I’m at a loss and I don’t know where to begin.
Ironically, when I am at a loss for words, I ramble on longer because it takes me so long to find the words to make my point. So, be prepared for a long post…
I’m in Paris as I write this, but I’m not enjoying myself as much as the previous times I’ve been here. I’d be a jackass if I said I don’t love Paris. I do. This really is one of my favorite cities.
Somehow, though, this stay is difficult. It’s weird, but I’ll try and explain.
I’m fully aware it has much to do with returning here after this year’s trip to Uganda. I think that anything negative I say about being in Paris will come off as condescending to anyone that hasn’t been here … or even to those that have.
Maybe it’s because I was feeling ill the last two days in Uganda and I was getting cranky and a bit melancholy just before I left.
Traveling to the developing world always seems to make me somewhat despondent after I return. The few times I’ve been to eastern or southern Africa (or even when I lived for a short time in Africa), or the Dominican Republic, for that matter, I’ve felt this way. This time, though, it seems more intense. Maybe because I haven’t really returned home.
I am fully aware the contrast between the slums in Africa and the affluence of Paris plays a huge part in how I feel right now.
I promised myself when I landed in Paris I wouldn’t have an agenda. I would simply check into my hotel and then wander the streets aimlessly. I’ve been here a half dozen times, now, I think, so it wasn’t like I had a checklist of things I wanted to see. I just wanted to relax and enjoy the city.
But contrasting the crumbling cement, earthen and grass homes in Uganda with the gold-leafed statues near the Invalides and its massive guided dome is … jarring.
Contrasting a person selling used plastic tubs out of a dirt floored corrugated steel shack against a person selling Berthillon ice cream on the streets of Île St Louis makes me feel like shit. It even felt somehow wrong to enjoy the ice cream. Stupid, I know.
Acknowledging privilege makes me feel lousy.
I know I’ve had advantages and benefits from being born in the States… being born a white male, etc. I knew a guy in college that acted superior after being served a meal. He jokingly and quietly said, “Servitude!” to the back a waitress after she walked away with the dirty plates. It was a pompous, haughty thing to say and I was taken aback. I understand why some people feel superior when they are privileged, but it has always made me feel somehow nauseous. But, admitting this probably makes me come off as patronizing.
I was one of the protestors during the Occupy Movement, and I have said plenty in regards to the responsibility of the 1% in the US. However, I also know I am one of the 1% when it comes to the global population. So are you. Check this site to verify that.
I am also aware that the wealth gap is much greater than people perceive it to be. There are tons of charts out there to verify that, but here is a recent one.
And, as Mia Farrow and others are quoted saying, with knowledge comes responsibility. Knowledge can be a burden. More so when you learn how poverty affects so many. Worse, when you understand the rights of so many are being egregiously violated. And, in Uganda, the problem is an epidemic. There are few opportunities.
I’m trying to avoid being political, but as Maddow once said, “…here’s the thing about rights – they’re not actually supposed to be voted on. That’s why they’re called rights.” The poor have the same rights as the wealthy. The wealth and health of people are tied together like the health of the planet.
On a side note, we are working on a mini-documentary about music in Uganda. Music, like happiness or grief, is a universal thing. It is a language we can use to express a common humanity. Needs are also universal – health, food, air, security… It’s one of the reasons if the Supreme Court rules for corporations and against the poor on Monday, I will be enraged. [edit: They did]
…knowledge and responsibility.
Unfortunately for me, I sometimes respond to knowledge and privilege with guilt. With privilege also comes a responsibility. I look back at the past 20 years and realize I’ve done too little with my responsibility, hence the guilt, I suppose.
But, guilt is not a useful emotion and it is an even worse weapon. I hate feeling guilty and hate it more when people try and make others feel that way. I once heard a person imply that someone who was crippled was that way because he didn’t believe in God. If he simply believed more, God would cure him. Needless to say I was nauseated by the realization that some people think that way.
Unfortunately, guilt is what I feel. At myself. At the circumstances that put me here. At the privilege I have been awarded by chance…
Whether we are talking about France, Uganda, the United States or anywhere else, I know much of this has to do with inequalities in numerous forms: Financial, structural, governmental… Ultimately, maybe it isn’t the difference in geography that makes me feel this way, though, but the people.
I have traveled extensively on my own in the past, and I am usually happy doing so. This time, though, sitting at a sidewalk café felt extraordinarily lonely.
I wanted to share the day with Beth, but she couldn’t be here.
I’m really at a loss.
But maybe I’ll figure things out when I am finally back home.
Most of the group will be home relatively soon. A couple are in Amsterdam. I am back in Paris. I miss them all, already.
For the smart-alecky friend that says the leopard cannot be proven to be a leopard without a sharper image of the spots, I give you the headless leopard:
For the peeps that miss Carol, here she is dancing with some kids:
And another pic of the same kids as they relax between songs:
We saw a leopard. Unfortunately, I had my camera set to a slow shutter. Fortunately, I was still able to aim the lens. I think Jason got a good pic
We see tons of baboons. This guys stole the food out of an unattended van and the driver didn’t think to close the side door.
