In the United States, when it comes to injustices, I often find that my response is something sure. It isn’t always easy to find the injustices that are here, but over time you recognize the patterns. Economic, social, or civil, they are here.
In some ways, I think I’ve become comfortable in my response to these issues. Compassion, followed by anger. Recognition that the people these injustices are committed against are humans, just like me, and that they are suffering, unlike me, because some larger force in society has allowed that to happen. Then, recognition of how agonizingly unfair it is that they should suffer.
Whatever it is, some step needs to be taken to correct that injustice. I need to speak out; I need to do something. If an injustice exists, and I don’t do anything about it, I also become personally accountable for that injustice along with the rest of society that has ignored it.
In Uganda, I feel unsure.
Unlike the United States, injustices lay no matter where you look. There is no need to understand any patterns or to read a newspaper. They’re just there; glaringly obvious on every street corner and in every slum we pass. Unemployment, violence and disease are everywhere. People are suffering, and the same flood of compassion and anger comes over me. But it isn’t action that follows. It’s dread, unsureness.
In the U.S., injustices give you time to think, time to plan out a response. In most cases, it isn’t a pressing need of life and death that needs a response. But in Uganda it is, and it’s everywhere.
Community organizers often take an approach that looks to separate “issues” from “problems.” Problems are systemic, they are overarching injustices that face society. They can often be stated in a single word: racism, war, poverty. Problems are nearly impossible to tackle. Issues are the small chunks that we cut out of problems. The things that we can manage. I alone can’t address racism, but I can work to change a zoning law that helps to enforce the de facto segregation of a city.
It seems nearly impossible in Uganda to cut any single issue out a problem. I can try to address the refugee crisis, but you can’t separate the refugee crisis from nearly any other problem that’s going on here, let alone separate an issue out of it. The problems overlap and interlock, in turn making each other worse.
I thought I was ready for Uganda. I had been to Haiti in the past. I had seen life-shattering poverty and its ugly complications. I had taken my classes with Dr. Wunsch, I had heard of the economic and political terrors that face the countries at the bottom of the economic ladder and their path to development. But Haiti isn’t Uganda. Dr. Wunsch’s class isn’t Uganda.
I’m left with this feeling in my gut of simply being unsure, of being disadvantaged to affect change. And that isn’t even touching into issues with whether I, in my white skin and privileged American upbringing, could ever understand this country and the problems it faces in a way meaningful enough to take action. I may simply just be another person who came to Africa with a “white savior” complex and an unhealthy sense of worth.
In this way, the first few days for me have been coming to terms with my own limits in Uganda. In the past, I’ve often found myself caught on the question of theodicy, or how an all-powerful, all-good God could allow for needless suffering. I don’t have an answer to that question, or at least not one that I’m altogether satisfied with. In the past, I’ve always been able to look past this by telling myself that even if God may tolerate suffering in this world, I don’t have to. But what happens when I find myself unable to take action? When it seems I’m forced to tolerate that there is suffering?
I’m unsure, and I don’t like it.