Photo: Gudkov Adrey/Shutterstock

Why I Stopped Buying the Sugar

by Julian Hill Sep 21, 2011
This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

HE WAS ASKING to borrow money.

I responded with silence.

“I was expecting some money, but…it did not come. You remember the man we met yesterday…on our way to town? I stopped to talk to him…”

“I think so, yeah.”

“Well,” Frank continued, “I am going to buy the flour from him. I told him that I would bring the money today. I thought maybe…when we walked into town that you could give me the money, and I could give it to him. I will pay you back next Friday. No problem.”

My jaw clenched. I tensed, my eyes connecting with the taped up alphabet poster missing the letter “z,” the sleek soccer player drawn by Frank’s nephew on printer paper, the gnat-infested papaya on the back table – all to avoid Frank’s gaze.

Even women I have dated waited longer before asking for money. All I had from this lanky Ugandan fellow just under six feet was his word and a seemingly sincere smile: you know, the one where the head is slightly tilted to evoke pity while the inwardly pinched brows suggest that maybe, just maybe, asking for the money hurts them more than it does you.

On my first day in central Uganda, Frank and my’s taxi stopped at a small Forex stand, where I changed dollars to Ugandan shillings. Frank asked to see my receipt. Thinking nothing of it, I handed it to him.

Knowing that I would be living with Frank’s family for the next ten weeks, I wanted to avoid potential tension over me not buying something the family apparently needed.

Was I wrong for thinking about this so much, or was Frank wrong for asking me in the first place?

Not even a minute after the request, I handed him the money.


“Don’t let them take advantage of you out there, you hear me?” my dad commanded in a fatherly tone, his left hand and eyebrows raised a la The Rock. He stood a few feet away from me, leaning on the Maplewood chair in the dining room. I sat comfortably on the couch, looking up at him. Just days before I flew out of Chicago I was saying my goodbyes. This was his way of saying his.

Once I got to Uganda, though, I was more concerned about taking advantage of Frank and his family than vice versa. Before my trip, Frank clarified his expectations in an email – work on the farm four to five hours a day, six days a week. In exchange, the Kasugas would provide me three meals a day and a place to sleep. Even when I considered the registration fee, it seemed that the Kasugas were not asking for much.

Still, I did not want to be that muzungu who neglected weeding the crops because I wanted to hit up tourist sights, or keep my host family worried at night because I was busy getting wasted. I resolved to be conscious of how I acted and how much I worked; I wanted to earn my keep.

If we dug holes for only three hours in the field, I worked on one of many projects for a few extra hours in the evening. I wrote a “Welcome” Packet to attract volunteers, typed local farm meeting minutes, reviewed farm-related articles, and even had my friend – Brad does agricultural consulting – visit the farm to advise us on coalition-building.

After stuffing our faces at a local restaurant, Brad and I crammed into a 14-turned-18-passenger van headed toward the capital, Kampala. I asked about his impressions of Frank and his farm.

“I don’t know. I just expected a lot more from Frank. I don’t know if it was you hypin’ the man up or what, but I thought maybe he would be different from the other farmers I deal with,” Brad said as he stared off towards the front of the van. “It really seems like he’s just waiting on you to do everything,” he continued, this time shifting his eyes toward me and making a “you getting played” smirk.

I replayed in my head the conversation the three of us had earlier. Frank, seated across the table from Brad, asked what the plan was. As Brad and I plotted, Frank said relatively little. By the end, the plan was that I would do research and type up a survey. Frank’s only task was to disburse the survey.

The situation smelled foul, I thought, scrubbing away manure in our piggery unit. With each stroke, pieces of twig from the besom broom broke off. To avoid the storm that was brewing, I walked to the shed to store tools and then brought in the dishes that were drying outside. Handing me two mugs, Frank asked how the survey was going.

“Ummm, I think maybe you should do the survey. That way, if you need farmer opinions in the future, you will know how to do it. That would be better because I won’t be here after May.”

He stared back, quickly looking back down at his hands. “Ooookay, fine,” he answered, handing me the cups.

We brought the dishes in right as the rain started to fall.


“Hey Frank, I am on my way home. Do we need anything?” I asked, walking up from a basement Internet café in a Mukono shopping center. As usual, there was an answer.

“Well…if you happen to have the money, we need cooking oil aaaand…wheat flour to make chapatti.”

I told him I’d pick them up and walked to my supermarket of choice, straight to the aisles with cooking oil and flour. I thought to myself, this is the least I could do for the Kasugas who graciously opened up their home to me. I no longer felt like a visitor, but more and more like family. Frank was like my big brother. With him I killed my first chicken, planted my first seeds, cut my first weeds, and learned everything I know about organic farming. Besides, volunteering is about giving and taking, right?


