Author Archives: michelle

Traveling while being a person of color sucks.

Everyone asks where I’m from and if I actually come from America since I look so different from the rest of the group. People shout it from across the street as I’m walking by. On average I get reminded five-ten times a day (more on days that I meet new people). It’s done without malicious intent, but it’s aggravating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m asked this in the United States as well, but it happens so infrequently that I can usually brush it off.

But it’s absolutely eating me alive here.

“Where are you from?” “Are you from China?” “Hey Japanese” “Psssssssssssssssssssssssssst China” (the “pssst” sound is made to get someone’s attention)

Most of it is done out of curiousity and ignorance (usually not willful).

“Korean mama.” “Are you really American?”  “From China.”  “Hey China.” “You are Japanese.”

In other words: Why are you not like the others?

It’s happened without failure in every single location. The majority of it is unprompted shouts at me from across the street (like cat-calling). It happens much more frequently when I’m not walking near the others.

It’s incredibly frustrating for me. It’s not done with any malicious intent; they are curious. I feel like I owe them an explanation, so I go through the long process of explaining that my great-grandparents and grandparents immigrated from China and Japan, that my parents were both born in the United States, and it’s a phenomenon that happens pretty often in the United States so the US is not all white people. I’ve been told that I don’t have to go through that whole explanation each time, but I feel like that would be rude. They’re just curious and asking a question.

But why do I have to explain my lineage? Why do I have to recount my family history? Ben, Conor, and Wendy (who are all white) don’t have to.

It’s a burden that I receive for being born as a minority. I’m tired of constantly explaining why I’m American.

“Can you teach me how to fight?” “Show me the videos of people fighting in China.”

They’re referring to Kung Fu movies. I laugh and brush it off, but it happens SO often.

I can’t help but dread any day where we meet more than a few people, because I know that I’ll have to explain my existence to everyone we meet and “prove” that I’m actually American.

It’s not just subtly racist remarks either. People are outright racist too. One teacher constantly demonstates for me to open my eyes wider whenever I see them. They’d take their thumb and index finger, put it near their eyes, and spread them. It’s like the slanty/chinky eyes gesture, but opposite.

Another teacher here has seen Japanese people bow a lot, and now takes that knowledge and asks me to bow for everyone. “Here, meet Michelle. She can bow for you.” Then he turns to me and demands that I bow for them.


These statements are especially painful because of the connotations at home and the histories behind these stereotypes in the United States. One of the stereotypes about Asian Americans is the myth of the perpetual foreigner. You never hear white people being asked “where are you actually from?” in the states.

It’s tough because the pathfinders discuss their concerns at a meeting every few weeks. I mentioned the racism thing. Everyone was silent. It’s an experience they’ve probably never had and probably never will have, and it easily happens over 100 times a month for me. They try to head off the questions by answering that we’re all American, but it’s usually met with “even her?” while gesturing to me. There’s not really much that can be done about it either.

I find myself noticing my asian-ness all the time. I talk about it all the time because of it. I think it’s because I’m constantly being reminded that I’m “other”, I’m not white, I don’t “look” American, and I’m not seen as one of them.

No, I don’t know Kung Fu

            I was sitting in Kasese Humanist Primary School’s library when a student approached me.


“Can you show me the videos of people fighting?”

“What videos?”

“The video of people in China fighting”


“The videos you have of people fighting in China”

I had no idea what she was talking about. I wondered if I had referred to something that suggested fighting, or maybe she saw one as I was showing her my photos.

“Sorry, I don’t have videos from China. I’ve never been to China, but Wendy has been to China. Ask her.”

Maybe they were referring to some fight that Wendy told them about? I doubt it. Wendy doesn’t like those kinds of things.

My students keep asking me if I know how to fight. For the first few weeks, I was sure I didn’t understand what they were saying. What a weird question to ask someone out of the blue.

Then I realized they were referring to Kung Fu movies.


I started noticing these questions more and more. During a Humanism class, I asked if anyone had questions about the scientific method. One student raised his hand:

“Can you teach us how to fight?”

What’s the point in telling me that I’m Asian?

I am Chinese and Japanese. I know that I am Chinese and Japanese. (I’m even extra aware now that people ask me about it in every conversation).

