Workers Are Humans; the Costs of Criminalization

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Every holiday season, middle and upper-class Americans pour across the border to lie on the beaches of Mexico.  They do not have to walk across deserts, pay smugglers, or risk their lives to get there.  Once they return home to the U.S., many of these very same Americans pay their undocumented Latino housekeepers, lawn-mowers, nannies, and painters wages far below the legal minimum.  They buy cheap clothes and televisions at Walmart that were made by under-paid Mexican citizens in maquiladora factories just over the border.  They cook with fruits and vegetables grown and picked by Latino migrants.  They buy meat and oil that have been processed by Latinos working in dangerous conditions.

The resounding message is that the U.S. wants the economic benefits of goods and labor from Latin America but does not want responsibility for the humans who make those benefits possible.  Because it is not economically advantageous for Americans to take responsibility for poor migrant workers’ human and civil rights, we criminalize these immigrants so that we don’t have to.

The percentage of immigrants coming to the U.S. has not changed over the past century (hovering between 10-15% of total U.S. population, according to the PEW Research Hispanic Trends Project).  Instead it is the percentage of immigrants that the U.S. government defines as illegal that has changed.  Prior to the Hart-Celler Bill of 1965, there was no numerical restriction on immigrants from the Western hemisphere. Currently, “per-country ceilings” (or quotas) ensure that immigrants from one particular country can comprise no more than 7% of the total immigrants to the U.S. (according to the American Immigration Council).  And overall numeric restrictions keep the number of legal immigrants at a fraction of the total of actual immigrants.  Because over 50% of all immigrants to the U.S. are Latino, these policy changes impact Latin Americans more than anyone else in the world.  Poor Latino immigrants feel the heaviest burden since priority is given to those who have the resources, bank accounts, and education to qualify them for legal entry.  With its restrictive changes to legislation since the 1960’s, the U.S. government has created this so-called crisis of illegal immigration, resulting in a new “criminal” underclass.

What are the consequences of labeling a large number of already poor and vulnerable people as illegal?  As Joseph Nevins, renowned immigration scholar at Vassar College, points out, the issue becomes framed in terms of “law and order” instead of human rights.  Nevins argues that the right to migrate is an essential human right, because if people have no ability to leave difficult circumstances, all other human rights become meaningless.  If people are entitled to human rights (e.g. life, liberty, justice, education, freedom of expression, etc.) but exist in a space where any of these are not possible, they ought to be able to migrate.  However, the U.S. has reframed the human right of migration as a criminal act.

Not only does this reframing potentially violate human rights, it also turns the justice system and public opinion directly against “illegal” immigrants.  Most people break laws at some point in their lives (e.g. not wearing a seatbelt, jaywalking, drinking underage).  However, few have to face extreme consequences such as racial profiling, the lack of a fair trial, or being deported for a misdemeanor (the classification for a first-time border crossing).  The “illegal” label further disadvantages migrants by denying them access to documentation such as government-issued driver’s licenses and social security numbers.  To live in the U.S., many migrants eventually drive without a license or use a false identity in order to be able to work and support their families.  Since they cannot vote, they have no ability to change the very policies that keep them criminalized.  This voiceless workforce provides cheap goods and labor, yet their humanity goes unrecognized because they are criminals, and criminals don’t “deserve” the human rights and civil liberties that the rest of us do.

So what about President Obama’s most recent executive action on immigration? Unfortunately, his plan does little to change the precedent that has been set over the past fifty years.  As he said in his speech on November 20, 2014:

“Now here’s the thing: We expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect that those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we’re going to offer the following deal: If you’ve been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes — you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation…We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security. Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”

President Obama’s reform really only offers a certain portion of undocumented immigrants relief from deportation and work permits for the next two years.  It does not offer a path to citizenship or a right to stay longterm.  For many who came here without official sanction, merely existing and working in the U.S. has created a criminal record that would not pass a background check.  Additionally, it may seem too risky to come forward and gain the short-term benefits when there is no long-term plan towards enhancing human and civil rights.  While at first glance, President Obama’s rhetoric seems “family-friendly” and celebratory of the humanity of immigrants, his speech does not recognize that U.S. law has directly cast many poor Latino families and children as felons and criminals.  The president’s gesture is not enough.

Even if Congress does the unthinkable and pulls together to pass more comprehensive reform, it is unlikely that human rights for poor immigrants will ever be at the center of the debate.  Corporate business interests and consumer demand remain the driving forces for immigration reform.  McDonald’s, Wendy’s and agriculture based industry want their low-wage laborers; Facebook, Microsoft and tech industries want access to high-skilled laborers from abroad.  High-skilled immigrants have more leverage in terms of gaining access to resources, but the bulk of low-wage laborers will most likely be left out.  It seems that immigration reform is not about the immigrants but about what they provide.

As Americans, we like our goods and labor cheap — but there are other costs.  Financial interest makes employers and consumers see immigrants as commodities and criminals, and keeps us from seeing them as humans.  Until the per-country ceilings and numeric restrictions are changed and poor immigrants’ humanity is made a priority, immigration reform will not be sufficient. We ought to reshape our single-minded policiesIt is imperative to give these human beings legal, civil, and human rights.  The U.S. and Latin America are much more than trading partners and it’s time we recognized that.

(Below are photos I took a few years ago on a trip to Tucson, Nogales, Agua Prieta on the U.S.-Mexico border)

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Border patrol agent

Border patrol agent

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chink in the wall

chink in the wall

This is an art installation to show what it would look like without a wall

This is an art installation to show what it would look like without a wall

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Hair-Cut in the Mid-West

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I just got my hair cut for the first time in over a year.  It was time to tame the veritable lion mane I developed while living abroad.  I went to the “Hair Cuttery” because of its cute name.  I always want salons to be the female equivalent of the 1920’s barbershop, full of singing and bonding and throwing aside the shackles of the male gaze.  But that never turns out to be the case.  First of all, I think that the hair salon, with its wall-to-wall mirrors, perpetuates a weird internalized male gaze.  Second, I don’t get my hair cut often enough (or stay in one place long enough) to develop a relationship with any stylist.  Third, I always feel uncomfortable when I’m actually sitting in the chair.  I have nothing to contribute to the gossip about highlights, styling tips, celebrity lives…it all just feels very foreign.

And then there’s the problem of smalltalk.  My stylist asks me where I’m from (is it that obvious that I’m not from Illinois?).  Inevitably, no matter how subtle I try to be, she digs enough to find out that I lived in Africa for a while.  And then she looks at me like I’m some sort of alien and says something like, “Wow I wish my life was exciting,” but it does not sound like she means it.  After that statement, she quickly changes the subject to normal topics such as asking when I am getting married. After finding out that I just turned 28 and am unmarried, she simply falls silent…at a loss.

This is when I start to realize that I am now living in the midwest.

While there are days that I feel a bit, um, judgmental of Dekalb, there are other days when I want to climb off my high-horse and open my eyes.  Dekalb is not Denver.  Dekalb is not Portland, Oregon.  While it is only an hour outside of Chicago, I think I am one of the few people in Dekalb who goes there regularly.

But Dekalb is unapologetically itself.  And it seems like there might be something about America that can be found here that might not exist in the afore-mentioned city meccas where world-traveled, liberal-arts educated folks like me tend to flock.  Nothing about this town is trendy or up-and-coming or cutting-edge or dressed-to-impress—which is all kind of relieving.  I know that cities are supposedly “more diverse” than small towns, but I think that what often happens in cities is a selective segregation.  In metropolitan cities, we can specialize to such an extent that our values, tastes, opinions, and styles are reinforced by everyone around us.  In small towns, there is a lack of choice and a familiarity that cannot be escaped.  And while this is maddening at times, it also can be healthy because there are faces to hold us accountable and people to interact with who we might not otherwise.  Plus, without all the options, I’m not caught in the endless consumerist cycle of comparisons and fear of missing out.  In some ways, it reminds me of living in the village in Uganda.

Northern Illinois University is not in the heart of downtown Chicago.  But it is a school where a bulk of lower- and middle-class Illinois kids come to get an education.  I think it is interesting for me to be somewhere so different from where I grew up and so different from where I went to college.  Dekalb makes my privilege all the more apparent.  Dekalb makes me more aware of my ambition, perfectionism, and wanderlust and then asks me to chill out.

I do not pretend to understand where I am.  In the same way that it feels inappropriate to “explain” Uganda after having lived there for nine months, it feels weird to explain here.  I can talk about the flatness, the corn, the antique shops, the excellent tacos, the very very bad stand-up comedy, the tendency of people to stick around.

But I don’t really know.

Culture Re-Shock: Impressions of my Homecoming

Here are some of the first things that have struck me since coming home from Uganda to the U.S.:

American supermarket chickens have much bigger breasts and no gizzards.

The cars are new, the roads are smooth, and people are in a hurry.

A distance of six miles has gone from being a “journey” to being “back in a second.”

This American summer feels cold to me…air conditioning and ice cubes.

The supermarkets are freezing and they don’t smell like food.

Packaged foods are cheap and fresh foods are expensive, instead of vice versa.

Most American employees don’t really care whether you buy anything or not.

Pets exist.

Cheese exists. In wide array.

There are sinks and toilets in my house.

Americans refrigerate lots of stuff that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.

The cars are bigger and the houses seem huge, even though the families are smaller.

So much more time spent inside.

Daylight lasts past 7pm.  And I stay up later because I can turn on a light.

I miss sleeping under a mosquito net, and tucking myself in every night.

Laundry doesn’t involve fetching water, scrubbing by hand, mango fly larvae, or hot charcoal irons.

People in Minnesota say “Buh-bye”; people in Busoga say “Ba-YEEE!”

The USA feels like a giant house of mirrors.

The silence sometimes feels eerie and sometimes feels peaceful.

So many people watching so many screens.

American women don’t get on their knees to greet people.

I feel scandalous for wearing pants, shorts, or anything above the ankle.

There are endless choices and options and things to buy, and there is soooo much time spent thinking about what decision to make.  It seems like Americans believe that what we consume and what we choose defines a huge part of who we are.

I am seen as strange whether I am swimming across the Nile or swimming across Planting Ground Lake.  Both Ugandans and Americans try to save me with boats.

Corn is in season in Uganda and in the U.S. right now.

People all over the world love soccer—er, football.

I have family and friends who I am so grateful for and happy to see, whether I am in the U.S. or Uganda.

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Safaris and Dams; Conservation and Development

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So I went on a safari.  Perhaps it is odd, but while living in Uganda, seeing “the animals” has never really been high on my list.  I always find myself bristling a bit when the first thing that well-meaning American folks ask me about is the “African wildlife.”  But I rationalized going on a safari since my younger brother Tyler came to visit and I have been living in Uganda for almost eight months with hardly a dose of tourism.  Just to be clear, there is not really any place outside of a National Park in Uganda where those stereotypically African mammals live.  Mama Ali and Tata Muganda (my host parents) are Ugandans but they have never seen elephants, lions, giraffes, hyenas, or hippos.  Zahara and Arafat (my host siblings) have seen a few of these but only once, on a field trip to the Entebbe zoo.

When I came back from my excursion to Murchison Falls National Park, Tata Muganda (my fifty-something year-old host father) asked me a bunch of questions, such as:

“Were the animals in cages?”

“How big is the park?”

“What do they feed the animals?”

He had always pictured Murchison Falls National Park as a large zoo.  He couldn’t believe it when I told him that the park is almost the size of Rwanda.  Or that the animals were wildly roaming about.  Or that they were not fed by keepers but had to hunt for their food.

I can’t help but feel a bit guilty that the people who are able to witness the spectacular beauty of Uganda’s largest national park with its array of wild elephants, giraffes, lions, and hyenas are mostly foreign tourists and a few wealthy Ugandans.

I also get rather annoyed that often the only reason people come to Uganda is to go “on safari” to see a (very beautiful) national park that is completely isolated from the rest of the Ugandan people and culture.  Foreign tourists pay large amounts of money so that they can see a picture of “Africa” that confirms many of their pre-existing stereotypes and often completely excludes any interaction with African people altogether.

While the scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and the wildlife was overwhelmingly reminiscent of The Lion King, I was just as taken with Murchison Falls National Park’s interesting history.  Despite its idyllic setting, it has a bumpy past.  In the 70’s, Idi Amin used the area as a literal game park, where he and his fellow soldiers hunted wild game for sport.  Since that time, poachers almost successfully killed off all of the elephants.  In the 90’s Joseph Kony’s L.R.A. rebels used the Northern part of the park as a base.  Only in the past decade or so, has the park been opened back up to conservation efforts and tourist activity.  Even just recently, over the past few years there have been extensive oil drilling operations by multi-national company Total E&P, which are said to have disturbed the wildlife and possibly contaminated the environment.

I have been thinking a lot about the possibly conflicting ideas of conservation and development.  National Parks inevitably make me think about conservation.  Living in Bujagali makes me think about development.

Every time anyone says Bujagali out loud, there is a sort of gasping pause after the word, because people are so used to saying Bujagali Falls.  But the thing is, the Falls are no longer there.  From what I hear, the silent blank space that hovers after the word Bujagali is a small version of the silence that hovers around the whole village, since the roaring sound of rushing water no longer can be heard.

Bujagali Falls is now Bujagali Dam.  The rushing Nile River is now more of a lake.  The reason is: development.  This is one of many dams that has been recently built on the Nile to provide electricity to (mostly city-dwelling) Ugandans and Kenyans. Despite all this “development,” it does not feel like my neighbors are any better off.

As part of its Corporate Social Responsibility, Bujagali Energy Limited, (a well-named company), hooked up most of the houses in the village with the wiring to access electricity.  However, most homes still do not have power.  This is because of two main reasons: most houses in the village are still waiting for the company to finish some key steps in actually making the electricity accessible.  And for those who have the wiring, the monthly bills are, more often than not, completely unaffordable.  Even after all of that, the electricity is spotty at best.  Despite the fact that the dam is a 5 minute motorcycle drive away from our house, we still do not have electricity.  Mama Ali did buy 2 solar powered lights in December because it is less expensive, more consistent, and doesn’t require paying a monthly bill.  Soon there will be a giant T-line built through the center of the village to facilitate the export of electricity to more urban areas.  Mama Muganda (my host father’s second wife) is one of many who has had to relocate her home because of T-line construction.  The dam has destroyed the identity of the village.  Adventure tourism is down, unemployment is up, and while many have been compensated, their livelihoods and homes have been destroyed.

Yet the narrative of “development as a good thing” persists.

Of Mama Ali’s six children, two are still in school, and three still live in the village.  Only one, Janat, Mama Ali’s fourth born, lives outside of the village.  Janat is considered by many of her siblings, her mother, and herself to have “developed” the most of all the children.  Janat is also the only child who has married and has two children.  She lives in the city of Mbale, 3 hours to the east, with her husband and baby son.  They live in a very small one-room apartment in the slummish suburbs of Mbale where they share a latrine with 6 other families.  They have electricity, a DVD player, and a small television that she uses to watch American, Nigerian, and Indian music videos and soap operas, dubbed over in Luganda.

When I asked Janat if she missed living at home in the village, she laughed at me.  She says that where she lives is much better because she doesn’t have to “dig.”   She has successfully severed herself from her rural, agricultural, subsistence farming roots and now has the status symbol of electricity.  From my view, I much prefer living in Mama Ali’s house, cooking with her in her mud kitchen, and digging with her on her many plots of land.  However, I might be romanticizing digging, which, although it provides the food necessary to sustain her and her family, it has also taken a large toll on Mama Ali’s body and does not generate much extra income.  However, looking at Janat, who is supposedly “living the life,” she and her husband still struggle to make ends meet and she is one step further away from her roots, her land, and the skills that could directly provide her with food.  Now she has no land and must rely on money even more than her mother.  The status and symbolism of her television make her feel extremely proud, but her stress is still palpable as she struggles to pay for her electricity bills, medicine for her sick son, medical care for her recent miscarriage, along with the costs of food and rent.

Most of the Ugandans I speak with aspire to a more “developed,” consumerist lifestyle.  It seems that the discourse of development has been largely internalized and that most of my neighbors think of their local agrarian culture as inferior and in need of improvement.

Though many hunger for the symbols of “development,” plenty of Ugandans I speak with are critical of development projects such as the dam.  They have seen that the ones who benefit most are members of the government, and business people (both at home and abroad) who already have capital, education, and power.

In the Western world, development is so often referred to as the solution to the “crisis” of poverty.  Economic growth is presented as the only possible solution.  Capital accumulation, deliberate industrialization, development planning, and external aid are seen as the only tools to combat the “crisis of poverty.”  There is an unquestioned faith in science, technology, experts, and professionals: all of which are considered to be both neutral and superior.  But who exactly benefits from “development”?

In Arturo Escobar’s book Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World  he points out a painful irony that when the “first world” was in the process of industrializing, it was supported by its colonies.  However, when the (previously colonial) “third world” began industrializing and “developing,” it has had to pay off massive amounts of debt to the first world.  Whether as colonies or as developing nations, the “third world” has (in general) been at the short end of the stick.

This rings true as Uganda is still paying off debt to American and Chinese companies for many development projects.  In fact, just down the river from Bujagali, there is a Chinese-built dam that stopped working shortly after being completed.  Yet, the Ugandan people are still paying off the debt for that dysfunctional dam while simultaneously accruing more debt so as to further tap into the Nile’s hydro-electric potential.

In Amartya Sen’s book Development as Freedom, he talks about how important it is that when we talk about development, we make sure that in all the talk of capital accumulation, industrialization, and GDP, we make sure to include people in the picture of economics.

What does the average resident of Bujagali want?  It sounds as though many people do want electricity and televisions.  But they also want the falls back.  They don’t want the identity and history of their village destroyed.  They want to be able to support their families and send their kids to school.  They want jobs.  They want better schools and teachers who don’t have to go on strike in order to get paid.  They want healthcare that meets their needs and is affordable.  But they don’t always feel like the projects aimed at so-called development are getting them what they want.

The Bujagali dam, supposedly built to provide Ugandans with electricity and development has not lived up to its promise in the very village of its construction.

Murchison Falls National Park, established to protect Ugandan nature and wildlife, is rarely experienced by its own citizens.

While both preservation and development have lofty goals and potentially positive impacts, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the story and the reality.

