Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Alexandra's Dillemma

Today was an exceptionally grey day in Kampala. There was fog settled over Kololo hill this morning, dark clouds rolled in and suddenly; downpour. I had promised to meet Alexandra at Crocodile in Kisimenti Shopping center, but the rain was mercilessly pounding the pavement. Normally, I would walk, but I couldn’t in rain like this. I thought about calling her to cancel. I didn’t really want to go anyway. She wanted me to find her a job, or was going to ask for money. I doddled. I sat around checking e-mail in my sweatpants. I made our bed and tried to call her. No answer. I texted her... “Call me. Becky” At last I heard from her. “Becky,” she said “I think I have enough to talk…” And then the phone went dead. Her phone time had run out. I texted her again. “Meet me at Lugogo instead?” I didn’t have enough airtime either. I also didn’t have any money. Chris had gone to Kisimenti to buy some cough drops and had taken the wallet with him. I hadn’t heard from Alexandra. I tried her number again but it just rang and rang. I called for a taxi. I couldn’t just leave her hanging there.

We met Alexandra on an auspicious night. Nancy, her sponsor had invited us out to celebrate Alexandra’s newly acquired travel agency certification. Alexandra could now utilize the Galileo reservation system favored by most travel agencies. It was an exciting evening, both Alexandra and Nancy were flushed with their success, the possibilities and a little wine. We ate bruschetta and chicken alfredo and talked about the job market Alexandra would now be entering. It would be tough she said, but she would work hard to find a job. It is very difficult to find a job here in Uganda.

A few nights later, we attended a traditional African dance performance. Alexandra had learned to dance in the traditions of some of the many, many, many Ugandan tribes. There was a semi circle of huge cow skin drums and some strange hybrid of a guitar and harp and also a beautiful wooden xylophone. The costumes were elaborate confections of beads and animal skins. The women wore cow skin moccasins that laced up the ankles and there was a belt made of long dark animal hair that accentuate the movements of their rear ends. The dances were as varied as the tribes themselves. One dance was done by the men only. They had to jump as high as they could while stomping in perfect time to the beating of the hugely resonant drums. Another dance was done by the women only. They began stacking pots on their heads one by one, slowly by slowly, until they were like a giant pillar of clay sprouting from the flat part of the head. One woman managed to effortlessly balance nine pots on her head, all stacked one on the other till they were taller than she was herself.

At the evening’s end, Alexandra mentioned again how difficult it has been to find a job here in Uganda. The show was over by now. It was dark. The rest of the crowd was long gone, but we stood in a close circle, waiting for a taxi to come. The others were engaged in their own conversations.
“Maybe, I could work for you? I could help with your documentary?”
“No,” I said, “I really don’t think we need any help. We are very near to finishing.”
“Maybe I could volunteer?”
This caught me off guard. “Well, we don’t need any help, but if you want to volunteer, that might not be too difficult. You can just find a non profit that needs assistance.”
“Could you help me with this?”
“Well, I’m not sure what I can do. I could look at your resume if you like. I can look at the organizations with you.”
I felt uncomfortable about being pinned down, not sure what I had commited to doing exactly. “Well, you have my number, call me. We can meet to talk about it. I know how hard it can be.”

So, she did. I walked in out of the rain and felt relieved to see Chris already seated at one of the tables. At least I would have an ally. She came in ten minutes later and we ordered tea and lunch and settled in to talk about the difficulties she faces here in Uganda. She explained that tribalism makes finding a job really tough. Even menial jobs at hotels are hard to come by because the managers tend to favor their extended families or tribe members. I asked her where she had dropped her resume so far. She had applied at five hotels and three travel agencies.

“But the trouble is that I am just sitting at home, with no food in my belly. I have never gone to sleep without food in my stomach in my own country, but here I must go to sleep without eating very often.”
“Maybe it would be easier for you in Tanzania.” Chris said
“Then I would have to stay with my cousin and I don’t want to do that. Something bad happened between me and her and I can’t go back to my country without some job experience. But another friend told me that he can help me start a public phone business. You must buy the phone and then people can come and pay you to make calls and you can make a profit of 10,000 shillings in a day. In this way, I could continue to look for a job slowly by slowly, but I could still buy food.”
“How much does it cost to begin that sort of business?” I asked
“Maybe 350,000 shillings to invest. You see, money is the problem. You must have capital.”

And what I’m feeling is a complex sludge that I’ve been trying to sift, passing it through finer and finer mesh, trying to distill the pure nuggets. Here is what I've been able to mine out.

1) Guilt, Guilt, Guilt. I have what I have because of an accident of birth and because of my marriage. None of what I have is based on hard work of my own. So for me to expect her to work hard for what she has is truly hypocritical.
2) Frustration. I am not Ugandan. I don’t work for a company here. I don’t even live here. I don’t know how to get a job here. I don’t know the systems, and the systems that do exist make a distinction between a white ex-pat and a black immigrant. What I have done to find a job in the U.S is useless information in relation to her situation.
3) Irritation. The real reason she is asking me to help her find a job is so that I can tell her, well, I don’t really know. Which leaves the window open for her to ask me for money. Ostensibly, our relationship is a freindship, but suddenly, I feel used.
4) Blame. I don’t want to be responsible for her plight, so I wrack my brain trying to figure out a way to get myself off the hook. So I blame her for not trying hard enough to find a job. She's only been to five hotels. There are at least twenty in Kampala. What about another job? If she is really hungry, then she should be looking for any job she can find.
I blame her for not asking her sponsor about this phone business. What would Nancy say if she knew that Alexandra wants more money for something completely unrelated to the travel school? And also, Alexandra has been very lucky. Her education has been paid for. She needs to stand on her own now
5) Self Loathing. I am disgusted with myself for getting angry with a person who is desperate and hungry. If I were in her place I would do the same. It is worth a shot.
6) Empathy. I understand her plight. I know what it is like to work hard and play by the rules and things still don't work out and pretty soon you are doing paycheck advances and opening credit cards and the hole you are in just keeps getting deeper and deeper. And that’s where Alexandra finds herself, except that her hole is in Africa, so it is deeper than mine ever was to begin with.
7) And when I really get on a roll, I start to think of this situation as a metaphor for Africa as a whole. Africa needs the aid to get going, but then it is hard to know when it should stop. and the aid gradually strips away dignity. It puts Africans in a servile position where they assume that anyone who is white can help solve their problems. And I don't feel comfortable giving money in this kind of scenario. and so I didn't. But don't think I'm not conflicted about it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is really, really powerful stuff. When you get done with your African travels you really need to write a book about all of this. Most books about Africa focus on the physical. This would be a fascinating book focusing on the cerebral. I can't wait for you to write it so that I can read it.


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