Week one Kampala: This is the start of three months of fieldwork I have planned in Uganda. A large part of my time will be spent in intensive language lessons to learn the Luo language Acholi. It is mostly spoken in the northern part of Uganda where I will be headed next. (see Gulu on the map) It is one of 41 languages spoken in here by a little over 1M people (also in South Sudan).
Since I come from the US and the state of Indiana, staff at the language school thought I might have knowledge of 'red indians.' They particularly wanted to know why they never see any. This was one of the more interesting and complicated follow-ups to: where are you from I've ever gotten.
Due to some combination of my politically correct American upbringing and the fact that we were in a language school where words matter, I informed them that the people who originally inhabited the US were now referred to as Native Americans. As the words came out of my mouth, I realized this change came about not long after it was decided that the inhabitants of Africa should no longer be called Natives and simultaneously with African diaspora claiming skin color as a referent. In one context, the word native has been adopted as more appropriate and respectful of origins while rejected in another case along with its connotations of primitivism. We agreed the use of skin color in categorization was ok if it was the choice of the group. English is very concerned with categorizing and naming. This we also agreed.
Isn't every language? That is what I'm here to explore. In fact, I don't believe they are, not in the same manner or to the same extent. I am a linguistic relativist, which is to say, I think the language we are using influences the sensory information we attend to in our environment. That's not to say that you can't think or experience or imagine beyond the words and grammar you know. It is just a starting point for entering the world, and the mode we habitually convey these experiences becomes familiar. Having learned more than eight languages after my native English, each requires breaking down my English way of thinking to try and adopt the new language's way of parsing and framing life (to varying degrees of success).
To get back to the problem put before me: where are all the Native Americans? After doing my best to explain the centuries of political, social, and cultural factors resulting in few Native Americans venturing to Uganda, the Ugandan staff felt these Indigenous American nations could use some African-ness to confront the injustices they faced and to coalesce in stronger numbers and affect change. African-ness, it was explained to me meant:
- pride in themselves
- pride in their culture, enough to protect and evolve it as time passes
- motivation to educate their people, this is way to prosper
week two coming soon....