Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is my life really all that interesting?

Well, it has been quite a while since I’ve even thought about writing a blog.  Part of the reason is that I’ve been pretty busy with work, and, when I’m not working, I really don’t want to do a whole lot of extra writing.  But that’s not the whole story.  I guess you could say that, over the past few months, I’ve had something of an existential crisis about this whole idea of blogging.  Do I really have something of value to say, or am I just droning on pointlessly about what happens to me from day to day?

It seems to me that, for my blog to be justified, it needs to be based on interesting experiences and thoughtful, relevant ideas about those experiences.  When I started this blog last year before leaving for Uganda, I thought I was getting into some crazy, outrageous thing that would be drastically different from anything I had ever known before.  This expectant fantasy has never really turned into a present reality.  Of course, some things are different, and I’ve had some new experiences.  I can’t drink a glass of water right out of the tap; I can’t take relaxing, 15-minute hot showers right after I wake up in the morning; I can’t always just flip on a light (although power has been getting significantly more consistent in Kalisizo – knock on wood); I go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground; and I certainly don’t get the leg room I would like while traveling.

I’ve also seen some difficult things, especially out in rural parts of the country, where well over half of the Ugandan population lives.  Kids walk for miles to fill a 20 liter jerry can with not-so-clean water, which weighs about 45 pounds when full.  Twenty liters is considered to be the minimum amount of water needed to satisfy the basic needs of a single person, so more than one trip might be needed in a day.  Women dig out in the garden for hours with babies strapped to their backs, and they also spend a lot of time cooking over very smoky fires, probably breathing in a bunch of that smoke.  One of the most common forms of discipline is beating (sometimes with a stick, referred to as “caning”), both at home and at school (corporal punishment is actually illegal in schools, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in many places).  People need to use dark, smelly, fly-infested latrines, some of which only have mud floors and a torn up plastic sheet over the entrance (I’ve used one like this before…and I was definitely visible through the holes in the sheet).

But, really, after living here for more than a year, the different experiences don’t seem different, and while dire poverty truly does exist for many people, there are also many people who are doing okay, who are getting by, and who are able to help those people who do find themselves in dire poverty.  I see this because Kalisizo is not a rural village – it’s a town.  A small town, but a town, nonetheless, with some people who are pretty well-off.  There are some really nice houses around, and several people form local organizations of their own to try to help lift up other members of the community.  I am certainly not living in a little hut in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by people who have never had any contact with the outside world.  Most of the houses in Kalisizo have brick walls and metal roofs, a lot of people have TVs, and people drive cars on (sometimes) paved roads.  Most importantly, though, there’s nothing surreal about the place or the people.  I’m surrounded by regular people, living their lives.  And that’s how I feel – I’m just someone living his life.  I wake up in the morning, I go to work, I say hi to some kids on the way, I occasionally turn the office into a day-care center when Max and Griffin aren’t around (some of the kids nearby really like to color), I stop at a few shops and the market on my way home, I cook dinner, I read, I watch a TV show or two on the computer to relax, and I go to bed.  What’s so incredible about that?  What’s so interesting about that?  Why does that need to be written down and sent to anyone who wants to read it on the internet?  I never had a blog about my life before I came here…My life never warranted a blog before…What’s so different about my life now?

One answer to these questions is…nothing (or not much, at any rate).  But, actually, that’s something, because it shows the common humanity that exists among all people in the world.  It shows that one group of people is not inherently superior or inferior to another group, that most people, regardless of their home, their culture, their religion, or their language, want and hope for similar things, and that these people are ready to work together to achieve those goals.  These are important things, things that are valuable for everyone to know, things that can contribute to creating a more peaceful world of compassion and understanding. 

Another answer to these questions is that I am asking the wrong questions.  The subject of the blog isn’t really me and my life…honestly, that wouldn’t really be so interesting.  If you are reading this, you probably already have a pretty good idea of who I am (although I do feel as if certain parts of me are changing as a result of this experience).  Why would you want to read what you already know?  The real subjects of the blog are the people and places that surround me.  Many people from my own culture don’t get the opportunity to live where I am living right now, and I think it is important for others from my culture to understand something about people from a different culture.  Although the common humanity of all people is certainly apparent, I am also definitely aware of differences between me and these people who have grown up in a completely different place.  Again, there is not a hierarchy here, in which one group’s ideas are inherently better than another group’s ideas.  This cultural diversity is simply a collection of different lenses through which similar people look at the same world.  The various lenses draw attention to different things, and they help to see the same thing in a variety of ways.  By learning about another culture, we can get at least a rudimentary idea of the structure of that culture’s lens(es), which helps us to see things from a broader point of view.  Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  Learning about different people and places opens our minds to different ways of thinking, and seeing the relationships between various ways of thinking can suggest pathways towards completely new ways of thinking.  So, like the commonalities among people, the differences can also contribute to progress, growth, and a better relationship with the world.

All right, so it seems that my initial question is actually the wrong question.  Whether or not I have the right to maintain a blog about my life is irrelevant.  “Is my life really all that interesting?” is beside the point.  The real question is whether or not I have a responsibility to maintain a blog about the people and places around me, and I think I do have that responsibility.  I should try to share with you the interesting lives of the people in Uganda and the ways in which those lives are similar to and different from the lives of people within my own culture.  It may still not be all that frequent (I am still kind of busy), but I will try to do a better job of relating the experiences connected to this place and these people.  Besides the fact that the stories of this place and these people are interesting, I think that the importance of learning about a diversity of peoples cannot be overstated.  To close with another Einstein quote, “Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding.”

