Ugandans are not politically correct. I don’t think there would be even the slightest hint of understanding of that term here.
Once you get used to it, it really is quite endearing. What you see is what you get.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am extremely pro-political correctness. I absolutely see the need for it, especially to protect minority groups. Or to prevent my four year old son from hearing, on a very regular basis, that ‘boys don’t cry’.
But one of the things I have fully embraced is Ugandans’ willingness to call a spade, a spade – without judgement or subtext. You will often here people referred to as ‘the brown one’ or ‘the fat one’ or ‘the lame one’.
This rings true particularly in areas such as weight. In the MH morning meeting, Michael recently gave a talk on nutrition and healthy eating. As part of it he discussed weight, and included a discussion on BMI. Oh, decisions always look so much more problematic with the benefit of hindsight. Unintentionally, this discussion on BMI has created a monster that has reared its ugly fat head at Maranatha. Every day since, staff are forcing each other onto the weighing scales in the outpatient department, looking at the number, doing some quick calculations, then crying out in delight – ‘this one is really obese!’ (pronounced as oh – bess)
To an Australian, this sounds horrifying, I get it. Here, it is just downright hilarious and I have been laughing almost to the point of tears watching these scenarios play out. You just couldn’t write this stuff!
I have covered this before in my blog, but basically weight here is a sign of beauty and wealth. It’s one of the ways I measure my ‘Ugandan-ness’ at any given time: by the rush of pride I feel when someone comments to me (complete with dramatic hand gestures) that ‘you have really got fat!’
Alas, many of our staff have been talking about their weight, and have been trying to be healthier. For many of them, this has boiled down to taking less soda from the MH canteen, not having as much cake, as well as trying to walk more rather than taking bodas (motorbike taxis). Of course, every time someone smuggles in a soda to reception to get through the afternoon drowsiness that hits after a MASSIVE lunch of matooke and beans, everyone reminds them of their condition: ‘Eh, you are oh-bess my dear! Should you be having that soda? Why don’t you give me some?!’
It has brought about many interesting conversations, including one recently between me and the admin women (who are really my peeps, of all the MH staff!).
We were talking about our own fluctuations in weight. When I first met them, we were all quite young and thin (most of us have worked together since 2011/12). Back then, Annet was breastfeeding twins and thin from the exhaustion that comes from that, while I was young and energetic (I can only vaguely remember this feeling of energy, with much nostalgia).
But since those days we have all put on weight. The women were reflecting on working for MH for so many years and how this has impacted on their weight: they have decent salaries, they are happy at work with our tight MH community, they have little stress in their lives, their children are growing well, and hence – they have all put on quite a bit of weight. This was said with extreme pride. Annet expressed that now when she returns to her home in Kamwenge, people tell her ‘Those Maranatha people are looking after you very well – you stay in Fort Portal where you are happy!’.
They were also analysing my own weight over the years. They remarked that mostly, when I come back from being in Australia, I am fat. They likened me visiting Australia to their own experience going back to stay in their village home, ‘when they put on a big feast for you and you can just relax’. They explained that when I am home in Australia, I can eat my own cultural food, I have parents and other family around to help with my kids, I can relax in my own culture. Whenever I come back to Africa – as much as I love it here – I lose weight. They articulated that this is because I am stressed from looking after kids without family support, I am always running around managing things at Maranatha, and I don’t have access to my own food and culture. They thought it was obvious that I would lose weight here. I was at once flawed by their insight and validated by their understanding.
To end our discussion, Ellen was telling me that now when she walks into a shop in town, people sometimes ask her where she is ‘parked’ – a reference to owning a car – because she looks so confident and fat and healthy. Neither of these women are on particularly high salaries by Ugandan middle-class standards, and neither will probably ever own a car. But they are happy, and healthy, and according to their BMIs, overweight. I was laughing at our discussion, but Ellen shook her head and expressed it sincerely to me:
No, Kim, I’m serious. There is a way in Africa, that when you are happy and not just surviving, you put on weight. Maranatha makes us happy. We are well cared for. We are fed. We belong. And because of this, people notice!
And that is a lesson in happiness from my dear friends I don’t want to forget!