It is phenomenal how much one person can change in just two months. Eight weeks post arrival in Kampala and I already feel both the rewards and challenges of living abroad. Every day is a new opportunity to learn and my ‘capacity building’ for new knowledge is constantly on overdrive. Consequently, the more time I spend learning and travelling throughout Uganda, the more comfortable I feel living in a foreign country.
My days are strangely systematic, and usually begin with an omelette and fruit smoothie. I take the same boda driver to work every morning around 8:15 and grind at my desk until dinner time. After work, I head to Acacai Mall with Rachel, where we have joined a regular Spinning class. Afterwards, we head home, make dinner as a family, and indulge in a TV series or movie together. Then head to bed (alone!) Repeat. Repeat.
Part of me believes that this comfort and routine is simply human nature, while the other half wonders if I am robbing myself of my own experience in Uganda. There is still so much to see and do, and only so few weekends left to explore!
However even with these constraints, I know there are still a number of experiences and emotional battles which I haven’t had the opportunity to write about yet.
As weeks pass by – which they do very quickly – I experience a complex marriage of emotions. I am happy to be learning so many things, but also disappointed and confused in some tight scenarios. Though I imagined I would be prepared for international work, I realise now that the nature of my experiences are much more complex and require deeper critical reflection.
For instance, I cannot help but feel guilty each and every time I attend one of my spinning classes, knowing how expensive they are. On the other hand, I enjoy my fitness and new friendships I have made along the way. I try to rationalise going by noting the Ugandan-to-Foreigner ratio is high, but deep inside I know that this is just a small sample of how many Ugandans can actually afford this kind of activity.
Furthermore, leaving a high-end mall everyday perpetuates the stereo-type that foreigners are rich. As a student with mountains of loan debt, trying to budget my way through the summer, I definitely do not feel wealthy. It is sometimes difficult to explain my budgetary situation to the locals I meet, however, I realise frequently how incredibly wealthy I am here when put into context.
Another example was last week after Spinning. Rachel and I left the mall feeling tired but proud of our accomplishment. The day was sunny and we were excited to go home and make veggie burgers for dinner. That was all that was on my mind until a little girl nudged me from behind. Her and a few other children – holding very large, heavy bowls of bananas – looked up at us with hopeful eyes. Suddenly I felt uneasy. Rachel and I had just bought bananas last night at the market and we knew that we could not take any more or they would all spoil.
I wanted so badly to respond to these children in the ‘right’ way. I felt empathy for these little girls, dressed in rags, who were selling bananas instead of doing homework or playing with their friends. I knew buying bananas would not change their lives, but I wondered if it would at least provide them with enough money for dinner.
I also compared these girls to many other young children whom I see begging foreigners for money in Kampala. These gestures represent a relationship of giving and receiving – of dependency on generosity instead of partnership among equals. It is my understanding that most of these children see foreigners as givers of temporary happiness, instead of friends and partners who want to know them and work hand-in-hand to improve their lives. These kids take the money and run, and the visitor rarely learns a name or understands what the child really needs.
Even more confusing, I have read countless articles that strictly say “DO NOT GIVE BEGGING CHILDREN MONEY!” This is not the first time I have heard this advice, and their explanation is reasonable: Whilst our intentions may be good, giving money directly to children only perpetuates the problem by keeping them on the streets and making them vulnerable to abuse. Abuse such as exploitation by adults to work on the streets.
But this case was different. The children had bananas to sell. They were not begging for money, right? Thus, should I buy the bananas knowing that I do not need them? After all, I say I am against poverty and inequality, so I should be generous and share my wealth. But I always find it difficult to decide where to draw the line. I find myself wondering, is there something else I can do instead to help?
Though Uganda has taught me so much, my experience presents as much questions as it does answers. If I am privileged to find answers to these tough questions I know they are going to be challenging, surrounded by complex ideologies. One thing I have learned about development work is that there are no “clear-cut” solutions for difficult questions. Rather, we make our own inferences and opinions, and do what we believe will make a difference.
If there is one thing I have come to appreciate, it is how much one person can grow in such a short amount of time. In truth, some people may not change at all. But in the end, you cultivate your own energy and your own will to reflect on issues that are important to you. And yet I may have not responded to this children in the ‘right’ way (we did indeed buy some bananas) – I can only hope that I will continue to learn, reflect and grow when faced with diverse challenges, and to most of all inflect more good than harm on others around me during my placement abroad.
Thanks for listening,