“And that, my friend, is the way you don’t go”

I’ve been told that Ugandans are very indirect (as compared to Kenyans, who are apparently quite blunt). This indirectness is, hilariously, exemplified by Ugandans who are – you guessed it! – giving directions.

Every day of our field research is a series of semi-contained catastrophes. The fourth or the fifth disaster of the day tends to come around 8:30 a.m., when we realize that (once again) our driver hasn’t the slightest clue which of the past fourteen forks in the unmarked dirt road we should have taken, but has nonetheless forged onward, leaving us completely lost. At this point, we usually stop and ask someone for directions. As in, we ask one person for directions. But responding quickly becomes a group affair. Ugandans are fabulously emotive, so usually within a few minutes we have a cluster of farmers outside our van, wildly gesticulating and making the high pitched noises Ugandans use to express… well, everything. Arms tend to point in wide arcs, and then come all the way around, implying that what we really need to do is drive in a circle three times and then click our heels. This morning, a single farmer actually pointed in each of the four cardinal directions in turn, progressively changing his mind about where we should go.

My favorite asking-for-directions story, though, was in Kampala. Although a “major” “modern” “capital” city, there are all of about four named roads in the city. Boda-boda drivers – much like New York Cab drivers – tend to assure you that they know where you want to go and then, when you press them about why you are heading off into the outskirts of the city, admit that they are utterly clueless and didn’t even hear what you said the first time and, actually, don’t speak English at all. One day, Vivian and I managed to get reasonably lost in a search for the holy-grail of Indian food in Kisimenti. For some truly inexplicable reason, we stopped by a policeman and asked for directions. Ugandan policemen are extremely reluctant to investigate crimes or enforce laws, but this one was eager to offer directions. He pointed to a roundabout in front of us, and motioned to the branch going to the right. He explained that the road would go up a hill, and would turn left slightly before following a straight course for some time. He gave us an extensive roster of landmarks to guide us, ensuring that, at every point, we would know we were on the right route.

He then added, “And that my friend is the way you don’t go.” As if as an afterthought, he explained that we should go straight through the intersection, but that we should ask for directions shortly afterward, because he wasn’t sure where Kisimenti was from there.

If I were a proper anthropologist, I’d say something about circular thinking and different cultutal perceptions of space and time, but I’ll settle for just saying that I’m amused. It’s little things like this that make me so grateful for the opportunity to travel.

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