My last post might have been a bit grim. I thought I’d lighten it up with some pics:
This is Murchison Falls. It is a double exposure (one for the sky and one for the water), but honestly, it was even more beautiful than this picture.
Here are a few students (Heidi, Sara and Alison, l. to r.) hanging out at the falls.
Here is a beautiful little bird I can’t recall the name of. The detail in the wings is amazing in the original image.
More amazing birds.
The Crested Crane is the official bird of Uganda.
Elephants, of course.
So many hippos. I can’t even estimate a number, but I’ll say hundreds, anyway.
I just love these little guys
Last year, we had several conversations about how death is everywhere here. This year, we’ve had similar discussions, but definitely under different circumstances.
Last year, we went to Barlonyo, a village of Internally Displaced Persons, or an IDP camp. It was by far the poorest and most desperate place we travelled to. No windows, no electricity, no running water, no clean water, for that matter, and dirt floors in simple earthen huts. Often people literally had little beyond the clothes on their backs. Worse, even if you can imagine a place in the States that is similar, a truly comparable level of poverty is hidden or hard to find in the US.
Here, it is ubiquitous.
I’m lucky enough that no one in my immediately family has died. Everyone we talk to here seems to have lost family members. Quilinous Otim, a Ugandan (with malaria, btw) who helps us contact people and get around here, lost his son just this last November, or so. The proprietor of the hotel we are staying at lost his son in a car accident and is raising his granddaughter.
Abia was the place we raised money to buy the oxen and plows. I’m not sure how much the poverty there hit the students since the community put on so many ceremonies and performances for us. It was quite an ordeal, but it didn’t fully mask the poverty.
The classrooms at Abia were open cement rooms with no windows or doors where students pack the rooms on long benches. The children obviously wore the same simple uniforms over and over again until they barely held themselves together.
Regarding death, the fact is, 1/3 of the children there are born HIV positive. Many will die very young. Many died in the 20+ years of LRA war. More than 100 women die each week during child birth. The annual “crude death rate” is around 12 per 1,000. I’m not certain there is any kind of healthcare, whatsoever, even if there were a decent hospital nearby. Not surprisingly, the death rate is high in these areas. There are countries in Africa that are worse off – Angola for example – but In the States, if a disease is life threatening, it can often still be handled. People rarely die from the flu or similar simple problems, anymore. Ugandans aren’t so lucky. They regularly get malaria several times a year.
Ugandans have mosquito nets (which I am under in my bed as I type this). We have expensive drugs like Melarone (I just took my weekly dose before climbing into bed).
Two nights ago, John and I visited Fr. James Obot’s home. He invited us there and offered John a live turkey to take back to the States. I believe he makes around $450/year. We declined, but thanked him profusely. He invited the entire class to a meal last night and he served the turkey that I had patted on the back only the night before.
Fr. James’s brother died of AIDS a few years back and James is raising his brother’s children. I was told his father had been shot and killed a while back. His mother had suffered a stroke four years ago and was left an invalid. She has essentially spent those last four years on a thin mattress on the floor of his home and he cares for her with his sister, who takes care of most of her needs.
When we drive through the markets, you see things you expect to see, although in shanty stands: Overly ripe fruit, general market trinkets and cheap stuff that China dumps in Africa.
But you see one other thing being sold, as well: Coffins.
I remember this from last year. Crudely handmade coffins sold on the side of the road like any other simple item you’d see in a market. Coffins for adults and coffins for children.
Death is everywhere here.
As you’ve probably already gathered, one of our students, Teresa, had to rush back to the States because her mother became very ill. Tragically, as we pulled up to the car she was going to get into to be transported to the airport, she got the call that her mother died. It crushed the entire class. I can’t begin to imagine how tragic it was for Teresa, and she still had to travel 30 hours under extreme distress.
As terrible as this was, I started to wonder how many Ugandan deaths there were for every death in a first world country. Death is a devastatingly universal experience, but the frequency of deaths in much of Africa is staggering, and considering how many people are completely off the grid here, I wonder if it is more than the government estimates?
We are each plainly lucky to have been born where we were. On a silly side note, I remember a band called the Lucky Sperms. I think of that every once in a while when I realize I could have just as easily been born in a place where food was scarce and the means to survive comfortably were rare.
I guess much of life is luck … I just don’t often realize how much.
One thing of which I am well aware: I am extraordinarily lucky to travel with this amazing group to this amazingly beautiful country.
We finished filming yesterday. We leave for the Nile today and will visit a game park tomorrow.
I wish I had a fun old pic of you to post, Dad. I won’t be back for nearly another week, though, so it will be too late by then, really. Just know I love you and I will see you both, soon.
The title of this post has nothing to do with the content. It was just something I tweeted last week.
