Tuesday, 22 January 2013

This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things:

An Exploration of Popular Political Theory in Uganda

I was eating breakfast[1] before Mass on Sunday, extra early because Alex and I joined the church choir, when our accountant friend Samuel handed me a newspaper.  As I unfolded the journal I saw in a smallish textbox on the front page that the Prime Minister of Uganda, a man by the name of Amama Mbabazi, had just been arrested for embezzling over 5 billion Ugandan shillings—equivalent to about 2 million U.S. dollars—from f:unds sent by the British and Irish governments to aid the people of his country. 
            In equal parts due to my long-honed hatred of political pissbisonry and my newfound Ugandan Patriotism, I was outraged. Not only did this man steal from an aid fund, he stole from an aid fund designated to help research and treat infectious diseases in a country that still marks the ebola virus as a health concern.  The Ebola “I have a 90% fatality rate and don’t even replicate well because I kill my victims too quickly and efficiently” Virus.  He was literally helping more people bleed internally unto death!  Worthy of outrage?  I think so!
            The people of Uganda, on the other hand, do not seem to think so.  Samuel was calm. He explained patiently through my sputtering protestations that all politicians in Uganda do this type of thing, so best not to get too worked up just because one got caught.
            But surely Samuel, surely you are appalled that money designated to help people like your war-ravaged tribesmen in the North was greedily hoarded by this barbaric ogre of a man?  No?  Not even a little bit?  Okay, I guess I’ll go find someone else to be indignant with then.  Harrumph.
            Only, no dice there. 
From Michele, the Italian businessman who’s very job it is to attract investors to a country that he claims “will always have these types of people,” to our new friend Jose Chameleone (he’s a Ugandan musician, more on that later), not a single person showed serious concern over this seriously concerning (to me) event.  I was angry at the indifference I felt was rearing its dull head all around me, and beginning to subconsciously write off Ugandans as nihilistic apathetistes—so I buried my worries for a moment by singing really hard during Mass.  Calmed slightly by this obnoxious exertion, and after a lunch spent replacing all the nutrients I sweated out in the fission reactor they call Bbiina Church, Alex and I hopped a couple of boda-bodas[2] into Kampala to clear our heads with a little downtown wanderin’.

 [1] Italian people must not have mothers, because I was taught that cookies, candy, and coffee were not, in fact, acceptable breakfast fare.
[2] Turns out they’re not dangerous at all (hi Moms!) mostly just waaaaaaay fun!          
Walking through Kampala you witness the results of this political “finagling” first-hand.  Public parks are surrounded by barbed-wire and blocked off by armed guards; the largest of these (Independence Park) was originally public until the army closed it off and made activity there illegal for no discernible reason(according to Chameleone on a late-night tour of the city).  You see massive gorgeous homes on the hilltops that are apparently owned by a few hyper-rich politicians and tycoons—Chameleone and Samuel and Michele have all told us that the politicians are the ones with the real money here, using government funds as their personal coffers—and a hundred meters down the hillside you run into the tiny storefronts manned by three or four individuals apiece, each hoping to bring enough money home to survive that day (over thirty percent of the population here lives on less than a buck twenty five per diem).  It feels like a way more colorful and friendly version of the Paris in Les Mis, and yet no revolutionary fervor grips these people who are shown evidence of their own capital subjugation on the front page of newspapers constantly.
           Really though, outside of two or three honest-to-goodness pavement beggars the people act the exact opposite of Hugo's peasantry.  Many live meager material existences yet smile and joke and party more often than any other populace I’ve ever seen (University of Minnesota students might party more, but they smile and joke a whole lot less).  The Ugandans I know speak with complete resignation on the topic of greedy boss-hogs, yet do not fall into existential crises or apathetic despair.  In the course of just four sentences Chameleone informed us that both “Yes, Ugandans are the friendliest people, they really do care!” and “No, at their hearts they are greedy though, and will take everything they can.”  A similar paradox infested a talk we had with Michele about ‘development’ here—“This corruption is so entrenched in the tribal system here post-colonization” but “yes, I think that people are growing to understand and help each other more.”
            How can all of these things coexist? Because they do, for all I’ve seen.  Men and women will barter like rabid storks, fighting to make the most personal profit from any given situation, and then smile and wave at each other as they part, for all the world like no feathers just flew.  People still go to vote (though in decreasing percentages since the start of President Museveni’s reign in the 80s), even though they claim that their politicians are helplessly corrupt.  Men and women pay large parts of their small paychecks for fancy new clothes so they can stick out and live up to the image-consciousness that is so important here, to the point where it becomes not a luxury but a necessity to feel fresh and fly and forward-moving.  They are either the most resilient sonuvaguns on earth or completely and utterly insane.  And really, how thick is the line between those options?
I was singing my guts out in the church choir when a sun broke through the clouds of my paradoxilated mind. 
Religion.  The enormous population of believers here (over 84% of the population is Christian, some 12% Muslim, and I haven’t even heard the word Atheist or Agnostic yet); this is the closest thing I could find to an explanation, the closest parallel to this mad paradox.
            The Catholic Church would say that people are sinners; people are marked from the start with original sin and cannot be complete as imperfect as they are, yet—yet a believer must always hope and pray to God and trust that things will become better despite this inevitability. An acknowledgement of the weakness of the present; a soaring faith in the future, no matter how inconceivable reaching that future may be.  This is a nation of realists and believers, a nation of down-to-earth hope.  A nation of dreams.  Sorry America, but I have to give it to Uganda on this one.  The people here can move despite the crippling realities that confront them on all sides because they are homo sapien, in all of its post-rational glory, and because they have found the tools to cope with the paradox of their existence.  The reason that our #whitepeopleproblems is so funny is that these people smile through things that transcend even the concept of problem for us.  How foolish and petty I felt, yet how uplifted.  I could learn to live like this too, right[3]?

            Before I left the aforementioned United States I had a lot of worries about my potential role in Uganda.  Would I simply be a new kind of colonizer, a cultural and linguistic colonizer removing a people from their uniqueness and bringing them into the great glinting American apparatus?  Would my teaching trap these people into an intellectual subservience?  Was I just Kurtz in a less hand-chopping way? 
In the small time that I’ve been here, however, my conscience has cleared markedly.  My spirit lightened with the same revelation that brought me out of my sadness for Ugandan apathy.  I cannot know that my teaching here will help anyone, cannot know that it won’t add towards some larger and more sinister design.  People may use this knowledge to do horrible things; or perhaps others with greedy plans will use these new English speakers towards socially devastating ends.  I have figured out that I cannot change what these others will do; I can only seek to understand best what results my helping creates, and have faith; faith like my new neighbors’ faith that if I work hard and further the skills that they're asking for they will bring about something more beautiful in the future--even if that future lies long past anything I can see.

Some of my students might go to jail for squandering billions of dollars, it's true.  But that in itself takes a heckuva lot of cunning, right?  Maybe if I'm lucky even one of these stubborn, bubbly kids will be in the papers for an entirely different reason.

[3] Even if maybe, you know, I don't believe in any of the existing religious groups I've seen…


  1. What an excellent articulation of the only philosophy that makes sense to me. Good to relax into your time there, and not carry a cloud of privileged-white-boy guilt wherever you roam.

  2. Awesome post Sam. It was so well written, honest and insightful! You rock!

  3. Thanks guys! I really appreciate you dealing with all the extra words... Pete, I hope you and Grace are doing great, I miss you a bunch!