Throughout our mission in Uganda, the team has learned a great about biology, the socioeconomic impact of decisions from the farmer straight to the governmental level, and the all-encompassing issue that climate change can bring when brought to any single ecosystem. What took us the entire trip to witness was the glue that held these issues together, in a raw, authentic way. It was through the lives of those living through the harshest of it all. Those from whom the heart of Uganda came to speak to us.
Upon completion of our meeting with NaFIRRI, we were taken on a tour around the quaint city. Unlike Kampala, where its downtown core was a concrete jungle with congestion keeping the city alive, in Jinja, the important presence of water bodies was the defining face of the city, whether from the peaks of the hillside or even from the main road itself. It was a feeling that everything was flowing more naturally than its titanic big sister Kampala.
One of our first stops was at a local fish landing, one that while close to the city felt like a different world, cultural-wise. As we descended into the small village, it was as if we entered an area still from time, and raw in its display of life. With cabins getting smaller and smaller the further we drove in, and more animals roaming around our vehicle until finally we arrived at the landing. Standing there was a testament to feeling how traditional fishermen must have felt many years ago – children were bathing, mothers were caring for their newborns, men were building or fixing the boats – it was a view of a world untouched by what the world would deem “development.” It is in that unfiltered view that we could feel how so many people live their lives. Along with the usual stares and shouts of “mzungu” we could understand firsthand the stories of the smallholder farmers, fishermen, and see the ruggedness of life. This was real.
Our second fish landing may have been the most hard-hitting moment of our experience, certainly at first to the senses. We arrived at a second fish landing, one dominated by cage culture – the same cages as the one at Lake Nabugabo, albeit expanded to a level of commercialism that had an eerie edge with the locals. There was a clear sign of “Photography is not Permitted.” A feeling of the harsh environment was apparent as we headed close by to the packing and salting area. Immediately, the strong smell of fish was a true change from the fresh Jinja air.
Thousands of fish were laid in the sun, salted and ready to ship to the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo, eaten as a delicacy in soup. We saw the full use of every fish in order – the bones were used for fish, the skin was wrapped up to be made into fish leather shoes in a separate process, and finally we met the strongest personalities of our time here. In the back corner of the work area were three ladies working in the midst of the heat and smell, on what we would deem the hardest job of all – the salting act of the raw fish. One woman specifically, was wearing a well-worn and torn Obey hat, the others wearing shirts covered in the remains of the fish they worked tirelessly to salt. As we approached them, the lady with the Obey cap quickly snapped: “Did you bring me food and water?” The harsh tone shook us with surprise, but it was a moment where humanity and true intercultural competence had to come to life.
These ladies were working with almost no pay in a physically laborious job, without food or water and through their pain were they able to ask for the two fundamental needs of every human. We couldn’t provide, so she responded: “You’re not coming back until you bring me food and water.” We often speak of empathy and being grateful for what we had and speaking to this lady whose life could only be defined as jarring explained in just two exchanges the pain that those who suffer the worst of poverty live through. It was an expression of culture from someone who encompassed culture without sugar-coating or hiding the truth.
What this woman’s story was, we wish we could find out. It however, left us with a true understanding of the pains of life that people have to suffer through. As we learned from previous conversations with our guides and new friends along the way, it is turning to God or a spiritual purpose to justify the pains of human existence. We believe though that there can be another way. As we wrap up our time in Uganda, may the last post be the reason of hope for the women like Ms. Obey, and a show of confidence in the people working at NaFiRRI, at Kibale and at Lake Nabugabo.