Might Makes Right v. Helping the Weak

Jeff Wyss – Kampala, Uganda

I’ve thought a lot about why Uganda is so poor.  I was only there for three and a half months, so I obviously don’t understand all of the dynamics of the country.  I am only offering my assessment given my limited experience there.  I’ve concluded that the biggest reason Uganda is poor is a problem of philosophy.  Specifically, I’m referring to the conflicting philosophies of might makes right vs. helping the weak.

Uganda embraces the philosophy of might makes right more than any other place I’ve ever been.  It permeates everything and is most noticeable in the daily activity that affects everyone: traffic.

Imagine you are walking on the sidewalk and you walk up to the edge of sidewalk where you have to cross the street.  You arrive at the edge immediately after a car has stopped at a stop sign right in front of you at a four-way stop (i.e. you are going in a direction perpendicular to the car).  Do you stop walking and let the car go before you or do you keep walking and make the car wait?  My experience in the US has been that more often than not the pedestrian will walk out in front of the car and the car will wait for the pedestrian, even though the car technically stopped at the stop sign before the pedestrian.

Now imagine you get to the edge of the sidewalk immediately before the car stops.  Do you go in front of the car now, or do you wait and let it go in front of you?  My experience has been that when an American pedestrian reaches an intersection before a car stops at a stop sign, the pedestrian will almost always walk out in front of the car.

Now image that instead of a four-way stop, the intersection is a two-way stop, with the stop signs in the direction that the car is traveling (i.e. there are no stop signs in the direction that you are walking).  Would you ever stop and wait for the car to go?  I wouldn’t, and I think I’m in the vast majority.

In Kampala, the pedestrian will virtually never step out in front of a car in the situations described above, unless the pedestrian is ready to spring out of the way at any instant.  That’s because cars generally don’t yield for pedestrians in Kampala.  Not only do cars generally not yield for pedestrians, but I observed cars actually speeding up directly at pedestrians who were crossing the street.  It’s almost like the driver of the car resented even the possibility of the pedestrians slowing him down, so he speed up and drove right for them to create some urgency for them to get out of his way.

What makes this situation worse is that the entire time I was there I only observed a handful of stop lights.  That means that everyone has to jaywalk almost all the time.  Factor in that the traffic is crazy busy in Kampala, and you have a situation where everyone is effected by this traffic phenomenon all of time.

I had never really thought about pedestrians vs. cars until I went to Uganda.  I just took it for grated that cars yielded to pedestrians.  Now that I have thought about it explicitly, I am proud and grateful that cars yield for pedestrians in the US.  Whether we think about it consciously or not, when a car yields for a pedestrian it is as if the driver is saying to the pedestrian, “I’m much stronger than you, and I could hurt you very badly; therefore, I will look out for you.” Help the weak.  In contrast, in Uganda, when cars don’t yield to pedestrians it’s as if the driver is saying, “I’m much stronger than you, and I could hurt you very badly; therefore, you need to get out of my way.”  Might makes right.

The same type of thinking goes on between the cars themselves.  Cars don’t yield for motorcycles.  SUV’s and vans cut off cars without hesitation.  And everyone gets out of the way of charter busses and big-rig trucks.  I took a few long trips when I was in Uganda and the first was in a van.  We would be driving down the road and all of a sudden the driver would swerve off onto the dirt shoulder and a huge charter bus would rush past us with a huge blast of wind.  The driver wasn’t slowly moving over to the shoulder in a “I’m being polite to let you pass” kind of way, rater he would rush over to the shoulder in a “I’m afraid you’re going to hit me” kind of way.

The next trip I took was in a big charter bus full of Ugandans (myself and Pepperdine students were the only foreigners on the bus).  I sat in the front and could see the road very well.  The bus would drive down the middle of the road straddling the yellow line (where there was a yellow line) and cars coming the other direction would hug the shoulder so they didn’t hit the bus.  The driver was implicitly saying, “If you hit me you’ll definitely die.  I probably won’t.  Therefore, I get the best part of the road and you need to get out of my way” (roads in Uganda are generally poor and have pot holes which are more prevalent on the sides on the road).  This would go on until another charter bus came at us from the opposite direction.  When this happened the driver would move back over across the yellow line, but only just enough to be on the other side.  The busses would then scream past each other only a couple of feet away.  The rush from the air of the other passing bus was quite violent.

Later on during the bus ride, the bus fishtailed on a dirt road, hit a dirt embankment on the side of the road, and rolled over onto its side.  Luckily it was a slow crash so no one was hurt, but it was very scary.  At first, a few people on the bus panicked and started climbing over people (who then started screaming at them) to get out.  When I realized that the situation wasn’t going to get any worse (i.e. the bus rolling more or catching on fire), I decided to just wait for everyone else to get off the bus before I left.  I don’t think it was a coincidence that the last people off the bus were a woman with a baby and an elderly woman, and I was the only person left to help them climb out.  Might makes right.  If you are stronger, take what you need first.  The weakest are last in line.

