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.