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Musical Memory

Near the end of last month, Max and I took a trip to eastern Uganda, to a town called Bugiri.  We went to visit the project site of an Irish NGO called Goal, where the organization builds houses for vulnerable members of the surrounding communities.  When Marc, Positive Planet’s executive director, was in Uganda in March, we had a meeting at Goal’s office in Kampala to talk about this project.  A few years ago, they had done a pilot study using the same kind of interlocking bricks that we use (Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks ISSBs) and comparing the costs with those using traditional burned clay bricks.  They found that, in the end, their construction with traditional bricks was significantly less expensive and required much less cement than construction with ISSBs.  So, this result caused some concern for our organization.  Goal agreed to let Max and me visit the site where they’re currently building houses, so we could get a better idea of their process and try to figure out why traditional bricks turned out to be so much cheaper.

So, we went and visited a bunch of their housing sites, some of which were still under construction, and some of which had been completed.  The quality of the work seemed to be good, and they really do a good job of getting the cost of each house as low as possible, while maintaining quality.  But, it didn’t take long to figure out why the traditional bricks were so much less expensive.  Normally, when someone lays a brick wall, the standard mortar that would be used is a mixture of cement and sand.  Water is added, which reacts with the cement, and the cement basically glues all of the little particles together.  Goal used to do that, but, because cement is expensive and because their contractors often tried to use less cement than they should have to save money, the organization decided to change to a mortar that is a mixture of sand and clay…basically mud.  Clay also has certain properties that help to hold things together, so it still works…maybe not quite as well as cement, but it serves the purpose here.  Obviously, clay and sand are pretty readily available in the country, so using clay in the mortar reduces costs quite a bit.  One of the big selling points of ISSBs is that the interlocking structure of the bricks creates a more stable connection between bricks, both horizontally and vertically, so you don’t need to use as much mortar to hold everything together.  The production of ISSBs does call for a small percentage (5-10%) of cement in the brick mixture, but this amount of cement would normally be outweighed by the cement savings that you would see when using less mortar during construction.  With no cement in the mortar, the cement in the ISSBs would just be extra, and the overall cost basically has to go up.  The walls have a heck of a lot of mortar, but there’s no cement in there, so it doesn’t really matter when compared to an ISSB wall.

After realizing this, I suggested the idea of trying to find other materials that we could substitute for some or all of the cement in the ISSBs, in an effort to lower the cost of a brick and further reduce our cement usage.  It’s going to take a while to figure out what kind of materials to try, and then to actually test them out…and there’s a reason cement is the material currently recommended (nothing has been found that’s better and cheaper).  So, this might end up being much ado about nothing, but I think it’s at least worth a try.

Now, the reason I started talking about this whole experience was not to drone on about the technical details of brick-making and brick-laying.  I want to go back to when Max and I were in Bugiri.  Goal had these nice Land Cruisers that we got to ride in when we were out visiting all of the sites.  It was quite a change from the cars and minibuses that play the “stuff one more person into the vehicle until it’s almost ready to pop like a balloon” game.  It was certainly nice and comfortable, but I have to admit that it was also a little strange.  Riding through the countryside in this thing, I sort of felt like I was riding in to “save Africa” on some white horse or something.  Maybe I’ve just lost the ability to appreciate a comfortable car ride, but I’m pretty sure I felt a bit of that “savior mentality.”  It kind of made me realize the value of the “Peace Corps experience,” in which we don’t get to ride around in nice, spacious vehicles and work in offices with generators, desktop computers, and break rooms (Goal’s office had all of this stuff…it was kind of nice to just sit in there and marvel).  We actually walk or take public transportation.  When the power goes out in town, the lights go out in our office and at my home.  The only running water is the one tap in my compound, which is on sometimes and is only used to fill up my storage tank.  There’s actually something refreshing about living like this, facing many of the same issues as the people with whom I try to work.  Let’s be honest…I don’t have to deal with everything.  Quite a bit separates me from the average Ugandan (for example, I’m typing on a laptop computer right now), but I’m certainly more aware of certain things than I would be if I got to drive around in a Land Cruiser all the time, and there’s something to be said for that.

My main point here is that I think I’m pretty much completely over this whole idea of coming in to save people.  Don’t get me wrong…I hope the work that I do makes a positive impact on people’s lives, but the whole idea of being some kind of “savior” or “bringer of life and hope” or something sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth now.  I think at least part of me used to believe that I could be these things to everyone around me, but, now, I think I’m starting to realize that I don’t want to be that, and that I shouldn’t try to be that…

Through some combination of my faith, my perfectionism, and my occasional idealism, I have sometimes fallen into the trap of thinking that I can be everything that everyone needs…essentially, in Christian terms, that I could “be Jesus” – the perpetual suffering servant who never thinks of himself, only of the needs of others – to all those around me.  I can’t…why?  Because I’m not Jesus, or God, or a person with any more potential than anyone else around me.  As much as some people here might think that this white person can solve any problem (I recently got a call from someone who dialed the wrong number…after convincing him that it really was a wrong number and that I didn’t know anyone named “Flo,” he asked me to help him find Flo…how the heck was I supposed to accomplish that?), this white person cannot do everything (even if he does vaguely resemble the long-haired guy in the westernized Jesus pictures that hang in quite a few houses around here).

Nope, I’m just John, trying to live my life as best as I can and making mistakes in the process.  But isn’t that what makes our lives and our world so interesting and charming?  The fact that we are not perfect, that we cannot do everything ourselves, that we don’t have all the answers…No one’s pure light or pure darkness.  We’re all some shade of gray, and we don’t really know exactly what shade (as we look “through a mirror darkly”).  The imperfections, the inconsistencies, the mental battles with ourselves, the uncertainties…these are what make us human, and these are what make those brief glimpses of the divine, when the whole universe seems to be working together in harmony, all the more beautiful.

