Misconceptions… We all have them, whether they are about people, places or things, before we truly get to know them; a judgment or thought which is based off of a very jaded view point or bias. Since I have been in Africa, I have noticed many misconceptions I had had, both about Gulu and some of the people here with me. As I was preparing to leave for Gulu, I could not shake the stereotypical picture of a third-world country which I had stuck in my head. I thought of it as an underprivileged, poverty stricken, and scary place in the middle of one of the most dangerous regions in the world; I could not have been more wrong. There is poverty in Gulu but the people here do not feel under privileged at all; they are prideful and hardworking, they respect what they have and the opportunities they are given.
Although there was a war that lasted in northern Uganda for more than twenty years, Gulu is definitely not a dangerous place in its current state. Sure, I have had my guard up throughout most of the trip, but I am finding the Acholi people to be most warming and welcoming. For instance, a group of four other teachers and I were walking up and down the streets last night after it got dark, just simply conversing with the Acholi as we passed by. We walked through a makeshift market along one of the streets and had many friendly encounters. While we were walking, I made a comment to one of the other people I was with, Becca, in which I stated that I would not feel nearly as comfortable walking up and down the streets of downtown Denver at night as I felt walking through Gulu. Everyone is so friendly. All one needs to do is simply say hello, or “apwoyo” in luo/acholi, and the locals respond with a smile. Even though I am using a latrine to go to the bathroom, which is a glorified hole in the ground, I have still found Gulu to be a much more developed and sophisticated place than I had originally thought…shame on me for my misconceptions about Gulu.
I also had misconceptions about people within my group of teachers. There is a man on this trip named who we call Big John. He is a 53 year-old-man who has been on the Teacher Exchange in Gulu four previous times. Leading up to our journey, John would often e-mail us at the early hours of the morning, or extremely late at night depending on how you look at it, with random facts and details about Uganda. Being completely honest, I thought John seemed like a know-it-all, condescending, overzealous, old man. I was not sure I would really enjoy being around him for six weeks.
When we all met at the airport in London, John turned out to be a rather young looking, 6 feet, 11 inch tall, man with an amazing sense of humor. He automatically broke the ice with the group, making us all laugh and bringing the 12 of us together. When we arrived in Uganda, he led us around Gulu to help us explore but he never came off as condescending or arrogant, just helpful. He is also famous among the Acholi people; everyone knows Big John. The other night at a pub called BJ’z, John and I played a game of invisible hacky-sack which was absolutely hysterical. The rest of the group quickly joined us and together we created a scene in the bar which must have looked ridiculous. Imagine a bunch of munus, Acholi for white people, in a bar in Uganda pretending to pass a ball around in the most outrageous way. It was stupid, yet hilarious. The people I am with in Uganda, including John, are quickly becoming my family. Misconceptions are a funny thing; predetermined judgment is a stupid thing.
Random coincidences can be life’s way of sending a message. Unfortunately, figuring out what that message is can be a little harder. Here are a couple of coincidences which I have been thinking about today:
1) My stepfather was born on October 8th and died barely after 12:00 AM on June 8th. My favorite number has been 8 since I was five-years-old, because of my stepdad. He actually was my baseball coach for the first several years I played and he always made sure I got to wear #8.
2) The number 8 turned on its side is the infinity sign. One’s impact on others, his/her legacy, it can last forever through lives of other people.
3) I have been thinking about my dad a lot since I got to Africa, kind of looking for some guidance or a way to grieve. I am not sure if I will ever have an appropriate time to grieve until I am back home, but here is a story which gave me comfort: When Big John was in Uganda on the previous year, he had also recently lost a loved one; one of his best friends. He told me a story about how this place is wondrous and people can often times find answers or feel the things they need to find and feel her. His story was simple yet it left me pondering: He had not mentioned his loss to anyone on the trip, including his Acholi friends. However, one night during a thunderstorm, his Acholi friend named Alfred said out of nowhere: “He is here with us right now. Can you not sense it, John?” Alfred never would explain to him what he meant. Life is full of funny little gifts!
Another coincidence which has stood out to me happened tonight. This evening we all had a dinner with our Ugandan partner teachers and I am lucky enough to have more than one. I met two of the three tonight, Doris and Geoffrey. I told Geoffrey that my dad’s name was Jeffrey (not my stepfather but my biological father). He looked at me and said in his thick Acholi accent:
“Joshua, my youngest son is named Joshua, what a good coincidence from God!” For the rest of dinner, Geoffrey held my hand, which is very common practice among Ugandan men, and called me his son. He told me as I walked him out, “My son, I am looking forward very much to spending the next weeks with you. I can tell we will be great teachers together. I have always wanted to teach with my son.”
Geoffrey and I already have a great relationship and I can tell we will be great colleagues and better friends. It is those random coincidences that make life meaningful. As I said before, my stepfather may have died, but he is here with me in Africa. John was right; this is a magical place. This Is Africa.