The Burden of Poverty | Soo Kim

This is a continuation of Soo Kim’s journey into Uganda. To catch up on her first post, click here.

Jan. 1, 2012

Verdant hills and lush vegetation contrast against the red earth of Africa like Christmas. A ribbon of road drapes over the city and gives birth to life, first in spurts, then in a steady concentration of box-shaped stores with tin awnings and steel frame doors. Supplies are piled lazily along the side of the road so that you could pick up tires, or bricks, or headboards the same way you could purchase toothpaste and soap at the general store.

Live goats leashed on rope graze greedily on forage by the side of the road. A few yards farther, in a busier section of Kampala, militiamen outfitted in happy blue camouflage stare over the hoods of passing vehicles, automatic rifles hanging from their shoulders like purses.

Mostly everyone in the city wears western attire, although there’s the occasional woman donning a traditional head garb and a colorful woven dress that accentuates the shoulders in a burst of fabric. These same women swaddle their babies low against their backs in a bandage of blanket so that the round of the children’s bottoms sits above the round of their mothers’ backsides. If they’ve chosen to ride a boda-boda instead, a popular scooter transport that’s responsible for the majority of deaths in the country, second to AIDS, the baby sits cushioned between driver and mother, not knowing there’s anything to fear. Sometimes tires seem to attract each other like magnets as boda-bodas travel alongside passing cars, but everyone confidently zigs and zags their way through traffic before turning onto an unmarked road. All of the roads are unmarked, indicating that driving is as much a feat of memory as it is a test of nerves.

Outside of the hub of Kampala where the roads are no longer paved and streets barely clear the bushes, shoeless feet deftly travel over packed red earth. Bicycles maneuver their tires to avoid menacing potholes while balancing stalks of bananas or jerry cans of clean water that are rigged to the back of the seat. The smell of burning waste wafts from the front yard of a house where pantless children squat around the smoke in story telling fashion.

Perhaps because the chaotic mess of mankind appears more prevalent here than it does at home, where life happens against an ordered backdrop of city blocks and traffic lights and grocery store lines, witnessing life that Uganda has birthed these many centuries arouses a sort of despondence in me. As it goes, my daily givens include air conditioning and elevators and coffee to go, not to mention iPhones and wi-fi and yoga in a steamy room. I have a phone list of doctors to tend to my skin, my teeth, my eyes, my female parts, and for each visit my insurance picks up the bill so I can debate whether dinner will consist of sushi or quinoa or pizza or pho. I take vacations to indulge in tropical luxury or Disney fun or renaissance beauty, and when I return home I know that my job waits for me as I left it, as does my car and television and MacBook Pro. My suburban haze cocoons me from the grit of human existence, and now I feel burdened. Their poverty burdens me.

What am I here to do, exactly? I wanted to engage with orphans, but with what equipment? I have nothing to offer these people, who need a revolution of industry and infrastructure and education to lead them toward progress. Did I merely come to seek personal fulfillment at having taken up a charge—the noble cause of caring for orphans—while caring little about what sort of change I could effectuate? Yes, this seems precisely right.

The façade of my motive wears thin in less than 72 hours, and the guilt of my American existence, now coupled with the resulting helplessness I feel, draws me into a momentary despair.

Until I have this thought: I’m encumbered by what’s different, but not what’s unusual. Perhaps it’s my presumptuousness as an American that leads me to think that American comforts equate a meaningful life when, in fact, the way of life in Uganda reflects more accurately the way of life in so many parts of the world. America is the odd one, with its modern day opulence and wasteful habits; its extremist observance of personal space and instant gratification. I live as an outlier while the rest of the world observes the norm—their careful consideration of resources (in Korea a woman once yelled at my sister for using two paper towels when one would have done), their casual contact of skin while passing through a crowded space, their meals comprising enough to nourish and sustain but not to gorge.

As an American, I presumably have more stuff. But regardless of where we live, what country we call home, the human race is hostage to a universal human condition: we’re all trying to survive.

The realization humbles me enough to observe my surroundings without the presumption of one who wants to impose her life on others. Perhaps it’s a way of mitigating the guilt that I should feel for having so much while others have so little—a cheap cop-out to anesthetize me from the responsibility of burden. But for now, the knowledge sustains my sinking heart, and that’s enough. Because tomorrow I head to the village where the children wait for me, and I need a framework through which I can understand the world I’m about to witness.

Soo Kim lives and writes in New York City. She is a communications specialist for the federal government, which allows her the freedom to get out of her own head during the day. She holds an MA in Fiction from Johns Hopkins University and appreciates being able to apply the same literary concepts of fiction to her nonfiction writing. Her writing can be found at www.nofeardaughter.wordpress.com.

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