Two Days, Two Worlds

I made it back. While I realize this isn’t a particularly surprising statement, the fact that I was able to walk – rather than be carried – off the plane was a bit in doubt by the time I left Kampala. All in all, it’s absolutely fantastic to be home, and amazing to think of how different two places on the same planet can be. The U.S. doesn’t provide quite as provocative fodder for blogging, but I’ll be posting a few things I partially wrote in Uganda over the next few days.

The contrast between the U.S. and Uganda, I’ll admit, is a bit enhanced by my current location, a swanky beach house on the Oregon coast. It reminds me of something I consistently encountered during my time in Uganda: the U.S. is a really difficult place to describe. It’s not just that the U.S. is huge, though that makes it hard to capture too: I’m sure my enumerators thought I was completely schizophrenic about where I live, because at times I said I lived in a really hot desert (basically true, if you count Phoenix) but additionally – to their awe – told them I lived where there was snow (also true). It’s also that the prosperity of the United States is unfathomable. Even the richest Ugandans don’t enjoy the luxuries that most Americans do: paved roads, consistent electricity, reliable policing, or regular elections.

Sometimes I thought that if I tried to describe the wealth of the United States to my Ugandan friends, they flat out wouldn’t believe it. As if to try to mitigate the absurdity of the contrast – perhaps to make Ugandans feel not quite so bad about their place on the ladder of wealth – I often reminded them that there were poor people in the United States too. “The Navajo Nation is a developing nation too,” I told them. Maybe, and so is Mexico, but the comparison just isn’t there, something I realized when I remembered that over half of Navajos have telephones, two-thirds have running water (the stat for Uganda is something like 5%) and the majority own cars (not a single one of my twenty college-educated enumerators even had a license).

This is a slightly disconnected point, but the musings above reminded me of a debate I had with two of the other Research Assistants. We were discussing whether or not it was really terrible to be one of the farmers we were studying; I maintained it was, and they suggested I couldn’t rush to that judgment and could only maintain they were miserable by applying my own, western standard of “the good life.” They had at least some point, insofar as the farmers we were studying were living much like many human beings have for thousands of years, so it’s hard to suggest that they are truly in desperate straights. Aside from such things as AIDS and ethnic strife – which are simply objectively awful and relatively new – what distinguishes their situation from that of farmers over thousands of years is exactly the contrasts I’ve been talking about. It’s not just that the Ugandans have very little; it’s that they have little but know that others have a lot. I was continuously shocked to find that – despite their seeming isolation – the Ugandan farmers I met really understood their place at the bottom of the global hierarchy.

We tend to measure poverty versus some absolute standard; the very idea of a U.S. poverty line or UN “Extreme Poverty” measures assumes that there is a quantifiable amount of resources that constitutes the border between “poor” and “not poor.” But in reality, any real definition that captures the experience of poverty has to be rooted in measures of inequality and awareness of inequality. (This, of course, is exactly why it sucks to be poor in the United States, even when most poor in the U.S. are materially better endowed than the vast majority of the present world population and an even higher percentage of human beings throughout history – because to be poor in the U.S. is to be constantly exposed to people who have vastly more).

Strangely, I think with respect to poverty, ignorance is bliss, at least to an extent. But then again, any academic point on poverty is easy to make but impossible to really defend when you’re sitting in a beach house, eight thousand miles and a whole world away from the reality you are trying to describe.

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