Paul tells...


Cultural differences


Our aim is to respect the culture of the country we cycle through. We do this to the best of our conscience, but we notice that we sometimes unconsciously do not the right thing. The Ugandan people won't let us know easily, but by a certain gesture or glance we notice that we've taken the wrong turn. And sometimes we know we're wrong, but we don't see any other solution. 

It's no option for women in the countryside, through which we've been cycling lately, to wear trousers. They're supposed to wear a long skirt, but on a bicycle that's not an option for Kathleen, so she still wears long, loose-fitting pants. And then sometimes we catch a glimpse of an opinion that isn't necessarily positive.


In a small bookshop we find a book about Ugandan culture. It's very recognizable and we quickly read some 'mistakes' we made as westerners. But there are also several points in it that we encounter almost every day and that we can place a bit better now.

The most beautiful ones to me are 'deadlines'. After all, they also have them here. But unlike with us where a deadline is linked to time, in Uganda a deadline is only linked to the activity in question. Once the activity in question has been completed, the deadline is met.


We notice this attitude at first hand. We regularly have to order diner in advance at the hotels we are staying and tell them what time and what we want to eat in the evening, so that they can do the shopping and prepare it. If we ask what time we can eat, the question is immediately returned to us. What time do we want to have dinner? Usually we choose half past seven, so it can drop a bit before we go to bed at nine o'clock. So half past seven could be considered as a deadline for the cook, but the cook clearly doesn't see it that same way. We always make sure we're in the restaurant at the agreed time, but most of the time the cook brings the food at least half an hour, but regularly also an hour and a half later with a big smile, without apologizing or anything like that. ‘Deadline met’ he must think.


On the other hand, I think it would be the solution for the many burn-outs in the Western world. The deadline is met as soon as the activity is completed. In the end, the essence is that the activity is completed. And let's be honest, two days after meeting 'our' deadlines, time is absolutely no longer important. The only thing that matters is that the project is realised...


Another thing we should have known a little sooner is the fact that people here in East Africa have their own time. Coming from the agricultural lifestyle, time starts running as soon as it gets light and stops 12 hours later when it gets dark again. Uganda lies on the equator, so all year round it gets light at the same time, 6 o'clock Western time. With us 7 o'clock in the morning, is 1 o'clock local time and 6 hours local time is 12 o'clock western time, lunchtime!


We are still insufficiently aware of this when we knock on the door in the morning at the only small restaurant in the village, asking if we can eat there later in the day. We have a rest day and we weren't very enthusiastic about eating at our hotel last night, so we went looking for something else. It's no problem to eat in the restaurant, but they want to know what we want to eat and what time. We agree to drop by at 6.30 for rice with chicken and some vegetables.


When we get into the restaurant at half past seven that evening, we are welcomed with a big smile by the same woman we spoke to that morning. To our surprise our food is served almost immediately: cold rice with cold chicken and cold vegetables. Our food had been ready at 6.30 local time and when we didn't pass by, they just pulled a cellophane over it. Their deadline had been met!


Like almost all the other times, we don't get green vegetables with us, while we need them. In the course of time, however, we find out that green vegetables are a sign of poverty and that people do not want to serve them, certainly not to 'white people'. After all, they do not want to be seen as poor. The reverse is true for milk in tea. Only the poorest of the poor, who cannot afford milk, drink tea without milk. However, if you can only afford a little, you drink milk in your tea to show that you do not belong to the poorest of the poor. We get tea with milk as standard, but we don't really appreciate the colonial habit of the English. So we always have to explicitly ask for 'black tea' and then we often get frowned eyebrows. So much for trying to live according to the local culture.

If we then eat our whole plate, we're not doing very well according to Ugandan traditions either. Finishing all food is seen as an insult to the hostess. She has to make sure her guests get enough to eat and they show this to the host by leaving some food on the plate, even if it was actually a bit on the sparse side. I have to laugh about it. We used to be brought up to eat our plates empty, because the poor children in Africa would kill for it! And now I learn that those same poor African kids don't have to empty their plates themselves! In fact, they are not even allowed to! 

However, as starving cyclists we sometimes sin against this rule of culture. After a day of cycling we are insatiable and then it’s very hard to leave food on our plates which we know will end up in the bin...


And just as I think I am beginning to understand Uganda's culture a bit, I read that there are 56 different ethnic groups in Uganda with 30 different languages. And each group has its own culture with different habits and customs... 'Go back to start and start all over again!'.