Over the past few months, I’ve realized that these things I sometimes see as weaknesses or imperfections – my mind occasionally placing greater importance on my own personal needs than on the needs of others, my frustrations with certain aspects of Uganda, my (relatively frequent) desire to have some time to myself (I recently referred to my house as the “fortress of solitude” as I was thinking about things in my head…in addition to not being Jesus, maybe I also need to remind myself that I’m not Superman) – these things are really just parts of me…that I shouldn’t necessarily try to deny them whenever they creep up.  The fact that I find certain things about Uganda and the culture of this place a bit frustrating just shows that I have a somewhat different set of cultural values, that I was brought up in a slightly different way, and I can’t deny that this is the case.  I like to talk about how we’re all so similar, how very little separates me from a Ugandan, but there are certain things that do separate, and it’s not right to try to deny that or to refuse to acknowledge that.  While I have to have respect for the culture in which I find myself, I also have to have respect for my own culture and for my own needs.  And that’s why I, personally, can’t be this ideal “suffering servant.”  There’s a reason the “body of Christ” is made up of many parts.  Having the faith to move mountains is a lot easier when lots of people believe that it can happen, and then we all pick up shovels to get things started (I think that might be a slightly altered Indian proverb…).

So, with these thoughts in mind, while I still spend lots of days working crazy hours and not really taking time for myself at all, I have started (or, more appropriately, resumed) doing a few things that help me decompress, de-stress, and relax (if I have the time).  Aside from trying to spend time with friends (which has become easier now that another PC volunteer is living in town J), these things almost all involve music (and now the blog title finally makes sense).  I’ve been listening to music a lot more recently, spending entire evenings working, cooking, or doing whatever to the sounds of the Beatles, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Queen, the Who, and a whole bunch of others in the classic rock category (including right now…John Lennon – post-Beatles – is currently cued up).  It’s really interesting to me how much some of my memories are tied to music…I’ll hear a certain song, and remember that it was the song playing as I was driving to visit a friend, or that it is another friend’s favorite song, or something like that.  So, I think about people back in the states a lot when listening to music.  I’ve also put a music writing program on my computer a few weeks ago, and apparently I had a lot of pent up musical creativity waiting to find some sort of expression…I’ve already written a fairly big piece for cello and piano.  Now, if I could just play it…  I mean, the computer plays it back for me, but it’s got that mechanical perfection that just so boring.  Here’s another example of how our humanity, our “imperfections” and “inconsistencies” make things more interesting.  The little idiosyncrasies of a real person playing an instrument (sliding from one note to the next when making a big jump, starting out a hair sharp and then relaxing into exactly the pitch, tiny changes to the tempo to make things more intense and then to sit back and take a deep breath) make each performance unique and a personal experience that can connect the people performing and the people listening unlike almost anything else.

Anyway, that’s probably enough of my “music is amazing” rambling for today.  The important thing is that I’m trying to make sure I give myself what I need, and to be better at accepting it when others give me what I need, while I also try to give others what they need, when I am able.  Sometimes it’s a tough balancing act, but, other times (maybe during those times when everything in the universe is working together in harmony), it all happens at the same time.  I am fulfilled, others are fulfilled, and everybody helps everybody else…no hierarchy, arrogance, or egotism.  Just selfless love that nourishes the self as it nourishes others…

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Limiting Assumptions

In science and engineering, we sometimes make assumptions to help simplify problems and make them infinitely easier to actually solve.  This procedure is definitely a good thing.  Let me give you an example.  About a month ago, I traveled to Kayunga, a town east of Kampala, to help another volunteer design a rainwater collection system for the youth center where she works.  To figure out how much water the tanks should be able to hold, I made several assumptions.  First of all, a rainwater collection system is never perfectly efficient, and not all of the water falling on a roof ends up in the tanks.  So, I assumed a collection efficiency of 80%, which was on the low end of the normal range of values, to be on the safe side.  Next, we needed to come up with an estimate of the daily water demand of the people who would be using the tanks.  The amount itself was an assumption, and we also assumed that the demand would be the same every day.  It might be possible to spend several months watching the community’s water use and collecting really exact data, but that’s a little out of the question here.  For one thing, the volunteer I worked with will be finished this October, so there just isn’t enough time to do something like that.  One other set of assumptions involved the actual rainfall patterns in Kayunga.  Obviously, finding rainfall data in Uganda is a bit more difficult than finding it in the USA, and the data that can be found is usually fairly limited.  We couldn’t find anything for Kayunga, but we did get some monthly data sets from Jinja, the town where the Nile River begins, which is not too far away.  We had to assume that these monthly totals of rainfall depths from 2005 to 2007 would be a good representative sample for the area.  Is this true?  I’m not sure, but it allowed us to actually do some analysis and figure things out.  In the end, we decided on two tanks, each of 15,000 liters, and the next week we wrote and submitted a grant proposal for the project to Peace Corps.  Now, we’re just waiting to see if the grant is awarded…

So, in some cases, assumptions are good.  They help us to simplify very complicated problems and actually solve them.  But, when we’re operating in the real world, interacting with real people, assumptions can oversimplify and can cause us to miss important complexities within the situation.  We often make initial assumptions about the people we meet, but these assumptions can limit our appreciation and our understanding of those people.  All of us have very complicated sets of personality traits and background experiences that make us incredibly intricate, complex individuals.  We cannot possibly hope to understand all of the factors that affect another person’s thoughts and actions simply by looking at him or her, or by listening to a few of his or her thoughts.  Then, if we think about the real-life situations in which we find ourselves, we might realize that these are often almost impossibly complicated circumstances created by the interactions between several complex individuals.  Assumptions might help to simplify things, but they can also lead to misunderstandings, lost information, and a limited understanding of one another.  This realization has happened over and over again during my time in Uganda.

