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Emily Jackson’s Uganda

A field report from world class champion kayaker and HT ambassador, Emily Jackson, who regularly travels to Uganda to paddle and do humanitarian work.

Uganda is its own world. The culture is truly unique and even though I have visited there six times, I still get culture shocked. To me there are many different things that make a culture: people, food, beliefs, language, education, clothing, recreation and government are the main ones.  Here are some of my thoughts on Ugandan culture:

 My favorite part of Uganda is the people.  They might just be the most friendly, happy people I have ever met. This amazes me each time I visit. They have an average life expectancy of 54 years but they seem to be truly living every single day. A sign of friendship is to hold hands, so when you are speaking with the locals they will grab your hand and not let go until the conversation is over! (I have had this last well over an hour.) They have close to nothing but insist on feeding you and making sure you are comfortable in any given situation. You see them sit in the dirt but they are ashamed if they don’t provide you with a cloth or bench while you sit amongst them. The average woman has at least six kids, so there are little babies and kids everywhere, and only once you have left Uganda do you realize you have never heard a baby cry. The general atmosphere is that they are content with their lifestyle and make the most of it. They laugh and smile and goof around like giddy teenagers.  Any time I’m feeling stressed, I try to picture their unforgettable smiles and it helps remind me of all the reasons to be happy in the moment.

As for the food, I love food… but really who doesn’t? Uganda isn’t exactly known for its cuisine – a typical Ugandan meal includes rice, cabbage, fried minnows and lots of potatoes. But I must say, there are certain Ugandan delicacies I crave once I’m away. For starters, never have I tasted fruit so fresh. It doesn’t taste anything like the same fruit I find in the US. Papaya, pineapple, watermelon and bananas, avocados, passion fruit, jack fruit and oranges are the most popular. I started a barter system with the kids. When I would paddle up to our surf spot, the kids would ask for clothing for free. Due to many well-meaning kayakers who have obliged them, it has become an issue. The kids beg instead of work and their parents get very upset. I set up a system where I trade my stuff in return for fruit. I bring a bag with four or five items a day and then discuss with the kids how much fruit I want in return. Five avocados for a t-shirt, 10 oranges for shorts, or one papaya for shorts etc. I boat and the kids run off to get the fruit from their families. Once I finish boating, I inspect the fruit and pay the kids with different items. We then fill up my boat and I practically sink on my paddle back home. When we’re there, we live on a small island with about 10 other people, so I always have lots of help with the eating part.

To me, education is the most shocking and difficult part of Ugandan culture. Many people in the small villages I visit for malaria education have all sorts of theories on how they contract malaria: unripe mangoes; crazy neighbors and the rain are a few examples. Malaria kills 70-110,000 people in Uganda alone each year, the majority of which are children under the age of five. While having conversations with these people, I can’t help but think that the general state of education for most Ugandans is depressing at best. There are a lucky few who do get educated properly, but education doesn’t seem to spread the same way misinformation does. Ugandan politicians win elections because they make claims such as having cured HIV. Because people aren’t properly educated, they buy into the lies of their politicians and end up with corrupt leaders and belief systems that greatly affect their health and well-being. I try to remind myself that they are happy with their ways of living, and I encourage and educate them to the best of my knowledge without pushing my culture and general beliefs.

As I said, Uganda is a world all its own, and it makes me wonder about all the other places I haven’t yet been. I am in love with Uganda for its ability to remind me of life’s simple pleasures.  In the end, those simple moments are the ones you look back on as the greatest ones. With that said, I invite you to take a moment today, tomorrow and each day to be grateful for all those simple things. Today I am grateful for my son’s health, the clean sheets on my bed and my new fall Horny Toad apparel! What are you grateful for?

Emily Jackson

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