You’re Stealing, I’m Exploiting. You’re Black, I’m White. You’re Fired, I’m Fine.

Mitch Duneier – the ethnographer who advised my thesis – wrote a book called Slim’s Table with a chapter asking “I’m Black, You’re White, Who’s Innocent?” It’s a complicated question, but in Uganda, the answer is fait accompli.

A few days ago, our project manager – a Ugandan named Charity – approached me and said that she suspected one of my team leaders, Daniel, had taken money from the project. I was skeptical of the accusation. Our first few days of enumeration were ridiculously chaotic; each Research Assistant (that’s me!) had to oversee three separate teams in three separate locations. Because we had to pay drivers, buy lunch, and compensate respondents in each place, I had to entrust money with some of my team leaders. Thanks to the truly unfathomable disorganization of our project, though, I had neither receipts to give them to fill out nor the time to properly supervise and check over the payments. In short, I figured any irregularities in the money were the product of my own incompetence and their confusion.

As the week went on, though, her suspicions started to seem more valid. We called one of the organizations that this team leader supposedly paid and discovered that it seemed as if he reported paying them more than he actually did – though they weren’t sure what exactly they had received. More people came forward claiming that there had been some irregularities. This was enough to call in his team and ask them if they had noticed anything. Not a single one made eye contact with me as they told me that, no, they never handled any money and no, they never suspected anything. Eventually, one admitted that they had asked my team leader why he was handling the money in a certain way, and that they had though some things were a little strange.

We hardly had damning evidence. Guy, however, claimed that what the enumerators said was “as condemning as Ugandans ever get” and felt confident that we could “kick my team leader’s ass.” We brought him in, and Guy confronted him. He denied everything. Guy told him he was going to be fired and that he would be paid nothing for the previous two weeks of work, except for the money he stole (which couldn’t have been more than $50). Dan then admitted that he took money from us, and we parted ways. Guy called every research company in Uganda and put him on their blacklists, ensuring that he will never get another research job in the country.

I worked a twenty hour day on Monday, when we fired Dan, but I still stayed up until 5:30 a.m. Even though in an hour-and-a-half I had to wake up and train twenty people, I had to write some things down. You could say that something about what happened didn’t sit right with me.

Part of it is simply that I can’t help but apply Western standards to the situation. No court in the United States would consider what we had on Dan as meeting any minimal burden, much less “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” His confession was far from voluntary, and seemed primarily to be a product of Ugandan’s cultural aversion to confrontation. Ultimately, we determined his guilt based on the minimal, evasive responses of a few individuals who maintained they knew nothing. It’s hard to appreciate all the procedural protections when we see them in place in the United States, keeping “obviously” guilty people on the streets and burning through taxpayer dollars, but its shocking to see what happens when they aren’t there.

All in all, though, what really nags at me is that I’m not sure I can answer the question of who is really stealing from whom. Every enumerator on my team is a college graduate, and most of them have masters’ degrees and extensive survey experience. In exchange for twelve hour days, we pay them the handsome sum of 30,000 shillings, which is about $15. What bothers me, though, is not so much the wage – which really is an excellent take for a Ugandan – but the respect we accord them as employees. We literally gave them one days notice before taking them into the field and away from their families for three straight weeks. While every one signed a contract guaranteeing him or her a month’s work, we terminate them on a moment’s notice when we change our schedule, drop a survey instrument from the study, or have the slightest doubt about their ability to perform. While I drew the line at firing the pregnant woman (I do my best to adhere to as many American labor laws as possible – if only my boss would do the same and cut down on the 100 hour workweek), I’ve been forced to terminate people without any explainable reason, only to be confronted by tearful and confused enumerators waving what appeared to be a valid, and set in stone, contract.

None of this, of course, excuses stealing for personal enrichment. Wait, scratch that. I have no idea why Dan stole, and that’s the scariest part. I suppose anytime, anywhere someone steals, there is a chance they are stealing for a good and necessary reason. But here, I really can’t help but wonder what kind of desperation would drive some to risk losing employment semi-permanently in exchange for $50. While my mind first jumps to wondering if maybe Dan’s wife has cancer, it doesn’t have to be so drastic. It would be just as hard for me to convince myself that the integrity and finances of our study are more important than, say, school fees for Dan’s kids.

The skin color is black and white, but the morality is all grey.

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