Let’s start with something big that’s been in the news recently, and that you may or may not be worried about.  From what I’ve heard, the “Kony 2012” video has made quite an impact back in the states.  First of all, let me just say that you do not need to worry about my safety, or the safety of any other volunteers.  I know that it’s been a long time since I’ve written one of these blog updates, and this has probably also contributed to any worries that might be present.  But the only reason for my lack of blog posting was the large amount of stuff that I’ve been working on over here.  I’ve just been very busy…the rainwater system I talked about at the beginning was just one example of all sorts of things that I’ve been doing over the past several weeks.  Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of all my other work-related activities…

The point is that the topic of this video is not a recent development in Uganda.  It’s not even something that’s still going on.  Joseph Kony did do all of those terrible things.  He did kidnap Ugandan children, force them to kill their families, and then force them to join his Lord’s Resistance Army.  But he did these things several years ago, and the facts are being distorted if the video implies that these atrocities are happening right now all over Uganda.  By all accounts, Kony isn’t even in Uganda anymore…they think he’s hiding out in the jungle in some other country.  When Kony was here, he operated in the north, near Sudan.  For me personally, I am about as far away as you can get from that area, but Peace Corps volunteers are now being placed in the north, working to help rebuild after several years of conflict.  Some of my best volunteer friends are working with people in IDP camps (IDP means internally-displaced person…basically a refugee who hasn’t left his or her home country).  If the fighting was still going on, there is no way that Peace Corps volunteers would be up there.  Actually if something really bad were to happen in Uganda, Peace Corps would be one of the first organizations (if not the first) to pull out.  There are elaborate plans for getting all 170-some of us together and out of the country as fast as possible.

From what I’ve heard about this video, and from what I’ve seen (I watched the last ten minutes of it with some friends at a Peace Corps training earlier this week), I (and lots of other people here) have a bunch of issues with it.  I’m not going to go into a rant right now, but there is one idea I’d like to focus on for a bit: the assumption that there is one clear, purely evil antagonist in this situation, and that everyone else trying to “get” him is a perfect personification of goodness, morality, and justice.  It’s incredibly overly simplistic.  The idea that it is completely black and white, that we are seeing the forces of good pitted against the forces of evil, limits our viewpoint and prevents us from seeing the complexities of the situation and of the players within it, from seeing the truth that all of us, whoever we are and whatever we’ve done, have some good and some bad within ourselves.

I recently read the Night Trilogy by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and this realization of being somewhere in the middle came out of my reflections on those stories.  Just to give you an idea of the themes of the books, here’s an excerpt:

“Suffering pulls us farther away from other human beings.  It builds a wall made of cries and contempt to separate us.  Men cast aside the one who has known pure suffering, if they cannot make a god out of him; the one who tells them: I suffered not because I was God, nor because I was a saint trying to imitate Him, but only because I am a man, a man like you, with your weaknesses, your cowardice, your sins, your rebellions, and your ridiculous ambitions; such a man frightens men, because he makes them feel ashamed.  They pull away from him as if he were guilty.  As if he were usurping God’s place to illuminate the great vacuum that we find at the end of all adventures.”

And here are a few sentences from one of my journal entries, written while I was thinking about these stories:  “If there is a heaven and a hell, we deserve neither.  I see myself reflected in the victim and in the perpetrator, in the sufferer and in the bringer of disaster.  We do not deserve eternal paradise or eternal punishment.  All are somewhere in between.”

A sermon I read by Dietrich Bonhoeffer has similar themes.  The responsibility for suffering and inhuman atrocities lies on all of us: “In view of such terrible human catastrophes the arrogant spectator attitude of a judge or know-it-all is no longer valid for the Christian.  Rather what really counts here is that we realize this one thing: these events took place in my world, the world I live in, the world in which I commit sin, in which I sow hatred and unkindness day by day.  These events are the fruit of what I and my family have sown.”

But, we don’t all deserve eternal damnation.  Each of us has that spark of goodness inside.  We all fall somewhere in between.  Because of that good part within each of us, we all have a right to live, so that we can come to realize the good and to let it grow.  My point with all of this is that we might want to be careful about making any sort of argument for “getting” Kony based on moral superiority or the fact that “he’s wrong” and “we’re right”.  The only argument I see is that his actions disrupted (a great deal) this right to live for many, many people and families.  He has definitely done terrible things, but these “limiting assumptions” that make him into a caricature of evil, and that make those on the other side pure, unblemished heroes and champions, while certainly making for a good story, do not reflect the true human complexities of the situation.  They rarely do, and they can prevent us from seeing the humanity of all viewpoints, from seeing the humanity of the perpetrators, with the past scars, open wounds, and imperfections of us all.  Reality is so much more complicated, and all we can do is to try to limit our assumptions and make the best decision we can using the incomplete information that we have…and having the humility to realize that, given incomplete information and human imperfections, our decisions may not always be the right ones.

