9/10/15 – 12/10/15
This weekend surprised me. I took some personal time away from site where I wandered around the villages of Muduuma, Katuuso, and Mpigi in the sub-counties right outside of Mityana Town. I knew that I needed to fulfill a physical need by leaving my village, and in the process this weekend caused me to reflect a lot. On Saturday, I talked with one of my friends who is two years older than me, was a member of the Boston University Catholic Center, and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. I had met with him a few weeks after I had graduated from Boston University back in the spring of 2013. I vividly remember nursing a hangover and biking over to the Starbucks on Newbury Street where we had a long chat about what I could expect from serving in the Peace Corps. A lot of concepts that he shared with me didn’t make sense to me back then, and a few of them meant something different to me back then than what they mean to me right now.
As an example, he shared with me the concept of having to resort to morally gray actions in order to accomplish certain goals. In Ukraine as well as Uganda bribery is a very common occurrence that is sometimes necessary to facilitate meetings, camps, or almost anything that passes through strict bureaucratic channels. Back then I thought that I would have to struggle a lot with the prevalence of bribery here, but now I think of it as an alternative bargaining technique with some guards and officials when reason, cajoling, and influence fail. Instead, I have been recently reflecting on my faith regarding my Catholic beliefs.
In the liberal atmosphere of Boston University, the Boston University Catholic Center was a conservative bastion and I was often seen as the rebel Catholic with liberal interpretations. However, I still attended retreats and would often go back and forth between how my heart could feel so strongly about a certain issue but then I would either supplant or reconcile it with semantics and reasoning supported by church doctrine. Before Peace Corps, I would go to mass every Sunday and would infrequently go to the sacrament of confession. During my Peace Corps service I have been to mass maybe 3 times, have not attended a single confession, and have refused to believe certain teachings of the Catholic Church. However, I still consider myself Catholic and in the Peace Corps I am often seen as the Catholic volunteer who can answer questions regarding the Catholic faith.
To be frank, in college I used to justify my belief that LGBTI+ couples were justified as long as they didn’t call it marriage due to the historical and religious significance of marriage. Now I laugh at the overuse of semantics in justifying certain beliefs back then. Yes, after having lived in Uganda I believe in marriage equality, the use of contraception, and the belief that life at all stages in the situational context must be respected. As Catholics, when we commit a sin, which distances us from God, we ask forgiveness by going to a priest and asking for forgiveness. At this moment, I don’t feel that I could go to confession and ask for forgiveness for things that I have done that I don’t believe are wrong but the church says is wrong. If I confess then I would be lying and thus it would be empty forgiveness. I mean, I still respect my faith and the belief in the bread and wine being the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ but I wouldn’t receive it if I did attend mass.
In Uganda, most people whom I meet believe in some form of Christianity or Islam. I would be hard-pressed to make my way through Kampala on a given day without having some Bible thumper hoarsely yelling scripture verses at my face. When I ask my students or villagers why they believe in something, they tend to cite scripture without actual justification of why they believe in it. Fortunately there isn’t the religious tension between Christianity and Islam that is seen in so many other countries in the world.
Teacher and Student Conversation:
Me: “But why do you believe in your Christian faith?”
Student: “Ah, because it is true and the Bible says that it is true.”
Me: “Okay the Bible says that it is true but why do you believe in the Bible?”
Student: “Because the Bible is the Word of God.”
Me: “How do you know that it is the Word of God and that someone didn’t just make it up and convince you to believe it?”
Student: “Ah master, that is impossible. It is true because it is written.”
Me: “You still haven’t told me why you believe what you believe.”
Student: “Ah… but I am right because Jesus died for all our sins and if I don’t believe then I won’t go to heaven.”
The only problem that I have is that most Ugandans don’t question why they believe certain tenets. Scripture is often interpreted by fire and brimstone revival preachers with very little experience in contextual theology and the concept of anachronisms. It is a blind faith that many Ugandans believe. It is a faith of Christ without the Cross; no context and fundamental zealotry. It’s sometimes laughable how it is somehow permissible to stone the gays because they are living sinful lives, but then have 3 wives and 30 children because “side-dish” women are traditionally okay and contraception is bad.
The other sad aspect is the destruction of local religious shrines and traditions. Some Ugandans still honor the traditional holy places like the Tanda Burial Grounds near Mityana or the Nakayima Tree in Mubende but they often-times go in secret so that their church and family don’t find out that they are respecting their “pagan” beliefs. Some Christian Ugandans go out of their way to burn down and destroy local shrines in order to cast down the pagan idols. It’s almost as if there’s no middle ground or prior thought.
In the past, I used to be so unsure about certain principles. Now, I am very sure about my principles but less sure about the doctrinal rules espoused by the church. It is sad, because my faith is a large part of my identity and I still believe in it but am now less sure about it.
Then on Sunday I went through another series of formative experiences. As I passed through Kampala I stopped by the bank at Acacia Mall. I greeted the guard in Lugbarati and entered the cubicle which housed the atm. A Ugandan man was already inside withdrawing money and I remained a respectable distance away from him. When he left I heard him chastising the guard because she was sitting sideways on her chair and talking on her phone. I ignored it for a while until he said, “And you let another person inside while I was withdrawing.” Now I don’t think that it’s against policy to allow more than one person inside to wait in line for the atm, but I opened the door and attempted to defend the guard. I explained to the man that this woman has been a good guard and that I have only ever had good interactions with her during my time at the Acacia Mall atm. The man quickly derided me and told me that I was a visitor who didn’t know what Ugandans had to go through in order to keep their country safe. I started to get agitated, so I thanked the guard for her work and left in a huff.
I agree that she could have acted more professional in her position as a guard but this sort of power display rubbed me the wrong way. I made my way to the café to grab a coffee and do some internet errands. During this time, I discovered that I have the opportunity of living and working in New York City a few months after I return. For the longest time I assumed that I would live in Baltimore City for a few years and then maybe consider moving to New York City when I was more settled. This made me both very excited as well as very anxious since I would now have to look for jobs in a city where I had fewer connections.
Fortunately, an RPCV (Peru 2010-2012) hosted me that night. I had a warm shower, ate bacon, and had an electric fan blowing wind in my face during the entirety of my stay. It was good to reminisce about our services and shared experiences together. We talked about how she became jaded working as both a development worker for USAID and as a humanitarian in South Sudan. With development, results come very slowly and very often bigger organizations don’t really understand the local needs and resources of a community to build itself up. With humanitarianism, the local communities who receive assistance from NGO’s concerning a vital need end up depending on that. The issue revolves around whether it’s better to continue feeding starving refugees in war-torn South Sudan who depend on the food and will continue to depend on the food forever, or to leave after having started a food program. When is there a release so that the NGO’s no longer need to feed the people of another country?
The other problem involved the case where most NGO’s have lofty goals of achieving community self-sufficiency but they don’t ever really want that to happen because then that NGO will no longer exist. The ideal goal is for an NGO to work its way out of existence. In the meantime, viral videos and media campaigns will raise millions of dollars in humanitarian aid that will definitely help people in need, but then discourages the government to grow and address the needs of its own people since foreign assistance comes without a cost and at a higher standard.
With the thoughts about my own efficacy as a Peace Corps Volunteer, my future life in the US, and the jaded/faded idealism of helping people I went to bed on a leather couch with a fan blowing cool air in my face after an amazingly warm shower and dinner of bacon. I needed some time to go through some things. Right now I don’t have any answers to these issues, but I feel much better about living with them.