Thirty four days ago, I arrived in Uganda with very few expectations. In order to avoid disappointment, I try to approach new situations with an open mind, and the only expectations I harbored before I arrived in Kampala were negative ones. I expected to be frustrated by the bureaucratic hurdles of doing research in a foreign country, overwhelmed by vast cultural differences between Uganda and the U.S., and lonely and isolated in a country where I had no friends, coworkers, or colleagues.
I am happy to report that these expectations have proved to be unfounded. As soon as I landed at Entebbe International Airport, I marveled at how much nicer Uganda was than Cameroon. My only other experience traveling in Africa, going to Cameroon in 2011 prepared me for some of the daily frustrations of living in a developing country—dilapidated roads, spotty electricity, and waiting one to two hours for service at every restaurant we went to.
Cameroon also gave me reasons to look forward to returning to Africa—delicious food, friendly people, and awesome beverages. For some reason, Cameroon has a whole assortment of wonderful sodas and beers that are depressingly absent from East Africa. The food in Uganda is also much blander than West African cuisine and like any world capital, Kampalans are a bit busier and less friendly than folks out in the villages.
Amidst this hustle and bustle, however, is a very comfortable and exciting city. There is a constant stream of entertaining events and a revolving door of fascinating people coming and going. I love being in cities, because they make me feel connected to large swaths of humanity. Even sitting in Kampala traffic in a matatu for two hours can be strangely soothing: you and the thirteen people in the taxi with you are experiencing the exact same thing.
A peculiar thing about big cities is that people are unified and separated at the same time. In Shanghai or Kampala, I might be surrounded by a crowd of thousands of people, but I am also alone, lost in anonymity. When I traveled on the Tube on my way through London, I found it to be exactly like the subways in New York and Washington, D.C. — silent. The cordiality we enjoy in the American South, “Howdy, how’s your day going?”, seems lost in big cities. Kampala bucks this trend a bit—I greet shopkeepers warmly and children wave at me and yell “Mzungu” in the street—but the anonymity of the big city is still present.
Fortunately, I have been able to enjoy this anonymity while also finding a niche for myself in the social fabric of Kampala. Auditing classes at Makerere University has allowed me to befriend many Ugandans and I have met a number of expats from around the world.
However, my closest friends here so far are other Americans. As young, twenty-somethings who graduated from college and moved to Uganda, we have a lot in common and it’s comforting at the end of a long day to talk to people who understand your accent, your cultural references, and what you’re going through.
As I settle in socially, I have also found my place academically. I have narrowed down my research topic to exploring how the Ugandan military has been portrayed by the Ugandan media. Although this topic differs slightly from the dominant literature on peace journalism, I think it is an important intersection to explore. Most information that societies receive on conflict comes from military and government sources, who use the media as a way to influence public opinion. When journalists publish information without carefully analyzing the conflict, considering both sides, and talking to multiple sources, societies might receive skewed information, which affects people’s opinions on peace and conflict.
In extreme cases, governments can even use the media to initiate and escalate conflicts for their own political, economic, or ideological gain. By examining how the Ugandan military has been covered by both government-owned and independent papers, I hope to enhance our understanding of the media’s relationship to the military, which could help to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future. Today I discovered some great media archives in Kampala, so I look forward to spending the next few weeks pouring over twenty years of news articles about the Ugandan military.
Overall, my life in Kampala has been more comfortable than I imagined. I am enjoying my research, meeting awesome people, and forming close friendships. When you love what you’re doing and the people you’re with and you feel like you are making a small difference in the world, what more could you ask for? I miss my friends and family back home, but I am looking forward to another awesome eight months in Uganda.