Tuesday, May 3, 2011

(De) sensitization

One of the great buzz words of the country of Uganda is sensitization. What is the first step of any project? Sensitizing the community at large, of course. How do we fix the HIV problem in the village? Let’s sensitize people about ways to prevent it! Just like How are you Muzungu, I’m Fine, and Byeeeee come standard with every Ugandan kid’s vocabulary, so too do community empowerment, gender equality, and sensitization for Ugandan adults.
Amongst all of my active sensitizing in my past 6 months at site, I hadn’t realized the equal and opposite action also being put on me. Children wearing rags and no shoes no longer shock me. I’m fully expectant that 85% of the cars I see in a week will have a cutely abbreviated NGO name printed on the door, with a “donated by” written just below it. I certainly don’t expect these vehicles, anymore, to stop and give me a lift. Many of the things I’ve been desensitized of are very similar to not having a tv. You don’t really miss it, and don’t really notice it until your situation changes.
The other day I was on a matatu towards Soroti (Ateso’s most well known town, approximately 45 minutes NW of Ngora). I picked up the taxi in Mukura, where I was shuffled in and followed by an elderly lady. Quite obviously, she was sick and disoriented, and it was only with a fireman’s carry-esque effort from me ad her daughter that she was even able to fit into the taxi to the driver’s satisfaction (think a highschool dance couple, but remove the room for the father, son, and holy spirit). About 20 minutes in, I realized that this jaja (grandmother) was a bit more seriously sick than I had at first realized. Some people don’t “look like” something, but rather take on a look of their own, or “have a look.” The difference is small enough to be interchangeable in normal talk, but in this case the dichotomy was shown quite clear to me and everyone else in the car. She had a look, completely transcendent of any language, sex, race, or age barrier (all of which were present to me) that said, with the clarity of sincerity, that this was more than a sickness. I found myself holding her hand, stubbornly resisting the bodily urge to revel in how great of a picture it would be. In fact the entire time on this trip, I was struggling against kitsch-like ideals of quality and oneness of the world. The jaja didn’t have this struggle, or at least her look didn’t mention it.
When the daughter saw my hand holder her mother (or grandmother), she started to well up. Proof of something bad can be verified when people who’d normally never give you the time of day decide to help you. More proof is that everyone is willing to help, probably because everyone knows there is not actually anything that one can do. I clasped an ice cold, wrinkled old hand that wasn’t concerned with the courtesy of grasping back, and instantly the daughter knew her mom was not coming back from Soroti.
We made the stops for people just like normal, despite my proclamation of a need to “get to the damned hospital, now.”
Quietly the matatu driver drove past our designated stop in Soroti and to the referral hospital. When we finally arrived, everyone but the jaja started moving. She still had the look, and that was as good as she could offer to us. We carried her out of the matatu without changing her seated position, where three other men easily carried her into the hospital. The taxi driver didn’t look back, wanted to continue, but the conductor (assistant who collects the money) was helping carry the elderly lady. I decided not to wait; I was close enough to where I wanted to be in Soroti, and sitting in the matatu in the hospital was the last place I felt like sitting.
5-10 minutes later, I was sitting under a mango tree, drinking yogurt from a bag and straw with 3 other PCV friends. Putting aside kitsch-manufactured feelings of shock or remorse, there really wasn’t anything that was bothering me. I even wished the driver of the matatu a nice day with my best friendly smile. Obviously I was upset, but mostly just because I wasn’t upset at all.
A couple of times in the drive the jaja nodded off. She didn’t lose the look. At these points I made sure I was holding her hand, finding it somehow important that if she did die en route to the hospital, at least I would be holding her hand. Once she was taken from my grip out fo the matatu, however, the burden slipped away immediately. Responsibility fulfilled-I was a good person and able to continue on in my day.
I’ve been trying to sensitize Uganda about solar dehydrators, hammocks, proper methods for hand washing, re-usable menstrual pads…and simultaneously Uganda has been desensitizing me of everyday life. Every Ugandan in that matatu knew exactly what was happening to the jaja, even the ones who made the taxi stop 200 meters in front of the hospital so that they could get out and continue on with their day without a long walk. For me, I wasn’t going to actively abandon the jaja, or pretend she wasn’t hurting, but I also wasn’t even considering willing to do anything grossly out of my comfort zone for her. Equal and opposite? Sorry Newton, but it feels a little lopsided.

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