Posted by: howvoicebegan | 10/07/2013

You Have Land, I Have Groceries

I have already spent over a week in Uganda and I have much to consider from my time spent thus far. There was one experience in particular that I felt captures quite well the framework I must keep in mind during the remainder of my weeks here.

As is common on trips to Africa, there are "down" days. A typical American might consider them a waste of time, but if properly prepared for they can be true gems used for building relationships, reflecting, or meditating on God’s Word. It was one of those down days when it was announced we were going to go visit someone, and we headed off through the valley separating us from the house of a man named Gabe (name changed).

Working mainly through an interpretor, he asked questions about life in America: do we learn Luganda in school? He was surprised to find out we don’t. Do we have matooke (plantains) in America? Or cassava? After a series of no’s his disbelieving face seemed to ask, "Then what do you eat in America?" He asked how many cows I had and when I said none, he asked, "But you have money? How do you have money without having cows?"

We have a term for this– ethnocentrism, which is looking at the world through the lens of your own culture. Often students and development practitioners are trained that ethnocentrism is bad and must be thrown out in order to use the best practices, as sometimes our cultural lens is used to judge between two cultures and compare that one is superior to another. But ethnocentrism is unavoidable; it is impossible to completely remove yourself from your cultural standpoint, especially because you can’t even see what was culturally bred into your thoughts and actions.

In his view, Gabe cannot imagine a world where Luganda is not spoken or a world where a distant grocery store provides food more than a plantain bunch cut off with a machete. And he is not wrong for his assumptions about the cows I raise or the cassava I harvest from my garden because it is so much a part of his worldview that he can’t see anything outside it.

Instead of it being a hindrance I have realized that local ethnocentrism can be harnessed as a tool for empowerment. The types of views that people hold, whether "How can there not be plantains in America?" or "How can they live without more food variety?" speaks much about what is important to a society. Worldviews can reveal themes and symbols that form identities of people, communities, and societies.

In my work my challenge is to bring out ethnocentrism to better understand the perspectives, beliefs, and identities that people hold regarding food and nutrition. I can then find out why certain foods are so central or valuable to both producers and consumers. If I try to neutralize their ethnocentricity, I may never find the value of food in a community and will be left with unrevealing questions centered on, "Why don’t they do things our way?"

So this will be my focus in the upcoming weeks. My goal is to embrace the lens of the people here as the only lens that can reveal their story. It is the lens that can uplift, empower, and guide. And it is the lens I must use if I want to know what they know.

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