A not so light or happy story from Uganda but that is life.. My work weeks in Uganda always ended with a very long Friday.
Many things needed to get done in the morning in order to prepare for our buying meeting in the afternoon. Our buying meeting was composed of shaking the hands, buying 6 necklaces, and putting out “fires” for 93 ladies. Usually by Friday sundown I wasn’t able to put a coherent thought together.
One Friday I remember one of our other American staff members, Rachel, came to me and told me there was some drama going on at home between Harriet and Betty, our two full time Ugandan employee who maintain the house. Betty has worked for us since the beginning and Harriet was brought on about halfway through when Betty went back to school to learn about the hospitality industry. It is not common to classify people in Uganda but in my American head I have to use some sort of label in order to understand the people I work with. Betty is bipolar, suffers from PTSD, and often is given the name Bad Girl Betty when she is up to something. Harriet is the rock of the house. Now Betty had been having a hard time in the past couple of weeks. We were not sure what was going on but we usually stayed out of it because bringing our western ideas and dominance often made the situation worse. This dispute between Betty and Harriet was different from the rest though. We had to get involved. We did not understand and did not have the time to understand, during that busy day, exactly what was going on but we did hear the word witchcraft.
Witchcraft is recognized, by law, as a punishable crime in Uganda. It is taken very seriously and stems from thousands of years of tribal beliefs, and tribal differences. That evening, as the sun was setting, my sister and I sat and had one of our pep talks we usually have before entering a meeting. “How do you want to approach this?” I began.
“Well.. I think we should go back to our 3 principles, safety, honesty, respect,” she responded.
“Oooh that’s good. I think this may also have something to do with Betty’s baby daddy. She’s been acting so strange.” At this point we weren’t even entirely sure whose Betty’s baby daddy was but through process of elimination we were under the impression it was the man who kept coming to the gate with charcoal looking for Betty and her son Kymbi. “She’s been disappearing, her fathers been calling, and Kymbi keeps being sent away every few days.”
“Yea, well I think all we can do as their employers is to show them how their acts make others feel unsafe and being disrespectful is unacceptable in this house. This is our home and differences have to be left at the door.”
“I agree. This sucks. Its Friday. Can’t we tell them no witchcraft in the house? And since they have so much time to cause drama obviously we aren’t giving them enough work?”
“No.” replied Amber. Then the power went out. “Let’s go.”
There we were out on the front porch highlighted by the moon and a few cellphone/flashlights for light. Betty and Kymbi were seated in one corner. Harriet was seated across with Amber, Rachel and myself sitting in between.
Amber began in her most diplomatic voice, “Well ladies, I believe something happened this morning that we need to talk about? Harriet, would you like to tell me from your point of view what happened today?”
“Auntie, I have no problem. I was working and Betty lost her phone. She thought maybe I had taken it but I did not. I just want to do my work.”
“Thief,” Betty blurted out.
“Betty, not acceptable,” I blurted out.
“Alright, alright. That was good Harriet. Betty, would you like to tell us what happened,” Amber spoke while turning towards Betty.
“She is not being a Christian. I just want to do my work but she is humming without words. She is doing bad things to this house,” Betty cried out.
“No, I was doing my work. George has even said you are being crazy,” Harriet hollered at Betty.
“Do we need to get George over here?” Amber asked.
“Amber, does bringing George into this make problems bigger or smaller?” I asked in a hushed voice.
“Whether we like it or not, George is already involved in this.” Amber told me with a raised eyebrow.
George, our security guard, was on the side of the house, half listening and half sweeping the leaves.
“George, will you come sit with you.” Amber called from around the corner. George slowly put down his broom and began to trudge over in his down jacket, and rain boots, the normal uniform of a private security guard.
“Yes, Auntie,” George spoke softly.
“Ok, so George, Betty is upset with Harriet because Harriet was acting in a way Betty did not like. Betty, did Harriet’s behavior make you feel unsafe?” Amber spoke while bringing the group back to the matter at hand.
“Yes,” Betty said.
“Auntie, may I say something here?” asked George. “I believe the problem began when Kymbi’s father, who is a member at my church, the one Betty stopped attending…”
“YOU ARE NOT A CHRISTIAN!” Betty cut in while doing a wooting noise she often does when upset.
“Sit down Betty,” I said in my deep stern voice. Amber and I looked at each other at the same time, a unison stare only sisters are able to pull off multiple times a day. “Betty, I need you to sit down and relax. We are here to problem solve and come together because we all care about each other and want to support each other.” I said after taking a deep breath to try and relax myself.
“Auntie, George has been doing many strange things in the back yard. He has been walking like this in the middle of the night,” Betty spoke in one breath while walking in a military type march in a square formation. “He is doing bad things to this house. I wake in the middle of the night and fear what I see out my own window.”
“You know Auntie,” George spoke slowly to command attention. “I have been seeing these very funny green things placed all around the compound. You know it is my job to protect this house and I take my position very seriously. If there is anything I am doing, it is because I am doing it for the good of the house.”
“So let me get this straight,” Amber spoke while rubbing her eyes, a jester she did when she was feeling stressed or overwhelmed. “Betty you feel unsafe because Harriet is humming without words and you are seeing George walking in a funny way.”
“Yes, in the middle of the night.” By this time Kymbi had fallen asleep on Betty’s lap. Each time Betty had an out burst I was scared Kymbi was going to fall off her lap. It distracted me from what was being said and made me nervous but I reminded myself children are resilient and no matter how much I cared for this little boy I was not his mother.
“Alright, alright, Betty. Let me finish my thought. Now George you are feeling unsafe because you are finding funny green things around the house?” George shook his head yes at Amber. “And Harriet you are feeling unsafe because Betty is accusing you of things and you fear losing your job?”
“Yes, Auntie.” Harriet spoke in her meek voice.
“Well… I am trying very hard to see all of your point of views because well.. to be honest in America we don’t believe in witchcraft. We believe no one can do us harm unless they put our hands on us so I am having some trouble in finding a solution.” After Amber spoke there was a long pause. A silence so long and deep on that Friday night with no lights on that it reminded me to my core I was in Africa. A feeling I would get less and less as the many months went on.
“How about all of you stop doin shit?” I blurted out in my Jersey accent. All at once each person on that porch turned to look at me. The Ugandans because they were not quiet sure what I had just said. Amber glared at me with the expression really dude? all over her face. Rachel cracked and smile and I took that as a cue to proceed. “I know each one of you care for each other and I hope the strange things you are doing are to protect the house and the people in it but these things you are doing are bringing more problems than peace. If you want to do those things in your own home at your own time that is find but here in this house we are here to work, respect each other and promote honesty. So I think if we all just leave witch craft outside of this compound we would all be better off.”
“Alright well I think this was a good meeting and Andrea and myself do take responsibility in not bringing everyone together sooner to discuss any problems that may be going on. As you know Andrea and I will be leaving soon to go home and see our family but Rachel will be here. How about we pick a day once a week to sit and talk?” Everyone shook their heads in agreement. I was the first one up and out of my seat. As a sign of respect employees will remain seated in Uganda until the boss has gotten up and left.
I walked into the house and whispered to Amber, “Well that was fun. We did good for our first witch craft problem.”
“Yea, fun times.. Can’t wait for the next one,” Amber mumbled. And that was just the first one of many.