Saturday, October 03, 2009

Expatriate Life

Expatriate (in abbreviated form, expat): a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing or legal residence. The word comes from the Latin ex (out of) and patria (country, fatherland).

When I was in the Peace Corps we had mixed emotions about expats. We envied them because they often live in very nice houses with AC, have salaries that far more than cover living expenses in a developing country and have access to all the luxuries that the capital city and the diplomatic pouch have to offer. We also often thought them out of touch with the real needs of host-country communities and sometimes, when they were in touch with those needs, big bureaucratic NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other aid organizations often have big, expensive projects that don't help in a sustainable way. This gets into the whole debate on aid which I'll avoid this time around. Anyway, I find myself now living as an expat.

While my salary is modest and in my opinion AC isn't necessary here, I rarely leave Kampala. I've only visited a couple villages and I find myself partaking of the Kampala luxuries (restaurants, bars, salons) quite often. Each time I encounter a Peace Corps Volunteer here I wonder if I have become one of those out-of-touch expats.

I believe in the company I am working for and I think that it already has and will continue to create sustainable development but I still do wonder if there's something out there, a cultural glitch in the plan, just waiting to pop up and make things impossible. I am often the one in our office who brings up the place of culture and cross-cultural communication in what we're doing but I am no expert in Ugandan culture of styles of communication. I usually turn to one of our Ugandan colleagues and ask them, hoping I know the right questions to ask, but when I think about it, my Ugandan colleagues really belong to almost a separate culture from that of our target market; as in any society, an urban, middle-class citizen doesn't have a lot in common with the poor, rural citizen. Do any of us know the right questions to ask while developing a project to make that project as successful as possible?

Another part of expat life in a developing country is living in great comfort and relative luxury while many of those around me are impoverished live in squalor. Kampala is not as segregated as some other cities in the region, many neighborhoods, including mine, have large colonial era houses in close proximity to slums. This poverty is why I am here but I feel so ambivalent about it. I see people living below the poverty line so often that most of the time it doesn't even phase me, but then, occasionally it'll push its way through my desensitization and hits me in the gut.

Some of the things that get to me: The small children, as young as toddlers, who beg amongst the traffic-laden streets at the insistence of their mothers; The children who live down the hill from me who fetch water all day, instead of going to school, from a small stream that happens to be right across the street from a nice private school; The hawkers around town who carry loads of merchandise around, trying to sell it and razor-thin margins, maybe end up making about $2 per day; The man who is wearing his Sunday best suit that is 5 sizes too big.