Okay, I think I’ve spent more than enough time on that example.  Let’s get into some stuff that’s a little closer to my current reality.  I sometimes make assumptions about the people I work with, and those assumptions often do not hold true.  For example, being on time…I never know which way that one is going to go.  Someone will tell me that they’ll be coming over at 9:00 AM on Saturday.  I do my best to wake up and pull myself out of bed so that I have enough time to be relatively ready for the arrival.  Around 11:00 AM, I finally hear a knock on the door…

Maybe I should start assuming that people will always be significantly later than they say.  In many cases, that might be a good assumption.  But, occasionally, a 7:30 AM knock on the door and a voice calling “Hello, John?” will jolt me out of my deep slumber and force me to get ready in about 60 seconds.  The stereotype is that people are generally late over here, that “I’m on the way coming” could still mean like eight hours away, that “it is just there” could mean that “it” is ten kilometers away.  But, occasionally, the stereotype is broken, and someone who was two hours late yesterday might be one hour early today.  Once again, we are complex individuals.  We don’t always behave as others might expect, based on the way we look or on past experience.

People definitely make assumptions about me.  That might be unavoidable, in my case.  Many Ugandans seem to have grown used to the idea of people who look like me coming with lots of money.  As Peace Corps volunteers, we don’t have “lots of money” (although, let’s be honest, we do get a nice living allowance that lets us enjoy a few comforts every now and then), and we’re not really supposed to give out any of the money or things we do have.  That doesn’t stop people from asking…”Mpa kikumi.” – “Give me 100 (shillings).” Now, 100 shillings is like a nickel in the USA…not exactly going to buy a whole lot with it.  And yet, some never tire of asking, always seeming to think that I’ll change my mind.   I admit, it’s hard to say no sometimes, especially when I know that my material wealth is much larger than that of the person asking.  I admit, I have given some fruit away, but that’s been the extent of it.  Any kind of giving could certainly perpetuate the stereotype that “white people will come and give us stuff,” which definitely isn’t good, but there’s also a certain point where I find myself thinking, “You know what?  I have plenty of food in my house.  I just bought a big bunch of bananas.  Why shouldn’t I let the kids near my house each have one?”  Then, of course, I create expectations for the future…I could keep going round and round in circles on this for a long time.  Moving on…

The language assumption is one of the most obvious.  Of course, as a white man, I don’t know Luganda, so people immediately speak in English.  Honestly, I was annoyed at first, because then I didn’t get to practice my Luganda, but I can’t really fault someone for trying to be accommodating to an outsider.  Now, there are other times when people assume that I don’t know any Luganda and start talking about me, when I’m right there.  I am still nowhere near fluent, and there are many, many times when I have no idea what is being said.  But I do think I’m getting better at picking out words and ideas.  The comments that I can partially decipher are usually just very general assumptions about how a white person would likely react to Ugandan situations.  People sometimes think it’s funny that I’m willing to eat traditional Ugandan food without hesitating (of course, if you know me, you know that I’m willing to eat any food without hesitating).  People almost always think it’s funny when we’re being stuffed into taxis.  Now, some of this is probably due to the fact that I’m several inches taller than the average Ugandan, and I’m not as experienced at folding myself into a game of human Tetris.  Even though I’ve decided that I don’t really fit into the Ugandan public transportation system, I’ve gotten quite used to it and can simply “grin and bear it.”  I’ve had to sit on someone’s lap in the back of a Toyota Corolla with my head and neck almost parallel to the floor (so that I didn’t go through the roof) for fairly long periods of time, and I try to make it a point not to complain, groan, or express any sort of discomfort.

Just this week, I was stuffed in the back seat of a station wagon (3rd row) with three other adults.  My knees were pressed against the seat in front of me, my butt was as far back as it could go, and the top of my head was pressed against the roof.  A number of Ugandans in the car were laughing, finding it very funny that a muzungu was partaking in the enjoyable experience of Ugandan public transportation.  I was actually somewhat impressed with myself this time.  I still couldn’t follow the conversation exactly, but I was definitely getting the general idea.  Then, there was a little debate as to whether or not I understood what they were saying.  An almost imperceptible smile had formed on my face at this point, and I kept my mouth shut, content to let them think whatever they wanted for a few minutes.  Eventually, we passed another white person walking along the side of the road, which caused quite a stir (because it is assumed that muzungus all know each other, of course).  I decided to feed the fire a little bit.  I turned my head (as much as I could) to watch her pass, shrugged my shoulders, and simply said “Simumanyi.” – “I don’t know her.”  Suddenly, the car was full of life as the discussion regarding my language ability resurfaced.  I could follow it enough to know when to laugh and smile, and that kept it going for a long time.  I even was able to respond when someone actually addressed me: “Muzungu, weebale okuyiga Luganda.” – “Muzungu, thank you for learning Luganda.”  To which I replied: “Kale, ssebo.  Weebale okusiima.” – “You’re welcome, sir.  Thank you for appreciating.”  Assumption disproven.  Score.

I’m going to end with some of the most personal assumptions…assumptions that I have about myself.  I often think about my limitations over here.  I’ve realized time and time again that I am not capable of doing everything, that I am not capable of being everything that everyone needs all of the time.  Some of the work that I need to do is, honestly, work that I don’t feel at all qualified to be doing.  The group of volunteers I came in with consisted of community health volunteers and economic development volunteers (water and sanitation engineering is a special subset of health).  So much of the work I’m doing is business development stuff, accounting, marketing, etc.  I was in the health group…not the economic development group.  Heck, I never even took an Economics course in college.  What in the world do I know about any of this?

