Ordering Food – My New Metaphor of Choice for Life in Uganda

When I first arrived, I declared that riding a boda encapsulated my experience in Uganda.  While there is still something appealing about spinning down potholed roads at night on a rickety motorbike with the cool tropical air whipping around me, recent events have made me switch to other modes of transport.  Namely, almost getting smacked by a car and receiving a second degree burn on my leg from an exhaust pipe.  In short, if riding a boda boda is a metaphor for life in Uganda, than Uganda is going to kill me (see previous post).

And so I present my new way of grossly over-simplifying life in Uganda in order to capture it in a 1000 word blog post: ordering food.

Traditional meals in Uganda are very simple.  You get a plate of “food” which consists of posho (corn mush), matooke (banana mush), potato (sometimes mushed), and rice (inherently mushy), along with a bowl of sauce, which ranges from beans to meat, by which I mean it is either beans or meat.  While this means that there are hypothetically 48 different permutations of food+sauce you can order (don’t check the math), ordering food and paying still shouldn’t be very complicated, since most people order the exact same thing, almost everything costs the same, and most restaurants have only about four tables.

And yet, somehow, eating at a restaurant in Uganda tends to be an incredibly complicated ordeal.  The first hurdle is getting the waitress to know that you are there.  Practically every Ugandan restaurant reminds me of Carousel in Princeton, a probable mob-front where the employees seem genuinely surprised that someone is actually patronizing their establishment.  Here, once you are seated, the waiter may or may not ask you if you want a drink.  He or she will then come at intermittent periods to ask random individuals what they would like to eat; waiters never take orders from everyone at once.  Potentially before the entire party is done ordering, they will then start bringing food out, and then probably forget about the remaining people.  Inevitably – despite the fact that everyone ordered the same thing – they will bring each person a completely arbitrary selection of food and sauces that bear no relation to what they requested.  Or, perhaps, they will announce that they are out of whatever it is you ordered (or didn’t order, but they think you ordered), or, if you’re really lucky, that there is no food left whatsoever.  Paying itself is a nightmarish experience, as the owner will quote to you a price off the top of their head, take money, and bring you change as if you bought something at a completely different price.

I think my favorite Ugandan restaurant experience happened a few nights ago, when, after waiting for an hour, Guy walked into the kitchen to see why we hadn’t been served.  Our food was sitting there on the counter, getting cold.  When Guy queried why we hadn’t been served, our waiter responded “Oh, you wanted us to bring it out to you?”

The cultural relativism cultivated in me by my training as an anthropologist pushes me to just say that restaurants here are run differently, not better or worse than the ones I’m used to.  All in all, though, it’s hard for me not to come to the conclusion that people here are – if not incompetent – at least kind of making it up as they go.  Every request I make in a Ugandan restaurant is treated as if it is the first time anyone has ever asked for such a thing. You want to have food served to you?  And you want a drink too?  And then you want to pay for it?  Ridiculous!

And here is where I make the jump from ranting Mzungu to erstwhile sociologist.  What makes Ugandan restaurants so frustrating is that there is no pattern; every time you eat, it’s a whole new experience.  When I sit back and thing about it, this is true for practically everything here: stores never have the same items, boda bodas never charge the same price for a given distance, and taps never discharge hot water two days in a row.  It occurs to me that the ad hoc way people go about their lives is a way of coping with uncertainty; if nothing is reliable, why become wedded to doing something a certain way at a certain time?  The unfazed response of people in Mubende to a five hour power outage exemplified, to me, this flexibility.

The problem, of course, is that us Westerners live by patterns.  Even in the heady, crazy days of college, my days were incredibly reliable: I woke up at the same time, ate at the same places, and did my homework for a certain number of hours, facilitated by reliable power and internet.  Our way of life thrives on predictability; we are able to live at an absurdly accelerated pace because the vast majority of social interactions and economic transactions occur in invariable and standard ways.  The situation here is different, and as a result, everything slows down.

I think if I stayed here long enough, I could learn to enjoy the pace of life here.  Right now, though, I feel like I am at war with it.  Like any project run by good Western professionals, we have a very specific schedule; certain farmers are supposed to be mobilized on specific days and at certain times, and if any of these pieces falls out of place, our data is incomplete.  So my days are spent pushing square pegs into round holes, convincing people without watches that they need to arrive promptly at 9:00 a.m. and convincing farming organization that taking a survey on the right day is more important than planting the day after it rains.

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