Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Shimmering Hues of Africa

Ugandan veterinarian with synesthesia seeks community.

Recently a fascinating woman from the mother continent showed up in a Facebook forum to chat with other experiencers of synesthesia. Dr. Sheila Clare Butungi, 39, is a veterinarian working for the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries of Uganda, focusing on the genetic improvement of livestock.

Dr. Sheila Clare Butungi and her children. Courtesy Dr. Butungi.
Source: Dr. Sheila Clare Butungi and her children. Courtesy Dr. Butungi.

Though she has a beautiful family and successful career, there's a piece of her that is isolated—even in the inspiring environs of Entebbe on Lake Victoria. There are no synesthesia organizations in her gorgeous homeland, so she must reach out across the internet for a community.

Dr. Butungi reminds me that our trait is a worldwide one. She was welcomed warmly by the synesthetes online—and even received an invitation to visit America. I'm always delighted how people from many cultures feel united in their neurology in this way. I've seen synesthesia cross borders so many times. I wanted to know more about her.

What is life like in Uganda?

SCB: Uganda is still the Pearl of Africa, a serious tourist destination in its own right, the home of the source of the famous River Nile and a big part of Lake Victoria, which is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world. It is also home to the great Rwenzori Mountain, very many volcanic lakes, other smaller rivers and lakes, one of the homes of the rare mountain gorilla and a whole range of other unique fauna and flora. Ugandans are a friendly bunch by nature and culture. There is vast cultural diversity and many languages, borders with other great African countries and it is relatively safe. People love my country and personally very proud to be Ugandan.

I live in a town called Entebbe. It is a peninsula on the Lake Victoria and houses the only international airport. It is about 43 km from Kampala, the capital. As a synnie, I love my country and I loved studying its geography and history. These subjects were easy because of the ease of my imagination with the lessons. I had very colourful impression of my country.

Can you describe the sensory impressions of your land? What are the sights, smells, tastes?

SCB: The different languages and the cultures, the places, different districts and geographical regions give off different colours and landscapes. Uganda is blessed with a good amount of rainfall and is sunny all year round being located astride the equator so we get to enjoy green sceneries; even the driest and desert like places have some green. I think some of the scenery I see when I listen to music is Ugandan. The different cultures have different folk songs which I greatly enjoy. I come from Rukungiri, (Kebisoni) one of the districts in South Western Uganda and our folk songs are some of the best, they are dark. My mother hails from Rwanda and their traditional music is the also exceptional. Their cultural dances are even better. I have been to Rwanda a couple of times. My mum hails from the home of the Rwanda mountain gorilla family, a place called Ruhengeri, which is mostly hilly. We have a variety of cuisine and the different foods elicit mainly a dark colour or a yellow colour…here I don’t have colour favorites like I do with music or sounds.

I also love perfume.

What are some of your other synesthetic impressions?

SCB: I am turning 40 on the fourth of October this year. This day is the color of Sunday, which is sparkly white. For some reason I don’t separate the individual colors for the date (fourth and October and 1978)—they all blend into that one color my birth date. Maybe I have a certain kind of synesthesia for dates. I haven’t explored it fully.

The strongest has been coloured hearing from as early as I can remember (learning numbers and the alphabet and forming words). Over the last six years, I have come to realise that every other sense when stimulated creates some colour, smells, flavors, scents evoke different colours. Pain also creates some mild colours, as well as taste. I have only mild colour for touch. Touch is complicated, I have not explored it fully.

I remember we had a neighbor that was about two years older than me...While she was doing homework, I saw a "2" in her homework. I had seen it and heard about the number and I think I had just begun nursery school. Being two years older, she was already in primary school. I looked at the number and because it was associated with yellow to me, I knew it was "2". It is because of yellow that I remember that incident.

