May 24th 2015
Zig Ziglar once said, “Among the things you can give and still keep are your word, a smile, and a grateful heart”. Since arriving in Uganda, everyone I’ve met has given the two former things and much more, while in return I have given the latter. In many cases people here have devoted their time and their energy to ensure that we feel safe, comfortable, and welcomed. This weekend was no exception: on Friday night a co-worker invited us out to a bar to hear some Ugandan music. Over Nile beers (delicious) and a few games of pool (we lost), we talked about music, relationships, gender equality, and Uganda’s laws against homosexuality. This morning the same co-worker picked us up at 6:30am to attend church at his local parish. The church was a large brick structure with narrow wooden benches – a simple space with just the necessities, but our voices quickly filled it with music as we sang the many hymns that Jeremy, Shelby and I struggled to follow. Afterwards our co-worker, S, took us back to his home and fed us tea and sandwiches while his young nephews ran around in the background. There was a constant flow of cousins, brothers and sisters in and out of the house, which added to the atmosphere of warmth and closeness that enveloped the neighborhood. From what I could tell it was the ultimate example of a close knit community. When we left, S gave us each an avocado picked from the tree outside and invited us back next weekend.
The whole experience reminded me of something S had said at the bar on Friday when we’d thanked him for being so welcoming. He told us that his father would always say “the world is round”. It is a sentiment akin to karma, or the phrase “what goes around comes around”: the idea that your actions now will inspire similar actions in the future. To me it also seems to embody the closeness between people that we somehow rarely feel. The world is round meaning that it is contained, and we are all part of the same cycle. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but that quote stuck with me, as will our experiences today.
Now onto a heavier topic: let’s talk about privilege. It’s something that I’ve been acutely aware of since arriving in Uganda. No one in the top economic and social percentiles of the world’s population can ever truly ignore it, but often privilege is merely one small thread in the midst of a tumult of other thoughts and concerns in peoples’ daily lives. For example, when passing by a homeless person on the street you may briefly have the thought “I’m glad that isn’t me” – but that is quickly replaced by lists of errands or other irrelevant to dos. Here though, faced with a constant stream of good wishes from people like S, I can’t help but wonder what we’ve done to deserve this? Not to be cynical, but people here don’t know us, so they have no reason to be so open and helpful.
That said, I do believe that the reason people here are so friendly has very little to do with who we are and instead a lot to do with the quality of their characters’. From our boda driver who always picks us up with a big handshake and an exuberant smile, to the owner of the guesthouse who calls a few times a week to make sure we’re ok; the Ugandans who we have come into contact with are generally just good people. But while this weekend’s events occurred because Ugandans are inclined to be friendly and welcoming, there have also been many times in the past week or so when we’ve received preferential treatment. And yes, to put it bluntly it is because of the perceived privilege that comes with having white skin.
I’d like to stop here and take a minute to say a few things: Race is a sensitive topic, so I apologize if I manhandle it in the next few paragraphs in an effort to sort out what I think. In a world of political correctness there are so many pitfalls that can quickly label you as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc. Sometimes the simple misuse of a word can overshadow your good intentions. So please know that these next few paragraphs are well intended and are written in an effort to give an honest account of my experience here so far. There are some tough questions that I’ve been asking myself lately – things that I am mulling over and have not necessarily come to terms with fully yet. What follows is just my attempt to reconcile them internally, and now externally to you.
So to continue: Jeremy, Shelby and I are a visible minority here. As Caucasians, there are associations connected to the colour of our skin. It is because of this that half the congregation came up to shake our hands after church today. It is the same reason why on our third day of work we were privy to a meeting with members of parliament to discuss the proposed GMO bill (more on that later). Now one could argue that this latter example happened because we won a prestigious scholarship that has allowed us to travel here and work for an NGO, and as an intern at said NGO a meeting with MPs is part of the parcel. But I don’t think it’s that simple. For instance, the only reason we won the scholarship was because we (and our parents) had the means to send us to a good university. I was raised in a comfortable, well off setting, and because of that, this scholarship and many other opportunities have made themselves available to me. I recognize that this privilege is something I have that many others don’t.
As someone who wants to fix things, I struggle with this privilege because I don’t think the solution is for me to feel guilty for a position in life that I was born into. I could just as easily have been born to a poor rural Ugandan farmer instead of a middle class Canadian couple (bear with me here). Similarly, there is a long history of colonialism on this continent, all enforced by people who I happen to share a skin colour with. Although some people may disagree with the following statement, I don’t think it would be productive for me to feel personally guilty about what people who share my skin colour have done. However, knowing that I had no say in what men and women with whom I share small amounts of DNA did a few hundred years ago is different than ignoring the fact that it happened. Whether it is fair or not, there is a history that I represent because of the colour of my skin. And whether I feel direct responsibility for that history or not, I must acknowledge the underlying power dynamics that it has created.
Furthermore, while I may have had no control over colonialism, I am responsible for my actions now. One of the things that I’ve learned in my four years at university is that my relative wealth and happiness comes at a cost. Unfortunately, in its current state the world is zero sum – for one to win another must lose. I don’t believe it has to be this way, but right now my lifestyle in Canada exists because there is exploitation elsewhere in the world. Child labour allows me to buy clothing very cheaply, and my old laptop will probably be shipped to a country in the Global South where it will leak toxins into someone’s drinking water. As S said, the world is round. My actions in Canada affect people halfway across the world, and without knowing it I have the power to harm someone I’ve never met. Not to sound preachy, but whether we like it or not we have some measure of responsibility in the inequality that our lifestyles perpetuate. And although that’s a hard pill to swallow, it’s much easier than being on the other end of the equation.
(To be continued)