I lie in my firm foam mattress on the concrete floor, listening to the herds of crickets around me. A fellow intern and I had settled in for the night at the home of host family in Bugabula, a village nearly two hours from Jinja. We occupied a concrete back room, just large enough to hold two twin mattresses. I tried not to think about the cockroaches, spiders or other unidentifiable critters I saw on the wall. Rain tapped vigorously against the tin roof as closed my eyes, looking forward to the morning.
Spending 24 hours in a village was one of the most joyful and genuine experiences I have had in Africa. Our host family consisted of the village church pastor, his wife and their eight children. The family fed us at least four meals between lunch and dinner, another three by lunch the next day, and they made surewe were always seated in their best plastic lawn chairs while they sat on the porch or ground. We had fresh roasted corn, posho, rice, beef and the best sweet potatoes the earth has to offer. They grew all of their food in the family gardens that were made up of more acres than I could measure.
We played Ugandan and American hopscotch and demonstrated dance for each culture. The most American dances we could think to share were Cotton Eye Joe and square dancing. They loved it, and they found humor in our attempts to copy their cultural dances.
The children taught us many new Lusoga words, mostly agriculture terms since that it was ruled their everyday life. In church, we joined the chorus/worship team in song and dance at the front. The whole church cheered and laughed at our awkward hip-swaying motions. We also helped sweep the dirt around the church and harvest millet, cutting each head of grain individually with a dull blade.
The people in the village work harder than any other group of people I have experienced. Rising with the sun, they clean their lot and work in their never-ending gardens. They prepare fires and cook in smoky huts, always making more food than necessary and making every effort to tend to visitors. They do not have water readily accessible nor machines to sow or reap their gardens, and they have to dig their own bathrooms and make bricks to build their homes. They work endlessly and tirelessly only to make a few dollars a day, sometimes less.
The people tell us, white visitors, that they need money. They ask us to take them to America or to pay for their schooling. They tell us that they are poor. Our host family’s eldest daughter asked how people washed clothes in America. She was dumbfounded when I told her we had machines.
Poverty in Africa can be hard to define. In some ways, it has created their culture of hard work and hospitality. However, so many Africans wish to be like America. I have seen how strenuous everyday life can be, and though our small guest room was comfortable, I can understand why one would want a finished and furnished home free of cockroaches and spiders. I can see how modern technology could make their lives easier.
Within 24 hours, I was beginning to miss the comfort of a first-world bathroom and a furnished bedroom. But leaving after those 24 hours, I was missing the dozen village children I have spent time with, the family’s hospitality and influence of their labor we were learning from.
I pray that Africa reaches its dream of development, but that it does so without losing its culture, that it remains African and doesn’t become American.