July 19, 2014

We Fear What We Don’t Understand. ~ Amy Carst


My family just returned from a four month stay in Uganda.

My husband quit his job, we put all our belongings in storage, took our three children out of school, and hopped on a plane. Well, it was a bit more chaotic than that, but in retrospect that was the chain of events. It was my third trip to Africa but the first time I was completely transformed by my surroundings. Below is an excerpt from my journal, written while I was still overseas.

I am sitting under my mosquito netting with a cup of strong coffee while a preacher’s sermon is projected in the native Luganda from a nearby church. It is 5:30 in the morning. When I first arrived in Uganda, I was annoyed by this loud, peculiar, pre-dawn disturbance. This morning I stood at the kitchen stove, boiling water for my coffee.

The sermon had been going on for at least 10 or 15 minutes when I finally registered it. It has become background noise, much like a window fan in summer or water flowing down a backyard stream. Then I thought about how strange it was when we first got here. How my kids thought it was scary or creepy.

Now it’s just normal.  I worry about my return to Vermont. The way the thick blanket of snow muffles and mutes every sound of life in the dark of morning. Will the silence disturb me from my sleep as this projected, foreign, male voice did when I first arrived here?

What was once strange is now normal.

Before we set off for Uganda, there was palpable anxiety from many of our loved ones. Africa is a very misunderstood continent, and we often fear what we don’t understand. I had fears before my first time here. I didn’t know what I was heading into. Those fears were quickly assuaged, and the fear of Uganda was replaced with a love for Uganda.

This country is far from perfect, but what country can say otherwise?

My hope is that through our experiences and the many conversations we’ve had, and will have with friends and family, we have been able to paint a more accurate picture of Africa for those who may never see it firsthand.

The misconceptions about this continent rank up there with corruption, medical care, and education as the main contributing factors to its problems. Africa is a land of opportunity. The potential is astounding. As an entrepreneur, I am always trying to think of the next big idea. In the US, no matter how amazing, inspired, or unique an idea may be—it’s been done.

I could wake in the morning, sit straight up in bed, and exclaim, “I’ve got it! A coffee shop that serves Ethiopian Coffee, brewed in pineapple juice, served in beer steins by Uruguayan servers who ride around the shop on unicycles, singing the theme song from Grease!” But a quick Google search would show that this exact concept has existed in Chicago since 2011.

The phrase ‘unique business’ is an oxymoron in the US. It’s all been done. But business in Uganda, in many ways, is like traveling back in time 100 years. Business and investment—that’s what Africa needs. But it’s not what it gets.

What does it get? Aid. Charity. Pity. Now, please don’t get me wrong. Aid and charity are still very much needed in Africa. I mean, I work with an orphanage—I’m certainly not dissing aid. However, we need to re-write the ‘Westerner’s Handbook on Africa’ to focus on business, opportunity, investment, and skills-training first—charity second.

There are universities in Uganda. There are thousands of students graduating from universities every year, but there are no jobs. These students are highly intelligent, motivated, tech-savvy young thinkers. The problem is obvious. If we take the time to ‘learn’ Africa—the real Africa—there is much we can do.

Yes, there is extreme poverty, corruption, and health care and education are a mess. There are also universities, fine restaurants, successful corporations and businesses, and high-rise hotels. There are internationally recognized musicians, artists, and poets. Tourism is thriving. Natural resources are plentiful. I can get avocados the size of a small pineapple for 40 cents and pineapples the size of a watermelon for 80 cents.

People are soft spoken, gentle and friendly. If you trip, fall, bump into something, drop something, or in any way deviate from the smooth, normal course of daily existence, complete strangers all turn to you in unison and say sorry. At first I found this strange. I would say, “Oh, it’s not your fault,” until I realized that this cultural norm is actually quite remarkable. The belief that we are all one collective consciousness is often considered a trendy, new-age way of thinking.

However, I truly believe that this reflexive utterance of the word “sorry” from everyone within ear shot or eye sight is proof of this phenomenon. Life here has a stronger pulse than anywhere I’ve been. You cannot miss it. Walk or drive down any road and we will see life happening in every direction, in every store front, on bicycles and on foot, in men chopping wood or selling pineapples, in women carrying and balancing impossible loads on their heads and babies on their backs, in everyone laughing and talking and just being alive.

Alive. I cannot think of a better word to describe Africa.

And yet, if a poll was taken, asking westerners (who have never been to Africa) to describe the continent in one word, I doubt even one would say “alive.”

These are problems in Africa (and most of the developing world)—they don’t define it. But in many ways we do. It is in our power to help change the shape of Africa’s future. Read about it, research it. If you have the opportunity, visit Africa yourself. Tell other people what you have learned.

I’m not a religious person, but I have found Africa to be a particularly spiritual experience for me in a way I’d never expected. Things happen here. Good or bad, they happen. I have begun to recognize the presence of something other than myself in everything I do here. Whether it’s the presence of that collective consciousness, the beating pulse of life here, or something else—I don’t know.

What I do know is this—Africa will always be with me, a part of me. I will come back time and time again, and I will never stop learning. I have only begun to scrape the surface—and there is a deep, complex, history and culture beneath. Deeper and more complex than any place on earth. If I live to be 120, I will never know the half of it.

But I will try my best.


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