Life is Cheap

Posted February 27, 2007 in Uganda

(This is part 2 of 3 in my series on how I am dealing with culture shock.)

When visiting the camp in Gulu last week (back when I was young and innocent), I was told by a cynical Canadian expat that life is cheap in Africa. It took me a few days to fully understand this statement. (And trust me, words alone cannot convey the meaning.)

How can I begin to describe it? Well, let's take a step backwards for a minute and look at some statistics. 900 million people live in Africa. Malaria will claim maybe two million of those lives this year. HIV will claim another million. (I'll save my thoughts on these numbers for another blog posting.) Some contrast: in the United States in 2001, nearly 3000 lives were lost when terrorists hijacked some airplanes and ran them into large buildings. It was considered a tragedy beyond equal. This very day, three times that number will be killed by malaria or HIV.

Nope, statistics don't convey my meaning. Let's zoom in on Uganda.

In the north, the LRA has displaced nearly two million Ugandan people (of a total population of 25 million or so) into cramped, disease-ridden camps. The children in those camps were unsafe: every night, they would walk up to 20 kilometres to reach Gulu, and every day they would walk back to their families. Children which lived in more distant camps were less fortunate: they were more likely to be abducted. I encourage my readers to read the Wikipedia entry on the LRA for more information on this ongoing tragedy. The cease-fire is officially scheduled to end in two days.

Back to Kampala. Last week, towards the edge of a slum, I observed a corrugated iron fence. On the other side of the fence, a large, expensive-looking concrete building was taking shape. That corrugated iron wall is temporarily. The permanent wall will likely be made of concrete, laced with barbed wire. It will be pushed back several feet into the slum, too. Some people in the slum live in those several feet, but not for long. Their monetary compensation will be nominal or nonexistent. They accept their fate, and they do not know what they are going to do. (The building in question is a school for rich families.)

Also, in the hectic streets of Kampala, it is very common to see children walking alone. This is part of their daily routine. Their parents, I presume, have decided that it their children's safety would be more likely preserved with food on the table than with adult supervision. Such a choice wouldn't even be considered in North America, because we can all afford both.

I shouldn't even get started on buses and matatus. I have been on the road to Gulu four times since I came to Uganda. My last ride, returning from Murchison Falls, marked the first time I did not see a single fatal accident in a 300km stretch of road. When I returned from Gulu a week ago, I saw three nasty ones. Bus companies tweak their speed governers to make money, toying with the lives of their passengers. Matatus are leased for a day at a time from wealthy owners who have little incentive to maintain them above the standard of deathtrap. And drivers rely upon superstition above common sense to reach their destinations.

All of these observations are merely brief glimpses into everyday life. Every aspect of life is just as dangerous. A human being is a very fragile creature. In the West, we have more intricate safety devices than any of us can fathom: traffic laws, advanced hospitals, environmental laws, plenty of room, social insurance numbers.... The list goes on farther than any of us can see. Here, those safeguards are not in place.

The result is that death is a part of everyday life in Africa. Nobody is special, and everybody is vulnerable. People live their lives day-to-day.

Some readers might be interested to learn first-hand just how cheap their lives are in Africa by taking a risk just once in a way Ugandans would every day (for instance, ride a boda-boda through traffic in downtown Kampala). A word of discouragement, though: it's no joke. You really can die, in an instant, and nobody would blink.

I am writing this in an attempt to get my message across, and I don't quite know how to do it. I don't think I can. My last-ditch effort is a thought experiment:

  1. Remember how it felt the first time you went down the first slope of a roller coaster. Or the first time you took a bad fall when skiing. Or the first time you cut yourself badly. That moment of panic, that adrenaline rush, before the realization that you're going to be okay.
  2. Remove from that experience the realization that you're going to be okay. In all likelihood, you're not.
  3. Perpetuate that feeling across an entire lifetime.

When you have no choice in the matter, it's easy to become accustomed to this state of affairs. Most of my readers will always have that choice (you have money and powerful contacts, which you take for granted). Most Africans will never have that choice. For them, the risk of death is not a switch which can be flicked off: it is everywhere.

Life is cheap in Africa.

Stay tuned for part 3.