Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Good Men

The election news here is very erratic and like everyone else with a brain, my nervous system is shot at this point. Although it is hard to get the U.S. version of what's going on, we have great coverage of what other countries think about the election and it's very enlightening. Most report that their populace leans toward Obama, with the notable and somewhat bizarre exception of Croatia (!?). All of them hope that the new president will take their needs and concerns into account when making decisions that affect the entire world. Seems like a reasonable request. And an excellent time to elect a good man.

Okay, okay, let me talk about Africa since I'm here and all and that's what the blog is about. (By the way, Africa supports Obama.)

So it is the rainy season here in Uganda and when it isn't raining in torrents, the weather is hot and muggy and full of mosquitoes. Like so many other things here, it reminds me of my beloved New Orleans. There are so many parallels between the two cities that I believe it must account for my feeling so at home here. A city of tropical greenery, sticky weather, huge insects, plenty of corruption, poverty and bad luck, inhabited by the most joyful people in the world - singing, dancing, crying, laughing, celebrating life, no matter how tragic and unfair, at every opportunity. And like New Orleans, it is no place for sissies.

I have found that one of the big problems I have here is not being able to understand the Ugandan accent over my cell phone. It doesn't help that, a) cell phone service is horrible and b) giving your name when you call is just not customary. People will ask how you are, how your family is, tell you how they are and how their families are without ever identifying themselves. I had a ten-minute chat with a woman about her severe urinary tract infection and have yet to discover who I was talking to. Therefore when a man called me on Wednesday last week inviting me to his office, I had no idea who he was and said that I was sorry but I was just too busy to make it. He laughed and said, "Maybe you can try to make a little time to visit the Prime Minister's Office?" And I thought to myself, "Shit."

So on Monday afternoon, one of our staff members and I went to visit the Deputy Prime Minister of Information and National Guidance, a lovely grey-haired man (not something you see here very often with a life expectancy of 41) wearing a Hawaaian shirt and a warm smile. He was eager to learn about BeadforLife's poverty eradication strategy as he has been working on poverty issues in Uganda since colonialism and is always open to new ideas! It was an interesting and enjoyable visit and we agreed to create some type of collaborative effort. I left feeling that I'd been in the presence of someone with a lot to teach me.

The very next day, I had a visit from another venerable Ugandan elder - a doctor who came by to learn about the BFL program and see if it could be adapted to the work he is doing in the Nairobi slums. He was excited about the model we're using but both he and his assistant insisted that Kampala did not have slums... at least not in comparison to Nairobi! I had heard this before but have had a hard time believing it. Apparently it is the size and density of the Nairobi slums that make them some of the world's worst. They invited me to come visit for a weekend and see where they were working and what they were doing there and I will definitely take them up on it.

It's been a great honor for me to listen and learn from those who've been working on Africa's poverty for many, many years. The complexity of the issues are staggering, the depth of the problems daunting. But great progress has been made by these men and by many more African men and women like them. I am convinced that their greatest gift is their refusal to give up. No one ever talks about "burn-out." The passion they have for their work and the vision they hold for a progressive, economically healthy Africa erases any tendancy towards feeling overwhelmed or hopeless.

There is a third man I have had the honor of knowing here. He is a former Ugandan policeman who was fired years ago when it was discovered he had AIDS. His wife is deceased and he is supporting six children on the small salary he gets driving for BeadforLife. He is very quiet, impossibly thin, and deeply dignified. I enjoy our rides together. Sometimes he tells me about Uganda and sometimes we say nothing at all. Again, he makes me feel as if I'm in the presence of one of my life's teachers. In spite of the dignity and serenity he exudes however, Mr. Edward's driving is appalling. I am always amazed at the way he stubbornly pushes his way through ridiculously packed traffic, at an alarming rate of speed, confident that other drivers will slow or stop for us. And they always do for some reason.