The other big one is more personality-focused.  In person, I’m about as introverted as it gets (granted, in writing, the situation may change a bit).  Type B personality all the way.  I often feel like that is not exactly the best quality to have as a Peace Corps volunteer…as someone who is supposed to integrate into the community, who is supposed to be outgoing, to talk to people about their problems and ideas.  Don’t get me wrong, I generally like most people.  But, sometimes I just can’t keep a conversation going to save my life.  It takes me a long time to process stuff.  Someone could be telling me something, and I could be listening very intently, but, at the end, all I might have to say is, “Okay…yeah…that makes sense.”  Two hours later, after the other person has completely moved on, I might have a sudden realization, “Oh, crap, you know what?  I should have asked/said…”  Too late.

The other thing about being an introvert is that I don’t really like being the center of attention.  I remember sometimes wishing I was more “the life of the party” when I was younger, but now, after months of being watched, and being waved at, after months of having my actions scrutinized by all sorts of people, I realize that I am completely content being in the background, taking a supporting, rather than a leading, role.  If you’d like some Biblical references, I see myself as more of a Barnabas (supporter, encourager) than a Paul (out in front, leader), as more of a Luke (detailed, technical writer) than a Peter (spontaneous preacher).

The question I sometimes ask is whether these are truly limitations, or whether they are just limiting assumptions.  In other words, are my personality and my behavior relatively set in a certain group of patterns, or do I just let myself think that they are?  Do these limitations define the imperfect person I am and show me why I need other, different people in my life?  Or, if I could just stop thinking about myself in a certain way, could I transcend these assumptions and become “who I need to be” so that I am more effective?  Do I need to find a niche where my strengths and limitations can have the best possible impact, or can I alter these qualities to fit whatever situation I find myself in at the moment?

I think these questions might take a while to answer, and it will certainly be interesting to see how I feel at the end of this time in Uganda.  I obviously don’t have an answer now, but I would guess that, as with most things, it lies somewhere in between the two extremes.  Certain limitations help to remind me that I am only human and that greater fullness can be found in relationship with other limited human beings (and other forms of life).  Certain limiting assumptions can still be overcome, hopefully making me a better person than I am today.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sacrifice and the World Beyond

A while ago (actually, I think it was the week before Christmas), I was working in the office, and a few nice ladies walked up to the doorway with a man from the USA, asking if they could come in and talk, just for a few minutes.  As it turned out, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.  After having me read John 3:16, the ladies talked to me for a bit, and I think I was able to convince them that I knew a little bit about Jesus.  I also talked to the man (his name was Joel, if I remember correctly), but that short conversation consisted of more small talk and less theology.  He told me where he’s from and that he’s been in Uganda for several years, I said that I was from Pennsylvania and that a Kingdom Hall (where Jehovah’s Witnesses worship) is not too far from my family’s house.  As the small group was getting ready to move on, Joel said to me, “Thanks for the sacrifice,” referring to my Peace Corps service in Uganda.  Not really sure how to respond, I said something pretty generic, along the lines of “Oh, no problem” or something like that.  But it got me thinking…

Looking out of my bedroom window at a bird (not a perfectly timed picture)
Many years ago, when I was back in high school, I had a pretty good idea of the path my life would take.  It was pretty standard stuff.  After graduating, I would go to college (and I think I probably had my heart set on Bucknell at this point), be a good engineering student, become a valuable member of the school’s swim team, and play in the orchestra, if I had the time.  After college, I would probably move back to south-central Pennsylvania (not that Bucknell is that far away) and find an engineering job somewhere close to where I grew up.  I saw no reason to go somewhere else.  I had great friends and family there, and I didn’t have the big dreams of world travel that George Bailey did (“I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world…”).  I would be content in the forests and rolling hills of home, and I’d eventually get married and have kids.  Finally, I’d retire, and would probably play golf or something.  Yeah, well, after getting to Bucknell (that part did happen), it didn’t take long for this whole story to change direction quite a bit.

A lizard (one of several) who hangs out in my bedroom...helps take care of bugs
Swim practices started up almost immediately upon my arrival at Bucknell.  Things went okay for a week or two, but, during either the third or fourth week, I developed a pretty bad cold.  I even fainted one morning when I was in the bathroom (miraculously, my head didn’t slam into a toilet or anything).  I’m not sure how much of this was actually caused by swimming (a lot of it was probably just being in a new environment away from home and other, similar factors), but the whole situation made me seriously reassess my priorities.  I had been hearing about some interesting service trips offered by the school, and I remember thinking that it might be nice to do something like that.  But, I knew that, if I kept up with the swimming, I probably wouldn’t have time for anything like that.  After lots of thinking and some talking with my parents (after all, swimming had been a pretty big part of my life for over ten years), I decided that it was time to stop.  I didn’t know it at the time, but, from what I can see looking back now, this decision had a very good impact on my time at Bucknell.

Having been freed from hours of going back and forth in a cold swimming pool every day, I could devote much more time to other things.  I studied a lot, and I spent plenty of time in the music building, playing the cello and writing songs.  I had written one song before going to college and really thought that would be the only one, but, with a little extra time, the inspiration came a bit more frequently.  In the second semester of that first year, I started to get very involved in helping with worship services at the chapel on campus, and, over the years, I’m pretty sure that I became known to some as “the guy who is always doing stuff at the chapel.”  I did not get around to participating in any of those service trips that first year, but that, too, would change fairly soon.

He's on the prowl
The summer after freshman year, at the urging of a very close friend from home, I decided, all of one day before the church’s youth group was leaving (it was amazing that I was even able to join that late), to go to something called “Creation,” a music festival with a whole bunch of contemporary Christian bands.  Now, I have to admit here that I’m not the biggest fan of most contemporary Christian music (feel free to ask me to explain if you’d really like to know why).  Nevertheless, through the combination of a couple of the speakers and the beautiful natural setting (which dwarfed all of the stages, the tents, and the tens of thousands of people), I began to realize just how big the world is, and just how small I am in comparison.  I began to understand that, while many great things exist in the place where I grew up, so much more exists out there in the world beyond the tiny little piece of it that I knew and loved.

