Saturday, March 18, 2017

You Have to Stop

This week someone on our street died. It was an old woman who had been sick for "either 4 months or 4 years" one friend told me. It seems like there has been a funeral on our street every few weeks. We'll see cars gathering and more foot traffic than usual and then be told that "so and so" passed away. Honestly, I don't think much of it anymore.

On Wednesday, I had a language lesson. My language helper, Mary, told me that after our lesson she was going to attend the burial for the grandmother on my street (different area than where she lives) who had died. I responded with, "Oh, I'm so sorry, did you know her?" She laughed and said, "No, but when someone dies, you have to stop".  She intended on sitting for the burial for a woman who she had never met, on a compound that she had never been to before. She would stay there for hours to support the family- a family she doesn't even know.

When she told me this I continued to pry. I asked her why she would spend her whole day at a funeral for someone she didn't know. She went on to explain that in this culture, it's a way of paying respect and showing the family that you care and are supporting them in their loss. She said you can even just go and sit for 5 minutes, but you should never pass by a house where there is a burial without stopping to give your condolences. She was floored when I told her that in America, it would be unheard of to attend a funeral for someone you didn't know or weren't connected to at all.

You guys, I've walked by many compounds where funerals were going on and haven't stopped. I had no idea I was supposed to. To my Western mind, I thought it would be incredible strange to walk onto someone's property while they were in the middle of a funeral service and just join in. That seems very odd to me- rude even.

However, as soon as she told me this, I knew I needed to attend the burial. Now that I knew it was viewed as rude to not stop by a burial, I was eager to start participating in this part of culture- as a way of showing the people on our street that I care and want to be included in their lives.

So Ellie and I joined Mary and we sat. It was nothing special. We greeted an uncle to the woman who died and then we found an empty chair and we talked with those around us. It seemed like most of the people we were sitting by probably didn't know the woman either. But they were present.

As we were leaving, Mary told me that the uncle was very grateful that I came. She said I made the family very happy. Really? I didn't do anything. I didn't give money for the burial or even go in the room to pay my last respects (I made sure it was okay to go not in since I didn't know the woman, Mary didn't go, so it seemed safe to follow suit ;)). But I was there. And for some reason, that mattered to the family and the whole community.

At first I was really embarrassed about all of the other burials I haven't attended and about the fact that the people on our street probably think I'm rude for walking by events and not stopping to attend. However, then I realized how grateful I am that Mary told me. The worst part about being culturally unaware is... never being made aware! So I'm thankful that now I know. So, if you need me, I'll be funeral hopping from now on ;).

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Somehow Okay

One thing that has fascinated me since we first moved to Africa in 2010 is how different English can be around the world. We feel privileged that we can speak English to most people here in Fort Portal and they will (mostly) understand us. However, we have learned to modify the way we speak and the phrases we use quite a bit. Here are some examples.

Phrases that to use mean absolutely nothing, but are somehow acceptable answers to questions here:
"I'm going there..." As in the response to "where are you going?" In America, our next logical follow-up question would be, "Um, okay, where is "there??" But here, when people hear the response of "I'm going there" They simply say, "Okay, bye!".

I learned this one on one of my many walks with Ellie. People would often ask me where we were going and I would struggle to explain where we were walking to in simple English (most of the people asking only speak a couple small phrases in English). Eventually I started asking children where they were going (since that is an understood English phrase in the area) and the response was "I'm going there..." with a nose point in a specific direction. This response made me laugh because it seemed so vague, but I started using it when people would ask where I was going, and people would simply nod and tell me goodbye.

"I'm doing something" This is similar to the vagueness of "I'm going there". If you are working on something or doing something you don't normally do and someone asks "What are you doing", it's perfectly acceptable to respond with, "I'm doing something...". You will most likely get a response again of, "Okay. Bye!". The other day I was opening Jenna's gate with keys and someone asked me what I was doing. After replying with "Something", they simply walked away. Good thing I don't look too suspicious, I guess! hehe

"I'm somehow okay" or in South Sudan, "I'm a bit somehow" This really means, "I'm not doing very very well", but when said as "I"m a bit somehow" people usually just respond with "Oh, sorry" and then move on in conversation. It's a way of acknowledging that you're not doing great, but without really having to explain why.

Phases with different meanings than we are used to:
"It's okay" as in the response to, "Would you like some water?" In the US, if someone responds to that questions with "It's okay", it means no, I'm fine. Here, it means, "Yes, please!"

"I will come at 3:00" 3:00 really means 9am. Blog readers, this completely blew my mind the other week! I realized I had misunderstood something about this culture for the whole 7 months we've been here! The people here use 7am as the starting point for time and for the day. So after 7am, they count the hours up. Therefore, 8am is "2:00", 9am is "3:00", etc. Usually, they only do this to other Rutooro speakers and the more educated people will say the "clock times" when speaking in English, however, that is not always the case. The other day our day guard told us that he needed to bring his son to school and he requested to come at 3:00. We said it was fine, but were really confused when he showed up the next morning at 9am. This is when we discovered that 3:00 is really 9:00... good thing that's  not utterly confusing ;).

"You've been lost!" I wrote about this phrase recently, but it means, "You haven't been here in a while". It's another way of saying, "I've missed you and have noticed you haven't come here lately. Has everything been okay?" Usually it is expected that you will explain your absence. For example, when we travel and then return, the people at the grocery store will say, "Ah, my friends, You've been lost!" and our response is, "Yes, we have been, we've been in Kampala".

It's always an adventure figuring out what different phrases mean! I've learned the best way to discover if I'm understanding people correctly is look at their face when I respond. If I'm totally off base with my response, their face will be quick to show it. This is when it is time to ask, "Wait, what do you mean by that?" It's always a learning experience!