In my defense, it was a beautiful day.
East Uganda is a gorgeous part of the country, the continent, and the world – all bright green leaves and warm, maroon clay; towering mountains to the east, unbelievable pretty-in-pink sunsets over Lake Victoria to the west.
And of all the questions I get asked here, the most frequent is “How do you find Uganda?” To which I usually say something like, “It’s so beautiful, Ugandans are very kind, and it’s much warmer than my hometown in America,” followed by casually mentioning the -25 Celsius weather that is a hallmark of Minnesotan winters (a nursing student yesterday: “That’s why you have so much hair on your arms, yeah?” Yeah.).
When talking to a chapatti vendor the other day, my answer was interrupted: “Uganda is not a beautiful country; we are suffering”. I didn’t expect this – it was the first time someone had responded so forcefully – and was completely taken aback; I stammered something about how I understood (but, let’s be honest, I don’t really understand, right – how can I?), I only meant that the mountains, the green, the maroon, all were beautiful.
He persisted, my tongue Gordian-knotted, and he laughed the way people laugh when they know they aren’t being understood – not out of pity, but a knowing frustration; the eyes give it away.
Days later, I’m still sorting out what to take away from the conversation.
He’s right, of course – many, many people in east Uganda are suffering. But it’s much more complex than that, and boiling down any country (or, as many do, the entire continent of Africa) to a simple, constant state of suffering is deeply misleading and, I’m coming to believe, deeply harmful, serving more to rob a place of its agency than to assist it; to deplete the power of its people more than bolster them. Sunlight may be an excellent disinfectant, but it also burns.
So, to be clear: east Uganda, and Mbale specifically (where I spend most of my time), is lousy with people living lives of, if not plenty, enough. Most of the people that I’ve seen aren’t suffering, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m living in some helpless, hopeless city – just the opposite, actually.
(To go further down the rabbit hole: yes, I know, selection bias – as a foreigner working in the referral hospital and interacting with mostly professionals, I am removed from the undertow and am not exposed to everything and everyone in Mbale)
But I have seen suffering, clustered mainly in villages: the lack of meaningful access to health care that robs families of their productivity, their mothers, their sons, and their daughters; the malnutrition that makes a 14-year old girl look half her age; the expectant mother whose motherhood is stolen from her before she leaves the operating theater.
Let’s be honest: I can see the suffering but I can’t feel it; I can’t know what it’s like. I can’t purport to be able to put myself in the shoes of a mother who has to give the pouch of PlumpyNut to her most malnourished son or daughter, when all of them could use an extra meal. I can’t comprehend looking at the beauty of Mt. Elgon with hungry eyes and a growling stomach. I can’t know what it’s like to see the sunset through a window at the OB/Gyn ward at the hospital, pregnant but sick from malaria or the quinine that’ll cure it.
Maybe that’s why, when I answer, I talk about the beauty and the kindness I feel here; those are more salient, more visceral, to me. But that doesn’t mean that the suffering is unrecognizable.
There’s beauty and suffering in east Uganda, and neither is going away anytime soon. All we can do is work to shift the ratio towards the former – if only a little.