By Kim Baronet
Upon arrival in Uganda, I was lucky enough to have Chlöe, the other McGill intern in Uganda, and two local friends whom we had connected to prior to our arrival, picking me up from the airport. I was already grateful because the airport was in Entebbe, an entirely different city from Kampala where I would be living, but our friends immediately started showing us around, giving us advice, and helping us get our bearing around life in Kampala, and also in Africa more broadly as this internship marked my first time on the continent. This kindness was something I quickly learned to be a common trait to people here.
Already on my first day at Refugee Law Project (RLP), this trend continued, everyone was kind, happy to see me and, most importantly, took the time to ask me about myself and how I was doing. After a few days at RLP and in Uganda generally, I realized that things were moving more slowly than I was used to in Canada, and Chlöe and I started joking about ‘Africa time’. Although my Western mental programming made me want to do everything as quickly as possible for the sake of efficiency, I soon learned to tell myself that I had to take a step back and embrace how things are done here and the benefits it comes with. These early experiences explain how I came to think about time and kinship as being intertwined during my time in Uganda. I started noticing the importance of taking the time to stop and focus less on efficiency and more on people. In the end, this has made me more efficient.
Connections are important to build, even more so in the legal profession and in a new country. By taking my time here in Uganda, I’ve come to see that kinship should be at the heart of everything you do. Relationships are one of the most important things you can have because they can help you through personal as well as work issues. I take the time to greet my colleagues, to meet them, to invest time in them, something I don’t do enough in Canada. This practice has improved my work by making it easier to ask my colleagues for advice, for knowledge, or even for a favor. It is common, and a sign of good manners, to ask everyone how they are doing before any interactions here, even if you only need help finding your way around in the city. Everyone will gladly help you, but you must first engage with them.
The point I am trying to make is that this connection is all about taking one’s time. Even if it slows you down in one way, you’re ultimately gaining from it. A lot of things in Uganda happen from word of mouth: someone can have a contact that can help move your file along, they might know of an organization which can benefit your client, or they can have a recommendation for something. The point is that you never know when and how you might need help. Don’t be arrogant and think you have it figured out. You most likely don’t. And extra help has never harmed anyone. You never know when your car will break down on the side of the road leaving you stranded for five hours, to speak from personal experience, but you’ll be glad to have that connection who knows a driver that can pick you up.
A network built on kinship makes you more confident in your abilities to be self-sufficient and makes you more comfortable with that referral since you trust the person giving it to you. These are both important to me, especially as a female travelling alone, and it is making all the difference in my experience in Uganda. It makes me more willing to be adventurous and to take the time to explore the country’s beauty, inside and outside the city. It also helps with feeling less lonely, when all your friends and family are on the other side of the world.
Halfway through my internship, I participated in a World Refugee Day celebration through RLP. The special thing about this celebration is that it was refugee-led. The event’s slogan was “Nothing about us without us” and I remember a presenter, who was also a refugee, noting how it was impossible for someone who is not a refugee to understand what it is like to be a refugee and the hardships and challenges that they face. I obviously do not dispute that claim, but I do think that it is a testament to Ugandan’s kindness and kinship that Uganda is considered a haven for refugees and that these qualities show a certain understanding of the other, regardless of who this other is.