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.