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baby tries out the new SOUL baby carrier, designed by our volunteer Abbey

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this pensive little girl looks on as we start up a new Goat program in Iganga

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Genette, Ahjara, and Reachael giggle

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Vendors sell banana and beverages through the window

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Tyler and Abbey count baby chicks at Ugachick

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chicken on a stick…streetfare delicacy

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Tyler and Zahara hold baby Laura…not even a week old

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Baba Laura, me, Mama Laura (Dumarie), and Baby Laura…it’s a funny story. This is Sauya’s brother and his wife. I was there for the birth…sort of accidentally, serendipitously…

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Mama Sauya insisted on having Tyler for dinner. The whole crew…under the stars.

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The Victoria Nile spilling away from Murchison Falls

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my toe after having an ingrown nail surgically removed by an overly jolly surgeon

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Victoria Nile at the base of the falls

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wart-hogs keep our tent safe

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WARTHOGS!!!! They kneel while they eat. And they have enviable mohawks.

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hyena sniffs about…ch-ch-ch-chow down!!!

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in the car at sunrise

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kingfisher houses in the cliff

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sunrise drive in Murchison Falls National Park

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Simon shows us around

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he is a shy monkey…

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antelope and giraffes

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the smallest type of antelope in the park

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kob

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where the lions and the antelope play

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the view out the back

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ummmm….LION!

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carmine bee-eater…thanks for the East African bird book, Dad. I am now officially a dorky ornithologist. We’ll see if it carries over to the U.S.

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hippo was hot

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vulture waits

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edge of the park at the Nile

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giraffe spies on crested cranes, Uganda’s national bird

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guess which one was my favorite….not the giraffe

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hello!

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brash baboon

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makes me want to watch Catherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

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first thing in the morning!

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hippos are very territorial…and they like to snort

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okay I admit it…the giraffes are my favorite

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so many opportunities to make “necking” jokes

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Isima and Tyler proudly hold the rooster they chased through the house, trying to avoid its slaughter

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before we paddle the Nile

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Tyler surveys the current

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canoe-ing in the dguengue on the Nile

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Ali arrives in the djuengue

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sunset…I never tire of this

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That was where Bujagali Falls used to be…and far off in the background you can see the outline of the dam and T-line

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Rahuma looks longingly at Tyler during breakfast tea

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Rahuma holds the beetle that is supposed to keep her from wetting the bed

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the anti bed-wetting beetle

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Tyler in his room

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Tyler, Mama Ali, Najib (Mama’s second born), Sauya, Isima, Tata Muganda, Reachael, Ali, and me

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Mama Ali, Tyler, and Rahuma mu jokone

Sauya’s Story

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My name is Kauma Sauya.  When I was born I was staying with Mom and Dad.  At this time, Dad had three wives.  The first wife had 5 kids.  The second wife had 3 kids.  My mom was the 3rd wife.  For me, I was the first born of six kids from my mom.  My mom was married when she was still young—14 years.  She had me when she was 17.  My Dad he is older than my mom.  They were staying in Maga Maga, the town after Kakira when you are heading to Iganga in Mayuge District.  I started schooling at Wabulung Primary School from P1 up to P3.  In Primary school, when I was schooling, I was a runner and I did music—singing.  I was a fast runner.  Teacher was giving me a gift for being fast.  When I’m schooling I said that I want to be a nurse.  But because of the money I failed to be.

My mom left Dad in P4 and all of her kids we moved with her to Bujagali where our grandmother stays.  She left because the Dad had bad manners—drinking and beating his wives and children.  He didn’t want to care, to buy clothes, to give medicine, even school fees, he didn’t want to pay.  He was getting another wife.  I changed the school to Bute Mixed Boarding from P4 to P5.  Then, I changed to Kyabirwa part way through P5.  Then again to Kirugu R.C Primary from P5 to P7.  I changed schools so much because of the money.  The teachers had to chase me, chase me.  After 2 years, the Dad came to Bujagali to call Mom to go back.  But Mom refused because my Grandmom said, “Don’t go back! You stay here with your daughters and sons.”  Dad said, “You give me my daughters and sons.”  The mom said “I will not because you do not have discipline.  You go marry your other wife.”  He managed to take my little brother Igulu for some good time.  Dad’s new wife didn’t like Igulu. She made him to work and work and didn’t let him eat so much.  He got sick in his heart and even got those bad headaches, as you know.

I started Secondary School at East S.S. Bwuyala from S1 to S4.  Then I sat for one year because of money.  Then I went back to take a course in Computers but I could not complete because of money.  My mom is poor. Right now, I have left my mother and grandmother’s house and am staying with Mama Ali.  Mama Ali thought of this because she said, “You come and stay with me to help me cook the food and get the money.”  So I changed places with Mama Ali’s daughter Aisha, who has a problem with the head.  Our mothers changed daughters like that.  Mama Ali and my Mom are good friends—they help each other to get the money and to take care of the families and to be the mother to all of the kids.

My Dada (grandmother) has been so so sick.  She was suffering pressure, not talking very well, just sitting from morning up to evening.  She can’t manage to walk.  She has broken her hip.  We have tried all of the doctors and medicines, but they are failing.  She is too old to walk or ride the boda-boda to the hospital.  Even now and for six months she has been lying on the ground in the house suffering.  Mom is the one to take care of her, and Mutesi.  They must wash her, keep her on one side.  But she has the bed-sores on the other side because she cannot lie on her broken hip.  She is suffering like that.  Nothing to do.

When we started living in Bujagali, Mom started walking around the village to find jobs.  She dug a little in other people’s gardens to get money to pay for us the school fees.  Grandmother had a very small garden and 12 kids to fight over it. Well there were ten kids because two had died.  Other kids, my uncles, were boda-boda men but they quarreled everyday over the small piece of land in Bujagali.  The uncles didn’t want Mom to stay because they said, “You’re a girl, you don’t get to claim the land.  You go to your husband.”  Some of my uncles they are drunkards and they make my Mom’s life very difficult.  But Mom brought in the LC1 [Local Chairman] and said “Even me,  I want to share this land because we have the same mother and father.”  So she was helped and given a small piece of the land.  But Mama wanted to sell her piece to buy another piece of land but there is no customers coming.  But if the land is not selling I told Mom, “Don’t fear.  For me I’m working. I want to buy land for you and I want to pay school fees for my young brother Igulu.  I will become a rich woman because I am working.  I want to open the account to put in the money so that I get money to buy for you land.”

