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Published: April 21st 2009
Language can illustrate so much about a culture. Eskimos who have an intimate relationship with the Arctic have more than a dozen words for snow. In India, there is no word in which a woman can be possessive of a man (“my man” becomes “I belong to that man” in Hindi) except when she is speaking of a slave or servant. And in Uganda, I came across a new word recently that made me think deeply about the differences between Uganda and the US.
I was giving several of my office colleagues a ride downtown after work one steaming hot day, and had my car window down. We were laughing together. And then my friend said, “We have a word for that in Luganda.” “A word for what?” I responded. She gestured to my arm, resting on the window sill, hand outstretched to the breeze. “That.”
There is an entire verb in Luganda devoted to the act of having one’s hand resting outside the car window. When I asked her to explain what this word meant, she instead described what it characterizes. “It is someone who has no cares. The boss,” she described. The told me that young people might joke to each other “Nsowola!” meaning ‘watch how cool and carefree I’m going to be today’. Or it could be used as criticism - ‘look at that person acting like they are so much.’
I’m sure I don’t totally get the actual translation, nor understand all the meanings, but I was struck by its mere existence. I don’t think anyone has ever noticed my arm out the window before, let alone have an entire commentary about what it must mean. But this is Uganda. A country where cars are an enormous luxury, and belong only to the rich. A place where people get where they are going mostly on their two feet, and have ample time to observe those flying past them on the road side. An existence in which sitting in a car and flailing your arm around represents a far away dream of having few cares, being well fed, and having the material well being to meet your daily needs and then some.
Later that week, another friend excitedly told me that her daughter had passed her national exams after secondary school (think SAT on steroids) with very high marks. She had done so well that the mother hoped she might qualify for a government scholarship to University. My friend was elated; you could see it in her eyes, her step. She was rushing home to celebrate the news. A few days later she confided to me how proud she was. “I gave my daughter 20,000 shillings and told her she could go buy new clothes.”
Twenty thousand shillings is about $11. And I thought of the girl’s voyage down to the huge open market. Her spending hours sorting through huge piles of used clothes, shipped over in containers from Europe and America. I can see her trying on this blouse, that skirt, and weighing her choices - “should she try to get several outfits, or splurge on one fabulous dress that would take most of the money?”
Eleven dollars to me - a weekly meal or a movie - but for her, the only shopping spree she has ever been on in her life. And this for used clothes, discarded by the rich, in the rich world, in an act for which we congratulate ourselves. “Well, I did what I can for the poor people in the world today. Plus, that shirt had a stain on it anyway.”
Imagine if your big dream was to drive around in a car and hang your arm out the window.
I can’t say that I won’t take all the incredible blessings I have in my life for granted. I won the lottery on where I was born, through no goodness of my own. Even when I go into homes of the women we work with and share a conversation or a meal, at the end of the day, I go back to my home with electricity and running water. I know that if I fall sick, I can afford medical care, no matter what. And sadly, the color of my skin still grants me privilege and access that many of my Ugandan friends will never have. So, the world is a fucked up place, and try as we might to “fix it”, we might just be making it worse.
But I do know that in the future, whenever I hang my arm out the window of my car to enjoy the breeze, I will say a little prayer of gratitude. “Okusowola.”
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