The Cultural Experience of Shopping for Food in Uganda

Tomorrow benchmarks my first two weeks living in Uganda, and I am finally starting to feel settled at home, at work and in the community. Though I still have much to learn and explore, I am pleased to have established a basic routine which helps give me the capacity to focus on myself (both intellectually and physically) and the work I am here to do.

Apart from work, there is much to do at home and within the community. I wake up every morning to the sun shining brightly through my large bedroom windows and to the sound of birds chirping and singing. I can almost always hear the inspirational sound of small children laughing and playing soccer outside, and chuckling when they hit my window by accident.

Every day here so far has been incredible and has felt like another opportunity to learn; whether it be going to a local bar or attending church on Sunday morning, each experience is valuable and a chance to learn more about Ugandan culture. Even something as small as going to the grocery store proved to be interesting, and almost challenging for a newcomer.

Grocery shopping seems to be a vital part of my daily routine. Yesterday I even told Rachel during our checkout at Tuskys (a larger supermarket) that I was tired and felt that we had visited a grocery store every day of our being here, and it is probably almost true that we had. So I began to wonder why I was getting exhausted from something as humdrum as picking up groceries.

Our reasons for continuous shopping could be that we indulge in a tremendous amount of food (lots bread and Nutella), but I believe it is more directed toward my unexpected adaptation to cultural differences and the diverse market options for agricultural products in Uganda.

The number of local shops to buy food can be overwhelming and is culturally different from what I am used to. There are many small scale farmers selling at farm gate shops, roadside markets and smaller market centers that may sell all kinds of produce. I often frequent a large market, located just one km down the main road from my apartment. The market consists of temporary shelters and stalls, made of local raw materials like reeds, sticks and grass thatch, and specializes on fresh produce. Most markets are specialized to deal in just one product, such as fruits, vegetables and other fresh foods because products can be limited due to season or climate disasters, like flooding or drought. To buy other commodities, like eggs and juice, I will usually visit Tuskys or a smaller market center, and then carry them home in my hiking bag.

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Walking the markets has become one of my favorite things to do here, but for a newcomer it has definitely been an adventure finding all of these places. When I do find a good market with some variety, I am usually waved and called over by cheerful vendors, saying “mama mama!” I have come to appreciate that being called ‘mama’ is considered a sign of respect for women by the locals. Being a ‘Mzungu’ (common terminology for ‘white person’) prices will often increase, however I have quite enjoyed bartering and talking with the locals. I have also improved upon my negotiation skills and enjoyed learning how to barter price with the sellers.

I think it goes without saying that adjusting to life in a new place takes time, and there is a critical transition period to learning why certain things happen and are done the way they are. For now I will continue to learn how to shop efficiently and to enjoy my fresh fruits and vegetables!

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