Nourishing Hope-In Uganda and in the United States

By Ladin, Joy | Tikkun, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Nourishing Hope-In Uganda and in the United States


Ladin, Joy, Tikkun


It's the first Sunday of 2011, and I'm sitting on a balcony in the Ntinda section of Kampala, Uganda, watching lizards skitter up the crumbling concrete wall across the way, contrasting my coffee-drinking leisure with the sweat ofthe young man washing- forever washing- one ofthe four-wheel drive vehicles in which my hosting organization ferries around guest academics. It's another in an endless series of beautiful days- for the moment, the Ugandan battle over whether gay and transgender people have a right to exist is being fought in court, with words rather than blunt instruments. Though it's Sunday morning, the air is alive with sound: men joking or arguing, Gregorian chant from the church beyond the palms, a truck loaded with construction materials rattling over the rutted dirt road whose reds- brick red where damp from a brief night rain, and pale and dusty red in the sun- echo the red-tiled roofs ofthe wealthier residents' houses. The Kampala that's always visible in the distance, sprawled across the hills, is a weave of roof red and jungle-foliage green, human growth (people pour in daily by the hundreds from the impoverished countryside), and lively shreds ofthe chimphaunted forests destroyed to build this city.

By American standards, Uganda is struggling. Most of its national budget is supplied by foreign aid; most of its rural inhabitants live in poverty, without power or running water (though often with cell phones), fighting to survive treatable diseases. Literacy is low. Families are decimated by AIDS, and traditional values and communal relationships are eroded by the constant lure ofthe city. Democratic institutions are tenuous at best; civil and regional war are recent memories and none-too-distant threats.

And yet, this country is humming with hope. The Ugandans I've met see their country growing before their eyes, buildings rising, new ways of life taking shape. The nation is so new that a Kampala radio station has a daily feature, "That's so UG," to highlight common behaviors that unite and define its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, far-flung (thanks to the paucity of roads) inhabitants. Ugandans are acutely aware of what they lack compared to older, established, "developed" nations, but for those I've spoken to, Uganda's unfinished state, for all its problems, represents possibility: not a broken world they must repair, but a world that they are creating. I saw that excitement- the excitement of being, as our sages put it, God's partner in Creation- in Sarah Kihika, who quit a booming civil law practice to become a human rights lawyer, working to create a Uganda, a world, based on human dignity by defending the rights of poor women and, despite considerable danger to herself, people even more marginalized: the gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex Ugandans who are routinely ostracized, beaten, and killed- as was her friend and fellow GLBT activist David Kato, on January 26, 2011, a year after his picture was published by an anti-gay newspaper. I saw this excitement also in George- I didn't get his family name- who gave up well-paying work in South Africa to buy a few hardscrabble acres with the goal of improving local agricultural techniques and creating new markets for produce so people won't have to leave the traditionnourishing countryside to make a living. I saw it in the Lantern Poets Meet, a group of fifty young poets who debate the merits of one another's poems as though the future of Ugandan poetry depended upon them (it may well). I saw it in the nun who heads the literature department of Makerere University, which she has committed to the mission of documenting Ugandan traditions and folklore before they vanish- not merely for preservation, but so that the traditional wisdom they contain can be used to give a truly Ugandan form to a nation being flung into the future by the brainless hands of capitalism. Each of these pioneers lives as though their country were in their hands. They feel it growing in them and through them, through the national hardships they have chosen to face and the determination with which they face them. …

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