A Travellerspoint blog

Boundaries in Lugbaraland

overcast 22 °C

Cultures are fascinating, but it is only when you come against a different outlook and way of seeing things that you realise how differently you think. I realised this even more after doing a ‘culturally inappropriate’ devotions for staff at ORA, (the project for vulnerable children that I volunteer at).
A typical Lugbara village nearby Arua

A typical Lugbara village nearby Arua

I based my devotions on a chapter in a book that I had read which I found excellent and helpful in giving wisdom on relationships called ‘Keep Your Love On’ by Danny Silk. The section that I shared with my colleagues was about the need for ‘healthy boundaries’. This subject deals with the need for prioritising our time and energy, our material wealth and skills rather than just reacting to what others are demanding of us. It means knowing when to say ‘No’. The author gives a Biblical metaphor about the Garden of Eden. God put Adam in the garden to tend it and manage it well. A well-managed garden produces fruit, but a poorly managed garden produces little or no fruit. All of us have our own gardens to manage. If we don’t produce our own fruit, we go scavenging for other’s fruits. By scavenging for others fruits, we become consumers, an unhealthy way to relate to others. Consumers are people who are attracted to you for what you have to offer and can become like seagulls pecking pieces away at your life till you have nothing left.

To me, this knowledge about managing relationships is crucial and has helped me down the years know how to have healthy boundaries to stay in control of my own life and resources. Before I learnt about the need for boundaries, I was someone who could be taken up with people- pleasing, tiring myself out and wasting my resources on things that I needn’t prioritise.

However, the above is definitely a Western perspective and has been extensively taught, preached and quietly imbibed through our cultural norms without our realising it. In Africa, this matter of ‘boundaries’ is seen in a completely different perspective. Here are the views of my Lugbara colleagues at ORA…

  • The community will call boundaries ‘selfish’ and you will be seen as proud, you will be hated and even poisoned (to death) by other members of the community.
  • This is because you don’t belong to yourself, you belong to your community. You are not your own, you belong to the clan, the community, or the church. Even your children come last. A pastor’s children can be the worst behaved as he/she has so many responsibilities and expectations that the children are neglected.
  • As a wife, you have a responsibility to your husband, your husband’s parents and still you have a responsibility to your own parents. Since a wife’s parents expect to be cared for, the wife has to sneak food and resources from the husband’s home back to her own parents.
  • In general, a woman has to put her own children last because she has many other priorities to the husband and community.
  • If one person is educated in a community, the rest of the community look to that person for their school fees or funeral bills. The person that has managed to get ahead in the community is expected to share the burden of the community by giving of the extra that he/she has. This means that the community waits for help from this person and he/she will carry the blame if nothing is done. Instead of people taking responsibility for their own needs, there is an expectation that the one with more will provide. In fact, since it is fortune that dictates whether someone will be well off or not, people that are poor believe they are helpless to change their situation.

My colleagues suggested that to combat these prevalent attitudes in their culture, people need to be taught to take responsibility instead of waiting for the ‘Big Man’ who magically provides for all their needs. People can be asked “What do you have to offer?” instead of getting things for free. For example, ORA Uganda will ask the community to provide labour and resources such as fired bricks to help build a protected spring in a village. This empowers people to realise what richness they have rather than believing themselves to be poor all the time. I often hear people often say they are poor without realising what richness they have all around them in the land and community.

It was interesting to hear that relatives are seen as a ‘community bank’. By helping you one day, I expect to be helped the next day when I need help. Material needs or finances are shared so that the sharing will return back to you one day. (It seems this ‘community banking’ system is not working as well these days as people become more individualistic with Western influence).

A longer term ‘banking’ takes place by investing in your own children. If the parents pay for the children’s school fees or other needs, in the future the children are indebted to the parents and are obliged to help them.

These type of cultural insights give clues as to what we see around us every day here. It partly explains why development programmes can fail and individuals don’t get materially rich as people who get ahead are obliged to share what they have with others. It might partly explain why we see a lot of ‘unparented’ children running around. It definitely explains why white people, who are seen as rich, are often asked for help to pay for people’s needs. This causes regular moral dilemmas. One of the dilemma’s for this week was the lady who helps in the house was admitted to hospital with severe malaria and typhoid. She chose to go to a private clinic and asked to borrow over a third of her monthly salary to pay for treatment. We are wondering, do we pay for her treatment to show compassion, or does that encourage dependency? Do we pay half? Do we take money from her savings account that she keeps with us? Do we look for odd chores around the house so she can earn the borrowed money back?

Another current issue is that since we are now entering the mango season, the neighbour's kids have been eying up our mangoes, have started asking for them and have been trying to get them from outside the fence. How do we deal with this in a good and godly way?

I guess reading that book in this culture has also helped me to grapple more with the conclusions that the author comes to. Strict boundaries around my time, my family, our finances, our resources, my energy may help me keep sane (?!) in an intense social environment, but it may be a hindrance to making strong links with the community that I am trying to reach out to….

(Here is a video of Asher and Amelie at a local hotel which has one of those rare playparks around here. There are kids hanging onto the fence asking for Amelie's stuff. It is hard to get space even in a fenced hotel... It can also be work trying to figure out boundaries to protect Amelie and Asher from getting pinched and poked by people curious about the white kids. One time, I had to rush after Amelie as she was being carried away to someone's home...)

Posted by africraigs 23:50 Archived in Uganda

Table of contents


I have learnt much about cultural diversity but your blog explains it in a very practical way. It is very hard for us in the UK to fully understand the expectations of those from an African background. Thank you for your blog, may God bless you and guide you as you grapple with these issues in Africa xx

by Cathy Holmes

Interesting observations on the clash of cultures. Responding (or not responding) to requests for monetary needs was one of the hardest parts of living in Africa for me. More than once, I helped a "poor" person only to later find out they were actually well off. There are, of course, no simple answers this we must depend on the Lord for wisdom each day.

by John Hosie

Living in South Africa - I guess I am somewhat oblivious to some of these cultural differences as the overriding culture I find myself in is mostly western - However it is a reminder and a 'wake up' that actually, probably the majority of those living here, actually have very similar ideals to the ones you are talking about?.. Interesting. - Meet quite a number from Zim and the Congo - I wonder how they feel? Thanks Emma for the Blog X

by Sam Combrink

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.