SUMMER STORIES: Teas and thanks in Luganda

Summer Stories from Africa is a series of fresh reflections from our students, faculty, and alumni researching and studying on the continent.

Teas and thanks in Luganda

I have often considered foreign correspondence as a career, and one of the most tactical points I’ve taken away from my experience thus far is the value of flexibility.

Teas and thanks in Luganda
Saida is a young Ugandan woman who works as one of several hired groundskeepers for the headquarters of the Save the Mothers program. (Photo by Meagan Doll)

Sometimes the rain is unpredictable. Sometimes the internet is unpredictable. The water, the electricity, people’s schedules—they can all be unpredictable.

However, in my first week in Mukono, one steadfast ritual has emerged: Saida brings me tea at my desk every morning.

Saida is a young Ugandan woman who works as one of several hired groundskeepers for the headquarters of the Save the Mothers program. And though I rarely take tea, one specific interaction with Saida has illustrated a second valuable lesson about traveling and working abroad.

Before landing in Entebbe I knew almost nothing about Luganda, one of Uganda’s most popularly spoken languages, except that it was far from the conversational French that I have. Thank goodness everyone speaks English, I thought.

It does not take long after arriving, however, to realize that just because over 2 million Ugandans speak English, it is not the conversational language of choice. In fact, more than 80 percent of Ugandans do not speak English at all.

In Mukono, chatter is more often than not in Luganda, which inspired me to pick up a few of the key greetings and conversational phrases. This came in handy when Saida offered me tea one Tuesday morning.

After my routine “no, thank you,” Saida noticed my plastic water bottle was nearly empty. I was running late that morning and decided not to fill it at the drinking water spout on the way into the office.

“Can I fill?” Saida asked. I hesitated, feeling a bit guilty because I am more than capable of walking over to the spout. Saida insisted.

While she was gone, I wracked my brain for “thank you” in Luganda, thankful for the extra time to think which I’m typically not allotted in quick transactions at the market or restaurant.

I was beaming with pride when Saida entered, full water bottle in hand, as I confidently—and surely with the most obnoxious American accent—thanked her in Luganda. “Webale nyo!” I said. With a larger smile than my own, Saida laughed and laughed. “Who taught you?” she demanded. I told her I had been picking up some words from friends. She left the office still grinning.

Saida was not the only one who got a kick out of my Luganda. I sat smiling for minutes after the encounter—it felt good to connect over something as simple as “thank you.”

Meagan Doll is a senior studying Journalism and Mass Communication with certificates in African studies and global health. This summer, she is in Mukono, Uganda reporting on issues related to maternal health in partnership with Save the Mothers, an international NGO committed to improving the health of mothers and their babies.