I don’t have the greatest track record with summer jobs. In high school, I worked at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque. Aside from the obvious ethical downsides of working in a weapons laboratory, I had nothing to do and spent most of my days watching Home Star Runner (which now sounds almost as dated as playing with pogs) in a windowless office. After I graduated from high school, my desperation for work led me to Hastings Entertainment, where I spent 27 ½ hours a week (the short workweek had something to do with avoiding paying benefits) selling quilting magazines and porn while getting yelled at for refusing to give “guests” plastic bags for one-item purchases. I enjoyed the law offices I worked after my freshman and sophomore years of college, but last summer was a huge disappointment. Just like in high school, I felt like what talents I have went unused by the Vera Institute of Justice, which worked for “justice” only in the loosest sense of the term.
It’s hard to say how I will judge this summer’s job in retrospect, but suffice to say, it’s been tough. I had built this summer up in my mind as the perfect combination of time spent with friends, travelling, and challenging but interesting (and not soul-crushing) work. As usual, I was delusional: my time in Uganda has been unquestionably the most stressful seven weeks of my life, and I’ve probably worked more hours in total on this project than I did on my senior thesis. I don’t mind hard work, but after four years of hard work in school I was hoping for something a little different during my break.
Jennifer Aniston’s character in Office Space is probably right: most people hate their jobs and yet find ways to reach happiness anyway. My impression that work is supposed to be stimulating and empowering is a product of my extremely privileged background; for most people, it’s not quite like that. Still, though, I simply can’t face the idea that I could spend my life not enjoying the work I do, perhaps because I know I will be defined by it. The life of Alex-the-lawyer will be totally unlike Alex-the-professor, and not just for eight hours a day. As such, it’s a little disheartening to realize, through my time here, that perhaps I am not cut out for life in academia.
As usual, though, the situation in Uganda helps me keep things in perspective and reminds me of how lucky I have been to have consistent, well-paid, and (generally) intellectually stimulating work. And, whenever I’m really down on my job, I think of Shatya.
Most days when we are in Kampala, we work out of Guy’s apartment, a nice flat in a three-story building situated inside a walled compound in Minister’s Village, Ntinda. We typically arrive and leave at absurd hours. No matter what the hour, though, Shatya, the young woman who acts as the gatekeeper, is there to open the gate for us. She is literally on call every hour of every day; her home is a tiny 4’x6’ room attached the gate, and I have only once seen her venture outside the compound, and that was to walk to the corner store (typically, her relatives bring her food, so she doesn’t have to leave her post). I haven’t asked what she is paid, but I doubt it’s much.
In a sense, Shatya is lucky, because the unemployment situation in Uganda is pretty desperate. A huge number of people have no income whatsoever. But it’s the types of work people do have that frightens me more. Occupations here are so astonishingly trivial that it boggles my mind. When we go to restaurants, there are attendants to direct us where to park, even though everyone in the city takes mass transit and the lots are utterly empty. Masses of healthy young men wait by roadsides to re-sell used sandles or hawk fried bananas. Our five-room hotel has an assault-rifle wielding guard to protect a once again unoccupied parking lot. Imagine a woman using a wicker hand-broom to sweep loose gravel from a dirt road into a paper plate, and you have perhaps the best possible picture of what I’m talking about.
Whether or not others choose to value themselves based on the work they do – as do I – I think it is fair to argue that the employment people have reflects the value society places in them. If this is indeed true, I shudder to think about the worth society (by which I do not mean Uganda but the whole world economic and social order) places on someone like Shatya. Have we – through our support and participation in the present way of the world – really decided that someone’s life can be so worthless that they should spend their waking (and, for Shatya, un-waking) hours opening a gate for people who could easily do it themselves?
A final comment that has been bouncing around in my head for weeks, but I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate. A lot has been written about the dignity and pride of the impoverished, of the power of the human spirit to find meaning and fulfillment in adverse circumstances. Some might criticize me for suggesting that the work I here see is trite and trivial, when the people doing that work might nonetheless take pride in it. My own observation, though, is that people here know they are getting screwed. Shatya does not have the friendly subservience of an eager-to-be-exploited doorman. She quite clearly hates what she does and resents the very people who pay her.
All this fits into perhaps the biggest thing I am taking away from Uganda: poverty sucks. For all my attempts to see some silver lining to life in the third world, to note the advantages of a more laid-back way of life and the way people bond together to overcome adversity, the reality is that life here is a grind. The degradation people face on a daily basis is so much more than just being deprived of a few material goods. It is also being forced to watch your life tick away, doing something that you know is valueless and being treated accordingly.