Introverted in Uganda: The Ryan Shafer Story

Introverted in Uganda,

Uganda. It’s a strange place for an introvert. But as an introvert I want to try and share what I have learned in a very extroverted and diverse society. I feel it applies in America just as much as it does here.

When “at home entertainment” isn’t a thing or even a concept of something that exist in the minds of the people here you tend to spend most of your time with other people outside of the home. I’m pretty sure there is about 1 TV per 100 or so houses, at least in the village where I live. This is however a made up ratio of a non-researched guesstimated estimate I just pulled out of nowhere, but it proves the point well enough. And as Donald Trump shows, it is completely okay to just make up facts to prove your points(sorry to bring in politics, couldn’t help myself…).But here, not many people have smart phones or computers with internet that allow them to peruse through Facebook all day on (which I often did at home). Having fancy gadgets really isn’t an affordable thing here.I brought my tablet to the health center the other day and someone asked me “why is your phone so big?” Weirdly enough, I have asked that question to people back home (see, we’re not so different!). But here you are forced to kill free time the old fashioned way, by real human interaction. And it is weird. Okay, not really, but slightly and challenging. There isn’t a weather channel so I can’t talk about the forecast… that’s the normal go to for anybody.

So, even if we look beyond the fact that I’m a “millennial” and we prefer facebook to real people, there is one other slight challenge that makes having to interact with other real humans here slightly…more challenging. I’m different.

Now I don’t like being the center of attention, never have. It’s strange and it’s the same reason I feel sad for all the animals at the zoo. But here, wherever I go I tend to slightly stick out. Just slightly. Being in a pretty rural setting that isn’t really close to any major touristy spots or larger NGOs, there isn’t exactly a lot of foreigners in the area or even nearby. From the music I listen to (Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” just never resonated with the people over here I guess), to how I dress and talk, and obviously slightly whiter skin color I’m different and stick out. Just something that at first was weird to me and them to. But it also created the challenge to get out and go from being the town Mazungu (white person) to just being Ryan. Slowly but surely I think I’m getting there.

And Uganda has helped, here you really don’t get the option to go by without getting to know people. You are forced to talk with people, sometimes in much closer quarters that one would prefer. (Example below) But I’m extremely fortunate for this because it has led to a changed perception of those I used to not know much about. Strangers have become friends. Perceived stereotypes have become a thing of the past, even laughable at times.

Growing up in a small town I was used to living in close community. As small town life is very community based. Everyone knows each other and sees everyone at church on Sundays or while eating at the same select few restaurants (hopefully at the Crazy Cone!). However, this is a whole new style of community. The foretold example here: Having a car isn’t something most people can say, so this means when you travel somewhere farther away than a walk it’s via public means. Ugandan style! And let me tell you, despite previous belief, it is possible to squeeze 20 or more people (plus chickens!) in a van that was at best designed to seat 14 people and 0 chickens. I’ve been in a 5 seater car with 9 people. 4 in front and 5 in back. (Yes, two people shared the driver’s seat…this car was a stick shift too!) And please remember, these are all strangers to each other for the most part, making a journey that sometimes takes well over an hour smashed together and sitting on laps. I can’t help but think that back in America the way people feel about their space and opinions it would be impossible to pack a bunch of strangers into a small space for such a journey. (No one bring up politics!)

So I’ve had to get to know people (sometimes sitting very close and smashed up against the window). But together we are both learning about each other’s cultures. Getting passed the single story (as Peace Corps loves to put it and Peace Corps goals 2 and 3). Me explaining to Ugandans that not all Americans are rich and white. And them teaching me that not all of Africa is the same. We Americans tend to picture Africa, a whole content, as one country with mainly one type of person. The type of person that needs our help because they have AIDS, malaria, or are uneducated. Africa is actually several different countries (54 to be exact). All of these countries are very different from each other too. Full of brightly educated people and many amazing stories. And America is very much the same. It’s a land of immigrants that all came from various countries. 50 states that have all different types of people, it’s probably the single most important fact that makes it such a great country. Abundant diversity.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that while it is terrifying to get to know people that are different than you, or share different opinions, have different skin color and background, it is most definitely worth it. Go out and talk to your neighbors or other people that you normally don’t talk to. Try and understand culture you know you currently have little understanding of. It’s been the greatest joy so far to be able to do that here (and the biggest eye opener).

Learning about people that are different than you is the greatest way to build connections and see a bigger world, it has been for me. In American it is really easy to retreat and only hang out with people that are pretty similar to you. I did it. And here I have a very large external hard drive full of movies and TV shows that sometimes I’d much rather stay in and watch then go outside and talk with people because as stated earlier, I’m different than most of the people here. I am also as guilty of standing by my already formed opinions and only hanging out with people that share those opinions. We all do it to an extent. Look at cable news, one is good and you watch it, the other ones are bad and they are nothing but dirty filthy no good liars pushing some agenda. People don’t watch the news to get informed, they watch it to reaffirm their own already formed opinions (which is probably good because most news isn’t really news any more). Staying within the comforts of shared opinion is much easier than turning to a news network or hanging out with someone that might say something you disagree with… That’s just terrifying and wrong. (Just kidding)

Learning about other culture is one of the greatest things you can do in my opinion. I also believe it is dangerous to assume things about other cultures you don’t understand (it is one of the things I’ve learned here). Eleiver “Elie” Wiesel, a holocaust survivor and the author of the book ‘Night’ (a good read!) once said “the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference”. For example, in America someone who shall rename nameless that is running for president and has stated that he (well that gives it away…) would ban all Muslims from being allowed in the United States. This just really goes against the core fabric of America (the land of religious freedom!). More frighteningly a poll showed that 74% of his supporters in South Carolina  agreed with him². Instead of banning Muslims could we first try and get to know them? (A good start is by reading the book “I am Malala”) Islam isn’t a violent religion. A few people who claim to follow Islam happen to be violent. Just as a lot of people who claim to follow Christ do the very opposite things in which he taught us to do (myself included!). Not to mention all the crusades and what not…

I bring all of this up because that is what I have been forced to do as an introverted American in Uganda. I’ve had to get to know people that are very different from me. And it has been terrifying at times. So many times I just want to retreat to my house and binge watch the movies and TV shows stored on my external hard drive. But I’m slowly learning the value of community and diversity, and it has been great and I know I have already grown as a human because of it. We all have different stories. Get to know people, especially the ones that seem different to you. The best way to grow is to experience difference. The best way to experience difference is by interacting with people that are different than you.

My secondary reason for writing this blog post is to lead into the direction I want to take the next few post. I want to help people back home get to know the people here. To brake the “single story” of what sometimes people think of Africans. In the next few blogs I’m going to attempt to interview people of all backgrounds and faiths and get to know their story then tell it here. So I and hopefully you can learn about other cultures and people. I hope you read.

In the meantime, check out this awesome Ted talk describing the dangers of a single story!  Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story”

Until next time!

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


The views expressed in this blog in no way reflect the views of the U.S. government, the Peace Corps, or the Government of Uganda. All opinions are of my own.


1) Polictfact researched and stated that 71% of what Trump says is mostly false, false, or pants on fire (a complete barefaced lie), the most lying individual to ever run for office… for reference Hillary around 38% for the same categories.



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