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.”