Sunday, May 22, 2011

For how many cows can I have your girl?

There are something like 40 different tribes in Uganda. It's one of the unique parts of the country. The borders were mapped out with little foresight or understanding of the land's history and people, and so like many African nations, many tribes are even split between neighboring countries. Tribe is often the first thing established by two Ugandans meeting, and English is sometimes the only language in common. I have been asked several times what tribe I come from in America, and I never know how to answer. I don't think Americans, for the most part, share this same notion of tribe, although we do sometimes have strong regional pride. I would be happy to come from the tribe of "Minnesotes".

Learning about Uganda has been so eye-opening and makes me realize how little I knew about African culture coming here. It's a two-way road, of course, and this was illustrated clearly to me this morning when during the workshop the English language was described as "the language of the white people from England." I think there is a wealth of history, knowledge, and tradition to be learned and absorped both on the Ugandan and American side, and this cultural exchange actually comprises 2/3 of the Peace Corps's goals. So, with that in mind, I'm going to use this blog post to give a brief lesson in Lugbara and greeting in Uganda.

I have mentioned the importance of greetings before in posts, but this blog will give you an example of the daily exchanges I have with people, that range from bewildering to boisterous. Although Uganda is comprised of many different people and traditions, I hve found that warmth and curiosity seem to exist equally throughout the nation. Matching the warmth found in so many people here is one of my goals for service, and thus, I have had to learn the proper and appropriate ways of greeting here. To appreciate just how much I have had to change my ways, Iwould like to give an example of how I would greet someone in teh U.S., say walking down state street in Madison, Wisconsin.

Scene: I am walking home from a coffee shop and spot an acquaintance walking on a straight course towards me on the sidewalk; somenoe who might have lived in the same dorm as me or someone who may have sat next to me in a freshman English class. Lets call them personIdon'treallyrememberbutprobablyshouldsayhitobecauseitwouldbeawkwardifididn't. In this scenario, I have three equally mortifying options:
A. Pretend to be talking on cell phone
B. Pretend not to see him/her
C. Walk towards them, panic, and then blurt out "HI HOW ARE YOU" right as they are passing

In Uganda, peoplewhoyoudon'treallyrememberbutprobablyshouldsayhitobecauseitwouldbeawkwardifyoudidn't do not exist. You say hi to everyone. And you say it as if you have known them for 20 years. That's actually not completely true. As a young female here (eek 24!!)I will not greet large groups of men who are vaguely my age. In Uganda, men of generally- my- age tend to aggregate in large packs(gaggles? murders? prides?), whether they are working as boda boda drivers (waiting for business), or just hanging out. They will often call out, "hello sister" to me, or if I am walking with a male like TOm, will sometimes ask him how many cows I am worth. This exchange will usually start by them yelling at Tom, "Is this your wife?" and when he tells them no, they will start to make offers. Tom usually tells them that I cost 30 cows, which maybe two people in Uganda could afford. It is a good way to stop the conversation and get a laugh. I'm totally not worth 30 cows.

Anyway. So, say that I am greeting anyone BUT a giant group of adolescent and post-adolescent men....

Scene: Me walking down any random dirt road/at any work function/anywhere really doing anything in Uganda. I spot someone who I either know/don't know/or might know.
Me: Mi ngoni! Ila ngoni?(how are you? how did you spend the night)
Them: Ma muke. Ala muke. Kani mi i? (I am fine,I spent the night well, and you?)
Me: Ma muke. Awadifo. Aku ngoni? (i'm fine,thank you. How is your home/family?)
Them: Aku ala! Mi enga ngoa? (My home/family is well. where are you coming from?)
Me: Ma enga cua___. (I'm coming from the market)
Them: Mi enga cua afa di je? (You are coming from the market buying what?)
Me: Ma enga cua nyaka je. (I'm coming from the market buying food)
Them: Ee'. Mi mu ngoa? (Yes. Where are you going?)
Me: Ma mu akua. (I am going home)
Them: Mi Lugbara tisi? (YOu are with Lugbara/youspeak lugbara??!)
Me: Ee'. Ma Lugbara ti oni. (Yes, I am learning lugbara)
Them: Awadifo mini asizi (thank you for your work)
Me: Awadifo mini indi (and for yours)
Them: Mi a ci ala (travel safely)
Me: Mi oa muke (stay well)

This is just an example of a conversation that might be had with someone passing by. It's pretty funny to think of the on-the-run greetings I would half-heartedly shout out in AMerica. Here it's an insult to not ask about someone's health, family, home, and day.

It's much briefer with children. They tend to spot me, starting yelling "MUNDU! MUNDU!", chase me, and then assault me with "how are YOU? how are YOU?", or my favorite, "BYE BYE!" instead of "hello."

Love and LIons,


  1. To review:

    I want you to teach me Lugbara pronunciation on our next Skype date.

    All men travel in gaggles I think. That just seems the most fitting.

    Additionally, I would pay infinite amounts of cows for your love.

    Finally, THIS. THIS POST EXACTLY. is what it's all about my dear. Live, travel, dream, exchange, share, just BE TOGETHER in this incredibly humbling world of human experiences.

  2. I love your posts Ilse..they are so vivid! Sounds like you are learning the great, right??!! Lots of love! Keep the blogging up!! xox

  3. I would also pay many, many eggplants for you! This is a lovely post, as usual. Love, Mumsy

  4. What I got out of that post it that you're trying to figure out out how much you should to help you out, your worth is 2 cows + 4 soccer moms divided by 4 cups vanilla extract