The Politics of (Near) Starving

I think most Americans’ mental images of Africa – or at the very least, mine prior to this trip – are of some sort of cross between a National Geographic special on savannah wildlife and a Christian Children’s Fund television appeal for donations, replete with starving children sporting desperate eyes and distended stomachs. I’m pretty sure the former image is an accurate depiction of at least some part of Uganda – I just have to get a day off and go to a National Park to see it. The latter image – and the issue it depicts, hunger – is a little more complicated on the ground here.

I’ve heard Uganda called “Baby Africa” or “Africa-lite” by Westerners here, who claim that – compared to “tougher” places like Zimbabwe or Somalia – the poverty in Uganda is pretty mild. Sure, people have very little, but they have enough to survive. When I read in a newspaper that people were dying from famine in one of the Northern districts, my boss assured me that this was basically government propaganda. (I’m not entirely sure why a government would want to suggest that its people are starving, but it has something to do with regional disputes.)

It’s easy to understand why a famine would be taking place when you take a look at the Ugandan countryside. The vegetation is tropical, but everything is brown and dusty. It’s supposed to be the rainy season here, but unless Ugandans have a very wide definition of “rainy” I would say the season is not as it should be.

A few nights ago, we were in Rakai, and at the end of a long day, us three Research Assistants set out in search of a restaurant. At place after place, we were told there was no “food” left, which to Ugandans means no staples like rice, posho, matoke, and beans (they all had meat, which is unhelpful). One of the other RAs kept questioning the hostesses about why this was the case, suggesting that if they were out, they ought to make more and adding that perhaps we were being turned away because we were white. After we were rebuffed by about four restaurants, though, it occurred to me that perhaps there was no food left not because they were “out” for the night, but because there was virtually none of these foods left in the village. A stroll through the market the next morning more or less confirmed what I thought.

Still, there are none of the starved skeletons we are used to seeing in media images of, say, Ethiopia (The skeletons here are suffering from AIDS, not hunger). The cattle, goats, and pigs, though, hint at lean times. I’ve quickly gathered that livestock here are one of the key signs of wealth and are inevitably a prized and cherished possession. It is certainly a bad sign, then, that I can count the ribs on every cow I have seen in the countryside.

I got a quick primer on the way the specter of constant – if not acute – malnutrition affects people during our enumeration yesterday. Our research requires us to mobilize around 50 people to take surveys, play games, and fill out forms. We don’t have enough on our team to work with everyone at once, but farmers take forever to show up so we ask them all to come at 9 a.m. and sit for eight hours. In return, we give them 4000 shillings (a whole $1.85, since these are some of our more well-to-do respondents and thus need to be “well” paid) and – this is where we really clinch their attendance at our future session – we feed them two chipati (basically, tortillas) and a soda.

My days are completely crazy, so I usually send out driver to fetch the chipati and soda (he gets a better price anyway). This day, though, many people showed up late, after I had placed our order. When the driver came, he brought sodas and chipati for 24 – but there were forty present. Nevertheless, I carried the crates the assembled groups, proudly said “this is for you,” and walked away to murmurs of appreciation.

I doubt anyone in that group is actually starving, so my interpretation of the events that followed should be taken with a grain of salt. But I should have known that dividing 24 sodas among 40 people almost always deprived of such “luxuries” would be problematic. Within a few minutes, farmers were standing and shouting and gesturing at one another. I speak exactly four words of Luganda, but it was clear that people were mad, and not at me. I was fearful enough that people were going to start seriously fighting that I considered retrieving the sodas, but I couldn’t figure out a good way to do that without throwing myself into the imminent fray.

If a few sodas are worthy of a dispute among villagers, how far will a needy person go for a cow, or an acre of land? It’s moments like these that make me realize how almost reasonable it can seem for people to take up arms to obtain for things like land and water. Starvation makes people inert – deprivation puts people on the edge of a knife, ready to lash out at a moment. Those that are completely hopeless are also harmless, but the people that can’t have but see the others who can are dangerous. Like Against Me! says, real world politics are the politics of starving.

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