Monday, August 15, 2011

Otuke: A Perplexing Paradox

As most of you know, I've actually been back in the US for a two weeks now (can it really be that long?). However, my Uganda blog would be incomplete if I didn't write about the most Ugandan experience I had there: my trip to the rural North, the real Uganda.

Kampala, the city we lived in, was Uganda of course. But life in the city is practically lounge chairs and slaves feeding you grapes compared to life outside. For the whole month as we traveled to Rwanda, Kenya, the safari, we'd driven through town after side-of-the-road town. By visiting Lira and Otuke the last week I finally got to stop and experience them.

We stayed in Lira because our research required it and there was no place to stay in Otuke. By way of introduction, Otuke is one of the poorest districts in Uganda. The hotels there are huts, occasionally containing cement blocks that can be used as a table or a bed, your choice.

Me and Agatha, assistant to the MP and one of the scouts, Moses,'s fiancée in front of one of a "hotel."

We stopped at one of these hotels, owned by a woman named Katherine. We took a picture, because we were namesakes. Unfortunately I can't find that picture, so here's one of me with her son.

All of the kids there have distended stomaches, either from worms or malnutrition or both. Very few of them have clothing for all of themselves. It's either pants or a shirt. Most kids under 2 don't have any clothes at all.

Our party consisted of a couple students: Jess Allred, Nicole, Alex; me, some Ugandan scouts from Kampala who were our friends and a Member of Parliment (MP), the Honorable Annet (we called her Honorable for short), and her husband Deo.

Most of the group on the bridge dividing Otuke from Albertong, the next district over. Left to right: Nicole (well, half of her), Paul Mutebi, Conrad, our favorite mustachioed student Alex, I think that's Deo in the purple behind Alex, Me, Jess, Moses, Honorable, and John, Honorable's friend.

Traveling with the MP was...interesting. She is a great person and wants to do good things for the people of her district. But politics is a different world in developing countries. The number one thing Honorable did as we drove around pothole-riddled dirt roads was hand out money. Granted, it was all in 1000 shilling notes (2500 Ugandan shillings=$1), but still handouts are so forbidden in American politics that it was bizarre to have it be acceptable. Just handing out money doesn't seem to do a lot of good since you can't guarantee where the money will go, but, as Honorable put it, "if you don't, you won't be re-elected."

The other weird thing was that I realized over the course of the day that it appeared our sole purpose as part of Honorable's entourage was to be her white poster children. That's a harsh way to put it, but really, the students and I were there to show the people of Otuke that their MP had money connections and would use it to help them. But that felt like a lie to me; I don't have any money to invest there! And on top of that I didn't like being asked for money, or "shaken down" as my dad calls it. It doesn't make you feel warm and friendly to know that someone's only nice to you because they want something from you. But this posed in my mind a bewildering paradox. These people were so poor, they lived on less than a dollar a day. Of course I felt bad of them, but at the same time, I didn't want to be there just as a source of income for them. And having muzungus spoon-feed Ugandans development is not sustainable! Call me cold-hearted, but I couldn't reconcile these two feelings. So instead Nicole and I taught the kids how to do "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and we drank shea nut oil (dis-gusting) and I tried not to worry about it. But the question kept coming back to me: is it selfish to resist being taken advantage of when I truly have so much more than these good people?

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes! These kids were adorable.

Shea nut oil. Apparently our grossed-out faces when we drank it were funny enough to set the whole village laughing.

These women were awesome! They're part of a women's group (hence the bright green uniforms) and we got out of the car to them doing a dance to welcome us, complete with stomping and shrieking. We joined in as best we could and it was really quite fun.

So that was rural Uganda. A lot poorer than the city. The roads were pretty darn terrible. Absolutely no electricity or running water except the river. Good people just like everywhere. A hard situation with no easy fix. And a really sobering and eye-opening experience for this sheltered muzungu.

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