Living in a place which is so culturally different can lead to some unfortunate lapses in manners. No one explains what the rules are, I at least was never presented a neatly bound guide to Ugandan manners and customs, and so how am I to know when I inadvertently commit a faux pas?
Our guard and gardener, Steve, a wonderful gentle soul who lives on our property and works for us approached us two weeks ago deeply distraught. His father had unexpectedly died and he needed to leave immediately to attend to his family and the burial. While most of us would have just written a note and left town, he waited all day to get our permission before leaving. I thought this was disturbing but apparently this is that way things are done so of course I just sent him off with a wave and my condolences. He assured us he would return in three days. He only returned five days later, with explanations of a dead phone battery. This is understandable as there is no electricity in the village and therefore nowhere to charge the phone. It didn’t explain where he was but I left it at that, presuming his family had needed him more than us.
Then this past week a collection envelope was passed around school to collect money for our receptionist whose father had died. The same week another colleague lost her mother-in-law but no envelope was passed around. I decided it was time to investigate. The rules are thus: if the person who has died is like your ‘king’ or you are the ‘king ‘to them then collection is taken to raise funds to the equivalent of half their salary. Having a ‘king’ relationship is a monetary one; either you support that person or they support you. Where I come from no money is collected on the occasion of a death, often a donation is made to a chosen charity and flowers and a sympathy card are considered polite. Unfortunately it turns out Steve had huge expenses associated with the death of his father and perhaps the reason he waited before we left was to collect some money from us. But we never knew. Only yesterday did I remedy the situation by giving him an envelope of money, two weeks late.
Other things I have learnt concerning Ugandan customs this week: it is considered the height of impoliteness for a woman to show her knees. Breasts no problem, but knees are a serious offence. Wives are generally (and this does apply more to rural rather than city dwellers) not supposed to look their husband directly in the eye. When someone leaves your home it is considered polite to give them “a push down the road”, meaning to walk someone part way along the road. This implies that they are always welcome to return and you are reluctant to say goodbye.
I wonder how often I have offended people by not being aware of rules and customs; hopefully if I have done so it is with the understanding that I was ignorant and not rude.