But people love to remind me of this. To take a recent example, as the pathfinders walked the 300 feet to transfer buses in Kampala, about half a dozen people felt the need to remind me.

“You are Chinese”

“Hey Chinese”


“You are Japanese”

Sometimes they managed to remind me that I was a woman too.

“Korean mama” (followed by a kissy face) Yay. Intersectionality.

Oh gee. Thank you. I was completely unaware of that fact. Thank you for telling me that I am an Asian Woman.

Pointing out our looks isn’t a rare occurrance though. As you may have read from Wendy’s post, the children love to call out “muzungu! muzungu!” (white person) as we walk by.

I don’t mind that. It’s like if you were to see  something strange roaming down the street – they’re telling their friends and trying to get our attention. It’s fine.

But the constant reminders of my ethnicity bother me more. The way the men say it (I have yet to see a woman do this) is in a soft voice so it is just loud enough for me to hear. It is not one of excitement or wonder like the children. It’s not even loud enough to show off their knowledge of what others look like. I wouldn’t mind someone shouting it out loudly – I would be able to understand that.

I know it’s directed at me and no one else. They don’t do it loud enough for others to hear, and they say “you’re Chinese”. It’s not meant for anyone else’s ears.  And for what purpose? What’s the point of torturing me with all of this? WHY?

Netball and male privilege

A few weeks ago, the pathfinders went to a netball game. But not just any netball game. The female members of parliament were coming together to play a netball game against a local team. Awesome!

(Netball is a game that’s like a combination between basketball and ultimate frisbee. It’s like basketball, except the players can’t move when they have the ball.)

It was an extremely popular game. Everyone crowded around the court. I was so tightly packed in that I couldn’t move my arms – they were pinned to my side.

My immediate thought was that I wouldn’t be able to block my face if the ball came towards me (I was right behind the hoop that doesn’t have a backboard). My second thought was that I was completely helpless if some guy were to grab me.

I watched the game, but that was a constant thought that was nagging me the entire time.

I looked over my shoulder and I could no longer find Wendy.

The thing I had feared had happened to her. Her ass was grabbed during the game, and she couldn’t do anything about it. She eventually shoved her way out of the crowd after that. I took one look at her face and guessed what had happened.

How frustrating.

We left the game shortly after finding this out.

I don’t think that thought ever crossed Conor or Ben’s mind, while it was a constant nagging thought that was looming in my mind. It’s one of those subtle male privileges. Men don’t even have to think about getting their ass inappropriately grabbed in public places. It’s not even a thought that needs to cross their mind, where it was one of the only things on my mind.

Language frustrations

            In Cambodia, it was generally understood that we did not speak the same language. Communication was done mostly through pointing and grunting (and sometimes tasting, when we wanted to make sure we were getting salt instead of sugar).

It made lessons with the kids sometimes difficult. I’d demonstrate that I wanted them to read the letters aloud when I pointed to the letters. The kids were confused at first, but after much gesturing and demonstrating the kids caught on quickly.

In Uganda, all the kids speak English. It has made communication much easier, but also way more difficult in unexpected ways. I thought the accent was going to be a large barrier, but that’s been one of the smaller ones for me.

My biggest problem are the subtle differences in terms used. And when you ask to clarify the phrase, it is repeated with the exact same terminology but with a clearer voice.

For example on my first day of teaching at Kasese Humanist Primary School, one of the students asked for a “short call”

“What?” I didn’t hear him clearly.

“short call”

Okay, so I did hear the student correctly. “What is that?”

One of the students chimed in with “Madam, he asked for a short call”

I was still confused at this point, so I just let him go. I later learned that it meant he was asking to use the restroom.

It’s small things like that.

Religious Leader

The religious leader doesn’t have anything to do with purification of the accused witches. He works with the women after they have been cleansed of their powers by the fetish priest.

The religious leader welcomes her with open arms since they are part of the same religion. Those who are part of his religion are like part of his family. He makes daily visits to many of his members and listens to what is tempting and testing them.

The accused witches often tell him of their frustrations with their banishment. He told us that during his counseling sessions he often reminds the accused witches that the prophets were once banished from their communities too.

