I can still remember driving past the projects as a child. Grey high-rise after high-rise, air conditioning units hanging off a few lucky units, no green or trees to be seen. Those images were what I associated with poverty, hopelessness, and non-existent building codes. I’ve walked in the food deserts, heard the gunshots, and interacted with kids whom had all of the statistics stacked against them. I thought that was poverty. Economic poverty, educational poverty, emotional poverty, all of that was present on the South and West side of Chicago.
My definition of poverty changed when I came to Uganda. We drove through one of the poorest areas of the country in Jinja. The houses were barely huts, the goats thin, and the children wore rags. There are no building codes in the villages, there are houses with no doors and thatched roofs and mud walls. The yards are red dirt with a few clumps of grass. Very few people out in the villages can afford cars. There is no free or mandatory education system; only those who can afford it go on to secondary school. People buy their clothes from vendors at the local street market, where they bargain over skirts that cost the equivalent of four American dollars that were most likely donated from a developed country. I feel bad trying to get prices down in the market, because to me, a difference of 5000 Ugandan Shillings means $1.70, whereas to the seller it the difference means she may or may not be able to feed her family. Women on the side of the street sell mangoes as their only source of income. I’ve seen cases in court where the land left in an estate is worth less than a year of my law school tuition, and is to be divided amongst ten beneficiaries. On court documents, it’s normal to write “peasant” or “peasant farmer” as a recognized occupation. Megan, the Pepperdine fellow in the Family Court, explained that very few Ugandans have a regular job with steady income, making debtors prison an almost guaranteed reality for those who have to pay large settlement agreements. The court system itself holds evidence of the overall poverty of the nation- the sign for the judge’s offices is a piece of paper taped to the wall, and it’s a good day if the lights in our office don’t flicker off more than once. The computers are from the 1990s, and there is no wireless anything. The most striking difference in the poverty comparison is that in Uganda, poverty does not seem hopeless. There is not much to compare it to, there isn’t a sense of trying to keep up with the neighbor, because the neighbor doesn’t have much either. Poverty is simply how life is. Unless you are in Kampala or the neighboring suburbs, the socio economic status didn’t appear to have drastically different ends. In Kampala, the haves and the have-nots is very evident, but that is no different from most developed cities in the West.
The one thing that’s consistent across the ocean, however, is the hope and joy that rises from the youth. Regardless of the surroundings, there is a palpable feeling of hope for the future. Whenever we go someplace in a group, kids call out to us and wave. The local interns from the universities in Kampala in the courts here are optimistic about the future of their country, and are in a good position to lead it. I’m excited for what the future holds, and hopeful that it will hold a higher standard of living for the masses.