22 March 2011

Like 2Pac Says


I finished reading two books this week. The first was about the Iteso, "my" tribe here, appropriately called The Iteso, written by a British guy in the early 1950s (not the most objective viewpoint ever, but surprisingly not super racist) before Uganda gained independence, chronicling the changes that had happened in the fifty years of British occupation (or, well, he calls it British administration; I call it British occupation, the limey bastards). The second was called Beyond the Sky and the Earth, written by a girl, basically a Canadian version of a Peace Corps volunteer (aw, Canada -- adorable), posted for three years as a teacher in Bhutan in the late 1980s.

Both of these ended up being reminders that things change, most things change, and drastically, but some things don't change, and some things never will.

In The Iteso, it had pictures, old black-and-white photographs taken in the late 1940s, early 1950s, of typical life in Teso -- cattle herding, goat herding, sifting through millet, drinking ajon through long straws. And all of these pictures could have been taken by me, yesterday, then converted into black-and-white on my computer. The cows looked the same, with the same young man herding them with the same long papyrus cane, the mud huts looked the same, the bicycles looked the same as the bicycle I bought last week, the same men were sitting around the same pot of ajon in the same wooden folding chairs drinking out of the same straws wearing the same checkered, plaid, or solid-colored button-down shirts with the same haircuts and the same woman pouring more fermented millet into the pot. The only difference was that the men in the pictures were wearing shorts (a novel idea, considering it gets up to around eleventy-billion degrees here), while, these days, if you wear shorts, you're a primary school boy. And today, that cowherd would have a cell phone and would herd the cows across a road, dodging taxis and motorbikes, and sometimes you drink ajon out of a jerrycan instead of a clay pot and talk about the latest developments in world news seen on Al-Jazeera or CNN World. Things change, things don't.

And in Beyond the Sky and the Earth, it was funny -- interesting funny, sometimes ha-ha funny -- reading the observations of a pseudo-PCV posted thousands of miles from here, twenty-plus years ago, and seeing how many of those observations can be applied directly, without translation from Asia to Africa, the '80s to the '10s (?), Sarchhop to Ateso, to my life here in Ngora. Like feeling out of place, a foreigner, and feeling right at home, judging tourists; embracing and struggling with cultural differences -- embracing the pace of life, the "simplicity", struggling with the drunk man groping the teenage girl, the skewed gender gap, the canings in school; learning the language; despairing and not despairing, or understanding, the Westernization; trying to get students to talk -- and both me and the author of the book writing TALK on the board in class, getting laughs from the students who then fell back into silence; thinking about going home, not wanting to go home, not yet, and then wanting to go home, right now; and being miserable and as happy as you've ever been. And though I don't have to wait nine months for a package, only two (!), and letters aren't my only correspondence home, and Uganda is not Bhutan and Bhutan is not Uganda, it's still kinda the same. Things change, things don't.

2Pac says so, anyway.

And, so, from Beyond the Sky and the Earth:

I say that lives in the villages might be hard and short, but the people seem genuinely content with what they have, and this is a function of their faith, which recognizes that desire for material wealth and personal gain leads to suffering. Dini says that they are content with what they have because what they have is all they know. How deep do you think those values go? she asks. Their lifestyle is not a matter of choice but a function of the environment. If they could have cars and refrigerators and VCRs, they would. Let the global market in here with all its shiny offerings, she says, and see how fast everything changes.


I am aware of two possible versions: I can see either the postcard (Lost World Series, Rural Landscape No. 5), or I can see a family bent over the earth in aching, backbreaking labor, the ghosts of two children dead from some easily preventable disease, and not enough money for all the surviving children to buy the shoes and uniforms required for school. It is too easy to romanticize. The landscape cannot answer back, cannot say, no you are wrong, life here is different but if you add everything up, it is not any better. You can love this landscape because your life does not depend on it. It is merely a scenic backdrop for the other life you will always be able to return to, a life in which you will not be a farmer scraping a life out of difficult terrain.

Things change, things don't. And it's not bad or good -- no, that's not true, it's bad and good, but mostly it just is.

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