No Mere Greeting, Isaac Kyeremateng, Uganda (Week 12, Post 12)

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Why do I need to engage with people from different backgrounds with a posture of learning and cultural humility? Well, for starters, such a posture of engagement is essential for living in a cross-cultural context, and in my case, it is essential to growing in compassion and healing of the patients I meet.

It is around noon. I am at the front desk of Reach One Touch One Ministries (ROTOM). So far, it has been a typical day in Uganda where many thoughts run amok. There is much to soak in and process. But I am here today, my second practicum day, to learn and serve. I tell myself: I am a pilgrim. I take notice of the beautiful plants and shrubs at the entrance of the reception contrasted with the tiled floor and smells from the pharmacy on my left. Suddenly, one jajja (the way the professionals at ROTOM refer to their clients, and jajja is the word for senior in Luganda) merges from the patio. Our eyes lock. I smile at her with a slight nod. She burst into a melody of words in Luganda that I do not understand and waits for a response. An awkward silence passes with a fumbling response from me. I need help. I tell my front desk preceptor who is a few feet away. She comes to my rescue, but jajja’s facial expression and a strong release of my hand from our handshake communicate disappointment for not speaking Luganda. I also hear jajja mention muzungu – the first time I am referred to as muzungu, which refers to a white person or western foreigner depending on the context. Jjajja might have been asking if I was a muzungu since I did not speak Luganda.

Post my interaction with jajja, time began to slow down as she sat on a chair right in front of the desk looking at me. I felt embarrassed. I wanted to hide my face behind the monitor, and I did for a while. I suppose I wanted to make a good impression but not at such discomfort.  Later in the day, I was able to share this experience with my practicum supervisor who encouraged me to use my experience as motivation to learn basic Luganda greetings. For the jajjas, greetings are important to them. The way they great can tell you the problems they have if you listen well. And sometimes, acknowledging their presence is all that is needed for them to feel better. This acknowledgment and connection can even drop their blood pressure. Then he added that some of these seniors are refugees, lonely, sometimes underappreciated or outcasts and that greeting them is a way of showing compassion. As a pilgrim, the goal is transformation and not comfort. I hope I can move forward with this sense of compassion and understanding as I continue my journey.

Abridged version. Originally written as a cross-cultural class reflection.