He also counsels the women to forgive their accusers. “If [the accused witches] don’t forgive, god will not forgive them later”.

The imam realizes that the women are sent here because they were successful and her family wants to capitalize on that success. He tries to help the women contact and reconcile with their families and sees if the women can be reintegrated.

Personally the imam does not believe in witchcraft. All powers come from god, and witchcraft accusations are just a test of faith. According to him “if you have good faith, you wouldn’t think badly about others”.

Many of the things the imam said his youth group did were similar to the community’s youth group, so we asked him about the difference between the two groups. Apparently the youth leader is a Muslim, so there are few differences between the two groups – the imam simply concentrates on the Muslim youth.

When an accused witch is about to be reintegrated, he counsels her and provides her with advice. He tells her to watch 3 key things: her eyes, her mouth, and her legs. Her eyes can cause her trouble because she could see what is not seeable and sometimes she will just be bothering the community. Her mouth can cause her to be banished. Her legs can cause her trouble because she is not where she should be. If she doesn’t guard these three things, she is a nuisance to the community.

He has two big concerns within Kukuo: education about witchcraft accusations and water. He says that the education of other communities is a process and the way other communities handle victims is not the best, but you can’t go into other communities and say that they’re wrong. Water is also another concern for him because it is needed to purify people before entering the mosque. There isn’t enough water for prayers.

Memunatu Dokurugu

This was one of the accused witches that we interviewed who was reintegrated in a separate community.

When she was 7 months pregnant, thunder killed her first husband. She had 3 kids with her second husband and 3 kids with her third husband. Her trouble all started when her third husband got more wives.

Her third husband’s second wife died. Then his third wife’s kid died. Memunatu was blamed for the death.

She then stayed with her brother and then her brother’s son died. The accusations started.

She ran to Kukuo for safety. She stayed peacefully there until she was reintegrated recently. Her 4th born built a house nearby and asked the elders to let her stay with him.

As she was preparing to leave, she needed to find two chickens and return to the shrine. The chickens were there to ask for permission to return to another community safely.

She said that leaving Kukuo was like being released from all the hardship and discrimination associated with her accusation. Her current house is like heaven to her. She’s surrounded by food, firewood, and water. She says that living here is a huge relief.

She’s 80 years old and has been reintegrated for 1 year. She spent 8 years in Kukuo.

She was lucky because her son was so faithful to her. Each month her son would give her a part of his salary. She says that the women should always pray that their families have them at heart.

Her brother was the person who accused her. When she was reintegrated her brother came back and begged her for her forgiveness. He thought she would die the night of the accusation and didn’t think she would suffer for so long. She accepted his apology.

She feels that this place, which is like heaven to her, is her final destination and that the accusation was part of the journey. She says that Bimbilla is a place where you can buy land and you can live on it without worry. The people will leave you alone. Because of this, many accused witches are reintegrated in Bimbilla

Hamida Awolu

We specifically requested to interview someone who wasn’t accused, but was forced to live in the witchcamps because a mother or grandmother was accused. Hamida Awolu allowed us to interview her.

18 years ago when she was 10 her grandmother was banished.

The community gathered money and brought in someone who had powers to sense witchcraft.  All the accused women were beaten and tortured and banished to Kukuo. Her grandma resisted going because no one was sick, but the community insisted because of the priests accusations.

The case was sent to the palace and the chief supported the community’s decision. While the grandmother was at the palace the crowd burned down the house and all her belongings. The grandmother was banished to Kukuo. Despite all of this Hamida’s grandmother wanted to come back.

Hamida ran to Kukuo to warn her grandmother against coming back. She ended up staying because it was so peaceful. She ended up marrying a member of the royal family here.

According to her people are vrey wicken to women in particular. When women are old, that’s when men use their wickedness. The people only beat her frandma because the chief supported their actions.

She things that the legislature should protect the women so that women accusations happen the law will protect them. She says that community elders need to be sensitized to the needs of the women and need to be held responsible for the treatment of accused witches. She says that those who kill accused witches should be seen as murders of a citizen, and not as ridding society of witches. She says that village chiefs simple give people what they want to keep the peace.