Another incident is in class, while learning the alphabet, C always stood out; the sound for C is also yellow. A Is almost black and B shifts between a dark cream to brown. Then while learning about odd and even numbers, I realized odd is a dark word and odd numbers are dark and masculine, while even numbers are light coloured or gentle, and feminine. So in math class, if we were given a list of numbers to differentiate them according to whether they were even or odd, I would first “genderise” them in my mind.

It is also very interesting that when I imagine numbers as even or odd numbers, their individual colors disappear, like all the odd numbers are dark, while the even numbers are a pale cream. Yet 1 is black, 2 is yellow, 3 is like grey, four is dark blue with chalky white in it, five is a slight pink or very light red, six is baby pink to white, seven is silver grey, eight is grey, nine is black and ten is creamish brown or dirty yellow.

Another memory from my childhood is that we used to have a maid whose name I now know was Alice. But at that time (maybe I was three or four), I confused the name with Charles (in an accent of my local dialect, it is pronounced sounding as Charlsee)…so I confused the two. I remember tilting my head up asking myself before I called her whether to call her Alice or Charlesee)….the two sounds are white and this totally confused me.

Something else that has stayed with me are similar looking names, the names like Steven, Stanley, Vincent, and sometimes Alex which totally confuse me—they all sound yellow. The other names are Gerald and Martin…they sound grey and I can’t tell them apart. This has been as far back as I can remember. I'm always worried am going to get someone’s name incorrect because of this confusion.

The other memory over the years has been how “hot water” and “cold water” looks to me. Hot water is in shades of yellow, while cold water is completely black. Whether I am thinking about cold water in English or in my local dialect, it is black water, and so while telling someone I need cold water, I will say “I need black water”.

Which of these are your strongest impressions?

SCB: The strongest synesthesia experience for me is the one that music creates and this is what kept pushing me to find out what I was about, why did I see colours with particular music, why didn’t other people see what I was seeing when certain songs played?

My music is categorized into two main colour spectrums...the yellows to browns (this is music I would rather not listen to), and the blue to dark indigo/violet/dark purple almost black (the music I love). Recently I downloaded some pictures of either a tornado or hurricane and they resonated with what I see sometimes. Besides colours, I see a lot of scenes…what someone recently called "landscaping". Some songs bring about sunny days, hot sunny afternoon, others bring about a dark cloudy evening, or night time, like a lit city. I like driving or being driven in a very nice car through a lit city. I think I would go to heaven if I had to be driven through a city in a developed country where I can see real skyscrapers for miles and the night is lit with street and building lights. Some songs look like this. I enjoyed watching the movie “Twilight”, especially the scenes of vampires flying through the forest. Some of the song experiences are like that...the long stretch of dark green forests. Other songs look like a dark clouds over a raging sea, a storm about to happen.

Some dark songs are "Night Shift" by the Commodores, "Nightingale" by Yanni, "House of Stone and Light" by Martin Paige…I think. I love country music, too. Most country songs are dark blue skies, tending to evening. The songs which are yellow are like music from Congo, our own country music called Kadongo Kamu, Spanish music, Arabian music and Indian music…this music tends to be yellow to brown. The song "Spanish Guitar" by Toni Braxton belongs to this category.

How do people react when you tell them about your experiences as a synnie?

SCB: My family just accepted it as part of me however most don’t understand it. My dad didn’t really understand it. My siblings know more about it now, my mum once told me she thought the letter O looks grey or blue so I must have inherited it from her, but she does not associate much with it like I do. Ever since I found out that many more people have it, I talk about it much with people. People think it is interesting, other say I must have some gift.

Once I shared in some groups on Facebook and people were more interested in knowing the colours of their names and what they meant. I told them what their names looked like but that I didn’t have meaning for them, and I kept explaining there was no meaning attached to the colours; others implied I had some special powers.

I have asked my friends who are medical doctors whether they had ever heard about synesthesia and to all of them it was new. There is a lady who claimed that she had heard about it in a psychology class but she is not in the medical field.

Do you feel lonely there as a synesthete? Does the internet help?