After everyone was out of the bus, I went back in to get our bags.  When the student sitting next to me had started to climb up out of the bus without his bag, I told him to take it with him.  However, when I realized that it was going to be difficult for him to climb up to the exit with his bag, I told him to leave it and I would get it later.

I climbed down to get our bags and surveyed the empty bus rolled on its side.  People were so freaked out (or it was so hard for them to climb out), that they had left a bunch of stuff on the buss.  And these were poor people.  A bag with blankets in it or a pair of shoes is a significant item to them.  I decided that I might as well get everything I could out while I was inside (the entrance to the bus was about 6 feet in the air, so it was hard to climb back into the bus after you had jumped down).

As I started to make trips to the exit with stuff to hand down to a Pepperdine student on the ground, a Ugandan man climbed up and came down inside the bus to get his bag.  I told him, “Hey, can you help me get everything out of here?  You stand on the top of the exit, I’ll hand stuff up to you, and then you can hand stuff down to the ground.  Okay?”  The man climbed up to the top of the stairs, I handed him two bags, and then he promptly jumped off to the ground.

To be fair, he probably didn’t speak English and didn’t understand what I was saying.  However, he did understand enough to accept the bags from me after he had climbed up to the exit.  But, my point is that it didn’t really matter if he understood or not.  Everyday, whether he is conscious of it or not, he receives dozens, if not hundreds, of messages that you don’t help the weak.  Might makes right.  You take as much as you can as fast as you can.

My assessment is that he wasn’t in the habit of helping the weak, or even thinking about helping the weak.  And if he wasn’t in that habit, it is very unlikely that he would ever go out of his way to help others in that situation, unless he was prodded by someone else.  And even when he was nudged in the direction of helping, it is so foreign to him that he couldn’t recognize it without being told explicitly what to do in his native tongue.

And this brings me to why this all matters in the context of Uganda being poor.  One of my assignments for the judge I was clerking for was to write a speech for him.  As part of the research for the speech, I needed to find a specific book.  So I went to what I thought was the best bet to find a book: the Uganda National Library.  However, when I got there, the size of the library was incredibly underwhelming, and with one glance I could tell that the library would not have the book.  After I verified that the library did not have the book, I asked the librarian if this was the largest library in all of Uganda.  (I was shouting in my head, “How is this possible?  This in the national library in the capital city of a country with a population over 33 million, and it is only about 2,000 square feet!?”)  The librarian told me that the biggest library was at Makerere University and my best bet was to try there.

So I went there.  As I was walking in the library, I noticed a sign saying that you had to pay to enter.  How much would you guess I had to pay to look at one book?  $50!  To be fair, it was $50 for a month and this was the foreigner price (it was about $7/month for locals), but there was no shorter duration than one month.  I refused to pay $50 unless I knew they had the book, so the security guard let me check their computer to see that they did not, in fact, have the book.

This experience was very profound for me.  Growing up in the US, I’ve always had this belief that anyone can educate themselves if they are motivated enough.  There are literally thousands of libraries which are completely free to enter and read the books within.  (Although there are many circumstances which make it unlikely that very poor people will take advantage of this situation, all I’m saying here is that it is physically possible for anyone to educate themselves in the US.)

Now I had been exposed to lots of poverty and desperate people in Uganda by the time I went to that library.  But I think in my subconscious mind I had been layering this US “anyone can educate themselves if they are motivated enough” mentality over the poverty I saw.  And for me, this had made it somewhat more bearable.  But when I learned that the only access to a decent library costs around $7 month, this entire mentality was shattered.  There was no way a poor person in Uganda was going to spend $7/month to go to a library.  None.  Zero chance.

After digesting the library situation, I was at first flabbergasted at why there weren’t any decent libraries there.  There are lots of rich people in Uganda (at least in an absolute sense).  Why hadn’t any of them philanthropically built a library?  Even if they were completely self-interested, it seems like a pretty good way for your name to live on in a positive light (assuming you name the library after yourself).  My best explanation for why this hasn’t happened is that the “might makes right” philosophy is so habituated into the Ugandan population, that it takes a much bigger effort for a rich person to see building a library like a responsibility or even as a really good thing to do.

There are tons and tons of people in Uganda, probably millions, who have absolutely no chance of economic upward mobility . . . unless . . . someone stronger helps them.  Undoubtedly, some of these people have the potential, if helped by someone stronger, to eventually become even stronger than those who helped them.  And it’s cruelly ironic that exactly what these people need is the thing that I found so strikingly absent in the general philosophy of the people I encountered there.  It’s “might makes right,” not “helping the weak.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *