Reports from the East
The majority of the week was spent in rural villages, where each of us lived and researched in pairs. I lived in Yala Village in Buyengo Parish in Busia District, an area that lies right on the border of Uganda and Kenya. Almost all of the people in the area have relatives across the border. There are many intermarriages and trade across the border is quite prevalent. Actually, my area of research was the dynamics of this border trade. Ugandans transport a number of food products, such as maize, cassava and fish to Kenya, while a number of consumer products (ranging from soap to molasses used for the local alcohol) are transported from Kenya to Uganda. On our second day there, we crossed the border to see this trade first-hand. As we crossed the border (a series of plank bridges over swamp), we saw a pack of monkeys jump across the trees.
The majority of the people in rural eastern Uganda live in huts made of mud with thatch roofs. We lived in such huts, which was quite an experience because we shared the home with a random assortment of large spiders and other miscellaneous insects. We spent the days meeting with a whole range of people - fish sellers, shopkeepers, peasant farmers, traditional doctors, cattleherders, craftmakers, teachers and more. It was really insightful to see how the majority of Ugandans (and even most of the people in the world) live, work and relate in poor rural communities. Without such an understanding, it is foolish to even come to the table discussing development, international trade and all these other macro issues that dominate elite forums. I was so impressed with the local knowledge and skills that people in this community possessed. I think we have a tendency to stereotype the rural poor as ignorant, incapable and misguided. So untrue. It is their knowledge and capacity that should always be the foundation for true, sustainable development. There are countless examples of local people organizing themselves in groups to start successful economic initiatives, challenge political structures and solve massive problems.
The week was difficult, but full of so many funny moments and stories - drinking millet beer in a hut with the village men (they drink with long wooden stick straws from a communal bowl), hearing ancient stories from a 96-year old woman in the village, racing Ugandans barefoot as hundreds of primary school children cheered us, being swarmed by hundreds of schoolchildren fascinated by muzungus (white people) and so much more. I am not sure I am cut out for the rural life, but I will never forget the events of the last week.
Before traveling to Busia, we visited Sibi Falls in Mbale, also in eastern Uganda. These waterfalls in the midst of fields of bananas and coffee were absolutely stunning. On our way home from Busia we also visited the Nile River in Jinja town. It was such a rush to sit on the banks of the Nile, watching the rapids as we ate peanut butter, avocado, tomato and cheese sandwiches. Did I mention that the fruits here are godly?
There is so much more I could write and hope to write about the last week. I am back now in Kampala for the next three weeks. This morning, I slaughtered my first chicken (my family keeps hundreds of chicken as a small business for some income). This afternoon, I visited a photo exhibit about the northern conflict, which brought back a lot of the images and words and stories I experienced when I visited camps in Lira two weeks ago. It is horrific how such atrocities are happening just miles north of us here, and yet you can be in the rest of Uganda and have no awareness of it.
Awareness - it is so crucial in a world of such complexities and diversity and enormity. It is so easy to be blinded to things happening right around us, not to mention things happening all over our world. Yet, awareness is the great challenge of our lives. It is a way of living more than an end state. It is an attitude, an attitude that a troubled world deeply needs.