I was definitely being pulled toward those service trips that Bucknell had to offer.  During my sophomore year, I applied for the opportunity to participate in the Bucknell Brigade in Nicaragua.  The application process for this trip is actually relatively competitive, and I honestly didn’t expect to be selected that year (I had no Spanish, no experience with service in other countries, etc.).  But, perhaps by virtue of the fact that, for some reason, the number of male applicants is significantly less than the number of female applicants, I got in.  As I prepared for the trip, I thought that I had some idea of what I would see, even though the only international experience I had at that point consisted of two trips to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.  I mean, I had seen the commercials on TV about poverty in other countries, so I had an idea of what was coming, right?  No, not really…

My counterpart Peruth with her two-month-old baby boy
If you have ever heard me speak about my experiences on that Brigade, or on the two other Brigades I was a part of during my junior and senior years, then you know that what I saw, what I heard, and what I felt changed my profoundly.  My eyes were opened to the world beyond the comfortable, secure world that I had known all of my life.  I saw pain, I saw suffering, I saw true poverty, and I felt despair.  How could I go back to the life I had, knowing that this suffering exists elsewhere?  While I live in a nice house, go to a good school, and have so many resources to keep me healthy, others live in slums, in tents made from black plastic tarps, and in garbage dumps.  How could I not try to work to change things, to make the world a better, more just, more equal place.  I began to feel an imperative, a moral responsibility, to do work that might improve these painful situations a little bit.  As I was getting ready to leave Bucknell, I knew that the next place I wanted to go was into development work.

So, here we start to see the idea of a “sacrifice” coming into play.  I had certain ideas about what my life could be…Then, I saw what life is like for some people on this planet, and things changed.  My path completely changed direction, and I felt a need to do something different with my life.  As one might say in the Christian church, I felt a need to “take up my cross and follow.”  But, what I want you to know is that, now, I do not see my current path in this light.  My time in Uganda is not a sacrifice.  Let me continue this little mini-autobiography, and hopefully I’ll be able to explain why.

Peruth and Chris (who she calls "the captain")
A few months after graduating from Bucknell, I went to Tampa, Florida to enter the Peace Corps Master’s International Program at the University of South Florida.  If you don’t know, this program starts with a year of graduate-level classes, followed by a two-year Peace Corps assignment.  While serving in the Peace Corps, someone in this program is also expected to be doing research toward a thesis, which is completed after returning to the USA.  Anyway, during my second semester, I eventually discovered that my Peace Corps assignment would be in Uganda.  I didn’t really have any preferences regarding where I would be sent, but, for some reason, Uganda felt like the right place.  For one thing, English is the national language (this is kind of nice…).  Besides that, though, going to an African country seemed right.  I had visited countries in Central and South America (Nicaragua and Suriname), so maybe it was time to head to Africa.

Now, when we think of “Africa,” what comes to mind?  Well, if you’re like me, and you’ve seen the commercials, internet ads, books, and films about kids dying of hunger and disease, brutal conflicts creating enormous body counts and even more enormous groups of refugees and internally-displaced people, corrupt governments, HIV/AIDS epidemics, poor living conditions, and just overall material poverty, then some of those thoughts and images might come to mind when you think about Africa.  It’s the continent that seems to be left behind as developing countries on other continents make progress and reduce poverty.  Books have been written and studies have been conducted that try to explain why most African countries, unlike other countries, have not been able to ride the waves of globalization and free trade toward a brighter future (not to say, by the way, that globalization and free trade are completely wonderful things for everyone…I’ve seen how they can open the door to exploitation, injustice, and inequality in countries around the world, but I’m getting off of the topic at hand).  In any case, we might look at Africa and see “the dark continent,” a place full of war, disease, hunger, and suffering, a place in dire need of our help.

Maybe he's not quite ready to be standing yet...
At least so far, this has not been my experience.  Certainly, there are issues.  Undoubtedly, there are health problems.  There is malnutrition.  There are scars from recent conflicts.  But these things are not the sum total of “Africa.”  There is so much more.  There is so much that is good.  (And it might be good for us to remember that African countries are very different from one another.  The situation in Uganda is quite different from the situation in Tanzania, in Ghana, in Ethiopia, in South Africa.)  I’m not saying that charities and organizations are making up these problems.  They most definitely are not.  But, let’s be honest.  Many of the images we are shown and the stories we are told are designed to tug at our heartstrings, to compel us to write a check to “do our part.”  Don’t get me wrong…many of these organizations do great work, and they need financial support.  Heck, the organization I am working with operates off of donations.  But I want you to know that there is more than what we see from our limited vantage point.  We are bombarded with statistics, placing these people into categories like “undernourished,” “AIDS orphan,” or “refugee,” and, while these words certainly represent difficult, painful parts of their lives, the words do not define the entirety of their lives. Africa is not a part of this world simply to give us in “developed” countries an opportunity to exercise our spirits of compassion, to give us a place where we can focus our charity.  It is a real place, full of real people, and there is more in this place, more to these people, than suffering.

