Today was my first full day in the field. There are just a couple of thoughts I wanted to jot down before they leave my mind. We started our day in Rakai, the district capital, which is really little more than a large shanty-town. Driving into the countryside was a surreal experience; all the vegetation is thick and jungle-like, but because of the drought, everything is dying and covered in a half-inch of dust.
At the end of the day, Guy and Delia jetted off to some meeting, leaving me the complete shitshow of paying all the individuals we had surveyed for an entire day of their time. I entered the decrepit, mud and stick church where we had met, and, through a translator, thanked them for their time. I added, “Weebale Nnyo,” the Luganda word for thank you, which I mispronounced to a round of laughter. I saw that one coming, but the next thing that happened boggled my mind. I announced to them that we were paying them 2000 shillings – less than a dollar – for their time. And then they all clapped.
I’m not sure exactly why they clapped. It’s possible that they were thanking me for our generous payment of .85 cents, a daily payment large enough to qualify them for “extreme poverty” by any definition. Maybe they clapped out of respect for the fact that I was a white guy in a remote village. My guess, though, is that they clapped because they thought that, even though the vans and researchers would leave in a few minutes, that we would be back, and we would bring development money.
We won’t. I’ve very quickly realized we’re not doing this project in Uganda because we want to help Ugandans. We’re doing it because you can get an entire day’s worth of data from a person for a single dollar. When I think of all the money and time that went into us playing a few games and administering a few surveys in this “village,” I can’t help but wonder if this is really the best use of our time and money.
What if, instead of doing research, we spent the money we spent on photocopying surveys on bricks, and we built them a schoolhouse without holes in it. Or patched the roof of the church. They’d still be poor, but we’d have actually done something for them.
When I’m here, and I think about my privilege, and the poverty of the people around here, and the absurdity that I’m typing this on a laptop that cost enough to feed a family of Ugandans for a year, I can’t help but think of a simple line from one of my favorite Propagandhi songs, screamed over and over: “What a stupid world.”
2 thoughts on “… and I think to myself.”
I remember meeting some guys in Kenya who thought making gravel – literally breaking big rocks into littler rocks and repeating ad nauseam – for $1 a day was a good job to come by. It made technology consulting feel very empty for me.