I don’t have much to say beyond this:
Every year I worry students will be selfish adolescents or fail to look past the surface of what they see on these trips. Each year I am pleasantly proven wrong. I guess what I often fail to remember is Creighton students so often demonstrate a level of humanity, perception and understanding and I didn’t often see at previous schools at which I taught.
They get humbled by Uganda.
I get humbled by them.
You’ve probably already heard that John was conferred the title of Elder by the community at Ave Maria. I’ll let him describe it. I just thought I’d share an image so you can at least get an idea of what the event looked like.
Last year in Uganda, I was racked with guilt each time I thought about how I craved a warm shower, potable water, internet access, or even any electricity at all.
I am not even in the country, yet, and I can tell it will be more difficult for me this time.
The students have already been there for about two days, while I have spent the better part of the week in Paris in complete comfort and seeing all the historical places you probably imagine. Only, I mainly see them over my shoulder. I see them when they crop up between buildings as I walk along the Seine or down side streets. The Eiffel Tower and other monuments appear and disappear again and again. Considering the next part of my journey, it feels wrong to visit and enjoy the famous sites, and with few exceptions, it doesn’t even feel right to acknowledge them, let alone photograph them.
The other day, a few of us stood in the courtyard of the Louvre, but not waiting to go in. Rather, to photograph Davis, a writer, dancing around in his white, full-lycra suit so we could capture images for his next project. The same goes for places like Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe near the Louvre, the Luxembourg Gardens just across from my hotel, and so many statues, structures and ridiculous architecture. I seem to only glance and don’t bother to actually stop.
I keep thinking about where I am going next.
Don’t get me wrong. Ugnada is an amazing country.
However, when I recall our trip last year, I remember some students romanticizing everything from children’s tattered clothes (which in the poorest communities, are often one of the few pieces of clothing they have), or some of the places and smells. It smells like sweat and burning because people rarely get to bathe and they are literally burning things. I don’t find anything romantic about it.
I remember John getting frustrated last year that some students weren’t really SEEING what was in front of them. He feared we would leave without them really thoroughly understanding what they saw. He desperately wanted a “teaching moment” (which, as it happened, we certainly got a few days later).
I remember during a reflection one night (and certainly a similar night the year before in the Dominican Republic), when student after student talked about how connected s/he felt to people s/he had only briefly met. In the DR, some really felt as members of families. Yes, families were very generous to us, but we were only visitors who would never return or stay in contact. A couple students talked about “how happy all the children were” and I wasn’t sure if they honestly recognized or admitted to themselves that it was merely an event to see the students, but once we were gone, everything would go back to normal for them as if we had never even been there at all, or if it was a defense mechanism for the students to avoid that part of the reality.
In some of the communities we traveled to, death and disease are common. Clean water and electricity are not.
I remember students saying they would change the way they lived after they returned home. Each promised to “live simply so others may simply live.”
I don’t meant to be hard on anyone. I am sure some did, or at the very least sincerely tried, to some small extent. It seems odd to say, but it was almost good to see when they later wrote things like “I feel uncomfortable being so comfortable” after they returned home.
But while we were still there, I recall being somewhat negative. After they said so many optimistic things about how they understood what they saw and how they would change, I remember thinking, “Do they really understand how truly challenging that will be?”
I admitted to them that, a couple decades earlier, I had been to Africa for the first time and thought the same thing, but when I got home, I returned to virtually the same habits and rituals I had before. Maybe I changed more than I’m willing to admit, but ultimately, I gave up very little of what I had. I didn’t truly sacrifice anything. And, as a friend recently reminded me, it isn’t sacrifice if it doesn’t hurt, right?
Worse, though, I became and angry young man. I don’t mean nasty, but certainly somewhat bitter. I became more pessimistic. I unquestionably got angry at our government.
I don’t want that for our students. But then, what is my hope for the students this year?
Don’t become negative. Don’t grow angry. But, don’t give in to the helpless feeling that there is nothing you can do to change things, either. Do what you can. I don’t want to say no act is too small, because small acts change little. However, you can start small and keep working to do more, day after day, year after year. I hope that you each do at least one significant thing in your life to help others after of this trip. I don’t mean you shouldn’t simply live every day of your life in a more conscious way. You should. But I do mean I hope you each do something noteworthy. I do. It might not happen this year, or next year, for that matter. But, I hope you keep working toward a goal of helping others.
It isn’t enough to live with less. You should want to give more.
Someone might call you a bleeding-heart liberal. Shake it off. Someone will call you naive. Shake it off. You know better and you have seen, and better understand, what most of those people will be criticizing.
Don’t get haughty, but don’t allow yourself to be unassertive or uninvolved.
I hope you don’t get tired of the quote, but you will hear it, again and again: Be the change…
From what little I know of each of you, I am confident it will happen. After all, you chose this trip, not a semester in Ireland or Italy, or wherever. You’ve already made a significant choice.
Keep making those choices.
I am really looking forward to joining you very soon. I can’t believe I’m not there with you.
Sleep well and stay safe.