My mom is so happy, “Right now I call you Mom, even though you are my daughter.” That is what she said.  But for me, I’m the first-born but I’m not yet married.  Two of my younger brothers are married.  One has a son (my nephew) called Adam.  Another has a newborn daughter named Baby Laura.  But today I’m planning to help Mom with the business of charcoal to get the money so that to help the money of Mom and me to buy the land.  We want to build the house and I want Mom to be settled because I don’t want Mom to marry again.

In my future for me I want to marry when I’m a rich woman.  Right now I don’t want to marry because the man they want to make my future bad.  That is why I don’t want now.  But now I am so happy.

grilling up some freshly slaughtered chicken

grilling up some freshly slaughtered chicken

Sauya holding a jackfruit (fene)

Sauya holding a jackfruit (fene)

lovely Sauya in Mbale

lovely Sauya in Mbale

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making passionfruit juice

making passionfruit juice

girl sleep-over

girl sleep-over

Mama Ali and Sauya laughing

Mama Ali and Sauya laughing

 

 

“Y’all Come Back Now, Y’Hear?” — On Busoga Hospitality

hair-braiding at the Lady Saloon (but no beverages)

hair-braiding at the Lady Saloon (but no beverages)

I am filling up my third notebook since living in Uganda.  Looking back over all of my Lusoga notes, hospitality visibly radiates off of the pages like smoke from a fire.  Acts of welcoming and greeting make up a huge part of my daily life.  Whether it is the complex back-and-forth morning greeting with the ten people outside of my door as I stumble to the outhouse in the morning, the kneeling in the middle of the dirt road to greet a neighbor, the soft sing-song of greeting a familiar face, or the ululation of welcoming a new-comer, the Busoga culture is hard to talk about without talking about its greeting culture.

Here is a version of a greeting ritual that occurs in the morning.  Some version of this, based on the time of day, and the type of encounter, occurs regularly throughout the day.

Wasazotiya? (good morning/how was the night?)

Bulungi. Wasazotiya? (Fine. How was your night?)

Bulungi.  Esouka bwire. (Fine.  Welcome back from the night)

Kale.  Eskobchaeereh. (Thank you.  Welcome back from the night).

Kale. Ensoula? (Thank you.  Slang: How was the night?)

Nungi. (Good).

Muli muti eh-oh (How are all of you?)

Tulee yo.  Muti-eh-oh (We are there.  How are all of you?)

Tulee yo. Webale. (We are there.  Thank you.)

Kaleh.  Wena Webale. (You’re welcome.  And you, thank you.)

Kaleh. (You’re welcome.)

Ba ca? (How are those at home?)

Bali yo. (They are there.)

Balamweesa. (Send them our greetings.)

Kaleh. (Alright).

Eeee.   

Eeee.

Eeee.

Eeee.  (Literally means yes, yes, yes.  But is more like a soft, high-pitched sigh that expresses “I am here with you”  and eases the fact that you may be about to take your leave and go on your respective paths.  Until you meet a few hours later and go through the whole greeting ritual again.  )

These verbal exchanges happen usually in a soft, soothing monotone.  If one of the greeters is a woman or a child, they will kneel down until the greeting is complete (whether that is in the middle of the road, garden, doorway, or house).  For me, I have chosen only to kneel when I am greeting other women, out of respect for them, but I do not kneel for men.  I still formally greet the men, but it is my small attempt at stirring up gender roles and the symbolism of gender inequity.

In addition to the complex daily reality of greeting, there is also the wide variety of ways in which to welcome people.

Esouka — literally means welcome.  Used to mark a rite of passage. Said when a baby is born, someone dies, or to congratulate someone on a significant transition.

Esoukayowelcome back from there.  This must be said whenever someone comes back home, or returns from a journey.  It is bad luck and bad manners if you forget to say this.

Esouka bwire — welcome back from the night.  Said every morning, without fail.

Esouka lugendowelcome back from the journey.

Tusangaire! — Welcome to see you! You are welcome here!

Kalibu! — Swahili for welcome, when a visitor is at the door, it is said to invite the visitor or stranger to enter the house and sit down.

Esouko mwaka! Welcome to the Year! (e.g. Happy New Year)

Esouka amadi! — Welcome back from the rain!

Esouka fill-in-the-blank — Welcome back from any possible thing that could have happened to you.

O bone keku — Welcome to see you! (traditional, old-school, village back in Kamuli-style Lusoga)

It feels as if the very root of Busoga culture is tied up with the absolute importance of recognizing, welcoming, accompanying, and dismissing the stranger, friend, family member.  No matter if it is a couple who has been married for 40 years or a complete stranger on the road, it is imperative to greet and acknowledge that person.

I can’t help but notice from my time in Burkina Faso and Togo (both such musical, rhythmic places) as well as in Uganda (which seems to have a quieter, soft-spoken heartbeat), the central aspect of call-and-response.  Greeting, welcoming, and leaving are all musical conversations, each person playing his or part in the duet of ritual.

Something I love about learning different languages, is you can understand so much about how the language works based on the “mistakes” that native speakers make when they are speaking English.  For example, Busoga people often confuse their “he’s” and “she’s,” because there is no differentiation in Lusoga—ali kufumba means that a person is cooking, but does not differentiate based on gender.  I’ve never heard an American say “Welcome back from the night” but Ugandans say that to me in English all the time.  Paying attention to the subtle differences in how Ugandans speak English, tells me a lot about how to speak proper Lusoga and how to be respectful in Busoga culture.

The act of thanking is also ubiquitous in Lusoga.  When passing on the road, it is common to simply say Jevale, meaning, thanks for the good work you’re doing.  I have learned almost all of my Lusoga verbs through the act of thanking.  I am regularly thanked for returning, for cooking, for swimming, for teaching, for working, for appreciating, for digging. Even if I just sat and watched someone cook, I am thanked for cooking.  Even when I simply attend a birth, I am thanked for giving birth (!).  At a burial, I am thanked for crying and thanked for “accompanying” (accompanying the dead to the grave and accompanying the mourning with their grief).  This is not just because I am a mzungu.  This is the Busoga way—thank everyone for everything.  Gratitude and acknowledgement is as built in as breathing.