She doesn’t feel safe going back to her community. She says that the youth are responsible for her grandmother’s accusation – they were the ones who sent for the priest.

Hamida says that the word witch itself has a negative stigma attached to it. There isn’t any peace involved in identifying witches. She believes that accusations should be abolished, but she believes that witchcraft is real. She says that she’s actually seen witchcraft in action. When she went to fitch water at night she says something moving in the night that had lights.

Nessikai Ezndo

Unlike the other women, Nessikai didn’t enjoy her life when she was younger.

Her father was terminally ill and her extended family didn’t accept her, so before her father died she was married off. Without a husband there would be no one left to care for her.  She was 11 and her husband was 90.

She said that she didn’t love the man because he was so old – he was weak and couldn’t perform. Despite their large age difference, she had 6 children with him. Four of her children died.

Then her husband died too.

She said that “god didn’t create me as a lucky one”.

She stayed in her husband’s house and realized that “if I don’t stand on my feet, I will not be successful”. She began farming and was able to produce a lot. She was so successful that people would turn to her for loans or for her help.

One day her nephew asked to borrow money to buy a tractor and promised to pay her back in 5 days. A week later instead of paying back the money, he accused her of being a witch. He claimed that she had taken away his testicles, chopped them up, and fried them. People looked at where his testicles were supposed to be (including her) and his testicles were nowhere to be found.

According to her nephew, he sold his testicles to her and she spiritually took them. The herbalist they consulted said it couldn’t be healed – his testicles were gone forever. Nessikai said that she wishes that there were some sort of machine to check. She’s sure the testicles are still there.

But during the witchcraft test the chicken didn’t scream and testify to her innocence.

Her case was brought to the chief. Instead of supporting her desire to bring it to court he banished her. She was causing too much havoc within the community. She does not forgive the chief.

Unfortunately she didn’t have anyone to help her challenge the accusation or the banishment and so she accepted it. If she hadn’t, she would have died – her nephew had threatened her with his gun and there was a mob waiting for her in the village.

After she was banished her sons hid her in a bush until they could obtain transportation to Kukuo.

Nessikai wants to go home, but she’s afraid her nephew will track her down.

Her property and her children are still back at the community. She’s worried about her property and is annoyed because her children never pay her visits but continue their life of luxury she provided for them while she suffers in Kukuo.

Now she depends entirely on food from ActionAid and Songtaba (the two organizations that help out with the camps the most). She’s too old to fetch water, so she gets food by selling part of the food she receives.

She never thought she would end up here. She was rich and successful.

Most accused witches in Kukuo have children or grandchildren helping them. She has 11 grandchildren, but if they came to help her she’d have no to way to feed them.

At this point she showed us her flashlight. She said that she doesn’t even have money for batteries for her flashlight to see at night.

She’s in her 80s now and she’s been here for 4 years. Nessikai is trying to return to her family and wants to leave Kukuo. Her family is ready to accept her back, but her community is not. The chief and her nephew are still there. Kukuo is currently looking for a new community that will accept her.

Towards the end of the interview she told us that the attitude people have towards accused witches needs to be examined, especially in regards to property. Even if the women are guilty, they should be allowed to bring items from home when they enter the camps.

Religious Mottos in Secular Nations

As you drive around Uganda, it’s hard not to notice the large signs on cars and trucks.

"God is Great"

“God is Great”

People are very proud of their religion here, and are not afraid to show it. That doesn’t bother me. They are usually very religious affirmations to display their pride and how devoted they are to their religion. Some even name their shops to display their religiosity.

They include sayings like “glory be to god”, “suffer for Jesus”,”god is great”, “thanx be 2 god”, “faith in god”, and other sayings that are explicitly religious and there to demonstrate how devoted they are.

"Praise Jesus Shop"

“Praise Jesus Shop”

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“Be Patient. God provides!”

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I read up about religion in Uganda and Uganda is a secular nation. It states in the constitution that “Uganda shall not adopt a State religion” (article 7 chapter 2) but their motto is “for God and my Country”.

What? That’s crazy. The motto directly contradicts their constitution. What kind of constitutionally secular nation has such a blatant declaration of religion as their motto?
Oh right. The United States.

"in God We Trust"

“in God We Trust”

“In God we Trust”