Some of the kids (and Chris) who helped us clean up our office
Living in a place for an extended period of time is very different from visiting a place for a week or two.  Before coming to Uganda, I had participated in several service trips, each one lasting between seven and ten days.  You can learn a lot about a place in that amount of time, but you certainly don’t get the full picture.  Going to Nicaragua for a week, I thought I was living and working in solidarity with the Nicaraguan people…all the while insulated from those people and their country by the group of twenty-some Americans, our guides and translators, and a guarded, fenced-in compound.  Actually living in Uganda, more or less on my own, is quite different.  Certainly, a few things still set me apart from the average Ugandan…for example, I cook with a propane stove, instead of charcoal or wood, I have a laptop, and I take weekly malaria prophylaxis.  But, I definitely feel more in tune with the actual day-to-day lives of people than I did in other places (though, of course, I still don’t have the complete picture).  And, perhaps surprisingly, it is not a surreal, crazy experience in what seems like another world.  That might be, at least in part, what I expected, but that is not what I am experiencing.  It’s hard to put into words, but the best way to describe my experience might be, simply, that it is life.  Maybe I expected to be living in a place that felt like some other realm of existence, a “world beyond” the world I know, as I now seem to enjoy calling my past impressions of life in other places, based on the short glimpses into those places that I have had.  Perhaps I could say that I have now discovered yet another “world beyond” that world, one that is not so different from the one that I know…

I wake up every morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, say good-bye to the kids in the compound, and walk to work.  As I walk, I watch varieties of colorful birds fly overhead.  I pass by dozens of shops run by people who are just trying to make a living, trying to provide for themselves and their families.  I see children playing in front of the shops (some know my name and shout, “Hi Johnny!” as I walk past).  I walk across the main street, at which point a few taxi drivers might try to persuade me to take a trip to Masaka or Kampala that I don’t need to take.  I pass by the town’s big football field, which always contains a few grazing cows (when games are not taking place), and I reach my organization’s office, saying good morning to the women who live next door if I see them.  I might go home for lunch, or I might have lunch in town with Max.  We are regulars at JP Restaurant (which serves the standard Ugandan combos of starch and sauce), and the waitresses are always happy to see us.  They even speak in Luganda to me, because they know that I know a little bit.  At the end of the day, I usually take a slightly different route home.  I pass by a shop that sells spare parts for motorcycles, just off of the main road, and the woman who owns it is often sitting in front with her baby cradled in her arms.  She likes to wave to me as I pass by.  As I continue along, there are two small shops on the left that usually only have a few vegetables and fruits available, but I like to stop and look at their limited selections to see if they have anything I need.  Their kids are usually excited to see me come.  As I get close to home, I’ll usually see at least a few kids playing, we’ll wave at each other, and I’ll ask, “How are you?” to which they invariably reply “I am fine!”  If I see the young ladies who run the guesthouse next door, I’ll say hello to them, and then I’ll be back home.  If the little kids are around and in a playful mood, I might sit outside for a bit and play with them (hoping that things stay relatively civilized…).  Finally, I’ll come inside and relax…or pull out the computer and keep working on stuff.

Sounds pretty normal, doesn’t it?  Sure, I left out a few things, like squatting in pit latrines, taking bucket baths, and doing dishes by hand outside in the grass, but, to be honest, this all feels normal to me now.  On the rare occasion that I am in an establishment with a porcelain toilet that flushes, I find myself doing a bit of a double take.

Uganda is not a different world; similar frustrations, similar small victories.  It’s a bit different, yes, but it certainly doesn’t feel like I’m on some kind of surreal adventure.  I mean, I can even get a really good cheeseburger (topped with bacon and ham) in Masaka.  I’m willing to occasionally break my vegetarian streaks for that not so little treat.

So, where’s the sacrifice?  What am I really giving up to be here?  A normal job back in the USA?  Getting married?  Starting a family?  At this point, I don’t want these things.  (By the way, this is a hard thing to explain to Ugandans.  There’s a group of mechanics I talk to sometimes, and they always ask when I’m going to find a wife.  Then they start pointing out women walking on the street.  “What about her?”)  Admittedly, I do miss seeing family and friends back home, but I get to read the occasional letter or email that tells me they’re doing just fine.  I do miss talking to my swimmers and watching them improve, but I’m sure they’re doing well without me.  I do miss our family cat, Slick, but I’m sure he’s getting plenty of attention from Mom and Dad.  And I do miss my cello…yeah, I miss my cello.  It’s amazing how closely connected I can feel to that piece of wood.

But, most importantly, right now, this is simply where I want to be and what I want to be doing.  What I felt I needed to do has become the thing that I want to do, not necessarily because it might be the right thing to do, but because I enjoy doing it.  Let’s not think about altruism, moral responsibility, or sacrificial living for a moment…I am not enduring extreme hardship.  I am relatively comfortable.  Uganda is not a place where only pain and suffering abound.  Certainly, there are problems, but there is also joy.  There are loving families, there are strangers who stop and talk to each other, there are beautiful plants and animals, and there are so many children laughing and playing.  We see African countries on the news and hear about disease and war, and we might conclude that the continent is full of death.  I see life, I feel warmth, and I encounter beauty.

I hope that these words at least partially convey my feelings about this place.  I am not here shining a light in the darkness.  Light surrounds me.  I am not here to lift these people up from their misery, to give hope to the hopeless.  They have hope.  They don’t need me to give them hope.  They need me, and I need them, simply because we all need each other.  I am here to work with them, as equals, not in a hierarchy created by dependency, to try to improve everyone’s life, to try to make a small portion of all our hopes, yours, mine, and theirs, a reality.  I am not a saint (not that anyone ever said I was).  You don’t need to say thank you for my “sacrifice.”  I am here because I want to be here.  Light is all around me, and I just hope that this little light of mine can contribute something to the whole.