There is also a huge emphasis placed on showing up, being present, and accompanying others.  If you take two days where you walk by instead of stopping to chat with your neighbor, “you are lost” (o buzay).  It is perfectly acceptable and expected to stop by and visit without saying much beyond the ritual greetings and saying goodbye (if it’s a formal visit, you must also eat together).  Deep significance is placed on bearing witness to someone else’s experience, of maintaining a friendship merely with your physical presence, of visiting someone even if you have nothing novel to say.  Accompaniment is vital.  When I try to dig in the garden alone, packs of children arrive out of nowhere, with their miniature hoes, to accompany me.  Even at age three, they chastise me softly for digging alone.  When a Musoga person dies, mourners come from far and wide, to sleep in tents at the home of the grieving family.  In the Muslim tradition, they will stay for up to 40 nights to accompany the grieving so they don’t have to bear the weight of the hole left by the deceased.  When a visitor comes, after the greetings have been finished, it is completely okay to sit together in silence.  Silence is not seen as something to be filled with chatter; it is better to sit quietly with a friend, than to sit alone.  When a visitor arrives, you must greet them and carry their bags for them.  When a visitor leaves, tradition says that if you want your visitor to return, you must accompany them at least part of the way on their journey.  Ugandans do not seem to like doing business or carrying on important conversation on the phone.  Instead, they prefer face-to-face interaction.  If you want someone to come to your party, it’s much better to invite them in person.  If you want to discuss price, you better show up in the flesh.  All of these are just little vignettes of the importance of physical presence.  These bits of culture serve as ironic reminders of all of the ways in which I am not being present with my many loved ones back in the U.S.

To live in a world so saturated and built on hospitality, acknowledgment, and making others feel at home, is humbling.  Some days I feel embarrassed about my culture’s casual indifference, even hostility, directed towards passers-by, visitors, and strangers.  I think about how cold the U.S. would seem (both literally and figuratively) to my Ugandan friends.  Small American moments such as avoiding eye contact with a cashier, not acknowledging someone when they enter the room, giving a perfunctory and unenthusiastic “hey” to an acquaintance at a coffee shop and then returning your gaze towards your i-phone.  These make me cringe.

There are days when I find the whole ritual of Lusoga greeting/ welcoming/ thanking laughably elaborate, impersonal, or like I am “going through the motions.”  But when I think about the greeting culture in the U.S., or the lack thereof, I think I prefer “over-greeting” to living in a self-absorbed bubble of appearing too busy and important to acknowledge other people.  Everyday in Uganda, I feel at home and welcomed.  Everyday in Uganda I verbally express my gratitude.  Everyday in Uganda I interrupt what I am doing to fall to my knees in order to recognize another human being.

Ne enziza.  I am so grateful.

waiting with the family

waiting with the family

Ruth and Adam

Ruth and Adam

Bonga and Mulished plus Arafat's painting

Bonga and Mulished plus Arafat’s painting

the fan: Arafat, Bashir, Zahara, Genette, Rahuma, Abed

the fan: Arafat, Bashir, Zahara, Genette, Rahuma, Abed

me in my new  jerry-can t-shirt, thanks to Arafat's work

me in my new jerry-can t-shirt, thanks to Arafat’s work

rapper at our Student's Day

rapper at our Student’s Day

singing in Lusoga for Student's Day

singing in Lusoga for Student’s Day

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Mariam and me

Mariam and me

SOUL student girls impersonate SOUL staff girls driving the boda-boda

SOUL student girls impersonate SOUL staff girls driving the boda-boda (motorcycle)

students arrive for the big day

students arrive for the big day

dishes on matooke leaves

dishes on matooke leaves

my sistahs

my sistahs

Bonga and Igulu

Bonga and Igulu

brother sister

brother sister

Arafat and Zahara

Arafat and Zahara

Betty, Muganda, Richard

Betty, Muganda, Richard

Francis

Francis

Drian

Drian

Ketrah and I

Ketrah and I

Chicken co-op Business Skills meeting moves inside because of the rain.

Chicken co-op Business Skills meeting moves inside because of the rain.

Zubaina weaves grass mats while we sit in silence because the thunder is so loud.

Zubaina weaves grass mats while we sit in silence because the thunder is so loud.

Sauya and Zahara--love love love.

Sauya and Zahara–love love love.

another of Arafat's jerry-can art pieces

another of Arafat’s jerry-can art pieces

Zooba finds an Easter egg

Zooba finds an Easter egg

another sunset on the Nile

another sunset on the Nile

Other People’s Business

entryway, looking out, as I exit Mama Ali's yard

entryway, looking out, as I exit Mama Ali’s yard

My Good Friday was spent thinking about malaria, typhoid, unwanted pregnancies, Hepatitis, Schizophrenia, and marijuana.

Writing about other people’s health concerns in a public blog seems to be a bit of an invasion of privacy, but I have been told that that is also a very American thing to say.  Nonetheless, I have been fascinated and irritated by differing cultural norms about privacy (or lack thereof) since I lived in India in 2008.

Let’s just say that by my standards, living in the village I do not have much privacy.  Even when I think I am alone—I am not.  Even when I think I am unseen—someone is watching.  Everything from how many times I visit the latrine, to which foods I am leaving on my plate, to the state of my health, to how long I spent in the garden and how dirty I got, to my exact location at all times—is known by a slew of family, friends, and acquaintances.  Who needs satellite GPS tracking when you have the well-connected network of a Ugandan village?

This lack of privacy and discretion is indiscriminate—not just for mzungus but locals as well.  Students’ scores and rankings on high-stakes National exams are public knowledge (they are published in the papers!) and are openly discussed by villagers of all ages.  People’s diseases and family affairs are known by all the neighbors.  This is one reason why many people do not even want to know whether they have HIV or not, because the stigma is so great and there is really no way to keep people from finding out.  Going into a pharmacy, your condition is discussed in front of all the other patients and pharmacists as they all contribute their advice.

In some ways, this drives me crazy and in others I find it endearing and powerful.  I am reminded of a moment when I was in Burkina Faso a year ago where I watched a man give a long, impassioned lecture to his friend about why he should quit smoking cigarettes.  His tone was not judgmental and his core message was one of love and concern.  From what I have seen, Americans usually don’t like to lecture each other on health issues or lifestyle choices (such as smoking).  Americans like to say that “it is not my business to impose” or “it’s a free country.”  However, in both West and East Africa, from what I have seen, people (anyone from good friends to casual acquaintances) will share opinions and advice openly with each other.  Sometimes this advice is delivered with gentleness and delicacy and other times with a sternness and directness that would make many non-confrontational Americans cringe.  Another example, is when Mama Ali was asked to go along with one of her friends to serve the role of “sengah” (meaning Aunt) to act as advisor to her friend’s son, who was having marital issues.  Mama Ali saw it as her duty to go along and give advice to these young people (who didn’t know her very well personally, but saw her as an elder) about why they should reconcile and be grateful for one another.

