Identity Crisis in Uganda

Life in Uganda is different than in the States. This, I’m sure, goes without saying. There are many, many luxuries that I took for granted in the States that just aren’t available here. Public restrooms come to mind. Fast food. Water fountains. More importantly, clean water. Variety of everything. Climate control. Dozens of TV channels. Hundreds of news outlets. Internet covering virtually every inch of the country. In some areas, warm showers.

More invisible luxuries, too. Education. Readily available medical care. Welfare. Freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. Suddenly I feel like I’ve never taken advantage of the liberties we’ve been allowed in the United States. Seeing the journalists here carefully craft their words to be politically correct – not an optional thing here – casted the sudden realization that our freedom to dissent is precious. Our right to criticize is both incomprehensible here in Uganda and so undervalued by American citizens. 

I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it. Before I arrived here, I thought I understood how free America really is. I thought I knew what oppression looked like – an Orwellian society where Big Brother watches you via security cameras. I never comprehended that oppression can be, very simply, lack of resources.

Tyranny is much more sinister and subtle. It’s a warehouse full of aid but a city of starving children. It’s giving the citizens the right to vote for any candidate – but each one is corrupt. It’s a truck taking medical aid to a village, but each local politician siphoning off 20% of it as a “fee” until nothing is left for the people in need.

Today was the first day on the trip that I felt angry. I have been enamored with the friendliness of the people, the beauty of the land, the differences of – well – everything! I’m not even sure what I’ve eaten, I just take what I’m handed. But I’m not just angry with the corruption that dominates the lives of Ugandans. I am angry – maybe even more angry – about life in America.

In America, we throw everything away because it costs us more (or so we say) to reuse and recycle than to just get a new one. Paper plates, plastic bottles, soda cans. Ugandans use everything over and over. Trash cans aren’t a common sight – there is very little to throw away. Glass soda pop bottles are recycled. Dishes are ceramic. Clothes are used within an inch of their life.

More than angry even, I am ashamed. I am embarrassed that I ever complained about living in Dearing. It’s a paradise compared to what the average Ugandan lives in. In Dearing, I have as much clean water and hot water as I want, reliable electricity, indoor plumbing that always works, air conditioning, constant internet… I probably can’t name all of the things I took for granted. Those things aren’t all present in the nicest hotel in Fort Portal. Imagine going to a hotel in the States and even one of those items missing. You, and admittedly I, would throw a fit. Unimaginable that even the Motel 6 not have hot water or wireless internet.

We live in opulence. And we complain about it. We are so self-centered.

Let me rephrase. I am so self-centered. I am so immature. I am so ungrateful.

It’s hard to admit. I feel humiliated, actually. I keep considering whether or not to publish this to my blog. I feel physically ill that I have been so selfish all of my life. I have thrown away recyclables when the appropriate bin was just a few more feet away. I have declined to volunteer because I “don’t have the time to spare”. I’ve spent way too much money on Taco Bell when I could have just as easily spent even a tiny portion of it helping someone and I personally wouldn’t have noticed a difference.

And yet, people are happy here. You can’t say they live in squalor, because that brings to mind grime and misery. They aren’t miserable here. They are hopeful.

They trust that tomorrow will be better. They have tremendous faith in a spiritual being taking care of them. They take each day as it comes.

Maybe they just don’t know anything different. I am conscious of what I am “doing without”. I have provisions to ensure I live the same padded American life I have always lived – snacks, travel-sized beauty products, video games on my iPod to stave off boredom. I may take a cold shower, but I dry off to come use my shiny new laptop while watching CNN on television and munching fancy trail mix.

I feel like something has broken within me. I don’t know if you can ever tell if your life is going to change, but I feel like mine is. I’m not going to building a cardboard house in Parkville and refuse food and electricity, insisting that I’m helping Africa somehow. But I am considering changing my major to journalism. I’ve never considered a major that you can pretty much guarantee you will struggle financially, but I am beginning to value something else over a stable wallet. I have to bring these stories home.

I think I have made choices in recent years that emphasized the illusion of stability over passion. And don’t get me wrong, I love public relations. But I have begun to consider whether that is a settling sort of love, a Mr Good Enough Major, instead of a fiery affair with Mr Prince Charming Major. I ditched the idea of majoring in theatre because there is no money in art. I decided not to choose journalism because of the job market and prospective salary. Public relations is easy. Journalism is hard.

Thinking about spring semester, I remember a few assignments over others. I remember writing about the experience of an Uzbek student coming to an American university for my journalism class, and filming a Russian conversation hour for a news assignment in TV Production. I learned so much from those assignments that I never would have picked up in a classroom. And even though I had a lot of fun doing my PR videos, I didn’t learn anything. Maybe I gained a better understanding of how to use Adobe software, but I didn’t gain any knowledge of the world and the people in it.

I have a lot to mull over. I haven’t felt this conflicted – well, ever. All I can do now is just try to allow an answer to form.

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About Andi Enns

Andi is a student in the Degree with Honors Program at Park University, studying Public Relations and Broadcast Journalism. She is seeking a graduate program in public health communication, and hopes to work on international health campaigns in the future. She loves coffee, world travel, and knitting. Read more about her at http://www.AndiEnns.com.
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