Monday, February 15, 2010

A Ugandan Family

Robert is a 34-year old Ugandan. I met him at an Internet Café a few weeks ago. He is a medical laboratory technician working in a Health Centre in Kasese. We meet once or twice a week, usually on Sundays.

Yesterday, he invited me to visit his home in a nearby village located in the Rwenzori mountains. Robert has a government subsidized apartment in Kasese, but he visits his home every weekend to be with his mother and siblings and more importantly, to help them “dig”, i.e. cultivate land. We started in the morning around 9. Normally, Robert travels to and from his village by a boda (motorbike taxi), but, today he had made special arrangement for a car taxi. Once we left the main highway, the road to his village was, like most other roads in Uganda, unpaved with hundreds of thousands of rocks and pot holes every few meters.

Maliba Town

We reached a town called Maliba (pronounced Maliva) around 10:15. It is located at the bottom of one of the mountain peaks in a scenic setting. At one end of the town is a half-completed structure where Robert’s family members and neighbours were waiting for us – his mother, his two brothers, two sisters, cousins and several neighbours. They exuded genuine joy and warmth. They were pleased to see me and their excitement was palpable. More than anyone else, his mother was beaming with happiness. Her name is Kabugho Rakeri. I soon learned the reason for their excitement - I was the first foreigner to visit them.

Family and neighbours in Maliba

Robert’s father died ten years ago of Asthma. Robert is the second oldest among his five brothers and two sisters; so, he introduces himself as Bwambale (second born) Robert. His older brother lives in Kampala and the rest of the siblings are still studying. Robert is the main breadwinner and the half-completed structure is a Health Centre he is building for his village. There is none at present.

Standing by this building, Robert pointed out his village, Mpumuro, located way up the hill. That’s where his mother lives and that’s where Robert and his siblings were born. His family members climbed up the steep hill on foot without much effort, but to make it easy on me, Robert called a couple of bodas. Yes, I rode on a motorbike without any safety gear on an uphill path with all kinds of hazards. Here, you have no choice or time to worry about safety.

Mpumuro Village

The village consists of scattered homes besides parcels of hilly terrain. Robert’s family owns about 5 acres. They grow coffee, cassava, banana, maize, Irish potatoes (Ugandan name for potatoes), sweet potatoes and groundnuts (peanuts). But, farming contributes only marginally to family’s income.

There are three small homes made of mud and wooden planks on their land – one serves as a common accommodation for the siblings, one consists of the kitchen with a wood-burning stove, and, one is his mother’s quarters. They also have a goat with two babies as well as half a dozen chickens. Water supply is a huge problem. They have to fetch water from a nearby river and that involves carrying pots full of water up and down the hill.

Robert (in the middle) and his brothers

As soon as we arrived, neighbours and friends and relatives started trickling in to greet and meet me. Robert kept repeating how special an occasion it was that a foreigner had visited them. They were glad to hear that on my part, I considered it an honour to have visited their family. They also giggled at my attempts to speak a few words in their language. Several half-naked kids kept staring at me from the doorway. They couldn’t contain excitement when I took their pictures. I also met an elderly man who is the guardian for Robert and his siblings. In this community, when a man dies, someone, an elderly family friend or a relative, is entrusted with the responsibility of mentoring and guiding the young ones. Robert explained that whenever any of the siblings and even their mother has an issue to be resolved, they turn to him for advice. He is like an elder in some of our Aboriginal communities in Canada.

When we settled down in their hut, Robert’s mother was keen on serving me some home-cooked food following their customary practice. Robert told me that she was anxious to have a goat slaughtered and cook it for me. But, he had advised her previously that I prefer vegetarian diet. Ugandans are so accustomed to meats, they cannot fathom a strictly vegetarian diet. She was disappointed, but, as a welcoming gesture, she gave me a shirt as a gift.

Tribal Traditions

I was not able to communicate directly with his mother and others because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Lhukonzo, their language. So, Robert acted as interpreter to help with the conversation. I learned that Robert’s family is from the Bakonzo tribe. According to their tradition, the father looks for the bride for his son, similar to the tradition in rural India. When Robert’s father was of marrying age, Robert’s grandfather started looking for a woman for him. He reached out to a neighbouring community and found the bride for Robert’s father. I doubt if Robert is going to follow this tradition. He already has a girl friend, Mary, a lovely woman whom I have met.

I had no idea that these people also have a dowry system. But, the roles are reversed. Instead of the bride’s folks giving the groom a dowry as in India, it is the groom’s family which gives out a dowry to the bride’s family. Often, the dowry consists of goats. Goats are greatly prized and goat meat is the most popular meat.

To give children some sense of their roots, when a child is christened, his/her formal name begins with the name of the grandfather on father’s side. Robert’s formal name is Nyamongera (grandfather’s name) Robert. All his siblings’ names similarly begin with the name of their grandfather. Yet, they don’t use their formal names in everyday use. Thus, Robert is called Bwambale (second born) Robert.

Robert’s grandfather on mother’s side died a few weeks ago at the age of 115, an amazing record in this country where life expectancy is only 52 years. He had seven women (the word they use around here for wife), and an unknown number of children. Polygamy is legal in Uganda. His grandfather on father’s side had three women and seven children. However, Robert’s father had only one woman, Kabugho Rakeri, Robert’s mother.

Outside Robert’s Home

Returning from the village, no other transport was available. Our only choice was to walk down the mountain, about 3 km to the base. The narrow path was full of twists and turns and a steep incline that sometimes was almost vertical. To exacerbate the problem, I wore sandals, not walking shoes; and the light drizzle had made the path extremely slippery in places. Robert goes up and down this path every week, knows every inch of the way and had no problem. Thanks to considerable support from him, I managed, except for a slip. That climb was one of the most stressful and exhausting I have experienced.

At the base, Robert had already arranged for us to have lunch in an excellent restaurant. The beer tasted wonderful even though it was not as cold as I would have liked. And, the vegetable curry was also good. That lunch culminated an unforgettable day. The visit to Robert’s family was an awesome learning experience, the highlight of my stay in Uganda. I got some valuable glimpses in the culture, traditions and practices of rural folks in this country. I hope other ex pats in Uganda will have a similar opportunity.

Robert’s mother

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