Like a Boss

Feel free to prime yourself for this blog entry with this YouTube video, which was totally hot when last I was connected to U.S. popular culture (okay, that’s never, but you get what I mean). Okay, apparently the video is not available in Uganda, so just google “Like a Boss.”

Uganda is not my first experience with being a manager, per se. (Attempting to) wrangle 50 Boy Scouts as Senior Patrol Leader, (trying to) motivate my cross country team as Captain, or (failing to) contain the Princeton University Band all required some form of leadership. But my stay in Uganda is definitely the first time I’ve had to truly be a boss. I’ve had to hire and fire people; give bonuses and cut pay; and give long lectures about “productivity” and “team-work” (I have so far avoided using the word “synergy,” but no doubt with a few more days in the field it would have come up).

On an abstract level, I really can’t stand the idea of being someone’s boss. My entire political philosophy is founded on challenging relationships of unequal power and hierarchy, not just those that exist between states or classes but also everyday relationships between individuals. The realities of my job here only made me more uncomfortable. I think I might have already complained about the fact that I am in charge of twenty people who are better-educated, older, and more experienced than I am. I am in a position of power relative to them thanks to the fact that I am white and Western.

And it’s a lot of power. I have to force my researchers to work twelve hours a day in order to meet their quota of data; I have to take back pay for enumerators who fall sick, and I’ve had to fire enumerators who – despite signing a contract to work for a full-month – no longer are needed in our research design. There have been times when I have really felt my somewhat arbitrary assignment to being “the boss” has brought out the worst in me. When you are in a country as poor as Uganda, controlling access to $15 a day in pay gives you extraordinary leverage; and I’ve used it. I once actually almost used the phrase, “If you don’t like it, you can find another job,” which is a very serious threat when jobs are nearly impossible to find.

Given all this, last night was a bit of a surprise. Our research team will continue – without a Mzungu overseer – for another two weeks of data collection once I leave (the project is comically behind schedule). I decided to take my team out to dinner (a minor expense for me, but fairly significant for them). I had stayed in the hotel all day, preparing documents for the Team Leaders to use after my departure. The team didn’t return until 8:30 p.m., and – after such a long day – I couldn’t imagine they would want to see any more of me.

We went to the Nakayima Inn, one of Mubende’s swankier establishments. I was planning to say a few words, but before I could, one of my enumerators stood up and announced that she was “Emceeing the evening.” Each of my twenty enumerators – as well as our two driver, who don’t speak English and needed translators – stood up and said a few words about how much they would miss me and thought I was a great boss and manager. One told me that, in his culture, the best way to honor someone is to give me a cow, and that if he could, he would send me a cow (and some grass – the Ugandan’s think nothing can grow in American because it’s too cold). Another gave me a bracelet, and another told me that I was the first Mzungu he had worked for, and that he had been very apprehensive but I had assuaged his fears.

Praise makes me feel really uncomfortable, and in the spirit of being humble there are a lot of things I could say to try to minimize what they said. There is an element of Ugandan culture that is very respectful and deferential to authority, after all. And perhaps the other people they had worked for were simply more exploitative. But, for all that, I have to admit, it was really nice; perhaps my best validation yet that my time in Uganda was – in some strange sense – well spent.

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