It all began with “Excuse me”…

Posted: August 30, 2007 in Blog

I had just said “Excuse me” as I brushed past a fellow reporter late yesterday.

“Don’t you mean ‘excuse moi’,” I heard behind me.

Come again?

I turned to see him sitting with a big grin on his face. He had heard me speaking French to someone earlier, and wanted to show off his skills.

“I took two years of French in school,” he told me, and remembered a few phrases from that time.

We started talking, and quickly got into a debate over the relationship between French and English African countries since they achieved independence from their respective colonial powers.

From there, onto  the integration of French-speaking Rwandans into English Ugandan society since so many have come here since the middle of the 1990s.

All this, stemming from a simple “Excuse me” as I brushed past someone.

I’m slowly getting used to this dynamic– getting used to entering a vigorous political/cultural debate at a moment’s notice. Back home you can usually prepare for these sorts of things. You know they’re coming depending on where you are, who you’re with, etc.

Here, it doesn’t matter when/where/how. You best be ready to debate politics, and good luck to you if you don’t know all the people who have ruled Uganda and their respective relationships to one another.

Last week I was at a party and found myself sitting beside a Ugandan who worked as an accountant. We exchanged pleasantries and within, oh, 30 seconds we launched into an impassioned discussion of relations between the current government and the opposition parties, and about the effect the recent arrival of multi-party politics has had on the country.

About a half hour into our conversation, after we had moved on to exchanging views on IDP camps in northern Uganda, I felt like I’d just woken up from a nap in the backseat of a car on a road trip– confused and disoriented. Where are we? How did this happen?

I hadn’t expected such an intense conversation at all, and yet I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s one of the intangible differences here. Nearly everyone is extremely well-versed on politics, and more generally current events. Coming from a country where engagement in current events isn’t exactly ‘de rigueur’, it has taken some getting used to.

In North America, people are warned by their doctors as they get older that when it comes to physical and mental health, they must subscribe to the “use it, or lose it” mentality. Here, that approach applies to current events. In a country where more than one leader has taken liberties with, well, liberties, people value their knowledge of political issues very highly.

Too many leaders here, and elsewhere, have used ignorance to their benefit. So everyone, from the people I work with here, to the accountant sitting beside me at a party, to the boda-boda driver who takes me home, finds self-empowerment in political knowledge.

There is often talk of what African countries can learn from the West. But there are certain things the West would do well to learn from this part of the world.

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