I’d found myself stood in the middle of a town nestled in an African rain forest. Behind me was a table littered with condoms and wooden ornaments, carved into varying shapes of penis. To the right of me two other volunteers were attracting a crowd by filling a johnny with water and shouting ‘No man’s government is too big for a condom.’ In front stood a collection of perplexed villagers, all of them moving their eyes between the water bomb condom and my awkward stance. I cleared my throat and announced
‘HIV cannot be prevented by pouring soda on your genitals, HIV can only be prevented by abstinence, faithfulness and er,’ I gestured to the bloated contraception that was now being examined by locals,
I had never imagined uttering that sentence, let alone speaking it in central west Africa, but my trip to Uganda had presented me with cultural taboo after cultural taboo that, at times, required direct confrontation. Unfortunately for my blushing and awkward Englishness most of these taboos revolved around sex. I’d uncomfortably discovered through conversations with perplexed villagers that the myths surrounding HIV weren't limited to the misplacement of Coca-Cola; according to local rumour, white people, young people and Christians were incapable of contracting the virus whilst I disturbingly discovered that a joke in ‘The Book of Mormon,’ involving sex, babies and the curing of aids was rumoured practice here.
There was also the moment that many locals felt that Aids had been brought to Uganda by white people. I can’t blame them for making a link; even though there has been an increasing presence of white aid workers in Uganda, there has also been a rise in cases, though this is more down to the failure of certain groups to promote condom use than white sexual activity. Ironically many villagers also believed that white people were incapable of catching Aids.
Surprisingly for a community so misinformed about the results of sex and so devoutly religious, they were incredibly open when it came to speaking about their private lives. After being offered to become my colleague’s third wife I began chatting to my colleague about the formalities of marriage and married life in Uganda.
First point; being a woman out here isn't great. You’re sold off age twenty to a man who could already have a wife or two. Every woman is traded in marriage for a dowry, valued depending on her family’s wealth and her own attributes,
‘You Rachael would be a very pricey wife, you are white, have a degree and are of a good age. If you lived in an agricultural area your family could get 50 cows, many goats and a mattress for you.’A whole mattress? My mother will be thrilled.
Of course the mattress forms part of the couple’s wedding night. Whilst western women might invest in a wax and a new set of undergarments Ugandan women take part in a wholly different ritual.
‘The woman prepares a mix of herbs, places this on a fire and then stands over the flames and lets the smell go into her for her husband to enjoy,’ I'm sure that’s what every man wants on his wedding night, lightly smoked (and possibly burnt) lady parts.
My colleague’s openness didn't stop with women. It seems the men of Uganda are brutally honest about their own bedroom behaviour,
‘Mokiga (the local tribe) men are intelligent, courageous and driven. But terrible terrible lovers. We will not engage in foreplay but we expect our women to be waiting, legs open when we arrive home.’ They really sold the marriage thing to me.
But it wasn’t just me perplexed with alien customs. When I told the gathered women that I was intending to marry until after twenty-five one responded, ‘but who will want you at twenty-five?’ Fair point I guess. Similar responses were given when I explained interracial marriage, older mothers and the possibility of a woman wanting a career before children,
‘But who would want the stress of work when you could serve your husband?’
I didn’t begin to answer that question.
Ugandan men's sexual exploits didn't stop with polygamy; living in a country where prostitution is legal has lead to them taking a very casual approach to the whole act of seduction; if they want sex and a wife/ women is around or willing, they go pay for it. My colleagues were perplexed at the thought of single Englishmen going without sex.
'What do they do if they are not with a woman?'
Again, I decided to avoid answering this.
Ugandan men match up to their English counterparts in one crucial way; complete inability to talk to women. On a night out they will happily get hands on the second they see you, but any form of communication is always directed through the nearest male to you, with any attempts of direct communication met with looks of pure terror. When one girl politely shook a gentleman’s hand he kept holding on for a good minute or so, examining her skin whilst doing so and without saying a word.
But for all the awkward handshakes and bonfire remedies, the issue of homosexuality is still a controversial one. Half way through a local church service the minister began condemning homosexuality and demanding that homosexuals be expelled from Uganda. Although acceptance of homosexuals is still a relatively new concept in western culture, experiencing such open and enforced hatred was still a disturbing experience.
Even though most of us won't start trading women for cows or standing over flaming herbs you have to admire the Mokiga people for their er, creativity and openness when approaching the matters of the bedroom. Maybe if British men took their approach they would spend less time drunk texting and insulting the women in the quest for love...or sex.