/6 minutes which could have been anything from, “Walk six minutes from the supermarket to your flat” to “Try and concentrate for six/6 minutes while reading these instructions and see if you suddenly start understanding German”, both of which I had done, the latter with less success.

Later, on the metrobus, I rode all the way to the Mönckebergstraße and on my way out offered the driver money but he turned it down.

“Er…don’t I have to pay?”


And that’s when I noticed that some people hop on to the bus and off it without paying a cent.

Back home? That’s the kind of thing that could cause you to subscribe for a heavy supply of painkillers. In fact, at some taxi stages/ stops there are well-muscled men waiting around specifically to lay hands on a fellow who tries to leave public transport without paying.

And then one day I noticed the queues. To be honest, I should have noticed them right on arrival at the airport, where I stood among hundreds of organised people, but there were so many Schwarzneggar-size cops milling about that I felt it was obvious why everyone was in a line.

But t hen everywhere else, I noticed queues appearing to crop up like mushrooms – even outside a (this feels uncomfortable but apparently it’s quite normal to use the word) pissoir. And when you see thirty people queuing up outside a place of public convenience, then you know they take queues seriously. I know the only way I’d have joined the end of that queue was if I were planning, in the next hour or so, to require the services of said pissoir.

Culture Shock? Refer to the simplicity of getting from anywhere to anywhere; as in, I have become accustomed, over the years, to being directed from place A to place B within capital cities with instructions (strictly verbal) such as, “Get out of the taxi, cross the road, turn left and go for like 50 metres. Then you will see an old-ish guava tree stump. Turn right there, opposite the man with a sewing machine. Take that road for another 100metres then you will find boda-bodas (motor bikes for hire). Offer one of them five hundred shillings and tell him to take you to Mama Tom’s place. When you get there, continue for about five minutes and it will be the second last house on your right…”

Over here, I can either use one of the guide books or google a place and download not only a map from point to point, but directions that show me how long it will take if I have a car (I don’t and I won’t) or if I decide to walk.

Plus, again part of the disorientation caused by Culture Shock, I don’t have much of an option besides google; I learnt painfully after getting lost fifteen times the first time I went to town, because verbal instructions don’t really work if you don’t know the language!

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