My Perspective

Posted April 20, 2007 in Uganda

This will be my last Uganda blog entry. As such, I feel I should end with a flourish: my ultimate opinion of the world? My avid readers may remember my two previous opinions: that education should be separate from religion; and that everybody is ignorant of most things and we should all acknowledge and accept that fact. For my final opinion, once again, I will approach my conclusion in a roundabout manner.

I should begin where I left off on a previous topic. Last Thursday, I mentioned riots in Kampala. I promised to revisit the topic of sugar cane and environmentalism.

Will I give my opinion on the matter? No, but I will try to give others' perspectives.

Imagine yourself as a manager of a sugar company. A series of fortuitous events has led you to a business deal unlike any other: a godsend! Are you responsible for the country's welfare?

Imagine yourself as a typical Asian-Ugandan. You returned to Uganda relatively recently after Idi Amin's expulsion of Asian expats was finally retracted. You work hard for a living, and you love Uganda.

Imagine yourself as the average resident of Kampala. This forest is your pride; and the looming threats of global warming and soil erosion are very real. You are certain that this sale is bad for your country. What can you do? You can protest.

Now, come on, do not let me lead your train of thought so easily! Try again to imagine yourself as the average resident of Kampala. You left your village behind forever, or you were born and raised in a slum. You are unemployed and partially uneducated. Why are you protesting? Well, the primary reason is that protesting is something to do: this is far better than staying home all day. As far as you can see, the Asians are thousands of times wealthier than you are. That money has to come from somewhere, and judging by the lack of money in your pocket, when you get right down to it the money comes from you. And here comes one Asian, running over a child with his motorbike! What can you do with your country going to hell right in front of you? Everybody is on your side, everybody is angry, and you have literally nothing to lose.

Imagine yourself as a policeman. You have a job to do, and all of a sudden things turn terribly hairy. You have been trained for such events, and you spring into action. You are, naturally, fearing for your life at this point.

Imagine yourself as a journalist. All you can see is the raw anger and hatred and fear and humanity all around you. Your job is extremely important to you, and you must drink in as much as you can.

(Imagine yourself as me, writing this blog: I understand none of the above points of view. I just told you I am ignorant about most things, remember?)

There are certainly clashes in people's perceptions of the same situation; it seems that the ensuing violence was inevitable. But you knew that already. The point I want to bring to the table is that there are many different perspectives on the same story. And, luckily for me, I am able to distinguish a few (in broad strokes, at least).

In that same blog post I also asked a question about Gulu; I promised that I would give the answer later. The question was: how many Night Commuters are there at the moment? The give-away hint was that this number is not easy to find on the Internet.

The answer is: a big zero. For quite a while now, there has not been a single Night Commuter.

Let us play the perspective game again. Imagine yourself as an NGO employee. You get money through donations and international support funds. The situation in northern Uganda is miserable, but the hard facts have garnered almost no support for 20 years. The Night Commuters, on the other hand, really strike a chord with the average Westerner. They are the holy grail of war imagery: honest and powerful, the Night Commuter image can stretch Westerners' minds to see what they need to see. Money is not everything: you believe people elsewhere in the world truly need to understand the situation. They cannot understand, of course, but the closest they come is when they envision the Night Commuters. You are an honest person; but what motivation do you have to publish something which counters the very effect people should be feeling: why say something which will be interpreted by a naïve observer to mean, Things could be worse?

(I should interject to make absolutely clear that I am not saying there is anything wrong with leaving a fact glossed over, when the broadcasting of such information is neither your responsibility nor your desire. I am confident most--if not all--NGO employees will readily admit there are no Night Commuters to anybody who asks the up-front question.)

And this is where I come in. For all my qualities, when all is said and done, I amount to little more than an ignorant tourist. I say this with pride: at least I have the courage to admit it!

I know that most of my readers cannot fathom the horrible conditions in northern Uganda. And here I go, implying to my readers (on an emotional level) that the situation is far less miserable than most knowledgeable people would lead them to believe. Why should I say such a thing? What is my motive?

I give this little-known fact because I want to give a taste of the unknown to my readers. It is a fact which is difficult to find, because few have any motivation to publish it. Imagine how many more facts are unknown?

Early on in my life in Uganda, I started learning the sort of information which one does not publish. I know many things which remain unwritten for many reasons. For instance, I have completely refrained from shocking my readers with horror stories. I have (I hope) managed to avoid offending my readers. I have for the most part kept my opinions to myself, choosing a topical writing style which uses well-known facts and fitting anecdotes to present the same lives from different perspectives. And I have treated my blog as a permanent medium, so I have not published anything which I feel may turn out to be a rumour. There are many reasons for me to keep some things to myself.

(Alternatively, one could posit that I picked my facts to lead my readers to my very own conclusions. I have no problem if you do not trust me: in fact, mistrust makes me feel more comfortable.)

Clearly, my readers will form their own perspectives when reading what I have written. Those perspectives are not mine. My perspectives are formed largely from different information and different personal experiences.

My readers' perspectives on my blog entries will not be uniform. Each perspective will be fed by different personal experiences and some different information. Not to mention, different opinions of me. I have attempted, in my writing, to steer my readers away from common misconceptions. I know that it is easy for us to attempt to classify anything and everything; but Uganda is not simple, and I hope my readers do not fall into the trap of neglecting complexity to stay comfortable. You can stay perfectly comfortable while acknowledging ignorance, and that seems far healthier to me.

Now my blog draws to a close. I somewhat rhetorically entitled this entry, My Perspective. I meant to point out that every single person sees things differently. I think my readers will agree. However, I think some of my readers really want to know how I, personally, see things.

My perspective is, well, my perspective. Since touching down in Entebbe airport a lifetime ago, I have not seen, heard, felt, thought, believed, or otherwise experienced the same view, emotion, or belief for more than a few transient hours. Very few opinions have stayed with me for longer than a day. My perspectives typically flip completely four or five times daily. At first this drove me insane; now, I am comfortable with my insanity. This is Africa.

One recurring theme: truth is elusive. Everybody chooses what to see and what to ignore. And so I would readily believe that my own perspectives are inaccurate: they are, as far as I can tell, my own creations. My self-distrust is the reason I refine and reform my perspectives so frequently.

My perspective is my conversation piece of the hour, nothing more. Talk with me face to face sometime, and I will give you whatever perspective happens to be flitting through my brain. I am not withholding my perspective because it is too much for you to handle: I am withholding my perspective because it is almost certainly stupid.

And so what is my end-all opinion, which I have been saving up all this time? Well, I could mention something about tempering beliefs with humility, but I think that would not make a powerful take-away sentence. I could say, The world is bigger than anybody can imagine, or, Your life is what you make it; but these are clichés. I could spout out something about Westerners being incredibly fortunate and so we should all do X; but there is no simple, magical X which would solve the world's problems. Besides, if you have been keeping up on my blog, you know all those things already.

To tell the truth, I forgot to invent a final opinion. I have been too busy learning.

You may be disappointed to hear that I did not discover myself or understand everything in my time in Uganda. I have been myself all my life, thank you very much. And the meaning of life continues to elude me. I have lost a bunch of naïve preconceptions about various topics. And I am immensely proud of that.

I suppose that leads to my strongest, most consistent opinion, dull as it may sound. It is, in effect, the culmination of all my experience. In my opinion, we should always be learning.

I have gained a sense of perspective. I hope my readers have learned something from my blog as well. And now, if you will excuse me, I must go flip my world upside-down again. I suspect the flip will not return my life to its original state.