A view over Kampala, Uganda. Photo taken by Lorenn Ruster

Contrasts and calibration

After being fortunate enough to return to Kampala for the final couple of weeks of the Acumen Fellowship, I have now left with no known return date. It was a difficult departure as I had really grown so fond of the country and its people, honestly some of the most warm and kind people I have met in my life.

I type this from San Francisco. The difference between the two worlds is smacking me in the face right now (I think they call it reverse culture shock..). I thought I’d share some things that are striking me:

Crowds. Loads of people in both cities, however a sense of order and control pervades the streets of San Fran, in stark contrast to the more ‘trying to be organised chaos’ feel of Kampala.

Walking around. I am truly anonymous here, blending into the everyday as just another person hustling in this Californian city. In Kampala, no matter how hard I tried, it was obvious I wasn’t from there. I was never fully anonymous. Strangers knew to call me by the name of mzungu (a nice way of saying white person) or ‘lady’ or ‘madam’. Boda boda drivers would pull up in the street to try to convince me I needed a ride with them. People helped me with directions if I looked in the slightest bit lost. I was connected into what was happening there in each moment. Here, I am more of a passerby.

Line up of boda boda drivers at my local ‘boda stage’ in Kansanga. Photo taken by Lorenn Ruster

Uber. It was just introduced in Kampala only a few months back and quite frankly was a godsend for me as with my ankle injury, bodas are out of the question. Riding Uber in Kampala is an adventure — they must be called as soon as you order to make sure they’re coming (and then again when you can see that they’re actually travelling in the opposite direction to where you are), the maps are a bit hit and miss and the cars sometimes on the dodgy side to say the very least (one poor man had all of the insides of his car stolen — all switches, radio, pieces of the dashboard. And he still picked me up). Once you get in, you’re likely in for a conversation with the driver that spans children (and why you don’t have any), how long you’ve been in Kampala (and how you enjoy it) and a couple of leads for selling solar. In contrast, here in the birthplace of Uber, I requested a car and boom, there it was, actually already right in front of me. I got in and got out with minimal small talk. Swift, efficient and impersonal.

Technology. I’ve been attending a conference on exponential technology and how it applies to global grand challenges whilst here in San Fran. The contrast between the crazy conversations about space travel, nanotechnology and 3D printed food and the reality I’ve just come from is wide. One of the speakers encouraged the audience to build an app for practice and then go and solve a problem a billion people not like you have. I like the call to a larger, more purposeful action (but also thought an even more powerful call to action would have been for the inclusion of more of the billion people experiencing such challenges in this conference / these industries). In between the talks I would chat with random people. When I told them that I’d been working in solar energy in Uganda, I received a lot of looks of disbelief and even pity (like it was such a sacrifice to have left the wonders of somewhere like here to go there). I felt uncomfortable and found myself becoming an advocate for East Africa.

One of the reality checks whilst at the Singularity University Global Summit. Photo taken by Lorenn Ruster

Truly connecting with new people. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just spent 3 days in a tech conference, but I struggled to make a real connection to most of the new people I’ve met in the past few days. I found the veneer of tech entrepreneur really difficult to break through, I found myself wondering who these people really were and what made them tick truly, I waited in vain for a genuine smile. Then I found myself thinking about the lady I would take my washing to down the street in Kansanga — her name is Present — and how after only 3 brief interactions over my washing she rang me to express her concern about my injury and to hope I came back soon.I found myself thinking about Robinson — the man who would drive me to the airport — and the small detours he would make to show me his favourite views of the city. This warmth and care permeated so many of my interactions in Uganda.

These are just some of the small things. I was truly touched by so many of my colleagues and friends in Uganda and everyday people I met in everyday interactions. I will share more about some of my core takeaways in another post, but suffice it to say that the warmth and kindness I have experienced over the past year as an outsider in Uganda has been truly amazing.

I will continue to reflect on this as I re-calibrate to my new reality.

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