Like any host family situation there are ups and downs to living with a Ugandan host family. Most Ugandans speak English, so the language barrier is typically not as challenging as some home stay situations. When I lived in Russia, for example, my family only knew a handful of English words and I was at beginner level Russian, making it nearly impossible to communicate. Although there are deeper cultural differences that will continue to challenge you during a longer stay in Uganda of a year or more, there are some basic challenges that are common in the first month. Here is a short list of those shared most commonly among Peace Corps Volunteers.
At my home stay we had a lot of cockroaches. They crawled around on the floor, walls, and even the kitchen table, but most of them got out of the way at dinner time. I admit that even toward the end of my home stay, I struggled when the power was out and I heard something scurry across the dinner table. I could usually see movement in the shadows from the kerosene lantern as they scurried to safety next to a serving dish. After dinner, I would go read in my room, where I had to pick the cockroaches out of my bed before getting in and tucking in my bed net. The bed net reminded me of a canopy and made me feel like a princess… except for the occasions when I accidentally trapped myself in there with something.
Uganda is pretty warm most of the time, but it can still be uncomfortable bathing with a bucket of cold or lukewarm water. Although I was lucky enough to heat my bathing water on the charcoal stove, I was really awkward the first few times and was pretty dirty for the first week. Our bathing area was outside, since there is no plumbing in the house, and consisted of four stone walls about the height of my chin with a wooden door on one side. Once I figured out the best way to pour the water while preserving enough to rinse with, bucket bathing was not stressful, but refreshing. I’ve never felt so clean and I still miss bucket bathing in the great outdoors to this day.
Learning how to do your laundry in a basin
Unlike bucket bathing, washing my laundry in a basin is something I never quite got the hang of. My host family did their best to teach me, but I wasn’t a very good student. For starters, it took me some time to figure out how to bend over the bucket without hurting my back. You have to keep your back and legs straight and hinge at the hip on a 90 degree angle. Once I had that part down, I tried to figure out how to wring all the soapy water out of my clothes without rubbing my hands raw. At my home stay, we had a giant rain tank and it was rainy season, so I could just empty the rinse water when it got too soapy and fill it with fresh. I did not have this luxury at my own home in Kiziranfumbi. I did have a rain tank, but during dry season, I couldn’t use it as generously. I had to compromise, which usually meant somewhat soapy clothes and slightly bloody hands.
Our latrines were outside next to the bathing area and were safe to use until dark, but after dark we stayed in the house. My digestive system must have still been on Michigan time in the beginning because every evening, as the sun was about the dip below the horizon, my body told me it was time to use the latrine. It was fine for the first few nights. I wore my headlamp and worst case scenario there were cockroaches and spiders crawling around in the dark with me. One evening when I was approaching just after dark, I heard a man’s voice coming from the latrine. I turned back to the house to tell my host mom that there was a man in our latrine and she said, “Oh, it’s probably just the man who lives in the garage,” which really raised more questions than it answered. She marched toward the latrine with me trailing several feet behind and shouted something in Luganda. A deep voice answered and suddenly my host mom was running toward me saying, “It’s not him! Go back to the house!”
And thus began my experience with the night bucket. Yep, that’s right. Every night I used a night bucket in my bedroom, which was closed up tight to keep the mosquitoes out, and wiped my hands clean with wet wipes and hand sanitizer. Every morning as the sun was rising, I carried my bucket to the latrine to empty and clean it. The rest of the family carried their buckets out after me because it is a completely normal thing to do in a home with no plumbing in Uganda. I’m just glad I never got sick during my home stay!
I’m not used to being around kids and Uganda has a ton of them. People stay outside most of the time since there is not much to do inside, so all the kids run around the neighborhood when they are not at school. At first, it was a bit overwhelming and since the girls all have short hair just like the boys, I couldn’t even tell a child’s gender unless the girl was wearing a skirt or earrings. It took me at least a week to know which kids actually lived in my home. Except for the youngest girl with an excessively runny nose.
The youngest child in our family was a three year old girl, and no matter how many times my host mom made her blow her nose, it always seemed to be running. It was so bad that one of my colleagues, after realizing which house I lived at, said to me, “Ohhh.. you live at the house with the girl with the…” (waves hand up and down below nose to indicate a runny nose). “Yes, I live at that house.” Every day when I returned from training, my host sister would run down the path yelling, “Myyyyy frieeeend Kaaaate!!!” and wrap her whole body around me face first. The first time it surprised me and I was a little disgusted with the nose situation, but she loved me so much that after a while, I actually looked forward to it every day. I loved my Ugandan siblings, too.
In addition to the thousands of screaming children and the adults shouting over top of them, there were goats, cows, chickens, and pigs. Our neighbors had pigs, which basically sound like they are being slaughtered, whether they are eating, sleeping, or actually being slaughtered. They are loud. And they stink, too, but I remember the noise being more disturbing than the smell. The goats were adorable, and along with the chickens, started blending into the background cacophony after a while. The cows were surprisingly loud, and on top of that they had long, terrifying horns that I didn’t want to come anywhere near. Once, on my walk home, I came across a lone cow standing in the very middle of the path. There was no obvious choice about which side to pass on, so I stood there staring at him and the cow stood there staring at me. A couple times, I started moving toward him, but every time I moved, the cow moved, which freaked me out. I started getting anxious and that seemed to make the cow anxious. It was quite a stand off.
Eating dinner at 10:00 at night
Ugandans tend to eat dinner around 9:00 or 10:00 at night and there is almost no chance of leaving the table hungry. Ugandan meals are made up of a food (starch) and a sauce (protein). Our family always had generous amounts of food – rice and potatoes – and typically beef or goat for the sauce. We even had greens to go with it and sometimes green beans, too. Occasionally, the sauce was g-nut sauce rather than meat, and these were my favorite times (groundnuts are like peanuts). We ate really well at my home stay and I never went to bed hungry, but I couldn’t go to sleep right after eating such a heavy meal or I would be up half the night with heartburn.
Evenings around the sigiri (charcoal stove) with the family
Sometimes my host mom would work late, but the days when she came home in time to help cook supper are some of my fondest memories. It took a long time to cook supper over a charcoal stove, so we had plenty of time to chat. My host mom was a university professor, which was rare for women in Uganda. Prior to becoming a professor, she worked extensively in microfinance, which I was doing my thesis and projects on, so I always loved our talks. On days when the kids were in bed early enough, we would sit up and drink tea, just the two of us. I felt really lucky to have such a fantastic host family.
Have a home stay or cultural adjustment experience of your own? Share your experience in the comments!