Saturday, March 7, 2009

Fortress America

East Africa is a great place to meet interesting Americans. Whether they are on holiday or working, they usually have interesting perspectives and stories to tell. They also tend to be more educated about Canada than Rick Mercer would have you believe.  

I was thinking back to Christmas eve, 2003 which I spent in Zanzibar, Tanzania. That night, I had a heated conversation with some Americans about the next president of the United States. As I recall, we agreed that it would be Hilary Clinton, but disagreed about whether she would be successful in 2004 or 2008. 

The American President has been a popular topic of conversation between myself, the Ugandans, and Americans that I've met lately. Discussing the inauguration a few days after my arrival, a Ugandan man asked an American friend, "Why is it that you don't have rebels in your your country? I think it must be that you don't have any jungles. The rebels would have nowhere to hide!" 

Next door to where I stay is the American embassy, or as I like to call it, Fortress America. Following the 1998 bombings of US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the US instituted new security requirements for its overseas missions. In many cases, this resulted in the construction of brand new embassies, and Kampala was no exception. Occupying several acres of land, Fortress America is a multi-structure complex surrounded by 10' concrete walls and dozens of armed guards. None of the other embassies in Kampala can compare to this place.

Despite its outward security, fear seems to radiate from the Fortress. I managed to get a photo of one of the signs posted along the perimeter, "no photography, no stopping, no parking." If one had a telephoto lens, the most ideal place from which to illegally photograph the embassy is Kibuli, Kampala's largest Muslim neighborhood. I wonder how the the residents of Kibuli feel about having Fortress America occupying the hill in their back yard. 

I feel sorry that the Americans have had to make such big changes in order to feel secure in their foreign missions. Once fences, concrete blocks, and "no photography" signs have been erected, it's hard to take them back down again, even with a new president in the White House.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Leave me alone or I'll call my father

I don't wear much jewelry, but the few pieces I do have are very special to me. In 2003 I purchased a hammered silver ring from What on Earth in Fredericton. Its intended purpose was to serve as a "wedding ring" while I was in Rwanda. Someone had recommended this strategy to me and my Canadian traveling companions as an easy way to avoid harassment from men. It turns out that I never really felt comfortable with this and so ended up wearing it on my left middle finger, where it was a better fit. In a pinch I would call it into use saying that, "in my culture," we wear our wedding bands on the middle finger.

This is only the ring's second trip to Africa as I lost it for a period of time. But, as I was traveling with a man in 2007 it was less of a necessity. I was happy to find the ring and since then have worn it every day. People in Uganda often ask me about it. To the hospital staff I confess that I can move it over to my ring finger, "in case of emergency."

I tend to still be a bit naive about my interactions with Ugandan men. Generally I give them the benefit of the doubt when they ask me if I'm married. Over the course of the last week, I've found myself regretting this honesty and reconsidering the placement of my silver ring.

One of the doctors at the hospital invited me out to dinner after a long day at work last week. Seeing as there was a group of us, and as I had not had anything but mashed bananas, rice, and stewed beef all week I gladly accepted. However over the course of the following few days it became clear that I had made a grievous tactical error. Dr. P started calling incessantly and sending text messages referring to me as, "baby" and, "sweetheart." I confronted him about this, telling him that I was neither available nor interested and that his behavior was professionally inappropriate. Despite feeling satisfied that I had made myself clear, the text messages continued and I wondered whether the ring strategy would have made any difference.

This is just one example of the "interest" bordering on harassment that Uganda men pay me on a daily basis. I think their interest going beyond beauty or physical appeal. There is something about white women that they find inherently attractive. Whether it is a result of their exposure to western culture through Hollywood film, music, music videos, and magazines, I'm not sure. But, I often have the feeling that they see no difference between me and Britney Spears. To date, three Ugandans have told me that I look like Drew Barrymore. Moreover, it's my impression that the same goes for Muzungu men. After telling a colleague that I have two unmarried brothers she became very interested and confessed that she had, "always dreamed" that she would marry a white man. These desires may simply be linked to the desire for a ticket to the good life, but I sense that there is a more complicated explanation.

Because opposite sex friendships with Ugandans have been nearly impossible to achieve, I've truly appreciated the companionship of my female collegues and that of that of the priests at CANLET. The priests make a great date and are even gracious enough to always invite along another female companion (often one of their sisters) when we've been exploring Kampala's nightlife.

My female colleagues have been an excellent source of support and have provided some helpful advice. I shared a text message from a male colleague, (a different one) with one of the female interns who confirmed that it would not be socially acceptable by Ugandan standards. "Some of those guys can be very cheeky! You just need to tell them to leave you alone or else your father will be coming to Kampala." While I haven't had to employ this strategy yet, I love the idea. I have a picture of my Dad and brothers with me and I'm just waiting for the moment when I can pull them out of my pocket.