A few weeks later, I found myself in Mukono again. I opened my phone, readying to call Frank. Then, seconds later, I shoved my phone back into my pocket.

I couldn’t forget about the bars of soap I had bought, only for my host to use all but one. I remembered the cup of water I offered my host and the perpetual visits by my host brother, Kenneth, for more. Taken individually, these situations seemed harmless. I almost felt bad for being upset. That half-liter only cost fifty cents. Those bars of soap? Three dollars. Collectively, though, it was more than money that kept adding up.


Just days later, Frank; his wife, Christine; and I sat under a white tent at an Introduction Ceremony, in which the family of a groom formally introduces himself to the bride’s family. In the front row of our tent sat male relatives of the bride, who happened to be Christine’s friend.

With a microphone in hand, a stern-faced man half-smiled as he questioned the representative of the groom’s family. The men from both sides almost uniformly wore long white gowns, called kanzus, with black suit jackets. The women wore bright dresses – blues, greens, yellows, pinks – all of which had the full and loose look of Japanese kimonos.

The ceremony was my first, and I was only comfortable attending after Frank’s repeated reassurances. I looked straight muzungu: a T-shirt and a pair of faded blue Dickie pants, once popular outside of Chicago back in the 90s. Frank wanted to share his culture with me. I appreciated him for that.

That evening, Frank and Christine watched the videos I recorded from the event.

“Wonderful. These videos are just wonderful,” Frank said smiling and handing me the camera. “Do you think that you can you put all of these videos into one big video…with music…like the one you did before?” He was referring to a promotional video we recorded the week before.

“Sure,” I replied, hoping my tone suggested my disinterest.

Later, debating whether to use Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” for the video’s soundtrack, I caught a view of storm clouds through my barred bedroom window and stopped. My brain told me I was being taken advantage of, but my heart told me to just spare the extra hour or so and knock the video out.

I was unprepared for the miscommunications Frank and I were having. For him, his request seemed reasonable. For me, it wasn’t. Yet reconciling different worldviews can be an essential struggle, one fought by anyone traveling and trying to better cope in this world. I just felt so incapable addressing these misunderstandings given my deepening relationship with Frank and his family. Quite simply, I didn’t know what to do.


Uganda’s economy made life rough for the Kasugas. Commodity prices had increased since “Crisis in Libya” headlines had begun flashing on the evening news, which we could only watch during the evenings when the second dam near Bujagali Falls (in Eastern Uganda) actually generated electricity. Those same lucky evenings we crowded around the 13 inch TV set – the boys lying on a traditional multi-colored rug and the adults sitting in chairs – learning about a “Walk to Work” campaign in protest of the rising costs.

The government’s economic blunders are, at least in part, why Frank’s family is feeling its pockets get lighter. Similarly to many other developing countries, Uganda has fallen victim to exploitative international trade policies. Structural readjustments encourage the country not to protect exported goods, like pineapples, shipped to protectionist countries like the U.S., England, and others. Of those who have benefited from these programs, small subsistence farmers like Frank are at the bottom of the list.

The more I learned about Uganda, the more sympathetic I felt toward my hosts. At the same time, I felt a bitterness growing each time Frank pushed back the time when he would pay me back. When I would see the red plastic sugar container nearly empty, this frustration kept me from buying more. It kept me from doing anything extra because I would think, “Well, if I don’t get my money back then he got more than enough of a donation from me!” I became insensitive though I knew the realities of rural life in Uganda made Frank paying me more difficult than I was admitting. I had the idea that Frank breaking his word was terrible, when I have sometimes not kept my own.

My last day in Uganda, Frank and I stood in front Mukono’s Barclay’s ATM machine. A new volunteer, Kurtis, had just gotten cash out. He handed a sum of money over to Frank. Then, Frank handed me all of it – one hundred thousand shillings. Though two months in coming, this repayment did not gratify me like I thought it would.

As I stared into Frank’s ebony eyes, he smirked. I thought of all the things we could have accomplished had money not been in the equation. Him not paying me back was not as malicious an act as I had imagined it to be. As matatus, moto-taxis, bicyclists, cars, and vans sped along Jinja road behind us, I realized that I had begun to lump Frank in with the passing acquaintances I had experienced during my time in Uganda.

I had nearly indicted him before giving him a chance to live up to the trust I had given him. Real experiences, unjustified fears, and my egoism mixed to produce a collage of, often contradictory, feelings.

They also resulted from not really knowing where the line was between volunteering and being exploited. What happens when your expectations and those of others don’t align? What are the unspoken rules of volunteerism? When are the requests for monetary contributions finally enough?

When you find out, let me know. [Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador. To read about the editorial process behind this story, check out Relatability: Creating a Persona.]

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