There is a comforting belief in the village that no one should have to deal with a problem alone.  Elders, family, and community all have a stake in the well-being of those around them.  The downside to this is a lack of privacy.  But who is to say what is more beneficial?  Community support or privacy?

To return to the events of my Good Friday.  I will not use the real names of who I am talking about, since it involves some delicate health issues.  There are 3 people who I have become very close to, who quietly suffer from vaguely indefinable illnesses.

I have found that trying to get information about illness is tricky, to say the least.  Words like “flu,” “fever,” and “cold” mean completely different things in Uganda than they do in the U.S.  From what I can tell, these words tend to be catch-all, self-diagnosed maladies that serve to explain a sickness that has not been diagnosed.  When people are sick, they often carry on with life as usual.  They do not go to clinics or hospitals because they cannot afford the fees and/or necessary bribery.  What they often will do is go to “pharmacies” and ask for “tabs” (pills) for “fever” or some other vaguely defined illness.  These pharmacies are not run by healthcare professionals.  No drug in Uganda requires a doctor’s prescription, which means that people could be taking anything from sugar pills to antibiotics to antidepressants without knowing the difference.  It also means that concerns about dosage, side effects, or patient history are not really addressed.  I have seen a very high number of Ugandans go to what I would call a “quack” pharmacy and not think twice about taking a series of “tabs.”  I have also spoken with people who go to witch doctors for ceremonies, herbs, and rituals when Western medicine fails, that is to say when the “tabs” don’t work.

I want to be clear. I am not trying to criticize my Ugandan family and friends.  I think there is a huge burden and failure of the Ugandan government to set up hospitals and healthcare systems that meet the needs of its people.  And that can be said of the U.S. as well, although the issues are different, confusing, and complex.

What seems to be a common thread is that poor people (whether they are in Uganda or the U.S.) do not have much education, control, or advocacy when it comes to their health.

I digress.  On Good Friday, I decided to take my 3 friends to the reputable and relatively affordable clinic in our village.  This clinic was started by a mzungu but is filled with very competent Ugandan staff who tend to a widespread clientele from the surrounding villages.  Patients travel far distances because of the clinic’s relative affordability, high-quality care, and integrity.  The cost (for a local) is 7,000ugx (roughly less than $3), which includes a consultation, extensive lab work, and any necessary medications.  On top of the great price, the clinic’s staff are also incredibly unassuming and treat all patients with a level of dignity that I have not witnessed anywhere else (including the U.S.).  However, even this price had been out-of-reach of my 3 friends who have been sick for years and not seen a qualified health professional.

Case #1:  My sweet friend, a 16 year old young man, let’s call him Ivan.  Extremely gentle yet ambitious and very intelligent.  Ivan has missed a huge amount of school because of very severe headaches.  When he was seen by the doctor at the clinic, he was diagnosed with severe Migraines and given a pack of Ibuprofen.  What else do you do with migraine headaches?  I wish I knew more.

Case #2:  Another friend, let’s call her Nangobi.  She is about my age: 28 years old.  She is very bright and incredibly beautiful.  Despite her obvious intelligence she speaks almost no English because she had to drop out of school so early to help her family.  She has had 5 children already and has expressed to me on multiple occasions that she does not want to have anymore.  She suffers from extreme fatigue.  When she goes to dig in the garden, she can hardly lift a hoe—which means she can generate no income for her kids.  The two fathers of her children are drunks and do not offer any financial support.  Her stepmother has disowned her.  She is visibly discouraged, downtrodden—and sick. 

As we sat together in the outdoor waiting room, she was visibly nervous.  I asked her when the last time she went to the doctor was and she answered it was when she had her last child with a midwife.  After a thorough round of lab work and more waiting for results, Nangobi found out that she had….malaria, typhoid, a UTI, and….she is almost 2 months pregnant (I think she already knew that last one).  My jaw dropped.  Nangobi started to cry.  I held her hand and comforted her.  I thought she was crying because of the litany of diseases, but she explained that she was just so happy that she didn’t have HIV.  She was extremely relieved to know what has been wrong with her for so long.  The nurse prescribed the most “pregnancy friendly” drugs that would take care of the malaria, typhoid, and infection.  She also encouraged Nangobi to drink only boiled water, sleep under a mosquito net (no Ugandan I know does this), and gave her folic acid for the baby’s health.  I tried to gently ask if there was any recourse for her if she didn’t want the baby.  The answer was that abortion is very illegal in Uganda, that the nurse herself was Christian and she felt very uncomfortable talking about it—I got the picture and quickly shut up.  (Later on I asked the clinic’s Doctor, who explained to me that many women attempt to abort their own babies, which often ends in severe health complications for the mother.  He told me not to get involved with anything to do with abortions, as they are very very illegal.  Point taken.)

Then I asked on behalf of Nangobi (she had been asking me for months but was too shy to ask during the visit with the nurse), after she delivers her sixth child, what recourse does she have so she can stop having children.  Apparently, there are many services available for free.  Nangobi could have a hormonal implant put into her arm that would prevent pregnancy for up to 5 years (I have heard that there are plenty of undesirable side effects).  She also could have a free surgery performed that would permanently keep her from having children. Although the doctor said that because she is still young, most doctors will refuse her this service.  This is because, in the case that she remarries, if she is “barren” she will likely be “discarded.”  Permanently ending her ability to have children would seriously hurt her future marriage prospects.

I have so many feelings about Nangobi.  I am very glad that she was finally able to go to the doctor.  I am embarrassed that the $3 for me means almost nothing and for her means inaccessibility to quality healthcare.  I am happy that she now knows all that ails her and that she does not have HIV.  But I am so sad for this bright, young woman who has been sick for so long and carries the huge burden of 5 children (with a 6th on the way).  I am sad that so much of her supposed worth is tied up in her ability to produce children and that her body does not really seem to be under her own control.  My heart is heavy for her.