Yes, it’s a little bit lonely. I wish I was part of a real group of synnies with whom I can meet up and have real face to face conversations. I am yet to come across a fellow synnie. I shared about synesthesia on a secondary school watsapp class group and one lady in particular was very fascinated about it. She thinks her brother and daughter have it. I have talked to her seven year old daughter and she associates the colour purple with a staff at her school. She is the closest I have been to a synnie in Uganda. This friend of mine has also described particular phobia that her and her family members experience that I also have. I have yet to read any research on synesthesia related to these phobias but I think there might be an association.

The internet has definitely helped quite a great deal. I am part of the Sean Day email group. I participated in the battery test through the internet. I have participated in several research and surveys on synesthesia. I am part of four synesthesia Facebook groups.

Do you experience mirror-touch (profound empathy)? Is that difficult in tumultuous political times?

SCB: This is one type of synesthesia I am not familiar with. But I easily cry when I read or watch sad and happy moments in novels and movies or real life stories. I am simply a cry-baby. And when I start to cry, it is sometimes not easy to stop.

When I was younger, I used to feel so deeply sorry (or have great pity or empathy for particular people and children) without any reason apart from something I saw in their eyes or face. This has shifted since I had my own children. With all the sadness around the world, there are some videos or pictures that I simply refuse to watch because the images will stay with me for a very long time.

I have a very imaginative mind, and for this reason, I cant be comfortable watching sad stories or horrors. My mind will start creating images of its own. I don’t like to watch the news or read papers, just in case I come across sad or scary stories.

Anything else you would like the world to know?

SCB: I consider myself very intelligent (at least above average). I wish my parents had known about this trait. I think I would have been a straight A student throughout my academic life. If they had the means, I would have preferred to be schooled through audio devices.

My strength in academics lay in my ability to easily grasp and recall what's being taught. If I hear it, then I will have several dimensions to recall it. I have a weakness in that I don’t like to revise. This ability to recall helped me a lot along my academic life. I am a last minute reader and yet some subjects were really wide having so much to grasp in a short time. For some topics, I just shelved them choosing not to read them but to recall from memory what I heard the teacher or lecturer say the time they taught them.

I am very impatient in meetings, as I will have already worked out what could be said in a meeting by just reading the agenda. Because my mind chooses to preempt what is likely to be discussed and it works out the likely responses, actions and solutions, I just get very frustrated. It is the same reason that I read headlines and headings of newspaper articles rather than read everything.

This preempting thing would also happen during first time dates. I preferred intelligent conversations on a first date rather than focusing on trying to impress me.

I still enjoy reading for academic work while listening to a song I like, in very high volume. The song would be in repeat and I do not get bored.

Synesthesia through music helps me to think and use my imagination at a deeper and wider level; a stream of ideas goes through my mind faster when I am listening to music. Music enhances my perspectives, perceptions, and brings on new ideas so fast. I wish I could record my mind and see what's happening when I listen to music that I love.

When describing synesthesia to someone, I use the example of eating a raw orange or bitter fruit. I ask them what to they experience when they eat a raw fruit. For me, I see stars behind my eyes. The other is what they feel or experience when they hear a metal being scrapped on concrete. Depending on their response, I then explain that the sense of hearing made them have a funny feeling in their teeth or skin. Hearing stimulated another sense in their body which created that experience they dread.

Your concluding thoughts?

SCB: Every day I thank God that I have synesthesia. I am more aware of it each passing day. I wish my children had it, too. Sometimes I wonder how they learn if they don’t have it because it helped me in my learning a great, great deal. I suspect that my son, who had seizures a few years ago, may have a mild form of it because he describes things using drawings and gestures.

Before I knew that other people had it, I used to tell myself that God gave people different ways of learning about His big universe. Some are highly intelligent, others are gifted like the sports people or music artists and I believe that God has given me, Sheila, the colour thing to help me get along...

More from Maureen Seaberg
More from Psychology Today