I intended for my trip to Uganda to be a catalyst for writing regularly.
I wanted to share the ordinary and the profound. I wanted to document why we went and and why it mattered. I wanted to write for my own processing but also mostly to prove to my dog park friends that it was the right decision. They had greeted my trip announcement with:
Yikes! Couldn’t you find somewhere closer to teach? Why is your husband letting you go? Make sure to get the Ebola vaccine!
While most of the comments were well-meaning, they were stark reminders of two pervasive stories: 1 – Africa is all one place and 2 – people think it’s sketchy at best, straight-up deadly at worst, for anyone, but especially white people, there.
This narrative was laced through all their reactions – I was making a terrible, terrible mistake.
And then I met the taxi driver in Dubai, “Uganda? Why are you going to Uganda? It’s dangerous! Dangerous! They treat each other like animals.” This was not the only moment of overt racism that came up as we made our long 30 hour journey to Kampala and it rattled me.
Suddenly, I felt the weight of responsibility to tell the trip stories well. I knew my writing couldn’t just be off-the-cuff, quick updates when the opportunity to reinforce bias or perpetuate racism was so ripe if people were just listening for stories to reinforce their stereotypes.
What do I write? I was paralyzed. How will my words be read?
Unless westerners have been intentional, we probably have a single story of Africa. Africa is dangerous is the single story of my dog park people. And it was my single story too, I wrestled with it daily as I prepared, what is a healthy risk level assessment? In reality, I felt more safe in Uganda than I do walking in an American city. But these single stories are less about the complex realities of a place and more about the power dynamics of who is telling them and how often they have been heard.
Author Chimamanda Adichie has a powerful TEDTalk, The Danger of A Single Story, (if you’ve got 20minutes, stop reading and go watch it) which expounds on the causes and power dynamics of the single story of Africa that continues to be pervasive across the world. She shares:
If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner….A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet, Rudyard Kipling, are “half devil, half child.”
Africa is a dark, dangerous place is the single story because westerners have listened only to other westerners, instead of Africans who have a multitude of stories, and so the single story has rolled forward.
The prospect was daunting as I faced the reality that my stories could either reinforce or combat the single story. I needed to use my writing to be thoughtful, responsible, intentional about how I as a white western woman told the stories of my new Ugandan friends and partners and the work we were doing together.
However, jetlag + full days of teaching + cross-cultural interactions + daily 3 hour commutes + debriefing and refining curriculum did not equal time for thoughtful deliberate reflection. Instead I was communicating in thoughtful prose like, “wow, crazy,” “that was beautiful,” and “well I wish I had different words, but all I got is that was a mindf*ck”.
So after my first and only blog at the beginning of the trip, I accepted blogging as a post-trip reflection, let myself off the hook for any more mid-trip posts, and decided to write once I’d “figured things out.” Yes, laugh at my Enneagram 5 self who thought she could understand it all in one trip.
Instead, it’s been a month of further reflecting and reading. Thankfully I did put it out publicly that I had planned on writing updates on the trip and while I’ve failed miserably at that, it’s enough of a kick to get me to finally start writing.
But who am I to tell these stories? And what stories need to be told?
My job here is to highlight the work and the people and broaden the stories so that there are a multitude to combat the single.
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”Chimamanda Adichie
So here is our trip in many stories… Story 1