A Sobering Week in Uganda
Amidst many adventures, this week has had its share of sobering events. Many of Life in Africa’s (LiA) Kiva borrowers live in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Kampala. As a Kiva fellow, I travel to their homes to chat with them about the challenges they face operating small-scale businesses. On most days, the head of LiA’s microfinance program, Grace Ayaa, accompanies me on my interviews to serve as a translator. On Saturday Grace was late to our meeting. After some time she showed up looking dazed and disheartened. Grace informed me that she woke up in the early morning hours to go to the bathroom. When she reached the pit latrine she found the body of a dead baby. Grace remembered that her neighbor’s housekeeper was pregnant; apparently she apparently gave birth in the middle of the night and left her newborn for dead. Grace was forced to summon the police and witnessed them handcuff and arrest the 16 year old girl for murder. The police put the newborn’s corpse in a clear plastic bag and made the trembling girl hold the body while they filled out paperwork. The young mother was brought to the local police station and is expected to serve a minimum of seven years in jail.
Is this girl a monster? No. I am by no means condoning murder or the taking an innocent life, but I can’t shake the image of this teenaged girl giving birth, alone and scared, in the middle of the night. Consumed by fear, she made an error in judgment that killed one life and ruined her own. I have only lived in Uganda for seven weeks and am not claiming to be a psychologist, sociologist, detective, or anything in between. I have, however, met countless women fitting this demographic. They are young. They are poor. They are uneducated. They lack the financial means, knowledge, and requisite emotional support system to care for themselves, let alone another human life. These girls are born into poverty, and, due to its cyclical nature, stand a slim chance of every escaping its clutches despite efforts from development agencies. Did she make a mistake? Yes. Should she be punished for it? Probably. But what factors influenced her decision? Is she a coldblooded murderer, filled with malice and a true threat to society? Regardless of the answer to that question, she was still taken away in a police car, forced to publicly bear her scarlet letter by holding her infant’s lifeless body.
I came into work on Tuesday only to meet Grace’s sad gaze once again. Over the weekend, Esther Akello, an LiA member and ringleader of the Acholi women, fell seriously ill. I have spent many days in Esther’s home in the IDP camp. Most of the Kiva borrowers meet me in her house because she loves playing hostess. Esther serves us tea and traditional Ugandan food as we chat sitting on the cement floor underneath her tin roof. The conversations initially focus on microfinance but always steer off topic as Esther frequently interjects clever remarks. Her contagious laughter and witty banter leave the group in hysterics and near tears.
Esther was under the weather all of last week. I saw her everyday—LiA hosted a five day conference and she was one of the members in attendance—but she maintained her characteristically facetious demeanor despite feeling ill. Her poor condition escalated over the weekend. Esther’s husband refused to take her to Mulango Hospital, opting instead to seek physicians at a local clinic because he could not afford better treatment. Grace implored him to take her to the hospital regardless of the cost.
I went with Grace to Mulago Hospital. I found Esther lying on the dirty hallway floor–one of several patients remaining untreated. I could not believe the conditions I was seeing. This is Uganda’s premier hospital located in the capital city. A woman—my friend—is lying on the floor unconscious and barely breathing; no doctor so much as looks twice when they pass her limp body. Unbelievable. Of course, I am not blaming the doctors; they are understaffed and lack the resources to treat patients. I wanted to scream, who is responsible here??? Then it hit me. This is not America. I cannot protest that this is unfair and demand to see a supervisor to care for Esther immediately. This is not America. She is probably not the first person to lay on their hallway flours unnoticed. She will not be the last. Again, this was another sobering event that brought me face to face with the realities faced by those living in developing countries. This is not America. All I could do was rub her feet and sit with her relatives and other visitors hoping for a doctor to take pity on Esther.
With CHOGM approaching in November, the government has made an attempt to clean up the city in preparation for the arrival of hundreds of delegates and officials from around the world. Will the government actually address issues such as poverty, poor healthcare facilities, etc. or just sweep them under the carpet to hide the horrible conditions those living in the slums endure everyday? The Queen of England will enjoy the drive from Entebbe airport to Kampala because those roads are being repaved and resurfaced. What about the dangerous, potholed, dirt road leading to Esther’s home? I doubt the Queen Elizabeth will be exposed to this side of Uganda./>