Case #3:  This brings me to my last friend.  Although it seems impossible, this last case is far more complex and difficult than Nangobi’s.  This woman is around 33 years old.  Let’s call her Manjerie.  On top of a slew of physical diseases, she also struggles with mental health complications.  Her family has taken her to every doctor, hospital, clinic, and witch doctor in Jinja District and has gotten a wide variety of confusing and conflicting information and lists of drugs she should take.  The reason I took Manjerie to see the wonderful doctor at this clinic is because she has been taking a combination of EIGHT “tabs” and no one knows exactly what they are for.  I mostly just wanted to know what she was taking and why.  Her family knows that she has “problems with the head,” “problems with the liver,” “pressure,” “sugar problems,” and they think she has HIV.  Manjerie waxes and wanes between periods of being very alert and active, and periods of seeming completely sedated and sleeping most of the day.  She also binge-eats sugar and carbohydrates: sweet potatoes, rice, chapatis, bananas, jackfruit, and as much Lugazi sugar as she can.  It is unclear how much is due to the tabs she is taking, because there are so many at any given time, and she does not take them consistently because of lack of money.  Her family is afraid that Manjerie will die and they are at their wits end.  Despite the large number of doctors they have seen, they have no clear idea of what exactly is wrong with her and how serious her condition is.  To make matters worse, when I tried to interpret Manjerie’s records (upon the family’s request), all diagnoses and drugs were written in unintelligible scrawls.  I wanted to try to help them out and at least get a clear idea of what is going on with Manjerie.

Because Good Friday found Manjerie to be very sedated, the family decided that I should first go to the doctor on her behalf.  Of course this would never fly in the U.S. with patient privacy issues, but I didn’t know what else to do.  I took with me her three booklets of medical records and a bag with the eight different pills she has been taking.  The eight drugs were in unmarked plastic bags with no names or instructions.  The doctor examined the drugs and explained them as follows:

  1. Amitriptyline: antidepressant
  2. Chlorpromazine: antipsychotic used for schizophrenia
  3. Haldol/Haloperidol injection: anti-psychotic
  4. Artane/Benzhexol: Anti-Parkinsons, supposedly helps with side-effects of #1, 2 and 3
  5. Tenolam/Truvada: an ARV to treat HIV, but in this case it is being used to treat Hepatitis
  6. Lasix: diuretic and for high blood pressure
  7. Calcium: for vitamin deficiency
  8. Multi-vitamin: for malnutrition

When I asked whether she needed to be on all of these drugs, he explained that he was not a psychiatrist and that she should really see the person who initially gave her all of these anti-psychotic drugs.  However, he also said that doctors in Uganda typically do not consult very well with patients and recommend potent drugs without a second thought.  He said it seemed to him that she was over-medicated and on high doses of many drugs.  He said that based on multiple blood test records, she did NOT have HIV, but was using the ARV’s to treat hepatitis (the family was misinformed and had been worrying nonstop about her supposed HIV-positive state).  He said that because of the compromised state of her liver from the hepatitis, she should not be processing so many medications in the first place.  To make matters worse, the doctor was appalled when I told him that the family was being charged 1,000 shillings per ARV pill (they are supposed to be free in Uganda).  He made 5 different irate phone calls to the hospital (where he used to work) threatening to report them for illegally charging money for ARV’s.  All-in-all, I got more information about what Manjerie is dealing with: hepatitis, high blood pressure, possibly diabetes, and some form of a “mental disorder.”

However, it is extremely unclear about where to turn next.  I am an educated, literate person who is completely confused and discouraged by this situation—trying to be an advocate for a patient and a family who have no idea what is going on.  I obviously can’t and won’t advise Manjerie to stop taking any of the drugs but I have deep questions about whether they are all necessary.  I also know that realistically, because of lack of funds, Manjerie will be going on and off of many of these drugs (which is not good for her health either).  I have asked her family whether they see a difference between when she is on and off the drugs, and they are ambivalent.  There is a huge range of disturbing behaviors and symptoms (most recently, extreme swelling of the abdomen, feet, and face, and yellowish eyes) but they are unclear about which drugs “work.”

After this 4-hour long period of waiting, testing, questioning, and advocacy at the clinic, I walked my friends home and had a series of long conversations with their family members about what we found out and what was recommended.  Everyone was extremely grateful to me, which again felt embarrassing, because I haven’t really done anything.  I am not a healthcare professional, just insistently curious.  All I’ve done is pay $9.00, get more information, and ask a lot of questions about what all the jargon means.  But as for what to do for my friends, I feel pretty helpless.

The odd conclusion to my Good Friday was spent as I tried to go write and process this strange day.  I went to a near-by tourist campsite that has electricity where I could plug in my laptop.  I rarely go there and was quickly reminded why.  I could hardly write or concentrate because three young men (1 Brit, 1 Australian, 1 Tanzanian) were having a heated discussion about what was the “healthiest” way to ingest marijuana.  Was it a vaporizer?  A bong?  A brownie?

Trying not to be judgmental but too agitated to write, I sat thinking about all the ways you can interpret what it means to be “healthy.”  I then went home with some frustrated tears in my eyes, seeking a private moment, and instead of solitude, found a welcoming family who were able to lift me out of my mood and get me laughing again.  I was craving privacy but found the warm arms of a caring community.  And I think the latter was actually what I needed.

 

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jambo

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Namizi friend

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myselfie

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Phoebe lovely lady

Industrial Section of Jinja: Phoebe and I get ready to barter for a better maize brand for our chicken business groups

Industrial Section of Jinja: Phoebe and I get ready to barter for a better maize brand for our chicken business groups

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packed and ready to go

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factory

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once it’s ground…

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maize flour, snow, same-same

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Phoebe checks the quality and makes sure it’s not laced with cassava flour as a filler

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inside

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window at maize brand processing plant

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women sort maize brand into 3 qualities: some for posho for human consumption, other coarser varieties for animals

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I never get bored of photographing my lunch. Matooke (plantain), dodo (greens), biringanya (eggplant), fish broth, bweetah (cassava flour, millet flour mixed with boiling water), fresh tilapia

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lovely ladies

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Mutesi and her grandmother…my neighbors. I LOVE her t-shirt. I want to make a documentary that follows the life of one t-shirt around the world.

pre-primary kids leave at noon

pre-primary kids leave at noon