Just Living

 

Usually when I mention Uganda or another African country to your average American (or Korean) their eyes glaze over, and once they’ve figured out that Uganda is in the continent (country) of Africa I can see images of starving and emaciated children, millions of people living with AIDS and elephants and lions flash through their minds. A typical conversation might go something like this:

“Oh you’re working in AFRICA? Wow! That must be so hard with all the diseases and starving children.”

“Uh. Yeah.”

“How fulfilling to be able to save so many lives. You’re so brave to be there!”

The conversation might continue to mention someone they know doing a short term mission trip to “Africa” and how wonderful it was, but if you try and mention any other details about “Africa” and how perhaps it’s more than just starving children, AIDS, malaria, and unique animals, the person will lose interest.

Why many people can’t seem to grasp the concept that Africa is a continent made of up of many, many individual and unique countries with separate cultures, languages, and customs frustrates me. But what what frustrates me more is the perception of Africa (that the media only reinforces) as a continent just riddled with poverty and disease, corrupt leaders, but filled many beautiful animals like the lion “king of the jungle” (thank you Disney for confusing jungle and grassland). Of course none of these perceptions are inaccurate per se. I live in a place where people do die of hunger, where on almost a daily basis one of our staff gets sick with malaria (which actually isn’t that big of a deal if you receive treatment), and where almost all the Ugandans I know have lost a child or a young relative prematurely. I can’t gloss over the fact that all the African countries I’ve been to are filled with hardship that we can barely dream of in the western world. But they are also filled with so much more than hardship. To characterize an entire continent so negatively is the same as when people ask me if all Americans carry guns to school. Sadly, there are people who carry guns to school and shootings do happen, but of course there is so much more to the United States than shootings, McDonalds, New York City and LA, and fat people.

The “Africa” I know is filled with people just living. Just like in every other country I’ve visited, people in Uganda have families, they fall in love, they have favorite foods, they laugh, they cry, and they enjoy life. Even in the midst of harder living conditions than we have in the west people are still living. Yes, there are corrupt governments but people have still found a way to get by. When I read the news about the state of government affairs in the US, I find myself disgusted, but when I’m living there I realize it’s not as bad as the media presents. Yes, there are many people living with AIDS (particularly in Southern Africa), but there are even more people living without AIDS and many people fighting to stop the spread of AIDS. Yes, there are many unemployed people who are barely scraping by, but there are also many people who have regular jobs, who work hard, who send their kids to school to give them a better life, and people who have hope for their country and want to stay and make a difference.

I’ve only been to a handful of African countries and each one possesses a slightly different set of struggles, different languages, slightly different animals, vastly different geographies, different cultures, different beliefs, different political systems, different dress, and simply different ways of life. The African continent is arguably the most diverse culturally and certainly linguistically, yet this is not the Africa that most people know. Instead of only seeing Africa as a place with famine and drought, disease and despair, corruption and power struggles, my hope is that people would see it as a continent filled with people full of life and ideas, bright and colorful culture, music, and art, and landscapes and animals that are a photographer’s dream. Just as it’s unfair to characterize America by obesity, fast food, and guns, it’s unfair to characterize Africa by only the negative.  

Life in Moroto

Moroto may not be the cosmopolitan world of Seoul, or even have the artsy cultured vibes of Ann Arbor, but somehow we keep ourselves entertained. It’s not uncommon for both of the only two cell phone servers to lose service (sometimes even for days), and my internet speed (and availability) varies from day to day. I can count the number of restaurants in Moroto on one hand and all of them offer almost identical menus. Within approximately the first month of living in Uganda I had already sampled all varieties of Ugandan food. In contrast, during my one year in Korea and incessant sampling of new Korean dishes, I failed to scratch the surface of the variety of food. Korean food was so varied that I even introduced some of my native Korean friends to new dishes.

In spite of how dull life in Uganda and Moroto might appear, there is never a dull moment living and working here. While I do spend a significant amount of time in an office (something that scared me from ever being a real engineer), even my office time presents daily new challenges and surprises. For the past week and a half I have been acting project manager of my project and so I get the full range of problem solving opportunities. Figuring out how to get a stray chicken from wandering around my office and relieving itself, trying to communicate with my staff when the cell phone network is down, trying to read and send e-mails when the internet fails, losing power because someone accidentally mixed diesel and petrol when refueling our generator, trying to get money from the one atm in town when there is no power for days, trying to make it to the field and not get stuck when driving on roads that often more closely resemble rivers than roads, figuring out how to print when our ink cartridges suddenly run out and the only way to get new ones is bringing them up from Kampala, figuring out how to send a visa application registered mail and get appropriate dutch passport photos, sorting out how to transport staff to the field when there always seems to be a vehicle or motorbike in need of repair, the list goes on. Even the task of hiring new staff is more complicated that one would expect. Receiving strange phone calls at 9 pm begging you not to hire one of the interviewed candidates? Yes, that happened and apparently happens frequently.

Beyond work, we entertain ourselves with weekly hikes, looking ridiculous doing sprint workouts around town, movie nights, pizza nights, a play and dance for the whole town, and making enchiladas and other meals from scratch. According to the several personality quizzes (that seem to always produce different results) I’ve taken, the trend I’ve noticed is that my personality thrives in a fast paced, busy, challenging, and constantly changing work environment. While, Moroto may not provide the cosmopolitan lifestyle of a world class city, it does provide constant challenges and entertainment. Although I am looking forward to living somewhere where I can satisfy my “sophisticated” (or so I think) taste buds, be completely independent, and blend in; I will miss living in the shadow of a mountain and the humorous daily challenges that life and work in Uganda present. Image