This post is an assignment that asked us to reflect on our interactions with “various groups of people in the field” this summer through three related narratives. Many fellows have interacted with farmers and artisans. Working with Tugende put me in contact with motorcycle taxi drivers, better known as boda bodas. But talking about groups excites my engineering, left brain, which loves to sort. I automatically categorized the people I spent time with this summer: other GSBFellows, Tugende employees, local interns, the drivers in the field… and I know Keith (and Miller Center, and Santa Clara’s ELSJ requirement) wants me to reflect specifically on my experiences with the boda boda drivers in the field. But memories fade, and it’s all messy conglomeration. And boxing people prevents me from taking a long, loving look; I naturally apply an algorithm and assign blanket attributes that apply to all belonging to the same category. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned this summer is one of Tugende’s core values. We work as a team.
Wednesday, 11 July 2018. 13:00.
Joe, Peace, and I rode into the bustling and chaotic Kampala City Square. The three of us had spent the morning in a different suburb interviewing drivers in the rain. We spoke to boda boda drivers under tress and extremely narrow roof awnings, and precariously rode through the muddy, auburn roads. There was no shelter in downtown, but thankfully by this time it was only overcast. The first driver we interviewed in City Square was the stage leader named Baswali; he pelted us with questions, finally agreeing to take our survey only when we promised him a soda after finishing. Still skeptical and reluctant, he repeatedly asked us why we were recording his answers about his income, his family, and his savings. The process felt like riding a motorcycle through the rain – messy, uncomfortable, and hazardous.
Afterwards, we patiently listened to him rant about Tugende’s demanding collections process for just as long as it took him to answer our thirty questions. When he finally finished, I breathed a sigh of relief. The storm had passed. I timidly asked if there were other Tugende drivers from his stage we could interview. Baswali pointed to two other drivers, calling them in Luganda, the local dialect. He was much more persuasive than us, convincing the drivers to take our survey in a few short Lugandan sentences.
But as I was still talking to one of the drivers, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Baswali brought three more Tugende drivers to us. “He’s one also,” he pointed with a smile. I nodded and thanked him. And this kept happening. In the middle of every survey, he interrupted us, introducing more drivers who finished Tugende leases. By the end of the afternoon, Baswali had recruited 10+ other Tugende drivers from his stage to take our survey. In between surveys, he chatted with us, joked with us, and even asked if Joe and I were from the same tribe (The answer is no. I’m Californian and Joe is Oregonian).
I laughed so much that afternoon: at myself for being so scared of him, but with him because he trusted us. We only spent one short afternoon on that busy street corner, but Baswali gave me hope, not only in reaching our daily research target but also in the power of human connection. His personal network outperformed any planning and calling we could do from the office. But he also connected with us, the suspicious, foreign students extracting personal information, and shared with us not just his wicked sense of humour, but also his life story. This afternoon gave me a glimpse of the joy human interaction can bring and it’s something I hope to continue experiencing wherever I am.
Wednesday, 25 July 2018. 23:20.
My phone rang. The number showed, but it didn’t belong to anyone in my contact. Because we used my phone to call all the boda boda drivers to tell them about our research, I assumed this was one of the Tugende clients that missed our call. He probably calling back, but I didn’t speak Luganda and couldn’t tell him why we called him in the first place. But after the phone stopped ringing, I received a WhatsApp message: “Hey it’s me calling” It was Bashir (one of the Tugende employees we worked with in Jinja for a week. For a more complete story of Bashir, see here). I smiled and dialed the recently missed number.
After telling him that I thought he was a random boda driver, I asked him what’s up. “Why did you call me?”
In return, he asked me how Joe was doing. He had asked us how our fieldwork went earlier, and I sent him this message: “The field was tough today! We walked around Kazo but didn’t get many surveys and Joe wasn’t feeling great so we stopped around 12.”
I told him I hadn’t seen Joe since we got back from dinner, but he seemed OK after eating luwombo, a traditional Ugandan dish. I think I said something about being tired from traveling and Bashir got really serious. Based on the symptoms I described, he warned me that Joe might have malaria, instructed me to take him to the doctors the next day, and told me to take care of him. This made me really worried, but I thanked Bashir for telling me and promised him that I would take good care of Joe.
Joe slept in the next day and was fine. Thank God he didn’t have malaria.
While this incident caused some unnecessary stress for me, it highlighted the love and care that I experienced so many times in Uganda. I don’t know what other word to use, but nobody I’ve only known for four days would be worried enough to call and ask not about me, but about my research partner. Maybe my vocabulary just isn’t extensive enough to accurately describe my feelings and thoughts that the time, but I do know that Bashir had our backs. He was watching out for us. His late night call gave me faith that people do care for each other, even when there’s nothing to gain from the relationship. Even though he was 70 km away, he was on our team.
This last story does not happen during a particular day or time.
“Why are you so slow when you cross the street? It’s like you become a snail when you see a car coming.” I rolled my eyes. Edgar, the local intern I worked with, always scolded me when we crossed the busy and congested streets of Kampala. I still wasn’t used to the way he almost walked into the cars in the street, and my short legs just couldn’t catch up to the long strides of my 6’3” partner.
At the next intersection, Edgar grabbed my hand and pulled me into the traffic. I felt like a little girl, even though I am 21. Gosh, I know how to cross the street. A van sped past behind us, but I figured that Ugandan drivers wouldn’t run over a mzungu girl. They’d probably slow down just to look at me.
This happened almost every day in the “field,” the city of Kampala. For the first few days, I was incredulous. In addition to these comments about crossing the streets, Edgar would comment on how lazy Ugandan girls are. He also constantly asked me if I was too hot or too tired to walk to the next boda boda stage. I always assured him that I was fine. He probably thought that I was just as sensitive as Ugandan ladies, on top of being a clueless foreigner.
But as we continued to cross more streets, Edgar started to change his tone. “You’ll end up in the Naguru hospital, and I don’t want that.” “I’m not ready to see you knocked by a car.” Through more conversations and more time in the field, he revealed not an arrogant and demeaning character but a humble and compassionate soul. He cared deeply for the people in his life, and I slowly became one of them. The abrupt nudges at the street corners were not signs of condescension but vicious protection. His motivation was probably always kind, but I was too cynical to suspect. I realized I wanted to be strong and help others, but often resisted help from others. I’m often too proud to admit that I need help.
Seven weeks of crossing the streets taught me that I don’t have to pretend to know where I’m going. Whenever I was with Edgar, I knew I was walking with someone who knew the best way to get around town, who had my best intentions in mind and would go far measures to make sure I was fine. He showed me that in order to love my teammates, I must also be willing to receive love. And where am I going? I'm still figuring it out.
This summer, I had perhaps the best team experience I've ever had. I'll give credit to Joe, Edgar, and Peace, the summer research fellows, but our team was much bigger than four people. It included the Tugende employees, Miller Center staff, and every single driver that was willing to talk to us. Together, we accomplished more than what clueless student researchers (pictured left) can do alone. On this team, I experienced hope, faith, and love.