Sunday, July 21, 2013

But What Do I Know?

Forewarning: this is a bit more serious than my last few blog posts, and it might be a bit disjointed.  These topics returned to my mind only yesterday, and my ideas are probably still not fully formed…

A couple weeks ago, my training group had its Close of Service conference, which happens a couple months before our second year is finished.  I’m a bit of a special case, because I will be staying for a third year, but most people are beginning to transition, figuring out what they will be doing next and wrapping up activities at their sites.  Maybe this sense of things coming to an end has been the cause of my reflections over the past day or two.  I’ve been thinking about the past two years, what I’ve seen and how I’ve lived, and I’ve realized that, even after living in Uganda for two years, I still can’t say that I really know the experience of an average Ugandan.  Sure, I’ve seen things, I’ve heard stories, I’ve lived and worked with many Ugandans, but have I really experienced any of it?  Can I really know what it’s like?

Based on statistics, the “average” Ugandan lives in a rural area, has a bunch of kids, farms for his/her own family’s sustenance, and doesn’t make much money (if he/she is fortunate enough to have a job).  While most of Rakai District is rural, I live in Kalisizo Town, which is, in fact, a town.  While it isn’t a huge town, it is certainly significantly more built-up than the surrounding villages.  For example, none of Uganda’s banks have an actual branch in Kalisizo, but one bank did recently install an ATM machine in town.  So, I’m not living in a strictly rural area, although I’ve certainly gone to very rural locations and have spent weekends in nearby villages.  Besides that, I have a reliable income that is more than sufficient for my needs, and even allows me to eat a meal at a nice restaurant in Masaka from time to time.  I don’t have a large family to provide for, and I don’t need to garden (there’s no place for one in my compound anyway).  All in all, I have a relatively comfortable life.

Others are not so fortunate.  For example, let’s look at a primary school teacher.  According to a 2011 report from Uganda’s Bureau of Statistics, the 2009 median monthly wage for a primary school teacher was 150,000 Ugandan shillings, which is about $60 (per month, remember).  This is further complicated by the fact that teachers are not often paid on a regular basis.  I was just talking to the head teacher at a local primary school today, and he said that it has been at least two months since government teachers have received anything.  If this teacher has a spouse and, say, five kids (which is less than average), that’s seven people in the family.  Now, I probably spend more than 10,000 shillings a week, just on food that I cook myself, but let’s say that I have expensive tastes (carrots are certainly more expensive than matooke), so let’s assume 5,000 shillings per person per week, and we haven’t even addressed the fuel needed to actually do the cooking.  That’s 35,000 shillings per week for the whole family, which, in four weeks, comes to 140,000 shillings.  Add in a few extra days to round out the month, and we’re right around 150,000 shillings.  So, a teacher’s salary is maybe enough to allow a (relatively small) family to eat, but we haven’t even included the costs of anything else (water, cooking fuel, utensils, a stove, furniture, etc.).  Maybe the teacher’s spouse makes money from another job, but, most likely, a teacher’s family probably has to farm to have any chance to getting by.

This opens up another can of worms.  The teacher has to spend his/her days at school to have any hope of getting paid, leaving the kids and spouse to do the farming.  Once the kids are old enough to attend school, the family has a difficult choice to make.  Sending the kids to school would give them the increased opportunities that an education can provide, but those opportunities are years down the road, and their absence from the farm would probably mean a loss of productivity.  Plus, even going to a “free” government school still has costs – for example, if you want your child to be able to eat lunch.  Also, as I’ve said before, government schools are, on average, not that great.  The sad truth is that, if parents have money, the kids almost automatically go to a private school.  I’m not sure what the costs are for primary school, but, for secondary school, the fees for one term could amount to a few hundred dollars or more, and there are three terms per year.  Just having the money to send one child to private school is hard enough, let alone five or more.

Those two paragraphs highlighted only a few issues.  There are several more that would have further complicated the situation.  For example, I didn’t even mention the detrimental effects of disease, or the common need to spend hours fetching water and/or firewood, or the potentially disastrous consequences that could eventually result from the intersection of environmental degradation, rapid population growth, and climate change.  This is how people become trapped in a cycle of poverty, through no fault of their own.  My point here (one of them at least) is that I have not actually experienced this cycle, so how could I claim to know what people here are going through every day?  I might be able to explain the issues and how they can arise, but I can’t begin to tell you how this affects someone on a personal level.  I can’t say how it might create a sense of hopelessness, or how it might cause someone to lose faith people who might be trying to help.  If you are willing to listen, people will talk about their issues and problems, but even then, I doubt that I am getting the whole story.  I doubt I hear the deepest feelings and frustrations that weigh on a person’s soul.  And it’s hard for me to remember this, sometimes.  It's easy to get frustrated myself, when people don’t do something that seems like common sense to me, and it’s easy to forget that every person has an untold story, maybe happy, maybe incredibly sad, which informs that person’s reactions to others and to the outside world.

It’s also important for us to remember that, despite what we might infer from what we read and what we see on TV, the experience of everyone in Africa is not the same sad tale.  First of all, of course, separate places in Africa can be as different as separate places in the Americas (yes, I’m including both North and South America).  Beyond that, within countries, even within communities, there are significant differences.  Near Kalisizo, there are villages with houses made out of mud and sticks, with only an opening where a door should go.  Near Kalisizo, there are also walled-in, gated compounds that contain huge houses with satellite dishes on the roof.  Similar to the USA, significant inequality exists in Uganda.  I remember reading a quote from Bono about how an “accident of latitude” (someone’s place of birth) should not determine a person’s opportunities.  While I appreciate his recognition that different areas of the world are certainly not on a level playing field with one another, and his sentiment that things should be different, his phrasing completely glosses over the intricacies of the situations within countries.  There are a significant number of people in Uganda who are living a comfortable life, but there are also many who live paycheck to paycheck (if they even get a paycheck).  Not recognizing these complexities risks overlooking a number of important facts about the progress Uganda has made so far, about the work that Ugandans are doing to improve the lives of other Ugandans, and about the nature of the work that remains to be done. 

A special report in a March issue of the Economist framed Africa as a “hopeful continent,” where lives are improving, stability is increasing, and economies are growing.  In some ways, Uganda probably fits into this idea, but, in other ways, maybe not.  I have a friend who started nursing school this year, which is a great step, but her continued attendance in future terms is somewhat dependent on the weather.  We are in a dry season right now, and it’s been really dry.  She tells me that, if it doesn’t rain soon, her family’s coffee plants might die, and they might not make the money needed to pay for her next term (by the way, nursing school is significantly more expensive than secondary school).  Opportunities are increasing, but so are the risks that could take away those opportunities.  I could write an entire post on the potential nationwide problems that could arise in the coming decades if population, environmental, and climate trends continue along their current trajectories.  I hope that we’re making a small impact, that we’re doing a little bit to improve people’s lives and to ensure the country’s long-term success and sustainability.  But, what do I know?  Can I really understand how someone’s life might be changed, when I haven’t lived that life myself?  Physical changes might be seen, but emotional and mental changes, for better or worse, are not so visible.  And that mental/emotional state is probably more important, because the most important work cannot be done by someone like me.  It is being done by Ugandans, whose hope lies within themselves, who have faith in their abilities and their goals, and who believe that they and their neighbors deserve healthy lives full of opportunity, promise, and love.