Each year, over one million tourists visit Uganda. Thirty-five percent of them stay less than a week, while only 4 percent remain there longer than 46 days. The net result is a large group of people with twice-used safari hats in the back of their closet who seem to know a little bit more about this great big, beautiful marble we live on.
The real question, though, is how much you can really learn about a place in five days, or even in 46 or 89? I missed out on so many things in Uganda. Three months in the country and I never went to a school. I drove through a university campus but never talked to a student. I took almost a hundred taxi rides, and I heard thousands of conversations between other passengers, but they were largely in Luganda. Eighty-some days later and I don’t even know what small talk in Uganda sounds like. How men and women interact. I never went to a church service. I feel as if I learned so much about what living in Uganda is like this past summer, but just because I went from zero to something doesn’t suggest that I learned much of anything at all.
That being said, it would be a bleak conclusion drawn to say that any visitor cannot understand the community they’ve visited. A huge (and positive) driving force behind international travel is the goal of understanding other cultures. So how long does it take to understand? During my first week in Uganda I met a Peace Corps worker in a supermarket who could speak fluent Luganda. He had only been in the country a year. When I was boarding my return flight to the United States I met a volunteer who had bought a motorcycle and survived, if not mastered, Ugandan traffic. He had been in the country only for six months. Is it presumptuous for them to think they understand the nation?
It’s incredibly easy to trick yourself into believing you know it all, confusing expertise with comfort. Day one in a new place is terrifying and day two is equal parts confusing and fascinating. Nothing is of lower quality than pictures taken out of the smudged window of a moving van, but that was my purpose my second day in Uganda. I was shell-shocked and entranced and didn’t want to miss a single billboard or butcher’s shop.
But by the time breathing Ugandan air stops being a novelty, you feel like a veteran. You’ve conquered directions and you can bargain with reasonable acuity. You feel like you know and you feel like you should be treated differently than those Dutch tourists who look perpetually lost or the American mission trip students with their conspicuously matching money wallets outside of their clothing. At what point though are you allowed to take your experiences and the knowledge you’ve gained and decide what you think about Ugandan politics, about Ugandan social norms and culture?
That may sound like a stupid question. Isn’t the point of an opinion that it is yours and that it’s simply what you think? Ugandans don’t formulate their opinions about their own country with a holistic knowledge of everything. Americans don’t do that in the United States. Nobody does that anywhere. People form opinions based on their own limited knowledge and their own restricted experiences. Yet despite this fact, people often determine the very fact that tourists (like me) might draw conclusions and hold opinions to be inappropriate and presumptuous. It’s not our country; it’s not our place to say.
In my opinion, the problem comes not in the formulation of opinions, but in the weighing of them. There’s a distinct problem when opinions are considered to be worth more than anybody else’s by virtue of being one’s own; there’s a distinct problem when they are considered to be founded on more information and knowledge than they actually are. But it’s hard for me to justify the preclusion of a person from having an opinion that follows from their experiences and their knowledge.
Levying absolute judgment isn’t the same as thinking for yourself, and if you have the opportunity to travel or live abroad, you shouldn’t feel as though you can’t do the latter. Whether you’re in Uganda or you’re in Japan, you’re welcome to hate new foods you try. You should be thinking critically about local politics, and you should be wondering why our government can’t keep our national parks open, too. No temporary visitor will get all the facts or understand all the nuances, but that doesn’t make their experience, nor the opinions based off of their experiences, invalid. Nobody’s opinion can be ultimate truth anyway, so as long as you recognize that nobody owes it to you to agree with you, you won’t be over-stepping any bounds.
I learned maybe 1 percent of what there is to know about Uganda during my stay there, but when you consider that I’ll probably never know more than .05 percent of what the Affordable Health Care Act is all about, the summer doesn’t seem like that much of a waste. In comparison to all of the information and experiences out there, I only came away with a little more than nothing, but I’ll take what I can get.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her biweekly column will run every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.