Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The ugly American is alive and well.

Tuesday things began to happen. I finally caught up with a group called the Human Rights Network-Uganda (HURINET_U), an umbrella NGO for human rights groups of various concerns. One of their groups works with the Batwa Pygmies and is in need of some photography and video to make their plight known to the world.

I went to the meeting with a video workshop participant named Brian. It was at Hurinet offices just outside of Kampala, about a 20 minute cab ride from the hotel. There we met with a human rights lawyer on internship from Zimbabwe (Rangoo), Muhammad (HURINET's national coordinator), and Patrick (their Advocacy, Info, and Research officer). It was a closed door meeting in Muhammad's office, quite formal as it turned out. These are African businessmen with serious work.

Considering a few harrowing moments, the meeting went well. The frustrating part was the lack of professionalism that came across on our part. Brian and I were just walking into the meeting when a call came that another video student would be joining us. Over half of the meeting had passed when the person arrived in a loud and disruptive manner. Immediately he/she (I'm just going to use the incorrect "they"!) began asking questions we had already covered. The Africans working with their underprivileged have come across as calm but intense when they speak of their country's issues. So the interruption was jarring to say the least.

The horrifying part came shortly thereafter. Weather in Uganda has been beautiful. Windows are left open, breezes and sounds of local life gently ebb and flow into the rooms. One of those sounds was the call to prayer from the neighborhood's mosque. To those of us in the meeting, it registered imperceptibly, except perhaps for the inner prayers each of us with faith most likely lifted. Well, except our newest arrival. The person threw their hands up overhead, interrupting Muhammad (yes, ironic), saying in their loud voice, "I'm sorry, but everyone is acting like they don't hear that noise. WHAT is that?"

My advice if you are traveling to an unknown land, read about it before you arrive. Learn about its people, customs, religion. In the US oftentimes our tolerance of every religion leads to knowledge and respect for none. In most of the world, religion is beautifully woven into the fabric of everyday life. And while it's impossible to learn everything about a place, certainly if you find yourself in an unknown situation, quietly ask a fellow traveler (at an appropriate time), or a native of the area with whom you've already established a rapport. (And ask in a gentle way, as the person who explains that noise to you may be named Muhammad). I know this is common sense... or so I thought. As Americans we are extremely isolated geographically and oftentimes culturally. It is our ignorance and the way we often reveal it that makes us the ugly American.

I mean, if everyone else in the room seemed nonplussed, why would one DO that?

I share this on the one hand to vent my frustration and embarrassment. On the other to put my fellow travelers on notice! ;-)


At 05:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, many share your frusration w/our compatriots and have our own examples of the "ugly American" assuming that the rest of the world's culture should conform to ours...

A decent birder

At 05:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, many share your frusration w/our compatriots and have our own examples of the "ugly American" who assumes that the rest of the world's culture should conform to ours...

A decent birder

At 05:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was once told that only 7% (perhaps its even less than that) of all Americans own a passport! Now I can well and truly believe that. But, what's the percentage of Americans with passports who act like this jerk?

Cheryl, now I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the forthcoming blogs and perhaps some images as well.

Paul x

At 06:43, Anonymous Edwin (Puerto Rico) said...

Cheryl, It is sad to see how some people doesn’t have a clue what respect means. It is very easy for some to stereotype others, many times with good reasons but it’s was a good thing that you where there to see that and write about it as many people read this posts and you can really make a difference. It is with great pleasure I read about your experiences so please keep on posting. Edwin (the Ugly Puertorrican :-)

At 13:10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, first of all for your honesty. Thank you as well for taking the time to blog your experiences. I look forward to reading about your adventure. As far as the "ugly american" - my gut says - tell them that there behavior sucks....but that may be too "ugly" for an "ugly american"...


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