“How is it that you do not have any children, Jennifer?”

I thought about it for a second, bewildered. It was a question I’d never been asked before, considering that I was 27 and not yet married. Then again, this was the first time that I’d made polite conversation at a party in Uganda, a country where most women are married by age 17 and the average woman has seven kids.

I visited Uganda last December to attend meetings for a reproductive health network in East Africa as part of my work for a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates for women’s reproductive health issues. It was my first time in Africa and only my second time abroad, so to say that I wasn’t sure what to expect was the understatement of the century. I imagined exploring local villages, visiting health clinics, and meeting the people that my organization supported. Instead, it was day four and all I’d seen was the over-air-conditioned conference room of my hotel, where I’d sat in all-day meetings discussing policy with regional officials. Not exactly the eye-opening experience I’d been expecting. A conference room is a conference room, no matter what part of the world it’s in.

But things were looking up now that I’d finally been let out of the hotel. Our meetings were over; I still had three days in Kampala ahead of me, and our Ugandan hosts were throwing a party to celebrate all our hard work. In the United States, business meetings end with a handshake and the mutual signing of contracts; in East Africa, they end with a party, complete with a DJ, an open bar, and dancing. In another stark contrast to American business practices, the guests at this party actually let loose and had a good time. This was no stuffy affair filled with empty speeches and pretense; this party was truly an opportunity to break out of the rigid formality of our meetings and “get to know each other as brothers and sisters,” as one of the group’s leaders explained it. It looked like I was finally about to learn more about the country that I’d flown halfway around the world to experience.

We were still in a hotel, but this one was a little more inviting than the one I was staying in. The party was in a third-floor party room, complete with a beautiful veranda overlooking a garden. Brilliant fuchsia blossoms bloomed from vines twisting around the veranda’s railing, and you could hear the steady hum of insects mingling with the distant roar of Kampala’s ever-present traffic jam. We all converged at the veranda’s bar, tipping back our heads to drink to the success of our meetings.

Throwing myself headfirst into the festivities, I started chatting with a group of young government officials who were more than eager to tell me more about life in Uganda. Twenty minutes later, I somehow got caught up in a conversation about the state of my fertility with Joseph, a short Ugandan man with piercing brown eyes and a boyish grin. I told him I was getting married in April and that I was waiting to have children until I was ready. “I guess America is different,” I said. “A lot of American women like to wait until we’ve experienced life and had a career before we get married and start a family.”

Joseph was incredulous. He shook his head slowly, convinced that I was putting a happy face on my clear failures as a woman. He looked so sad for me that I started trying to convince him that I really was happy. How did I get to the point in my life where I had to defend my life decisions to a guy at a party in Kampala? “So, how many kids do you have?” I asked playfully, trying to turn the conversation back to him.

“Only five. Three girls and two boys.”

“Only five? Sounds like a lot to me.” I was pretty sure that Joseph was younger than I was. How did he have five kids already?

“Is not so many, my brother has eight. I have to catch up!” Joseph wasn’t joking.

“So, who is taking care of them right now?” (It was 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night.)

“They are with their mothers.” Mothers. Slowly I teased out of him that he was married, but also had kids with a mistress. Not only that: He spent a few nights a week going out dancing and drinking without his wife, but not without female companionship, if you catch my drift.

I made the joke that if my fiancé did that, he wouldn’t be my fiancé anymore. “Why not?” he asked. Joseph was genuinely bewildered. The other people in our little group all stared at me like I was crazy. I was starting to feel like a judgmental prude.

“What is wrong with going out?” one woman asked me, curiously.

Good question. What was wrong with “going out” if both parties involved are okay with it? I’d read about infidelity in Ugandan culture and always imagined that it was the men who were “at fault” and the women were victims. Could it be that women were just as likely to be cheating? Was it really cheating, or did relationships just work differently here?

And that was when I realized that throughout our entire conversation, I’d been judging Joseph based on my American perceptions of how a relationship between a man and a woman should be. Now, I don’t know what Joseph’s wife thought about his infidelity, or if she even knew about it, but after talking to a dozen different people of both genders at this party, I did know that Ugandans had a very different stance on infidelity. And these were the people who worked in reproductive health, the people who know that having multiple concurrent partners raises the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease and who had devoted their careers to educating their peers of this fact.
 
By assuming that a woman should be offended (if not incensed) by her partner’s infidelity, I was viewing Joseph’s relationship through a lens tinted with my own cultural biases. Even worse, it was keeping me from really understanding what it was like to live in Kampala, which was the whole point of my trip.

I felt like the people I hated: Americans who travel abroad and then spend the entire time limiting their experience to fit preconceived notions of how things should be, rather than opening their minds to new adventures, new friendships, and a greater understanding of the world. Traveling in a self-contained bubble isn’t any different from staying home; by filtering your experiences, you aren’t really experiencing anything.

So I smiled and said, “Nothing’s wrong with going out, it’s between you and your wife.” The group of us then took a shot of what Joseph called Ugandan Orange, a very strong whiskey-like liquor distilled from oranges, and I left the rest of my preconceptions at the bar. The music started pumping loudly from the dance floor — it’s not an African party if there isn’t dancing, I learned — and we all hit the dance floor, singing along to Madonna’s “Holiday.” (Knowing all the words made me quite the popular dance partner!) We stood in a circle, teaching each other dance moves and laughing the night away, forgetting the ways we were different and relaxing into our new friendships, all to an ’80s pop soundtrack.

In one night of drinking and dancing in Kampala, I learned more about what it was like to live there than I did during the entire first half of my trip. More importantly, by shedding some of my preconceived notions, I was able to view the rest of my trip through the eyes of Joseph and my other new friends, opening myself to really learning about the country and its people.

I might not have been in what my new friends would have called a happy “relationship,” but the men and women I danced with that night sure were. After all, who am I to judge? I’m 27 and I don’t even have any children yet!

 

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