Friday, August 1, 2014

Battling Hope and Despair Under the Ugandan Sun

When the heat of the sun's rays begged my eyelids to open that first morning on the southern plains of Uganda, I awoke startled at the emotions they evoked. I recall the weight more than anything else. The weight of the children and the women, and their reality overwhelmed me. The smiles that surrounded me emitted the façade of peace and purity. I was surprised by the cheerfulness I sensed behind those pearly white teeth. But the words that escaped from behind their brightness contradicted the aura of happiness that encompassed them. Their troubles ran deep, and possessed no simplicity in cause nor resolution. Brief segments of images from years of infomercials, textbooks, clichés, and movies blended together in my cluttered thoughts as I tried to make sense of their significance. The knowledge I had accumulated throughout my youth was filtered through superficiality and selfishness. Its importance rested in the recesses of my brain but its relevance was miniscule there in the midst of a world so different from mine. The pain in the words I heard was perhaps tainted through my perception or more grave than I could comprehend. It’s hard to decipher what was real, from what I perceived to be true from my analytical western goggles I was taught to wear so tightly.  I never felt so helpless or naïve as in those days I spent in Bandali Village.
The days passed slowly and solemnly teaching me lessons I could never obtain from a classroom. I tried with all my might to refrain from judgment. I tried to accept cultural norms and took each at face value. I respected the sanctity of the lifestyles sustained by the locals. However, despite my open-heart and mindfulness, I found myself battling my own morality. I wondered how women could endure such hardships and still smile. How their sincerity could beam so brightly that it almost outshined the sun. Yet how the culture so warm in nature could simultaneously be so cold towards one half of its occupants. I was determined to uncover a worthy rationale for this widespread behavior. Conversing with men on the matter only contributed to my confusion. I came to realize my presence was not as useful as I had hoped. I recognized immediately that one month was barely enough time to scratch the surface of understanding let alone immersing myself into part of the solution. My attempts at ameliorating anything were moot because I was simply an ignorant intruder in a complex society.  At most, I was a temporary occupant of a mysterious and complicated land. Every “Mzungu,” I received by a passerby instilled a further sense of complacency in me. I could not fathom how to be more than just a mzungu with an outside perspective. I was unable to determine whose ideals were more just while objectively analyzing each aspect of their customs. Many influences have come and gone in Uganda; yet gender remains prominent. The lines were drawn and the distinction was abundantly clear. Men are superior in strength, intelligence, marriage, health and in rights. Their value far exceeds the worth of any woman, and this perspective was daunting.
I felt sorrow for the aching hearts of women who didn’t have the freedom to marry for love. Whom did not have the luxury of choosing to start a family when they are mentally and physically ready for one. Whom had accepted a shared marriage as a second or third wife. Whom could not read or write but longed to. Whom could not protect themselves from disease nor properly treat it once they contracted one. Despite all of that, I witnessed hope and beauty in the faces of the women I grew to love. I came to know what life is at its purest, without the fog of money and modernity. 
For fear of encroaching my views, I refrained from voicing my opinions. The experience became more of an observance, and forced me to reflect inward. The more I reflected, the more lost I became. I scrounged for some semblance of something to offer the women I encountered. In the end all I could give was advice, personal experiences, information that most already knew, English, and alternative possibilities. However this most likely did no more than plant a dream in the minds of people with no means. I began to contemplate hypothetical scenarios where I had influence and substantial funds, and therefore the ability to implement relevant projects to those who were in dire need of them. But I had neither the financial capability nor the skills to make a difference. I only had my thoughts and the desire to help, which were tangled amongst misguided notions I had been raised with. My intentions are no different than the many others in a history of obvious and more dangerous subtle violences that oppress an enormous mass of the world’s population.
I still don’t know where to intervene, but I can see no greater purpose than to attempt to minimize the gender equality gap. Even if the cycle perpetuates itself around me, and my name gets lost with the millions before mine on the same path, I cannot turn back even if the undertaking is condemned. I have already seen too much, and empathized with the struggle of too many women whose voices go unheard to ignore all that I’ve encountered. I will always fight for those strong souls whom by sheer chance were dealt a suppressive hand. I will not know peace until it can be equally shared with those who deserve it. I left a part of my heart in the grasslands near the source of the Nile and I wont rest until it is reunited with the women who showed me what hope is.


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